John:.... The Rajasthan posting was always going to be in two parts. Unfortunately the information super-highway in the Great Thar Desert is more of an information camel track, a little fragile and disappearing under sand at times, so instead this posting will be Rajasthan: The Epic. Order a chicken tikka or butter chicken (or a paneer kebab for the vegetarians) take away with a plain roti or two, put on the sun lamp, turn the oven onto full and leave the door open, scatter some sand on your carpet and I will do my best to describe this extraordinary two week trip through north west India.
Leathery skin, white cotton shirts and trousers, men in traditional clothes as well as the women, camels, scrubby little trees and red: really deep red, turbans, red chillies, cinnamon, red and saffron coloured saris. Big snow white bushy moustaches and eyebrows on dark brown faces, and dry 'boney' desert. Not the swirling romantic desert of North Africa with towering sand dune seas but the scrubby, gritty, cruel, hard desert of North West India. We have been in Rajasthan, land of Maharajas and their Maharanis, princes, palaces, huge wealth, massive sandstone forts, camels, temples, battlegrounds, loyalties and alliegences, treachery and hard, bloody history.
We left on our penultimate excursion from Delhi by car. We were collected by a slightly over eager Arif, our driver in Agra, (see earlier blog and photo below) who had phoned at 06:00 for directions to the apartment. We soon left the capital city behind, heading south-west to the ancient city of Jaipur. From there our route over the next 14 days took us north west to Mandawa (a rather sullen, grimey, crumbling, overnight stay kind of town) and then west to Bikaner before the long drive to Jaisalmer, the last place of any significance before the (currently closed) border with Pakistan. From Jaisalmer we drove south to Jodhpur and finally across to Udaipur before flying back to New Delhi on the early morning flight.
With a delicious irony, the first rain we have experienced in the 8 weeks since we left Luang Prabang in Laos fell as we entered the edge of the Great Thar Desert. Several 'failed' monsoons over the past few years have made for a fairly miserable experience, especially for farmers scratching out a living on the edge of the desert. This pre-monsoon rain was both unexpected and gratefully received. Hints of rain had been around for a couple of days but the rain that finally broke through was BIG rain. Having had only a few years, since the last serious rain, to ensure that the drains were clear, flooding quickly ensued right across our route. Roads were blocked or washed away, roofs poured water through them and lakes developed in towns and villages. The ever resourceful Arif found alternative routes and we completed our itinerary as planned. For us the good news was the accompanying fall in temperature, down nearly 10 degrees to the the mid 30s at first.
Leaving New Delhi on the multi-lane freeway was to experience, at first hand, the Indian drivers' response to the tight regulation of a motorway/autobahn type road. As with any other road in India there are many rules and regulations. As with any other road in India these are widely disregarded. Policemen with big sticks stand by, idle, as major infringements go on right in front of them. Trucks are grossly overloaded, driven by young men either artificially pumped up or half asleep through tiredness. The drivers' poor wages are supplemented by picking up passengers along the way for a few rupees where they sit on the grain, wood, gravel or whatever else the load is.
The thirty-seater public transport buses (Blue Line Buses) with fifty people inside and another ten either on the roof, rear bumper or footplate, look badly beaten. Like some post apocalyptic iron transport beast, the buses have bits of panels either hanging off, disrupted or badly welded back on looking like the scars from some particularly savage street fight. Their front grills are propped open with sticks to let a little more superheated desert air pass over the radiator to try and cool the badly overworked engine. These overcrowded buses and trucks are often implicated in road accidents with predictably high casualty numbers. Tyres are worn almost treadless and the brakes have broken long ago.
Passing the trucks and buses on the freeway was an art and Arif seemed instinctively to know if passing on the inside or outside (or indeed leaving the road completely) was the most sensible thing to do. On a couple of occasions we had to change to plan B after the route through was closed down by a truck drifting across lanes. We passed a few places where trucks and buses were being repaired or given the last rites. Blown tyres replaced, bonnets open to let some volcanic liquid out...some had literally toppled over due to the excess load they carried.
