This motorcycle touring article was published in 8 different magazines around the world, last published by WORLD & I magazine, part of the Washington Post publishing group, in 1999.
I’m not saying it will happen to you, but this is what happened to us. Photographer Hans Kemp and myself, were in India on a magazine assignment for a story about the former ruling families of Rajasthan. For one month we would be living with various Maharajas inside their opulent palaces and forts that were scattered all over the state. This was a very good idea for a story and not a bad way to spend a nice chunk of the year.
Figuring to double our fun and enjoyment on this job, we decided to do our traveling between the Maharajas on two Indian-made Royal Enfield Bullet 500’s. But this was a very, very bad idea. Because our trip turned out to be focused much of the time instead, on the motorcycle mechanic shops of Rajasthan. Hans and I were riding what had to be the two worst Enfields ever made. And we got them when they were both brand-spanking new.
For those of you who are unaware of what an Enfield motorcycle is like, let me give you some impressions. To put it mildly, it is one very strange beast. Anthropologists will one day classify this machine as an air-cooled, single piston, Stone Age implement.
The foot controls are all cockeyed unless you took up biking when Winston Churchill was still running England. Your left foot works the rear brake and the gear changer is on the right-hand side. To go up the gears you press down, and to downshift into a lower gear you yank the shift lever upwards. So throw out all those deep-rooted driving reflexes painfully learned over the last few decades. There is even a stubby, extra foot lever on this bike called a neutral finder. Its not much help in finding neutral though, because it’s still as hard to locate as misplaced spectacles. I discovered that using my left foot to apply rear stopping power has as much feel to it as an Eskimo has for surfing. By the time I worked it all through in my head–which new bodily appendage does what and in what direction–I might as well just drag my boot on the ground to slow down, which on more then one occasion I actually found myself doing.
The Enfield is not a subtle bike. It has a real solid feel to it because it drives like a brick. The kick starter is aptly named because it’s the one doing the kicking, and shredding of knee cartilage in the process. The pressure I needed to apply to an up-shift grew bone spurs on my toe knuckles, and down-shifting was more like whacking my foot down on top of a shovel into a patch of drying mud. The thought process needed to change a single gear will take the same amount of time as reading this paragraph. If this doesn’t totally confuse you, throw in the fact that driving in India is on the left side of the road. Just pray you don’t have to come to a stop quickly to avoid hitting something, which in India happens about a zillion times a day.
I am hard-pressed to say a few good thing about an Enfield, but here are a few. It is a nice looking bike designed before “retro” was coined, a no-nonsense classic with an attractive paint job that’s as tough as cheek rouge. The hard-rubber, black, handgrips worked perfectly, as did the headlight. Another item on the bike that was trouble-free was the side stand A neutral driving position makes for pleasant, long-distance ergonomics. The seat is as comfortable as they come?not one ass pimple or rash in over three thousand kilometers and hardly any squirming. And somehow, with half the cylinders and one third the capacity, it discharges a pleasing, Harley-like sound.
But the absolute best thing to say about Enfields is that if you want to do a bike tour in India it is the only motorcycle to consider riding because, firstly, it is the only large-size bike available, and secondly, nearly everyone in the country can fix them, the 350cc ones, that is. Of course, Hans and I were riding export-only 500cc models and no one carried any parts for those.
Our tour started off in the capitol, Delhi. We rented two brand new bikes from India’s largest Enfield dealer, Madras Motors. The bikes were kindly delivered to our hotel so we could avoid having to drive, right off the bat, through Delhi’s most insane section of traffic. Two 0-kilometer bikes were driven to our hotel by two sheepish looking and guilty-faced men who spoke not a word of English, or pretended not to. They arrived nearly three hours late and showed us two bikes as familiar to us as Czechoslovakian tractors. They hurriedly gave us the keys and some documents we assumed were the ownership and insurance, and then they sprinted out of the hotel’s parking lot. My question about an owners manual wafted to the ground on their departing air currents. Something fishy was underfoot.
Two new bikes are supposed to work perfectly, right? But this is not the case in India or with Enfields as we were soon to find out. We drove all of one whole block from the hotel when both bikes sputtered, gasped, and died. We couldn’t restart them for the life of us. My bike was simply out of gas, which we eventually figured out. Han’s bike was oozing oil out of every orifice. Shifting required a stiff karate kick. And my clutch lever felt like squeezing soggy white bread.
