Three hours’ drive north of the Rajasthani capital of Jaipur, we are startled from our passenger seat torpor. “Look!” says the driver excitedly. Our heads swivel to the right. Camels. As far as the eye can see. Thousands of them, snorting, stomping and gurning as only camels can. As we leave the bus to take a closer look, my feet sink into the sand and I suddenly realise we are in the desert.
I must have been deceived by all the green, scrubby vegetation going past the window but the landscape has definitely changed. We are in deepest Rajasthan and Jaipur’s bustle and energy seems a long way behind us. We are, in fact, just outside the small village of Nawalgarh, and have happened upon its annual camel fair. Some of the camel minders tell us that 8000 camels have been registered throughout the morning and, over the coming days, these beasts of burden will be raced for fun and traded for business.
The roads aren’t as bad as they might be, but the mix of single carriageway and maniacal driving makes for some interesting on-road duels. At one point, a speeding bus whose chassis seems to have come adrift from its axle threatens to wipe our little minibus off the face of the earth, never mind the road. Were it not for the skill and quick reflexes of our excellent driver, we’d have been roadkill twice over.
We’re now in Shekhawati, a triangular area of semi-desert covering 300km2 which lies between Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner. It’s famous for its painted havelis (or houses) built by the Marwaris, India’s famous merchant families who thrived in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. It sees fewer tourists than other parts of Rajasthan, making our presence here a novelty for the locals.
As if to underline the point, the men’s stares seem harder out here. Perturbingly, some press their faces up against the windows of the bus (while we are parked for a comfort stop in some nameless village) to perv at the weird, pale-faced Western women like myself on board. The curiosity is understandable (up to a point). Many women in this part of Rajasthan have adopted purdah – a tradition Hindus inherited from Muslims centuries ago, which keeps them out of sight. As you walk around these dusty little villages there are no women to be seen. Men, on the other hand, loaf around out the front of stalls, many with their arms slung around their mates’ shoulders. The women, when you do catch sight of them, quickly pull their saris across their faces, creating a colourful version of the burkha.
Our destination is Alsisar, a tiny village close to the Rajasthani-Uttar Pradesh border. Typical of settlements around here, it’s a remote, inaccessible outpost which is gradually opening up to tourists. In recent years, Indian tourism has backed the luxury route. Authentic heritage mansions have been converted into extravagant hotels complete with air-conditioned rooms and perfectly maintained swimming pools.
The palatial Indra Vilas, the only hotel in town, is no exception. The hotel manager tells me that they barely had a chance to get the place up and running before people started to arrive. We are only the third group to stay here since it opened; the place is in fact still being renovated. He half apologises for not having the requisite sun lounges beside the pool, although he needn’t have worried – the cane chairs are comfortable enough. It does seem a little obscene that such an oasis of luxury has been plonked down in a place where electricity and running water are scarce resources. The only things belying the fact that we are in the middle of nowhere are the occasional blackouts or the power surges which see the lights suddenly brighten and the fans whirr furiously.
As we’re led into the village by a local guide to see the havelis, a gaggle of children follow us around. Your average haveli (Persian for enclosed space) is usually a three- to five-storey house built around a courtyard. The walls of the courtyard are decorated with colourful murals depicting Hindu mythology and folk tales which date back to the mid-19th century and were financed by the rich emigrant merchants as expressions of their affluence. Some are decidedly faded but our guide, torchlight in hand, leads us into a darkened room where the ceiling is covered in such technicolour brilliance that our eyes hurt.
Rajasthan is reputed to be the brightest state in India. I’m reminded of this later that evening as we sit down to enjoy a colourful puppet show. Puppets are big in Rajasthan – not just among tourists, I’m assured, but with the locals, who also enjoy the traditional stories of chivalry and romanticism. Our show, however, involves a randy Romeo vigorously humping Juliet and a moonwalking monkey introduced as Michael Jackson – and all this to the wheezy strains of what sounds like a kazoo (but is actually produced by a reed between the puppeteer’s lips). I’m not convinced of it’s authenticity, but it sure was fun to watch.