Cows, chocolate, Maharaja madness and lounging about.

I made an early start next morning for Jodhpur, where the riding trousers come from (yes, really). Pappu turned up looking pretty rough. Under cross-questioning, it turned out that he had slept the last two nights in the car. The price of a bed in Pushkar was 500 rupees and the most he ever paid, ‘maximum maximum’ was 150. ‘But company no pay?’ I asked. ‘Company no good company. No pay. Salary only.’ And probably a small one at that. Whatever the rights and wrongs of employment policy in India, the question I had to ask myself was, ‘did I wish to face the extreme dangers of the open road, piloted by someone who was up all night and probably living on roti and crushed insects?’ It did not take me long to conclude that I did not. A few quid in food and lodging that might keep both of us alive, seemed like a sensible investment. From then on, I made regular enquiries about his dietary and dormitory conditions. ‘Sleep well, Pappu? Good breakfast?’ and he’d reply with ‘Good sleeping, good breakfast, sir.’ This was to become our morning ritual.

Mountain country – Snake Mountain to be precise – separated Pushkar from Ajmer, and the drive between the two, looking down onto the flat, arid land below, was delightful. Then we came to Ajmer where the bilious smoke of auto-rickshaws encased us in a grey balloon of noxiousness. There is only so long anyone can go without inhaling, and Ajmer was too big to do in one. Breathing in, in India’s larger cities, is not one of the world’s great pleasures. Not that it bothered the cows. They were there, as always, grazing happily on the heaps of litter by the roadside. One was staring intently at a poster for the Rose Roof Top Restaurant. Whether it intended to eat it, or book a table, wasn’t immediately obvious, but it certainly was concentrating. You know when a cow is concentrating, because it has its nose on the object under contemplation and its eyes have crossed.

You would have thought that cattle would gravitate towards greener pastures. They’d be chewing absent-mindedly on whatever garbage was to hand when, by chance, they’d find themselves on the edge of town. There they would discover grass. ‘I say, what’s this green stuff?’ they’d wonder, ‘do you suppose it’s edible? Hmn, not bad. Hey there’s more of it over there,’ and by such means our Indian Daisy and her friends would make their way out of the smoke and into the fresh air and country living. But it doesn’t happen. Perhaps nine out of ten bovines prefer cardboard. Or perhaps they have unseen owners, lurking in doorways, who have negotiated cheap grazing rights with the local refuse department.

Sometime after Ajmer, we stopped for breakfast. Pappu never ate with me. He would go round the back, while I bought something with a bottle top on and watched carefully while it was removed. If it came off without a hiss, or too easily, Don’t Touch with Bargepole. Then I saw it, like an oasis in the desert. A torn sticker advertising Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Chocolate. British Chocolate. I hardly allowed myself to hope. ‘I don’t suppose you have any of that,’ I enquired, pointing at the poster. And do you know, they did. I bought two bars, inspected every square millimetre of the packaging, and decided that it probably was made by Cadbury (India) and probably had not been tampered with. I past it fit for pernickety western consumption, opened it with the awe and impatience of a 17 year old fumbling with his first bra-strap, and popped a square into my mouth. I then gulped down both bars and thought, ‘by gum, that wer good.’

With little traffic to bother us, we tooled along at a steady 60, past school kids in neat uniforms, smart Mahindra taxis, flat dry land and thorny trees, and found ourselves, at midday, in Jodhpur. Time enough to check in to a £20 a night hotel with antique furniture and a superb swimming pool, before jumping back into the Ambassador and driving out to see the Meherangarh Fort.

Pappu was making his way up a steep winding road, with the fort beetling above us, when an imposing building caught our attention. It turned out to be the far from modest memorial to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Jaswant Singh II, constructed at the end of the nineteenth century in the finest white marble. I poked my head inside, not really thinking that I would stay long, and found myself inspecting the family portraits on the walls. Now the engrossing and, dare I say, alarming thing about these was the extraordinary resemblance between the lot of them. I would go further and say that at least six of the former Maharajas were identical. Slightly different headgear, but the same face – small head, long straight nose, deep eyes, and long back sideburns. Maharja Man Singhi (1792-1803) and his forbears, Maharja Bheem Singhi, Maharja Vijai Singhi, Maharja Bagrat Singhi, Maharja Ram Singhi, and Maharja Abhey Singhi were as alike as peas in a pod. Closer than that. They looked like the same pea. This was the kind of thing you would expect to see were you to take a banjo and a few friends and go canoeing down the Kahoolawassi River in hillbilly country, but not in India where a man did not have to go to family weddings to find himself a wife. Indeed, in India, you could take as many wives as opportunity allowed. Yet, there on the walls were succeeding kings looking as much like one another as Dolly I and Dolly II.

