Daylight is fading as we clip-clop through the dusty streets of Bhawrani, a village in south-western Rajasthan, accompanied by a trail of curious, giggling children. Suddenly, there's a barrage of noise – a clanging two-man band, cymbals and drums, heralding our arrival in the joyous cacophony that only India can produce.
I brace, instinctively shortening my reins in anticipation of a shy; but my little grey mare is unflappable, as accustomed to the chaos of Indian village life as the sacred cows that stand nonchalantly in knee-deep rubble, watching the passing cavalcade.
Before a grand arch, we dismount under floodlights and pass our steeds to uniformed handlers before making our way through the gathered crowd, a vibrant sea of coloured veils, turbans and flashing smart phones. Entering the inner courtyard of an imposing palace, a shower of pink rose petals falls from the sky, a fragrant welcome seemingly from angels above.
AMONG THE ROYAL CLANS OF MARWAR
This is what it must feel like to be royalty; and indeed, I am entering the very heart of imperial India, where princes and warriors, ceremony and social caste are still very much a part of daily life.
For 280 years, the palatial Ravla Bhawrani has been the social, political and religious epicentre of this traditional desert community, and today it is the private home of the thakur, or ancestral lord of the manor, Pradhuman Singh Bhawrani.
Prodi, as he is affectionately known to family and friends, also happens to be our trail leader during this four-day horseback safari through the desert of Marwar (meaning "land of death"), a region bookended by the grand Mughal cities of Jodhpur and Udaipur and cut by the hazy peaks and folds of the Aravallis, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.
Joining Prodi in military-style khaki uniforms are several other bluebloods, young scions of prominent Rajput clans whose familial homes will serve as our accommodation during this journey.
Together with my riding hosts, Bijaipur Safaris – represented in Australia by India specialists Mantra Wild - this collective of young men is keen to share its cultural heritage and customs to international guests, providing unparalleled access to a fascinating and often challenging world rarely experienced by tourists.
THE DIVINE HORSE OF INDIA
With their swarthy good looks, manicured hipster beards, twirly moustaches and nine metres of saffron silk flowing from their turbans, our hosts cut romantic figures in the saddle as our small group of riders – a family of five from Mumbai and myself – prepare for an introductory three-hour trek.
Equally impressive are their mounts, hot-blooded stallions that dance impatiently on air, eager to set off as we adjust stirrups and tighten cinches. These are Marwari horses, an indigenous Indian breed with ancient bloodlines paralleling that of Arabian and Turkmeni horses, and once ridden exclusively by Rajput warriors.
With its silky coat, peacock-like head carriage, fiery nature and hardy endurance, the Marwari was believed to be divine, and celebrated for its bravery and loyalty in battle. Its most distinctive feature is its curved ears, meeting in the middle to form a love heart, and able to swivel 180 degrees as an adaptation to desert winds.
With British colonisation, however, these hardy but diminutive horses became unfashionable, replaced in noble stables by larger thoroughbred and Australian Waler horses.
"When the British came to India, they came with a fancy car – the thoroughbred," Prodi explains to me as we ride side-by-side through desert grasslands dotted with thorny acacia bushes and sculptural granite boulders.
"Everyone wants to drive something new, it's like a sports car. So the Marwari horse, which is only 14 to15 hands, was kicked out of the royal stables and became a poor man's horse."
Travelling throughout India today, you'll recognise the Marwari pulling carts through city streets, or perhaps carrying awkward grooms during wedding ceremonies. But at least the breed was sustained – and after years of neglect, noble houses are again establishing Marwari breeding programs in an attempt to improve bloodlines and reclaim their heritage.
"We have our own stable of 15 horses," Prodi explains. "But our motto is responsible tourism, giving the profits back to the community. So for that reason, we lease the horses you are riding from local horsemen; we check them, give them some training, then hire them and pay the local people. It's a good way to improve the breed, and encourage the locals to look after their horses and treat them well."
During the desert ride, our mounts will be exercised, well-fed, and hopefully ridden with empathy and kind hands. My elegant little mare, Layla – a veritable greyhound, her narrow shoulders and bony rump a stark contrast to my own portly pet quarter horse – certainly responds to a soft touch, easy to steer and with sufficient brakes.
