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A RIDE THROUGH TIME.

Rajasthan is a land of vibrant colour and captivating simplicity, and one that is viewed from the saddle, says Judy Armstrong

The feeling that life has come to a standstill gets stronger, paradoxically, with every step. The fact that we're on horseback adds to the sensation. Instead of viewing India we are actually immersed in it, boots and all, riding through villages of mud houses painted cool lilac, past naked children and beautiful women peeping through golden scarves.

Rajasthan is a state of mountains, deserts, lakes and forests, of forts, temples and palaces, colour, mystery and history. It is separated from the Ganga basin by the watershed of the Aravalli mountains, which stretch northeastwards towards Delhi. The uplands divide the state into two distinct regions. The west and north is desert -- irrigated valleys support the historic cities of Udaipur and Jaipur -- while the south and east are forested and fertile.

The best way to see the real Rajasthan is to move quietly through the countryside on horseback. From a horse you can be a part of the landscape; you can visit places that a bus-bound tourist will never see. A horse can drink from the same water trough that women use to wash their children; you can nod, smile and try to communicate, things you could never do from a car.

The Rajasthan Ride begins at Dunlod Castle in the Shekhawati region, a six-hour drive from Delhi. We arrive jetlagged and are entertained in extravagant fashion before setting out on horseback through villages and semi-desert to the intriguing Pushkar Camel Fair.

For centuries, desert tribesmen have met at Pushkar for four days under a November full moon, to trade camels, cattle and horses. Pushkar is a white, holy city beside a sacred lake ringed with bare, brown hills. Tradition says that during a full moon the waters of Lake Pushkar acquire divine properties and absolve bathers of all their sins. Now something of a Mecca for tourists, the religious fair is a mad cascade of colour and noise as 200,000 people gather to pray, haggle and enjoy the carnival atmosphere. Women and children accompany men for the holy dip, to worship Brahma and to seek salvation.

Primarily a camel fair, traders also sell horses and cattle. They are often tended by veiled women, whose strong arms are covered with bangles of bone. It is a chaotic blend of history, religion, music, dance and trading, with raucous races, street auctions and endless wheeling and dealing.

From Pushkar we transfer to the dusty village of Rohet, to meet others joining us for the second leg of our journey, the 10-day ride to the Aravalli hills. Fresh horses are introduced. They're a mixture of the native Marwari breed -- long-backed horses with ears that meet in the middle, the tips forming a heart -- and English thoroughbreds used locally for polo.

The horses belong to Khem, an aristocrat who twice a year takes time out from playing polo and golf to lead riders through Rajasthan. Our horses have an eclectic collection of names, including Rhanigandha and Roger. There's even one called Princess Diana. Mine, a tall, black Marwari with sleepy eyes, is Mohur, or "gold coin".

We trot across parched farmland sliced with irrigation ditches, and meet a stone Monkey God, painted bright orange and decorated with marigolds and strips of coloured foil. On a hill we see a temple, its purple and blue spirals splashed onto an onion dome. Painted with elephants and flowers, it is home to Ganesh, the Elephant God.

"Tribes and villagers revere all nature," Khem tells us. "Snakes, cows, monkeys and peacocks are all considered sacred, as well as the gods."

We gallop through the sunshine, making tracks across the dusty plains and revelling in the space and freedom. We follow sunken lanes and breath in the scent of history, provided at intervals with cold drinks and smiles of encouragement from Arun, our expedition organiser.

Dusty, a research associate from Massachusetts in her mid-60s, is overwhelmed with the experience. "I have ridden all over the world," she says, "in Africa, Mongolia, Europe, America. But India is the culmination of my dreams and I love the riding."

Ricardo, a mechanical engineer from Brazil, nods in agreement. "It is such a privilege to be here, to glimpse this way of life from horseback." He doesn't feel as intrusive, he says, as he would do in a car. "It is simply a wonderful way to see the people and the places."

One morning we pass 30 nomadic camel breeders, complete with pots and pans, tables and tents. Lambs wriggle in saddlebags strapped to the sand-coloured camels and little girls scurry to lead the procession. Later we meet three young women in red cholis (traditional skimpy tops worn with skirts) tying thornbrush into bundles. They balance firewood carefully on their heads and, with shy smiles, walk away from us, their bodies swaying. Just down the road a team of women knock grain out of wheat husks using a concrete bridge as a threshing table.

We move across the farmland of Rajasthan toward the Aravalli hills, to the home of panther and bear, wolf and wild boar. We ride through the Kumbal Gargh sanctuary, which covers three-quarters of the Aravallis, via the 15th century temples of Ranakpur.

"People talk about the Taj Mahal but I think Ranakpur is just as beautiful," says Khem. Ranakpur temple looks like a wedding cake, with tiers, domes and icing spires. A woman in a pink sari sits on a ledge preparing flower offerings, while a man in cream dhoti swishes a hay broom over the steps forcing dust to rise like smoke into the air.

