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Havelis* and Horses

India for Riders

Working Out a Horse in India
Credit: Deborah Radcliffe

I have always had a great love of the outdoors and a passion for horses. I have been riding since childhood and spent many an hour happily ‘mucking out’ or simply grooming my horse Topsy until her coat gleamed pure chestnut gold!

When I learned about the horses of Roop Niwas Kothi in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, India I was determined to visit one day.

Getting there isn’t too bad, flights are relatively straight forward and you can fly to Delhi on a number of airlines. My program was organized to my specifications by Indus Discoveries in Delhi. This tour visits Mandawa, Roop Niwas and Samode - departing from and arriving back to Delhi, although you could easily add other Rajasthani cities to extend the trip.

I won’t dwell on the sights of Delhi as this would take up the whole article, but move straight on to the tour itself. However, the highlight for me this time in Delhi was an auto rickshaw ride. I often felt perilously close to disaster as the driver weaved his way in and out of the traffic. Shutting my eyes as we squeaked past ‘sacred’ cows, reclining in the center of the road, oblivious to the frenetic traffic did not help. Nevertheless, I would do it again.

After a long drive to our lodgings Castle Mandawa in Mandawa cool drinks and time to relax before dinner were most welcome. The rooms are all superb - I saw a turret room - 7 ft of wall protects the occupant - this was no ‘homey’ residence - more a fortified palace! All rooms are delightful, filled with a mixture of family heritage and modern day conveniences.

Corner of museum - painted interior of Haveli near roop Niwas Kothi
Credit: Deborah Radcliffe

At Mandawa you can do as little or as much as you like. Camel safaris are great fun, especially to see the desert sunset, although, I have to say they are not my favourite means of transport, having been the focus of attention of one belligerent camel in Egypt, who chose to spit at me with unswerving accuracy. It’s their constant rumbling, moaning, and muttering that really gets to me!

The following morning I was off bright and breezy to Roop Niwas Kothi, a marvellous old family home turned into an Indian-style hotel. It’s not five-star, it’s not plush and it’s certainly not pretentious, but it is just so comfortable! A typical home opening its doors to you - ok, a royal home. A special ‘Royal Welcome’ awaited! An assortment of faithful family retainers meet and greet you, making you truly feel special! Two of them, Ramlal, and his wife, Patasi, serenade guests with traditional haunting melodies, dancing horses, and aloof camels.

You usually get to meet the owners, cousins, Thakur Durga Singh of Mandawa and Bhanwar Devendra Singh of Nawalgarh, who are perfect hosts. Their six camels have perfect manners, too!

I stayed in the suite that once belonged to the cousins’ royal grandmother. She lived in purdah, never leaving her rooms unless veiled, but Durga said, as small boys, they were amazed how she knew everything going on in the place. Later they realized she had a bevy of ladies listening at every door!

Ramlal and his wife
Credit: Deborah Radcliffe

Horses are the raison d’etre for Roop Niwas and my reason for coming here. Devendra Singh has spent a lifetime breeding his beautiful ‘babies,’ the magnificent Marwari. The care and attention lavished upon them is amazing. A special Indian breed, they are fearless and strong hearted as well as very spirited and full of personality. Fine boned, smaller in build, girth, and height than their thoroughbred cousins, they are ideally suited for their task. These horses with their turned in ears were the light cavalry of the famous Rajputs, the war horses of Rajasthan. The stables, filled with Marwari mares and stallions, are quite superb
You can’t just come here and leap upon a horse’s back. No way. First you need to show competence and then a horse is carefully selected for you. If necessary you are schooled until Devendra is satisfied. You can take a solitary one-hour trek, but if you really are passionate, you can go on fabulous long rides, some perhaps following in the footsteps of the horses’ forebears on a "royal progress," when taxes may have been collected or disputes were settled. Before motorized vehicles, royalty would traverse the countryside on horseback, not just to collect taxes, which might have been the role of a dreaded tax collector, but to let the people see them, to hold court to settle disputes, and to stamp their control on an area. It was a flamboyant affair with pageantry galore.

Credit: Deborah Radcliffe

Out riders, with fluttering flags, flank a group as they gallop across the Rajasthani range to be met at the appropriate time for tea or lunch by Durga, the Master of Ceremonies. Like an orchestra conductor, discord reigns if he misses a note or moves his baton too fast. Durga has a jeep and goes ahead of the group on the long trip. The tents and showers are ready for the evening, food is cooking and the kettle is on the boil. He takes care of the logistics while Devendra escorts the riders across the country side. I suppose you could call Durga logistical support. He is also a man of immense education, a raconteur with a dry wit. Devendra is more earthy, but charming and witty. They are great hosts. Serenaded by the dulcet tones of Patasi, Ramlal is ready to give a well-earned massage.

The next day a camel ride around the area is in order. Small villages filled with laughing children wave as you go by, deer suddenly break from cover, and the sun never stops shining. Later a walk through the village takes you to another world to see lovely old havelis, merchant houses, with glorious wall decorations. There is also a small museum with a good collection.

On the final leg we go to Samode to stay at the Samode Palace. At their recently introduced spa we ease our weary limbs and plunge into their gorgeous marble and mosaic pool. The Palace, considered a masterpiece of Rajput-Mughal architecture, is very beautiful. It has some of the finest frescoes and mirror work in Rajasthan. Sheesh Mahal, an over the top flamboyant chamber decorated with intricate mirror work, assails your senses with its opulence! You have to see it to believe it!

Horse & Haveli Palace of Winds
Credit: Deborah Radcliffe

At Samode you can either take it easy, or if you feel very adventurous and fit, climb the 376 steps up the steep hill beside the Palace to the old Samode Fort, once sentinel for the village below. To play a game of tennis or croquet, walk to the Tented Camp about 4km away passing through the local villages and countryside. You can also get a lift! From Samode it’s only an hour’s drive to Jaipur, which can easily be done as a day excursion, or you can stay there in the delightful Samode Haveli and visit the amazing Amber Fort, Palace of Winds, City Palace Museum, and the incredible Astronomical Observatory.

Even if time is short try to visit Jaipur, before returning back to Delhi and home. Alternatively Samode is a good stepping off point to extend your stay in Rajasthan. Along with Jaipur, go to Jodphur, Udaipur, and Jaisalmer - but that’s another story!

*A haveli is a house built by a merchant to show he has succeeded in business --a modern day
'Trump Tower or McMansion. It was a statement of a successful person. They spent fortunes decorating the houses with wonderful frescoes etc. Some have been turned into private homes or museums. Others lie in ruins.

Fact Box
Tour Operator: Indus Discoveries: http://www.indusdiscoveries.com
Indian Tourist Office: http://www.incredibleindia.org

-- Deborah Radcliffe

Fall, 2007