By Jason Overdorf
Outlook Traveler (January 2007)--Ten years ago, when local villagers dragged Thakur Hemant Singh Deval back from the big city life of Udaipur to take over as sarpanch and head of the one-time jagir of Ravla Khempur, he wasn’t sure what to make of his new life as a country gentleman. But today, it’s clear from the unspoiled metalled roads and well-equipped school that the villagers knew what they were doing. And for visitors, Hemant’s skill as host and hotelier shines through in the homely atmosphere and casual efficiency of Ravla Khempur, today an eight-room heritage hotel that caters to horse lovers.
A long-time resident of Delhi, I travelled to Ravla Khempur to rid myself of the black mood that had crept over me through the long, hot summer in the crowded capital and to recapture the love for Rajasthan that I’d cultivated during my first year in India. The key to both, I knew, was Rajasthan’s beautiful and spirited Marwari horse, the subject of my first ‘big’ story as a freelance writer in India and an enduring fascination for a grown-up boy who’d spent many an hour fancying himself a character in Riders of the Purple Sage. On this trip, I’d leave books and breeders’ conferences behind and ride. I wasn’t disappointed by Hemant’s horses or by his hotel, which provides a window into authentic Rajasthani culture and an escape from the state’s turban-and-camel cliches.
Ravla Khempur is set amid the sarson and jowar fields like an antique gemstone—slightly faded and nicked, but all the more enchanting for its wear. The climate here is not as dry as it is further north and west as you approach the Thar Desert, so the landscape is touched everywhere with a subtle pastel beauty. The cactus, which grows thick across the untilled land and which villagers cultivate for the hedgerows around their fields, is the pale blue of an old knife. The drying jowar that Hemant feeds his horses is tinged with salmon and rose. And here and there bougainvillea blooms like a burst of flame.
Ravla Khempur itself is a grand, two-storey haveli, pale yellow in colour, with arched windows trimmed with ornate white carvings that reminded me of the sugary frosting on a wedding cake. Wherever possible, Hemant has allowed the building’s age to show through, so the exterior walls are streaked with mossy water patterns that set off the frilly balconies and give the estate a dignified air that harkens back to the origin of the jagir—which was awarded to Hemant’s great-great grandfather when he killed two assassins to save the life of Jagat Singh II, future Rana of Udaipur and builder of the Palace on the Lake. Having seen havelis before, though, the first things that struck me were the fine, arched stables alongside the haveli’s iron-spiked doors. Originally used to stable the horses of travellers visiting Ravla Khempur, today the four stalls house Hemant’s four Marwari broodmares, all of which were in various stages of pregnancy when I visited.
Their nickering and snorting and earthy smells are the perfect introduction to the hotel, I soon found, as I began to explore the property. Though Hemant only took up horse-breeding a decade back, he is now thoroughly obsessed with the Marwari, and his obsession is reflected everywhere at Ravla Khempur. Nearly every wall features a painting or photograph of one of the prime specimens of the breed, and at every turn Hemant’s love for horses reveals itself in some unexpected form—in a glass-topped table supported by wooden horses, or coat hooks in the shape of horses heads.
Hemant can arrange riding lessons, excursions for experienced riders and day trips to Chittaurgarh, Udaipur and Kumbhalgarh. But Khempur is a quiet, clean place, without babbling televisions or whining air-conditioners, best suited to travellers who have learned how to relax and understand the merits of doing nothing. There is no menu card or dreaded multi-cuisine restaurant. Instead visitors are treated to traditional Rajasthani dishes prepared with local vegetables under the supervision of Hemant’s mother. I’ve never stayed in a hotel in India with better food. “We don’t want to be too commercial,” Hemant is fond of saying, along with, “We don’t have to operate on a schedule,” even though he’s always energetically striding from place to place to keep everything running smoothly.
Relaxation is one area in which my expertise is unsurpassed, so the pace of life in Khempur suited me. I spent my first day sitting in one of the window seats on the verandah and watching the grooms work with Bazigar, Hemant’s prize stallion, next to the small temple in the courtyard below, every so often turning my attention to a flock of green parrots. Later, I took a stroll through the village with Hemant, stopping by the temple steps where old men congregated to smoke chillums and discuss the problems with the “young people of today”. After that, I took a nap on the window-seat in my room, lounging in the coloured sun that filtered through the stained glass. There’d be plenty of time for Hemant’s Marwaris in the morning.
