It was raining in the desert and a convoy of army trucks carrying tanks, took up the entire width of the narrow road. We dawdled along for several miles until our driver managed to pass the lumbering army vehicles.
A short detour off the main road took us to a temple in a town called Deshnok. The temple was dedicated to the goddess Durgha and was inhabited by swarms of protected rats. We’d read about this temple but hadn’t realised that we were so close. Our driver hadn’t told us about it. He just took us there. “Keep the feets flat,” he warned us. He was referring to our bare feet as shoes, especially those made of leather, are forbidden in any temple. Beautiful roses and a long row of rats are carved in the marble that surrounds the enormous silver covered doors. The rats are worshipped and cared for in the belief that at some future time they will reincarnate as mystics and shower peace and good fortune on the people who had looked after them. By chance we saw right into the innermost part of the temple, the holy of holies, the inner sanctum. Apparently none of the rats ever leave the temple and no rats enter the temple from outside the walls.
Mandawa, our final destination, was in a very remote area further north in the desert. The road became so narrow that it was the width of only one vehicle. In some places sand drifts covered the surface. The desert was very barren and we had to stop at crossroads to ask directions. There were no road signs and at times the road disappeared altogether. Once or twice we had to sit and wait until someone appeared so that we could find out the correct way to go. Villages were few and very far between. Rain continued to fall and the windscreen wipers still didn’t work properly. Late in the afternoon we ate some biscuits and offered some to the driver. He declined our offer and showed us what he used to keep himself alert. He bought colourful little packets of sugar from roadside stalls. We’d seen them joined together in long streamers festooning hawkers’ carts and food stands. They are available in a variety of flavours and, judging by the amount of empty wrappers we had seen are a very popular snack.
The army was camped in the area with tents scattered about in a very disorderly manner. Washing hung from lines strung amongst the trees and bushes. At one stage we travelled along a fairly good road for about ten kilometres, hurtling along at unheard of speeds of up to 70kph. All too soon we were back to the usual ruts, sand and deep holes that are accepted as normal on Indian roads.
Mandawa, when we finally arrived looked poor, dismal and very rundown. Castle Mandawa is an incredible conglomerate of buildings. Towers and turrets, lookouts and battlements adorned the tops of the massive walls. Corridors and doorways led into the depths of the enormous structure. Our rooms were right at the top of the castle and it was quite a trek to reach them. We negotiated dark, tortuous corridors outside and inside the main building, and in one place had to cross a section of rooftop before climbing another steep narrow staircase. The castle is a huge rambling old place, with very grand furniture and the usual dreadful plumbing. Our beds were masterpieces in mahogany with wooden frames attached for nets. Inlaid glass and porcelain tile panels, which depicted scenes of sunny woodland glades, decorated the frames. A group of English women were guests as well. They were on an artists’ holiday and ventured out into the desert en masse, to paint.
There was still time before dinner for us to go for a walk around the village. Mandawa appears to be part of the castle complex rather than a separate town. It was neglected, uncared for and filthy. In most villages we had visited, rubbish was swept into piles every morning for collection later in the day. It appeared as though nothing had been done for months. People pestered us to come and look as they wanted to take us, for a fee, to look at the frescoes on the havellis which are a feature of the region. The frescoes were painted bright and colourful to compensate for the lack of colour in the desert. Most of the havellis were broken down and the frescoes deteriorating with nothing being done to preserve them. They are very special as they record the history of world events as well as that of the area around Mandawa. It was sad to see painstaking work and art going to waste. Children clamoured and pestered us to give them something and the atmosphere of the town was uncomfortable. We felt slightly uneasy. A kite festival had been held that day and residents of the town were still trying to catch as many kites as they could, through fair means or foul. People hurtled out of doorways and over rooftops yelling and screaming loudly. We passed a tiny donkey harnessed to a cart. Further down the road a camel fidgeted and pulled at the rope tied to a ring in the gate.
After a dreadful meal we discovered that by 9pm the town was devoid of people. We walked down to the front gates, which we estimated to be about 12 metres high by 6 metres wide. A number of cows had gathered for the night in the middle of the market place. As we talked with a shopkeeper who was closing his premises for the night, a large black cow walked right through the space between us and joined the rest of the herd. Nobody moved or even stopped talking and when we realised what had happened and how it must have looked, we burst out laughing. On returning to the castle we found the former Maharajah and his family still having dinner. As lights were being extinguished we thought it would be a wise move to start the long winding trek up to our room. Thankfully the gong man, resplendent in white with a huge orange turban and swirling moustache, offered to accompany us.
We had come almost full circle and completed the journey back to Delhi, speeding through a glorious sunny day, down a wonderful smoothly sealed highway. Our minds and baggage were crammed to overflowing with all that we’d collected on our journey. One must accept India and all that is there, without trying to compare it to any other place on earth. We had covered only one state of India – Rajasthan, Within that state we had experienced so many differing customs, people, sights and sounds, that to even try and imagine what the rest of the country is like, would be totally unfair both to India itself and to one’s ability to even begin to comprehend.
© Kate Frost