The sun doesn’t actually shine in Delhi. At least that was our lasting impression. It’s there of-course, beating down mercilessly in the summer months, I imagine, but hides behind a permanent smog that robs it of its light and the town of its bright colours.
We arrived in the early hours of the morning at Terminal 3, a bright and shining building that was completed last year to welcome the countries competing in the Commonwealth games. Under powerful electric light, the huge areas of carpeted halls looked deserted at that time of the night, but there were in fact hundreds of passengers queueing up to get through customs and waiting for their luggage, most of them Indian citizens. But it was outside the airport that the huge crowd made the greatest impression. Taxi drivers, travel agents and families were waiting in saris or embroidered Punjab suits, in jeans and dhotis and kurtas, some brandishing signs bearing the foreign names of India’s visitors. And there were dogs, several of them, peaceful, stray dogs with nothing more to do than nibble at the fleas that inhabited the fur on their bony backs. One of these was, perhaps, rabid, alternating naps with a mad chasing and barking at any white car that passed.
Ashish, the TCI representative who had come to meet us, steered us clear of this dog and ushered us into the car that would accompany us on our trip to Rajasthan. We drove through the dark city, ghostly in the shroud of the cold moonlight, passing new flyovers on busy roads full of heavy lorries and a few poor people wrapped in blankets on the cold pavements in the chilly Delhi night. Past chimneys belching black fumes and green areas where cricket could have been played, we could vaguely see the shadow of the walls of Old Delhi’s fort and minutes later turned into the gateway of the colonial-style Maidens hotel, where our luggage was put through a scanner the size of any airport machine.
There was only time to get a nap really before the guide came to collect us for a sightseeing tour at ten o’clock, but it was good to rest on a comfortable bed and even better to revive under a hot shower a few hours later. Breakfast in the tall, vaulted Connaught Room, adorned with somewhat faded black and white photos of colonial times, was also very much appreciated. I tried idlis, small, savoury, white corn pancakes, with sambhar, a sort of spicy vegetable soup and enjoyed them very much.
Our guide arrived punctually. Gautam, a strongly built man of 25 with a thick mop of jet black hair, who radiates the sometimes not always founded confidence of the young, met us in the austere, dark panelled lobby. Our driver Manohar (Mano) navigated us through the narrow, winding streets of Delhi’s old town, past the red fort, which, unfortunately, was closed in preparation for the Indian National Day in a few days’ time. Yellow signs announcing police blocks obstructed the roads at several points; it became clear that the Indian government was anticipating trouble and taking serious measures to avert it.
Our first visit was to the Majid Jamai, the largest mosque in Delhi and an ancient site. We were amazed how Mano managed to squeeze through the traffic in such narrow streets and even more abashed when we were told to get out of the car in the middle of the road. Taken by surprise, we left the car without the specially packed “temple socks” and, warned about the extra fees for cameras and camcorders, also left these in Mano’s safe hands. This turned out to be a clear mistake and one that we did not make a second time.
The steep steps leading to the mosque were full of people going up and people on the way down and people begging and others trying to sell postcards, guide books, embroidered dolly bags and cheap toys among other souvenirs. We duly took off our shoes and I had no choice but to step gingerly in bare feet over the rather dirty, red flagged floor, whitened in patches with crusts of pigeon droppings and littered with feathers. Most impressive about this mosque was the sheer size of it. We walked around the walls, looking down onto the second-hand bazaar in Chowdy Chawk beneath us and watching a group of lads playing football in an area that was not much more than a rubbish tip. In the shade of these walls, people were sleeping on the floor. While pigeons flew in and out and pecked at crumbs on the floor, groups of tourists of every imaginable faith listened attentively to their tourist guides and we also took in our first lesson in Indian history.
Our tour over, we were instructed to give the shoe wallah a tip, then continued our way. The roads to Rajghat, where Mahatma Gandhi lies at rest, first took us past small shops in the old town, where hundreds of thick, black electric cables hung in threateningly dangerous loops across the narrow lanes. Men sat cross-legged in tiny shops, while bicycle rickshaw drivers trundled by carrying giggling groups of school girls in tidy uniforms and local traders and ladies out to do their shopping. Market stalls with attractively arrayed fruits and vegetables fitted into any small space that was available. Petrol fumes and dust filled the air.
Once we had left the old town, the roads became wider. Rajghat is situated in a remarkably green area where local people like to go jogging or enjoy picnics on holidays. We left the car and were asked once again to take off our shoes. The walk to the tomb, a small, dark granite monument lovingly decorated with bunches of marigold, took us past well-kept lawns where ladies of the lowest caste were crouching over weeds, removing them with their hands or simple trowels. Practising for the parade that was to take place in Delhi on 26th January, a group of uniformed soldiers marched to and fro to the military sound of brass instruments. The tomb itself was surrounded by Indians, many of them obviously up from the country to pay their respects. I vividly remember a toothless old lady with silver jewels around her ankles and her wrinkled, turbaned husband. While we watched, an official arrived to light incense sticks on the tomb.
On the way out of the memorial gardens we came across a large group of Rajasthan tourists, many ladies in brilliant coloured tunics and skirts, a perfect subject for a bright picture. Our next stop was at Hanayum’s tomb, a magnificent monument that could be described as the prototype for the Taj Mahal and other Moghul mausoleums. Like the Taj Mahal, the monument is dedicated to a loved one, in this case Hanayum, a ruler whose wife had the mausoleum built in 1565. Once again, the size of the monument and its extravagance in this land of poverty, was striking. Its beauty can best be admired as an entire complex, viewed from the gardens. A red stone domed construction with screens of marble and huge, steep steps leads into its cool interiors. We were not the only visitors; straight lines of school boys and girls, all in uniform and many of them eager to say “hello”, passed us by. We continued our tour, passing through a busy street where traffic jams are programmed to happen and street kids have the chance to beg, tapping at your window and gnashing on their clothes to show you they’re hungry. One little girl arrived with her brother and did an amazing performance of acrobatics, with back-flips performed at speed one after another. If we had been in India for a little longer, we would probably have given her a small rupee note, but we were still unsure about the correct procedure and ignored her efforts like everyone else.
At the Quib Minar, a very tall and extravagantly sculptured Moslem tower which had been built on the sight of an ancient Hindu temple when the Moghul rulers arrived in India, there were even more schoolchildren. These were slightly older and consequently slightly less disciplined. Like affluent teenagers all over the world, they were more interested in photographing each other with fashionable mobiles than in the historic site. The place is wonderful, a combination of beautifully decorated pillars and arches sculptured with typical Hindu elements like bells and coconuts, and the geometric and floral designs of Islamic architecture on the minarette.
Gautam told us this was a popular setting for many Bollywood films, which we could well imagine. It would have been lovely to spend more time here, but it was well past lunch time and we were obviously expected to invite Gautam to eat with us.
On the way to the restaurant, Mano drove us to see India Gate and the president’s palace. Here, too, there was a diversion, so it was difficult to get close to the Gate of India. Around the president’s palace, military bands were practising for the big day ahead and we watched them warming up for a while. There were horsemen and battalions of smart Sikh soldiers in green turbans. The palace gardens were flanked by elephant-shaped bushes, the elephant, like Lord Ganesha, being a symbol of good luck. From the palace you could just see the Gate of India, three kilometres away down the broad avenue lined with rows of seats, specially erected for the parade.
The restaurant Gautam directed us to was a decent one named Pindi, very full of tourists with their guides and waiters all sporting thin, dark, neatly trimmed moustaches. They could all have been brothers. The restaurant was set in a grim row of shops down a little back road. We would never have discovered this place on our own and were a little sceptical, but Gautam assured us that ministers and famous people also frequented the place. It was clean and not expensive and Gautam ordered dhal, rice, mushroom mattar, paneer in tomato sauce, (which he said was his favourite dish) naan and roti – all really delicious. I ordered a fresh lime soda, while Willi settled for water. We paid about 1,600 Rs for this.
Pleasantly full of our first curry meal, we left the restaurant and proceeded down the smelly, pitted road only to be followed by a persistent lady with a thin, whiney voice and a baby in her arms, pleading for money. Motorists passed by with scarves wrapped round their noses to protect them from the stench and the dust. We were glad to seek the sanctuary of the car, which took us to our last destination on the sight-seeing programme, the Shri Lakshmi Narayan temple, one of the few examples of a typical north Indian temple in Delhi, built in 1938.
In front of this huge, colourful temple, there was a hive of industry. There were shops and stalls selling souvenirs, drinks, garlands of marigold and the glittery, shiny cloths that Hindus like to offer to their gods. However, when we reached the entrance, there was also the very serious matter of passing through a screen and being checked methodically by a lady with a mobile scanner. Unfortunately, the Hindu priest on duty us was loath to greet us with the traditional greeting, in the form of a red spot smeared onto the forehead and a little packet of sugary sweets, and asked the guide for a donation first. This annoyed Gautam so much that he stalked off in a huff to complain to somebody. We were left alone in the temple, but we learned from another guide that the traditional Hindu temple is designed like a seated woman, the two entrances being compared to her two feet, her legs, the prayer room, her womb being the sanctum and her upright torso the tower.
While we were retrieving our shoes, a small incident shocked me rather. A woman wanted to enter the temple to wash her feet because, as a male voice put it, she had stepped into “shit”. It wasn’t the fact that there had been excrement to walk into that shocked me, but the expression used.
Right at the beginning of our trip I had expressed the wish to buy a shalwar-kameez, the Punjab suit worn by many women here and from my own experience, one of the most comfortable garments you can wear, especially in this part of the world, where women are still expected to cover most of their bodies. Our guide now took us to a “wholesaler”, where garments could be had at a “special price”. The price was special all right, specially expensive if you ask me. The salesmen were very persuasive and we were beginning to feel really tired, so all I wanted to do was to buy the cheapest dress I could find and leave. Willi was placed in a chair and given tea, while I was allowed to try on my kameez in the staff toilet. The one I chose is quite pretty and being synthetic, easy to wash and wear, but I am not particularly fond of paisley and am pretty sure I paid too much for it. Nevertheless I managed to decline the scarves and the shoes and the tunics that they tried to sell me and even the sapphire earrings offered for a “mere” £ 397!