Every school kid in India knows the story of Chetak, the grey Marwari stallion that carried Rana Pratap safely away from his battle against the Mughals at Haldighati on three legs after one of his hind legs was hacked off above the hoof. But few know much else about this indigenous horse breed—or even that it has only recently begun a return from the brink of extinction.
Bred as a battle mount by the Rathore clan (of Jodhpur/Marwar), the Marwari is a hot-blooded horse with a thick, arched neck, long-lashed eyes and flaring nostrils. The Rajputs bred the Marwari to be passionate, showy and quick-tempered and nurtured the breed’s most distinctive characteristic: ears that curve inward to a sharp point, meeting at the tips to form an almost perfect arch. Today, every carthorse in India has some form of these arching ears, so most non-experts are stunned to discover that pure Marwaris number only in the low thousands and there are only a few hundred truly excellent specimens. Sadly, though, the same Rajput pride that created the Marwari has nearly proved its undoing in the post-Independence era. Because in feudal times only Rajput nobles had been permitted to ride them, the Marwari became a symbol of casteism and oppression following the incorporation of the princely states into independent India. And after India stripped the jagirs of their fiefdoms in 1956, thousands of Marwaris were shot, castrated or turned over to the peasant farmers to use as draft animals. Though there was little demand for Marwaris then, except for use in wedding ceremonies, the Mirasi caste of horsebreeders who’d once supplied the Rajputs with their mounts kept the breed alive until the 1980s, when Rajasthan’s erstwhile nobles began to regain some of their former wealth through heritage tourism and the Marwari began its comeback. But over the years, the breeding stock was diluted and essential information about the lineage of the top horses—once kept by the bards the noblemen employed to sing (and perhaps embellish) their exploits—was lost.
That’s why Hemant thinks of himself as a horsebreeder as much as a hotelier, even though hospitality rather than horses is his roti-sabzi. “I bought my first Marwari in 1990 for Rs 80,000,” he told me. “At that time I didn’t know the first thing about horses. After some time passed, my father explained why this wasn’t a good horse for breeding, showing me all the points that one should look for in a Marwari.” A few months later, Hemant sold that colt for Rs 15,000. He bought and sold another horse, and another, and another, learning more about the business as he went along. “Horse breeding isn’t rocket science,” he said. “Anybody can learn it if he takes the time and he has the passion.” Today he breeds some eight foals a year, some of which later sell for a lakh or more. The frequent presence of ‘baby horses’ at Ravla Khempur adds to its attraction for families with small children.
That morning was bright and cool, and Hemant had consented to put the stallion, Bazigar, through his paces for me and the other hotel guests, a party of tourists from New Zealand. Ravla Khempur generally accepts only one group at a time, so visitors feel that they are guests in a Rajput house rather than patrons of a hotel. But he’d made an exception so that I could see how the hotel operated when it was full. Bazigar, too, had an equine visitor—a dapple-grey mare belonging to the local MLA that was to be ‘covered’ or bred over the next few days—so the stallion was more than happy to preen and strut for us. “See, this is the true Marwari,” Hemant said, providing an apt description of himself and the rest of the Rajputs as he squared his shoulders and thrust out his chest. “He’s like the hero in a movie. Here you see him in a jacket. Later he wears a hat. He’s always looking good.” Hemant was dead-on. Bazigar was as big a ham as Salman Khan.
That afternoon, I climbed aboard Rajroop, Hemant’s most obedient mare, which he uses for displays of the traditional art of horse dancing popular at Rajasthani weddings, for a ride through the village and the local fields. Finally, I was riding a Marwari. A beautiful, chestnut-coloured animal with four white socks and an auspicious white ‘tilak’ on her forehead, Rajroop was more responsive than most tourist horses, perhaps because she has not been spoiled by legions of inexperienced trail riders. But though she was always ready for a gallop, a gentle tug on the reins was enough to keep her in check—even when another of the pregnant ladies, Kalyani, decided to take a vicious kick at her.
On the way back to the stable, I hatched schemes to delay my return to the car horns and shoving matches of Delhi. All I could think was, “All this, and all you had to do to get it was hack off a couple guys’ heads?” What can I say? I’ve always been a sucker for hot-tempered girls.