India day nine continued - and day ten
25.10.2015 - 27.10.2015
In the seventeenth century Jodhpur’s royal family built a hunting lodge on the edge of a small village in the heart of the Aravalli hills, Narlai. Today that lodge is an exquisite hotel, and my favourite of all the places we stayed in Rajasthan – I would very happily have stayed longer here than the two days that we had.
We drove to Narlai from Dechu, where we had spent the night in Samsara Desert Camp, by way of Jodphur where we stopped for some hours to visit the fort and old town. The journey was otherwise uneventful but we enjoyed watching the desert scenery gradually change to a greener, more agricultural landscape, dotted here and there with small mountains. We spotted antelope at one point, or rather the large deer, Nilgai, that the locals sometimes call antelope and sometimes wild cows, but they moved before I could grab a photo - one, the male, leaping over a fence of some considerable height.
We passed through small villages that seemed a little more affluent than those of the desert, some with quite grand houses here and there. And arriving at Narlai we found it much the same, with a large white temple at its heart and a few streets of quite humble houses with just a sprinkling of smarter ones, plus a few local shops to serve the farming community. The other main source of income here is the hotel, Rawla Narlai, which is located right in the village and which was to be our base for the next two nights.
This hotel has been very tastefully converted, retaining bags of character, and still feels old, unlike the other heritage hotels we stayed in which were perhaps almost too well restored, albeit beautifully. Our room was really lovely, packed with historic detail and antique furniture, yet with the modern conveniences we appreciate such as good plumbing and air conditioning. There were tea and coffee making facilities and complimentary bottles of water. The king-size bed was very comfortable. We had seating inside and a day bed on the shady terrace outside. This room was in the older part – I gather that those in the newer wing are larger but have less character, and personally I am very happy we were where we were as the room was more than large enough and I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice the character!
There are plenty of activities on offer, including jeep safaris and village walks, and we took advantage of some of these, but it was also a great place for some time out from our busy sightseeing schedule in Rajasthan. The hotel grounds are gorgeous. Bougainvillea, morning glory and frangipani flowers trail everywhere. There's a good-sized swimming pool tucked in one corner, while elsewhere there are pretty courtyards, fountains and lots of marble elephants – a bit of a theme here because of the huge carved marble elephant on the top of a rocky outcrop, Narlai Hill, that towers above the property.
The swimming pool
Rawla Narlai lies at the foot of Narlai Hill, a rocky outcrop typical of this landscape, on the top of which stands a huge white marble statue of an elephant (and hence you will hear locals refer to the hill as Elephant Rock). Although we didn’t do this, the hotel organise free escorted walks up the hill at sunrise – there are a lot of steps to climb but I reckon the effort would be rewarded.
Towards the bottom of the hill are several temples. From the hotel we could see the large one that nestles under the overhanging rocks, and in the early mornings and evenings could hear chanting carried from here on the breeze. This is the Temple of Shri Aai Mata, who was an incarnation of the goddess Ambe Maa, found in a garden in Ambapur (Gujarat) as a baby by Rao Bika Dhabi and brought up as his daughter. It is said that she visited Narlai and stayed in the Jekalji Mahadev Temple in the village from where she taught the local people. According to local legend she created an opening in a cave on the hills with lightening and in it placed a Jyoti (divine lamp) which burns with a continuous flame which produces kesar (a saffron coloured soot) instead of a black one.
Shri Aai Mata temple
Near the foot of the hill and right opposite the entrance to the hotel is a much smaller temple, set in a cave and dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is said that the sage Shri Narad meditated here to please Lord Shiva and that the village was named after him.
So much for the temples on the hill. But about the elephant I have not been able to find anything – who put it there, why and when – all is a mystery!
Arriving here in the late afternoon we settled into our room; explored the grounds and took some photos; signed up for a couple of activities the next day; and spent a lovely evening which included an enjoyable and tasty dinner served by candlelight on the flat roof on top of the bar in the pleasantly cooling evening air. The food was excellent, especially the wonderful aubergine curry flavoured with mustard, and very reasonably priced.
A day in Narlai
With just a day in which to enjoy the facilities and activities here we were up fairly early and enjoying breakfast in the restaurant overlooking the main courtyard. Opposite this, on the far side of this courtyard, the hotel has a small shrine which on that morning, a Monday, was the focus for some activity.
Shrine and village elder
The service at the Rawla Narlai is as attentive as everywhere, and that attentiveness seems to expand to include those living in the surrounding village. Every Monday morning the village elders are invited in for tea and a chat about village matters. I and another hotel guest spotted them while we were at breakfast and we went across to ask permission to take some photos, which was willingly granted. We had in mind to take photos from the courtyard but we were invited up on to the terrace (removing our shoes, of course) where I took these photos.
Village Elders' meeting
This seems a great custom for the hotel to have introduced, as it helps to ensure good relationships between local community and hotel, and if any problems did arise they can be talked through straight away. Mostly though it seemed to be an excuse for a good gossip and plenty of tea!
A walk in the village
After breakfast we went for a walk in the village with a member of the hotel staff, a local resident. Narlai is a small village with an unusually large number of temples (even by Indian standards). It faces some of the same challenges as rural communities everywhere, with a declining population caused by some younger people drifting away, tempted by big city life and its wider opportunities. But its streets have thriving little shops, mainly catering only to locals; its farmers manage to feed their families and have produce over to sell; its people benefit from the opportunity to work in or for the hotel; and overall it has a more affluent (or more accurately perhaps, a less struggling) character than many other places we went to.
Of course you can always walk around on your own (the hotel is right in the middle of the village) but going with a local like this enables you to be invited into some village houses. Although having said that, I was also asked inside one by a woman who, when I asked permission to take a photo, insisted on me coming in so that she could pose with her goat which was clearly a prized possession!
