It is with pleasure that I present an article by reader Robert Clark. I am going to keep the introduction very simple by quoting from his website:
“All of the photographs on this site were taken when wandering around places I have lived in or travelled to. I try to photograph without drawing attention to myself in the hope of capturing candid images, reflecting the world as it appears. I point my camera at things that fascinate me, mostly people going about their daily business, sometimes reflecting the delight of human being, sometimes the humour and even occasionally its pathos.”
An Ancient Landscape
The appeal of southern Rajasthan for me is its ancient rural landscape little changed over many centuries. It is much greener and more richly agricultural than the more familiar and barren landscapes north and west of Jodhpur, and consequently much more alive with people working the fields and transporting their wares on carts around the small villages. There are signs of a continuous tradition reaching far into the past, which never seems far away. The ancient forts are less frequented than those of the north and the small towns and villages are almost empty of other tourists. So this trip we decided to travel again along a winding line between Udaipur and Bundi, stopping where we pleased.
To stay as close to those past traditions as possible, my wife had booked us in on route for a few nights into a heritage hotel in a late-medieval fort, which had only recently opened to guests. The rooms were newly restored, and the idea of staying in a palace where representatives of the old ruling dynasty were still living seemed like a unique opportunity. After slowly navigating the small town that abuts the fort walls, our driver managed to find the rubbish-strewn drive to a rear entrance. No one was expecting us from this direction and so it took a while before one of the retainers came to open the gates for us. After some engaging introductions and conversation we were shown to an exquisitely restored suite-sized room with our own terrace where we were able to freshen up and rest.
We were lucky enough to be the only guests, and so had the full attention of our hosts, Rawat Sawai Hari Singh, ex Rajasthani congress minister, and his son Ajay Raj Singh. They were keen, over pre-dinner drinks in an inner courtyard, accompanied by the sounds and scents of a hot Indian night, to tell us something of the history of Fort Begu. This ancient Nar durg (city fort) had been the home of their warrior ancestors since 1430. The charm of their 30-acre family home is the breadth of the fort experience it offers. It has a mixture of sensitively restored Mewar palaces, pavilions, courtyards and gardens; time-worn buildings that are soon to be restored; and an abundance of half-ruined temples, walls, bastions, terraces, and open areas with dense, scrubby undergrowth, complete with mongooses that together allow the mind to wander into a past of great privilege, wealth and power.
Early next morning, the calls of the many fort peacocks assembling on the rooftops invited me to rise and wander the surroundings. A moat and two enormously thick walls ring the stronghold, and leaving by the main gate, I wandered through some narrow lanes and out into the neighbouring countryside. I walked towards what I later discovered were the family mausoleums, a collection of pavilions of varying sizes, spread over a few acres of rough ground shared with trees and bushes.
The sun was low and hazy and the long shadows emphasized the textures of the land. Fields of mustard were being harvested and goats and pigs were being herded out to graze and forage in the shade of ancient tamarind trees. The early morning rhythms of the farmers and herders, and the calls of the unseen jungle birds, brings life to a landscape which will soon become still as the heat of the day begins to take its toll. It is a perfect time to wander and photograph.
Ajay, the Rawat’s son, took us in his jeep for an evening tour out to the Rajgarh Palace, a semi ruin, set on a lakeside some 7 kms from the fort, across land that has ancient ties to the family. As we passed through villages and our guide was recognised in his familiar vehicle, the older generation put their hands together and bowed their heads with smiles of recognition or with the grim seriousness of deference due. After independence, India’s royal and noble families were stripped of most of the land that provided them with the income to live in their previously lavish manner. India had become a democracy and such ostentatious wealth was no longer deemed acceptable. However, in this corner of the state, it was remarkable how long it takes for the old feudal hierarchies to change. I had already witnessed the attentive esteem and deference shown to the Rawat by his personal servants at the fort, but I had not expected to see its signs in the town and in the villages shown to a younger son.
Palaces are expensive to upkeep, let alone restore, but the restoration of a fort on this scale, with its complex of massive walls, moat, bastions, temples, pavilions, palaces and chattris, but without the lands that would in the past have financed it, would be enough to exhaust the resources of all but the richest of families. Yet this is the task that, using highly skilled craftsmen, the Rawat and his family have set themselves, and they hope to finance this partly through taking in paying guests. Whether this is in the end realistic only time will tell. Staying here, though, in amongst this stunning architecture in its quiet landscape, even only for a few days, was an experience that neither of us will forget.
India is changing, its economic structures are changing, and obviously this has an impact on how millions of people can make their livelihood. The cities are growing and drawing the agricultural poor to offer their labour in the expanding urban economies. Even the farming structures are slowly modernising, moving from the bullock to the tractor, and from sole reliance on the monsoons to introducing drip feed irrigations systems; the green revolution is still slowly making progress. Nevertheless, there is much that remains the way it was hundreds of years ago: the drying of hay in the branches of trees, the making of jaggery in the fields in giant balti-shaped steel vessels, and the drawing of water by bullock power from deep wells. These practices too will probably soon pass into history, but in the meantime the slow, peaceful landscape is something to be enjoyed.
You can see many more of Robert Clark’s photographs on his website here. His B&W photographs have been shot on a mixture of 35mm and 6×6 film, as well as on digital cameras.