In the pitch-black darkness that is only possible in the countryside, I lay and heard the dogs
In the pitch-black darkness that is only possible in the countryside, I lay and heard the dogshowl. A night of dogs turned wolves, the countryside was a vast echoing polyphonic spree of howls, buzzing crickets, thumps and bumps of birds on the thatched roof, the occasional thik-thik-thik-thik of lizards.
A massive flat bowl in the night, flanked by the low ranges of the Aravalis, the hinterland of Rajasthan slept soundly under a starry dome. A train engine whistled in the background, moving shrilly across the stereo spectrum, from left to right. Then came the low humming chug of the wheels, and the metallic clanking of levers. Startled by this sudden sound, the dogs took up their howling again, at first far away, then moving closer, like a tag team of grieving vampires, a blood call as a red gibbous moon set.
A holiday in the countryside that involves massive dollops of doing nothing in particular doesn’t necessarily work for me. I mean, sure, it has its uses, for city folks to ‘unwind’ and find some peace and quiet. But I get enough peace in the city, and when I see wide-open spaces I find it difficult to quell my restlessness. Setting off for a rural holiday in Rajasthan, I was a bit apprehensive. Driving to Jaipur is never fun, partly due to the unending chain of perpetually unfinished flyovers that dot NH8, and the interminable parade of fly-bitten small towns of Haryana and Rajasthan. And then there’s the profound devastation of the countryside — I can’t think of a more poignant symbol of ‘development’ than the sight of entire hills clawed away to provide luxury tiles for Gurgaon apartments.
But then we turned right onto the Ajmer highway before entering Jaipur city, and classic Rajasthan made its appearance — unending ranges of the ancient Aravalis, scrub plains and, yes, greenery! I breathed a sigh of relief. About half an hour later, when our car trundled into the Nirvana Organic Resort, a large farm green with trees and awash in the chatter of innumerable birds, I’d already begun warming to the idea of spending a few days here.
Maliram and his wife Manju, who live on the farm with their small son Krishan, a couple of buffaloes and some goats, welcomed us. I stepped onto the soft turf, and felt the cool breeze on my face, and my unease at having to relax disappeared.
Nirvana is the brainchild of Jaipur-based businessman Arvind Modi. A yoga-lover and organic farming aficionado, he created Nirvana about eight years ago as an expression of his twin passions. Some years ago he converted it into a farm-stay that targeted the kind of travellers to Rajasthan who don’t just crave lofty palaces and luxury trains, but would also like to spend some days doing nothing in particular in rural bliss. Maliram and his family took care of the farm.
My cottage was a luxuriously basic affair, a large bedroom with a double bed, with a massive attached toilet. The farm itself was pretty large, comprising four beautiful, spacious cottages that are designed to look like traditional thatched huts. I felt at home soon and, yes, it was very quiet, the kind where the only sound you hear is that of the busy birds and the rustling breeze in the trees.
After a late lunch of puris and subzi grown on the farm, Puneet and I took a walk around Nirvana. It is bordered on one end by the dry bed of the Bandi river, a seasonal stream like all rivers in this arid state, and a large copse of trees on the other side. We walked through dry grass and painful burrs, clambering on to ruined walls and following trails of dried dung to figure our way around. It was a beautiful evening, the setting sun casting long sloping shadows across a land softened in the gentle light. Puneet walked off towards a large water tank and stood like a sentinel in the distance to take pictures while I wandered among the tall, wild grasses growing by the dry Bandi.
Despite the aridity, this region just north of Jaipur boasts of a high water table. In fact the water that we drank during our stay at Nirvana was delicious, the kind that truly quenches thirst. Not since my childhood in the Bihar countryside have I tasted natural water this lovely. This in turn reminded me of a couple of articles I’d read recently on how this region of Rajasthan was part of a fertile belt of flowing rivers just a few thousand years ago. Indeed, Indus Valley Civilisation seals depict rhinoceroses as a common animal.
While thinking these deep thoughts — and really, can anyone enjoy walks like these in the city? — I found myself back in the farm, desperate for tea. This arrived in clay kulhars, milky, sweet and quite potent. Puneet had returned from his jaunt, and the two of us sat around listening to the crickets, and watching a couple of spotted owls flying around the farm, silently hunting for insects.
I woke early the next morning to the hysterical chatter of a family of babblers that lived near my cottage. I wandered out to talk to Maliram about a hike he had suggested in the hills above the town of Samode. A colourful rufous treepie with a long tail was hanging upside down from the roof of the dining area, tugging with all its might to get a bit of straw to line its nest. The farm was lazily abuzz with activity. Manju was making breakfast and Krishan was feeding the buffaloes. Maliram was changing the water of the fish pond, while Ishan, our driver, was vigorously washing his car and humming to himself. I was seduced by the thought of dozing all day, reading the book I’d brought along.
But the thought of a ramble in the Aravalis was too tempting to abandon. So we devoured a stack of delicious aloo parathas, and set off to Samode, about twenty kilometres from the farm. Set in a deep cleft of the Aravalis, this medieval walled city is best known for its sixteenth-century palace-turned-luxury hotel. But it has other charms too, such as the massive doorways with Mughal motifs and the tiny alleys that branch out from the main cobblestoned street. Samode is, of course, deeply feudal, as is evidenced by the lavish palace of the local thakurs, but I was keen on exploring the trails in the hills above, which the villagers and sheep-herders take to nearby temples and pastures.
