“If you want to experience the soul of India, then you must go to her villages” Mahatma Ghandi once wrote and following his advice I am staying at the Dera Village Retreat, Khalako, half way between Jaipur and Agra.
Dera Village Retreat
The air is warm and dry. A ring of hazy mountains surrounds this huge valley. There isn’t any noise this late afternoon except for just a couple of bulbuls squabbling over possession of a shrub and the sleepy drone of wasps somewhere in the distance.
I look over the fields surrounding the property and wonder what the next crop will be.
On a distant lane, half obscured from view by elephant grass, a lofty camel pulls a cart lead by an elderly man in a white dhoti. Yes, this is rural Rajasthan, the right place to break from the hectic pace of the cities.
The spacious seventeen cottages arranged in a semi-circle around the lawns have air conditioning and beautiful tented ceilings. The bathrooms are huge.
Manicured lawns, wicker chairs, gin and tonics and cricket
As I cross the lawns of the Dera Village Retreat, a solid thwack breaks the silence followed by joyful exclamations. Cricket, India’s passion.
The staff are urging guests to join them in a game. Some do, the rest head for the seats nearby to watch from the shade, a cup of tea in their hennaed hands.
Yes, earlier on we had a visit from a group of women who specialise in mehendi or the art of applying henna in intricate patterns.
The sound of bat on ball recedes and my mind chugs along trying to assimilate it all. This rural setting is a welcome break if you are doing India’s Golden Triangle: Delhi, Rajasthan (Jaipur and Jodhpur) and Agra. The circuit is about 720 km by road. Each leg is about four to six hours drive and easy to do by car or coach.
Rajasthan has always had the lion’s share of India tourism.
Its colour, its people and the impossibly beauty of Jodhpur (the Blue City), Jaipur (the Pink City and Udaipur (the Lake city) have drawn visitors from time immemorial. But it is the recent movie Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel that has attracted more travellers here recently.
Take for example a visit to the Chand Step-Well that can be arranged by the Dera Retreat.
We pile up in Jeeps and charge cross-country to the main road where the AC bus is waiting. Spotless villages line the way.
Whitewashed farmhouses with cattle and children mingling give way to Abhaneri, a small town with a big street market. From here it is only a few more minutes till we alight to see the oldest step well in India.
This marvel of architecture features briefly in the original Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as a background for a love chat between the two young lovers.
We see them against a puzzling complex set of steps rising and falling in a dizzying geometrical sequence while a boy jumps to the bottom pool for a refreshing swim.
The passage is quite brief but left me intrigued. What could it possibly be?
The Chand Baori consists of 3,500 narrow steps over 13 stories built more than a thousand years ago.
Reminiscent of an Escher drawing, it extends approximately 30 m (100 ft) into the ground making it one of the deepest and largest step wells in India. Such complexity and beauty for just a well, or is there more to it?
Nobody fully understands why such attention to detail was paid for a seemingly utilitarian convenience. But that is part of its beauty, the mystery that surrounds it.
It is said that locals used to gather at the bottom steps during intense heat as at that depth the air is cooler by five degrees.
One of the four walls has no steps but a mini palace instead that hangs over the well.
The pillars and columns are exquisitely carved and the palace, meant for Royal use, is complete with a stage for performing musicians and dancers.
Step into village life
What best mode of transport than a camel cart? We are in Rajasthan after all, so camels it is.
The village we visit is a small hamlet and the residents have prepared a ceremony for us to see.
As we sit in a semi-circle facing the performers, the younger locals take pictures of us with their mobile phones while a woman hangs colourful laundry to dry against a setting sun.
The colour of the women’s outfits is everywhere dotting the landscape with splashes of yellow, hot pink and blue, which seem to be the most popular choices.
Some of the men’s turbans are equally attractive and as outrageous as they can get.
A minimum of eight metres of light cotton cloth is twisted and wound around the wearer’s head, usually complemented by an extravagant moustache, waxed and twirled to perfection.
Back at the Dera Village Retreat a delicious dinner awaits while a troupe of local performers gather on the lawns.
After the lively show of local dances, the silence of the night is total, very conducive to sleep – which is exactly what one needs before setting off for another fascinating destination in Rajasthan.