After a while the road thinned down to two lanes then one lane each way. Eventually a single lane of tarmac and rough dirt road along side had Arif set the horn to 'sustain' and made for some 'interesting' maneuvres with oncoming trucks and buses. Camel power became increasingly evident. Dromedary camels here, pulling big carts with lorry axles and tyres sashay along the road chewing something sour judging by their facial expressions, while their drivers sit on the cart contemplating the nature of existence.
Each of our destinations, except for Mandawar, has the classic Rajasthan combination of temple, palace, fort. I hope that doesn't sound too flipant; each place has been spectacular and Udaipur, our last stop was a victim of the magnificence of Jodhpur. Under other circumstances Udaipur would have been a remarkable place to visit and we still saw many fine things....but I am leaping ahead of myself.
We arrived on the outskirts of our first stop, Jaipur, at a town called Amber, and above us the first of the Rajasthani forts and palaces. Three forts in fact and dramatic fortified walls with castellations and bastions climbing up the steep hillsides from the road. Arif stopped to restock the drinking water supply and purchase some ice from the market before we drove into town, past the Water Palace, to our hotel. Apart from the heat, there were advantages to travelling here at this time of year. Very few tourists in the region meant that it was uncrowded and possible to negotiate very good deals for accomodation.
In the early 20th century the Maharaja had the town painted pink (hence Jaipur is known as The Pink City), the Hindu colour of welcome, to mark the visit of his good friend King Edward VII. The custom has continued and the old city is painted pink to this day. That which isn't painted pink is naturally pink from the local sandstone.
Our first drive into the streets of Jaipur showed the city as a bustling, overcrowded place with cracked and crumbling infrastructure. The old and the new sit side by side and as with other places in India it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. We began by visiting the observatory, started in the early 18th century which consisted of over 20 structures and large instruments for measuring and charting astronomical phenomena and a reminder of India's impressive history as a place of science as well as arts and philosophy.
The City Palace was truly splendid, full of the artifacts of the royal family and, like the observatory (and most of the subsequent palaces and forts, still owned and run as a charitable trust by the current Maharaja).
Jaipur provided us with our first experience of the Rajasthan bazaars. As old as the town itself and still the noisy, chaotic seeming world of barter, deals, chatter and pleading ("it's free to look sir, ma'am", "where you from....aah, kiwi?") we quietly strolled along, staying out of the midday sun as much as possible. Bangles, silverware, fabrics and camel skin goods jostled for space with each other and on the roadside displays of aubergines and cucumbers, mangoes, tomatoes and beans added to the chaotic colour scheme all around us. A stroll back down the narrow lanes just one block back from the main road was a walk back in time. The signs in English disappeared and Sanskrit became the written language of choice. The cows grazed on the rubbish piles and goats and pigs seemed at home as well.
Our lunch was 'enhanced' by a man in a turban playing an ektaara, a single string instrument played like a violin. Unfortunately he thought we were French, causing him to play Frere Jacques at us repeatedly...we didn't have dessert.
Our visit to each of the major towns in Rajasthan took on similar characteristics. Each had a fort, temple and palace and our concerns that we would be sick of them by the end were not realised. The temples were varied enough for each to be interesting. The Jain temple in Bikaner was rather like a beautifully painted jewellery box ion the middle of the grimey overcast town; from floor to ceiling, every inch of wall and pillar completely covered in painted tales from Jain mythology and scenes from their sacred books....no painting at all in the Jain temple at Ranakpur; all carved figures and motifs in white marble and sandstone. The young priests who showed us around each temple justifiably proud of their place of worship.
Jaisalmer fort was still, centuries after being built, a vibrant but decaying centre of the town. Many families and businesses are based inside the fortified town. This makes for a fascinating place to wander around but sadly has accelerated the decay of the fortifications and old buildings through over crowding. Like the fort at Jodhpur it rose out of the desert and surrounding town and the views from across the town were very striking.
