In the deserts of Rajasthan there's a Hindu temple beside a small village called Bhadariya Mata. At first glance the temple is not unusual. However it is surrounded by parched paddocks holding vast herds of cattle, and when the animals shift in the dusty twilight their horns and humps are burnished with gold.
It's an extraordinary sight – 50,000 animals no less. But I'm confused. "So this is a milking herd?"
"No, most of them are bulls," replies my guide, Vishu. "But remember, these animals are not being farmed. They're being cared for until they die."
We watch small mountains of chaff being unloaded from brightly coloured trucks. Since the monsoon failed last year, religious benefactors have been pouring money into the temple to feed a herd that chews through $20,000 of feed a day. And every week more holy bovines are dropped at the temple.
"Farmers now use tractors so they have no use for bulls to pull carts and ploughs," says Vishu. "The animals are left to wander the roads. It's a problem right across India."
Now the largest "cow shelter" in the nation, it was started in the 1980s when the temple's holy man – a deceased guru who is himself worshipped – decreed it the sacred duty of the remote village to repay "mother cow" after her many centuries of service.
But as I'm soon to learn, it's not the only thing the guru decreed for Bhadariya Mata ...
CARAVAN UNDER THE STARS
The mind-boggling concept of 50,000 cows in retirement is the start of my nine-day "Backroads of Rajasthan" tour with Indian-based operator, Banyan Tours. The tour is an alternative to the well-trodden tourist triangle of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, and I'm already feeling rather off-piste.
Banyan has furnished me with three things to facilitate the 1000-kilometre journey: a modern SUV with air con, Wi-Fi and driver; a guide, Vishu Singh, a native Rajasthani and graduate in ancient Indian history; and a meticulous itinerary broken by a diverse array of accommodation.
With the dusts of the herd still in my hair, the chilled towel and lemon-infused drink proffered at the entrance to The Serai is very welcome.
This Relais & Chateaux safari camp lies east of the ancient city of Jaisalmer. Arranged around a square of desert thorns and palms, its 21 white canvas tents are on pale stone plinths. Each is furnished with a wide bed, writing desk, robes and slippers. Some tents have spa pools set in stone courtyards, which glimmer at night from candles recessed in a wall.
With its comforts juxtaposed against the austere desert, the camp is redolent of the trader caravans that made Rajasthan's maharajahs wealthy.
I dine under starlight while musicians play traditional "ragas", their performance as exuberant as their great curling moustaches (the very apogee of male fashion in Rajasthan). The faces of my fellow guests are lit by a constellation of oil lamps. Many are rich Indian travellers, but there's also a party of 10 stylish women from Mexico.
The Mexican women are always laughing, determined to indulge in everything The Serai has to offer. I see them at dawn doing yoga beside the pool, their Indian instructor keeping them contorted for a good hour. And I see them at dusk on camels, swaying into high, coarse dunes where they drink sparkling wine served from Maruti safari jeeps. Their laughter spills over the dunes as the sun melts into a far horizon of villages growing cumin, anise and fenugreek.
Vishu and I get an early start exploring Jaisalmer. Like many of Rajasthan's cities, it's presided over by a fortified palace built high on a rocky hill.
Jaisalmer Fort is protected by four kilometres of wall and 99 bastions. Rounded boulders are still locked and loaded, ready to be rained down on marauders attacking the Bathi dynasty, which ruled from the 12th century. The Maharajah is no longer in residence, however the fort is still home to some 5000 people, making it a living relic.
Within, is a satisfying Indian cacophony. The narrow lanes and crowded chowks (squares) somehow accommodate honking motorbikes, streams of visiting schoolchildren, merchants peddling colourful turbans and glamorous gypsy women hawking faux silver. The palace – a museum now – looms over it all, seven storeys of golden yellow rock reaching 250 metres above the hot plains.
"These forts were as much a sign of safety and security as they were aggression," explains Vishu. "This in turn attracted people to settle in and around the fort."