We purchased some bottled water and asked to be taken back to our hotel. It was dusk by this time and bliss to be back, away from the noise and the bustle of this sprawling city and the stress of persistent salesmen. We had a walk round the modest garden area, which was very quiet, except for the tune of a thousand invisible birds. Too tired to decide what to eat, we opted for a thali – a tray with bits of everything that constitutes a whole meal. It was delicious but far too opulent and made the Masala Zone thalis look like a starter. A bottle of Indian Kingfisher lager made the meal and helped us to sleep, I expect.
Delhi – Mandawa
Exhausted as we were, we did not find it difficult to sleep and woke refreshed and ready for a light breakfast before the journey to Mandawa.
We drove south onto a highway, a dual carriageway which sadly bore the bodies of several dead dogs and with a tall, iron fence in the middle. Amazingly, the fence was not the hindrance that it should have been and did not stop people from scaling it to dive across the road amid fast, heavy traffic. We left Delhi and drove through the state of Haryana, passing high rise buildings, the first we had seen really. There were lots of them, most of them housing call centres. A scooter passed us with a family of five, including a baby in its mother’s arms, aboard. At the roadside were hundreds of lorries, waiting for night time, in order to be allowed to drive through Delhi. These were stationed in huge car parks – cleared, pitted spaces without tarmac. The drivers were probably passing time at the countless roadside cafes, often not more than make-shift shacks. From the lorries travelling in our direction, away from the city, horns were blown for the slightest reason. Mano later joked that the Indian driver needs three good things: a good horn, good brakes and good luck. In that order, probably!
As we left the highway and drove onto the country roads of Rajasthan, the state roads, the pace of life changed with the pace of our car. It seemed as if we were moving slowly backwards through history and Willi and I were reminded of rural Kenya.
Our first sight of gypsies was just outside Rewar. These nomads, the poorest of the poor, live in tents outside the villages. The women stopped by the water pumps, of which there were many, to wash out a cooking pot or wash their feet. Many of the rural villagers had pocked-marked faces, I noticed, and there was a lot of spitting going on, amongst the women as well as the men. A tall, toothless old lady passed by, balancing a flat pot on her head, moving with the grace that I have always envied in ladies of the third world. A skinned goat hung from a butcher’s nail in an open shack, with, surprisingly, no sign of flies anywhere. Discs of dried cow dung were piled into attractive displays. We passed several “brick factories”, open spaces where men and many women piled clay into forms and where tall, smoking kilns rose into the clear blue, unpolluted sky. Walls of brick stacks lay in the sun to dry. Shortly after, the bricks were replaced by huge slabs of grey slate, mined from the nearby Aravali hills and lined up at the side of the road ready for sale.
The deeper we moved into the countryside, the more turbulent the villages became. Instead of the bicycle rickshaws, there were camel carts, some of them wrapped in huge plastic or canvas sheets full of green or dried fodder. There were short convoys of carts, too, the ones behind tied to the leading camel with simple ropes. An old man dozed on a mattress on his cart leaving his camel to find the way. The chug-chug of old tractors accompanied our car in several places.
We passed a wedding tent, a creation in white and psychedelic pink, being dismantled after the feast. Not far away, a wedding car, glittering red and golden fringes tied all over it, was being got ready for the journey to the bride’s home. We were allowed to take a photo. Other wedding cars that we came across were covered with marigolds. On the road we passed a tuc-tuc taxi stuffed with ladies in elaborate dress, including a bride in full regalia. She wore lots of gold about her nose and ears, just discernable beneath a beautiful, red transparent veil with silver brocade borders, covering her face and her red dress.
In the village markets there were the usual fruit and vegetables, but we also saw paneer cheese being made, the milk being stirred in huge cooking pots over wood fires. There were stalls where sweet, greasy jelebis were being made and sold and peda, a local sweet.
This is Shekawati, a region famous for its havelis, or elaborate merchant houses built around two courtyards and formerly used as caravanserais. In Chirawa, some of these have been renovated and turned into schools. The havelis in Mandawa are particularly renowned for their frescoes, not all of them old, but a document of the times in which they were painted. But before we were to discover the havelis, Mano pulled up at “our home” as he called it – in this case, the castle of Mandawa.
In this case, our home was indeed “our” castle. I was rather worried at first, for the front building, blackened and with a great deal of crumbling plaster, did not exactly meet my expectations. But a glimpse into the richly furnished open lounge, tremendously colourful with all kinds of tiles and carpets and paintings, put my mind at rest. We were shown into a huge room a long way from the reception area, up steps and across courtyards and past accurately kept gardens and balconies and a shimmering swimming pool. Our room looked very stylish, but was freezing cold. We found the reason for this some time later – too late, actually. The bathroom had two open windows at the top, opposite each other, for optimal ventilation, which must have been great in the heat of the summer. This bathroom, huge by any standards, had a shower in the middle, with no curtains, as is here the custom. We feared this would cause severe flooding, but the slightly sunk tiles held the water back. The bedroom itself had only two tiny windows to keep the sun and heat out. We found ourselves wondering whether January was really the ideal month for a Rajasthan tour.
When we met our guide in the lobby, it was around three in the afternoon and very pleasantly warm. Yussuf has a pock-marked face and thick, wavy, heavily pomaded hair and is very friendly. We photographed the hotel guard, a stately-looking old man with a tremendous white, curling moustache, a fine orange turban and the traditional white dhoti, then we turned away from the market street we had arrived by and walked down a small hill.
The first haveli came into sight, beautifully painted on the outside with a restaurant inside.The paintings depicted dancing girls and floral designs and there were two gigantic red elephants for good luck. While we were admiring this facade, a young girl approached us clutching a pile of postcard books for sale. At the same time a young woman hovered around me, making it clear that, for a small fee, she would remove her veil so I could photograph her laughing face. Which I did. I also bought two postcard books from the girl, but the quality of the postcards was so poor, that I could not bring myself to write and send them.
All this time I had been observing a large, black cow that had followed us down the hill road. It nudged open a wrought iron gate leading into a courtyard, stepped over the iron girder that served as a threshold and made its way towards some vegetables piled on a table. Soon there were shrieks and shouts and a schoolgirl shooed the cow away, coaxing it out of the courtyard and into the street, where it promptly urinated in long splashes. We left the cow relieving itself and passed a few dilapidated havelis, blackened by the desert winds, Yussuf said. These were more modern ones that have not been renovated. The frescoes here depicted telephones and aeroplanes, objects that would have been marvelled at in their day. On the opposite side of the road, where there was a primary school, a huge pile of rubbish blocked the uneven sidewalk.
Yussuf led us past a few shops and we turned a corner to find a very large haveli, that must once have belonged to a very rich merchant indeed. This seemed to rise out of the pile of rubble surrounding it. The facade and the first courtyard were really very extravagantly decorated, covered in paintings in pink, red and blue hues, but it was the inside of the second courtyard, which had not been so well preserved, that interested us most. The owner of the haveli did not live in Mandawa, so two families were living there as caretakers. In the first courtyard they had set up a shop with all sorts of souvenirs and some traditional clothes. In the second, they lived their daily life, a living theatre for everyone to see.
The centre of this courtyard was a low walled patch of dark sand, where flowers could have grown and probably were in the past. Three little boys were playing here, scraping tracks in the sand with their fingers and playing with marbles. In the open rooms alongside the courtyard, the families’ belongings were stacked or dumped rather than arranged. There was, for example an old Singer treddle sewing machine with a plastic bag of clothes that looked as if they were waiting to be repaired. And a mill for grinding cereals had been abandoned in a corner.
Further along, in two opposite corners, the mothers of the two families had their kitchens and were busy. One lady, wearing a woollen jacket over her Rajasthani dress, her finger tips painted with henna, was washing out a mould that she had made butter in. The other was cooking vegetables. We climbed the narrow, uneven stone staircase and watched the scene from a gallery. An elderly lady, probably the mother-in-law of one of the others, was pacing up and down with an open book in her hand, muttering to herself. Our guide explained that in the Hindu religion, it was usual for the daughter-in-law to take over the housework and cooking in her husband’s family home. The older generation, particularly the mothers, then catch up on reading the Ramayana, the Hindu holy script, in a final effort to improve their karma before they die.
Upstairs, the roof was being used chiefly to dry the washing, loosely hung up on lines. The view up there of another couple of havelis and the streets below were great, but I felt very unsafe looking down with hardly any form of barrier to prevent me from falling off the roof and soon retreated to a safer central position. Time and time again we came across roofs in India where even small children were at play, with absolutely nothing to protect them from falling.
In the centre of the small town, steps led up to the desolate remains of a well. As in all the Rajasthani towns we saw, the well had been built in the centre of four tall posts that could be seen from far away. Now there are hand pumps or taps in the towns. Next to it, toilets for tourists had been constructed and the road was in the process of being paved, part of a plan to improve and encourage tourism in the town. A peacock, the national bird of India, paraded on the high wall above us.
The next haveli we looked at was uninhabited, but Yussuf explained the function of the various rooms leading off the courtyard very well and it was easy to imagine the life of a rich merchant family some hundred years ago. A particularly richly painted men’s living-room, with a wonderful carpet, must have been a lavish setting for admiring the dancing girls and musicians of the day. On leaving the building, we were ushered into a basement shop containing “antiques”. Yussuf had strongly recommended not buying anything here, as he was pretty certain that most of the items were fakes.
We visited another courtyard and ignored the next, which boasts a wall painted in gold leaf, because the owners had raised the entrance fee from 10 to 100 Rs and the local guides were boycotting this decision. There was just time to saunter through the main market street before we were taken back to the castle. It seemed strange at first to be rubbing shoulders with cows and bulls, but they are usually gentle animals. We saw one trying to nibble from a fruit stall, until the brightly veiled shopkeeper pushed it gently away. A brief visit to a textile shop to please the guide ended our tour of Mandawa.
