They say rural India is a different world to the country’s cosmopolitan, thriving cities. If Bollywood is anything to go by, it certainly is, but this trip had shown me that you can’t trust everything you see on the bedazzled screen. So, when our tour promised a ‘rural experience’ in the village of Pachewar, I wondered what this meant.
Mohammed, who was to visit his own family’s village once our trip was over, wasn’t all that bothered about this part of the tour. In all honesty, nor was I – unsurprisingly, this village didn’t have big hitters like the Mughal monuments, or a spectacular landscape to speak of. Pachewar’s main attraction seemed to be the accommodation we were staying in – a heritage hotel set in an 18th century fortress.
Pachewar Garh, with it subtle golden colour scheme, almost blends in with the reams and reams of yellow mustard fields that surround it. It was constructed in the 1750s by a Rajput ruler, who had conquered the land from the Marathas in the name of our friend the Maharajah of Jaipur. It’s been passed down through the generations to the current owner, Madhulika Singh, or to you and me “Auntie-ji”. She and her husband Colonel Singh have spent decades converting the place into a heritage hotel. It’s a real labour of love, as they aren’t really reaping the financial rewards yet.
One by one, the group stepped off the coach and walked in the direction of the fort. The Singh family treated us like honoured guests, as the drums played and a refreshing glass of sugarcane juice was dished out to everyone. Auntie stood at the doors, holding a metal platter of red paste and flower garlands. She dipped her thumb in the paste and gently pressed it to our foreheads. This is tilaka – the ceremonial mark many Indians wear. It can mean a number of things, but in this case, it was used to welcome us. A glass of sweet sugarcane juice in one hand, and flowers in the other, I already felt pretty welcome.
Aware that I’d slated white people in Malaysia for getting tilaka applied without knowing what it meant, I looked at Mohammed nervously. This seemed like potential cultural appropriation to me, but on the other hand, it seemed rude to refuse. “It’s okay”, Mohammed shrugged, “it’s part of the welcoming ritual, and Auntie is doing it to everyone as a greeting. It’s not like you asked for it”. True. I thanked Auntie, let her apply the tilaka, and went indoors.
Our rooms were in the belly of the fort, up about 2 sets of stairs, through 3 corridors and a short walk along the battlements. It was full of character, with creaky wooden furniture to rest on, and colourful rugs protecting our feet from the chilly stone floors. So this is what G Adventures meant when they said Pachewar was like “stepping back in time”.
Dropping his case on the floor, Mohammed made a break for the bathroom. He came out beaming, requesting that I “Look at the shower!” As well as a normal shower head, I found a waist-height tap and a bucket on the floor. “This is old school. This is how my family used to wash when I was growing up”. My friend smiled, remembering simpler times. I stared, perplexed by the instruments in front of me. I saw people shower this way in Japan, too, but it doesn’t seem like most pleasurable way of washing oneself.
Pondering this for a while, it was soon time for dinner, which was hosted by Colonel Singh. As he demonstrated the recipe for a chicken curry, he told us about the history of the fort, and the work his family have been doing to make Pachewar Garh a destination for history lovers in search of authentic India.
10/10 for that stetson.
As we discovered in the last blog, the Maharajas were slowly weaned off state support after the Partition of India. Facing a difficult financial situation, it was Auntie’s idea to turn the old fort into a heritage hotel, a sustainable way of making her family an income. While Colonel Singh was away in the army, she took the reins, managing the hotel’s day-to-day business and hiring labourers from the village to restore the fort to its former glory. Although they’ve been working on the place for more than ten years, their work is far from finished. Large sections of the palace remain unrenovated, left in ruins, waiting to be given the Singhs’ magic touch.
A state of beautiful decay – this is Pachewar Garh’s USP.
Besides Uncle’s chicken curry and a buffet of Rajasthani foods courtesy of Auntie, there was also a local liqueur on offer. Coloured a luminescent shade of green and smelling vaguely of anise, this mysterious booze was a type of ‘desi daaru’. Roughly translating to “local drink”, it’s basically a home brew that gets people very drunk, very quickly. It’s commonly consumed in Indian villages, and is the root of many evils, from disorderliness to domestic violence. In this setting, though, it seemed harmless enough. I hummed a Bollywood lyric “desi daaru, English bar”, and took a sip.
