Our first morning, we wake up at sunrise to go out on the lake in a rowboat, watching the thrilling sight of hundreds of water birds swoop and circle in formation as they settle into their winter quarters. The boat brings us close to groups of comb ducks, the strange horny growth on their bills clearly visible. We circle a small island where pond herons and fruit bats have colonised the trees, and nesting white ibises are perched on tall branches.
The sun casts a golden glow on the reeds and lotus pads where bronze-winged jacanas and purple moorhens scuttle in and out. Hot chai awaits us as we come ashore and the sense of well-being is complete.
Things to See and Do in Shahpura
Shahpura Bagh is an oasis of greenery and water, acres of trees, fields and gardens next to the waters of Khirsagar and Pivnia reservoirs. It’s the home of a former royal family, entitled to a nine gun salute no less, but the present generation lives with its past gracefully. Yes, there are the requisite hunting trophies on the walls, and the family’s intimate knowledge of wildlife probably comes from hours spent stalking ducks or four-footed beasts with a gun. But in the present, they are conservationists, trying to protect the wetlands around them, and growing organic vegetables in their garden.
The farm and the estate have a charming overgrown quality. Manicured lawns and bright flowerbeds give way to denser vegetation that runs wild along the perimeter, providing a haven for wildlife. There are magnificent mahua and khirni trees, wild dates and ber, all of which feed birds, monkeys and other wild things. The lakes nearby are a blessing. You can row a boat on Khirsagar Lake and look at birds and flowering lotuses, or cycle along the Nahar Sagar reservoir embankment and picnic at the farm.
Shahpura offers both nature and culture to its guests. I am accompanied to the bazaar by the assistant manager on my quest for a Rajasthani ghagra. Do I want what the Jat women wear or the Meenas or the Bhils? The ghagra is delivered in a day and I show it off at dinner to polite applause. Shahpura also supplies made-to-measure mojaris (slip-on shoes). The town, with its ruined old palace, geometrically precise stepwell, and temples jostling for space alongside PCO booths, makes for a good change of tempo.
The personal touch
Our hosts Sat Singh Rathore, a photographer, his wife Maya, a tourism expert, and Sat’s brother Jai, have recently opened up part of their family home and estate to paying visitors. Personalised care is lavished on each guest. Listening to accounts of the escapades of princes in the past, and to do this around a roaring fire on a chilly night, nursing a single malt, and eating smoky roasted shakarkandi (sweet potato) makes for a memorable treat.
The personal touch is everywhere: Maya, who also supervises the food, surprises us with a chocolate cake and champagne celebration one evening. To his red-faced delight, a guest finds out that it is in honour of his birthday, something casually mentioned earlier. The champagne follows an unusual musical performance by a group of local Bhils. The Bhils dance for the joy of it, rather than for an audience. The beat of drum and thali become more insistent as the night progresses. When we leave, they are still dancing.
Activities on request include a temple trek, boating, visit to Dhikola Fort and village safaris.
Where to Stay
Set among 45 acres redolent with lovely old neem, Ashok and mango trees (including a 300-year-old banyan) and in close proximity of two lakes, Shahpura Bagh (Tel: 01484-222077, Mob: 09828122013/ 12; Tariff: Rs 9,450- 10,850) is a homestay with royalty. The main building, Nahar Niwas, dating from the 19th century, was the summer residence of the Shahpura royal family. The grounds also house the Umaid Niwas, erstwhile royal guest house, now beautifully restored. It nestles amidst the woodland and fields, close to the main home. Its rooms are huge — high ceilings and gleaming lime floors (not limestone, but lime, using a painstaking local technique), four-poster beds and enormous bathtubs. The effect is spacious and serene.
Umaid Niwas offer 6 suites and 4 deluxe rooms. The emphasis is on an optimal use of light, air and space combined with elegance and understated luxury. Kashmiri carpets and bathtubs co-exist with birdsong and peacocks. MEALS Meals are usually eaten with the family. However, the range of food can spread over home-cooked Rajasthani to stews and roasts to champagne dinners. The vegetables are home grown and organic. Lunch costs Rs 700 and dinner Rs 800. Breakfast complimentary. In our marvellous breakfast spread, fresh papaya sits alongside steaming corn fritters; wonderfully crisp bhakri is accompanied by home-churned butter; and perfectly cooked omelettes appear on demand. Dinners are lavish, one of them is crowned by delicious chikoo ice-cream, churned in a bucket.
Nearest airport: Jaipur’s Sanganer Airport (203 km/4 hrs). Resort pick-up ranges from Rs 6 to 8 per km
Nearest railhead: Ajmer (118 km/ 21/2 hrs).
Best option TO
Haridwar- Ahmedabad Mail (dep: Old Delhi 10.20 pm; arr: Ajmer 6.40 am). Resort pick-up/ drop as above
Best option FROM
Haridwar Mail (dep: Ajmer 8.50 pm; arr: Old Delhi 5.05 am)
From Delhi, take NH8 for Jaipur; just before Kishangarh at the second Toll Naka after Jaipur, take a left onto NH79 for Bijainagar via Nasirabad Bypass; at Bijainagar, turn left for Shahpura Bagh, 50 km away, via Gulabpura
En route halts
Midway Behror and numerous halts in Jaipur
Story by Amita Baviskar