Dundlod Fort is a mixture of Mughal and Rajput building that evolved over 200 years. Having been invited to explore while The Birthday Supper was being sorted ‘manners’ kept me from burrowing too deep, tempted though I was to see what was generating the mouth-watering smells wafting from a distant kitchen.
It had become dark outside so other than leafing through various faded magazines that had been left in the courtyard under a dangling light bulb, the non intrusive option was the magnificent Diwan-i-Khas. Diwan-i-Khas were the ‘state’ rooms used for private audiences and this one was pure Restoration Theatre set. A wide Persian carpet led from the magisterial entrance at the top of the steps leading from the courtyard and the two cannons defending it. At the end of the carpet under a tri-pillared arch, two throne-like heavily gilded Louis XIV chairs with matching footstools sat facing the world. More modest chairs from the same set were neatly arranged in groups around the room for conversazioni. Quadruple columns in colonnades supported the duchatta above the thrones and on either side of the room, so that events could be watched through glass from the first floor by the women in purdah. The overall colour was a rich mustard yellow but the columns were delicately decorated in dark pinks and off whites. Under the colonnades, against the back walls, were locked bookcases containing the fort’s library. The spines indicated a collection typical of many private libraries: history – political, military, cavalry, of steam trains and of early flight; Shakespeare; Bunyan; Walter Scott; Milton; Boys Own Annuals and Encyclopedia Britannica. I wondered if the boys of the family had been allowed to delve into these books, almost out of view, while the business of running the princedom was being carried on by their elders.
In 1972 Indira Gandhi had done a land grab despite Mountbatten’s assurances to the maharajahs and princes that it wouldn’t happen. India had been 278 kingdoms. A few of them were larger than France – Sandringham is less than quarter the size of the Isle of Wight. Some of the Maharajas have family trees going back 1,500 years – to when Cerdic ruled Wessex after the Romans decamped from Britain. Many of these old Indian rulers regard anyone with antecedents traceable for fewer than 300 years as parvenus. That puts into perspective the houses of Stuart, Hanover, Saxe Coburg & Gotha and of Windsor! Without the acreages to maintain their palaces many maharajahs and princes have had to turn their palaces into what are marketed as Heritage Hotels. Tourism constitutes not far short of 7% of the Indian GDP and these wonderful places contribute a significant and increasing amount at the eclectic end of the market.
My room was reached from the first floor balcony that went round the enclosed stone courtyard, originally the Mughal harem, now looking more masculine with terracotta pennants and shields hung on the ochre walls. In the recess of my room six tiny, frosted green windows were firmly locked. The following morning I realised that the scratchings that had come from behind them during the night were made by nesting doves. The view over the surrounding country would have been lovely but not permissible for women in purdah. Despite no outside light it was extremely cheerful: painted pink with the arches in ochre and narrow columns picked out in pale blue and white that included little blue pigeons on the capitals. It was furnished with antiques and a print of a 19thC woman with her head held coquettishly to one side. Above the bed-head a horse in silver bas-relief pranced across a niche. I tried to read but it was all too exciting and 30 seconds before the appointed hour I was already heading to the duchatta for supper.
Besides the delicious home-cooked food and free-flowing cocktails it was a singular treat to be a private guest at Dundlod, to be celebrating a birthday and to meet the kernel of the team before the start of the ride. Christiane Slawick and H, her Hungarian husband, had been staying with Bonnie for a couple of weeks while she photographed the Marwari horses – stallions; mares; foals; in and out of their corals and being put through their paces. They would be with us, although not riding, to complete her portfolio. Pip, an Australian friend of Bonnie’s was taking a couple of months out to recoup from his catering operations in Edinburgh and to help with the horses. Sunayana indispensably organised staff and logistics. Bonnie is a famously good host and meltingly charming. It was a friends’ evening with balloons and laughter. When I had told Indophiles back home that I was to take a train from Delhi to Bikaner, they had said that a train journey was essential in order to get the flavour of India. You can buy train tickets. That evening, delicious in every way, had not been for sale.
