Darina Allen is delighted by the people, the sights and sounds — and of course the food — of Rajasthan.
I’m driving through rural Rajasthan, a world apart from the well-known Golden Triangle of Jodpur, Jaipur and Udaipur.
The fields are a patchwork of crops — wheat, sesame, and mustard grown for both oil and seeds.
Here and there, we see bananas and tamarind trees and occasionally a huge banyan tree.
Shepherds, with long walking sticks, tend their flocks of sheep and goats, now and then a camel cart laden with anything from fodder to huge slabs of sandstone from the local quarries emerges.
Women in bright saris are working in the fields, pulling weeds or harvesting and occasionally by the roadside carrying broken rocks in tin bowls on their heads, men supervise.
There’s virtually never a time when there aren’t people in sight.
There are lots of little villages bustling with life, a ramshackle and mesmerising mix of stark new build cement cubes and crumbling traditional houses, often a mixture of both.
The electricity is a mélange of wiring that would put the heart ‘cross wise’ in a health and safety officer, yet it all seems to work.
There are lots of tiny shops, selling everything and anything.
Street carts are piled high with fruit and vegetables.
Others sit on the roadside with just a few little chillies, aubergines, maybe a few beans to sell.
There are little hardware shops selling all kinds of pots and pans, grinding stones, coconut graters, coir ropes, handmade brushes, rat traps, tin utensils.
We see open-fronted shops with dressmakers, cobblers and tailors, sewing on old-fashioned treadle machines, barbers and shavers who lather up people’s chins with old-fashioned shaving brushes by the roadside.
Every service is provided — bicycle mending, woodwork, basket making, even ironing with huge heavy metal irons relegated to museums over here.
In the tin area, craftsmen are turning out huge metal trunks for dowries.
Virtually all the signs are in Hindu, cows nonchalantly ramble through the streets confident that no one will harm them, the cow is sacred and revered in India.
In the little villages everywhere the children wave and cheer when they see us: ‘take my photo’, ‘take my photo’.
I’ve never known an area where people were more welcoming or friendlier, no one asks for rupees or a peno.
Men sip tea in the Chai shops, katori, bright orange jalabas and samosas are piled high for sale in open air dhabas.
There are sweetmeat shops, Indians have an incredibly sweet tooth and also love their snacks.
So lots of shops sell just bags of crisps, namkeen and lotto tickets.
Hairy, scrawny pigs and chickens snuffle amid the garbage and there are lots of stray dogs.
Out in the countryside the birdlife is astonishing, white egrets and mina birds walk along the buffalo’s back picking off ticks.
Cow pats dry on walls and rooftops, fuel for the little clay or outdoor stoves over which most people cook their food.
It’s a totally holistic and sustainable system.
Here in rural Rajasthan many women partially cover their faces with their saris, older men still wear a colourful turban and sport an impressive moustache.
The houses are colour washed, blue, ochre, pink or plain.
There are a few jeeps gaily painted, colourful lorries, lots of richly decorated homemade tractors with no cab or cover on the engine (something to do with tax) and of course there are countless bikes and motorbikes with three and often four people riding on top including a sari-clad lady sitting side saddle.
We’re on our way to Ramathra Fort in the Karauli district — it’s a four-hour drive from Jaipur Airport along a mixture of roads, tiny bursts of motorway, an occasional dual carriageway but mostly potholed roads, dirt tracks with numerous ramps.
After 4½ hours we turn up a steep stony roadway and at last we are there.
This gives new meaning to the words ‘off the beaten track’.
It’s an endurance test to get here but what an oasis.
A 17th-century fort still owned by descendants of the original Maharaja of Karauli who built the structure in the 1700s and the family have been here for over a 1,000 years.
Rajasthan was never conquered by the British.
It has now been restored and opened as a heritage hotel by the Thakur Brijendra Raj Pal family with just six suites and six luxury Rajasthani tents.
There’s a 365 degree view over Rhajastan from the 80ft ramparts.
Below us the Kalisil Lake and dam and the forts, organic gardens owned by Brijendra Rajpal who invested the hard earned profits from her carpet business in Jaipur into restoring the fort from an advanced state of dereliction.
The food is delicious here. Virtually everything is produced on the farm or in the local area.
They grow and mill the wheat for the chapatti, paratha and poori.
The mustard oil is made from mustard grown in their own fields, the yoghurt from the milk of the buffalos whose manure is used to activate the compost to enrich the soil for the organic gardens.
There’s no swimming pool but there is an unheated jacuzzi on one of the turrets with a staggering view of the local country side, possibly the best in the whole of India.
The fort has been restored using traditional building techniques and local craftsmen.
We had a memorable boat trip on Kalisil Lake before sunset.
It’s on the fly path to Bharapter, a rich feeding ground for ducks, storks, cormorants, kingfishers, sarus, cranes, stilts and herons.
The lake was formed over 50 years ago when the Kalisil river was damned for an irrigation scheme that now benefits local farmers in Rawathara and neighbouring villages along the canal.
The lake is fed by monsoon rains and when full spreads over 17km, all the way to the Holy City of Kailaden.
A walk through the local village, Ramathra was quite simply enchanting, the villagers are so friendly and welcoming.
They welcomed us into their houses and invited me to dance with them to celebrate a wedding.
In the school, the teachers were eager to show us around and one gave me an impromptu Hindu lesson.
The big bonus for me was the food. It was particularly delicious here and guests can learn how to prepare any of the dishes on the menu.
I had two cooking classes with the owner Geetanguli and her shy and brilliant chef.
At Ramathra Fort they make all their own chutneys and pickles and the best lime pickle I have ever eaten.
He showed me how to make this fascinating smoked Ramathra chicken curry and raita, home made paneer, several Indian flat breads, paratta and particular fascinating local bread called Batia (see https://instagram.com/timanddarina for a 15-second video of how to make it).
Ovens are rare in Indian homes, even in the more affluent homes, so in villages all cooking is done over an open fire or in more affluent homes in the urban kitchens on gas rings.
For over 60% of people in India, the fuel of choice is still dried ‘cow pats’ and despite our understandable initial surprise it doesn’t smell and is totally sustainable.
Ramatha Fort is quite a find — particularly for the more adventurous traveller — I long to return…
Darina flew from Heathrow to Mumbai or Delhi with Jet Airways and from Mumbai or Delhi to Jaipur or Mumba in Rajasthan.
Ramatha Fort can provide contact details for a taxi service from the airport.
The return trip costs $200 (€175) approximately.
Ramatha Fort, although well off the beaten track, provides quite a different experience compared to the usual tourist trail.
It’s just 80km from Ranthambhore Game Park, while the Bharatpur bird sanctuary is 175km away; and beautiful Jaipur is 180km.
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