As far as the forts were concerned, the towering red sandstone walls of Jodhpur were, for me, the most impressive. Beneath the fortress walls the city seemed very humble. Traditionally painted blue (insect repelling and cooling colour), the city houses lapped gently against the foot of the fortress. As with Jaipur and the two interim towns of Bikaner and Mandawar, the wealth that was in this region was clearly apparant. Wealth from wars and the trading caravans built all this might. It also funded the patronage of painters, musicians, stone masons and sculptures, poets and priests. The 'muscle' of the fort at Jodhpur was balanced by the delicacy of the miniature paintings and the lattice stonework screens.
We enjoyed several local musicians playing in the grounds of the fort, their music perfectly suited to the heat of the day and the surroundings. I bought some Rajasthani music but I'm not sure if it will sound the same in the rain forest of NZ's West Coast.
Away from the royal families of Rajasthan we enjoyed the Havelis of the wealthy merchants from earlier times. Paticularly in Nawalgar and Mandawar, these large houses are painted all over with scenes from local history, pictures of religious significance and portraits of family members and dignitaries. Several have pictures of inventions (steamships, telephones and trains) that would contribute to the decline of the mercantile importance of the area. The caravans used for trading silk, gold, silver, opium, glassware and more were interupted by the annexation of Pakistan and the growing importance of the port of Bombay. Sadly many of these great houses are crumbling although we did visit one that has been fully restored by a French artist (Nadine De Prince) and beautiful it was.
Our stay in Bikaner was off to a tricky start as our hotel took advantage of the off season lull to reconfigure itself into a building site. We moved to another place, Shri Ram Heritage Hotel, to find that the proprietor was an elderly chap, retired Brigadier J S Rathore. He saw a lot of active service on the western front during the 1971 war with Pakistan and was a delightful conversationalist about all things Indian and beyond. As with other people we have met here the conversation was wide ranging...through Hinduism, Gandhi, Pakistan, the challenges facing modern India, and India's relations with its neighbours Pakistan and China. A real fortuitous gain from our poor first hotel.
The local traditional food is distinctive. I was warned off, by attentive waiters, several items on the menu with the word 'jungli' in the title...essentially meat cooked in nothing else but red hot chillies. Too hot even for many locals it would have led to spontaneous combustion in this tourist I'm sure. The tandoor in each kitchen is kept busy with fresh hot roti bread cooked to order and tandoori chicken, chicken tikka and numerous variations on that theme. Slow cooked mutton and tandoor cooked chicken are the two main meats used. I was interested that goat meat and camel meat didn't feature at all although it might feature in the local diet. Sauces are rich and this is the home of butter chicken, rogan josh and other such waist band extending dishes. The breads taste so good straight from the oven that it is possible to tuck quite a few away before realising what you have done.
We visited a spice trader in Jaipur who took us on an olfactory journey through his streetside shop, whisking us away from the less pleasant street smells of Jaipur to a world of cinnamon, cardamon, masalas and marinades.
Udaipur was our last stop in Rajasthan. Out of the desert and near the border between Gujarat and Rajasthan we enjoyed an evening of folk dancing involving the most extraordinary feats including a woman dancing with 10 terracotta pots balanced on her head whilst dancing on broken glass...we were left to wonder who had come up with this one and why. If the fort wasn't as awe inspiring as Jodhpur or the palace as exquisitely decorated and carved as Jaipur the dancing and music were dramatic enough. The arts at Udaipur were in full display with demonstrations of miniature painting, stone carving, fabric block printing and embroidery.
I visited the vintage car collection of the Maharana of Udaipur. In amongst the Rolls Royces, Mercedes and Cadillacs was an old but dearly loved cream coloured Morris Traveller complete with renovated woodwork and in lovely condition. The guide told me that the Maharaja found it an ideal car for the narrow streets of Udaipur...I replied that if a Morris Traveller was good enough for my Dad then it was certainly good enough for the Maharaja of Udaipur.
Just another blog, perhaps two, left in this trip; our last port of call is Mumbai with trips out to the cave temples at Ellora and Ajanta. We leave New Delhi for Mumbai on Thursday morning. In the meantime lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.....