The kejdi tree is shaved of leaves. At regular intervals through arid Shekhawati, the kejdi, with the primeval awkwardness of its form, stands stalwart, its branches above its head in a sort of writhing, stunted ambition. The landscape seems both quiet and restless, the geography “obscured by the wind blown overburden”. It is like watching a film with the sound off. The dogs here are slower, their reflexes unfit yet easily roused by motorbikes and strangers. There are camels and asses on the streets and peacocks in every mud-paved yard. Huge havelis emerge out of the dust, their green and silver shutters shut tight against the red sandstone of their façades. Where there is no water, wells stand on high platforms, and where there is irrigation, startlingly lush fields worry the eye now accustomed to dust. Everything else is twigs. There are few cars and the only horn comes from a van carrying that most precious of things: the heritage tourist.
Shekhawati has been romantically called the open-air art gallery of India, the walls of its havelis, temples and cenotaphs adorned with paintings from the Ramayana, folklore, the British and everyday exploits of rajas and Marwari merchants. Today, the paintings are increasingly embattled, the exhausting forces of litter and open sewers and graffiti that have come with the dissipation of former powers. The huge gates are mostly shut, the paint peeling, the intricately carved doors pulled from their hinges to be made into tabletops for export.
The contrast between past opulence and present disintegration is all the more noticeable when you arrive as we did, amidst the pomp and bonhomie of RTDC’s new venture, the Heritage on Wheels luxury train. Intended for those of more ‘moderate’ budgets, this new sibling of the Palace on Wheels attempts to reconstruct both the civilised past of rail travel and the Palace on Wheels’ storied success. Luxury of this sort is mostly about privacy: the separation from the hordes, curtains to be drawn against curious noses, liveried staff to escort you up and down platform steps, sliding cabin doors with locks, bathrooms that exhort you to cleanliness. It is about welcomes: fine lasses applying tikas and garlands, stern moustachioed guardsmen with flags and drumrolls, rose-strewn pathways and sonorous ‘folk’ musicians on the platform at Jaipur station. Each saloon is named after the different towns in the region: Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, Mandawa. This is all you will know of these places: their names and their faces. Tours like this promise pleasure amid an admittedly parvenu luxury. They are about the mild and mutual humiliation of tourist cattle and tour operator prod, and dancing around the thin line between service and servility, in a country that confuses them often.
The programme is still raw. On our journey there were only two tourists and some of the itinerary was a little muddy, but brightened by the accommodating, endless hospitality of everyone working with the tour. The train is comfortable with all the amenities: bar, restaurants, hot water showers, beds (not berths), Biotique shampoo. The several courses of dinner come with superior, almost endearing, service and serve both ‘Continental’ and Indian.
Elevated by my associations: Delhi, Outlook Traveller, at the Heritage on Wheels, I was a modern-day royal, and as a friend reminded me, the trip and all its suggested injustices would be more digestible if I recognised that fact. So I added extra butter to my soup and tried to consider it with the concerned furrow of do-gooder princesses like Angelina Jolie rather than the marauding joie de vivre of, say, Paris Hilton.
As it’s billed as a heritage tour, one assumes that fellow travellers would have shared my fascination with the paintings for which Shekhawati is famed. But RTDC knows the average tourist better than I do — we only stopped at five or so sites, though I craned my neck for glimpses of the countless others we drove past. Instead we spent a mystified hour at a camel farm and another at a warehouse where Shekhawati’s wood-workers now use circular saws to make bureaus and china cabinets for shops around the world. Instead of seeing traditions preserved, I felt we saw them as they’d been interpreted for us. Rajasthan was not mine, but mine to use.
