While visiting India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ of New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, John Dexter ventures to Tordi, a small village in rural Rajasthan, and gets a hint of India’s scale.
Sprawling megacities like Mumbai and New Delhi are omnipresent in an outsider’s vision of life in India, but, in fact, most Indians live in villages. Of the country’s 1.3 billion people, about 70 per cent of them live in country areas, which makes for around 910 million people living rurally in about 236,000 villages.
Tordi is one such village. In the countryside of Rajasthan, a state named by British colonists for its patchwork of small kingdoms, Tordi is the seat of an ancient fiefdom that was helmed by the ancestors of Bhanwer Hemendra Singh. Singh has now opened Tordi Garh, his own patrimonial estate, for tourists with the aim of bringing more wealth into the farming and village community.
The interior of a Hindu temple in Tordi
Visitors are welcomed onto the grounds of Tordi Garh with classic Indian geniality, receiving cool glasses of soft drink and a tilaka (the red dot of pigment applied to the forehead) before learning a bit about the history of the place and being shown to comfortable rooms decorated with colourful windows and painted details.
It’s full-service in Tordi Garh, with guides employed to take guests on a range of short tours throughout and around the village, and tasty Rajasthani meals provided each day. Those tours though, are the meat and bones of the Tordi experience, offering insight into what life is like in rural India, as well as a hint of the incredible, rolling history of this enormous nation.
In a walking tour of Tordi, we make our way between colourful buildings and past cows, almost comically ubiquitous on Indian streets. We stop at temples, accepting tilakas here and there, and visit a potter who spins his clay on a huge disk, which itself sits upon a single spike and is powered by his speedy and precise movements. Our guide, Omji, chats about the simple, masterful technique used to shape all manner of bowls and gourds. “The style is thousands of years old,” he says.
As with most Indian villages, cows freely roam Tordi’s streets
Back at our accommodation, Omji asks if we’d like to go to a party after a plentiful dinner, and we gladly agree to head along. It’s the end of Navratri, a nine-day holy festival with varying worship, fasting and celebratory practices across India. In Tordi, villagers are carrying out the traditional folk dance of Dandiya Raas, where people pair off, twirl gracefully around an idol and tap sticks together in time with an upbeat soundtrack. Everyone is here it seems, and the limitations of the sometimes rigid caste system seem to evaporate as people cheerfully dance. “It’s changing,” Omji says. “All the castes, they come here together.”
On another day, we head out on tour in the back of a Jeep, cruising through Tordi and on into the agricultural surrounds to see an ancient step well. Rajasthan is a particularly dry part of India, and outside of monsoon season, water is hard to come by. As such, these enormous wells that appear like subterranean inversions of stone temples were used prolifically before the introduction of mechanical pumps. Slightly overgrown with bush and unused, it’s a stunning artefact sitting square in the middle of a field, hemmed by monuments to Singh’s family and shrines of Hindu devotion.
We roll on to another village, smaller than Tordi but still under Singh’s care. Children play in a street lined by mud houses while cows and buffalo mosey along and women till the handle of a water pump. Older villagers dressed in white shirts, red Rajasthani turbans and vivid, technicolour saris relax as the day’s heat abates for the evening and the children playfully demand to be photographed. Omji encourages us to snap pictures of the villagers under the promise that we later send him the photos to distribute to the subjects for their own collections.
After the village we arrive at a dam where Omji laments that this year’s monsoonal rains hardly fell near Tordi, attributing the local lack and news-making floods in Mumbai to climate change. We make a short hike up a dune, studiously avoiding camouflaged sand toads, to look out over the plains around Tordi. Perched across the valley from our dune sits an ashram, which noisily booms Hindu teachings out into the world.
“He’s alone in there, the priest,” says Omji. “He plugs in his USB and plays those prayers for the valley.”
Millet growing outside Tordi
We visit a small farm and explore the tilled dirt growing all manner of crops such as millet and lentils. “It’s organic farming here,” says Omji, with a wry smile and tongue firmly in cheek. Yes, you’d call it organic, as that’s the English term for this type of small-scale farming, but the joke lies in the fact that these villagers are simply sustaining centuries-old traditions, made long before the West decided to ‘eat local’.
Omji picks and splits a pod open to show us raw lentils, a staple of the Indian diet. They sit in Omji’s hand, small and green, just a few of billions.
The author travelled to Tordi as part of an Incredible India tour courtesy of Encounters Travel.
Photography: John Dexter