Back at the gate leading into the hotel, the old guard had put the traditional jacket over his costume and looked irresistably photogenic. Calling him the most handsome man in Rajasthan, I took his picture. We were ready for a gin and tonic, but were already beginning to feel the cold, so although it would have been pleasant at a warmer time of the year to sit on the small terrace outside the bar and admire the view across the courtyard, we opted for a table inside. It was a charming room, the walls and ceiling of which were painted in reds and blues from top to bottom. Two handsome waiters, with a very poor command of English and precious little to do, looked after us. The gin and tonic was dreadful, with a strong chemical taste, but we managed to swallow it down. Willi introduced the waiters to the concept of “happy hour” and they were very enthusiastic about it.
Our evening meal was a buffet dinner in the dining-room, which was divided into cosy séparés. This was our first taste of Rajasthani food and we were most impressed, being particularly taken with gedde masala, chickpea dumplings in a spicy sauce. The promise of traditional musical entertainment was fulfilled by an old man, who strongly resembled the guard, and his equally old wife. The musician, in a yellow, patterned turban and a red tunic, played a stringed instrument with little bells on its neck, which I think is called a rawanhatta. He did not smile once during the whole performance, but just stared at the guests with inexpressive eyes. His wife was also surly. She wore deep pink clothes covered with a very gaudy veil, which partly covered her face and carried a candle in one hand, the other being held open for tips. We obliged, of-course. A further tip was demanded by a watchman, in traditional dress, who insisted that I have a photo taken with him outside the restaurant..
The night that followed was perhaps the noisiest I have ever experienced. The entire evening, religious Hindu songs had been amplified through a number of loudspeakers on the roof of a nearby temple. This went on till about 10. 30pm, when it was replaced by loud drums that beat out Indian rhythms until I eventually fell asleep. However I was woken at 1 am by the sound of dogs barking. Many of them, the first one setting off a multitude of others, as dogs do. When they eventually settled down, literally hours afterwards, a peacock began to squawk. This was followed by music of a different kind that might have come from a radio. And finally, a muezzin joined in, inviting his flock to prayer. Shortly after, triangles of daylight started to enter through the gaps formed at the top and side of our ill-fitting, heavy wooden door, dashing any hopes of trying to doze off again before getting up for the transfer to Bikaner.
Mandawa – Bikaner
Our Shekwati route took us through several towns with further impressive havelis. At Fatehpur, we left the car to take some photographs. We were in the main market area and at ten in the morning, when most offices and schools open, the street was a bustling centre of activity. Cars, tractors and rickshaws, schoolchildren, housewives, market vendors and shopkeepers, dogs, goats and cows were all vying for places to stand on the street or move on the road. The smell of things bubbling in oil and dung and petrol fumes was incredible and the noise deafening. We attempted to cross the main junction. A tuc-tuc braked to a halt only centimetres away from Willi. As an explanation for this, an irrate passenger stood up and almost shouted, “India!” He was right, this was India and it was our fault if we couldn’t adapt quickly enough to the madness of the traffic here. On the way back to our waiting car, parked just outside the main street, I noticed an old couple carrying a child in front of a lovely haveli. I shyly asked if I could take a picture and the old man agreed, but his wife was clearly annoyed.
A few miles further along the road, Mano showed us an ornately painted step well, a johara, so richly decorated with cusped arches and turrets that it might have been a palace. The well was the size of a football field and was actually an irrigation tank, with steps running down the inside on all four walls to allow people to access water easily and ramps for the cattle. It is no longer in use. We also saw henna shrubs in a field and watched women from the dilat caste marching off to work, brushes and shovels in their hand, gaily singing and chattering. As they passed by our open window, one of them shouted cheekily, “Hi gori!”, which Mano translated as “Hi, white faces!”
Mano had seen that we were interested in the farm houses, so when we approached a small hamlet a little further on he suggested we get out to take some photos. We felt a little shy about this but he assured us it was perfectly acceptable. There appeared to be no adults around, unless the very young woman who ventured out of the house carrying a toddler was the mother of the child. At any rate, the child was afraid of us strangers with white faces and immediately began to cry. The young woman clearly did not know what to make of us, so I quickly shot a few photos of their humble huts and the cow tied with a rope to a tree in their yard, with the intention of leaving as soon as possible. However, two further figures appeared, running in from the field, a teenage boy and another girl. It was an awkward situation, because no-one dared to speak, each of us recognising that he was unable to speak the language of the others. Mano came over and said a few words of greeting, I suppose, and we left.
At the next stop, where there were several farm houses huddled together, I was determined to be more communicative. It was easier this time because Mano came with us. A group of inquisitive boys came out to have a look at us. They were dressed in school uniform and when Mano asked them why they were not at school, they claimed there was a school holiday, which Mano did not believe. I asked via Mano, whether they learned English at school and was quite shocked to hear that none of the teachers in their school could even speak English.
We walked a little way down a sandy path, where the boys were joined by two girls. The younger of the two, with ear-length, tousseled hair and a grimy face, had a dry crust of bread in her hand. She tore a piece off, and shyly pressed it into my hand. I didn’t dare to eat it, not knowing where her hands had been before this very kind gesture, but didn’t want to offend her, so I smiled and put it in my pocket. I don’t think anyone anywhere has ever given me such a welcome as this little girl. She later asked me if I could give her some shampoo, but I was obviously not carrying any with me and my suitcase was at the bottom of the boot of the car. Nevertheless I was cross with myself later for not making the effort to fetch some for her.
The house next door was inhabited by at least two generations of women plus an elderly man, who gave permission for us to take photos. Willi was invited into one of the huts, which was presumably a sort of guest hut and contained two low bedsteads. We photographed a heap of cow-dung cakes, used for firewood, and the ladies and the goats and gave the man a few rupees, at which the ladies humorously demanded a tip of their own.
Mano led us to a neighbouring yard, where a man was doing some kind of plastering on the far side. A group of women came to have a look at us. One of them, (she said she was 20 years old), was evidently expecting her second child. The firstborn, a robust looking chap of about 18 months, was struggling in the arms of another young woman. The young mother wore a typical citron yellow veil and dress made of a very light, almost transparent material. She had the slightly ruddy-looking cheeks of the farmers around here and wore very large, ornate, dangling earrings and a nose pin. She looked at me in a very sneering, impertinent way and I was not sure that all her Hindi remarks were kind ones. The ladies asked how old I was and did not believe Mano’s answer, which is quite understandable, considering how quickly Indian women of this caste age after all the work they do and the conditions under which they do it. They also asked if we had any shampoo for them or better still, rupees.
All in all an interesting excursion, but one we did not care to repeat, because apart from the impertinence of the young mother, the boys then started to refer to me as “larkee” or “girl”, which I felt disrespectful for a woman with hair as grey as mine!
Somewhat disillusioned and rather sad, we continued our journey in silence, stopping on the way for a masala chai in Willi’s case and a drink of aloe vera in mine. The national highway, better and wider than the state highway we had been on, took us past villages that became more isolated, over a railway crossing where two clay pots of water with a steel mug for dipping into them awaited thirsty passers-by. We proceeded along the Thar desert, which resembled the sand dunes at Skegness much more than a setting for a Lawrence of Arabia film. In the early hours of the afternoon we finally arrived at Bikaner.
Our first impression of the beautiful Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel was a lasting one. Home of the Maharaja of Bikaner – he now lives in an opulent building next door – the palace shows the public a pink-faced, lacy-stoned facade in front of generously laid out gardens. A handsome young man came out of reception to place a welcoming garland of marigolds around our necks, then we were invited to check in.
Our room was actually a suite of five rooms in the former residence of the maharani or the wife of the Maharaja. We accessed these rooms via a rickety lift that was over a hundred years old, with a cushioned bench inside and wrought iron shutters. A few yards down a cool, dark corridor lined with stone benches, the receptionist opened a sculptured door fastened with a huge padlock and showed us into a sort of vestibule. This contained a comfortable sitting area with a sofa and two armchairs plus a writing desk with tea and coffee facilities and a fridge containing drinks. Two steps that ran the width of this room led into the massive bedroom, with the usual bedroom furniture, a large TV and, mercifully, an electric radiator. Beyond this, a door opened out onto another corridor with a dressing table at one side. This in turn took us into a bathroom the size of a normal hotel bedroom, with a bath on one side and a loo and washbasin on the other. A French window with screened shutters opened onto a narrow balcony.
We barely had time to unpack before it was time to meet Gitu, our pleasant, industrious and very informative guide. He first took us to the red fort, the largest and most impressive site in Bikaner. At the roadside, a bunch of ladies were crouching together, bright as exotic birds in their shockingly loud clothes, brooms at their side. These were street cleaners from the untouchable caste, hired by the municipality for minimal pay and reliant on other citizens, whose religion compels them to feed the poor, for their daily rations. The untouchables are not allowed in people’s homes, so they wait outside for offerings of food. Even though the caste system was officially banned years ago, it is still very much present in the minds of Indian people and anchored in their social behaviour.
An enormous gate led to the fort, which is a series of small, fortified palaces, some of them only containing one room, built by a series of maharajas. The sight of twenty two hands imprinted onto a sandstone plaque, the hands of twenty-two wives who more or less willingly threw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres to die with them and thereby earn the sati status, transports the visitor to another era.
As we walked up the slope, a wedding car drew up and a very young, freshly married pair, elegantly clothed in red dress and red turban, got out with members of their families, to visit some of the most famous shrines in Bikaner, within the fort complex. They were tied together, a symbol of their union. At the shrines, they performed a series of rites, presenting offerings and bending down at the altar and being blessed by the parents. Apparently newly-weds are expected to visit many shrines after the wedding.
The palaces were being renovated. Outside, skillful workers were sanding down and polishing the marble arches and festoons and flourishes, returning the old glamour to these beautiful palaces. The marble had been imported from Carrera in Italy, we were told – an incredible luxury when you consider that India has remarkable marble of its own. We passed a room where the maharajas used to lie in state for a single day before being cremated.