Our first stop was Bikaner, where we visit a Jain temple in the old town that is still covered with bright, intricate paintings: goddesses in saris and wings, fat rajas and consorts. Then a horse-drawn tonga ride to the amused curiosity of the locals, through the narrow streets to see the astounding, shut-up-and-out-of-reach havelis of Bikaner’s migratory merchant classes. Junagarh Fort is the next stop and quite extensive in terms of palace tours, though we don’t go into the nearby museum. We are then whisked away to the almost-haunted emptiness of the Lal Garh Palace Hotel for tea and a quick look at its lovely indoor pool (perfect for a drowning) and the grisly stuffed tiger remnants of a lifetime of royal shikar. For evening entertainment we are off to the Gajner Palace Hotel. Some take a quick camel ride (on Raja, the cigarette-smoking camel) amid the banyan trees. There is an evocative performance by a Langa troupe, the community whose voice has come to encompass and represent the desert. The hotel is all candlelit, tasteful loveliness with a sumptuous grand banquet room overlooking a lake. Even the ludicrous stuffed leopards growling at each other only add to the ambience of whatever it is we want royal life to be.
The next morning we are awakened with tea at 6am. The fog is thick and hangs to our ankles and the train stands confidently in its midst. We are going to Tal Chhapar sanctuary, a pampas-like grassland for a jeep safari. We whiz quickly, guiltily past hitchhiking labourers and their steel-tiered tiffin boxes. We see black bucks, nilgai and the charmingly named demoiselles cranes, which, not surprisingly, rush away on our advance. We are only 12; how will they react to a trainloadful? Then it’s back to the train for breakfast and a few hours’ travel to Ramgarh where we are met by the town’s entire population of males aged 5-13.
As is common in Rajasthan, they ask for pens, failing that, candy, and then, attempts at scholarship and gluttony denied, shampoo. I notice there are no girls around and one of the stewards tells us how the entire town of Ramgarh organised a lovely welcome for the first trainload, only to be met by two bewildered passengers. Here we view one of the many cenotaphs in the sleepy noonday sun and then onto the woodworking export factory where I spot, amid the pile of packed furniture, one with a label addressed to Urban Outfitters in my old home of Philadelphia. We move on to Mandawa and the Mandawa Castle for lunch but give its famed havelis a miss, and on to Nawalgarh, presumably for our last chance at some havelis. They are beautiful, airy things filled with the genius of Islamic, European and Hindu artistic and architectural traditions. Then a quick stop at Roop Niwas Palace Hotel for tea in the waning light. Every leaf on every tree rustling in a rising cacophony of chirps and then like an untethered soloist, the welling shriek of a peacock. And there was something strangely satisfying about puncturing the royal pretensions of the guests we saw there with our loud tour-group chattiness.
We see many things cursorily. Like the great families who lock up their great homes and visit them but once a year, we contribute to this deadened, weekend gaze. It may seem ideal for those with limited time, who love a hands-free travel in an area not completely hustled and bound by tourism. I found that if you gathered your sense of humour and banished your guilt and emptied yourself of too much curiosity, this trip was great. And the respite offered from the difficulties of travel planning, meal hunting, guidebook poring over was not at all unpleasant. Despite the comfort, I felt let down, certainly at that price. Yet much of the amusement was in being outnumbered by our minders, the orchestrated drama that rendered a royal life a babysat one. The least we had to do was wave at the hordes of eager children. Some people couldn’t even muster up the interest to do that. It seems not everyone is born a prince.
The Heritage on Wheels runs twice a week (Tuesdays and Sundays) from Jaipur. From Delhi, take the Ajmer Shatabdi (leaves New Delhi 6.10am, arrives 10.40am). Else, one of RTDC’s deluxe buses that departs frequently from Bikaner House (5hr).
The train runs between September and April every year. It’s a 3N/4D trip, Jaipur to Jaipur:
Day 1: Depart for Bikaner from Jaipur 7.30pm. Day 2: Arrive in Bikaner 6am. Visit Junagarh Fort, Haat, Gajner (lunch, safari), Lal Garh Palace (tea). Leave for Tal Chhapar. Day 3: Day spent visiting Shekhawati’s havelis: Mandawa Castle (lunch); Ramgarh and Nawalgarh. Leave for Jaipur 8pm. Day 4: Arrive in Jaipur 6.30am.
The train features nine ‘heritage’ saloons, each of which accommodates eight persons in four bedrooms with two bathrooms shared. There are two restaurants and one bar-cum-lounge; food is Continental and Rajasthani.
Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation Ltd (Jaipur 0141-5115777, 2203531; Delhi 011-23381884, 23386069; www.heritageonwheels.net.in)