“Namaste Memsahib”, a handsome, sparkly-eyed gentleman greets me with a warm smile, hands clasped in front of him as if in prayer. “Welcome back to India”.
Four years of absence from a country that is always calling me, it’s been far too long. Yes! I am back. I’ve travelled to India many times and still, I am enchanted and mystified by her intoxication. An Indian friend once said to me “Everyone must come to India at least one time in their lives and I defy anyone who says they’ll never return, for she has many charms! She is a beguiling temptress, you don’t notice her creeping up on you, enveloping you in her warm embrace and before you know it, you are lost to her”.
This time around I am visiting Rajasthan. Known as the Land of the Kings, everywhere you go you hear of the Rajputs, (ruling princely tribes), and their battle-scarred heritage. Many of whom built magnificent palaces, forts and hunting lodges, several of which are now gloriously unique hotels. Rajasthan is well-known for its royal cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur which dominate most itineraries, the huge forts and majestic palaces an undeniable draw. The Golden Triangle encompassing, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. However, I’m not here for the royal cities, I’m here to venture off the tourist path, to reach the rural hinterlands of this vibrant state and experience the beauty of the open countryside.
Tucked away, far from the madding crowds and cities, amid golden, sandy scrubland and patchwork fields, sits Shahpura Bagh (Bagh meaning garden). It is here that I feel I have landed in the true peace, calm and beauty of India. This is timeless Rajasthan, relatively untouched by modernity and a haven in which to submerge yourselves.
Shahpura Bagh is the historic residence of the rulers of Shahpura, the family still very much at home. Now run immaculately as a warm and welcoming boutique hotel with only nine luxury suites, set in vast gardens filled with mature trees of Neema, Ashoka, Peepal and Mango and adjacent to a fishing lake. There are walking trails, hammocks and charpoys located at scenic spots to relax, read, or watch the birds, and a superb swimming pool surrounded by large comfy day beds. The highlight of any visit to the Shahpura area is a visit to the village and a to climb Dhikhola Fort. In the early evening light, the sun setting, standing at the top of the fort ramparts, you can hear village life floating upwards, birds swoop close by, calling out before heading to their nests, the air is soft and warm against your skin. This is rural India at its very best.
It confirmed to me, once again, the importance of leaving the city behind when in India. One cannot deny that the cities are noisy and chaotic here, there is the very apparent squalor, created by the burgeoning population (1.3 billion). Initially, it can feel like an assault on the senses and although fascinating, it is essential to reach out towards the countryside, as it is here that India will begin to envelope you.
The city chaos fades and the true beauty of this incredibly diverse country shines through. India offers something that is rare to find, the power to awaken your soul. You begin to see the beauty everywhere.
From the way the light plays on the wings of the green bee-eaters, the sound of birdsong and peacock’s calling early in the morning, the green of the Khejri Tree against the dry, sand coloured earth. Bright coloured saris adorn women who walk elegantly on their way. Long warm days and majestic, shimmering sunsets. The quality of the early morning light, playing through the branches of the Banyan trees, aside lakes teeming with birdlife. The handsome, proud faces of men with glistening moustaches, orange turbans and twinkling eyes. The village children who run free, laughing, welcoming, eager to be near you, to shake your hand. Just for a moment, time stands still, and you feel your soul soaring, your heart is full.