The interior of the moon palace was painted full of sky with clouds and flashes of lightening, symbolic of rain, which is the best gift imaginable in this desert area. Other palaces were extremely rich in silver, including a room which was painted with 80 kg of it. The most luxurious carpets and finely sculptured woodwork also decorated these beautiful rooms. Bikaner is especially famous for its miniature paintings, very finely painted figures usually of dancing girls and princes painted in profile. A single squirrel’s hair is used to fill in the patterns on elaborate dresses or to sketch the half visible bodies underneath transparent materials. Of all the palaces we visited here, the flower palace was the most exotic, demonstrating how many of these paintings you can fit into one room, many of them finished in silver or gold leaf.
The absolute highlight was a palace of mirrors, in which tiny mirrors were incorporated into the fine decorations. These rooms were built around a maharaja’s bedroom and this was encircled by a gallery of coloured glass mosaic which filtered the heat and light of the outside world, leaving the maharaja’s room cool and bright. A child’s swing seat was exhibited here. Surrounding it were about sixty tiny wooden puppets which moved their heads and hands when the seat swang.
With our heads full of images of Rajasthan craftwork and history, we found Mano again and drove through the town, past majestic Maharaja statues in tiny, fenced greens, down dusty streets full of workshops and camel carts and colourful, fringed scooter taxis. We heard music, shouts and the noise of hammers and chisels and motor hooters. As we pulled into a vacant space near the Jain temple, yet another wedding car stopped and two couples got out to do their rounds of the temples. Through her transparent veil I glimpsed a beautiful girl, heavily made up, with the ornate nose ring that she was now allowed, as a married woman, to wear. We wanted to take pictures and the bridegrooms insisted that I should be on the photograph with them.
We wished them luck and scampered up the stone steps leading to the uniquely painted Jain temple. To be honest, I had never even heard of Jainism before I started reading up about Rajasthan. The Jains were an off-shoot of the Hindu religion in the days when Hinduism was not as jolly as it is today and the leaders of Jainism decided that religion should play a happy, joyful part in people’s lives. (Another branch of the Jains live naked in complete asceticism in remote mountain areas, but that is another story.) The founder of Jainism is often portrayed as a figure that you could easily confuse with Buddha, as I did! Instead of the 30,000 odd gods and goddesses that are worshipped in the Hindu religion, the Jains pray to 24 prophets. That does not stop them from portraying the Hindu gods in their temples, however. All very confusing, I found. Jain temples are normally sculptured and contain no paintings, which makes this temple in Bikaner, where the walls are covered from top to bottom in vivid, naive miniature paintings, very special. We walked round the temple clockwise and admired fantastic, rather gaudy pictures depicting dancing girls and gods and prophets and scenes from every-day life, all mixed with floral borders. Many of these were friezes, recounting stories.
The Jains don’t have time to look after their own temples, so Hindu Brahmans are usually hired as caretakers. One of these entered the temple as we were on the way out, a strange-looking fellow wearing a red cloth draped over one shoulder and with untidy, bushy hair. We stopped to get a bird’s eye view of this part of the town before getting into the car. It was an interesting sight, with lengths of freshly dyed, red cloth drying on the rooftops and long buses navigating short corners and workmen hammering in a crouching position outside workshops. Gitu would have liked us to visit a miniature workshop, where he might have gained a little commission for himself had we bought anything, but I pleaded a genuine headache and we headed back to the hotel.
The ayurveda woman was waiting for us when we got back. In fact she had this habit of pouncing on you on the staircase or outside the lift, offering her massaging services. Our search for the business centre, where we wanted to email the family, led us to the bar and a lounge, whose walls were adorned with the staggeringly huge number of beasts, including numerous tigers, that the maharajas had shot. We found this very sad, considering the depleting number of tigers around today.
We had a Rajasthan thali for dinner yet again, a meal that would have sufficed for at least four people and which I sadly had to leave a great deal of, despite the fact that it was more than delicious. This was taken in a regal-looking dining-room with about eight dinner guests that looked lost under the high, vaulted and frescoed ceiling. After dinner there was a performance of music and Rajasthan dancing outside. While a gentleman in the traditional, red waisted jacket and red turban twirled, rather like a dervish, to the tune of drums and a string instrument, his female companion, in the black and white glittery dress that seems to be reserved for artistes, tiptoed around with light, fast steps, a pot of fire balanced on her head.
It had become uncomfortably cold. We were grateful for the radiator that evening.
It seemed odd to me that members of a religious group like Hindus, whose first commandment is to preserve and respect all forms of life, should sometimes treat their working animals so badly. On our way to the camel market outside Bikaner, where huge carts of fodder would be loaded and unloaded, bought and sold, it was obvious that some bullocks, straining to pull heavy cartloads against their will, with that mad look in their eyes and foaming at the mouth, were not being well looked after. Occasionally a camel could also be seen to foam, but those at the market just stood around patiently, batting curled eyelashes, while their drivers did their business or drank chai at one of the stands at the roadside.
Our destination was the temple of rats in Deshok, which turned out to be a very popular place for India’s Hindus. As we got out of the car, a stench of urine mixed with incense and boiling fat hit me. We stepped carefully over the puddles at the place we had parked the car and made our way to the square in front of the temple, where souvenirs, flowers, sugar-cane juice and other drinks and snacks were being sold. We left our shoes with the shoe wallah and entered the temple via a temporarily erected scanner, through beautifully sculptured wooden doors depicting, among other things, rats.
This temple is dedicated to the ninth incarnation of Durgha, who was supposedly born as a rat. Rats (and pigeons) were everywhere, scuttling out of holes in the walls and scampering around our feet, squeaking. They congregated around wide dishes of milk, partly brought here for them by the local farmers, and piles of grain, that was stored in huge metal pots. Occasionally someone came by to sweep part of the floor or sluice it down with murky grey water. It took a lot of courage to walk through the dried rat and pigeon excrement and the grain that is stored here especially for the rats, with only Lufthansa socks between my sensitive soles and the dirt. While we were watching out for a white mouse, which would have been a portentous sign, a ragged group of three men and boys were beating out Hindu rhythms on drums in the courtyard.
The experience was at the same time disgusting and thrilling in its exoticism, so on the one hand we couldn’t wait to leave and on the other, we were so fascinated that it was difficult to turn away. I watched as a wizened old lady hobbled out of the temple. She seemed to be a local person, who probably came here every day, for she was greeted by almost everyone in the shops in front. At the gate, she stopped and in a single gracious movement, sat down cross-legged and bowed her head down to touch the floor in front of her as a sign of respect. Then she got up again with the same lithe movement, without using her hands. I was flabbergasted.
On the way to Khimsar Fort, we passed a group of Jain monks and nuns, their white bonnets billowing in the wind. The Jains are easily recognisable, for they wear white clothes and travel barefoot, on foot, throughout the country. They are strict vegetarians, eating no animal product whatsoever, and go from house to house, where they are allowed to take whatever is available. They are not allowed to beg for anything. People have great respect for Jains, who are often rich people who have chosen to give up everything they own and live an ascetic life.
We journeyed on. The landscape became increasingly sandy and hillier. It had become quite hot. Most homesteads we saw here were constructed using mud and cow dung, with very well-kept thatched roofs and at least one open side. They must have been cold at this time of the year, but pleasant in summer. Some ladies, many of them in the bright yellow veils that are so popular in this region, were sitting in their doorways or on the bare ground with their young children or reclining on sacks in their yards. There seemed to be no shade at all.
Even in this wilderness, from time to time, a shop would appear, selling Airtel mobile cards and presumably a few basic products. Occasionally we noticed a small group of deer, the chiankaras, that resembled impalas, or a couple of nilgai, the largest antelopes in Asia.
We were as deep in the desert as we would get on this trip and Khimsar Fort was not far away.
We had heard that Khimsar Fort was a charming place to stay, but this hotel was absolutely enchanting. Within the walls of a former maharaja palace, the original buildings have been restored and additional constructions built in the old style.
We were welcomed with cool reserve and if I am honest, the information given to us was sparse and incomplete. However, we gathered that we were booked in for a jeep safari through the Bishnoi villages mid-afternoon, which left us with a good couple of hours to relax. Our room was enormous. It looked onto the swimming-pool, set in the middle of green lawns and a mosaic grass and stone path. There was a bedroom with a gigantic TV, a dressing room and a large, modern bathroom. Light from the coloured glass in the window flooded the room with shades of yellow, blue, green and red. We shed our travelling clothes and sat down by the pool, where we ordered a snack and relaxed next to a couple from Scotland.
The jeep arrived punctually and a young driver called Rama, with large, curly lashes like those of a giraffe, who spoke very little English, turned on the motor of his open vehicle. We bumped along country roads to the tune of grating brakes and as the houses became more isolated, he turned off into the scrub. A herd of shy black-buck came into view, a single male with his harem. They looked very much like impalas, but the male was black, with winding antlers and walked with his head stretched high, giving him an air of extreme arrogance. In fact he was sniffing the air, scenting the female on heat, who he chased unmercifully several times. She was faster and he gave up every time. Then the driver revved up his engine and made mock charges at the gazelles to make them scatter in high bounds, which I did not approve of. We saw several herds of these antelopes, then turned into a small village, where children called after us chanting a tune that could have been sung anywhere in the world.
Rama switched off the engine and we watched a family at work, stacking dried fodder onto a high pile. It was very quiet and peaceful and the family seemed so harmonious, with perfectly coordinated actions. They laughed when we took a couple of photos. Seconds later, other villagers appeared with the inevitable request for pens, then rupees. We had no pens to give, but had learned from Mano and I had some hotel shampoo to distribute. I also gave a bar of soap to a young girl with a dusty, green frock and an earnest face.
