Mark Nicholls visits the land of tigers, maharajahs and fabulous forts on a visit to northern India.
The old palace at the top of a winding, climbing, road through the town of Karauli, has a ghostly feel.
Almost deserted, apart from artisans restoring the intricate paintwork on the faded facades and scampering monkeys, it is an eclectic blend of architectural styles.
With the older chambers dating from the late 14th century, this was the residence of the Maharajahs of Karauli until the middle years of the 20th century when, in the final throes of British rule, they moved a few miles out of town and into a purpose-built palace.
Today, it is a heritage hotel and the man who – under different circumstances – would have been ruler of the region, is our host.
“We are still Maharajahs,” insists Krishna Chandra Pal. “We do not rule with administrative powers, but we still have social obligations and religious duties, which we take very seriously, and are still looked up to by the people in terms of position.”
He is the modern-day Maharajah of Karauli, a title inherited in 1985 from his grandfather Ganesh Pal, who was the last official Maharajah before the British left and Independence was declared in August 1947.
As head of the Yaduvanshi Rajputs, he is the 181st in a line of rulers that claims to trace its ancestry all the way back to Lord Krishna, the god of compassion, love and tenderness in Hinduism.
The Bhanwar Vilas Hotel became the dynasty’s new royal residence in 1938. In many ways, as we sit chatting on a veranda, little has changed.
The entrance hall is grand and retains a 1930s Indian charm with antiques, sofas and trophies, portraits of Maharajahs past, and ornaments and furnishings of a former, more sumptuous, era.
Black and white photographs of family members in regalia hang from walls linking quiet courtyards where pre-dinner gin and tonics are sipped, and a full-sized snooker table is set up for a game.
The dining room is elegant with a long table, but dinner is served al fresco to 21st century guests whenever possible, with dishes such as dal, rice, chicken and lamb curries, vegetarian and meat thalis, aubergines and mutter paneer, steaming chapatis and puffed naan.
Bhanwar Vilas, with 47 rooms including four suites, became a hotel in 1992. The surrounding estate, spread over 50 acres, has gardens and horticultural land where much of the organic produce for the kitchen is grown. A dairy shed with cattle produces milk and cheese; a hen house and aviaries yield eggs daily; and there is stabling for horses which guests can ride. Behind a discreet wall is a swimming pool.
“We still live here as a family,” explains Krishna, surveying the expanse of the property. “We decided to make it a hotel because it is a big house and very quiet and isolated and it is nice to have people visit us from different parts of the world.
“We are a heritage hotel with a homely and cultural atmosphere where our guests can experience life how it was in the old days. We have not modernised the property that much, we like to keep it as it was, and as a family we love to discuss the history and the culture of the place and interact with the guests.
“That special relaxed atmosphere we have here is the big difference between us and other hotels. We also give employment to about 50 local people and encourage workers who make handicrafts to help conserve the old traditions.”
Earlier, I had taken a camel cart to ride through Karauli up to the old palace to see how the Maharajas of yesteryear lived when the town was the capital of a princely state. We bumped past roadside stalls selling fruit and produce, winding along narrow streets where shacks showed signs of all kinds of trades in progress. Engineers repaired electric motors, barbers shaved men or cut the hair of young boys; ladies in bright saris sat cross-legged in bangle emporiums; barrows sold fruit and chai; and paan sellers did a roaring trade. Young children danced behind the carts as rickshaws and wagons weaved between. Others waved as we journeyed, which left me thinking: is Karauli the friendliest town in Rajasthan?
At the main gate, the carts turned beneath a large arch adorned with Krishna paintings as the palace soared above, five storeys high.
Close by were the workings of the former mint, where Karauli coinage was made, while within were courtyards and halls, residences of kings, harems and a queen’s quarters, kitchens and hidden sleeping rooms, many adorned with fine miniature paintings.
From the higher levels, views are of the town, blue-painted Brahmin houses, and mausoleums of past rulers on the river bank.
Whilst the new palace dates from 1938, the family only finally left the old palace as an administrative seat in 1949. For many years after that it remained empty and some of its contents were at times looted, but it is now open to visitors as restoration work continues on the intricate paintings and artwork.
The palace also contains the Madan Mohanji Temple where the evening Hindu aarti ceremony is a memorable experience to observe.
My visit to Karauli was as part of a group from adventure travel company Explore, charting a route across northern India from Delhi via Agra, visiting the Moghul monuments and mausoleums such as the Taj Mahal and the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri before heading into Rajasthan and the land of tigers, Maharajas and fabulous forts.