A man, who tells us he is the high priest of the temple, gives us a whistle-stop tour. "There are 1,444 pillars, all with individual carvings," he explains. "The work was done by 1,500 architects and 2,700 labourers; there are 24 gods, and from everywhere in the temple an idol is visible. One pillar is crooked, because only the gods are perfect. "Donations are welcome," he concludes, "thank you, goodbye."

Outside rose-ring parakeets dance on the domes. On the satellite temples, langur monkeys scream and play. Temple attendants are amazed that Tom Bailey, a photographer from Peterborough, prefers to photograph these cavorters, with their silver fur, orange eyes and tails looped high over their backs. Yet he is soon lured back to the holy relics by a frieze of the Kama Sutra.

Near the sanctuary we meet small groups of men wearing blood-red, knotted turbans. Different styles and colours of turban indicate caste and region of origin; these men are shepherds, or raika.

"It is a matter of tradition and of pride to wear a bright turban," assures Arun. "They like to spruce them up for weddings and functions; a smart turban shows a fellow is well looked after."

"Because it is so dry, people compensate by wearing bright clothes," Khemadds. "They take the colours from the sunsets."

Just outside the sanctuary lie clutches of rough clay houses, each with a small plot of land ploughed into squares the size of a double bed. At the door of one stands a girl with a baby on her hip. She invites me inside. Her home is a small, dark room with an open fire on a dirt floor. Her name is Rismi and she is 20 years old. She and her family sleep in one bed which is at present, she tells me, in the field, so her husband can rest when he tires from ploughing. The extended family has gathered to help coax two oxen into movement. "Hoo! Hoo!" calls the oxen driver, and the boldest children giggle. One gathers cowpats for fuel, another walks carefully with two pots stacked on her head.

Nearing our journey's end, we head for the ancient fortress of Kumbal Gargh, high in the Aravalli hills. The great granite fort, built in the 14th century by Rana Kumbha, is surrounded by 36 kilometres of walls, it houses a few farming families and 365 temples.

The ride, over grassy hills and past ruined temples, is pure fantasy. We meet a girl scrubbing clothes in a stream. As she raises her head, her scarf slips back. She snatches at the colourful cloth, pulling it over her face but leaving one eye uncovered. We raise our fingers into the steeple of respect and ride on. The modern world seems a universe away.

Our final destination is Udaipur, also known as the "White City", which has the enormous manmade Lake Pichola as its centrepiece. The lake is home to Jagmandir, an island palace built in 1622. Boat trippers can stand here among frangipani and rose bushes and watch the sun set over Udaipur. The lake's shores are crowded with a typical Indian mishmash of shacks, palaces (including the City Palace Museum) and hotels; the most famous -- and expensive -- of these is the Shiv Niwas Palace, where we spend our last night.

As in the rest of India, the past presses firmly on the present in Udaipur. Trousers and chewing gum are as common on the streets as saris and veils. For all that, the city is magical and exciting and the juxtaposition of towering, intricate palaces with street hagglers is pure India.

RELATED ARTICLE: LAND OF THE MAHARAJAS

Rajasthan is India's fastest growing state, home to 54 million people, most of whom are Hindus and about eight per cent of whom are Muslims. Rajasthan covers much of what was Rajputana, home of the Rajputs ("sons of princes"), warrior clans variously claiming descent from the sun, the moon and the flames of a sacrificial fire. The Rajputs controlled this part of India for more than 1,000 years, resisting various MusliM invaders. Their code of chivalry and honour was similar to that of the medieval knights of Europe, and Rajasthan's magnificent forts and palaces bear testimony to this past. During British rule, the Rajputs were allowed to retain their royal status and few joined the Mutiny in 1857. However, the nationwide push for independence in 1947 eventually proved too strong, and in 1949 the 22 states of RaJputana agreed to join the indian Union. Today, many of the region's former rulers use the title of maharaja, and some have converted their palaces into hotels.

RELATED ARTICLE: PRACTICALS

How to get there: Rajasthan Rides are available through Equitour, which specialises in riding holidays worldwide. The ride cost 1,380 [pounds sterling] for the first leg, 1,665 [pounds sterling] for the second, or 2,690 [pounds sterling] for both. For more information, contact Equitour at 41 South Parade, Summertown, Oxford OX2 7JP on 01865 511642; fax: 01865 512583.

When to go: The Pushkar Fair ride takes place in November. Contact Equitour for details of other Indian rides, including a foray into Ladakh. The weather in November should be warm and dry, with mild evenings.

Further information: Contact the Government of India tourist Office on 0171 437 3677.

Judy Armstrong is a freelance journalist based in Yorkshire. She specialises in outdoor pursuits and adventure travel.
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Title Annotation:Rajasthan, India; includes related article
Author:Armstrong, Judy
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:1853
Previous Article:A Tall Tale.
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