Our next stop was for a sundowner at Sunset Point. Rama drove us to the bottom of a slope and we walked up the dune of fine sand to an open-air bar where tea and coffee was being served to the residents of Khimsar Fort and the guests of their small desert camp. We sat on emperor chairs made of basketwork and watched the sun go down, having a laugh with a jolly Indian family from Jodhpur at the same time. After dusk, we looked for Rama who was supposed to take us back to the hotel, we thought. He had disappeared. We were to take a ride on a camel cart to where he would be waiting a short distance away. We clambered onto the cart and a very thin, old man, dressed in a white tunic and a white dhoti that flapped against his spindly legs and his knobbly knees, led the camel down the hill. Underneath his bright orange turban, a magnificent, white curled moustache shone on his weather-beaten wrinkles. He was a handsome man despite his years. And in Sulzberg you don’t often get to see a camel’s bottom close-up, so the journey was quite an enriching experience.
The 5 km drive back to the fort took us through the main street, a market, like all the main streets here. It was amazing, just as busy as in the daytime, but very different in the evening. The colours were subdued in the dark; the stalls were sparsely lit by oil lamp or candles, giving the market the look of a traditional crib scene. But also the noises were dampened in the cool night air. People tended to call rather than shout, tired babies whined rather than squealed and mechanical noises now came from inside, not outside.
Back at the fort, the management had organised a puppet show as well as a magic show and musicians were playing. But we headed straight for dinner. This was held in the blackened old fort, a strong, thick-set building with numerous vaults and smaller rooms all converging into one. In the middle was a brazier with a good old log fire burning. Unfortunately there was also a slight wind that changed its direction the whole time, so it was nice and warm up there but my eyes suffered from the smoke, burning and watering continuously. It was a buffet dinner, with all sorts of delicious curries and tandoor-grilled food and the best gulab jamun (or dumplings in syrup) that I have ever tasted. We ended this marvellous day with a walk round the fortress walls, thereby avoiding the entertainers, which we were simply not in the mood for.
As the trip to Osian the next day would be very short – a matter of an hour and a half – we enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in. Breakfast was taken in the clock tower dining-room, an elegant room with photos and paintings of all the maharaja owners along its cream-coloured walls and sunlight peeping in through the stained glass windows that the British had installed. On our walk back to the room, again via the fortress walls, we came across beautiful green parakeets. The voices of children, singing at a nearby school, wafted up from the village below, reminding us that this was 26th January, India’s national day.
It seemed to us that the whole of India was celebrating its national day. Certainly the schools were. Every time we passed one on the way to Osian, singing could be heard or the excited voices of schoolchildren nervously delivering the speeches they had written, and for which there would be a prize-giving, into microphones that echoed through the entire village. The pupils were gathered in front of the schools in areas that could have been playgrounds if they had been cemented or if grass seeds had had a chance to grow there. Parents or passers-by were peeping over walls or through open gateways to watch the rows of crossed-legged children in clean uniforms.
Most of the schoolgirls in India wear Indian-style uniforms, that is white, baggy trousers with a tunic top, (the shalwar -kameez that I also love to wear), covered by a jumper according to the school colours and a white shawl worn across the neck and hanging down at the back. They look most attractive and are practical. Some children in private schools wear European dress. The boys all wear coloured shirts, sometimes ties and jumpers over long trousers or occasionally shorts.
The presence of the desert was manifested by the fact that the menfolk preferred to wear short trousers or dhotis in this area. The dhotis consist of a single length of material about four metres long and it takes quite a bit of imagination to work out how you can possibly tie something resembling trousers out of this. I also tried to fathom out what the colour of the turban symbolised. I was told that the untouchables wore white turbans, the holy men red, merchants wore yellow and the farmers orange, but each guide gave his own interpretation and I am no wiser than before. Each turban is tied from nine metres of fabric. Rajasthan ladies wear blouses or tunics over long skirts and a very long veil worn over the head and wrapped round the body over the shoulder like a sari. Those who can afford it wear very bright colours in chiffon-like material, with golden or silver embroidery and shiny borders, sometimes with tiny mirrors or sequins sewn in. A matching shawl or a cardigan made out of a chinchilla type of garn is also added for additional warmth in this weather. The poorest ladies wear faded floral materials. At any rate, today was a public holiday and people were rigged out in the best they had.
At my request, we stopped in Osian to visit a very old Jain temple, dedicated to Mahavira, founder of the religion. A notice told us that menstruating women were not permitted to enter and everyone else should leave all leather clothing, belts, bags and shoes, and all food and drink outside. We were not allowed inside an inner shrine, where a silver icon with eerie white eyes could be seen on an altarpiece. We could see some Jain ladies wearing masks across their noses and mouths to avoid swallowing or breathing in small flies, for this would mean killing life. They walked round the temple clockwise, chanting. All the temples, the main one and the smaller ones round the outside, were made of elaborately, finely worked sandstone.
Everywhere there were statues of elephants and dancers and musicians and flowers carved into the outside walls. Towards the back of the temple complex, coloured reliefs behind glass windows depicted the history of Jainism. How I would have loved to have had the time to take all this in! Women were not allowed into some of the temples. An elderly man came to a Ganesh altar draped in red cloth, lit an incense stick and prayed. Watchmen were everywhere, making sure that unwitting tourists did not offend the rules about not photographing certain items and checking that those with video-cameras had paid the permission fees.
Outside the temple, on the opposite side of the road, stood the Jain restaurant, an institution that gave out good, free food for the needy and for anyone else who wanted to eat there, in return for a small donation. The place was busy, a clattering of metal pans and dishes echoing through the open windows and people of varying status disappearing through the open gateway or coming out looking satisfied. At the side of the temple complex, men were consulting priests, Hindu priests, about their horoscopes, to fix the most propitious day for a wedding, perhaps, or a business deal or an operation.
We continued to walk round the outskirts of this small town, where we were eyed beneath half-lifted veils and openly watched by excited children, asking to have their photo taken. We wanted to find an old step-well. A beautiful 8th century sun temple, where an old lady was warming her thin body stretched out on the steps, caught our eye. We picked our way past suspicious-looking puddles and rubbish and dogs and goats and cows and eventually found the remains of a very old well, which must have been quite beautiful once upon a time, like the one in Fatehpur .
Mano wanted to show us the highlight of the town, which meant crossing the centre up the hill, round narrow, winding streets, trying to avoid the cow urine and the dog dirt and the place where a little boy had just crouched down to relieve himself. A small puppy licked a heap of old cow dung with relish. Other dogs were scratching themselves frantically. Some of these streets must have been the dirtiest we had seen so far.
As we neared the famous Sachiya Mata temple, which goes back to the 12th century and is a centre of pilgrimage for couples whose desire to have children has not been fulfilled, the streets widened and the sweet smell of flowers, sandalwood and candy filled our nostrils. As we were taking in this scene, a pregnant lady tapped me on the shoulder, begging for rupees, indicating that she wanted food for her baby. The stalls were making good money on this holiday and the place was buzzing with Hindu tourists, some of them carrying silver-coloured trays bearing the offerings they wanted to make. Some stalls were selling heavily embroidered red cloths with gold and silver strands and fringes.
We took off our shoes and made our way up the grandly arched groups of steps that formed terraces for the temple buildings. An Asian family wanted to include us in their family picture. At the top, two young men also wanted us to pose with them. There were hundreds of red and yellow bands tied to the bars of doors, a thank you from those couples whose wishes had been granted. The pillars in the interior of the temple were decorated with thousands of pieces of glass mirror, in spite of which it was dark inside and cool. At a shrine dedicated to Shiva, a garland was hanging from the god’s neck and a pile of black hair lay partly in its lap and partly on the floor. Mano explained that when a child’s hair was cut for the first time, it was usual to offer it to Lord Shiva. As we descended the steps, Mano pointed out the little boy of about two and a half, who had had his head shorn and whose skull was covered in red marks made by the priest. I asked if I might take a picture. The parents were delighted and instructed the child to say hello and wave to me.
But there were also less pleasurable encounters. We were accosted by three cheeky girls on the street, quite aggressive beggars who insulted Mano when he refused to give them money. A few steps further, a woman also caught hold of us, begging for money. We ignored her but it was not so easy for Mano, who felt forced to listen to her complaints. Refusing outright to give her cash, he finally agreed to buy her a bag of rice from a street stall, so that she could not accuse him of leaving her hungry. At the same time, he knew that the woman was a professional beggar who could eat at the Jain canteen if she wanted to. But he had appeased his conscience and got rid of her.
As we continued towards the desert tented camp that would be our home for the night, dunes of sand came into sight, with camels in their holiday finery, waiting to give rides to the tourists and classes of schoolchildren playing on the sandy slopes. Our camp was walled like a fortress. Once we had driven through the main gate, we were requested to board a camel-driven jeep. Our driver looked like a carbon copy of the old man who had driven us down the hill at Sunset Point the evening before. His camel was eight years old and named Rashir. Rashir swayed with slow, even steps, taking us the few hundred metres along the walls up to the entrance of the camp. At reception a funny man named Bob gave us fragrant facecloths for our dusty hands and a deliciously cool glass of lemonade. We then moved on to an outside restaurant for a light lunch of delicious pea soup, chicken curry and tomatoes filled with cheese and spices among the other usual dishes. Actually a camel ride was planned for the afternoon, but I really did not fancy that and Willi, who wasn’t feeling too well, decided to give it a miss, too. So we walked around the swimming pool area, where there was a cool breeze, then spent the afternoon very quietly sitting outside out tent, relaxing to the music of bleating goats and the barking of far-away dogs.
The tents were very attractive. They were made out of very thin white wool, lined with billowing, yellow printed cotton, carpeted and thatched. Not ideal for keeping out the cold wind, as we would find out, but surely cool in the summer. We had realised that it would turn cold in the desert at night, but we weren’t entirely prepared for the icy wind that materialised that evening. Wrapped in the winter jackets we had brought from home, we attempted to enjoy the musical entertainment, which was an excellent rendering of ancient, classical religious songs that someone said might be barber music. It appealed to me and was very well performed, I thought. The singer had a beautiful voice that rang out on the chilly, evening air right through the camp. The musicians played an instrument that resembled the accordion, the santur and a kind of castanets that were not joined together. But I was feeling the cold wind on my freshly washed hair, Willi was feeling the cold anyway as he had had very little to eat and the Indian beer we were drinking was also too cold for comfort. So we were somewhat relieved when, after inviting all five guests to join in the rhythmic clapping and the dancing, turbans placed on our heads and all, the four musicians had come to the end of their repertoire and dinner was served. Unfortunately, dinner was also taken in an open restaurant. Willi restricted his to a meagre portion of plain cold rice and some yoghurt, while I was at least able to eat hot, spicy dishes that helped to warm the body.
