The landscape remains unchanged. I have passed the wind-eroded rock faces and boulders along the winding road three times before this, yet each time it seems that they are shaped to play ever-shifting roles in an eternal drama. Each time I visit Deogarh, Rajasthan, once a stronghold of one of 16 umraos (feudal lords) of Mewar, the place seems to have reinvented itself. Each time the plot unfolds, there is a new story being told.
Princely tales: (top) A panoramic view of the Deogarh Mahal; and wind-eroded rocks on the way to Deogarh. Photographs by Mita Kapur
The bullock cart in the guise of a bus roars, revs, splutters and then settles into a slow trundle. From Beawar, where the road forks out to Ajmer and Udaipur, the drive turns green and speed ceases to matter. When we descend from the bus, it is with cramped, hesitant steps. But there is nothing tentative about the welcome: Shatrunjay Singh, younger scion of the Deogarh royal family, is beating on the nangada to welcome us. The drama of the greeting sets the tone of the visit.
To reach Deogarh Mahal, the hub of the town, one has to pass through the narrow lanes of the Deogarh bazaar. To protect passers-by from the sun, shopowners string yards of cloth across the street. In its shade sit sacks of dry coconut and dried red chillies, a tailor stitching sequinned fabric and an antique silver shop run by two young girls with kohl-rimmed, almond-shaped eyes so beguiling that, on a previous visit, I dropped double the legitimate price on their silver bracelets. Bright red, heavily embroidered zari saris flutter from the next shop, reflecting in its glitter the rising aspirations of the village. Old locks and ghunghroos (dancing bells) in all sizes hang casually on a faded red velvet hardboard, harking back to ages gone by but still alive. We savour it all at leisure, stuck as we are in a traffic jam.
King-size: (top) Atop the bhachero, the truck suitable for rocky terrain; and Fort Seengh Sagar. Photographs by Mita Kapur
A little later, after we have admired the Deogarh family’s collection of vintage cars, Shatrunjay drives us in a bhachero—a Rajasthani term for the only four-wheel truck capable of tackling the rocky terrain—through the valley, speeding past rocks shaped like an elephant, a toad, a rabbit, a crocodile. He careens up the hill as everyone gasps for breath, braking just as we touch the peak.
We step off the vehicle a tad gingerly. “How are we going down the hill?” suddenly seems to be the most popular query as we try to soak up the vastness of the valley at our feet. “The same way we came up,” Shatrunjay answers casually, unaware that a few hearts skip several beats at those words.
The evening deepens with the sun’s blushing orange hues, the fields that lie before us turn a richer, darker green, the breeze rises and falls in symphonic rhythm. The drive to Kotra, a small village near Deogarh, is steadily uphill. The road is left behind at some point and we duck under tree branches, sidle past the baked mud boundary walls of rain-washed fields as Shatrunjay, a natural storyteller, holds forth.
“Though undocumented, there is evidence that Gorakhnath and Machchendranath spent some part of their life around this village. Gorakhnath is supposed to be the founder of Hatha yoga, the school of Indian philosophy that teaches that spiritual perfection lies through mastery over the body. Legend says he also developed the Devanagari script. He is believed to have established the Nath Sampradaya, the nine naths and 84 siddhas said to be human forms of yogic manifestations created to spread the message of yoga and meditation. It is they who revealed the concept of attaining samadhi through meditation. There are two villages, Gorkhiya and Machchen, named after the yogis.”
As always, my trip to Deogarh has revealed a new facet of the region. Every one of my visits so far has surprised me: Last time around, it was the taste of Deogarhi cuisine, so different from the Rajasthani food available around Jodhpur and Jaipur that Shatrunjay had promised my next visit would focus on local specialities.
Corn, originally introduced to the region all the way from South America some 400 years ago, is the unusual staple of local food, making an appearance in sweet and savoury dishes alike, from mutton and chicken soyeta (meat on the bone), to roti, pulao and dhokla, and the sweet jajariya (a halwa made with broken corn, jaggery and raisins).
After a mind-numbing morning visit to the temple of Dinanathji—the cave where the 11th century saint attained samadhi now has marble flooring and blue tiles donated by devotees—my faith is restored in Kalaseriya, a small man-made lake 45 minutes away from Deogarh.
Under a parachute stretched across poles, wood-and-charcoal fires burn merrily. The chef throws cloves, cumin, pounded garlic, green chillies, turmeric and dry coriander into the smoking oil to cook a seasonal dish of green tomatoes. Elsewhere, kair (dried berries) and sangri (dried beans) soak in a bowl, and lal maas gravy bubbles in a degchi, producing aromas redolent with garlic and red chillies.
The liberal use of local red chillies makes all the difference in Deogarhi food, and it’s everywhere, including the chhilkewali urad ki dal, which tastes distinctly different from the dal served with baati and churma near the tourist hot spots of Jaipur or Jodhpur. We eat off daunas (dry peepul leaf bowls) arranged in a thal (a large plate). The bajra churma laddoos are decked with raisins and sweetened with jaggery—elsewhere in Rajasthan, they prefer sugar—and the roasted baatis are dunked in ghee.
As we crush the baatis with our hands, Shatrunjay comes up with yet another story. A roanni baati, he tells us, is one from which the ghee drips like tears, a haasni baati is one that breaks open into a toothy smile.
Drunk on the views of the Aravallis, the oldest fold mountains in the world, and replete with the tastes and fragrances of a centuries-old cuisine, there is no doubt which baati we resemble.
Trip Planner / Deogarh
Deogarh is situated on the boundaries of Mewar, Marwar and Merwara, about 135km north-east of Udaipur, in Rajasthan. At an altitude of about 2,100ft, it is cooler than other parts of Rajasthan. Catch the overnight Mewar Express at 7.05pm from New Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin (seven days a week, first AC fare Rs1,821, one way) and arrive in Udaipur at 7.20am. From Udaipur, take a deluxe bus to Deogarh for Rs125.
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
The Deogarh Mahal (www.deogarhmahal.com), standing atop a hill, offers a panoramic view of the Aravallis, as also numerous lakes. The hotel has 60 rooms; twin-share rates start from Rs4,500 per night. A family property, Fort Seengh Sagar has four rooms; rates start at Rs9,000 per night for a couple. Tent options are available at Deogarh Khayyam: 16 tents starting from Rs5,000 per night.
The most attractive features for visitors are the multiple treks in the hills nearby. You can also go boating on the lake, visit forts and undertake jeep safaris. Local dancers and singers also give performances at Deogarh Mahal. If you’re into history, there’s plenty to see on day trips. The Dashavatar temple is an exquisite Vishnu temple belonging to the Gupta period. Manastambha is a group of 31 Jain temples belonging to the post-Gupta period.
Though across the border in Madhya Pradesh, Chanderi—famous for its exquisite saris—has some of the finest examples of Bundela, Rajput and Malwa Sultanate architecture, including Koshak Mahal, a beautiful Mughal fort, the victory arch of the Badal Mahal Gate, the Jama Masjid, the Shahzadi ka Rouza and the Parmeshwar Tal.
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