A Royal Ride through India’s History
I have ridden in more than 20 countries over the last 40 years and had some glorious experiences. Two contrasting rides stand out for me because of the excitement of the adventure, the cultural richness of the experience and the exotic appeal. One is the ride through Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve which my wife and I used to guide and the other is palace to palace through India’s Rajasthan. Kenya has all the alluring mystique of Karen Blixen, Hemingway and Beryl Markham. The interaction between riders, horses and the fabulous herds of wild game are a blatant call to every drop of red blood in the veins of all spirited people. Who can fail to be enthralled by gallops with the zebra and running from the lions? As though that were not enough there is the fascination of the picturesque Masai themselves whose powerful culture remains strong.
Rajasthan has a more subtle appeal which requires an open mind, a vivid imagination and a greater love of history in order to fully appreciate it. India is hard to beat as a destination for the in depth traveler. I went back this year for my 8th ride in Rajasthan with my wife, son and eight old friends who have been on many rides with us. This time I thought the trip was so overpoweringly fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable that my throat tightens and a tear comes to my eye when I think about it. We met our group at the old Imperial Hotel in Delhi, a meticulously refurbished relic of the Raj with hundreds of intriguing old prints on the walls which depict battles and hunting scenes from the 19th century. The great wonder to me is how the British ever managed to conquer this far more powerful subcontinent. The answer, of course, is that they skillfully used a divided India against itself. If an emperor like Akbar had been in power then, history would have been different.
After a day of recovering and visiting the main sights of Delhi we set out for Ranthambore Tiger Reserve to visit this forest preserve of the old maharajas as a prelude to our riding holidays in India. Early in the morning we left the hotel to take the train south, passing through the hubbub of cars, trucks and camel carts with sacred cows wandering here and there to reach the railroad station and board the train for the six hour ride to Ranthambore.
We were picked up in jeeps at the train station and whisked off to the park which is home to some 50 tiger, sloth bear, antelope, deer, gazelle, leopard, crocodile and many other creatures. Ornithologists come from all over the world to observe the prolific bird life. The king of this domain is the magnificent Bengal Tiger which is certainly the most powerful of all mammalian predators. They are secretive and usually nocturnal. Several previous visits to Indian game parks had shown us much wildlife, but no sight of a tiger. This time we were lucky and the morning after our arrival we had a long view of one making a leisurely walk from his last kill to have a drink in a brook. It was a galvanizing moment to suddenly see this elusive beast only a few yards away after so many vain attempts. He made an enormous impression of grace, beauty and latent power as he stalked along totally ignoring us. Here was one of the great icons of Indian history and Kipling’s Raj.
We were all eager to climb in the saddle and after a morning game drive we boarded our bus and drove to Rajmahal Palace where we arrived in the evening. Our 16 horses were waiting for us in the courtyard where for centuries prized warhorses like these had been kept. The walled palace is 350 years old and has been recently restored by the owners. Each of our bedrooms was different and all were beautifully decorated. It is situated at the base of a mountain beside a small village and a river runs just in front. The area is almost completely unknown to tourists which made it all the more fascinating to us.
Next morning after breakfast our horses were assigned. These Marwari horses are an old Indian breed which played a big part in the history of the subcontinent. They are somewhat like Arabians and have considerable endurance and lots of heart. The way their ears turn in at the top is a striking characteristic which is an adaptation to desert conditions. They are alert and curious animals and often show as much interest as their riders in the camels, water buffalo and wild game frequently encountered. The companionship with my affectionate mare, Lakhsmi, (named for a goddess) greatly increased my pleasure on this journey.
We rode out of the walled palace of Rajmahal through the old gates which still sported the impressive spikes at the height of an elephant’s head to discourage these formidable engines of war from battering them down. The horses and riders were a little tense as we got to know each other and we could feel their excitement as they pranced the short distance over the cobbled road to the bank of the river. We forded easily on a sandy bottom and the wide river valley stretched below us with mountains on either side. The hard packed sand beckoned us to a gallop and after ten or fifteen minutes of walking we started out at a trot and then began to gradually increase the speed until we were thundering along.
Bonnie was in the lead on his magnificent paint mare and the grooms rode behind carrying his flag with the colors of Dundlod, Bonnie’s castle. Seven or eight minutes later we slowed down and began walking again. The horses were breathing a little harder, but they were far from panting and it was obvious that they were in terrific shape. A few months before Bonnie’s team had trounced the Indian cavalry’s endurance racing team.
After our first gallop the horses settled down and felt more at ease. So did we. The soil along the river was rich and water was available for irrigation so that the banks were lined with vegetable gardens. Here and there were little villages where the farmers lived and from time to time we saw the walls of old forts or temples perched on the sides of the mountains, a reminder of the very ancient history of Rajasthan. People had fought over this area long before Alexander the Great made his abortive attempt to add the Indian subcontinent to his string of hitherto brilliant victories. We alternated gallops, trots and walks all morning and well past midday which gave us the excitement of speed and the chance to relax and look about us as we walked. In the early afternoon we were back at the palace – exhilarated and hungry. A wonderful meal with a score of different dishes awaited us in the banquet hall and after lunch we looked around the town and relaxed in our new surroundings.
The next morning we were off on our 200 mile trip to the north which would take us eight days. We traveled on horseback much as people did through most of history until less than 100 years ago. On most nights we stayed in small, family owned palaces, but on two nights they were too far apart and we set up camp in the old Indian tradition with large tents for two people with comfortable beds. We would draw up our chairs around a blazing campfire clutching our drinks and were served delicious meals with amazing variety. One camping night was a special pleasure for me. It had been a 35 mile day where we galloped over open fields and crossed fence lines made of thorn bushes. We had left the cultivated fields behind and night was coming. There was nothing to be seen, but thorn trees and desolate looking countryside. No more farmers were in evidence. Bonnie was going by dead reckoning as though we were on the sea at night without radar. No one wanted to voice a doubt, but we all wondered how the night would end. The gallops grew faster and more frequent as the darkness fell. Then in the distance to our great relief we spotted a lantern high above the trees welcoming us to camp on what looked like a huge rock outcropping.
In fact Bonnie’s support crew had lit a lantern on the tower of an old fort at the base of which they had set up our camp. It was a welcome beacon glowing there in the night a mile away. We trotted up and happily turned over our horses to the waiting grooms. The blazing fire and the hot tea were a great comfort after a long, satisfying day. The walls of the fort towered up behind us looking enormous in the flickering light of the fire. The fortress had been built some 450 years before when Emperor Akbar had made a pilgrimage to visit a holy Moslem shrine. He and his retinue would stop for a few days rest in the journey at various places and this one was built for his temporary use as he passed through. It gave us some idea of the tremendous power this empire must have had. As we pulled our chairs up a bit closer around the fire and moved on to cocktails and dinner our feeling of camaraderie reached a rare level of shared enjoyment. The day of exciting riding had been most perfect and the atmosphere of our camp was full of romance. We could feel the ghosts of Akbar’s army all around us.
The next morning we were off early after a hearty breakfast around the campfire to ride the 20 miles to the lovely fortress/palace of Roopangarh. As on other days we passed through colorful villages with their water buffalo, cows, camels and horses. The people, fascinated by our horses, shouted friendly greetings on all sides. Sometimes we were riding on sandy tracks where we met the occasional camel cart and at other times we struck out across field and forest. Often we saw the wild blue bull or nilgai, largest of the Indian antelope. Here and there in the distance were old forts or temples on the sides of rocky hills which rose abruptly from the plain.
After another elaborate picnic lunch and short siesta we mounted again and by the middle of the afternoon we sighted the walls of Roopangarh on a little hill above the surrounding countryside and the village. We rode through the narrow village streets and passed the elaborate complex of walls and fortifications which protected the palace from marauders. We climbed the long stone staircase from the courtyard and were warmly greeted by the owners who showed us to our sumptuous rooms. Each was an artistic masterpiece with murals on the walls and ceilings and fascinating furnishings. We had our cocktails and hors d’oeuvres on the flat roof and looked out over the village and countryside as the sun set.
The next morning we were off on the final 25 mile leg of our ride. It was a glorious day for riding with the temperature in the 60s and the horses still very ready to go. My only regret was that this was the last day of what had been a truly wonderful experience for me. I did not know what a fabulous finale awaited us for though I had heard praises of the fortress of Kuchaman, I had not visited it and hardly thought it could surpass what I had already seen. I have long been convinced that for size, romance and architectural beauty, India far surpassed anything in Europe. Now the magnificence of Kuchaman far excelled anything I had seen and left me literally dazzled. Our first view of the place was from many miles away on top of sheer cliffs which must rise 1,000 ft. or more above the surrounding plain. The town below is quite large and we rode nearly a mile through the busy streets to the first gates at the base of the mountain. Here we loaded into jeeps to ascend the steep road which wound sharply back and forth to the top of the mountain where this impregnable fortress was perched.
The spot has been fortified for the last 1,500 years at least and its long history is full of stories of heroism, treachery, love, intrigue, tragedy and joy. The extraordinary complex at the top with its men’s and women’s indoor swimming pools, water reservoirs, ancient cannon and maze of fascinating rooms far surpassed anything I have seen before. The banquet halls, meeting rooms, women’s quarters with lascivious murals and beautifully decorated apartments were exquisite. The view on all sides is spectacular. It brought alive for me those glimpses of this enchanting culture which I had gained by reading the Arabian Nights which had so fired my imagination as a child.
I will always look back with great pleasure on the excitement and enjoyment of this ride. I will remember the gallant horses which carried us so well, the warmth and hospitality of our hosts and the splendid interaction of our group. It has opened another window for me on the beauty and richness of life.
Ride Review written by Bayard Fox