Some enticing thirties music that sounded as if it was coming from an old gramophone came spilling out of the lounge bar, all alight with candles. The other three guests, with whom we had sat at dinner, went in for a nightcap. But we decided to turn in early and try to get warm under the bed sheets. The night was quite dreadful as you couldn’t keep warm forever with the hot-water bottle someone had thoughtfully popped under our covers. Willi really froze. On top of the cold, we were disturbed by the loud celebrations going on in the town and by the train, that passed only metres from our camp, it seemed. There were several trains during the night. Because the local people use the tracks to walk along, both by day and by night, the train driver likes to give ample warning, which he does by hooting for at least a minute before he reaches the town, reaching a crescendo as it comes level with the tents and for as long afterwards. Then there was the noise of the train itself, thundering past on its way to Jodhpur.
The night would have been forgotten more rapidly if we had been able to indulge in a hot shower the next morning, but although we had been woken up very early with a shout to tell us the hot water was ready, it was less than lukewarm. Poor Willi, still feeling fragile, braved the water, while I just could not face it. We had a rapid breakfast and headed off on the 160 km journey to Jodhpur, where a guide was expecting us to arrive mid-morning.
Jodhpur and Chanwa Fort
Still in the desert, we passed several nilgai antilopes in the bush, but the nearer we got to Jodhpur, approaching the ugly, stone quarries surrounding Mandore, the less rural the landscape became. Jodhpur is a relatively modern city, providing a popular market centre for the provincial desert families that give the place an exotic touch when they arrive in busloads to do their shopping and attend to administrative business.
You can see the fort, posing majestically high up on a hill just outside the modern town, from far away. But it was the activities going on in the town that first caught my attention, and particularly those of the fabric dyers, folding great expanses of red and purple materials in the alleyways or spreading them out on the dusty sidewalks to dry.
Our guide met us up at the fort, not far from the so-called Persian wheel, a device that came from Persia to transport water to the top of the building. Pradeep is middle-aged, very dry and slightly miserable and delivered his tour with a minimum of effort. We entered the fort at the top of the hill via a lift that has only been in operation since 1995. This took us to a building that was used for collecting tithes from the local peasants, a custom that was still observed until India gained independence in 1947.
We entered two courtyards, that of the maharaja and the one that was used by the maharani. Although there was a very nippy wind, the sun was shining brightly. In the shade, untouchable cleaners were using their short grass brooms to sweep the floor. A brilliant white marble coronation throne was the centre-piece of the maharaja’s courtyard. To watch the coronation and any other entertainment going on in the men’s quarters, the ladies, in purdah in those days, used to watch from finely chiselled screens that allowed them to look out but prevented strangers from being able to see the women. We visited a small but very interesting exhibition of royal elephant chairs and sedan chairs and another one of weapons, all beautifully inlayed with ivory, gold and silver. Then it was time to watch a video about the present maharaja and his family. The family was portrayed as being very modern, with progressive ideas but determined to preserve tradition. Part of their present home, on a hill that you can see from the palace, is used as a posh hotel these days.
The highlight of the buildings in the fort is the Flower Palace, a massive room of ballroom dimension, supported by golden pillars bearing mighty cusped arches, all thickly painted in gold leaf. This was commissioned by the maharaja of the day for entertainment, provided by lightly clad dancing ladies and musicians. The artist who had begun to paint 36 famous Rajasthan raga composers on the walls died before the work was completed and the paintings were never finished. We examined some of the Jodhpur miniature paintings in some detail, learning that the very large eyes, the straight noses and the use of orange in the paintings were typical of the Jodhpur style. In the ladies’ quarters, an electric swinging cradle was displayed. I wondered why we do not still have such useful objects these days.
The fort offers splendid views of the city, known as the blue city. In fact the many Brahmans who have lived here have for generations, have always painted their houses blue. In these blue zones, you will find no butchers’ shops, for Brahmans, the highest Hindu caste that traditionally produces priests and teachers, are not permitted to eat any kind of meat, fish or eggs, they do not smoke or drink alcohol and curiously, they are not allowed to eat onions or garlic. Apparently because it was thought that these would make their blood hot and make them want to be warriors, and that was the privilege of the Rasput caste.
Our next stop was the royal cremation ground. An enormous, elegant memorial in white, Indian marble been built in memory of Raj Jawant Singh ll. The cremation ground normally had to be situated 9 km away from the maharaja’s dwelling-place, but the story goes that Jawant’s widow was due to deliver a child and could not go watch the cremation. She ordered it to be carried out on a hill only a short distance from the palace, so she could watch it from afar. The maharani had had a smaller memorial built for her husband and the larger edifice was constructed later by the late maharaja’s son. Other, smaller memorials bear witness to the satis, the concubines and second and third wives, who threw themselves onto the funeral pyre to die alongside the Raj. Even today, Hindu cremations themselves can take place anywhere, usually by a river, normally directly following death, the ashes later being thrown in the Ganges. This entails a long, costly excursion for the bereaved.
The highlight of this day was the visit to the local market by the clock tower. This is no tourist trap, but a market full of local colour and fascination. Crossing the road is a risky business here with buses, taxis and rickshaws in a general chaos. There was a dentist’s stall – a place where you can get your teeth extracted, cheaply and on the spot. Vendors were selling everything the local peasants need, not only fruit and vegetables but also household wares, cheap jewelry for the hair, ears and noses, spices, rusks, pans and livestock. There were cartloads of ginger and cauliflowers, somewhat smaller heads than ours, and dark red carrots on sale. If you had a good look round, you could admire the most amazing nose rings, some of them joined by a fine little chain to the married lady’s ear. In the shops around the market ribbons, brocade and other materials were on sale, but we also saw a workshop in which an old man was repairing a santur, for example.
Pradeep dragged us into a shop selling fantastic pashminas and embroidered bedspreads, cushion covers and tablecloths, where they promised to give us a good price. But Willi was not feeling too well and shopping was by no means high on our list of priorities, so we let the gentleman show us his products and left. We did, however, stop to buy a few spices in a specialist shop.
Chanwa Fort was our next destination, in nearby Luni. The road to Chanwa passes various women’s cooperatives, places where the local ladies who live in the desert, where it is too dry for them to make cash from selling agricultural produce, can sell the embroidery and durry carpets they make. It has not rained properly in the desert for years. The week before we arrived here, the night temperature had sunk to below zero degrees. Under these conditions the life of the local women becomes extremely hard. There are also shops selling antique windows and doors and a couple of places where rapeseed oil is made. We watched as a harnessed bullock turned the massive grinding stones at an oil press. Mano taught us to pronounce the Rajasthan greeting, ramramsa.
We loved Chanwa fort from the moment we pulled up outside the massive wooden entrance gate, studded with nails as a defense against attacks from enemies on elephants. The place had a rather British colonial feel to it. We were greeted very cordially with hand towels and freshly made lemon soda and invited to choose between two rooms, one of them three floors up very steep stairs, a heritage deluxe room. As we were only staying the one night, we chose the other, simpler ground floor room. After a cup of tea in the small courtyard outside the room, we sat out in the garden, enjoying the last rays of warm sunshine. This must have been the noisiest garden in Rajasthan. The squawking of a thousand pigeons accompanied calling parrots and here again a train could be heard to pass.
By dinner time it had become rather chilly, but a delicious meal of chicken, sweet and spicy with cashew nuts, and paneer in tomato and pepper sauce, with rice and naan, helped against the cold wind. After dinner, braziers had been organised round small tables in the garden. Apart from ours, only one other table was being used. A puppet show and local dancing were being shown; we gave the puppet show a miss. Rajasthan kathputli, the puppet shows that recount popular legends, accompanied by the sound of a dholak drum, are omnipresent, but I’m afraid I find the chirping on a tin whistle that is supposed to represent the puppets’ voices quite irksome. However the dancers were quite entertaining, dressed in red and white dresses covered in sequins, tripping along in tiny steps performing the charee dance, with up to eight pots on their heads at one time or dancing in a sitting position with swords in their mouths, in the teerah taali . We were invited to take part, but the wind was really quite cold, so I made my guest appearance on the marble stage very short and we retired somewhat earlier than the entertainers might have appreciated.
The Jain temple in Ranakpur, which we would be visiting on the way to Udaipur, was clearly one of the highlights of this Rajasthan trip. The journey to the mountain forest area began on a small country road that took us to a very popular shrine, dedicated to Ban Naji, a maharaja who was killed on a motorbike which was said to have moved several times on its own after the death of its owner. Shortly after, grinning ladies at the roadside were trying to sell the fresh green grass that they had collected for roaming cows to Hindu cow-lovers, of which there are many!
The journey was very comfortable, thanks to the toll road, where Mano was given a candy bar as “change”, since there is a shortage of small denominational bank notes in India. Our car, a two-month old white Suzuki Swift, was also very comfortable. Willi usually rode in front with the driver and I normally parked myself in the middle at the back. In front, there was a sort of air-freshener in an exotic-looking lilac-coloured dispenser with a golden top. Next to it there was a picture of a Hindu guru. Like many of the vehicles here, the car was equipped with a string of black tassels which flattered at the back, to avert the evil eye. Mano was a free-lance driver whereas the car was the property of the “We shall do” transport business.