I came out of the Jaswant Memorial vaguely wondering whether this was entirely healthy, and then I leant on a wall and looked across at the Umaid Bhawan Palace sitting atop a neighbouring hill. This really made me worry. Any Maharaja who could commission H.V.Lanchester, the architect responsible for Cardiff Town Hall, to build a palace in the style of, er, let me see, it’s on the tip of my tongue, oh yes … Cardiff Town Hall, must have been more than a little unhinged. Not only that, he started building his 347 room residence in 1929 and carried on chucking bucket-loads of money at it until 1944, a mere three years before Indian independence from Britain. You’d have thought he might have twigged that all this self-indulgence wouldn’t go down too well with an incoming government whose leading light was just about the most saintly man ever to strap on a pair of sandals – Gandhi.

Mind you, the Princes of India had a long history of lunatic extravagance. In the old days, they had been kings. They had fought each other, or the Moghuls, (or both), and, if they weren’t up to the job, were either defeated or deposed. That was fair enough. Dog eat dog. Then the British came along and, in 1858, declared that the Princes, all 600 hundred of them, with land covering 1/3 of the subcontinent, could keep what they had and carry on governing their states[i], provided only that they accepted Queen Victoria as the power in the land.

The British, in other words, preserved the Indian maharajas in aspic. If they kept Her Britannic Majesty’s local agent sweet, and didn’t support the nationalists, they could be just about as degenerate or as profligate as they liked. Most of them needed no second invitation. They splashed money around as if it was going out of style. Need a car? Have a Rolls Royce. Maharaja Bupinder Singh of Patiala had 27. The Maharaja of Bharatpur bought the entire stock of a Rolls showroom in London, shipped it back to India and used these ultimate British status symbols to cart municipal rubbish.[ii] The 1923/4 accounts of one of the Princely States in Rajasthan, with an annual revenue of 1.7m rupees, read as follows:

Education        284,000 rupees

Medical           196,000 rupees

Motor Garage 325,000 rupees

Allow me to translate. This particular Maharaja spent 65% more on his cars than on his people’s health. The appalling thing was, he wasn’t exceptional. One small state spent nearly three times more on the royal stables than on public health. Another spent over 20% of everything he extracted from his poor hardworking peasants (the source of all Princely revenues) on the royal palaces.[iii] In Manipur, they even had slaves. The ruler until 1886, Sur Chandra Kirti Singh, owned over 1,000 and liked, from time to time, to display his generosity by giving them away as presents. The British found him congenial.[iv]

The lavishness went on and on. When the Maharaja of Jaipur came to England, nothing less than the personal hire of a brand new P&O liner for six months would suffice.[v] One Indian Prince, in the 1920s, was said to have lost a million francs in a single evening on the gaming table of the International Sporting Club of Monte Carlo.[vi] But the story I like the best, the one which takes the biscuit, is of the Maharaja whose dog was due to be married. This gentleman saw fit to invite 250 friends and relations (canine variety) to the nuptials, deck them out in jewelled brocade and have them carried by elephant down to the railway station. There they assembled, tongues lolling, to wait for the groom to make his triumphant arrival.[vii] I just hope that Fido, on springing from the train, didn’t take a shine to one of the bridesmaids.

OK, not every Prince was appalling. The Maharaja of Baroda was a shining light. He made primary education free and compulsory, promoted the cause of the Untouchables and within half a century had developed Baroda ‘from a village society into a modern state.’[viii] But for every paragon, there were plenty on the dark side, like Jay Singh of Alwar. He took half of the state’s revenue for himself, (this was in the 1920s), taxed his peasants almost to the point of beggary, and (cop this) tied up old widows as tiger bait. So it was rumoured anyway.[ix] The upshot was that, soon after Independence in 1947, the Princes lost the right to govern their states and, by the 1970s, the Princely order itself had been abolished.[x] Not too much of a surprise, that, and not before time. Gandhi’s opinion was that, allowing the Princes to continue in power was ‘perhaps the greatest blot on British rule in India.’[xi]

Now readers (with long memories) may recall that your guide, before being distracted, was on his roundabout way to the Meherangarh Fort. Pappu dropped me off below it, and I climbed up, along stone streets and through triumphal gates. The Lonely Planet Guide describes the Meherangarh as ‘the most formidable fort in fort-studded Rajasthan’, and I wouldn’t argue, not with its walls looming above me like Quasimodo’s shadow.

I couldn’t help noticing that there was hardly a soul about. It was eerily quiet. This comes as such a surprise in Indian cities that you start to wonder what they know that you don’t. Has Pakistan invaded? Has the district been ravaged by Dengue fever? It was very curious and a little unsettling. A sign pointed to a lift going up to the battlements, but of course I spurned this with a supercilious sideways glance over a pursed lip. Lifts? Moi? Instead, I undertook the breathtakingly vertical ascent on shanks pony.

I stood on the ramparts, gasping, and decided that I didn’t envy the soldier who had to scale these fortifications, not with rocks and boiling oil coming down at him from above. Actually, as I peered over, I realised that the walls were so high that any boiling oil would probably be no more than tepid by the time it reached its target. Still, I thought to myself after further reflection, that could work. The soldier would look up, the by now merely warm lubricant would coat him from head to foot, and he’d slip off his ladder. As he tumbled to his doom, he would be shaking his fist, and words like ‘you dastardly fiend’ would be coming out of his mouth in a cartoon bubble.