We also went in a few local shops – two clothing, one jewellers (and they were very much local shops, not tourist ones). I was tempted by a gorgeous pink skirt in one but it was so traditional I knew I would probably feel silly wearing it at home! The other woman in our group of four did buy a petticoat which I was pleased about as these local village shops must appreciate the additional custom the hotel brings.
In addition to seeing the general life of the village we made a brief stop at the Lord Shiva temple in a cave right by the hotel. We also saw several other temples, small and larger, which are dotted around the village, including the main Jain temple, Shri Adinath, which has a huge elephant outside and was being restored at the time of our visit.
But the highlight, or rather many highlights, of this walk were the large number of village people who greeted us, willingly posed for photos and generally made us feel very welcome here.
Villagers in Narlai
In particular the walk gave us a great opportunity to photograph the colourful traditional dress of Rajasthan, thanks to the openness of the women we met and their willingness to pose for us. This is always very colourful. It consists of an ankle length skirt, a short top (this may just skim the waist or stop higher up, leaving the midriff bare) and a long piece of cloth known as a chunari. This protects them from the heat and is also often used to cover or partly cover the face.
Mehar told us that it is the village daughters-in-law (those who have married into local families and come to live with their husband’s family, as is customary) who are expected to cover their faces, especially in the presence of older relatives, men and strangers. Having said that, many whom we met, here and elsewhere, seemed pretty relaxed about dropping the cloth to say hello, smile and pose for photos etc. I noticed that different colours seem popular in different villages. In some we had passed through the predominant shades were orange and yellow, or red and green, while here in Narlai it was pink, purple and reds for the most part.
The women’s adornments often include a large number of bangles worn on the upper arms. These are usually just of white plastic. It seemed to me that they may be cut from pot lids, although I could be wrong! But wealthier women wear metal, even sometimes gold, bangles.
Regardless of wealth though, it is traditional to wear an elaborate gold decoration in one side of the nose, a tradition that some here still follow even on a regular working day it seems. These nose rings are worn throughout India, with different styles popular in different region. In Rajasthan the most usually worn is the nathni, a large but delicate hoop connected to the hair with a thin chain. The women in my photos below though have a rather more elaborate version of this. I didn’t ask, but maybe it was a special occasion in their family (we met them in the same house).
We spent the middle part of the day relaxing by, and in, the hotel’s pool and enjoying a light lunch there, before our next activity …
A leopard safari
This is one of several optional excursions offered by Rawla Narlai. It costs 2,000 IR per person and you can choose to go first thing in the morning or late afternoon. We chose the latter and set out at 4.30 PM with a number of other hotel guests in three separate jeeps. They reckon on spotting leopards on about 80% of the trips, so you have a good chance – as you can see from my photos below, we were in luck!
The hotel employs some trackers who know the habits and movements of the local leopard population and who go out walking the surrounding area during the day on the lookout for them. If they have a sighting they radio the guides leading the safaris. The leopards tend to stay in one place for some time, so the jeeps have plenty of time to get to the site.
Tracker on the lookout
On our safari we had headed out of the village to the foot of the nearby Elephant Rock where leopards are apparently often sighted and where one had been seen that morning. We had no sighting here, though we did see some langur monkeys playing on a Jain temple roof. Then the call came – a female leopard with two cubs had been spotted some miles away. We immediately turned back through the village, out on to the main road and headed towards the site where we found the other two jeeps from the hotel already in position, with all eyes, cameras and binoculars trained on the top of a nearby rocky outcrop. There she was! Part-hidden by an outcrop of rock, but definitely there! Her cubs were harder to spot, staying mainly behind the rock, but we did get some glimpses of them too. Of course, being at some distance, it was hard to get great photos, but a few of those I took did come out well enough to at least serve as a record of the experience.
Leopard on the rocks
You can just see a cub in this one!
We stayed at this spot for quite a while, taking photos of the leopards, while the hotel guides handed out bottles of water, tea from a flask and sandwiches. As well as the leopards, we saw an antelope and quite a lot of peacocks. There was a hazy sunset which developed into a lovely pearly pink light, and an almost full moon had risen before we finally left and headed back to the hotel. In all the safari lasted about two hours and seemed to us to be very reasonable value for what we had paid – though of course we might feel differently had we not seen any leopards!
That evening we ate again at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant – there really isn’t any other option here, but as it serves excellent food at a reasonable price we didn't have a problem with that!
Monkeys at Narlai
On our second (and last) morning at Narlai we woke early. I just happened to be looking out of the window when I spotted movement on a roof top - a monkey. We jumped out of bed and soon saw that it was a whole troop so of course we threw on some clothing, grabbed our cameras and hurried outside. It was a troop of langur monkeys passing through, or rather across, the hotel, stopping at a couple of trees that obviously had fruit that is to their taste. There were several cute babies among them and we took loads of photos as they paused briefly on the roofs before continuing on and into the trees. After about five minutes or so they moved on, and we could see them leaping across the roofs of the village beyond, no doubt heading towards more favourite trees, or to scavenge from rubbish heaps.
India’s langurs are Grey or Hanuman Langurs (the latter name taken from the Hindu god). They are a pale or yellowish grey with a black face and long tails (up to 100 cm and always longer than their body), and rather attractive, I think. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than the macaques which live in this region too, although they do regularly steal food and crops. Watching them was a lovely way to start our day and ensured one more happy memory to take away from Narlai.
After another good breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Narlai, with some reluctance. There had been no time to climb Elephant Hill at sunrise, no time for dinner at a nearby step well (another of the activities offered by the hotel) and no time for a further wander on our own through the village.
But Ranakpur and Udaipur awaited us …