BALOTRA FAIR, BITS & BAZAARS !
The 8th bit delivery trip departed with a group of 7 ‘friends’ from London Heathrow on 14th March, bound for the Balotra Fair, Godwar Festival & Horse Show, covering the Barmer and Pali districts of South West Rajasthan.
5 full bags, containing an assortment of 250 donated bits, were carefully packed, and distributed amongst the travellers’ hold luggage upon meeting up at the airport.
Upon landing at Delhi, some of the group recovered after the 9 hour overnight flight, but three of us took a trip to The Red Fort in old Delhi, followed by a cycle rickshaw ride through the back streets of Chandni Chowk district – weaving our way down narrow alleys and remembering to duck at the electric cables that resembled birds nests strung precariously from building to building!
That evening we all swapped stories and got to know one another, having met up with our USA ‘friend’ Joan who joined us at the hotel to start the trip.
We awoke refreshed and took an internal flight from Delhi to Jodhpur, to be met by our host and ride leader, Dr Ajeet Singh. After lunch we visited the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, perched high above the blue city. After a guided tour we took a turn around Jodhpur market and a rather enticing emporium full of ‘old’ furniture and fabrics. Exhausted by the sights, sounds and smells of our first ‘real day’ we returned to the peaceful hotel for a good nights sleep with the sound of parrots in the trees.
This morning we made the 4 hour drive from Jodhpur to Balotra Fair in the minibus, arriving at lunchtime to find wonderful Maharajah style tents and our horses all waiting to greet us.
It was very hot and so we rode our mounts for the first time in the early evening, to get a good view of the fair and to get our bearings for the next day.
As we approached, slowly the sounds of the Balotra fair emerged, and over a sand dune we then saw the it spread out before us.
We carefully rode between the tents, avoiding tethered camels, and trying to soak up the atmosphere of all around us, what a biblical sight! The fair was incredible - horses, camels, cattle, 12 thousand animals in total. In the olden days there were 50 thousand animals, even more probably.
Ajeet lead us to the main riverbed where riders were showing off their horses paces in this natural arena. We returned to camp, riding in the dark, to be greeted by fire lanterns and welcome hot face towels and refreshing lemon drink. As our mounts were unsaddled some freshly cooked mini pakori arrived, along with masala chai, and we all recounted the sites we had seen over dinner.
Bit Distribution Day! We were to make two trips into the fair, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon, so 100 Bits were loaded in the ‘follow up Jeep’ with another 100 bagged up ready for the 2nd trip. We mounted our marvellous Marwari horses and off we went into the fair, Jeep and bits following.
Our first stop was to an old friend we had met on our first visit back in 2010, Kishor Singh of The Marwari Horse Breeding & Research Institute. While we were enjoying Masala chai (sweet spiced milky tea), we laid out some of the bits, and soon several horse owners came to see us with requests for smooth bits. We gave out fifty bits along with educational leaflets in pictures, before moving on to work our way slowly around the horse stands .We choose the top breeders who were well respected, as we felt they were influential, so if we could get them to use our bits, others would follow.
Our host Dr Rao Ajeet Singh, was helpful in promoting the benefits of using smooth bits to his fellow horsemen and friends; those who were not already converts to the use of smooth bits. Many of the best horsemen in Rajasthan now use smooth bits and it is a sign of their true love of their horses that they are willing to try new ideas for the benefit of their magnificent horses.
In the afternoon visit we met the appointed vet of the fair, and his boss - the head of animal husbandry for the region - he was very keen on our Bit Scheme, but the fair vet just did not understand the need to change, which was a little puzzling! Towards the end of our day we realised we were at the veterinary centre. The vet wanted me to sit with him and said he would hand out our bits as the patients came to him and explain why they should be used. We gave him our last 3 bits to let him show the owners what they should be using on their horses. Our BitFit measuring devices caused quite a stir – as many had not even considered the width of a bit – interestingly Caroline measured a lovely stallion of 64” high (16hh) to find its mouth was only 4.5 inches wide – unheard of in the UK for a horse of this height (normally a 5.5 – 6” width) – but it just goes to show how these horses are different in structure, hence our requests for ‘pony’ size bits.
Before our departure from camp and the fair, we had one last visit and look around before setting off on our way in the minibus to Kumbhalgarh Fort. As we were leaving the fair we spotted a very pretty skewbald mare ridden bareback on her way into the fair – we all got out and the rider was happy for us to change her rusty curb bit for a nice fulmer snaffle (see pics) This involved cutting the old bit off her rope bridle and re-attaching the new bit, having made sure it was the correct width and height in her mouth (so many are ridden with the bit so low it bangs their front teeth).
