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.