Rajasthan Revisited / Telegraph Magazine

February 2016



Lord Mayo, a 19th century viceroy of India, still gazes towards the ruined fort on Taragarh mountain. Behind his statue, a crown still tops the clock tower of the magnificent main building of the school that bears his name – all arches, domes and ornate balustrades built of unpolished white marble. Mayo College, the 'Eton of India', still flourishes 140 years after he founded it in Ajmer to educate Rajasthan's young princes and produce “hearty supporters of British authority and power”.

Rudyard Kipling's father designed Mayo's coat of arms, and its first student, Maharaja Mangal Singh of Alwar, arrived on an elephant with 200 retainers and assorted horses, camels and tigers.


My own arrival in 1978 was less grand. I came in the second-class compartment of an overnight train from Delhi. I had just graduated, and my father's first cousin, Jack Gibson, had suggested I teach English for a year at the school from which he had recently retired as the ninth and last British principal.


I was young, carefree and had a terrific time. I caught the dying embers of empire – Jack, who had come out to India to teach just before World War Two, was the last Englishman still living in Rajasthan, and older Indians still remembered the Raj, most quite fondly. The age of mass tourism had yet to begin, which meant sharing the delights of Rajasthan with few other foreigners except the occasional trail-blazing backpacker or hippie.


There was no television. Air-mail letters were the only means of communication with the outside world. I rode around on an old bicycle, once emerging from a lesson to find a cobra coiled around its wheel. I learned some essential Hindi phrases – 'chup raho' (shut up), 'bahut mirchi' (too much chili) and 'ubla pani lao – joldhi, joldhi' (bring boiled water – quickly, quickly). I played endless sport, and still possess a faded cutting from the Times of India headlined 'Borg Wins in Monte Carlo, Connors Wins in New York, Fletcher and Ellis win in Ajmer'.


At weekends I visited my students' crumbling, bat-infested forts. Ancient family retainers served our meals, and we slept on the battlements as the scent of cow dung fires rose from the medieval villages below. Rajasthan's nobles were struggling in those days. Indira Gandhi had abolished their titles, privileges and privy purses seven years earlier. Most could no longer afford to maintain their palaces, and would happily have sold them for £2,000.


In the 38 years since then India has changed spectacularly. Its population has doubled to 1.3 billion. Its economy – socialist and totally protectionist in 1978 – has taken off. Last month (Jan) I returned to see whether the romantic India of my memory had survived, but my first day in Delhi was a shock.


The capital was covered in a pall of smog. It was clogged by every conceivable sort of wheeled transport except the once-ubiquitous bicycle, which appeared to have been forced from the roads. From my eighth-floor room in the grand Lodhi hotel I was supposed to have a view of Humayun's tomb, half a mile away, but it was scarcely visible. The air smelt acrid. The pollution made my eyes smart. Brown dust coated everything - trees, lawns, the Red Fort – muting their colours.


I visited the once-wonderful Chandni Chowk market in Old Delhi and found it hawking Chinese tat. Connaught Place, New Delhi's shopping hub, was little better. It was full of western designer stores, with one charming exception. The colonial-era New Delhi Stationary Mart had somehow survived, and was still selling fountain pens.


Before dawn the next day I gratefully boarded an express train to Jaipur – travelling first class this time because travel writing and age have their advantages. An hour passed before we left Delhi behind, two before the haze lifted. But Jaipur was little better.


I remembered the 'Pink City' as a small town. Today it is a teeming metropolis of six million with a metro and international airport, flyovers and shopping malls. I found the exquisite 18th century Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds from which purdah-ed royal women once watched public events from behind latticed stone windows, packed not just with foreign tourists but with a new phenomenon – swarms of visitors drawn from India's rapidly expanding middle classes.


