RIDING too close to Risaldar Jaswant Singh,
I noticed an odd thing. His jet black moustache - bouffant, magnificent,
its tips twisted skywards - sat on a bed of silver stubble.
A fading peacock, Moustache Singh was pushing 50. This was perhaps his
last trip. But undeterred, defiant, he remained a flamboyant flag-bearer,
orange and green turban unraveling at a gallop, pink and orange flag
pinned under one knee.
Behind him rode another dandy: Bhanwar Devendra Singh of Nawalgarh,
grandson of a Raj Chieftain, natty in purple beret, Ray-Bans and Alibaba
slippers, an orange and red scarf streaming from his belt. Our horses -
lean, speed-hungry Marwaris, the traditional battle horse of Rajasthan -
were girdled with cummerbunds in reds and yellows. Even their ears -
crescent-shaped, barbered - were worn like ornaments, pointed tips
I had heard all about the color of India. But I knew that this generally
meant Color, as in seething hordes of beggars, cripples and clamoring
shop Walla's; psychedelic assaults on the eyes, nose and bowels.
The drive out of Delhi confirmed this much. A crater-pocked road led into
the country, teeming with camel carts and retro-looking lorries with
tinsel round their windows, "Sound-OK-Horn-Please !" painted on
the back. At one bend in the road we passed half a donkey being eaten by a
dog. I looked the other way.
But gradually the traffic thinned, goatherds took over, and , four
hours later, we shuddered into the Roop Niwas Palace at Nawalgarh.
"Namaste, you are most welcome," said an elegant gentleman in
rainbow turban and tortoiseshell specs, his long hands pressed together in
greeting. This was Thakur Durga Singh , "Master of Ceremonies",
who, together with cousin Devendra, ran this old family home as a mildly
eccentric, rambling hotel.
It was full of appreciative tourists come to savor the "real"
India. They watched puppet shows and dancing dwarfs, waved to the
peaceable nomads camped outside the front gates and went on camel rides.
But our group had a superior purpose. Elizabeth, Mickey, Barbara and I
were limbering up, being put through our paces. Saddled up by Devendra, we
rode at a lick through surrounding medieval farmland, swapped horses, set
off again, adjusted tack, borrowed chaps. My initial terror ( I rarely
ride) turned to semi-terror, then exhilaration.
We rode into villages and talked to farmers; we met local women and
compared our lot. Over dinner the cousins talked - their vocabulary from a
Thirties Thesaurus - of Hinduism, the Raj, arranged marriage, literature,
By the third morning I felt quite sick with anticipation. We'd seen
a great truck being loaded with firewood, camp beds, water urns, sacks of
flour. We'd seen a swelling retinue tie and retie turbans, trim
moustaches, bid farewells to wives and children. Old Gardu Ram - barber,
marriage broker and masseur - was in boisterous spirits, twirling and
clapping as the musicians tuned up for our send-off.
"His wife is always asking him why he want to go off to camp,"
said Durga. "He tells her she doesn't understand. "Gardu Ram was
old enough to remember the days of the Raj: the elaborate ritual of the
Maharajahs' great hunting safari with unwieldy tents, mobile kitchens,
fires, minstrels and dancers. Durga's aim was that our traveling caravan
would reproduce, for the pleasure of all, the rhythm and ceremony of more
Our luggage was in Jeep. Ganga Par, my white mare, was pawing the ground,
shaking her bridle. And so, to strings, song and drum, with
auspicious rice and sugar grains in our pockets, bowed out by the Palace
staff - "Namaste! Namaste!" - barked off by guard dog ' Spottie',
who would be traveling with Durga by Jeep, we clattered through the
courtyard and out of the Palace gates.
The route led off through small fields banked by sand walls, between which
we trotted, alert, expectant. No two safaris followed the same path, but
the jostling horses seemed to know they were starting something momentous.
One hundred and fifty miles lay before us. "Buch- buch- buch"
called Devendra - "Calm down!".
Each field transfixed us with activity: ploughing, harvesting, irrigating,
weeding. Women in line green, saffron and shocking pink saris
picked their way through furrows, quivering burdens of foliage on their
heads. High above in the Khejari trees - Rajasthan's revered shade and
annual fodder their husbands squatted with little axes, white dhotis tied
thigh-high, terracotta turbans protecting against the sun. They
touched palms in greeting, clinging on with their toes, as we pranced by.
Before long we were in uncharted territory, Now, seven horses and four
riders with fair skin were received in each village with slack jaws, wide
eyes, "Gora- ghora! Gora- ghora!" shouted children running
from dusty yards. "What are they saying?" "Gora-white
people, on horses- ghora."
Our celebrity status was a surprise, Rajasthan being the tourists' delight of
India's states. But that evidently, was confined to the cities - along
with the seething color. Stopping to water the horses at frequent wells,
or for a cigarette and a stretch under a banyan tree we would inevitably
draw a large curtain crowd which would squat at a respectful distance and
silently feast its eyes.
