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Chasing the winter sun

Charlotte Metcalf marvels at the lights and colours of Diwali in Rajasthan

18 November 2009

12:00 AM

18 November 2009

12:00 AM

I arrive in Jodhpur, the blue city, for Diwali, the Festival of Lights that celebrates the triumphant homecoming of Ram and Sita after defeating the demon Ravanna. The sun is welcomingly potent after dismal British drizzle, and the celebratory mood is an instant tonic.

I have been invited to celebrate Diwali at Raas, a hotel due to open in December. In the old city’s heart and minutes from the market, it is a delicious shock to walk into a serene, spacious courtyard, above which looms the great red Fort Mehrangarh in all its majesty, so gloriously close that it looks as if it might topple into the swimming pool.

Fort Mehrangarh is reason enough to visit Jodhpur. Dating from 1459, the walled fortress sits astride a vast rock that thrusts up and dwarfs the plain around it. Pigeons flutter round fairytale towers as I toil up winding lanes and staircases, cross cool courtyards and glimpse exquisite silk-lined royal apartments through intricately carved jalis. Rooms full of miniatures, ornate weaponry, palanquins and elephant seats are testament to the voluptuous opulence of the maharajas — Mehrangarh remained the maharaja’s home till 1943. From high up on the battlements old Jodhpur looks like a tumbled handful of giant lapis lazuli dice in the burnt orange dust.

Mehrangarh’s rooftop restaurant is one of Jodhpur’s best-kept secrets. On the eve of Diwali, 20 of us dine amongst the ramparts. Under a glittering rash of stars, we sit at a long, candlelit table for a three-course feast. The warm air dries any damp sprout of autumnal gloom still lurking in my spirit and the next day I am ready for the festivities to begin in earnest.

The market is seething with people buying firecrackers and delicacies for the revelries ahead. Heavily made-up eunuchs, smoking, cackling and bulging hairily from their saris, are raucously extracting money from stallholders in exchange for their Diwali blessing. I elbow past, dodging a man carrying a towering, swaying bunch of peacock feathers. Under the searing Rajasthani sun, even a basket of plain peas glows with lurid emerald intensity. Here, turbans or saris that cover the head are customarily pink, yellow, red or orange to convey a sense of well-being. Vibrant, hot colours glow from every dark corner or dusty alley.

As dusk falls, Raas is ablaze with lights — floating in the pools, festooning every bush and tree, flickering along passageways and walkways. The evening begins with a short religious ceremony, interrupted by the priest’s chirruping mobile that he fails to silence. We have our wrists tied with red and orange string and pass our hands over the holy flame. Then the partying begins, with sparklers galore, champagne and music. A small boy in a scarlet turban whirls for us and then girls, jingling with jewellery and tiny shining bells, shimmy in. Fireworks burst into cacophonous colour again and again and again. When we go up onto the roof to eat, the musicians and dancers strike up again on the opposite roof. We party till dawn, firecrackers exploding around us.

Feeling fragile, I leave the city the next afternoon and drive south towards the desert. I arrive near Rohet, at a dun-and-clay-covered fort that glows honey-gold in the setting sun. This is Mihirgarh, newly built by Sidarth and Rashmi Singh of the old ruling Rohet family. Mihirgarh is breathtakingly beautiful and, true to Rajasthan form, radiant with colour — peacock blues and greens in the main loggia that looks onto the infinity pool, tomato reds in the dining room, burnt orange in my comfortable bedroom, petal pink in my bathroom. Everywhere I look there are sweeping views of the desert and a sense of infinite space under a huge sky. After Jodhpur’s hectic throb, this is a tranquil haven.

Next morning Sidarth takes me riding. We trot gently through great flat stretches of scrubland. We stop at villages and lunch by a lake in the breezy shade of a white tent. As we eat our curry, kingfishers swoop and tiny, luminous green bee-eaters glimmer in the thorn trees. I ride on to Rohet Garh. On the banks of a lotus-flower lake, this fortified palace has been the local seat of power and the ruling Rohet family’s home since 1622. It’s where Bruce Chatwin wrote Songlines and William Dalrymple City of Djins. It is a fascinating, gently fading monument to a bygone era of elegant grandeur. Sidarth only opened it as a hotel in 1990, and he kept the maharaja’s drawing room intact, complete with thrones and family photographs.

Finally there is a hitch. My plane to Delhi has a fault and turns back. I team up with another woman and, thanks to Banyan Tours, find a driver with the stamina and patience prepared to make the hazardous eight-hour journey through the night. Dodging cows, insanely dangerous drivers and trucks without lights, fuelled by sweet milky tea from roadside stalls, we reach Delhi at dawn. I am staying at the new Aman Hotel but only have a few hours before my flight home. I am so tired that it’s not until after the porter leaves my room that I notice there’s a swimming pool in it.

Fact file
With Original Travel a week’s tailor-made trip similar to the author’s, including three nights at Raas (B&B), three nights at Mihir Garh (full board) and one night at the Aman New Delhi (B&B), costs from £2,400 per person, including all flights with Jet Airways and transfers.

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