Rajesh Meena was not an especially happy man. He lay curled foetus-like in the powdery dust of the Karauli animal fairground, groaning almost imperceptibly and clutching his groin as if it were about to detach itself from his torso. His two young boys, meanwhile, were fighting an immense inner battle over whether to fall about laughing or rush to their father’s aid. His friends and well-wishers were attempting to subdue the direct cause of his predicament, an enormous, feisty, bucking cow named Rani who had, only seconds earlier, landed a thundering kick to the concerned region. As for myself… well, I could only stand to one side and think it was a good thing that he had already done with the business of having children.
I surveyed the scene as I waited for the stricken man to recover sufficiently for me to take his picture with his prized, if somewhat temperamental, bovine. For as far as I could see, the fairground was covered with animals – cattle of every size and colour and temper, camels looking a bit daft, as they tend to do, and a smattering of horses and goats. Their owners were busying themselves in various ways. Some animatedly haggled over buying and selling prices, their combined voices rising and falling in the wind. Others primped their livestock, draping them in colourful blankets, rubbing them down and making sure they got enough to eat. Yet more simply lounged around, sitting on piles of cloth or sprawled out on bullock carts, contentedly puffing at beedis and hookahs and drinking endless cups of tea. Womenfolk tended to fires and cooking pots, occasionally reaching out to smack errant children upside the head,and in general the atmosphere was relaxed and unhurried.
This animal fair was one of the reasons I had come to Karauli, and almost as soon as I had appeared at the scene I had become a much sought after person. Palpably the only outsider there, I had caught the attention of a group of livestock owners as I wandered around shooting pictures, and before I knew it I was being flooded with requests to take pictures of various owners and their animals. Having a digital camera handy was a tremendous USP; the results could instantly be shown to thoroughly appreciative subjects, both human and four-legged. I had covered a number of people before Rajesh Meena demanded his turn, and when he asked Rani to put her best foot forward, she had interpreted the request in her own unique way and rendered him hors de combat.
Refusing help and rising unsteadily to his feet, he staggered over to me, wheezing unprintables at every painful step. ‘Some aim that girl has!’ he said, very charitably in my opinion. ‘Right in the middle!’ I enquired after his well being, and he insisted he was fine and that we should get on with the photo-op. This time he brought Rani round without suffering further damage and embarrassment, and as he stood proudly next to her, I found it remarkable that he displayed not the slightest rancour toward the animal that had taken a sudden interest in the Sanjay Gandhi school of family planning methods. ‘She’s my Rani, after all’ he said with genuine feeling.
There’s certainly more to Karauli than a yearly animal fair and some slapstick comedy, though. Set completely off the tourist map (yet only 180 km from both Agra and Jaipur), the kingdom formerly known as Kalyanpuri has a history dating back to the 14th century AD, and its erstwhile rulers, the Yaduvanshi Rajputs, were said to have been direct descendants of Krishna. That’s some serious pedigree, it has to be said, and the little town has some architecture to match – once you manage to find your way there, that is. It’s off the Jaipur-Agra highway, but there’s not much by way of signage, so a certain amount of clueless wandering around might be involved. Having eventually found my way, I was pleased to discover that my digs for the next few days, the Bhanwar Vilas Palace, was a most agreeable place.
Not as ostentatious as some of its ilk, yet with an unmistakably royal air about it, it was a sprawling property and quite charming in the way it combined its blue blood with a certain homeliness. This was largely due to the presence of the maharaja and his wife, who were constantly at pains to ensure that all guests were well taken care of. I had a look around the grounds after a hearty lunch, and it must be said that for those in search of a relaxing weekend, with no major cardio-vascular activity, the place is ideal. There are literally dozens of places to settle down with a book or to simply laze in the sun, as peacocks strut around the gardens. At the back, there are stables with horses, if you feel like a bit of a trot, and a garage with a Buick 8, a DeSoto Diplomat and a lovely old Bedford bus.