We left our car in the parking lot beside the palace and climbed up into the hills, first by a steep staircase embedded into the rock and then on the trail to the Hanuman temple on the far side of the range, perched on a cliff-top. Just above the Samode valley towered the ramparts of Sheogarh fort, the old town’s main fortress, an imposing black structure bristling with menace. We climbed higher still, past strange, gnarled, dead trees and the occasional watering hole for man and beast. The hills were covered in a dry, coarse grass that bent in the wind. Strategically placed trees along the track offered shade and a chance to nurse aching calves to a sparse trickle of pilgrims and herders on their way around the hills.
The temple of the Samode Balaji is quite famous in these parts. As we approached the temple, scrambling over granite outcrops, Maliram told me that during the Navratra, pilgrims would stand in long lines, pressed against each other all the way down to the valley, to get a glimpse of the image. Once we’d negotiated the langurs that hung around the temple gates, we saw the deity — a seven-foot-high block of granite rock, painted red and with large eyes. It’s a well-funded temple, which these days seems to result in the architecturally tacky, and this was no exception. But I didn’t try telling that to a posse of serious little boys, dressed in the saffron robes of trainee monks and extremely proud of the establishment, who were returning from their communal lunch. Traipsing about on barren hillsides under a harsh sun can be hungry work, so we headed for a line of shops just below the temple selling laddoos, sweetmeats, puris and samosas.
On the way back, we left the main track and veered deeper into the hills. An immense bleached sky stretched above a blue earth of short ridges fanning out in every direction. What we were walking on was basically a large plateau, headed for an older shrine, this one housing a Hanuman with five eyes. A much more modest affair, the small white temple and its courtyard is far more elegant than the main temple. But the main attraction lay still higher, set amidst a large amphitheatre of granite boulders. Through some geological quirk, on the pinnacle of the range lay a massive hollow boulder, creating a natural cave. It’s a popular and slightly feared Tantric spot of Shakti worship.
It was pitch-dark inside, and seemed roomy enough to easily fit a dozen people. A stoned sadhu crouched in one corner, while gaudy new portraits of Santoshi Ma besmirched the mystery of the place somewhat. Maliram seemed none too happy. When he’d last come here, some twelve years ago, none of this was here. Local herdsmen would come here to light candles and leave quickly before sunset. Hearing the lonely wind whistling through the boulders, I could well imagine the apprehension that villagers felt about spending the night here.
Sunburnt, exhausted but totally happy, we trooped back to Nirvana at the end of the day. At a Banjara tribal settlement nearby, farmers were threshing peanuts. Maliram showed me around the farm, which was waiting for his winter crops to be sowed. It’s quite a self-sufficient setup, with Maliram growing peanuts and beans in the winter, and ladyfinger and bottlegourd in the summer months, along with other seasonal varieties. A shower later, Puneet went off to photograph the tribal village, while I settled down to wait for the owls to return. The sun set reluctantly, like a loitering little boy who doesn’t want to go to bed. First it shone on me through a perfect tunnel of leaves, then as it sank lower, the world started glowing a luminous red. Squirrels dashed about on the lawn and the babbler family settled down for a last round of shrill chatter before all light faded. The treepie was back, upside down, tugging at a straw with all his might. A lapwing stalked about on its dainty legs, looking for worms.
Finally the gigantic red sun went down, and I found myself looking forward to the black darkness of the rural night, the faraway howls of dogs, the thump and flutter of nocturnal birds and the buzzing of crickets. There was the train again, blowing its way through fields and hills, over dry rivers and past sedentary cows, going from left to right in a vast world. Everything in its right place.
It’s best to make a driving trip from Delhi. Follow NH8 from Delhi to Jaipur, and get on the Ajmer expressway at the town of Chandwaji, about 40km before Jaipur. Cross the toll gate and stay on the expressway for approximately 30km before turning right onto the well-marked Sikar highway. Follow the highway for about 10km until you get to a power plant on the left, where a two-lane road veers off to the left into the countryside. The Nirvana farm is located a couple of kilometres down the road. Give the farm’s caretaker Maliram a call (9660968997) and he will guide you from here.
The Nirvana Organic Resort consists of four large cottages with double bedrooms and attached toilets. Tariff: Rs 1,200 for the normal cottages and Rs 1,500 for the one deluxe cottage. Meals are an additional Rs 600 per person per day. Contact: Arvind Modi (9829013546, email@example.com) or see nirvanaorganicresort.com.
What to see & do
You could spend a perfectly pleasurable couple of days holed up in the farm relaxing and taking little walks around to the nearby villages, or learning the finer points of organic agriculture. However, the farm is set in a very strategic location for local sightseeing and day-trips. You can easily drive to Shekhawati, about 60km from here, to marvel at the architecture of its traditional havelis. The walled town of Samode is much closer, about 20km away. If you’re up to stretching your legs, I recommend doing the hike in the hills above Samode to get a better idea of the Rajasthani wilderness. Even closer is the town of Chomu, and its medieval palace. Four large cattle fairs are held just outside Chomu annually, so check with Maliram for details. If there is one on, you wouldn’t want to miss it. Jaipur is about a half an hour’s drive away.