From around a place called Pali, we were struck by the unusually flattering carmine colour of the men’s turbans and amused ourselves and Mano by stalking the men who were wearing these, trying to shoot good photographs of them. On the narrower road leading to the Aravali mountains, there were a noticeable number of women balancing the flat steel bowls on their heads that they needed for their valuable work on the building sites. It is usual for women to carry small stones or sand from the heaps that are stored on the roadside across piles of rubble to the men working on the construction sites. This is hard, dirty, uninspiring work, especially in the heat of the day. Others bore heavy loads of firewood brought from the forest on their heads. We noticed a small group of ladies, who had propped their bundles up against a fence, crouching together in a circle, where they were obviously enjoying a rest and a good chat.
By the time we arrived at Ranakpur, where we were greeted by our guide Pintu, I was ready for a visit to the ladies’ room. These were in the part of the temple complex that is reserved for the Hindu priests and their families and I was most surprised to find small muslin bags tied around each tap. I supposed this was to preserve the lives of insects that might have been swimming in the tap water and indeed, it seems that the filtering of micro-organisms is, according to the Wikipedia page on Jainism, considered vital for the preservation of life.
Set in flowery, green surroundings, the 15th century temple is dazzling, in every sense. Constructed almost entirely in white Sonana marble from India, it dominates the landscape for miles around. It is a shimmering masterpiece of Jain artwork, delicately sculptured in 60 years. The main temple is dedicated to Adinath, the first tirthankara or totally enlightened propagator of Jainism. A column in a small garden topped by the traditional lotus flower and coconut, welcome you to the temple complex. From the moment you enter the main temple, a whole host of intricately sculptured symbolic objects greet the eye. The first, at the main door, are demonic masks, that are supposed to ward off evil spirits, a semi-circular “rug”, that is supposed to cleanse the soul and shells, that make the holy sound “om” when blown.
The “om” sound, written in the Pali language that is similar to Sanskrit, is repeated 39 times in a circular sculpture on the ceiling, as high as in any Gothic church, just inside the entrance. Watchdogs follow your every step to make sure you don’t photograph the holiest of holy icons, ghostly statues with haunting, silver eyes facing four directions, in the central part of the temple. Apart from that we were free to discover the immense building with Pintu, who explained everything in very basic English and was able to answer all our queries. The statues and decorations that adorn the halls and steps of this immaculately clean temple show a mixture of Hindu gods and Jain prophets, so that, once again, one gets the impression that these two religions merge into each other. It’s a fact that the Jains are extremely highly regarded in the Hindu society. At any rate, the elephant, the symbol of good luck, is depicted in wonderful statues and there is an intriguing sculpture of a cobra with one body and a thousand heads that symbolises godliness. Pali inscriptions on endless columns reveal Jain prayers. The dimensions of the temple are unbelievable.
We visited the temple clockwise and as we reached the entrance again, a crossed-legged priest in yellow robes was grinding saffron, which was made into a paste. The visitor was invited to look into a mirror and smear a splodge of saffron paste onto the forehead. I did. After I had taken a photograph of the grinding priest, he put his hand out for a “donation” that quickly disappeared into his pocket. Our guide’s face was a picture of indignation.
Before we left the main temple, we obeyed Pintu’s instructions to look back towards the main altar, put our hands together and make a secret wish. There are 86 shrines around the main temple, which we did not visit, but we did go into a side temple. Here we were allowed to photograph the icon. Then Pintu, who said he was a Brahman and had learned mantras from his father, placed his hands together, and after repeating the mysterious “om” sound three times to prepare his mind for the meditational chant that followed, sang a long mantra in a wonderful mellow voice. This was supposed to protect us. Despite our scepsis regarding the probability of the mantra’s success, it was a very moving experience.
Monkeys were hanging around the temple complex . These were langurs, large, long-tailed, black-faced monkeys that kept their distance, I’m pleased to say. The sight of many of these monkeys, huge families high up in the leafiest part of the trees, accompanied us along the winding mountain road. But it was quite a different animal that surprised us behind one particular curve. It was a huge elephant, bearing a seat and all sorts of possessions including mattresses, a pail and a water canister and ridden by a simply dressed turbaned man. In front of the elephant were two yellow-clad wandering monks. The one in front was a cheery fellow with a woollen hat, carrying a pot for money collection and readily waving rupee notes in his hand to make his intention clear. His companion was a wild-looking chap, with wide, staring eyes and long, thin hair knotted into a sort of bun. Both had their foreheads smeared with yellow saffron and a red paste. This strange-looking pair made an exotic motive for our cameras.
The journey to Udaipur was delightful. We climbed high into the Aravali mountains, where the air was particularly clear. Under an immaculate blue sky the countryside looked idyllic. At a tiny temple surrounded by trees, where two healthy-looking cows meandered by the road, we stopped at a roadside cafe to recharge our batteries, as Mano always said, and treated ourselves to a cup of masala chai, which by this time was our favourite lunchtime refreshment. Far away on the brown, treeless slopes, the high pitched voices of singing and playing children could be heard and if we strained our eyes, we could make out a small group of women and children disappearing through the shrub every now and again. Green parrots flittered in and out of the emerald foliage of two trees just below the modest garden where we drank our tea on tables decked with once white cloths.
For miles after our stop the new toll road took us past lonely brown mountains, bare of all vegetation. A camera crew had chosen this lunar landscape for a scene in a film. A group of actors were sitting on red plastic chairs between shootings. Travelling on down the mountainside, villages began to appear. We looked out for the men and women who were irrigating their fields using bullocks on a treadmill, hoisting buckets of water that were fixed to a wheel. At the water pumps, ladies filled their clay pots or more modern and lighter containers made of sparkling steel. Younger men stripped to their underpants washed in the cold water, splashing small bucketfuls across their shoulders. Cows came to drink. Children played. Older carmine-turbaned men sat together cross-legged and chatted. It was all very peaceful.
As we approached Udaipur, the traffic became heavier and the streets littered with all manner of rubbish. We were prepared for a romantic town on Lake Pichola. The shabby promenade alongside the Fateh Sagar that came to meet us in the north of Udaipur was a little disappointing. Within minutes we had reached our hotel, the Swaroop Vilas, a modern building built in the style of a palace, on the outskirts of the town.
We had a large, pleasant room with a delightful broad window above a window seat that would easily have functioned as a bed. It took us only minutes to unpack our toilet bags and leave the hotel for a walk along the lake. Avoiding a busy road, we walked up the hill beside our hotel, a street full of stray dogs snapping at their fleas, and crossed a smaller road to the lakeside. We were not alone. Many young people on scooters were enjoying the ride here and there were several strollers, too. Before long it would become dusk, and I felt a number of mosquitoes fly across my face. Before long there were bites there, too, so we decided to turn back. At our hotel, which was actually set on the waters of the Swaroop Sagar, we prolonged our walk for a few metres as far as a pedestrian bridge leading into the town centre.
The promenade on which our hotel was built was not very inspiring. It was not much more than a dirt track, with mangy, humped cows and many flea-ridden dogs and a couple of bristly pigs. Particularly disturbing was the fact that the cows were helping themselves to the dirty plastic bags and packaging peeping out of the open rubbish containers. The two pigs were writhing in a pile of mud. A small dog was eating the carcass of a dead dog that lay on the banks of the lake. A man at the lakeside hastily pulled up his trousers as we passed. It was getting dark now. Despite the despondent goings-on, we felt perfectly safe, as we did throughout the trip, but the idyllic setting we had found in the countryside had evaporated.
Back at the hotel, we managed to talk our way out of having a massage and having realised that the only bar was outside with the mosquitoes, went down to the restaurant for a gin and tonic. Our meal was more than acceptable, (we had chosen two tandoor platters, a vegetarian and a meat platter), but the waiters had turned on a huge television screen. They turned, all three of them, their hands in their pockets, to gaze at the screen while they could have been focused on the few guests. We resolved to find another restaurant for the following evening. We turned in quite early and dozed to the repeat performance of barking dogs, the repertoire covering so many pitches of howling and yowling and whining and whimpering and ferocious snappings, that I honestly dread to think what was going on in the streets below. Beyond the lake, the fireworks of at last two different wedding celebrations cracked in the distance.
We were due to meet our guide early in the morning. Surendr was the name of the bespectacled, middle-aged man who appeared at reception. He had spent some time in the east of Germany and his German was very good.
We drove through the narrow streets of the old town, where much hammering and sawing and calling was taking place even so early in the morning. Mano dropped us outside the majestic white Jagdish temple, where a lady in a brilliant cornflower-blue veil was carting away a pile of rubbish and others were sweeping the road amidst an ever increasing flow of traffic. Just in front of the temple, flower-sellers were threading garlands of marigolds. The steep steps leading up to the temple were lined with beggars of every description, most of them clad in grim-looking garments and showing the matted hair of the very poor, with wrinkled, outstretched hands. Others, a forlorn and distant look in their eyes, were dressed in the gay orange and yellow robes of holy men. In the temple yard, the blind and the lame had found their squatting places.
What makes this Vishnu temple stand out from many others in the area is that it was built in the Indo-Aryan style at a time when North India was heavily influenced by the Moghul style of architecture. Surendr went to great lengths to explain the traditional order of sculptured decoration on the outside of the temple, following a strict pattern. Inside the temple, men and women were chanting rhythmically, their leader following the verses in an open book with his finger. At one side, a turbaned gentleman sitting cross-legged on the floor, his relaxed, open palms facing outwards at his sides, was meditating.
Outside the main building, a man dressed in white was painstakingly wiping a huge statue of Lord Ganesh and washing it, supposedly with milk and honey, though it looked like water. Apparently all the statues in all the Hindu and Jain temples are washed every single day. Sitting around the temple were the professional beggars that our guide suggested might only be disguised as priests, swadis rather than sadis.
Our visit to the temple was followed by a short walk through the town where hawkers tried to urge us into their shops. A few minutes later we had entered the enormous, gardened courtyard of the largest palace complex in Rajasthan, the UdaipurTown Palace.