I gave the Amer Fort a miss after learning that it had attracted 15,000 visitors in a single day at New Year, preferring the tranquility of the Rajasthan polo club. I was in luck. Padmanabh Singh, the 17-year-old Maharaja of Jaipur and an ex-Mayo boy now studying at Millfield, was playing even though his father had injured himself two days earlier and his grandfather died on a polo field in Cirencester in 1970. He wore the number 1, naturally, and scored a goal, but the Jaipur Warriors still lost to a team of army officers. He rather regally avoided the trophy presentation afterwards.


That night I learned how many of Rajasthan's nobles survived the crisis of the 1970s. I stayed in Samode Haveli, once the stately city residence of the Rawats of Samode – a princely state north of Jaipur. It is now a luxurious hotel filled with relics of past glories. Raghvendra Singh, the present Rawat and another old Mayo-ite, recalled how he and his brother sold the family jewels in the 1980s to convert their 17thcentury palace into a hotel. It was a gamble, but Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was an early guest, M.M.Kaye's Far Pavilions was filmed there and the brothers now have four flourishing hotels. Thus Rajasthan's former rulers have become a class of hoteliers. “Tourism has been kind to everyone,” Raghvendra said.


A six-lane highway lined by billboards took me to Ajmer. There I greeted old friends and toured Mayo's green and shady 187-acre campus - an oasis of calm amid the bedlam of modern India. Peacocks strut among the splurges of bougainvillea and elegant boarding houses built by each princely state. But Mayo has also changed dramatically. It has built a girl's school, golf course, shooting range, open air theatre, polo field and stables for 58 thoroughbred horses. Happily it now employs a professional French teacher. I taught French as well as English until the French ambassador visited and my pathetic command of his language was humiliatingly exposed.


What moved me, however, was the school's continuing reverence for Jack 22 years after his death. A quintessential Englishman from Norfolk, he not only turned Mayo into one of India's leading public schools, but pioneered skiing and mountaineering in the Himalayas. He won both an OBE and a Padma Shri, one of India's highest civilian honours. In his old age India's army, navy and air force chief – all former pupils – flew down from Delhi in separate helicopters one day to visit him.


Mayo has named buildings and prizes after 'Gibby'. Its museum exhibits his wooden skis, primitive climbing equipment, fencing medals from Haileybury and Cambridge, suit, stamp collection, gramophone, pipes, tobacco and much else besides. A framed photo shows him high in the snowy Himalayas with Tenzing Norgay, who later helped Edmund Hillary conquer Everest. A letter records his wish to be cremated, “but not using precious wood”. Over lunch on his lawn Lieutenant General Surendra Kulkani, Mayo's present principal, said his mission was “to restore Jack Gibson's ethos”.


Jack – a bachelor – retired to a restored farmhouse on the edge of Ajmer where he played quoits in the courtyard each evening and grew sweet peas and roses in his English garden. I would go there on Sunday mornings for 'unda rumble-tumble' (scrambled eggs) cooked by his faithful servant Tanzuk, who had learned to say words like “ghastly” in an upper-crust English accent. From his terrace Jack enjoyed a bucolic view across small, hand-tilled fields to the ancient Aravalli hills, but today it is all built on. He would have been outraged.


One memorable excursion I made from Mayo in 1978 was to Pushkar, a village eight miles away where Hindu pilgrims bathed in a lake created by Lord Brahma and a huge camel fair was held in the surrounding desert each November. I slept amid the camels - one of a mere handful of foreigners amid hordes of pilgrims and turbaned peasants with fantastic cracked leather faces.


I made the mistake of returning. The pilgrims are now swamped by tourists. The lovely ghats and temples surrounding the lake are ringed by tacky hotels, tatty souvenir stalls and Chinese or Italian restaurants “recommended in all the tourist bibles”. Tour operators offer 'glamping' during the camel fair. Thus tourism destroys the wonders that it feeds off.


And so to Jodhpur. In 1956 Jack wrote how a four-year-old boy had inherited India's last great palace – the 347-room Umaid Bhawan which was built as a famine relief measure before World War Two. It was, he said, “a white - or rather pink for it is of the local red sandstone - elephant”.