More people meant more taxes, and with the blessing of the Muslim Mughals, the Rajasthan maharajahs and their little desert fiefdoms prospered. In the 1700s their coffers swelled even more thanks to desert caravans (bringing trade) and raiding parties (bringing loot). They even profited by running opium for the greatest looters of them all – the British.
In the small city of Bikaner, which I confess I've never heard of, I get a sense of just how powerful some of these rulers became. And how quickly that power was taken away.
At its heart is the rose-pink Junagarh Fort. Sixteen generations of royals steadily built the thing up with a succession of architectural styles, including the fabulous arches and cupolas beloved of the Mughals. Artists were commissioned to create sumptuous fantasies using paint ground from semi-precious stones. I especially like the Cloud Room, painted entirely in lapis blue and decorated with clouds and lightning strikes. To emulate the sound of the monsoon, a stone water tank would trickle with water.
The most impressive of Bikaner's maharajahs was Ganga Singh who ruled until 1943. While many of his forebears were vassals, Ganga Singh's diplomacy was such that the British had him represent the Indian Empire at Versailles in 1918. A painting of the treaty-signing shows the Maharajah in turban and general's uniform standing behind our own wartime prime minister, Billy Hughes.
Ganga Singh's lofty durbar is supported by columns. It now displays weapons, thrones – and a De Havilland biplane.
As for the maharajahs' disempowerment, I get a sense of this courtesy at my Bikaner hotel, a bold and avant-garde property called the Narendra Bhawan.
Passing behind high walls, I enter a courtyard filled with flowers, classical European sculptures and two Mahindra jeeps – to be heralded by an ambitious bugler in military regalia. The crowd of hip young Delhi-ites barely look up from their Negroni cocktails, but the welcome (ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Peter Sellers in The Party) leaves me cock-a-hoop.
It also leaves me wondering if India has discovered post-irony? While the plum-red, six-storey building features traditional lattice "jali'' screens and a huge inner alfresco courtyard, that's about as traditional as it gets.
This was home to Ganga Singh's great grandson, Narendra. He was given the title of Maharajah in 1988, but with all power removed after Independence in 1949 and all privileges and purses stripped in 1971, it was very much a titular role. Not that this stopped Narendra living it up in Europe's cities and indulging at home in his three passions – great danes, his cows and the colour red.
"He was very eccentric by all accounts, but he most certainly had style," says hotel vice-president Siddharth Yadav, a vivacious host dressed in a close-collar Jodhpuri jacket of electric green. "He liked his drinks a certain way, his afternoon tea had to be served just so, and he was a great reader. We've tried to emulate that."
The interiors of the 82-room hotel embrace art deco, chiffon, velvet and the idiosyncrasies of a disempowered playboy. Guests can enjoy their G&Ts anywhere in this hotel – beside the flaming red baby grand with the words Je ne regrette rien written in gold, in the billiards room with its stuffed leopard or immersed in the infinity pool on the rooftop. Throughout the lobby are small piles of Penguin Classics, including the works of Tennyson, Basho and Wilde.
The flamboyance and levity are unusual in a country that's still very conservative, but since opening in 2016, Narendra Bhawan has proved a hit with designers, artists and movie people. Perhaps channelling the ghost of its original occupant, Siddharth adds: "Hotels must make their own destiny."
The roads through Rajasthan are long and straight, but my backroad tour constantly twists and turns.
Bikaner's "National Research Centre on Camel" is a campus with an odd name and 340 dromedaries. The 283-hectare facility is interested in camel's milk (apparently good for diabetes), as well as breeding the perfect camel from four varieties indigenous to the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The most confronting yet compelling part of the campus is a series of stalls where they keep male camels in heat. Insane with lust and highly dangerous, they slobber, sweat and sway, and make gargling noises using a bladder in their throat – a ghastly red balloon that sometimes slips out to hang from their foaming jaws.