Two roadside mechanics, whose shop was an umbrella, approached us with a smirk on their face and proceeded to twiddle with every adjustable setting imaginable. Then they asked us a question that would become an anathema on the rest of the trip “Why did you buy a 500? The 350 is a much better bike”. After muttering a few Hindu prayers (either for the bikes or for us) they pronounced us fit and bid us adieu.
Off we stumbled into a darkness compounded by thick, diesel exhaust fumes, smoke from burning rubbish, and blinding, unshielded high beams that bored holes through our retinas. Within minutes into our journey we learned the hard way the holy trinity of Indian road rules: #1, never, ever drive at night; rule #2, might makes right; and #3, blow your horn at everything that moves or breathes.
I’ve been motorcycle touring through the wilder parts of Asia for over six years and tonight was the very first time, ever, I had to abandon ship without reaching my destination. It took us seven hours to go fifty kilometers before both bikes collapsed. At 2 AM we trudged to a nearby hotel laden down with our hefty collection of luggage, supplies, and camera gear.
The next day was a mechanic day, the first of many, and our one and only rip-off. The mechanic, following Hitler’s big lie principle, told us everything on both bikes was broken, and we believed him and gave him a huge deposit (by Indian standards) to buy all sorts of parts.
After an S.O.S. call back to Madras Motors, our bike supplier, a pair of company mechanics came galloping to our rescue. They pried our bikes, but none of our money, away from the unscrupulous wrenchman who thought he had found the ultimate meal-ticket. The new guys proceeded to re-adjust everything that was adjustable in their own inimitable style. They pronounced us fit with a factory seal of approval, and sent us on our way.
Giddy with confidence on a sparkling morning, we cross the border into Rajasthan. Now, to understand the rest of the story a little fuller, an over-simplified Rajasthani history is in order.
Rajasthan is the second largest of the 22 Indian states. It is a desert region more then half the size of Alaska with a mountain range running through the lower third on a diagonal. It’s a terrific place to ride a motorcycle, with sunny weather, a warm climate, no rain, and open roads with very little motorized traffic.
Rajasthani history is as ancient as any other culture in the world. Their most striking cultural feature is that therein lives a race of warriors and rulers called Rajputs. All the Rajputs trace their familial roots way back to a common source, which only happens to be one of three Hindu gods, Because of their illustrious bloodlines, coming from a God, they all have a mighty high opinion of themselves.
Over millennia, the different Rajput clans in Rajasthan killed and beat each other up into bloody pulps and carved out kingdoms on the battlefields or through marriages, or through alliances with the biggest bully of the time. Kingdoms were passed down to oldest sons who then had to fight off their brothers who wanted a bigger piece of the action. This splintered the land into even more and tinier divisions.
Occasionally an outside conqueror, like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, or one of the Islamic jihads would sweep through the region and reshuffle everyone’s deck. When the invader’s power’s ebbed, it was back to infighting all over again. The Rajputs say, although I find it a little hard to believe, that more blood was spilled over the last millennia in Rajasthan then in any other area in the world.
Sanity arrived in the early 19th century when England’s war machine and colonizing skills put a cease, once and for all, to all hostilities. They froze the internal borders of Rajasthan into 565 separate territories. When B.B. King sang “the thrill was gone”, he must have been commiserating with the Rajputs. Warrioring is a needless occupation without any enemies to fight. None of the warriors and soldiers, furthermore, had any experience with peace. So with the arms race over and their treasuries full, they went decadent and started a royal building boom like the world has never witnessed.
Things changed abruptly once again for the Maharajas when they agreed to join the newly-formed Indian Federation in 1947. Up until this time, every one of the 565 pocket kingdom was a considered a separate and fully-independent country. Each little kingdom had their own money, their own taxes, their own laws and courts, and the Rajput rulers had absolute power of life and death over their subjects.
As an inducement for joining the new country of India and as compensation for giving up these nifty perks, the Rajput rulers were allowed to keep their royal titles and their properties, and, one top of that, they received a privey purse, or an allowance, from the Indian Government. A mere seven years after that, in 1954, India was severely strapped for cash and cancelled the Rajputs allowances. Then in 1970, adding insult to injury, their royal status was rescinded and some of their properties, meaning many of their castles, lands, and houses, were confiscated by the state. Emasculated, incomeless, and now nearly assetless as well, the royal Rajput families were having a lot of trouble integrating into modern Indian society.
