Two hours’ drive west from Fort Barwara, we came to the small provincial, and yet utterly charming, town of Bundi. It has a colourful fruit and veg market, a fragrant flower bazaar and an impressive, if rather forlorn, stepwell; it’s a town where cows still wander the streets, stealing cabbages from the sabzi wallahs, where battered rickshaws carry the kids to school, where the sweet smell of freshly cooked samosas fills the air. In short, it’s an authentic town, unchanged by modern tourism; like Udaipur, 30 years ago.
The main attraction is the palace and what’s inside it. Stuck to the side of a ridge, the fort and place is one of Rajasthan’s most spectacular. Rising over 200 feet from the jagged rock base, perfectly smooth walls of mellow yellow sandstone peak in cupolas and chhatris, battlements, turrets and towers. And inside, through a steep zigzagging entrance, is a labyrinth of gardens, platforms, pavilions and terraces. But it’s the exquisite miniature murals inside both the phool mahal and badal mahal (meaning flower palace and cloud palace respectively) that make the palace famous.
The Bundi school of miniature painting flourished at the end of the 16th century and in these two rooms are some of the movement’s best examples. Tiny illustrations of court life cover the walls and ceilings; pictures of great feasts, of hunting scenes, of battles, gods, demons, and dancing girls, many still holding their colour, others faded and in need of repair. Indeed, a team of restorers from the UK are due to arrive next week to assess the damage and what will be required to repair them. But even as they are, they are hugely impressive.
Having swung by the station to pick up JP Sharma, my great friend and colleague who runs our India office, we drove on to Bijaipur. This is a place I consider my home-from-home India. I first visited exactly 20 years ago at the very end of my first recce through the Land of Kings and immediately fell in love with the place. Since then, it has been a mainstay in WF adventures in India, with many of our offbeat itineraries coming this way.
The castle itself is impressive. Built in the 16th century as a Rajput outpost to protect Marwar’s southern flank, it has grown into a 30-room boutique hotel with a swimming pool, a small spa and a pretty garden. But primarily, as home to Rao Narendra Singh and his family, it is really an elaborate homestay, with a service level which can at best be described as haphazard; the coffee is weak, the hot water is sporadic and trying to find someone to serve you a drink can often leave you exhausted. But if none of that matters to you – as it doesn’t to me – here you will find a tiny piece of paradise.
Besides my enduring friendship with the family, my favourite aspect of Bijaipur is the rural life and land that surrounds the palace and the village. To take one of the vintage jeeps, a horse from the stable, a bicycle or just walk into the countryside either early in the morning or in the late afternoon, shows you India at her best. This is the classic Kiplingesque India of our childhood imagination. A land of bullock carts, of women collecting water from the well, of indolent buffalo wallowing in a pond, pretty white egrets sitting on their backs.
At this time of year in the fields in the valleys, wheat is being cut and threshed, groundnuts and garlic are being planted and opium is being collected (the region has a licence to grow the plant for the pharmaceutical trade). Having had a good monsoon, the lakes are all full and the birdlife abundant: fork-tailed drongos, hornbills, bee-eaters, cyrus cranes and colourful Indian rollers can all be seen. And set against the clear blue sky and lush green land is the bright red of the flame of the forest. We stopped for a sundowner at Pangarh Lake; a more idyllic spot I can’t imagine.
But sadly, on this trip, I have little time to ponder. Having had a lovely dinner with Narendra, his son Moji and JP, and a stunning dawn walk through the countryside, it's off again. Next stop Udaipur!