With a sad farewell we departed and made the 4 hour journey to Kumbhalgarh Fort, stopping for lunch at a Dhabba en route (excellent parathas!) arriving at the hotel in time for a quick change and supper.
In the morning we visited the Fort and had the place practically to ourselves which was nice. The defensive wall is sited as the next longest after the great wall of china. One could see that it really was a fantastic look out across the aravalli hills, and we were grateful to find the cool of the queens’ quarters, made of marble and stained glass windows, to take a rest from the heat of the day. Joan tried some artistic and moody photo portraits of us.
Time was running on so we mounted our horses (who had trucked overnight to join us) and set off on the first part of our trail. Through the kumbhalgarh forest sanctuary, working our way down historic paths through the trees and crossing small streams we found our late picnic lunch laid out under a banyan tree. After all horses and riders had been fed and watered we set off once again, heading for the horses home stables, where we were able to see Ajeets collection of youngstock before making the short jeep ride to the amazing old and peaceful haveli in the nearby town of Narlai.
Dinner on the roof terrace under the big rock that overlooks the town. We all chose to have a gentle wake up rather than take Caroline’s offer for us to climb the rock to see the sun rise.
Mid morning started with us in the jeep following the procession that preceded the Godwar festival. The procession lasted for hours and included cannons, carriages pulled by camels, knights in armour, dancing horses, an elephant, gypsies, pilgrims, a shrine with a holy man and all his followers. He took a shine to us and gave us all rose garlands which was lovely, but then in high spirits they all showered us will red powdered dye, which was not quite so lovely, but it was great fun. Ajeet had been the main provider and organiser for the procession, coordinating all the various ‘floats’.
A shady lunch stop then awaited us, with a snooze in the midday heat for those who wanted it after the excitement of the mornings’ procession that took in the three surrounding villages.
At 3pm we pulled on our jodhpurs and boots in anticipation of the Godwar Horse show. We were taking part in the show parade! We mounted our horses and an order was decided. We were going in third place behind the dancing stallion. A delay? no, just no one is bothered about getting it started, just we Brits expecting it to be organised and on time!. It was however a great opportunity for the 2,000 strong crowd to creep closer and closer to us, all brandishing their mobile phones, taking lots of photos of these ‘strange women’ who ride their horses. In India it is something only men do, although it is now a prestigious thing for private girls’ schools to offer riding for the girls, and they are now competing in some endurance races, but in the rural areas we were clearly still quite a novelty!
When the crowd got too close Jane S and her horse Rajlaxmi found out their crowd control technique was the order of the day.
Finally the parade started. Off we go. Even Deb, who had not ridden for 30 years decided she wanted to join on the ‘ride past’. Everyone loved it. We "high fived" the watchers.
Next came the showing classes. Jane A and Caroline were judges for the colts and fillies class and of course judged to British showing standards (unlike Indian standards where it is the number and position of the hair whorls and the colour of the horse that matters – against conformation or breed characteristics!) Then came the dancing horse class; five dancing horses including stallions - all in the same arena and trying to outdo each other and accompanied by frantic out of tune drumming and trumpeting. Amazing! What a unique and memorable sight.
All the winners were presented with their prizes, which included a smooth bit donated by us for each competitor. Some recipients asked for their preferred type of bit, which we were delighted about as it meant they not only knew about the styles and actions of the bit but were more than likely to use it once they got what they wanted.
Next year the organisers said they will specify that all competitors should use smooth bits. Slowly the message is being taken on board.
Next: the mounted games and more excitement! Jane A and Caroline volunteered to take part in the sack and bucket race. Jane A found herself head to head with a local Indian rider and would have won, but she had not realised there was another leg to run. Caroline’s horse took exception to the heavy bag of sand that had to be picked up and so backed into the crowd, much to the audience amusement. Jane A was named as the Champion of the games nevertheless.
Finally at the end of the games Jane A and Caroline, wanting to show their riding prowess without the hindrance of sand bags, did a gallop past - just for the fun of it. What a climax to a magnificent day!
We left the horses at their stables and made our way by jeep to our much awaited tents that had been set up at the side of Muthana Lake – what a stunning setting, our buckets of hot water, and fresh linen and quilts aided a good night sleep.
We awoke to the sounds of morning bird life and took breakfast in front of the lake, before setting off on a full days ride. We stopped for lunch and were invited to the cool of an open air pergola, joining 4-6 farmers in a midday snooze. Next door I found a tiny temple with two decorated horse statues!
