Tuesday, April 4, 2017

King for a day



King for a day



A lieutenant in a Moghul army, crosses a high pass in the Himalayas and descends onto the Indo-Gangetic plain, sometime in the last thousand years or so. As his feudal warlord and patron moves on to other conquests, the lieutenant is left to his own devices, with a small band of troops, in command of all territory visible from some vantage point. The lowest rung of the new feudal order: below him, his soldiers, and the locals and their malleable submissive hierarchy.

In Rajasthan, the lieutenants oversee the building of forts on the hilltops and plateaux rising irregularly above the landscape. The patrilineal order they establish becomes the Rajputs, the ‘sons of kings’. From their hilly forts, they rule the plains below. Periodically they descend, to rape, murder, pillage and plunder, to enforce their rule.

As time passes, and the lieutenants’ status as Rajputs becomes more secure, their residences move down from the hilltops, and the fortification declines and the residences within the walls rise ever higher. As the invaders become landlords they and the locals forge better relations, with the Rajputs guaranteeing peace and protection (from other Rajputs!) and the locals guaranteeing the Rajputs income and status.

Eventually, the forts descend to the head of the valley and become palaces. The Rajputs’ mini-kingdoms are integrated by the British with their own Indian holdings. With their wealth the Rajahs build city houses in Jaipur, the Rajput capital, and elsewhere.

Patan Mahal, above Patan village in Rajasthan, is one such palace, situated at the head of the valley in the shadow of a millenium of fortifications. Still in the hands of the family that built it, a family re-located mostly to Jaipur and Mumbai, it became a hotel a decade ago, offering guests the opportunity to sample Rajput grandeur at a reasonable price.

Today, it’s a conundrum.

Much about the palace is still grand, and while members of the extended ‘royal family’ do drop in for a night or two now and then, perhaps enthusiasm for the place as a going concern, a commercial venture, has waned. The manager seems more actor than manager, cast from some British period piece set before the old order crumbled, with his blazer and cravat still in place, pacing the courtyards and the balustrades, hands clasped behind his back. Of the rooms, perhaps sixty or more, only five were occupied on our first night, and only two on our second, with the other party tucking themselves away and leaving us to make out like kings. Once the focal point of the afternoon, the ‘High Tea’ served in the highest courtyard of the palace today comprises an electric kettle filled with recently boiled water, teabags, a small jug of milk, and a packet of biscuits. The traditional welcome, rose petals tossed into the air around the arriving guests, is conducted more in hope than conviction of a ritual maintained. Many things have been put away, many practices too, misplaced, set aside. Half-baked construction of a new wing, to accommodate hundreds more non-existent guests, sags like a skeleton on a stick, forlorn and forgotten, windowless, doorless, roofless.

And yet, the palace remains a palace. Facing the steps leading up to the grand residence is reminiscent of many great European houses. The attending lobby is filled with great paintings and photographs of the family, decked out in royal splendour, hereditary, ready for battle, or meeting with grandees of the decaying Empire, even as those same grandees cornered them into dissolving their mini-kingdoms into the greatest edifice of the post-colonial era, the not-so federal Republic of India. Multiple floors, levels, wings and gardens create space for the would-be overlord to pace the parapets and crenelations, to ponder the fate of the commoners below, whose lives are so easily considered from on high. The morning sun warms us in the late Indian winter as we breakfast overlooking a courtyard built for horse and carriage rather than motor vehicle, and the village and fields beyond. And in the evening, we recline on another, more private verandah (we had booked the ‘Royal Suite’), to watch the sun descend into a valley of foliage, hemmed in by high cliffs and crags upon which remain the battlements of our (I’m getting carried away – not ours, someone else’s) warlike antecedents. In peace and quiet, a pleasurable quiet unknown in Delhi.


