Written by Sarah Owens
(A Runner-up entry in the Heritage Writing Competition.)
The smiling Maharaja bows and offers me a drink. “Madam, welcome to Bhanwar Vilas Palace.”
He beckons me into a magnificent hallway lined with family portraits and dotted with stuffed tigers. It’s late afternoon and I’m hot, dusty, and shattered after travelling the 110 miles from Agra.
The bus was steaming hot and crammed full of Indian families, chickens and crates of food – the noise, the chaos, and the smells, typical of all my journeys here in India.
I breathe a sigh of relief, take a sip of my delicious banana lassi, and enjoy the view through the Palace’s vast colonial entrance to the manicured gardens beyond, where a peacock struts across the lawn, his tail feathers rippling in the golden sunset.
Bhanwar Vilas Palace is a heritage hotel in Karauli, Rajasthan, but the resident family – local royalty and direct descendants of Lord Krishna – treat me as their personal guest.
“Madam, my wife will show you to your room.” The Maharaja twirls his curly moustache “And please, we would be honoured if you would join us for dinner at seven.”
My room turns out to be a suite, shabby, but a double bedroom, shady veranda and a bathroom of my own. It takes half an hour for the water to heat and the shower is little more than a trickle, but still feels divine.
Just before seven I make my way to the al fresco courtyard which is lit by coloured lanterns and take my seat with the other guests. We’re joined by the resplendent Maharaja, his wife and two
children. Mohsin, the name of the young Indian man sitting next to me, helps me choose from the delicious array of local food.
Deciding on mohan maas, a tender mutton stew cooked in milk and mild spices, I tuck in with relish, the taste and aroma of lemon and cardamom is simply mouth watering.
Mohsin is full of questions. “Madam, where is it you have been travelling in India? How is it you are alone? Where are you going next?”
I explain that I’m here to visit old Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, India’s golden triangle of heritage sites.
I’ve survived the adrenalin rush of Delhi and managed to negotiate the train journey to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal at dusk.
I remember how the noise of the jostling crowd faded away as I caught my first glimpse of the Taj at sunset, shimmering and changing colour in the mellow light.
I show him photos on my phone of Indian ladies in brightly coloured saris against the white inlaid patterns of the marble, and tell him of my plans to catch the bus to Jaipur to see the Wind Palace and visit the Amber Fort.
Mohsin smiles and nods, “Madam, you are brave indeed.”
Later I wrap myself in a shawl and sit on the veranda where, fanned by a cool breeze scented by the Palace lemon groves, I feel cocooned in a safe haven.
Travelling in India is an intense experience, but here, without the cacophony of beeping horns, motorbikes, trucks, tuk tuks, and the hustle of the big cities, is peace at last. A chance to breathe.
After a good night’s sleep I tuck into a masala omelette for breakfast and set off to explore the Palace. It’s a charming mix of art deco and modern India and is full of family photographs, rocking horses, threadbare rugs and colonial antiques.
Free to wander, I discover the beautifully cultivated fruit and vegetable plots which keep family and guests supplied with fresh organic produce. Ducks, chickens and cows roam the farmyard and I stop to stroke the glossy necked horses.
I peer into dusty outhouses full of ancient garden implements and wooden contraptions – there are even ornate wooden litters which the children used to ride in carried by their servants.
Best of all, I discover a fleet of cars from bygone times including an immaculate Buick which I later find out the current family still uses.
Just then the distant beat of drums disturbs the quiet. They announce the start of a festival taking place in the village just outside the Palace.
I’m reminded of the vibrancy of modern India, and my mission to explore it; this has been a wonderful pause in my journeying, but it’s time to move on. Time to leave this outpost of colonial heritage behind and set off on my adventures once more.
POSTED 30th MARCH 2019 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of SARAH OWENS. Photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.