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Desert extravaganza
WAYFARER

There have always been good reasons to visit Jodhpur — the spectacular Mehrangarh Fort, the desert, and the Walled City. But in October there is another: the Jodhpur RIFF or Rajasthan International Folk Festival celebrating Indian and international folk music.

This annual festival is timed to coincide with the brightest full moon of the year in north India. The combination of a full moon and the venue of Mehrangarh Fort, voted Asia’s Best Fortress by Time magazine and called ‘the work of giants’ by Rudyard Kipling, cannot be beaten for beauty and atmosphere.

For five glorious days from October 21-25, 150 musicians and performing artists will bring the fort alive, the sound of their music wafting down the cliff to the city sprawled out below. You need to book rooms fast, though, because the city’s hotels are filling up.

Fortunately, as I saw during my visit in September, there are some fabulous new additions such as Raas, located inside the Walled City and Mihirgarh, an Arabian Nights-style fantasy fortress a short drive away in the ‘desert’. I use apostrophe marks because, thanks to this year’s bounteous monsoon, the land has turned from usual dry scrub into a lush green.

Like a doctor delicately inserting a stent, one of Jodhpur’s gilded youths, the former polo player Nikhilendra Singh, has tucked Raas, a luxurious boutique hotel, into a crevice of the Walled City. Singh bought a 150-year-old haveli lying in ruins at the foot of Mehrangarh Fort, restored it and added rooms, restaurants and a pool using local materials that mesh perfectly with the original structures. It’s a striking juxtaposition of international chic with antiquity.

From the entrance, you approach a narrow, high walled passage that reminded me of the long narrow gorge at Petra that opens out into the famous Treasury.

At Raas, the passage opens out onto a Mughal garden and there, right in front of you, is the fort standing on its rocky escarpment. The balcony of every room has this spectacular view and it’s a view that made my heart dance with delight.

Right outside the hotel is the Walled City which hums with life. In a five minute stroll around the sprawling bazaar under the famous Clock Tower, I saw a pile of bulbous clay pots that artist Subodh Gupta would be proud of, a bangle maker using hot coals and tools dating back five generations, an ‘Elephant Man’ striding along challenging anyone to stare at him, and a man selling antique locks whose side business — his roadside stall displays two hand-painted smiles — is dentures.

The fort is the greatest of India’s desert forts and is probably one of the best-maintained monuments in India. The Museum has a gift shop and a café and there is plenty to see inside — gilt palanquins and bejewelled daggers. Avoid a guide and take the excellent audio tour. The Museum not only displays elephant howdahs, weapons, costumes and rare textiles but also some of the world’s finest miniature paintings. Children will love the armouries and dungeons.

The view of the city from the fort is sublime. Jodhpur’s name, the Blue City, comes from the blue houses of Brahmins that shimmer in the sunshine following a monsoon shower. Standing high above the city, I could see children on the rooftops flying kites. From the mosques came the haunting sound of the azan.

In the horizon stands Umaid Bhawan, an art deco palace of red sandstone that can rival the greatest of European cathedrals in its lofty grandeur. Staying here is only for the super-rich but if you can afford a meal in the restaurant Pillars, it’s worth it for the views of the immense gardens.

The other great appeal of Jodhpur is that, after a mere 10-minute drive, you can be out in the countryside having tea with members of the Bishnoi tribe.

Known as ‘the world’s first environmentalists’ owing to their love of wild animals and protection of the environment, the Bishnois are now famous. Any number of travel agents will be able to organise tours to Bishnoi villages where you can ride on camels and see black buck antelopes.

The antelopes (now a protected species) trust the Bishnois so much that they stay close to their villages knowing they will come to no harm. Arjun Ram Bishnoi and his splendidly bejewelled wife Devi, showed me a black buck antelope grazing near their hut.

As we chatted later, drinking masala tea, the laconic Arjun stroked the goat which lives inside his hut with his family and remarked: “Some animals give you more love than your own children.”

Drive another 30 minutes from the Bishnoi villages and the desert proper begins and this is a magical experience. The sense of a raw, rugged, dusty vastness is thrilling. The Rohet Garh Wilderness Camp is run by Sidharth Singh who owns Rohet Garh, the palace where the late writer Bruce Chatwin spent six months writing The Songlines in1985 before this feudal estate was turned into a hotel.

Madonna and Guy Ritchie were more recent visitors. Singh, an accomplished horseman, was impressed with Madonna’s stamina; she rode 30km a day on the Marwari desert breed of horse, which Singh is working to protect against extinction. The Wilderness Camp is six tents on a sand dune in the Thar Desert. At night, there is nothing but silence, moonlight, infinity, stars and a soft breeze.

Singh and his wife Rashmi have just opened another resort, a fortress made of mud on a high sand dune at the desert’s edge from where, as far as the eye can see, there is no human or animal life, just a vast open plain stretching into the horizon.

Mihirgarh, or Sun Fortress, boasts all the accoutrements one expects of a luxury establishment but also celebrates the crafts of Jodhpur. Virtually every single object in the nine palatial suites has been hand-made by Jodhpur artisans. It is part rustic Rajasthan with its divans and cushioned niches carved into the mud walls in the rooms, courtyards, terraces and balconies, and part ultra-cool contemporary chic.

Reclining by the pool on the terrace, I watched the sun set over the wilderness. All was tranquility and stillness. It felt like a dreamscape. Then, as an attendant appeared to replenish my Darjeeling and Madeleine, I realised it was real. What a relief.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: From Calcutta you can fly to Jodhpur via Delhi. The nearest railhead is the Jodhpur Railway Station. Jodhpur is about 589km by road from Delhi.

Staying there: Accommodation is available to suit all budgets. Expect to shell out Rs 15,500 per night for a double room at Raas. Mail to reservations @raasjodhpur.com.

Photographs by author

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