Travel to Patan from Delhi meant a couple of hours on NH8 – high speed dodgem cars with trucks, potholes, speeding drivers, and in the left lane, tractors, tuk-tuks, buses without brake lights, barriers, pedestrians, and religious processions of waving banners and ecstatic dancers fervent and freed from fear of finishing this life cycle as roadkill. Then exiting the national highway the wrong way down an on ramp after missing the exit (with company – perhaps there was no exit to miss). Cutting across a dirt-floored multi-function space below the highway overpass, dodging holes, homes, washing, sport, traffic traveling every which way, children at play. Through a crowded marketplace, and west towards Patan, with just one more misdirection, across a yard filled with heavy machinery, before the village rises to meet us.

We settle in at the palace, with the manager helpfully giving us a tour of the large photographs of now and former rajahs adorning the walls of foyer, courtyard and lobby. The family try the pool (it’s too cold I think) and ping-pong table (we know to bring our own paddles and balls – experience has taught us to expect not to find them in hotels that advertise table tennis amongst their facilities). I walk into the village.

The Indian festival of Holi happens two days hence. Anticipation is running high, especially amongst the young. Holi marks the end of the brief cool and start of the long hot season. It’s matched at the end of the hot by Diwali. At Holi, people throw colours and water at each other. Images of Holi often promote India as a colourful, lively and joyous place.

the village mill
Leaving the palace on foot, I immediately cross paths with a small child brandishing a bicycle pump-style water pistol, standing next to an open sewer from which I suspect he drew water for his pistol. Open sewers abound in Patan. Without them, it would be an attractive place. The child was, I imagine, intimidated by my intensely hostile glare. Certainly he had the sense to lower his aim.

My don’t-mess-with-me demeanour also disturbs a dog eating a used nappy. It runs off clenching the refuse in its jaw.

A small group of teenage girls take turns to ride new or almost new bicycles. Not a lot of English between them, and I don’t have a lot of Hindi, but they grant me a turn and we chase each other in circles and figure eights until I feel I’ve overstayed my welcome.

A backstreet mill grinds wheat into flour for one rupiah a kilo – and the stream of folk wheeling sacks of wheat draped over their bicycles reveals the livelihoods that sustain the village – most village folk have small holdings, and turn their wheat to flour as they need it, or need cash. The going rate for a kilo is twenty-five rupiah, about half an Australian dollar.

A grand old tree stands guard over the most unusual house on this narrow street. A wide doorway opens from a blue façade decorated with sculptures and I wander in to an empty three storey complex of rooms, their padlocked wooden doors facing onto small courtyards. Out back a turnaround driveway passes under a foyer that juts from a home of distinctly late sixties or early seventies suburban style. An old caretaker, tending a well-kept garden, tells me the owners have moved to Mumbai. 

On the street, Rajasthani women obsess over plastic bangles and jewellery, and crowd the small shops and kiosks that ply the trade.

Through a doorway I watch a tailor making shirts on a pedal-powered machine. Hanging above are the shirts he’s already made. I ask him to sell me one, and he refuses, says they’re not for me. I ask him to make me one and he acts dumb, tells me I should buy one that’s already made. Are we going in circles? I press my case and he starts complaining that I’m wearing shoes in his shop. I stand my ground – I just want a shirt after all, and he’s the tailor. He redirects me to a muslim tailor, thirty metres away on the other side of the road.

Will Mohammed make me a shirt? Mohammed is sorry, but if he makes me a shirt, it won’t be ready until tomorrow. Mohammed, that is fine. Let’s do it. So. So? So where is my material? Now we’re in trouble Mohammed, I don’t have any material. He takes me to Niraj the draper a few doors away. The draper’s command of English is substantially stronger than that of anyone else I’ve met in this village. Pretty soon, we’ve got it sorted, I’ve been measured up, and I’m going to have a fine shirt made from a material he calls ‘lining’, stripes of alternative size and colour amongst which red is the strongest. I will pay Rp.200 for the material and Rp.300 for the making. A total of about AUD 10. The tea is complimentary. No-one, I’m happy to say, consults me on style or design or anything else. I leave that kind of detail to my tailor….