But beneath their royal noses they still had some very valuable holdings. Over a thousand years, each little kingdom had built mammoth forts, wondrous palaces, elegant mansions, hunting lodges, concubine quarters, and summer retreats. Some of these the royals were allowed to keep. Most such domiciles, however, were now useless?no one needed a fort anymore, hunting was abolished decades ago, and it was down to one wife and one family. Their properties had become a liability, their upkeep and maintenance a money drain. Without a huge staff, which none of them could afford anymore, they were unlivable. Decay and deterioration took root.
Starting in the early 70’s, some Maharajas began to allow paying guests to stay in their cavernous palaces to help with expenses, and this became enormously popular with tourists. It was so successful that other families started dusting off and renovating their own mothballed properties to run them as hotels. It was a natural conversion because castles were originally designed to entertain and billet guests in a luxurious manner in the first place.
Today, scores of these princely properties are open to the public. They offer a glimpse of an opulent life style that had almost disappeared. Many of the properties are actively run by the Maharajas or members of their immediate families for a personal touch.
And this is what our tour was about. Our travel agent, SITA, organized stays at some of these properties and arranged for at least one member of the former rulers to be there when we arrived to show us around their former realms.
The history section is now over. Now back to our motorcycle tour.
Our first riding destination was Pushkar, but this had nothing to do with any royal family. Pushkar just happens to be one of mankind’s most mesmerizing festivals. It must not be missed if your time in India overlaps with it, as ours luckily did.
We barely make it, though. My battery fell out of my bike along the way. Changing gears was a hit and miss affair, mostly miss. Oil was leaking out of Hans’ exhaust pipe. I’m seriously wondering if pleasure is possible on an Enfield. We find a mechanic in Pushkar but he has a queue of crippled Bullets outside his shop waiting for first, second, and third aid.
Pushkar is the world’s largest cattle fair and camels are its specialty. Long caravans of dromedaries come snaking in from all across the desert, often traveling hundreds of miles. Ten days are spent in Pushkar trading and selling animals in a scene right out of the bible. Tens of thousands of Indians encamp in family groups over an area several kilometers square and are surrounded by their herds. Turbaned and barefoot, sharp eyes point out the good and bad on each camel in a lively exchange before any money changes hand.
Pushkar is also one of Hindu’s holiest sites and home to a famous temple. During the full moon, pilgrims stream in to bathe in the lake and pay homage to Lord Brahma, creator of the universe. The swirling colors of the silk saried ladies liven up the stark desert landscapes.
To cater to this influx of humanity a big-top carnival is set up to snare some of the surfeit of the rupees floating around. Magicians, acrobats, contortionists, hucksters, medicine men, and snake charmers display their crafts.
In the mela?porting stadium?you can watch camel decorating contests, camel and horse races, milking competitions, and the traditional dances and songs of the desert.
We lodge at the Colonel’s Camp, a luxury tent city smack in the middle of the trading grounds. Colonel K. Fateh Singh, retired., was a modern day Rajput warrior during his working years. He once commanded India’s famous fighting Dogra regiment, the first troops that were sent into any combat zone. He’s still an imposing figure today, but his mind does wander a bit. Any conversations with him will eventually lead to a lecture about medium-intensity warfare and NATO verifications, even if you simply ask him how much a camel costs.
After Pushkar, our first royal stop is Kota in the Hardoti, or green belt region of Rajasthan. Not exactly green, but it does have the most water and gets the most rain in this state.
Our bikes limp in. Hans’ battery fell out today as well, twice! This was easy to fix with an old bicycle spoke twisted through the bolt hole. So every time we stop I scan the ground for useful junk that could possibly be used for a repair in a pinch. We have to change Hans’ spark plug every forty kilometers and add a liter of oil every fifty ks. One of my shift connecting rods cracked in half. Our mechanic that day patched all this up for under US$3. In India, at least, you never blow a lot of money on a lousy repair job. This mechanic also inquired why we were riding 500’s?
We lodged in the home of our first royal, His Highness (H.H.) Maharao Brijrat Singh of Kota. His house was originally the British Governor’s residence, a sprawling Victorian mansion built high on a cliff overlooking the Chambal River basin.
