Sometimes whimsical choices when travelling yield the most interesting results. I had read about Palace Utelia in a blog about Indian travel that I follow, and on impulse decided we would stop there for a few nights on our final leg of the journey through Gujarat. There seemed no way to contact the Palace so I used bookings.com, something I rarely do.
As usual we left the lovely Nilambag Palace in Bhavnagar in a taxi, the driver assuring me he knew where Lothal, a nearby archeological site is, seemingly confident that the palace would present itself. We are constantly amazed at the way nearly every driver we have had is willing to launch himself on a lengthy journey with two foreigners having not a holy clue of his actual destination. Suffice it to say this was a particularly frustrating example of the type!
The Palace is the quintessential example of the “good from far, far from good” phenomenon. As we were traversing country tracks and passing through the filthy streets of tiny villages, we could see three onion shaped domes on the horizon which seemed to be the only palace like structure in the vicinity. But it was a matter of “you can’t get there from here” until we telephoned for directions, the maps app yelling futilely in the background and our driver refusing to listen.
Splashing through the muddy and impossibly narrow village streets we pulled up to a decrepit metal gate which was opened by a 4’10” man clad in a white suit with an army tam on his head. He later turned out to be the “butler.” From inside the gate, the palace walls appeared weathered and peeling, with bricks exposed here and there and large cracks snaking across the expanse. We were greeted by our charming host, Yuvaraj Bhagirathsinh, the current Maharajah of this crumbling edifice. No one told him we were coming, he said, he never seemed to hear from bookings.com and of course without wifi, or indeed a computer of any sort, it was rather difficult…. but never mind, of course we are glad to have you, and would you be wanting lunch?
It went on from there, a more ad hoc place we’ve rarely encountered, at least at this price point anyway. It turned out the prince has not only inflated notions of his property’s many charms, but also inflated notions of what a night here is worth! But in the end, if the experience is counted in, it turned out to be good value.
The “butler” was one of 2 1/2 servants, and his family have “served” the maharajah’s family for generations. He did all the cooking and was astonishingly good at it — supposedly trained by Bhagirath’s wife who is of the Bhavnagar royal family. The other full servant, Ratan, was a skeletally thin young man, also wearing a moth-eaten tam, who was general dogsbody and seemed to lead a tragic life judging by his constantly horrified expression. He was supposed to wait on the tables and it was painful to watch how much sheer distress it caused him to carry a tray. The 1/2 was a tiny little girl, whom the first morning, when I heard her childish warble as she swept the patio outside the room, I took to be a child of one of the servants. She was at most 4’5″ and about 65 pounds, and always had her head swathed in the end of her sari, completely obscuring her face, and I would judge making it pretty hard to see the dust…not that anyone else did either. She was Ratan’s new wife, and probably at least in her late teens. Like all the women here, she covers her entire head like a little floral ghost when any man of a higher caste approaches (and pretty much everyone would be higher than she) but has no worries about uncovering for Doug so we got a good look at her a few times. Guess foreigners don’t rate on the caste scale.
Bhagirath immediately began planning a two day itinerary for us which was great and turned out to all be great fun. But that night he wanted us to come with him (in the royal car — a 50 year old somewhat refurbished jeep) to a wedding at which he was just to make an appearance — absolute must, offend them if not, been serving our family for generations.. etc. Though dubious after our long day getting there, we agreed to go. We set off at a tearing pace along all sorts of country back roads in the pitch dark, a bit on the hair raising side, and an hour later had not yet reached the wedding.
When we got there, Bhagirath drove into the venue amid a great amount of namasteing and bowing and such, abandoned the car and we all got out, including the butler and the “secretary”, an ancient old man in a turban, wearing a dhoti, who had been forced to leave his walking stick behind as there wasn’t much room in the jeep. They were tasked with looking after us, but immediately disappeared, occasionally waving from across the room. Since neither of them spoke a word of English, we were better off with the curious wedding guests who pushed their kids forward to ask us questions in English and offer information to the best of their abilities.
