13th March 2020
We had arrived in Dungarpur in time to unpack, case the joint and decide that the balcony outside my first floor room was a good place for sundowners, even though the only way to reach it was through the bathroom. It overlooked the western waters of Gaibsagar Lake and the most opulent infinity pool into which two stone elephants spouted water from their upcurled trunks.
We were to spend 3 nights in The Udai Vilas Palace, built in the mid-19thC by Maharawal Udai Singhji-II and still lived in by his descendants. Their boisterous Labrador puppy was being walked round the gardens on a tight lead by a member of staff. It was being trained, with only moderate success, to retrieve balls on the little used grass tennis court.
Dinner was served by candlelight under the stars, in the astonishing Zenana chowk with inlaid pebble patterned walls along three sides. The back end of a temple has been absorbed into the long wall. A marble dining table with very delicate inlay of flowers and birds, was designed to accommodate 32 people. It had been laid up half way down for the 10 of us – 5 on each side. We were separated by a canal with a mosaic chevron patterned base surrounded by an overflow channel, both with underwater lighting. Conversation across the water was challenging and made more difficult when someone behind the scenes flicked a switch. Bubbles burst on the surface and waves rolled the length of the turquoise waters. All that were missing were dwarf caiman. Very 007.
Today, Friday the 13th, was to be a morning at leisure and an afternoon visiting the tribal villages of the Bhil, the original inhabitants of Rajasthan, and the Sahariya. I had spent the early hours walking through Afghanistan with Rory Stewart* thanks to my Kindle. I rushed to get to breakfast and still was the last. Divendra then told us that the tribal elders had asked us not to visit as they were worried about our bringing The Virus to their villages. Fair enough: think of the diseases spread in South America by the Conquistadors 500 years ago.
Instead we would have a day “…..chillaxing.”
As we left breakfast to ferret to the bottom of our suitcases and sort laundry; explore the palace grounds and just possibly ‘test’ the pool, Penny told me that Hanley’s family had insisted that she returned to Pittsburgh. They had e-mailed tickets and she would be leaving us the day after next when we went to Udaipur. We were a bit glummed. Hanley was so much part of the team. We would miss her. The seriousness of what we were learning to call Covid-19 was starting to hit home.
I had ignored my i-Pad, left on charge overnight, and when I returned to my room I checked into the real world. The total death toll in Italy was now over 1,000; the Electoral Commission had recommended that the local elections in England be postponed; the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had gone into self-isolation as his wife was unwell following a visit to London; the FTSE 100 had closed nearly 11% down with £160Billion wiped off – its worst day since 1987 – but not as bad as Italy’s stock market that was down 17%. Ironically Milan Native had won the Kim Muir Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
Everyone had a good morning exploring the palace grounds. They found a zoo (mostly fowl including a couple of emu); the lush vegetable patch (being irrigated and weeded); the museum (closed) and they had wandered along the grassed terrace between the palace, made with the local bluish grey Pareva stone, and the lake. They had admired the peacocks carved in the gateposts that led to the jetty. It was a few hundred yards from the island on which the family temple, built in 1923, sits serenely. Nothing if not an albeit beautiful statement, it must remind the townspeople on the opposite shores that half the lake belongs to the Maharawal and is private water.
I had tested the pool with a toe (enough) and had spent a lot of time watching a large bird among the foliage in the top of a tree above some of the sun loungers. By creeping round the tree, taking care not to fall into the pool or trip over a lounger as I peered up through the foliage, I managed to locate a nest and a mate. Every now again the bird would flap out of the branches and swoop off across the lake to return later with a meal for those left behind. A faded poster of Rajasthani birds in the gateway to the palace looked as though it might be a woolly necked stork.
We met by the pool for lunch and as the chilled Kingfishers slipped down we agreed that were we to be quarantined this would be the perfect place. Otherwise it would have to be the Taj Lake Palace Hotel when we reached Udaipur. We could be isolated and unable to infect or be infected. The question was would either the UK or Indian governments pick up the tab for the Lake Palace? To save their money some of us might even be prepared to consider sharing a suite – @ £5k a night. The mood had lightened and we would make the most of our last 48 hours with Hanley.
We were enjoying our first evening drinks by the pool, after a boat ride on the lake, when we realised that what looked like dead bushes – and they probably are dead, killed by guano – on the other side of the inlet, are the roosts mainly of black and white egrets and ibis. The egrets arrived first. Hundreds of them flew in from the marshes at the eastern end of the lake. They jostled for position. Some, shoved off their first-choice perch, did a circle and flew back in; some stayed firm.
Then came the ibis, often having to make do with the most extreme and precarious of the thorned twigs. I wondered the reason they left it so late – did the egrets always steal a march on them ?
As the sun slipped down and the sky darkened the kerfuffle calmed; the jostling stopped; the birds had agreed their perches for the night. Sleep. Although if they could get a good night’s sleep on such thorny and precarious positions I wondered why we make a fuss about the quality of the springs in our mattresses.
“Would you like to stay here or shall we go and look at the Maharawal’s car collection? You can have another drink there.”
Divendra is the master of diversion.
If one is lucky enough to visit palaces in India one quickly learns that only second in importance to a maharajah’s collections of dead animals is his collection of automobiles. This palace was no exception. Over the opened double doors of the converted mews was the legend “Cars, Canons and Carriages.” and on a nearby wall had been painted:
“Because it is impractical to drive forever, we car people have to park somewhere. This is where.”
And parked their gleaming treasures they have, ranging from BMW motorbikes to a 1939 Fiat 7-seater saloon. There is a 1985 Jaguar XJS and a 1966 Volkswagon Beetle, a 1942 Willys Jeep; a ’51 Chevy Pickup and more besides. We were lured to the far end of the building where practically every logo; steering wheel; chequered flag; race-track poster; coaster; hubcap; and collectible hot-rod artefact had been fixed to the walls and ceiling. It is also a cocktail bar. We put in our requests and sat in armchairs upholstered in fabric patterned with cars. When they arrived we placed our glasses on tables made with car wheels. Then the music started – 1960s and ’70s stalwarts. Feet tapped. Arms waved. If not in actual heaven, it brought back cheerful memories of early loves and misdemeanours. Another switch was clicked and the floor rose a few feet towards the ceiling. It was easy to imagine the current family’s parties. Someone had had a lot of fun creating this place and in the daylight we noticed that one of the cars had been ‘parked’ in a tree.
* The Places In Between by Rory Stewart