Devendra, a wry go between, satisfied the curiosity of both sides
"He is asking a volley of questions!" The village elder,
invariable spokesman, would shift on his haunches, unblinking eyes grave
under scarlet turban. "He is asking Who are they ? Where are they
going? Are they married? Why don't they cover themselves? How much are
they paying for this?" "What did you tell him?" "I am
telling him to mind his own business!"
It was more surprising that the horses were
as alien to these villagers as ourselves. Surely they used them on the
farms? Yet we saw none. At one Banyan tree we were approached by an old
man with foggy spectacles, a wooden pitchfork over his shoulder. He talked
excitedly to Devendra. "He says it's been three decades since he saw
so many horses together . Once everyone used to go around on horseback,
Now they all use vehicles." It was true - we'd see two dozen people
wedged in, on and hanging off a tractor or rare Jeep.
The old man was, he said, of the "Bareth"
caste - a real-life Bard, who had once wondered around reciting folk
stories and poems. We had our own bards: our musicians, Ramlall and his
veiled wife Patasi - "Sugar Candy." - Whose melodic and vigorous
ballads welcomed us in to camp each night, and greeted us magically, at
Turning on to a sandy river-bed, firm as a racetrack, Devendra would
suddenly raise his arm and, hallooing, disappear in a cloud of dust,
hooves drumming, scarf streaming behind him. Ganga par would
give chase, leaving me terrified and ecstatic in conflicting measures,
gripping the saddle, scythed by the wind.
Then, through the flying sand and haunches,
two red figures would appear; with them the unmistakable strain of music.
Could it be?
It was: Ramlall's stringed instrument,
ravan hatha, and the gutsy alto of Sugar Candy piercing her sequined veil.
Lunch was always a surprise, and a relief- a time to sprawl on a striped
durrie under a khejeri tree while the horses rolled and fed; to learn the
words of Raj bashing ballad or a daughter-in-law's lament translated with
decorous glee by Durga; to succumb to Garda Ram's firm-handed massage.
We would ride into each new camp as the sun
set - "the hour of the cow dust" , as Hindus put it; a
voluptuous time of day when processions of goats, cows and buffalo were
herded slowly back home; when the low, gorgeous light illuminated saris,
the throats of wild peacocks and copper urns carried on heads.
Again Devendra would raise his arm and
breaking into an excited canter, we'd scan the horizon for our
multicolored tents and plume of woodsmoke. Gopal would be heating water in
a great cauldron for our baths (a bucket and jug in a sentry box
tent);Durga would be pouring scalding cups of sweet chai. Mr. Ramesh
Sharma would be frying coriander, turmeric and chilli power (not too much
for the memsahibs) for tonight's feast round the fire ("Office,"
Durga confided, "I do not know how, he rustled up a baked custard in
Nights were cold - hot waterbottle cold. A
week in the open sharpens the senses: lying in bed under three quilts I
could hear quails calling; goat bells; hooves fidgeting; a dog lapping
water. The upright tent walls, loosely pegged out, billowed in the wind,
revealing a waxing moon. I fell asleep to the motion of cantering; as a
land-bound sailor feels the swell of the sea.
"Oh Miss Tessa," sang
via Durga as I finished my porridge; "Won't you eat up your breakfast
and ride out camp ? Your white steed is waiting....
Horseback was, I decided, really the only
way to see India. Not only did we see so much, thanks to our sprightly
pace, but of such a back-yard nature, due to our elevated vantage point.
The 150 mile journey became a series of vignettes: a woman washing her
buffalo lithe brown fingers rubbing water into its cheeks, its neck
outstretched, ecstatic. A man bent over an old Singer sewing-machine,
stitching loops of gold thread on to a turquoise sari. A heavily pregnant
girl, the bump compact on her lean body, hastily veiling as we passed. As
we progressed, and as the country side changed from red sand to white from
infant fields to junior, from one ridge of blue hills to another, greener
so the villagers changed. Now schooled by Durga in the many styles of
trying turban dhoti and sari, we picked up on new fashions. The women
became more garish looking with nose rings and anklets, Nearing
Roopangarh, we began to heard "Hello Yes Madam Good Morning Good
Bye!" as we rode through tiny, ornate towns with rows of cubby-hole
It would, we reflected be very dull to lose
our special status at the end of the trip. To proceed without flag bearer
water boiler, grooms, musicians and audience-at-large.
Durga smiled. "I can just hear my
mother now - ' I don't know why you want to be running after all those
white people. You have quite enough money at home!' But he patently
enjoyed the pageantry, the charged sense of mission, as much as we did.
Being "on the wrong side of 40" Durga was often pained by the
pace of change in rural India. Film music is superseding minstrels,
television eroding Hindu culture, farmers are jumping on noisy tractors.
So by recreating the past, by maintaining traditions and educating
visitors, he was doing his bit to preserve Rajasthan's heritage --- of
which Moustache Singh, henna and all, was undoubtedly a colourful part.