Attractive as the idea of simply lounging around was, I got in the Cedia and set out for the City Palace, the old fort where the former rulers used to stay. It didn’t take me long to realize this move was a mistake; the approach to the palace was through some of the narrowest market lanes I’ve come across, and the car was soon hemmed in on all sides by people, animals, bikes and autorickshaws. The stares I got said it all – everyone clearly thought I was insane. Since the only way was forward, I somehow inched the car through until the road widened and I found myself at the stately entrance to the palace.
There are several advantages to staying at a hotel where the current maharaja is also in residence, and not the least of them is that one phone call from him literally opens up doors. I was being expected; an enthusiastic caretaker explained that he would show me ‘every corner’ of the palace, especially all the sections that had been closed off to the general public. ‘Why were they closed off?’ I asked. ‘Sir, at one point the entire palace was open to the public. You won’t believe the sort of damage people did to it, scrawling graffiti and breaking off mirrors and other things. We had to close off most of the sections after that.’ Not for the first time, I told myself that we, as a nation, simply don’t deserve our rich heritage. If a selective admittance policy keeps out ignorant, uncultured and insensitive morons from monuments of such beauty, so be it and may more places adopt such rules. Unfettered by any such restrictions, I was indeed able to explore the whole of this fabulous fort, one of the nicest that I have seen in Rajasthan; there was something to be appreciated about its character at every step. The functional portions (the ramparts, for example, and other outer shells) were made mainly from the local pink-coloured stone, and they lent these sections an air of no-nonsense robustness. Once I stepped into the inner sections, like the ornate durbar hall, the feel changed immediately – the emphasis here was clearly on giving free rein to the creative juices of the artisans. I could see it in the intricate filigree work on windows and balconies, the delicate mirror-work on walls and ceilings (what’s left of it, anyway; vandals have gouged out distressingly large quantities) and the lovely paint work that was present everywhere. I was thankful I had the caretaker as a guide, though; it was pitch dark in some of the incredibly narrow staircases, with bats flying past my face to add to the atmosphere, and without his powerful torch I would surely have tumbled spectacularly down the first stairs I encountered.
Thanks in no small part to my guide, I emerged on the fort’s vast terrace, which afforded me a fantastic view over the town, its serpentine bazaar and all the way up to the grounds of the animal fair. ‘Look, that’s the yearly animal fair that’s held here. You should go and have a look at it’ said the guide. I smiled to myself. ‘You think so? Is it interesting?’ ‘Oh yes, I think you will like it; all sorts of things happen there.’ They certainly do, I thought. Perhaps another visit wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Besides, a courtesy call to Rajesh Meena seemed in order.
As I mentioned earlier, Karauli forms a near-equilateral triangle with Jaipur and Agra, yet remains off the established tourist map for the most part. This is a good thing, as in most such cases, but it’s too nice a place to just pass up like that. For one thing, the Bhanwar Vilas Palace (www.karauli.com, Ph: 0141 2290763, Rs 1,750 onwards) is a great place to spend a few days (it’s also pretty much the only place to spend a few days in Karauli). The grounds are lovely,
the service is gracious and discreet and the food is above average. There’s a swimming pool too, for the aquatically inclined, and three great dogs to play with as well. The City Palace is of course the principal attraction – a true, undiscovered gem of a place. Right next to it are the two temples of Kalyan-ji and Madan Mohan-ji, also worth visiting. The busy market on the way to the palace is also an interesting place to do some wandering around, and to perhaps make a few purchases by way of silver jewellery and the like. Near the palace, there are some chattris and a very big step well, both worth going to. As for the animal fair, I recommend that you time your visit to Karauli to coincide with it. It takes place in February every year, and the dates are on www.karauli.com It’s an absolutely fascinating experience, and if you happen to take out a camera, you’re guaranteed to be the star of the show for the next few hours (and you’ll be plied with lots of tea and snacks too). Just remember to stay well away from the hind legs of any and all animals.
Mitsubishi Cedia Sport
Total distance covered: 470 km