The wedding venue was astonishingly elaborate with a long silken entrance way embellished with photos of the bride and groom and the groom’s parents. Inside was an immense multi-coloured tent where Bhagirath sat down on the floor with a group of men who all greeted him with great deference. Trays of water, then juice, then tea were offered. Soon we were taken to a hall full of tables and given a very elaborate thali, with 4 or 5 sweets in honour of the wedding. Just like the fancy reception at the Nilambag, people just filtered in and ate when they pleased, a bevy of women went around offering seconds and adding special dishes.
A helpful English speaker, brought over the woman who had organized this meal — for one THOUSAND people! Apparently the groom’s father is a farmer who does quite well and had decided to splash out on the biggest wedding ever seen in the surrounding countryside, let alone the village. They were on the 5th day of the celebration, and the bride and her family were at their village where the actual ceremony would take place before the groom brought her to her new home. Luckily Bhagirath got up after dinner, and using us as an excuse, said we would not be able to wait for the procession to arrive — even he thought it would run into the wee hours of the morning.
The next day we had a very interesting trip with the son of the “secretary” — a most full of himself fellow called Balraj who went on about his “high” caste (Rajput) and the general lesser qualities of others in the village — mostly Patels (farmers) as well as some even lower.
In another village we visited a group of wealthy farmers who live communally, and have incredible hygienic standards for Indian village life — their houses are all trimmed with green, a symbolic colour for them, and absolutely immaculately painted, especially compared with the peeling stucco of the palace. The streets of their small area are swept clean, and since they cook on gas hot plates, there is no need for huge piles of cow dung, and cow dung patties used for fuel which line the other streets and give rise to an amazing number of flies. The headman toured us through several of the homes, the kitchens impressed me, with the aforementioned gas rings, counters, fridges, and even a washing machine! But the most amazing thing was the Reverse Osmosis machine in the kitchen so the whole clan drinks clean water. I asked Bhagirath later why he didn’t get one, he seemed vague on the concept as he seems vague on many things. The headman didn’t mention his Mercedes or the BMW in the garage, but proudly showed us his beautiful horses, one with the Gujarati ears which cross on top.
In the evening Balraj took us on a walking tour of Utelia village which surrounds the palace, a more squalid and sewage ridden place we have rarely seen in Gujarat. On the right side of the gate live the Rajputs, minimally cleaner, and on the left, the Patels, really filthy with very unhealthy looking children. There was even a group of Harijans (formerly untouchables) who do itinerant farm labour. The whole place was stuck in the 19th century. Bhagirath considers himself their fatherly benefactor, giving them advice on cow breeding and such, but seemingly unaware how shocking the conditions would look through our eyes — or the eyes of any of his tourists I would think. Just to put you in the picture, he told us he has never set foot outside the palace gates — he either goes out on horseback or in the palace car (the decrepit jeep). If he did, it would diminish his status as the descendent of the Solanki dynasty sun kings….
The next day he took us by jeep to visit a band of nomadic camel herders some way away stopping on the way to hit a couple more weddings, (must make an appearance, people expect it etc). He phoned the nomads to arrange to meet at the road and guide us into the desert like terrain where they were camped. They are called Jaths, and this is truly subsistence living — they move every 20 days for new grazing lands for the camels, all of them including the small children walking while the camels carry their meagre bundles.
The man who met us looked very Afghani, high cheekbones, very thin, with grey blue eyes arresting in his sun darkened face. Present in the camp were two other men, four women, and three kids, one a most beautiful girl of 7 or 8 judging by her teeth. The oldest woman was setting up their shelters. First she placed four or five wooden sticks about 4 feet high in a circle as tent posts from which she hung a tattered tarp, then enclosed the whole thing in thorn bushes. This was the home for the baby goats, clearly the biggest priority was to get them out of the sun in a safe place.