That boy was Gaj Singh, the present Maharaja of Jodhpur and a Mayo governor, whose father died in a plane crash in 1952. After returning from Eton and Oxford in 1970 he lived alone with his mother in that vast hilltop edifice. Today he has a private apartment there, but the rest is a sumptuous hotel where – somewhat to my embarrassment - I found myself staying.


No viceroy or colonial master was ever so pampered. A bugler and drummer greeted me. Servants bowed and scraped as I processed through the rotundas, halls and courtyards. I emerged from the pool to find my clothes all folded. I returned to my room to find my laptop cable neatly coiled and strapped, a proper bookmark instead of the scrap of newspaper I had been using, and a rich chocolate gateau. I also found an invitation to the Maharaja's 68th birthday celebrations the next day – an especially auspicious event this year because his first grandson was born in November.


Nobody would have guessed that the Maharaja was officially dethroned 45 years ago. Johdpuris rushed to greet the man they still call 'Bapji' ('father') as he drove through the city in his silver Mercedes that morning, uniformed guards clearing his way. Later several hundred male relatives, lesser Rajput princes and other dignitaries – all dressed in their finest safas, sherwanis and jodhpuri coats – paid homage to him in a large marquee on the Umaid Bhawan's expansive lawns, each offering a monetary token and touching his feet before enjoying a splendid lunch. That night Bapji hosted a dinner for 200 which featured singers and a birthday cake floating on a sea of dry ice. The women held separate celebrations.


These were private events, not staged for tourists. “We all love him. He's like a God,” one minor prince said as he explained how the Maharaja had used his immense stature to help the people of Jodhpur. The next morning 'Bapji', a soft-spoken and self-effacing man, stroked a Jack Russell as we chatted in his stately apartment. His ancestors had ruled the state of Marwar for 800 years, he said. A sense of responsibility had been hammered into him since childhood. “You inherit a residue of good will, but you can't fritter it away.”


I briefly visited Jodhpur's mighty 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort, which now attracts a million visitors a year – 800,000 of them Indian. Then fled deep into rural Rajasthan, which is still a visual feast. Fields of vivid green wheat set off the arid brown hills. Colourful flags fly over small, whitewashed temples. Young boys tend herds of goats. Women walk elegantly along dusty tracks, balancing bundles of forage or firewood on their heads. Men pass on motorbikes bearing preposterous loads of tin pots and pans.


Late one afternoon I forsook Rakesh, my driver, and took a train up into the hills on a British-built line that still had manually-operated points. It went so slowly that monkeys ran alongside, hoping for food. I was – inevitably - befriended by a large family going to a wedding and painting their hands with henna. I sat in the open doorway of the ancient carriage as the setting sun cast a golden glow over the pastoral scenery, marvelling at its timeless serenity, and for a while convinced myself that nothing had changed.


But it has. Mechanised agriculture has sucked life from the fields. Villagers no longer use cow dung for fuel, or lay grain on the road to get rid of the chaff. Bullocks no longer haul water from wells in leaky leather bags.  The camel carts have gone. Only the old men (and tourists) still wear baggy cotton dhotis and lungis – the rest have adopted western dress. The women have swapped their traditional bright red, yellow and orange saris for more muted colours. The villages have electricity, television, mobile phone, internet access, even ATMs. Kunds – those magnificent deep stone tanks shaped like inverted pyramids with steps leading down to the water – have been replaced by modern tube wells. Roadside stalls now sell 'chai' in paper cups, not clay pots.


The most startling transformation has been that of the crumbling forts I used to visit into 'heritage hotels'. I feared they had become Disneyfied, sanitised cocoons where wealthy westerners can avoid the challenges of India, but I was wrong. My old student, Mahipal Singh, has turned his half-ruined hilltop palace in Sardargarh into a delightful place to stay, and where once we bounced across the night-time desert in his jeep, searching for hares to shoot in the headlights, he now takes his guests out to spot leopards, panthers and wild boar.