Others take a little longer to adapt to the rhythm of the ride, pulling with over-enthusiasm before listening to their riders and an insistent "bas" (meaning "whoa").
Fortunately, most of our group are seasoned riders – a necessity considering the pace and hours spent traversing the desert landscape. On some days, we will cover around 30 kilometres and spend more than seven hours in the saddle, often on relentless trots or long canters – which is sweet torture for any backside, regardless of riding experience.
"How much further?" is a common wail from the back of the trail, with Prodi's answer "around five kilometres" the same every five kilometres. "Five plus five plus three equals seven" becomes a running joke amongst my riding companions, who, despite the exhaustion, retain a sense of humour and appreciation of the experience throughout.
For those who can't endure the discomfort – such as the two most mature members of our group, who, although lifelong riders, are aged over 70 – there is Jeep back-up (or to be more precise a vintage Land Rover, a Willys Jeep – the world's first mass-produced civilian four-wheel drive - and a Soviet era off-roader).
But generally, guests are advised to train for this safari, putting in solid riding hours beforehand to prepare their muscles and fitness levels.
OF PALACES AND SAFARI TENTS
Fortunately, at the end of "five kilometres" there is always a cold cocktail, a delicious paneer curry and a place to rest our weary bones – and then some.
Our first trek leads to Ravla Bhenswara, a 240-year-old palace that now operates as a heritage hotel. From its massive entrance doors boasting metal spikes to deter invading elephants, to its walls bedazzled with mirrored tiles and colourful murals of warriors on horseback, the feudal home of the 10th generation Bhenswara family is an ostentatious throwback to a medieval fantasy, a world of unimaginable riches, of pomp and privilege set against a backdrop of invasion, valour and sacrifice.
After Indian Independence in 1947, when the 22 princely states of Rajputana amalgamated to form the state of Rajasthan, many palatial estates like Ravla Bhenswara fell into disrepair, their officially dethroned owners unable to meet the considerable expense of maintenance. Respite came, however, in the form of tourism; and in 1993, current owner Kunwar Shiv Pratap Singh transformed his ancestral home into a hotel, retaining one wing for his family.
After Bollywood dreams of flying carpets and magic lanterns, we remount our Marwaris the following morning and head back through the village, accompanied by a convoy of Ravla Bhenswara's vintage jeeps which will travel ahead to set up lunch.
The streets soon give way to tranquil laneways lined with fields of mustard and fenugreek, turbaned farmers and their wives, faces covered shyly with sequined silk veils, dropping tools to gawk in wonder at the passing parade.
In sandy grasslands bursting with greenery after late monsoonal rains, we pause under a spreading desert teak to watch, through curved ears, a herd of Indian gazelle bound into the distance; while a proud nilgai, or blue bull - the largest of the antelope family - stands his ground, staring defiantly before bellowing and loping off to safety.
In searing midday heat, we pause at a village well, Prodi dismounting to lower a bucket into its tinkling depths. Layla stomps her hoof impatiently as he hauls the full vessel to the surface, thirsty after her hard work; and when it's her turn to drink, she slurps long and appreciatively, slapping her lips as the life-giving liquid hits the spot.
We too are hot and in need of a beverage; and our lunch destination appears like a mirage in the distance, a literal oasis in the desert. Under a spreading safari-style gazebo, muslin curtains flapping in the breeze, are leather and cane sling chairs, safari-style folding tables and even a retractable daybed.
A pop-up bar has been set up on the bonnet of a safari jeep, with a dedicated barman serving herb-laced cocktails and kombucha mocktails; while a buffet of piping hot curries appears from who knows where. And then it's time for a welcome snooze under a shady tree before our next epic riding session, just a short five kilometres…
HIGH ON CEREMONY
After its raucous evening welcome, the village of Bhawrani has another fascinating treat in store the following morning – a village council of elders or panchayat, marked by a ritualistic intake of amal, a blend of saffron and the unprocessed milk of the poppy.