A little further, the centre of town. Not much happening here I haven’t already seen ad nauseum. A store is selling metalwork reminiscent of the early years of highschool, before we were streamed and those who best worked with metal left to apprentice as boilermakers. I buy a wrought iron ladle, its spherical metal spoon beaten into shape by a village smithy using hammer and anvil. My purchase seems to confirm for the local men what they already suspect – that I’m completely bonkers. Why? Is it the ladle, or the way I bought it? I have no idea, and I don’t really care much either. Just another little mystery.

An after-school English tuition class, filled with four to ten year olds, sitting on the floor, perhaps 30 of them jammed in a room, with complicated home-made textbooks in their laps, all parroting the English spoken by the teacher. I try talking with the children. I try speaking to the teacher. No-one of them understands a word. 

Throughout India, parents send their children to tutors, because the quality of public education is appalling. It’s hard to imagine education more worthless than this tutoring.

On the first floor verandah of an eminent house, a young woman and her younger brother are doing homework. Sankriti speaks English, even better than the draper. She should: she’s studying English at university in Jaipur and is home for the holiday. Her parents are astrologers from the Brahmin (priestly) caste and as such own one of the village’s finer homes. They’re outsiders, from the north. Sankriti has no interest in following her parents into the fortune-telling business. It’s big business in India – identifying the fortuitous days on which to be married and so on – and one that pays. But it might grate on the sensibilities of a young woman growing up in the information age.

Back at the hotel, the giant hound kept chained by the gate is being walked around the compound, led with the same chain that keeps it to the wall all day. I imagine it unchained at night, roaming freely within the walls, attacking anyone or anything foolish enough to sneak in. Is it friendly, I ask. No! Emphatically no.

In the evening, a fire is lit in the centre of the courtyard, and tables arranged around. A beautiful setting. The food, on the other hand, a buffet of Indian dishes, is mediocre, not up to the standard we’d get at home. My better half talks to the cook, suggesting dishes he might try for the next night, things that might go over better with the kids. And he comes through – the meal the second night was great, really special. Same setting, great food.

Clearly visible from the hotel, the highest of the castle ruins overlooks ruins in several valleys, ours and others. Reaching it is a tough, steep climb, with trails unclearly marked, and aggressive vegetation bristling with thorns. The fortifications ascending and at the peak, interesting and great fun for kids to climb on and explore, are dangerous, unmarked, lots of big drops, holes in floors, and decay and collapse ongoing.
Within the confines of the topmost fort, a single, mysterious olive tree. Olives are not native to India, and attempts to introduce them, most recently in Rajasthan, have failed. Yet here, on this hilltop, stands a single, mature tree. Where did it come from? From the Middle East? Was it, or its antecedent, brought back as an exotic gift? How did it persevere here, untended, unwatered, unpruned, when other olives, nursed and tended, have frustrated attempts to bring them to fruition?


Next morning, from our vantage point in the palace, we watch the Holi festivities, paint and water throwing, though we can’t see the main action in the village square. Staff gently and respectfully daub my face with colours, and, having submitted to the ritual, we’re otherwise left alone. We depart Patan for Delhi. Out of the village and along the roads, strangely coloured men. 

The holiday roads and highways are near deserted, and the trip to Delhi takes just two and a half hours. The regal mantle we assumed for the weekend dropped and abandoned again on the empty palace floor.

Patan is nice, away, relaxing, peaceful. The locals, hindu and muslim, friendly, though English is not a lingua franca. Some fascinating architecture, the palace and the grand house, and the archaeology too is worth a look.

And the palace, the lonely palace of peace and imaginings.


Beaty from Csar Tours is a generous font of knowledge. To be thanked for recommending Patan and negotiating our stay. 

1 comment:

  1. Entertaining and enjoyable. Thanks, Rick, for this wonderful account of your latest adventure.