We get our first look at typical Rajput interior design, and the decorating theme is death. The rooms are filled with paintings of dead ancestors, photos of slaughtered tigers and other wildlife, and a menagerie of stuffed carcasses snarl in perpetual silence. On the walls, hanging between racks of horns on skulls, are killing weapons like daggers, spears, rifles, pistols, and maces. Martha Stewart would have a heart attack.
Kota used to be covered in forests and had the best hunting in Rajasthan. By the time hunting was abolished in 1947, Maharao Brijrat had bagged one hundred and one Bengal tigers. Its not as bad as it sounds as explained by Brijrat, because if a tiger was taking cattle from the villagers, one of his duties as their ruler was to eliminate the pest. It kept him and his family very busy.
Today the Maharao is a man of the arts. He has a fine collection of miniature paintings in the particular style indigenous to Rajasthan. The details are so minute that some of it is painted with abrush containing a single hair. His collection will be making a tour of the world’s best museums.
Next stop is Udaipur in the Mewar region. This is a desert of hills, rocks, and sand. We get halfway there before our bikes have other ideas. This time Hans kickstarter spins as limp as a pinwheel and is pronounced unfixable in the tiny village of Kelwara. We have to hire a truck to transport his bike the rest of the way. Another S.O.S. call to Madras Motors gets an assurance that two more factory-trained mechanics will be sent to meet us in Udaipur.
Hans rides in the truck and I lead the way on my own limping bike. Riding through such lovely scenery, free of luggage, helmet, and wearing lightweight clothes, a smile actually crosses my face. I see for the very first time that motorcycling enjoyment just might be possible on an Enfield 500.
Our ratty truck drives through three imposing castle gates and pulls up in front of the most exclusive hotel in all of India (by invitation only)?the Frateh Prakesh Palace. Everyone who gets by the front desk?and not many do because they only have 9 suites?can only utter one word?WOW! Our room is tastefully furnished in a gentlemanly manner with dark antique furniture, plush velvet, and leather.
This hotel is owned by the most cherished, and by some accounts, the wealthiest royal of them all, H.H. Maharana (highest warrior ) Arvind Singh. His family line descended from the fire god, Rama, and he can trace his roots back with absolute certainty 76 generations to the year 568. His is the oldest, continuous dynasty in the world. A son is in the wings.
Out of all the princely states, Udaipur was the only one to defeat the mighty invading Mogul empire in battle, and boasts of never having one of their princesses fall into a Mogul harem, thus keeping their bloodlines completely pure.
The Maharana’s private residence is next door to the hotel. One enters through a wrought iron entranceway designed to impress kings and millionaires and to intimidate everyone else. My knees were shaking as we enter the palace for an interview.
Casually dressed in jeans and with a deep, opera singer’s voice, Maharana Arvind Singh is both imposing and friendly at the same time. His flowing, snowy white facial hair is outrageous, parted at the chin and swept way back behind his ears and it looks just like a lion’s mane. A large man with round, red, chubby cheeks that cushion twinkling eyes, he would make the perfect model for Santa, even down to his natural Ho, Ho, Ho chuckle. I ask him what would he do if he wasn’t royal born and he says he would be a chef. Polo was his passion until he hurt his back, so now he only sponsors a team.
Meanwhile, no Enfield has ever kept such good company. The factory mechanics are working away in the royal garage that holds several antique Rolls and Cadillacs. They slap a new piston, rings, valves, and cylinder head into Hans’ bike and swear to us our troubles are finally over and the bikes are as good as new (but they are new!). Oh brother. I wish he hadn’t said that. They bid us goodbye after telling us next time we should ride 350’s.
At the crack of dawn were off to our next royal property and the bikes finally feel normal. But just sixteen kilometers out my bike starts sputtering, looses power, and the engine seizes. Plenty of oil in the crankcase but it wasn’t going anywhere. Han’s rides back to Udaipur to Shanghai us yet another mechanic. When they return the problem has mysteriously disappeared. A Mewari ghost?
We continue uneventfully to Ranakpur and stay the night in a Spartan, 19th century hunting lodge owned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. No frills, just a group of stone bungalows nestled in the mountains next to a reservoir and a stream. Very bucolic. Peacocks strut all over the place. Nearby is a Jain temple famous for it’s magnificent and erotic marble carvings, and Kumbhalgarh Fort is one of the most historic and impressive in Rajasthan.
