The Haunted Fort of Bhangarh
I stare out of the tinted window for most of the trip; it’s like being in another world. You have to go to India to know what I mean but the villages and farms are nothing like the ones in old Blighty. The tour is loaded with sightseers, mainly aged fifty and over apart from two teenagers who are travelling with parents and a young couple in their twenties. It is forecast to hit 40C later on. Tourist season is coming to an end with subsequent months post April suffering thermometers recording heat in excess of 50C. Just.Too.Hot.
I decided to take off on holiday after an acrimonious divorce. Her solicitors had taken me to the cleaners leaving the house sold, my pension shafted and my current abode a canal boat just outside Birmingham. What was there to lose other than myself in the sub-continent? Bitterness and anger are now my constant companions. India has surprised me so far; a more progressive country than you might imagine. Contrasts are extreme though. Inhabitants of villages are either in or on the edge of poverty whilst cities like Delhi continue to boom. A decree has been passed recently that all rural towns will get public waste bins. For now, rubbish is simply set alight from time to time, making sure that no sacred cows are at risk from man-made infernos.
The couple across the gangway are laughing and pointing again. Every sight is an adventure. Hair grey-blonde with age and wearing a sailor’s hat, the man sitting nearest to me leans across the seats, urging me to look at another vehicle carrying an impossible load. I smile, enigmatically. I know, I know; it’s all so different. I go back to my own view. An ancient goat herder with a long, wooden staff is meandering along in a field with a tall, skinny woman balancing a large, clay pot on her head. He is beneath a tree, his shadow cast on the ground as the sun rises in the morning sky. The coach driver is steaming along the narrow roads at pace, overtaken frequently by a never ending stream of mopeds, invariably with a girl strapped behind a young, male daredevil riding like a demon - Asian Evil Knievels. There’s an idol on our dashboard; Ganesh, I think. Hinduism has thirty three million Gods so I could be wrong – polytheism in all its glory. We have passed numerous accidents en route today. Lorries spilling their guts, motor bikes careening into oncoming traffic. Fatalism rules. Reincarnation prevails.
The driver’s teenage assistant is offering cans of lager to the passengers. He sports a small, well-groomed beard as part of his transition to adulthood. Alcohol is difficult to come by with it being banned in many districts on religious grounds. Mouthy Dave from Essex at the back will buy a couple of tinnies. He has the look of a man who denies his family nothing; no expense spared. Unlimited rupees pay for cold, frothy beer to stave off the heat. No need, of course, this wheeled charabanc is air-conditioned – a pre-requisite in these parts. Sales go well. Again. The youngster wanders back to his master with a zipped sports bag topped up with more cash takings. The driver smiles.
The coach has slowed to a crawl. It’s another holy festival. Another day, another deity. There’s a large mass of people heading for the temple outside the gates. Music is blaring. It could be bhangra. It sounds similar. Women are dressed in reds and oranges, a riot of coloured saris. Men are dressed in conventional shirts and trousers, children cling to adult hands. One of the cohort is standing up at the front of the coach. She’s in the gangway, hips swaying, snake-like. Her face is all sultry; eyes closed, pouting. She’s in her 60s. Others think about following suit; you can see it in their eyes. But they don’t. Conservatism wins. For now.
We’re pulling into the car park having finally squeezed passed the shuffling devotees, the iron gates to the fort in sight. Crowds mill about, comings and goings inspired by one of the premiere tourist attractions in Rajasthan. The indigenous tour guide is standing and barking instructions to be heard over the din. He has a kind face and a helpful, polite manner. His English is exemplary. There’s a time allowance of an hour and a half. Mind the monkeys, keep them off your backs. They can bite. That’s where the phrase came from: “Get the monkey off your back.”
I commence the lengthy walk on my own. Couples form a line behind me, hand in hand, cameras at the ready. Indian people are anglophiles; they love folks from home. Every so often, you can expect to be stopped at random with a request for a selfie to be taken with you. No explanation is ever given. On either side of the track are the stone ruins of the outer parts of the fort - Jauhri bazaars, houses of dancing girls (Nachni ki Haveli). Rhesus macaque monkeys eye unsuspecting victims, circling ready to leap onto unsuspecting passers-by. Simian mothers cradle their simian children amongst ancient Banyan trees; tangled, deep tree roots look like they lead to the underworld.