For centuries, this slightly intoxicating potion has been used in rural Marwar ceremonies, from occasions such as cementing a betrothal, to settling disputes, to meetings of village elders to discuss community matters. And it seems the presence of some international guests is also a good enough excuse to indulge.
We step forward to join around 100 men (women are noticeably absent in the occasion, taking care of real business in the village) seated cross-legged on a marble terrace, all dressed in white but distinguished by different colour turbans.
This signifies their caste and occupation: large red turbans, for instance are the hallmark of nomadic Rabari shepherds; a farmer wears a pink turban, while red with white dots is worn by a cobbler. Multi-coloured tie-dye numbers, I'm told, is simply "fashion".
Seated at the head of the gathering or "court" is Prodi, flowing saffron and red silks tumbling from his headpiece indicative of his royal standing. By his side sits his two-year-old son, Davaryan, cute as a button in a little red turban draped with pearls.
The heir to the title, the little prince already seems aware of his elevated social standing, and watches obediently as his father takes the first sip of the liquid amal - crushed and thrice water-filtered, passed through a decorative sieve and offered to Prodi in a cupped hand as a gesture of respect.
After the lord of the manor has imbibed, a shallow silver cup is passed to all other participants, progressing through the castes in order.
The panchayat is the oldest system of local governance in the subcontinent, and advocated by Mahatma Ghandi as the foundation of India's modern political system. The men of Bharwari certainly seem to find importance in the ceremony, and linger long after we have mounted and continued on our way.
A WARRIOR BLESSING
It's already dark when we approach our final destination, our afternoon ride cut short by failing light.
"Good morning!" a man shouts from the shadows as we dismount, proud to be practising his English to this group of outsiders. "It's not morning," I say, laughing at his mistake. "Ah, then good nighting," he replies, happy to be corrected.
Transferring into a Jeep as the horses are led to their stables, we drive through a diminishing, horseshoe-shaped valley, mountains closing in as we enter a massive stone gateway, six metres thick. This is Bhadrajun Fort, occupied since 1549 by the descendants of Thakur Rattan Singh, the fourth son of the Maharajah of Jodphur.
Coming from such elite lineage, the present incumbent, the 17th generation Karanveer Singh, bears a higher ancestral title than Prodi, the equivalent of an earl in the English feudal system. Yet the fort itself, a truly imposing structure that once maintained an army of 600 soldiers, is showing signs of wear, a huge injection of tourism-derived cash required to keep its ancient plumbing and infrastructure in modern working order.
Its age-stained mustard walls, dazzling mosaicked guest rooms and breezy terrace overlooking the rugged, leopard-populated cliffs that create a natural defence from marauding invaders is so evocative, however, that poor water pressure and cracked plasterwork is immediately forgiven.
With our horses stabled outside the village walls, we set off on our final morning in the vintage Jeeps, with one final stop-off – a small temple tucked into the hills bearing the name of Dhanireveer.
Dhanireveer, we are told, was a feisty Rajput warrior who occupied Bhadrajun Fort prior to the current dynasty along with his brother Mamaji. After a grazing dispute with the Maharaja of Jodphur, however, a battle was fought and both brothers lost their lives in the hills surrounding the fort. As punishment, the family of the brothers was banished to the plains, resettling in the village of Bhawrani.
These were Prodi's ancestors; and it's fitting that the temple named after the elder brother is now a warrior temple, filled with thousands of colourful terracotta statues of curved-ear Marwari horses and moustachioed riders wielding spears.
As we enter the temple barefoot to pay our respects, so a priest performs an aarti, waving a burning lamp over the horse statues and a silk-draped idol of Lord Shiva as a drum beats and bells ring. This is a ritual for our benefit, to keep us safe as we set on our divine Marwari horses, the warrior spirit of Dhanireveer in our souls. We are blessed indeed.