The great Indian Thar desert covers most of the Marwar region, which is the next area we explore. This is true desert, sand dunes and all. Only the razor wire of the plant world survives here. Fall into a bush and suffer some serious puncture wounds. The locals grow tight rows of cacti as fences for their fields.
Life here is precarious. There aren’t a lot of towns and the roads between them are usually one lane, dead straight, and not in the greatest shape. We’re forced onto the soft shoulders by oncoming trucks and buses. The rest of the time the only other road users are camel carts.
I’m leaking oil like a sieve, but at least I’m not burning it. So far on this trip we’ve spent as much money on oil as on petrol. And as if we don’t have enough trouble, I run out of gas. If I had a gun, I???d put a bullet through my Bullet.
We are guests of H.H. Swaroop Singh, the Maharaj of Jodhpur. This is the city where those baggy riding pants, jodhpurs, actually come from. In his private quarters, Swaroop Singh tells me a great story about some of his furniture. “On 14 May, 1926, the Maharaja of Jodhpur was knocked down by a rogue elephant while hunting. His brother, my father, saved his life by killing the pachyderm. The base of the leopard cushion stool your sitting on is one of the elephants legs. The table your notebook is on is his ear mounted on his trunk. And that floor lamp in the corner is the tail. The photo of this event is mounted in an ivory frame made from his tusk.”
The next day he takes us for a jeep ride deep into the desert to a tiny village for a funeral of one of his former subjects. The deep respect and love the Maharaj and the people feel for one another is plainly evident. It’s a toss up as to who is more deeply honored; the family for getting a visit from the Maharaj, or the Maharaj for being asked to attend.
As soon as he drives up the women begin a ritualized mourning wail which ceases just as abruptly. Everyone sits on blankets under an awning, except for Swaroop who sits on a cot, slightly elevated, as a sign of respect. Then the men pass around small chunks of opium which are put on the tongue “so it melts right into your heart”.
In the afternoon we drive up to Mehrangarh Fort. Built in 1459, the walls are sixty-eight feet thick at the thickest point. We drive back down through the old town and get lost in an unbelievably crowded bazaar. My throttle starts sticking in the open position making driving tricky. I clip a ladies foot with my motorcycle and break her sandal.
Another mechanic, our tenth, gives my bike another overhaul. He opens up the engine case and sees that a wine cork with a small metal oil tube running through it and which acts as a shunt, has collapsed. Yes, that’s right. An integral Enfield engine component is a piece of cork. Then he tells me I also have a tappet problem. He fiddles with a lot of other screws and gives me a 2000 kilometer guarantee that the bike is perfect. Uh oh. I’ve heard this before.
This guarantee lasted exactly twenty eight kilometers out of Jodhpur when my engine seizes up for the third time. Another day wasted and another truck job back to a city. But our new mechanic is really good. He examines both bikes with a fine tooth comb. Anything not looking or sounding right he fixes. Every part gets washed thoroughly. He even washes the bikes. I’m very impressed.
After asking why we bought 500’s he says “both bikes now very smooth running”. We’ll see about that!
Halleluiah! It is the first time we make it to our next location without one problem. OK, it was only twenty-five kilometers up the road. But I was getting the feeling we could have gone much further.
Rohetgahr Fort is a more of a walled enclosure than a massive ridge-top, defensive structure. The owner is Thakur Kanwar Sidarth Singh. A thakur is equivalent to a duke. He cuts a dashing figure in his Jodhpurs with his movie star looks astride his horse as he leaves on his daily ride. He makes us feel like mongrels on our battered Enfields.
Over dinner, Sidharth tells us the charms of this area are the people of the desert. Many different clans live in the vicinity and tomorrow we will visit some by jeep.
The most interesting of the tribes are the Bishnois. They are considered to be the world’s first ecologists. This sect was founded in the 15th century and they live by twenty-(bish), nine-(noi) rules, such as only collecting wood for a fire that has fallen on the ground; throwing grain to the birds every morning; bathing before breakfast and dinner; and protect the black buck like it is their brother?this beautiful endangered species thrive around their villages. They live in family groups in round huts made from mud mixed with cow dung. The cow dung acts as an insect repellent and really works. Try it. Their homesteads are spotless.