From exploring the palaces of Karauli, we headed to the wetlands and marshes of Keoladeo National Park near Bharatpur by cycle rickshaw to see a range of birds including heron, cormorant, kingfisher, egrets, Eurasian spoonbill, storks and sarus crane, before detouring to Sawai Madhopur and the famous tiger territories of Ranthambore.
Covering some 1100 square kilometres, the Ranthambore sanctuary is home to deer, peacocks and sloth bear but it is the 60 tigers that roam this vast territory that is the true attraction.
Entry to the park, divided into several zones, is tightly controlled and only permitted aboard official vehicles for a couple of hours in the coolness of dawn and again in the late afternoon. Drivers and guides have a sense of where the tigers may be but there is never any guarantee that the big cats will appear.
Parts of the landscape are harsh and rugged with rocky outcrops, while other zones are lush and fertile with lakes and rivers.
Suddenly, our jeep halts and there is silence; a warning call from a peacock fanning its colourful tail feathers sounds out, and the guide’s senses are alerted. A few moments later, a large tiger wanders nonchalantly through the thicket and down toward a water hole. He drinks, looks around, and then rolls into the cooling water as we watch.
Then, unexpectedly, a deer wanders up to drink. It is totally oblivious to the presence of the big tiger, known as Kumba, wallowing lazily in a pool only 30 feet away.
We sit quietly, wondering if he’s hungry and will pounce. He must have fed well; he yawns, laps the water and lays still, allowing the deer to trot away without ever knowing how close it came to danger.
The previous afternoon, we watched as two 20-month old cubs lay dozing in the sunshine, camouflaged amid the straw-coloured grasses and thicket. Later, a mile or so away, another large tiger rolled about beside a stream, unthreatened in this landscape where you can also see numerous birds and antelope, gazelle, sambar and black bull deer.
Moving on towards Jaipur, the road was busy with over-laden lorries and tractors carrying straw from the harvest. Once within the city limits, the streets were crowded, made more so by the detours from ongoing construction of a Jaipur metro system. Rickshaws and motorcycles vied with buses and cars along streets lined with stalls selling anything from flowers for marigold garlands to bangles, fresh fruit and saris.
Known as the Pink City, Jaipur was first painted a shade of pale terracotta by Maharajah Sawai Ram Singh to celebrate the visit of Prince Albert in 1853. The Royal Palace and the façade of the Hawa Mahal (the five-storied Palace of the Winds dating from around 1760) are landmarks but it is the Jantar Mantar – a star-gazing observatory built in the early 18th century by Maharajah-astronomer Jai Singh that I find particularly fascinating. The Jaipur site was the fifth to be constructed – others at Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain survives though the structure at Mathura has long since vanished.
Translating as ‘calculation instrument’, the Jantar Mantars are giant-sized horological, astronomical and astrological structures, telling the time of day with amazing precision. They show the position of stars, mark the star signs, and tell the time to incredible precision – the largest structure in the park is accurate to within two seconds – showing Jaipur time as some half an hour difference from standard India time, which is centred on Allahabad.
However, there is always a problem. As my jovial guide states, “no sun, no fun”. Cloud cover makes the structures redundant, he concedes.
Rajasthan – the land of kings – is littered with palaces and fortresses and high above a hillside outside the Pink painted gates of Jaipur’s old city is Amber Fort.
Dating from the 16th century, this is where the Maharajah rulers of Rajasthan lived in the past before the city palace was built in 1730s. It is reached via winding ramps. Tourists often plod up on the back of an elephant, but the jeep route behind the fort through the old town of Amber is more interesting. Here, there is a baori, or step well, one of many constructed across the state over the centuries to collect rainwater to sustain people and crops during the drier months.
The fort itself is a marvel with painted halls and chambers, and spectacular views across the rugged landscape and up to the older Jaigarh fortress with its outer walls snaking across the contours of the hillside. On the way back into the city, the Lake Palace rises over the water like an island and is where the royal household retreated to keep cool during the stifling summer months.
The power, and in some cases, the wealth of the Maharajas has been eroded over the last seven decades, but in Rajasthan several still retain special status among the citizens of this “land of kings.”
The pomp and ceremony may have long since faded, but the regal blood still flows strong and deep.
Mark Nicholls travelled to India with Explore’s eight-night Mughal Highlights trip which combines the Golden Triangle sites and the Moghul architecture of Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and the Taj Mahal with game drives to see tigers in Ranthambore National Park, Keoladeo National Park and visits to Fatehpur Sikri and Karauli. Prices starts from £1,399 per person, including flights, accommodation with breakfast and some additional meals, and an Explore tour leader throughout. For more information call 01252 884 723 or visit www.explore.co.uk
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls