Amar Grover strays off the well-worn route in India's most visited state to discover an earthier side to the country.
Folk stories and lore remain embedded in Rajasthan's landscape
Up there on that rock," said one of the waiters brightly, "there's been a leopard sunning itself the last two mornings. When it warms up, he goes." I gazed up at a large and now bare boulder atop the ridge. Normally shy and elusive, this leopard had, it seemed, been shunted our way by the proximity of a pair of tigers from nearby Sariska National Park. They all like their space, and mine and his had now drawn even closer.
Ironically, my space was the erstwhile Maharajah of Alwar's one-time hunting ground, a walled garden bounded by a small stream and enclosed by a pair of long forested hills. It is now called Amanbagh, one of Aman Resorts' two properties in the Indian state of Rajasthan. That leopard's-eye view would reveal a neo-Rajput style palace of salmon-pink sandstone, extensive gardens with palm trees, and a magnificent swimming pool framed by an arcaded pavilion.
A line of so-called "pool pavilion" cottages are complemented by dainty two-storey havelis, or traditional mansions. By any reasonable measure, it is among the state's most impressive - and expensive - properties. Of equal interest to me was that it lies in one of the least-visited parts of Rajasthan. It may be India's most-visited state in terms of western tourists, but in practice this means most visitors stick to a well-worn route comprising a handful of cities and sights.
What about offbeat Rajasthan, the low-key, relatively untouched places where local life beats to a gentler, more rural pulse?
Ten to 15 years ago, perhaps, only the hardy ventured here to a clutch of hidden gems. Poor roads and deficient infrastructure saw off all but the determined. Today, boutique hotels have emerged in, on the face of it, some of the most unlikely regions. They help provide a window into an earthier, often eerily beautiful, version of a timeless India and its simple yet hardy villagers.
Around Amanbagh, at least, the roads are still surprisingly bad. Manager Tim Weiland confesses that some guests arrive disheartened by the final stage of the drive from Alwar or Jaipur. "Once they're here and settled in," - he really means pampered - "well, within a day, they 'get it'. Strangely enough, Indian guests seem to find the roads worse than our foreign ones …"
I set off early one morning with my guide, Sarwan, to explore Amanbagh's hinterland. On one side stands a low bund built by Maharajah Jai Singh in around 1931. Behind lies a shallow yet expansive lake; typically dry by January, it then hosts crops of okra and wheat farmed by villagers who still own parcels of the lake-bed. We strolled on to Birkadi hamlet past spindly machans, or lookouts, used by locals to guard fields from foraging boars and antelopes.
Elderly men lounging on string beds sipped chai, played with their grandchildren and smoked a hookah, the coarse tobacco softened with jaggery, a kind of palm sugar. At one end of nearby Ajabgarh village there is an odd stretch of old abandoned houses lining the main street. "They say they're haunted - black magic," explained Sarwan, "so no one will live there." Yet there was no buffer between them and the rest of the village; it was as though a line had been drawn across the road. Five minutes' walk beyond stands a shrine to a medieval Muslim saint, his aura still believed to counter disease and bad luck for both Muslim and Hindu villagers.
On the hillside above looms the small yet prominent fortress of Ajabgarh, its round muscular bastions gleaming in the dazzling morning light. I walked on through a nearby cleft in the ridge, following a tiny stream with shepherds and their goats to Somsagar Lake. Built by a local chieftain as a cool and pleasant camping spot for the Mughal emperor Akbar and his troops when they passed through in the late 1500s, this unexpectedly large lake lay cradled amidst more lush hills. Today it makes for a tranquil, kingfisher-filled walk. I was readily warming to this obscure yet picturesque corner of Rajasthan, where folksy stories and curious lore remained embedded in the landscape and the masonry of its part-ruined buildings.
One essential excursion from Amanbagh is to the nearby long-abandoned "ghost town" of Bhangarh. It has the reputation of being the most haunted place in India though the much-celebrated Archaeological Survey of India sign strictly forbidding visitors between sunset and sunrise seems to have disappeared.
Once lined with medieval-looking shops and homes, the 17th-century town's main cobbled street coaxes one straight into its heart. A once-imposing three-storey palace complex is sited at the foot of rugged hills beside the mouth of a gorge and you can still climb stairs to its roof for fine views of the site. A watchtower tops a nearby bluff and if you scramble up here, the vista is unparalleled. The gorge's stream emerges by a pretty palm grove and feeds a water tank still used by locals for bathing. Irrepressible monkeys cavort wildly amid ancient temples and there's a fair chance you'll have most of this wonderfully atmospheric place to yourself.
Later that day I ventured farther afield with another guide, Sitaram. During our drive to Neelkanth, a temple-strewn plateau right on the edge of Sariska, a couple of huge monitor lizards crossed the road. Sitaram mentioned how Shivaji, a famous medieval Hindu warrior, had used them when fighting the Mughals. By tying rope to their tails and hurling them over battlements, they could effectively be used as grappling hooks to help seize strongholds and win battles.
Just near Mansarovar Lake, the track climbed stiffly to the plateau and passed through an imposing archway. It might seem inconsequential but the modest Shiva temple here is among the most sacred in India. Almost destroyed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Sitaram explained how at the last minute the shrine was saved by a swarm of bees that attacked and saw off his rampaging troops.
As we drove down past the lake, I noticed another small dark fortress atop a nearby hill. Drawing closer I suggested we visit. Twenty minutes later we were on the faintest of trails nearing the outer walls of Tehla Fort.
I hadn't set off to get inside but show me an old abandoned Indian fort of some long-gone chieftain and a strange compulsion takes hold - even though up close, there was no obvious entrance. Typical, I thought, there's never a monitor lizard around when you need one.
Yet we did eventually scramble through a breach in the walls and, like children, gleefully explored its crumbling courtyards and pavilions. From its terraces there are lovely views of old Tehla, the hills and distant lakes. Rajasthan, I realised, is dotted with charming, half-forgotten remains of its feudal past, and for these few days I had almost made them mine.
If you go
The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Delhi cost from Dh1,340, including taxes.
The trip A 14-day trip with Cox & Kings (www.coxand-kings.ae) via Delhi, with stops in Amanbagh, Shekhawati, Bundi, Bhainsrorgarh, Chhatra Sagar, Mihir Garh and Kumbalgarh, costs from Dh13,625 per person, including accommodation, some meals, sightseeing and private transport.