Farming, if it is possible at all in the desert, doesn’t take up all that much time, so many of the people take up craftwork. We visited a carpet weaver whose durries were outstanding and so cheap, US$2. per square foot, but alas, no room on the bikes for a spare floor covering.
A few miles further into the desert is the charming Chanwa Fort. It shares the same piece of desert with Rohetgahr and tourists usually visit both places. Chanwa Fort also offer jeep tours or overnight horse or camel safaris to see the different desert tribes. A stay at Rohetgahr, although nicely furnished, is a bit cramped, and makes one want to go out and explore. Chanwa Fort, one the other hand, is so enchanting, that once you enter it’s magical walls, you’ll never want to leave.
The Chanwa Fort was built around 100 years ago by Muraridanji, a Charan, or bard, who was given the title, King Of Poets, by the ruling Maharaja. This humble bard rose to become a Dewan, or prime minister in the government. For exceptional service he was deeded the land around the town of Luni, where the King Of Poets designed his fort with a minstrel’s sensitivity and without one thought given to defense.
We drove into Luni, a really tiny desert community, and didn’t see anything that looked like a fort. We stopped with lost looks on our faces until some locals pointed to a big wooden gate. We beeped our horns from outside to raise someone’s attention. The imposing wooden portal creaked open on ancient hinges and we drove in. It was like entering Disneyland. A giant grassy courtyard, immaculately groomed, was surrounded by three, magnificent, fairy-tale mansions. All the buildings were carved from blocks of red sandstone with fantasy turrets and merlons as design elements. It was exquisite in it’s elegance.
Our rooms, actually our wing, was the old zenana, or ladies quarters. This is where the veiled women would watch the courtly activities, shielded from the men’s eyes behind the intricately carved jollies, or latticework grill. The rooftops were designed for partying and feasting. Thrones and settees were carved into the ramparts and what wild times once went on beneath the blazing desert stars.
This property is owned by the family of H.H. Maharaj Dalip Singji and our host was his son Vikram. The fort was in ruins four years ago, gone completely to seed and overrun with weeds and vermin. The renovation was a family affair. All labor and furnishings came from the local village, because, according to Vikram “it was their forefathers who built the fort in the first place. The total renovation and furnishing costs were only US$50,000.” So you can imagine what great purchases you can make in this area. There are nineteen rooms, each one unique. It would be hard to find a more delightful place to spend a few days then in Chanwa Fort.
As rested as kings, we leave the cruel desert conditions to enter the semi-cruel, semi-desert called the Shekharvarti region. Today is our longest drive on the trip, 194 almost dead straight kilometers on National Highway #11 into Mandawa. I actually hit 100 kph for a few nanoseconds. It’s frightening to think that our bikes are the quickest vehicles plying the Indian roads and not a soul has overtaken us since we left Delhi.
The bikes, dare I think it, seem to be behaving perfectly until I see Hans’ luggage rack hanging on by a bungee strap. The metal mountings have split with fatigue. This was our only bike-initiated stop of the day and we reach Mandawa well within our allotted time.
Castle Mandawa is owned by Thakur Kesri Singh–“please call me Kesri.” He seems to be a regular Joe, facing life’s little crises like everyone else. We find him in the middle of a hovering flock of people that are waving papers in his face and asking him urgent questions. The subject is not business, finance, or politics. Its all about the last minute preparations for his daughter’s wedding in a few day’s time.
But this is no ordinary wedding. Over two thousand guests are expected. The list reads like a Who’s Who of India; Maharajas, Thakurs, ministers, governors, and other assorted V.I.P.s. Kesri is chuckling. “Where can I get an elephant? Can I rent one? From where? It has to get here by Tuesday. The bride and groom have to ride in on an elephant.”
He rolls his eyes and he continues. “This will be the first royal wedding in Castle Mandawa in fifty-nine years. I have to put on a good show. My townspeople expect it. My friends and relatives expect it. You know we Rajputs go in for pomp and ceremony in a big way.” And he has to go all out to impress his future in-laws, who just happen to be the King and Queen of Nepal.
Painters are slapping new coats of whitewash on two hundred-year old walls. Electricians up in the towers are stringing up party lights and testing the P.A. system. Other workmen are trying to pick up a cannon that collapsed on it’s rotten wooden wheels when they tried to move it for the first time in over a century. We haven’t seen this much activity since Delhi Airport. So we scoot off to quieter quarters at nearby Dundlod Fort.