I meet the men who look after the campus beasts, a coarse group (many with missing fingers) who belong to a caste called Raika. For centuries this caste has cared for camels and when I ask if the meat is eaten, they say no, the animals are sacred. This prompts me to ask what happens to the dead camels – at which they tell me about the "carcass dump".
"Any chance I can see that?"
Vishu is taken aback. "You want to see the carcass dump?!"
It turns out all Indian towns have a carcass dump. The huge acreage is far out of town, walled and gated. Vishu and I trek to a tree that is candled with vultures and when the air is at its most pungent I'm looking at a phalanx of ribcages lively with bickering dogs.
"Carcass dumps have an ecology," says Vishu. "The dogs get first pickings. Then it's the vultures. Then the falcons and crows. The white egrets feed on the maggots. And at night the jackals and foxes come out."
Dead cows must also be left in nature's mortuary. Before we depart, a motorbike bearing three men emerges from a line of trees and they stop to say hello. It's the final layer of the ecology, for these are Regars, a poor Hindu caste whose job in life is to skin the cows and camels and dye the hides.
SAVAGE TO SUBLIME
Not all the tableaus are so savage.
Chhatra Sagar in Nimaj is another luxury tented camp. It's set on a great wall built in 1890 to dam a river winding through limestone mountains. The 11 tents look down on a lake that turns silver in the low sun. This is the time we do a safari walk, among fragrant grasses and acacias, coming upon Asia's largest antelope, the mighty "blue" Nilgai. We also see an owl, kingfishers, peacocks and boar. At night, a great fire pit sends flickers across the silverware and wineglasses and I'm served some of the best Indian food I've ever eaten – including a dish of spiced chicken with vegetables in whole spices, and fresh yoghurt sweetened by local pomegranate.
At a fortified palace called Ahhichatragarh I find myself presiding over an outpost city called Nagaur. A 20-year restoration of the fort has relinquished remarkable treasures, including a gilded cage of sorts called Ranvas. This was a compound where the ruler kept his 16 queens in luxurious quarters of stone, bathing pools and shady trees. These same quarters are now luxury suites for the Ranvas hotel, a sublime reinvention that offers sensual solace as well as a fine dining pavilion. Perhaps the greatest indulgence is getting to explore the entire palace on one's own – including bathhouse, pleasure gardens and frescoed residence for the mighty Mughal emperor, Akbar. Wines and canapes are taken on the 12th-century walls. The dusty city lies at my feet while the songs of a dozen muezzins call Muslims to prayer.
In stark contrast to both is a beautiful domestic residence in Deogarh called Dev Shree. It's richly painted in golden yellow, with white pilasters and coping, and enlivened by the family who lives here – Shatrunjai Singh Chundawat, Bavna and their sons Brighu and Mahar. The deep verandah and lush lawns are alive with conversation and cocktails, a rambunctious labrador pup and a little croquet.
This generous and gregarious family is descended from the rulers of Deogarh and still moves among establishment circles in London, Hong Kong and New York. Their guests are struck from the same cloth, and at the long and lively dining table, I'm unsurprised to find myself seated beside retired Manhattan lawyers.
So I consider it a stroke of genius when, next morning, a trusted family servant bundles us onto a local train – hard benches, dozing holy men, chai wallahs and all – for a ride through the Aravalli mountains. Seeing a retired New York lawyer, an erstwhile enforcer of procedure and litigation, swinging his legs out of an open train door while ravines open beneath him, is a beautiful thing to behold.
During my nine days on the backroads of Rajasthan with guide Vishu, I not only get to see extraordinary things, I get to go a little deeper.
In a temple in Deshnoke where thousands of holy rats scurry about my ankles, I'm afforded insights into "the emotional mind" of Indians and the infinite adaptability of Hinduism to meet their spiritual needs. In a traditional earthen home of thatch and cow dung near Serai, I talk with villagers about how their lives are changing through the use of tractors, propane-gas cooking and aquifer irrigation.
