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Rajasthan at a gallop

"The most exhilarating way of seeing rural India is on horseback. Accompanied by minstrels, flag bearer and marriage broker,Tessa Boise rides 150 miles through the land of the Maharajahs."

Courtesy : The Daily Telegraph, London, Travel. Sat Dec 26, '98

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 angled inwards.

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, politics.

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, camp 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 decorous times.

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 lunch.

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 camp").

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 Ramlall, 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 shops.

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.