At the end of the path is an expanse of green grass surrounded by stone buildings in disrepair. Visitors are picnicking, taking in the views. Further on are the ruins of a Royal Palace. The site is ringed by forest and scrub land with a further domicile at the top of a steep cliff. It is at the disused Temple of Gopinath that I decide to take a break from investigating the walled remnants of the former military base. Seated on a granite step, it is noticeable that there are no statues inside. Superstition has it that all things die here after dark. As I sit and watch the playful apes amongst the monuments my mind wanders.
It’s a cold December night and rain is falling heavily. I am sitting in front of the television watching football. The front door of the flat bursts open; my wife Elaine storms in. She had lip gloss smudged across her face, she is as drunk as a skunk. I look across, alarmed. I haven’t seen her like this before. She slurs “We need to talk”. I look her up and down and retort “Someone needs coffee, lots of coffee and bed by the looks of it.” The room goes silent for a few seconds before she blurts out “I want a divorce”. I am taken aback by this, not sure what’s happening. We argue; we argue for an hour and then two hours. It seems she has met someone else; someone better. Initially she won’t say but eventually comes clean – it’s some no mark working for a marketing firm. Finally she hisses “I want you to leave.” My anger gets the better of me and I storm out, slamming the door shut. I go to stay at mom’s place.
Pete is stooping, looming over me asking if I’m OK. He smiles as I assure him I was miles away. We met a few days ago and clicked straight away over dinner. Pete is an engineer who loves working with apprentices. They keep him young. Partner Jan loves animals and is against the riding of elephants. She’s an activist. They have plenty of space over in Godmanchester to walk their dogs. Pete lights another cigarette, his floppy hat giving some shade to his lanky demeanour. He jokes about leaving soon; entry into Bhangarh is prohibited after sunset. It is claimed to be the most haunted fort in India. We peer up at the outlook, hands cupped to eyes, at the top of the mountain. Wind whips dust swirls into the air on the sides of the hills. I visualise tigers stalking the terrain in the dead of night.
Jan remembers the ghost story that the guide told us on the way here. A tantrik priest fell in love with the beautiful, princess Ratnavati, a magician in her own right. Casting a spell to make her love him, he enchanted a bottle of perfume that was destined for the object of his obsession. Sadly, his plot was rumbled and the magic bottle thrown back at him, transforming into a boulder and crushing him. Before dying, he cursed the princess along with the rest of her family and the nearby village. A year later, an apocalyptic battle led to the death of Ratnavati and most of the army. It is said that the curse means that no one in the village or fort can be reborn; forever condemned to desolation.
It’s on that foreboding note that we decide to trek back. Pete and Jan are full of life, chatting about the legions of hawkers everywhere and India in general. As we pass more monkeys, further banyan trees and artefacts waiting to be explored, I open up about my reasons for being here. They had asked why I was on my own previously. I had side-stepped the topic then but the relaxed surroundings make me feel easier about disclosure now as we stroll along. They sympathise, brows furrowed, occasionally murmuring support. The sun beats down prodigiously from a cloudless heaven. We reach for bottles of water, drink and I talk some more.
The throng of revellers that held up the coach are blocking the path between us and departure. I look down as a little native boy and girl offer to take each of my hands. They want me to dance. I flinch and grimace. Pete and Jan have disappeared into the crowd and I am on my own. They lead me into the melee. There’s a communal joy as old and young, children and tourists are all dancing, jigging about, arms flailing against the backdrop of an active temple. The music is intoxicating. Full of life. There’s a cacophony of laughter; smiling is endemic. I am now dancing with a girl. She has stunning, brown eyes and a demure expression. She is wearing traditional dress, embroidered fancifully along with elaborate bracelets on her wrists and ankles, an absence of a bindi on her forehead suggests she is not married. On her head is a jewel encrusted tiara. She looks regal. I think she may be late teens. I am a thirty something. She looks like a (mystic) princess. We glide around, wordlessly, hands forming shapes in the air. It feels like I am there for hours. In those moments, everything else means nothing. There’s a hand on my shoulder. I turn to see the genial tour leader motioning towards the coach. Time is short. I look back and she’s gone. We head away. I am exhilarated and deflated at the same time.
In my seat once again, I ready for the next show courtesy of the pane of glass on my side of our ride. The driver starts the engine, a collective gabble permeates the atmosphere. The nautical giggler is leaning over again. I must have a curious expression on my face as he asks if I am alright. I look at him and, for a few seconds, ponder whether I am. Stoically, I declare that I have never been better.
*Image is my own