Our bikes finally make it somewhere without any misfortunes, but Hans’ helmet strap breaks to remind us not to get too cocky.
Shekharvarti is divided up into really tiny king-and-dukedoms because the custom here was to equitably divide each realm up between all the sons to prevent them from murdering each other. It worked, but most probably because there was always plenty of money for everyone floating around. Shekharvarti was always a wealthy region because the great caravan routes of yore came plodding through here, and all the royals snagged a piece of this gravy train.
Immense fortunes were made by a particular clan of traders called the Marwaris. Many of the Marwari fortunes survive to this day and have become the foundation of many of India’s largest industrial empires. To show off their wealth they built magnificent mansions, called havelis, and covered every square inch of wall and ceiling space with colorful frescoes and paintings. These havelis are the big draw in this area today.
Dundlod Castle is owned by two brothers. One of the borthers, Thakur Ranbir Singh, takes us for a walk through his village. Even though he no longer has any power, the locals bow and touch his feet as he passes, and Ranbir nods his head and presses his palms together in acknowledgment. He stops in front of the large town well with their characteristic tall towers.
“When I was a boy I remember these wells were full of life and music. One man would stand by the ropes and another man would drive the bullock team that lifted the big buckets of water. They would sing to each other, so happy, back and forth, all day long. Their language was song and it was so delightful. Always there were people bathing and filling up their water jugs. Now look. The well is deserted. The pump is electric. And most people have water coming into their homes. I really miss that.”
The way Ranbir describes it I really miss it as well.
A few Haveli visits later we say goodbye to Ranbir and turn south to Samode Palace. We only spent ten minutes with a mecahnic today to fix my slipping clutch. It set us back a whopping US14?.
Samode is what you imagine when you think of a palace. It’s in the classic wedding cake style only with butterscotch-colored icing. Symmetric and tiered, dripping with balconies, columns, and arches, a long flight of stairs leads right up the center into the main courtyard. Upon our arrival, the steps were strewn with a thick, white carpet of fragrant blossoms. The word “welcome” was spelled out in contrasting pink blooms.
Two of the castle rooms are breathtaking and both are in perfect condition. Rajput rulers would hold court in a room called a Durbar Hall whose purpose was to dazzle and awe visitors and guests. All castles and forts in Rajasthan have one drop-dead room, but none can match the sheer majesty and beauty of Samode’s. Its entirely painted with murals and frescoes and ancestor portraits.
Another fantastic room in the Samode Palace is the Sheesh Mahal , or Hall of Mirrors. It is fully inlayed with a mosaic of cut, multi-colored, and gold gilded mirrors. The room catches each sunbeam, bounces it around, and never lets it escape.
The castle sits way back in a narrow ravine in a very protected position. For added insurance, high above it and spread out on the towering cliffs, are not one, not two, but three impregnable fortresses. They are a healthy hike to get to and it looks like no one ever visits them.
We spent a full day doing just that and try to imagine what the old battles were like. Even with today’s modern weapons, all three would still be a tough nut to crack.
Samode’s owner, Rawal Shabe (Landlord) Raghuvenddra Singh, lives in Jaipur, the capitol of Rajasthan, which is our next stop. When London was still a jungle, Jaipur was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Its called the Pink City because at one time, not so long ago, guess what color all the buildings were painted.
Today, my most important piece of equipment on my bike breaks; my horn. It used up it’s last toot. We also hit our first traffic light in 2500 kilometers. The traffic is unbelievable. All of the road users seem to be trying to break one of the basic laws of physics, the one about no two pieces of matter being able to share the same place in space and time.
At the main traffic circle in Jaipur you will witness all of the following pressed into a huge clot of traffic–trucks, buses, jeeps, cars, three-wheeled shuttle busses, scooter taxis, Enfields, small motor bikes, scooters, bicycle carts, bicycle taxis, plain bicycles, camel carts, oxen carts, horse carts, horse buggy taxis, pony carts, donkey carts, goat carts, human-powered push-carts, elephants, camels, oxen, buffalos, horses, ponies, donkeys, goats, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, shoppers, strollers, vendors, holy men, cripples, and children. Reigning supreme above all this bedlam are the cows, India’s natural speed controls, who wander around at will.