We left Dundlod after breakfast wishing we could have stayed longer but we had to reach Bikaner over 200km away. More importantly Bonnie and Sunayana needed us out of their hair. They were organising not one ride in the near future but two. After we had ridden the 120km from Bikaner to Nagaur a group from The States would do the return trip. Logistics, staff, horses, kit and fodder for man and beast had to be checked. Characteristically Bonnie had thought to make our drive more interesting and had arranged for us to stop off and visit the Bikaner campus of the National Research Centre on Equines. Our driver was not enthusiastic and could not understand why we wanted to visit such a place, way off his radar of interest. I could see a balloon over his head “Horses? …..Horses?” To many Indians horses are simply traction engines and his interest in them was similar to mine of what goes on under the bonnet. Although he drove slowly through Nawalgarh it was more to do with dust clouds and traffic than to give us glimpses of the beautiful, crumbling havelis for which the town is famous.
We only had to mention Bonnie’s name – he is the Secretary General of the Indigenous Horse Society of India – and Jan and I were through security. There are well over a million equines in India but the care of them had fallen to such lows after the land grab that the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) established a research centre at Hissar in 1986 to look into their lot. Three years later the Bikaner campus had been opened to research optimising reproduction and performance that would have collateral benefit for their (usually) poor agrarian owners. Research was also going on into camels and just as we arrived they were fed. Males in one pen and females in the next, crammed together to get their heads into the troughs. Historically poor, Bikaner adrift in the Thar Desert, had prospered temporarily in the late 1830s when they sold camels to the British for the First Anglo-Afghan War.
We were shown five breeds of Indian horse besides the Marwari. The Kathiawari that come from Gugarat and are similar; the Spiti from Himachal Pradesh that are smaller with hairy legs and jumpy temperament but able to survive in the cold; the Zanskari from Kashmir and Jammu, smaller, tough and quite rare; the Manipuri from Manipur and Asam – reputedly the original polo-ponies – rare, intelligent and tough and the Bhutia from the Himalayas that are quite like the Spiti and Tibetan ponies. There were also mules, some with tiny beguiling foals with huge downy ears. All are important to their local economies and most were under threat.
Indian Palm squirrels, searching for gleanings, scampered carefully between the still blades of the cast-iron chaff cutters.
We saw our driver looking at his watch, thanked our guide and headed for Bikaner. Although pushed for time our driver thought there was enough for us to visit a friend who had racks of lovely clothes and pashminas for sale and another who had the well-known workshop and gallery of miniatures. The miniature painter showed us his craft which was impressive but disappointingly for him and our driver we weren’t up for shopping. The optimism promised by our staying in a gilded New Delhi hotel had failed to deliver. We thanked our driver generously at the steps to the Laxmi Nilwas Palace but it was clear that we had proved a disappointment and he couldn’t wait to get back to Delhi and better pickings.
I wished that we were back at Dundlod. The Laxmi Nilwas Palace goes on and on and on and on. Half of it was still private. It was easy to see that the Maharajah of Bikaner, who commissioned it in 1904, had it designed to impress absolutely everybody. To be fair he also wanted to give employment to his subjects and they must have had jobs for decades. Of the Edwardian-station-hotel school of architecture it does have fine carving, fountains and lush courtyards – anyone of which would accommodate most of Dundlod but after Dundlod’s charming little paintings, the endless faded photographs of dead tigers shot by notably important people were depressing. The bar was monitored by their stuffed heads. They looked more bored than humiliated.
It was a relief to get out into the country next day. We were to meet our horses and fellow riders and to spend the night in the Maharajah’s hunting lodge – The Gajner Palace – another Heritage Hotel – about 35km west. It also is a red sandstone extravaganza built to accommodate the seriously ‘grand’ who came to shoot, especially the Imperial Sand grouse. It is beautifully sited on the edge of a great lake in the middle of what is now ironically a 6,000 acre nature reserve. The little railway station at the end of the line that the Maharajah had built to ferry his family and guests from Bikaner to Gajner stood sadly redundant.
After two years of drought the lake’s water levels were worryingly low but it meant that the deer, antelope, nilgai, chinkara and black buck had to venture further from the cover of trees to drink. Occasionally one could catch a glimpse of one on the far shore. The Government has a plan to re-introduce cheetah to this park – the resident ones having been shot to extinction. Flocks of water fowl flew in, fed, floated and flew out.
We met the others for lunch on the white-umbrellaed terrace overlooking the lake. Margaret in her forties and her late teenage daughter Sarah, were from Canada and had been persuaded to join the ride by an Indian acquaintance met at a conference. He lost no time in making it clear that as a former member of the Indian Cavalry he would be the superior horseman and we should turn to him for guidance. Doubtless we would be in awe. Wild boar rootling in the mud just below the terrace ignored us and him.