Hotels like his have revitalised the villages – creating scores of jobs, providing customers for their handicrafts, employing musicians, artists and masons whose skills might otherwise wither. “The economic benefits are huge,” said Shatrunjai Singh, who recently opened a stylish new hotel called Dev Shree in his ancestral village, Deogarh.


The social liberalisation of a deeply conservative state has been dramatic too. In 1978 I was having lunch in a courtyard with Shatrunjai's father, Nahar Singh, the late Rawat of Deogarh who also taught at Mayo, when three young sisters in traditional Rajasthani dress came to ask his blessing: they were child brides. Nahar's widow, Prabha, told me how, after marrying and moving to Deogarh from Uttar Pradesh, she had to live in purdah until 1966. She could not drive herself through the village till 1995. The last case of suti – a widow immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre – in Rajasthan was as recent as 1987.


Any lingering regrets I had about the conversion of Rajasthan's forts into hotels were dispelled when I visited another old haunt – Badnore. I used to go there with my friend Raghuraj Singh, the Thakur of Badnore and a fellow Mayo teacher. His father had sold the family's imposing 16th century fort to the government in 1961, and Raghu had moved into a nearby summer house overlooking a lake, but villagers still brought him rabbits and chickens as a sign of respect.


Today the fort is a ruin. The government briefly used it as a teacher training college then abandoned it. The huge wooden entrance gates are disintegrating. The courtyards are disappearing beneath trees and bushes. Floors and ceilings have collapsed. The durbar halls with their fading murals are strewn with rubble. Hornet nests hang from eaves, and the walls are covered in graffiti. “I feel very sad,” said Raghu, now 82, who grew up in the fort and remembers when its stables were full of horses and elephants. “I don't think I will visit it again.”


I am writing all this in Udaipur's celebrated Lake Palace – a hotel of such extravagant opulence that I had a choice of nine different sorts of pillow. It is an apt place to end my journey, for I can see the great white flanks of the City Palace across the water, resplendent in the winter sun. I once dined there with the Maharani, an Englishwoman who I described in my diary as “remarkable, intelligent, young and beautiful”.


Her name was Annabella Parker, a Colonel's daughter from Gloucestershire. She was travelling round India in the early 1960s, reached Mayo on Founders' Day and asked Jack how she could get to Udaipur. 'He'll take you,' he said, pointing to the Maharana, India's pre-eminent noble thanks to his 1,500-year-old dynasty's illustrious history of resistance to both the Mughals and the British. The next thing Jack knew Annabella had become the Maharana's second wife - to the intense chagrin of the first, a princess from Bikaner by whom Bhagwat Singh had already had three children.


Annabella did her best to blend in, though she had skin as white as alabaster. She kept a low profile. She learned Hindi and Indian dance, wore a sari and always kept her head covered - even when sailing on the lake. She championed animal welfare, and I remember her earnestly discussing it while sitting in a chamber full of leopard skins and stuffed tigers.


But although Annabella had the title 'Her Highness' she was never accepted by the Maharana's Indian family, other Rajput nobles or the people of Udaipur. When her husband died in 1984 Annabella his family cast her out, though it is said that she had returned the jewelry he had given her. Back in England, she eventually remarried but died several years ago.


None of this I could have learned in Udaipur. I found no trace of the 'English Maharani' in the City Museum, no pictures hanging on royal walls, no mention in the family tree. Younger Udaipuris had never heard of her. The older ones declined to talk for fear of offending the first wife's sons, who have been locked in an ugly 30-year battle over their father's property and title. “Annabella,” one source said, “has been written out of history”.


My own love affair with Rajasthan persists, but less intensely. Like India, the state has made huge advances. Standards of living have improved greatly, as have the roads, restaurants, shops and hotels. The streets are cleaner, beggars fewer, lepers gone. The people remain delightfully welcoming and eager to please. But with progress has come homogenisation. The primary colours have dulled. The scope for adventure has shrivelled. The romance and magic of that youthful year cannot be recaptured. As the poet A.E. Houseman once wrote of nostalgia: “That is the land of lost content/ I see it shining plain/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again”.