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Special Travel Issue

Girl Power in the Land of the Maharajahs

In a region rich in warrior tradition, courage can have a very feminine face.

October 10, 2004|Terry Ward, a freelance writer, is traveling in Morocco.

"Bundi is deliciously behind the times," wrote the maharajah of Baroda during a visit from the nearby state of Gujarat in the early 20th century. The sentiment remains true today. Outside the fort, the trapped-in-amber appeal of Bundi lives on in the labyrinthine side streets and busy bazaars.

After Shyam and I drove under an elaborate arch on Charbhuja Road, Bundi's main thoroughfare, the paved street grew progressively narrower. The elevated shops lining the way were built to withstand the predictable flooding from the city's hilltop reservoir. Between July and September each year, the sluice gates are opened to empty the overflow from the monsoon rains, turning the streets into canals for short periods.

Anticipating Shyam's usual onslaught of commission-based hotel recommendations, I began scanning the alleys for guesthouses suggested in my Lonely Planet guidebook.

Rajasthan, one of India's top tourist destinations, has a variety of accommodations, including sumptuous hunting lodges of the maharajahs, budget backpacker hostels and paying guesthouses.

"The place I bring you is not in the guidebook," Shyam said.

"Does it have air conditioning?" I asked. The oppressive three-digit temperatures dictated some primal needs.

"No, but you will like it. Is very cheap, very friendly. First you see."

Shyam pulled over to let pack mules file by, their sidesaddles overloaded with bricks and rubble. A cow ladled black gunk from the gutter into its mouth with a bubblegum-pink tongue. A mother and daughter took turns pushing a well lever to send water splashing into copper urns. The scenes were more typical of a village than a city, despite Bundi's population of 88,300.

We pulled onto a side street that ended in a narrow cul-de-sac, and a gaggle of children circled the car to ogle the Westerner within. In front was an old haveli, a traditional house with an inner courtyard where women could convene away from the prying eyes of the outside world.

The house, swathed in cornflower-blue paint, was embellished with colorful paintings of elephants and horses. Scrawled in dark blue letters over the doorway was the word "WELCOME."

I followed Shyam into a darkened foyer, where three women sat on the floor sifting wheat through metal sieves and collecting the grains on a large brass platter. A mother and her daughters: The family resemblance was obvious.

They started when they saw us. Then, with a flurry of excitement, they sprang to their feet and welcomed us inside.

Arachana Sharma, 22, the eldest daughter, introduced me to her mother, Kamla, and her sister, Rachana, 19. Kamla wore a pale green sari with a matching choli, a tight-fitting, cropped blouse worn beneath the layers of sari fabric. Her hair was pulled back in a loose braid, and a diamond sparkled in the smooth indent atop one nostril.

Her daughters were dressed in floral-patterned salwar kameez outfits, flowing tunics worn over loose, pajama-style pants. The women led me to a simple room with an attached bathroom and a large queen mattress stuffed with sheep's wool.

"We build this just for the foreigner," Arachana said, proudly showing me the Western-style toilet. "I hope you are happy here."

The room, simple and clean, was decorated with neon-hued framed images of two Hindu deities. A fan churned hot air.

I asked the price.

"One hundred fifty rupees," Arachana said. About $3.

Sweat tickled my back. The guesthouse felt like a brick oven. But an inner sense told me I'd found more than just a place to sleep. It'd be worth forgoing air conditioning to stay in an Indian home.

"Acha," I said, using the Hindi word for OK, and set down my bags.

Shyam and I sat in the living room while the women prepared chai, tea served milky and spiced with black pepper and cardamom seeds.

Their home, a 250-year-old haveli, had been in the Sharma family for eight generations. The living room walls were indented with shallow alcoves that housed fake flowers and family photos. Trap doors in the floors concealed subterranean safes. And the spindle over the doorway, Kamla told me, was once used by servants to operate a hand-turned fan.

They are Brahmans, from India's highest caste, Shyam explained. According to ancient ascetics, Hinduism's four major castes arose from different parts of Brahma, the creator. Brahmans, traditionally priests and teachers, came from his mouth. Members of the Kshatriya caste, the warriors, sprang from his arms. Vaisyas, mostly merchants and farmers, emerged from Brahma's thighs. And Sudras, the laborers, from his feet.

A guest book on the table was full of comments from past visitors, and I browsed it curiously. A Canadian traveler wrote about "Mama-ji's mango chutney." An Englishman marveled at having the fort to himself at sunset. But it was a short sentence penned by a San Franciscan that caught my eye. "This girl-power guesthouse is an amazing place. If you hear Kamla, Rachana and Arachana's stories you will be amazed."

As we sipped chai, the women began to talk.

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