The sheer drop from the ramparts – were you to fall down and keep bouncing – would take you back to Jodhpur, the blue city, below. Why blue, I hear you ask? Was it the result of centuries of melancholia? No. Was it because they ran out of green? Mmm, no. Actually, no-one is quite sure. Some say it’s because blue helps to keep things cool, others that it repels mosquitoes. Alternatively, could it just have been that the burghers were partial to the colour?  One fellow splashed on a couple of coats and his neighbours followed suit? Then some bright spark on the city council realised he could make a killing by buying a million gallons at the bulk rate, and selling it on, retail. From where I was standing, looking down on a panorama of blue houses, I can tell you this: it was soothing. A bit samey perhaps, but definitely restful.

Inside the fort were palatial apartments and state rooms, as well as a permanent exhibition with good ideas on the sort of things you can do when you can afford to drop a million francs in an evening. On display were royal elephant howdahs, palanquins, and awnings the size of a cricket pitch (that were carried out for picnics so that half the palace could dine in the shade). There was also a selection of  impressive weaponry. The best, by far, was a dagger with a small pistol attached. This looked seriously useful. Your enemy comes at you with a dagger. You draw yours. You indulge him with an introductory warm-up thrust and counter-thrust, and then you shoot him between the eyes.

After I left the fort,  Pappu drove me down to the centre of the old town. Something about Jodhpur was different and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then it came to me. No begging. Nobody was clinging to my arm looking desperate. I wasn’t being mobbed. Jodhpur, as far as I could tell, was beggar-free. The point was rammed home when a man in a smart car stopped and tried to sell me a painting. I thought this spoke volumes. Jodhpur was clearly the kind of town where a man rolls down his window and says, ‘Pssst, want to buy an eighteenth century, hand-painted, silk miniature?’ It wouldn’t happen in Varanasi. It wouldn’t happen in many places that I could think of. It did rather suggest that the folks round here had a little something stashed away.[xii]

But the thing that made Jodphur truly special was that the Old Market seemed to have one or two shops. I don’t mean kiosks with corrugated iron roofs, or market stalls, but the occasional establishment that westerners would designate as ‘fit-for-shopping’, the sort of construction that might survive a huff and a puff from the big bad wolf.

I paused outside a shoe-shop. It had a lighted front window, behind which footwear of various types was enticingly on display. Inside were seats where you could sit and try on the merchandise. A genuine, 100%, shoe shop in fact, the sort of establishment I hadn’t seen since driving through the smartest part of New Delhi. This was all very comforting, like eating a bowl of apple crumble and custard. Those little familiar things, that for western man stand for civilisation, were not as far away as I had thought.

The pool at the hotel was too good to miss so I spent the whole of the next day indolently lounging by it, reading and indulging myself with selected morsels from the hotel dining room. A lugubrious but not unpleasant dirge, emerging from the bowstring of a splendidly attired native musician, wafted across from the hotel garden. The fellow’s repertoire consisted of half a dozen subtly different tunes and, while he may have paused occasionally to refresh himself, he did not leave us for long. Songs entitled, ‘a lovesick herdsman sings to his favourite camel’, and, ‘it may only be a cardboard box, but to me its lunch’, hung on the poolside air. Serenade followed serenade. The warm sunshine of the afternoon gave way to evening. Soon it was time to nod appreciatively, undertake the nocturnal activity of foraging for uncontaminated nourishment, and retire.

I had given Pappu the day off with strict instructions to spend it sleeping and eating. I expected him to appear next morning, sleek, well-oiled and bristling with good health.

… to be continued.

©  Michael Tobert

[i] To a greater or lesser extent depending on their size.

[ii] Andrew Robinson, Maharaja, (Thames & Hudson, London, 1988), p.90.

[iii] Kanhayalal Gauba, HH, Or the Pathology of Princes, (The Times Publishing Company, Lahore, 1930), p.78-86.

[iv] Lawrence James, Raj: The making and Unmaking of British India, (Abacus, London, 1998), p.327.

[v] Gayatri Devi, A Princess Remembers, The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur, (Tarang Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1994), pp.96, 98.

[vi] Gauba, op. cit., p. 179.

[vii] Robinson, op. cit., p.7.

[viii] Charles Allen and Sharada Dwivedi, Lives of the Indian Princes, (Eshwar, Mumbai, 1986), pp. 80-1.

[ix] Allen, Dwivedi, op. cit., p. 184.

[x] Allen, Dwivedi, op. cit., p.269, 277.

[xi] Allen, Dwivedi, op. cit., p.15.

[xii] Rajasthan has always had natural resources. It was where the marble and the precious stones came from, which explains why a place that was almost entirely desert was able to mount such an effective challenge to the Moghuls. Even today, the roadsides are littered with marble-for-sale signs, and miles of accompanying slabs.