I’m not much of a drinker. This means that alcohol A) all tastes the same and B) goes straight to the back of my throat. I coughed and spluttered, much to the amusement of those around me, and put the drink down.
Thankfully, I don’t need alcohol to get me in the party mood, as my experience in Agra and Jaipur had proved. Good thing, really, as the Singhs had laid on a Rajasthani dance workshop for the evening’s entertainment. The drums were back, and a lady from the village had come to teach us how things were done. Manu encouraged everyone to join in, and having seen my moves, flattered me into participating.
Our would-be dance teacher ventured into a room off to the side, and beckoned me. I wandered in, seeing her take bundles of colourful garments out of her bag, ready to dress us tourists up. Having the cultural appropriation conversation with Mohammed once again, we both decided not to miss out on the fun, and let her give us a makeover.
She wrapped a length of cloth around Mohammed’s middle, fashioning dhoti, a style of baggy trousers. He’d never worn these before. Nor had he worn a Rajasthani-style turban. Each province has a different way of wrapping it, and it can also vary depending on social class, caste etc. As Rajasthan is mostly desert, it’s important that the turban is large and loose-fitting.
As for me, I was given a skirt, blouse, and headscarf called an odhni. The latter kept falling off, a casualty of overexertion on the dancefloor.
Here’s Mohammed in his dhoti (trousers) and turban and me in my ghagra choli (skirt and blouse combo).
We formed a circle and started to gently follow the steps our teacher showed us, but as the music gained pace, so did we. Before long, the whole group was freestyling – Mohammed showed off some Gujarati garba steps, while I put 3 years of Bollywood lessons to use. Our new friends laughed, and threw their own shapes, much to the confusion of Manu and a couple of others who were watching the spectacle. Not that we cared.
Boycotting the bucket shower the next morning, I ate as much breakfast as I could, before meeting up with Mohammed and Manu at the fort’s entrance. Before we departed for Delhi, we’d explore the village of Pachewar, guided by the hotel’s kindly security guard. Spying peacocks atop telegraph poles and parakeets in pigeon holes, we set off.
Admittedly, we didn’t get the best first impression of Pachewar. Some local kids began to tease and literally kick a puppy, which was very upsetting. Our Indian guides stormed over, ordering the delinquents to stop. They did, but such behaviour jarred with the lovely welcome we’d received inside the fort.
The rest of the village proved that these kids were the exception, and not the rule. We walked past a Muslim school, where the children stopped playing to wave at us. A few paces forward, an elderly woman invited all 18 of us into her home for tea. The security guard even took us into his own family home, where I managed to hit my head on a metal pole while characteristically trying to stroke his cat.
Our last sight in Pachewar was Pampa Sagar lake, the village’s primary source of water. Here, women take their laundry down to the waters and beat the shit out of it until it’s clean. Men, meanwhile, take dips to wash themselves – even in freezing January temperatures. Cows drink from it, when they’re not milling about hoping for some snacks from the villagers. Pampa Sagar is overlooked by three stone pavilions, which are the royal cenotaphs of Auntie’s powerful ancestors.
Interesting though it was, we can’t resist a good photo op.
I’m using the scarf to hide my unwashed hair. Not as a fashion statement, though it certainly looks that way.
This glassine lake, covered in mist, was a lovely memory of Pachewar to take with us as we boarded the coach back to Delhi. Both of us had initially been nonplussed about the idea of visiting Pachewar, but it was a lovely experience. For Mohammed, it was one of the highlights of the trip, as this sleepy Rajasthani village offered a break from the madness of India’s cities – and a breath of much-needed fresh air.
Our tour was at an end, but Mohammed and I continued our adventure for a little while longer. Join us next time, when we’ll be tiger spotting and wreaking havoc in luxury hotels at Ranthambore National Park.