A must-do for any visitor is a drink at the Polo Bar in Rambagh Palace. Within is an art-deco, preppy atmosphere before these were even words. The drink stirrers are miniature polo mallets. G in and tonics are their specialty. Just sitting there puts a smile on one’s face.
Another must-do in Jaipur is a visit to nearby Amber Palace. Go up to the north rooftop and look through the columned archway for the most stunning view in the whole of Rajasthan.
Somehow we had saved the best place, Karauli, for last. And on this last leg of our month-long journey, we make it for the very first time without one iota of bike problem.
The Maharaja Krishna Chandra Pal was at the Mandawa wedding, so his manager, Mahavir Singh Solanki, took care of us. It was obvious that this was one of the poorer Maharajas and his palace was really nothing more then a large post-colonial house. The furniture was thrift shop style with springs poking through the padding. His curio cases were filled not with objects d’ arts, but with collections of old cigarette packs and cigar boxes, empty whisky bottles, and plastic kitsch like statues of the Eiffel Tower and those clear plastic domes that snow when you shake them.
But Mr. Solanki was priceless, an old raconteur who regaled us with stories from his youth. He would get so excited in his tales that he would sometimes knock his hat off with his swinging arms.
“Oh, Oh, Oh” he would cry. “You should have seen it” he shrilled. “In 1947 in Jaipur, when I was in college, the guards would slam the gates to the city shut at 6 PM and not open them again until four the next morning! We would have to sleep on the ground outside. The streets were empty, absolutely deserted.” Solanki paused and shut his eyes for twenty seconds and opened them again three hundred years earlier in the middle of some great battle which he personally described blow-by-blow. His version of history was better then any text book.
Even though this Maharaja’s is poverty stricken by royal standards, he may be the most blessed of them all. He’s sitting on a gold mine, his family’s City Palace. It was last used in the 1930 by his great grandfather and has been rotting away ever since. What a shame it is to see such a magnificent property falling apart, heavily vandalized and desecrated. Mirrored mosaics, gouged out. Jollies smashed and stolen. All the furniture long gone, some even used for firewood. Everything at one time was gold gilt and none of it remains. Weeds grow out of chinks in the great building stones and from the cracks in the pitted marble floors.
Yet what remains can put almost any other royal property to shame. The past grandeur and elegance has survived. Hopefully, one day, this palace will be restored to it’s former beauty and regain it’s place in the highest echelons of Indian antiquities.
Before we head back to Delhi, we make an obligatory stop in Agra to visit one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. This gives our bikes one last chance to act up. The back swing arm nut on Hans’ bikes falls off and the bolt is slipping out on his brake lever. We waste three hours in a small hamlet before we find a mechanic with a junked Enfield with the right size nut. Then we discover that some, but not all of the nuts and bolts and fittings on an Indian Enfield are metric sized. Many are S.A.E. This means you need two sets of tools to work on an Enfield.
At this point, Hans and myself were so bushed from lugging around our camera equipment for the past month that we decided to visit the Taj Mahal without our cameras. We would just walk around and soak it all up with our eyes and minds instead. Besides, the Taj Mahal was not part of our Rajastahni storyline, being in another state of India.
What a mistake! As soon as we walked into the grounds we realized the enormity of this decision. The Taj Mahal is so achingly beautiful that it cries out to be put on film. We were the only people out of hundreds of visitors without a camera. And we were probably the first photographers in the history of the world to visit the Taj Mahal camera-less
One of the happiest days of both our lives was when we finally made it back to Delhi and dumped our bikes back at Madras Motors.
The question is, with such bad luck, would I ever tour India again? That answer is a definite yes! Experience is the best teacher and the mistakes we made do not have to be repeated.
First off, I will stick with the 350cc model. Secondly, if the bike is new, I will drive it around Delhi like mad for a few days, 500 kilometers at least, 1000 even better. This way any problems will be discovered and any loose pieces will fall off nearby the showroom. It won’t be any fun driving around Delhi to break in a new bike, but this is absolutely necessary with a new Enfield. And thirdly, on my next trip, I will rent an extra bike and hire a mechanic to ride it. This is easy to arrange and is not a very expensive proposition. Let this guy fix all the problems, get all dirty and sweaty, and worry about road directions. I can then bugger off and visit palaces and forts and castles in the air while the repairs take place.
Follow these suggestions and enjoy one of the most pleasurable bike tours on our planet.