And at the small temple beside Bhadariya Mata, with its clouds of chaff and dust, I actually get to go beneath the holy hooves of 50,000 cows.
I'm shown to concrete steps in the temple complex that lead underground. "As well as looking after mother cow, the guru said that people should be educated," Vishu explains. "So he started collecting books."
Under the desert, we wander a kilometre of chandelier-lit passages, lined with 1 million religious and legal books. After 25 years of construction, villagers are still stacking shelves with donated tomes. It's claimed to be the largest library in Asia. And judging by the paucity of visitors to the temple – not to mention the powdered mothballs lying undisturbed within its 526 bookcases – few of these books have ever been opened.
India markets itself using a single word that neatly encompasses the extraordinary, the unexpected and the inexplicable. These backroads are a shortcut to parts of the world that can rightly be called incredible.
Max Anderson travelled as a guest of Banyan Tours.
Air India has non-stop flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Delhi. Singapore Airlines has daily flights to major Indian cities from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, via Singapore.
Banyan has a 12-night Backroads of Rajasthan Tour starting in Delhi. It costs $15,200 for two people on a bed and breakfast basis. It includes all vehicle transport within India, guiding and economy domestic flights (into Jodhpur and out of Udaipur). International flights and visa fees are not included. The tour can be fully tailored. Note, for the itinerary to include desert camp accommodation (including The Serai and Chhatra Sagar), travel will need to be undertaken in the cooler months between October and March.
RAJASTHAN BY THE NUMBERS
the size of Rajasthan in square kilometres. The desert state is India's largest by area, brought together at Independence (1949) by amalgamating 22 kingdoms and principalities. "Rajasthan" means the Land of Kings.
the number of leopards in Rajasthan. The 2017 census was a reason to cheer, showing a substantial increase from 434 in 2015. Eight sanctuaries and conservation reserves – many of them comprising a leopard corridor through the Aravalli Mountains – have helped stem poaching. Leopards can be seen on safari at camps such as Jawai in Bisalpur.
The cc of a motorbike that is worshipped in the shrine of Om Banna near Jodhpur. The Indian-made "Bullet" motorbike became a deity in 1991. After its rider was killed riding into a tree, the bike was wheeled to a police station – but mysteriously reappeared at the scene of the accident the next day. This scenario played out a number of times, even thwarting police after they had emptied its tank and chained it up. People have been worshipping the "Bullet Bike", which is said to protect travellers, ever since.
number of years BC when a Harrappan man was ploughing his field in Kalibangan, 200 kilometres from Bikaner. His labours were uncovered by archaeologists in the 1960s and remain the earliest evidence of ploughing on the planet. The plough left a grid pattern of furrows, with one crop running north-south, another running east-west. Similar ploughing is still practised in the region today.
the number of black rats living at Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke. The rats are sacred and quite literally have the run of the place. (The kitchen is Gordon Ramsay's worst nightmare.) The hundreds of devotees who visit daily can be seen looking intently for white rats, which are believed to be especially auspicious.
the number of Gods said to have gathered around Pushkar Lake, rendering it sacred and drawing pilgrims to bathe. The lake is also the site of the Pushkar Camel Fair, one of the biggest (and most exotic) livestock fairs in India.
The number of windows, or "jharokhas'', in Jaipur's famous Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal). The stunning five-storey structure of red and pink stone was built in 1789. It was effectively a giant modesty screen to allow royal ladies to observe the comings and goings of street life. Many think the edifice is the front of the palace, but it's actually the back.
the cost in US dollars of hiring the Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur for a weekend. This was the figure quoted as part of the nuptials between American singer Nick Jonas and his Bollywood bride, Priyanka Chopra. Rajasthan's fairytale settings mean weddings are huge business. Hot properties include the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and the Aman-i-Khas, a luxury safari camp where you can see tigers in Ranthambore National Park.