Mantra Wild's four-night Desert Ride exploring the deserts and villages of Rajasthan costs from $3039 per person twin share (single person rates available). Includes accommodation in heritage hotels, meals, rides and day/evening experiences. Riding season from November to February. Add on a wildlife experience at Ranthambhore or an extension to the Taj Mahal before your adventure begins. See mantrawild.com.au
Air India has direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi, with domestic connections to Jodhpur. See airindia.com
Preparing your muscles for hours in the saddle is essential. Casual – and even regular - riders rarely spend up to six hours a day riding, and it can make or break a holiday if you are in a world of pain. The general advice is, if you'll potentially be riding for 30 hours on your holiday, put in that much work in the weeks beforehand to prepare your body. If you're a beginner, invest in lessons, but also spend some time out on trails, as riding in an arena is very different to riding in open spaces.
Julie Miller was a guest of Mantra Wild and India Tourism.
FIVE THINGS YOU'LL NEED FOR THE RIDE
Invest in a pair of jodhpurs, which will rub less than jeans. A pair of leather chaps is also advisable to prevent calf rub and also protect against thorny bushes.
A long-sleeve shirt to protect you from the sun is essential, while a bandana which can be soaked and tied around your neck is a great cooling device. And wear plenty of sunscreen.
A heeled boot is safer than treaded joggers, though I prefer a hybrid endurance boot with decent non-slip tread for walking as well as a slight heel for safety.
Always check that helmets will be supplied (they often aren't in the US, for instance); and if not, bring your own.
It goes without saying that horse riding can be dangerous, so make sure you have travel insurance in place.
FIVE OTHER WAYS TO EXPERIENCE RAJASTHAN
STAY IN A PALACE HOTEL
Nothing captures Raj grandeur as evocatively as a restored palace hotel. Many of the noble elite still occupy wings of their ancestral homes, so you can literally live like a Maharaja in fancy digs like Umaid Bahwan Palace, Jodphur or Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur.
SPOT THE BIG CATS
Ranthambore National Park is India's best tiger-watching destination, with minimal undergrowth for unrestricted viewing; while the rugged hills near Jawai has the densest population of leopards in the world, with local shepherds serving as safari guides.
VISIT TEMPLES AND HOLY CITIES
From the holy city of Pushkar, to the pilgrimage site of Ajmer where a saint is buried, Rajasthan offers colourful insight into India's spirituality. The countryside is also dotted with tiny temples, often inhabited by hermit priests.
EXPERIENCE RURAL AND VILLAGE LIFE
Go off the beaten track into real Rajasthan, where friendly villagers welcome you into their homes and share their way of life. A visit to a Bishnoi hamlet, for instance, will introduce you to their nature-based lifestyle, the original conservationists.
TAKE IN A DESERT FESTIVAL
The Thar desert bursts with colour in festivals celebrating Rajasthani culture, with popular annual events including Pushkar Fair and the Jaisalmer Desert Festival, featuring folk music, dance, camel polo, long moustache competitions and a cricket match.
FIVE MORE INCREDIBLE HORSEBACK HOLIDAYS
OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
On a horse, you become a participant in the African ecosystem, with the horse just another herd animal grazing and galloping alongside zebra, giraffe, elephant and buffalo. After this unparalleled game-watching experience, you'll never go back to a jeep safari. See okavangohorse.com
Ride with traditional Argentinian gauchos at Estancia Los Potreros, exploring the moody Sierras Chicas on sturdy Criollo or homebred Peruvian Paso gaited horses. Luxurious accommodation with great food and free-flowing Malbec makes for an unforgettable cultural experience. See estancialospotreros.com
WHITEFISH, MONTANA, US
Saddle up at Bar W near Glacier National Park for an authentic taste of cowboy life. Lodge guests can explore more than 1214 hectares of mountain trails and open meadows, with rides from one hour to full day treks to the Canadian border. See thebarw.com
ESPIRITU SANTO, VANUATU
Arguably one of kindest horsewomen in the world, Kiwi Megan Jane Lockyer, leads trails along beaches and through crystal-clear blue pools on her happy horses, rescued from a life of abuse. See facebook.com/SantoHorseAdventures
For nearly 50 years, the Rudd family has been sharing their beloved Kosciuszko National Park with horse-lovers, their mountain safaris evoking the spirit of the Man From Snowy River. The ride has been affected by bushfires but it is hoped it will reopen later in the season which finishes in April. See reynellarides.com.au