The little structures for the people did not even have walls, just a small tarp suspended precariously on the wooden sticks. They sleep basically in the open on the bare ground. It gets up to 50 C in the summer here, and the winter nights drop to 10. They had a few blankets bought by some Australian students doing their graduate work on nomadic groups but nothing much else.
Amazingly the women wear the most gorgeously embroidered clothing, with tiny mirrors embedded among rows of embroidery. Their jewellery is also spectacular and I believe constitutes their dowry — silver nose rings for the married women, elaborate earrings necessitating deep slits cut in the ear lobes, arms full of bangles, and silver collars. When we came only the old woman setting up the camp was there — Doug found her fire making technique fascinating — the other two were off washing clothes and fetching water which they came back carrying. Seemed amazing to me that with what little they had and how far they had to walk to the water, they were still washing clothes!
This group has 150 camels, many of which were out grazing but numerous mothers and babies were tethered in the camp. It was interesting to watch one of the men vigorously encouraging a day old baby to suckle, I guess it is not just human babies that sometimes struggle with the “latch”. They sell these camels and their goats to make a living such as it is. No schooling for the kids, no health care. But interestingly they were very confident in themselves, with quite a regal bearing, and though they were glad to see Bhagirath, I don’t think they would have cared if he stepped his foot out of the palace gates or not.
It was a busy few days and we are getting a bit tired, for one thing it has suddenly become extremely hot. We decided to cancel our last destination, stay an extra day at Utelia and have a couple of spare days in Ahmedabad before we fly to Nepal. We spent a leisurely day during which Bhagirath gave us a tour of the whole palace, which he inherited in absolute ruins, explained how his 13 generation dynasty goes back, the history of the princely states — which I did not realize controlled 2/3 of India, the British only 1/3 when Independence came — what a disaster it was when India Gandhi made them give up their privy purses and all their weird privileges and perks in 1972, in his mind a disaster for the people because they were deprived of the fatherly guidance, his pie in the sky plans to restore the palace…etc etc. What a charming, entitled oddball he is!
We were reading before dinner when a hue and cry went up outside our room, we heard Bhagirath yell, “Doug, Doug” and went out to find him unconscious on the terrace in front of our room. The family retainer and numerous bodies from who knows where were having hysterics and trying to stand him up. Doug had to fight them to get them to lay him flat, we had no idea of what had happened but immediate thought of a coronary. He was covered in vomit, and drooling copiously, fortunately he came to enough to say “bees”. There had been great swarms of bees coming and going that day, with a humming sound that we could hear before we saw them. He mentioned casually that he hates bees because he reacts to the sting. He was clutching some Allegra tablets which he had made it to his room to grab, not too useful but all he had been prescribed. Since his cousin had very recently died due to a sting, it seemed odd he did not have an epi pen. Anyway to make a long story short, it was a tense time as he experienced all the symptoms of a serious reaction. Fortunately although his throat was itchy and irritated he did not lose his airway.
It was a very difficult situation because he was the only bilingual person in the place, and the only person with the authority to tell anyone what to do. More and more people kept streaming in, offering such remedies as ghee (butter) and honey. The bee man arrived — Bhagirath had asked him to remove the hive but he had to wait for “an auspicious time” so it had not been done.
Doug was insistent that he return to Ahmedabad but of course the only vehicle was the ancient jeep. The stuck up underling managed to contact his wife in Ahmedabad and after 1 1/2 hours during which he improved the son arrived and we all got in the car and went back to a “homestay” his wife runs in Ahmedabad, where we are staying presently and which is extremely comfortable. What a drama! But it could have ended really badly.
We have come to the end of our Gujarat journey. This is a wonderful area to visit, with friendly, accommodating people and few foreign tourists. We have enjoyed learning about the art and culture of so many different ethnic and religious groups. We have stayed in hostels, nature camps, homestays, run of the mill hotels, and historic edifices, both grand and not so grand. We loved observing the craftspeople at work and chatting with friendly Gujaratis. A great trip, and now we move on to Nepal and again, something completely different.