Bumping along a rural road in Rajistan, we notice a fort on top of a hill. In the blur that is adventure travel – five hours on a public bus from Agra that morning and rising at 4 a.m. the day before to catch the train from Delhi to Agra – it had not registered with me that we were staying in a fort tonight. That fort. Our jeeps climb the hill arriving at the fort’s entrance. Stepping out we marvel at the view of the surrounding countryside and village.
Young men in white linen pants and shirts, black vests, and orange, red and yellow turbans greet us. They place a red dot on the women’s forehead and a red line on the men and toss red rose petals on us as we cross the threshold of the fort. An older man with silver hair and moustache, dressed in charcoal coloured pants and shirt greets us. As we enter the fort an artist is sitting in the courtyard painting on rice paper. After our ride on the public bus through dense fog with incessant horn honking, we walk stunned through the tranquil fort. We are the only guests and an Indian lunch is being prepared in the courtyard. We are served cold drinks and are invited up a set of stairs that leads to a turret with a sweeping degree view of the village of Madhogargh surrounding countryside. We sit and marvel.
We are shown to our room and scurry to see our travel companions’ rooms. Being a fort, each one is a different size and shape. They are simply furnished and decorated with frescos and photos of maharajas.
After lunch and a rest, the silver-haired man who greeted us leads our group of twelve down the fort’s long stone road to the village. As we stroll the streets of Bassi the village slowly reveals itself. Heads pop out of windows to view the foreigners, children giggle and come to greet us. We are not the first foreigners they have seen, but we are the only ones in the village that day. A woman hangs a rainbow of laundry. A man sits and smokes a pipe. Livestock roam freely in the street. At the centre of the village men sell vegetables from wooden carts. We enter a very small shop where a sari is being embroidered by two men. It’s not put on for the tourists – it’s village life in rural Rajistan.
We walk down a long lane-way to a small textile shop. The women are gathered on the step taking a break from their looms. An elderly man sips a small cup of tea at his loom while another spins cotton for the women. The women are encouraged to return to their looms to demonstrate their trade. The banging and clapping of the looms fills the room. We plug our ears the noise is so loud. As we walk down the lane-way we notice three peacocks in a tree. They are startled and fly a short distance.
As we continue our walk children slowly gravitate to us. One boy in a bright pink shirt asks me to take his photo. I do and he remains by my side for the next hour. We meet a group of school children walking back from school. At first they walk past us, saying “nameste”, but within a few seconds we are surrounded by them and other children. “One photo” is the refrain we hear over and over for the next thirty minutes. ‘One photo’ becomes many photos. The children ham it up for the camera, asking us for our hats, glasses, and sunglasses. We show them the photos on our digital cameras and they ask for ‘one (more) photo’. As we make our way back to our fort on the hill we remark that it has been a great day. An authentic day, the kind that can be rare to find in this world touched, sometimes tainted, by tourism.
Reentering the fort we declare a cold drink would hit the spot. No sooner do we make the comment and we are guided back up to the rampart overlooking the village we just explored to find chairs set around the perimeter and a selection of cold drinks on display. As we enjoy our drinks and talk about the day our guide introduces us to Thakur Shiv Pratap Singh Madhogargh whose family owns the fort. Fort Madhogarh is four hundred years old and the family embarked on a restoration project to return the fort to its former glory. In 2009 the Fort was reborn as a family run heritage hotel.
That evening before another Indian meal we are given the opportunity to get dressed Rajistani style and we feast in the courtyard under the stars. It is refreshing to be in the country and away from the cities. It has been a day of forts, feasts and faces.
If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the relgion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.
― James A. Michener