Again our tents had been quickly set up ahead of our arrival and another delightful setting of Dantiwara. After a delicious dinner and early to bed, we were awoken from a sound sleep by what I thought was cannon fire. I must have been thinking of the cannon I saw in the procession the previous day. Lots of noise and excitement, a leopard or panther, no one could decide which, had been spotted around the horses and tents. People piled into jeeps in their pyjamas and tried to follow the leopard. The staff boys were very excited, and scared, as not being from the area leopards were a novelty for them. The cannon I heard turned out to be fire crackers set off by the horse staff to scare the leopards - with the sound echoing and booming round the rocks.
This was even before we got to the national park, where we were hoping to see leopards, so more excitement to come!
Another full day riding – heading South West into the Bera Forest, arriving at camp in time to jump into the jeeps to go to the nearby village where it was known a leopard lived. As the sun went down we had no sighting, so we piled back to camp vowing to get up early for another try. Never mind that - the leopard visited us over the night. The strange smell of our horse camp must have had a strong attraction for them, or maybe it was the wonderful cooking of our talented chef… some of the group even heard leopards purring outside their tent as they lay in their beds.
However, not to miss seeing one in daylight, we got our early morning call at 5.30 and piled into the Jeep to go leopard spotting.
There he was, outside its cave, when the others heard an onlooker call that there was another leopard further along the rock, so some of the group dashed down to see that and missed the second one that just appeared alongside the first. The lucky ones in the group saw 3 leopards that morning.
We went back to camp for a late breakfast, and then continued the ride, working our way through the ever changing hills, to arrive at what must be one of the most stunning camp locations – Jawai Bandh.
We would be here for two nights, so our last morning of riding we had a quick drink of masala chai just as dawn was breaking, mounted our horses and setting off on a mounted leopard hunt. After an hour or so we arrived at the rocks where Ajeet had been told was the leopards lair.
The resident monkeys started to screech after a while which we were assured was a warning sign that the monkeys did not want to become breakfast.They soon relaxed however and it was time for us to have our breakfast. The camp team had arrived, set up a full breakfast buffet and started to serve us and the horses enjoyed the grass as they waited for us to have our fill.
We had one last opportunity to find them, but before that we were going to complete our last ride of the safari before the horses were transported home for a well deserved rest as well as going back to their other task of wedding / procession horses. At dusk we met up with a warden from the national park who took us to all the favourite haunts of the leopard, intrigued us will tales of eleven leopards spotted climbing the steps to the temple halfway up a mountain only the other day and showed us a picture he had taken on his mobile phone, but still no leopard. We were even more disappointed when a farmer told us he had seen him at 3 o'clock.
Giving up we went back to the first lair and suddenly there he was, very still just sitting outside its cave. We shared binoculars and a spot light was produced as by now it was dark. I could not believe how unconcerned the leopard was about the spotlight, especially when it started to move off and we tracked him in the scrub working his way across the rock.
A morning departure after a farewell to the staff, we headed by minibus for Udaipur 'The Venice of the east’, 'The City of Lakes', 'Oodeypore' , The home of Bagheera in 'The Jungle Book' - A city of many names, but a one off, with views that are difficult to surpass.
A boat trip round Lake Pichola stopping at Jag Mandir Palace gave us wonderful views of the lake which can only be compared with Venice for the water lapping on the walls of palaces .
And what a wonderful hotel - sister to “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, and overlooking the city palace, with the best views of the city. I could not bear to close my blinds at night with the Bansi Ghat lit up directly opposite my room.
In the morning I woke up to the sound of fish jumping and early morning bathers - they even clean their teeth in the lake. Being deprived of shopping opportunities for many days we hit the bazaars: Jewellery, miniature paintings, cool trousers, leather, printed bedspreads, stoles, all accompanied with masala chai to encourage us in our negotiations, or freshly squeezed juices to quench our thirst, and a free tuk tuk ride from yesterday's driver to take us back to the hotel.
Lunch was at a waterside palace before returning to the hotel for a massage in a nearby shop to set us up for the flight to Delhi, and memories of dinner on the rooftop terrace in the starlight the previous night. We said goodbye to the wonderful GK who ferried us around and never once complained when his lovely car got scratched by thorns on narrow lanes when we did not want to rough it in the jeep or wanted the cool of the AC. At the airport we said sad goodbyes to Ajeet, who lived up to his self designated title of ' Horse Hero' and gets my nomination of 'Host Hero', or perhaps we should just shorten his title to 'HH'?. Joan was leaving us to spend a few more days at Narlai. So from Udaipur Airport to Delhi, and onward to Heathrow the following day. The end of our adventure with new friends made, experiences and sights to make a lifetime of memories….What more can you ask of a holiday?