We left Sawai Madophur at 8.15 - a more realistic time than 6 o'clock as had been suggested by our driver. The journey would take six and a half to eight hours according to Mr Ram whom we were discovering was quite a treasure. He was an amazing fellow imperturbable, cool under pressure, ever willing to help and an expert at dealing with traffic. As we proceeded he would rumble into life to share another snippet of information or history concerning the local people or area. He bought our bananas and biscuits at his prices, found us decent clean toilets and places for lunch, and took us to wonderful places rarely visited by other tourists.
On this leg of our trip we travelled well away from the main highways. The roads were very narrow and riddled with patches and potholes but the discomfort was a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing some amazing countryside. As we juddered and banged our way along Mr Ram informed us that no repairs were ever made. Whenever a bus approached we had to stop and pull right off the road as there was not enough room for both vehicles. Mr Ram pointed out a group of Bhils, gypsy nomads who were camped in a riverbed. We noticed changes in the style of dress and architecture. Clothing was brighter with the colour of turbans and scarves showing which tribe the wearer belonged to. Some of the turbans had long tails but most were tucked in under the final fold. Women wore lavishly embroidered skirts and tops rather than saris. At one place we had to drive along a stream bed as a bridge was under repair. There were no warning signs just a very low wall of rocks built across the road to prevent our plunging down the steep bank.
The fort at Indrigarh was very old and crumbling and climbed up along the contours of a hill. There were cement works in the town which added more dust to everything nearby. Huge trucks, heavily laden, spilled rocks and grit across the road. This was an area of arid land with low scrub and rocks, steep hills on either side and no cultivation or crops. We passed through the town of Bundi which was an unexpected extra. We were pleased as we had read about the place and had wanted to see it. We knew that tourists rarely visited this area. Our driver took us halfway up the hill to the fort and palace and told us of the squabbles between brother and sister that had split the palace virtually in two. This had prevented restoration work being done on the priceless frescoes that were hundreds of years old and quite unique. We stopped for a breather and watched boys flying kites in the warm air above the town. Camels and their drivers plodded slowly up the hill. The town is very old and looks quite untouched. Children played cricket in the dust against a wall, with the pitch scratched out in crooked lines across the ground. They used a stick for a bat and a rock or lump of paper for a ball. We passed cattle bones in piles and another carcass covered with vultures. In the centre of town there are huge wells stepped down to different levels. They have been there for hundreds of years and are still the main source of water for the townspeople. On the way out of Bundi the driver stopped a passer-by to ask the way. Would she like some silver? he was asked. No she would not, Mr Ram replied.
The road climbed a rocky hill and presented us with an amazing view. A few hundred metres from the road, a lake sat gleaming amidst green fields, gracious palm trees clustered at one end. This was a true oasis and a welcome addition of colour to the rocky barren landscape. Away in the distance a white railway bridge curved through the tawny coloured land. We were high up surrounded one minute by barren land, scruffy bushes and leafless trees. Around the next bend and we would be swamped almost in green fields of rice and wheat and breathtaking seas of yellow mustard. A few moments later and we were back to the desert and a narrow one lane road. We kept on climbing and swooping round bends until there seemed to be nothing left to climb. The land fell away on either side and before us there was just space and the huge blue sky. We crossed a rock-strewn plateau covered in places with low bush.
At Mandal we visited a ruined temple. It had been dedicated to Shiva and was hundreds of years old but now, totally abandoned. Many beautiful carvings and statues lay shattered and broken on the ground. "There is no moneys or people to restore them," we were told. An old man from the nearby town came walking slowly through the temple gates. He allowed us see the inner sanctum which was a rare treat. As the temple was no longer a 'living' temple, non-Hindus were allowed access. We walked down steep steps cut into the rock and came to a point high above the river with a view across to another small temple. There was a steep drop down to the gorge below where a family of tigers had made its home. The riverbed sloped like a natural staircase down to the edge of the cliff. It would make a beautiful waterfall when the river flowed in the rainy season.
We stopped for lunch at a tiny house further along the road where a tiger visited every night. None of the locals dared leave their homes at night but stayed locked in their houses. Two dogs were lying on the sun. One had been attacked by a tiger and had a fearsome scar still healing, across its back. The other larger dog had come to its companion's rescue attacking the tiger and driving it away. During the fight the second dog had had an eye damaged by the tiger's claws.
We fed the dogs and carried on towards Chittogarh where the fort was built right on top of a high plateau. It is visible from miles away. An impressive wall stretches along the edge of the precipice. The road zigzagged to the top and Mr Ram took us on a giddy drive high above the plain to have a look around. A tall, crumbling tower stood sentinel to ghosts and history. Nearly everything else was in ruins. A lone camel, regaled in its finest livery waited patiently with its owner for photos to be taken, “For a small fee please, Sir.” We went carefully back down the hill and on towards Udaipur . The traffic was much heavier and the roads no wider than before. We watched the milestones unwind as we passed through a region where marijuana is legally grown. The government helps the growers and all the plants are counted to make sure that no mischief takes place. We swept around a bend in the road and a magical view greeted us. The sun was setting golden orange through the haze, laying a path across a lake fringed with silhouettes of trees and figures moving through the dusk. We watched the colour of the sun as it intensified through various shades of orange until finally it glowed almost blood red. Thankfully there was a long twilight as Udaipur was still some way off and we didn’t want to be caught on the roads after dark. We finally reached the city and our hotel which was perched high on a hill above the lake.
What a day. Ten hours crammed with sights and sounds, changing scenery and villages crammed with life and dirt and dust, colours, people, brown eyes, white smiles, bright saris and brass pots; the smell of tar mixed and spread by hand; rocks, rocks, rocks, mountains of rocks waiting to be broken and crushed by people squatting in the dust and heat, and the women with their saris and skirts hitched up, working on the roads. We were so tired from the long day's journey and our minds so crammed with all we’d seen, that we wasted no time in climbing the gracious sweeping staircase to our room and a good night's sleep.
© Kate Frost 2008