One of the wedding celebrations that had taken place the night before had been held in these sumptuous gardens and hundreds of cleaners were hurriedly clearing up the debris, which consisted of crumpled serviettes and bits of food, upturned plastic chairs and reams of brightly coloured fabric and hundreds of withered flowers. We were told that over 6,500 EUR worth of flowers had been ordered for the party. Crows hopped over the mess looking for pickings, tourists stepped over piles of rubbish and ominous-looking puddles. Hundreds of unofficial guides looking for unsuspecting foreigners approached innocent tourists. Others guided their customers through the crowds. We briefly saw the son of the present maharaja, who lives nearby in another part of this huge, sprawling complex, as he picked his way through the courtyard, politely greeting many citizens, including our guide, with a gentle wave of the hand or a nod of the head.
We were also introduced to a very well-dressed local tradesman, a man with an up-market craft shop, who told as that he had appeared in a German film directed by one of our most popular actresses, Ruth-Maria Kubicek.
The palace itself was truly amazing, a hoard of wealth. I was surprised to hear that the flowered tiles that led up the staircase were art-nouveau ones from England. There are also a number of blue and white Delft tiles and Chinese tiles on the palace walls. In the picture gallery, the first ever bird’s eye view painting was on display, a view of the palace complex.
The most beautiful and incredible room in the whole complex is a richly painted, colourful room in the winter palace containing a great deal of gold and mirror work. This would have been heated and lit by hundreds of candles. The mirrors reflected both light and heat, making the room cosy on cold winter nights. The magnificence of the buildings and their decoration had, of-course, as in all the maharaja palaces we saw, been financed by the hungering peasants.
The maharani’s summer palace can be seen from the town palace shimmering white in the middle of Lake Pichola, a man-made lake that was constructed in the middle of the 15th century when the town was founded. A further palace, the Monsoon Palace, could be made out nestling in the mist high up on a neighbouring hill, safe from any monsoon flooding.
Having visited most of the palace, we passed a further part of the buildings belonging to this incredible complex, which is a very comfortable hotel these days. A few black-faced monkeys shook the dry branches of the trees above us, scattering tiny, dry leaves over our shoulders as we proceeded to the embarkment pier for our boat ride.
I had not particularly been looking forward to this ride, but the boat looked trustworthy and the people organized and there was even a life-jacket to put on. I was glad of its warmth as we glided across the lake in the cool wind. From the water, the dimensions of the palace became real and were impressive indeed. To our left, the Lake Palace Hotel left a wavy reflection in the blue waters. I cannot believe that the water was as clean as it looked, but it was being used for washing the body and clothes by males and females alike, the young men wearing the thin checked gamchas tied round their waists while their other clothes were drying, spread out on the ground in the sun. From the lake, there was an impressive view of the “white city”, as Udaipur is often called, many of its buildings being a translucent white.
We were boated round the lakeside, then our boat turned to reach yet another island palace, the Jag Mandir, which is also now a posh hotel and had been the location of another two of the weddings of the day before. The clearing-up was almost finished. Pillars wrapped in flimsy orange fabric still bore garlands of neatly bunched roses. Highly priced coffee specialities and snacks were on sale on the many terraces overlooking the lake and music wound its way through the green lawns in the centre of the tiny island. Rather kitschy, actually, but it was pleasant to spend a few relaxing minutes digesting the impressions left by the palace.
Back in the town, we met Mano, who took us to a pretty pleasure-garden, that had apparently been built for the spoilt daughter of one of the maharajas, who had demanded a swimming-pool for herself and her friends. It was also used by later maharajas as a meeting place with their concubines. The garden, with its many plants and fountains and lotus ponds and gaudy statues of elephants, was full of mainly Indian people, who use the park for picnics or for relaxing walks. Unfortunately there were also a number of hawkers who pestered us with offers of super cheap memory cards and batteries.
Our guide would have shown us other sights, but we really wanted to discover the city on our own and dropped him off at our hotel. Mano found the way to Shilpgram, an open-air cultural centre in the north of the city that my guide book had recommended. Here we discovered a few cultural presentations, songs and music and dancing, plus the inevitable puppet show. The centre also offered camel and horse rides, the animals being decked out in bright, gaudy cloths and jewelry. There was a small museum and a garden full of modern sculpture. But what was really interesting were the replicas of traditional Rajasthan and Gujrat dwellings, mud huts, basically. These were decorated with primitive white drawings on the outside. More developed huts that were plastered in white, were decorated with equally naïve paintings in bright colours. All the huts were refreshingly cool in the warm afternoon.
At an extremely basic café, we found Mano, who had refused our invitation to visit the centre with us. He had had a chat with the guy at the entrance and discovered that he was from the same region in the Himalayas as Mano himself. I guess his fellow Himalayan had given him free entrance. We were glad of the chance to sit down and ordered a fizzy orange drink that really refreshed us.
Determined not to sit down to a television show at dinner, we had asked our guide and Mano if they could recommend a nice eating place in the town and decided to have our meal in the Ambrai restaurant directly on the lake. It was dark when we arrived. The place was busy, but we were relatively early and found a table facing the lake, a perfect distance away from the band, so our music was pleasantly in the background but loud enough to be appreciated. Lights on the other side of the lake winked at us as we perused the menu in the dim light of a candle. We ordered stuffed tomato curry with cottage cheese and green peas, aubergines, chicken tikka masala and naan bread and drank a couple of bottles of Kingfisher beers. It was a really pleasant evening, not as cold as we had feared and in the company of our chatty young Indian neighbours, one of whom lives in Switzerland, we also found the contact with local people that we both love.
On the way back to the hotel, the narrow, bustling streets, full of local people fulfilling their every-day needs, food shops and tailors’ shops carpeted with layers of heavily embroidered material thrown out on the floor to be admired and selected, were blocked by the broad back of a sturdy cow. Mano did not bat an eyelid as he navigated our car past others with precision. He spoke to the cow affectionately, softly calling her “mother”, as Indians do.
At the hotel we risked being bitten by the mosquitoes and treated ourselves to a cocktail in a sheltered spot at the outside bar before sinking, exhausted, into our bed.
Breakfast at Swaroop Vilas, alas with the TV “breaking news” in the background, had been a small sensation. Armed with idlis and sambhar, I demonstratively turned my back to the screen and did some people-watching instead. A group of three Indian ladies entered the dining-room. I judged them to be mother, daughter and daughter-in-law. Daughter-in-law, in an attractive yellow shalwar-kameez, was obviously not feeling well and sat apart from the other ladies. Soon after, they were joined by three men, presumably father, an elderly gentleman with an amazingly reddish-white moustache, son and son-in-law. Daughter-in-law immediately got up from her solitary table and greeted the men, bending down to touch her father-in-law’s feet, at which he held an outstretched hand hovering over her head and said in English, “God bless you”. I asked Mano about this later and he confirmed that it was the custom for children-in-law to touch their father-in-law’s feet as a sign of respect, in return for which they received a blessing. Every single day, the hands of mothers-in-laws are held between their children-in-laws’ two hands. In fact, one morning Mano, who is 35 and easily young enough to be my son, did take my hand in both of his, which I instinctively felt was a sign of respect.
I smiled at daughter-in-law as I rose from the table and she commented on my own print shalwar-kameez, saying it looked very nice. I explained that I found it troublesome that the dupatta or scarf kept slipping from my shoulders and she in turn suggested I fasten it to the tunic with safety pins, like Indian ladies do. Little exchanges such as these just make my trips!
Young boys were washing in Fateh Sagar as we proceeded out of Udaipur on our way to Deogarh. They wore the traditional gamcha, a thin, coarse towel that is often worn around the neck, tied round their waists and were wringing out their trousers, wet hair dripping down their backs.
We left the city behind us in no time at all. In the middle of the bare, brown Aravali mountains, Mano made a short detour to stop at a crumbling Jain-Hindu temple complex dating from the eleventh century in Nagada. This temple has the intriguing name “Mother-in-law, daughter-in-law”, but nobody could explain this. No longer used, the temple is a masterpiece of fine sculpture work, a peaceful tribute to the artistic Indian sculptors of the Middle Ages. Seemingly forgotten in the tranquil surroundings of fields and a small river, where a young boy was splashing naked in the sun, this sacred place was being taken care of by an elderly official, who obviously did not see many visitors. The red stone temples and shrines were now mere shells. As we walked back to the car, where an optimistic vendor was selling souvenirs, small children poked their faces close to the iron gate that separated their property from the temple complex, calling to us. I wished I had brought some of the sweets we had bought at a kiosk the day before.
Outside the gate, a small group of older children were waiting for us, asking for pens. They were pleased to take sweets instead and posed in front of my camera. Later on, we paused at a small village, where two schoolgirls were carrying water from the pump. They and an old lady with a large nose-ring also permitted me to take a snapshot.
We passed a cremation procession, which was very moving. A group of about twenty adults walked in silence behind a body placed, presumably, on some kind of stretcher and simply shrouded in a clean, white cloth. A sort of chest was fastened to its stomach. Willi imagined it could have contained some belongings that were also due to reach the funeral pyre. Scattered over the cloth were orange- coloured bougainvillea petals. Right at the back of the procession, strong young men carried sturdy logs for the fire. Mano explained that they would be on their way to a riverside, where the corpse would be burned.
Soon we left this pleasant rural area and reached the marble quarries. The modern town of Nathwar, turned rich from the marble, by the looks of things, boasted several colourful, almost futuristic buildings, houses, banks, salesrooms. There were even a few modern-looking hotels here. For kilometres on end, slabs of white, green, pink and black marble lay in great stacks at the roadside to be collected and transported elsewhere. Lorries containing enormous chunks, glittering on one side and smooth and powdery on the other, churned past us with their heavy loads. The muscles of the camels who strained to pull weighty cartloads glistened in the sun. Groaning engines and whining machinery pierced the air, contrasting with the silence of exhausted workmen. The air was also thick with dust, white marble powder that was clinging to the thin legs of those employed in excavating or cutting the huge boulders. This dust found its way to the back of your throat. It must have been torturous to work at a place like this, especially in the summer months. There were also miles of shops selling worked marble, chiselled into seats and shrines and altars and cupboards with the lacy patterns of fine screenwork or fashioned into huge elephant statues. This was a good place for casual labour, so gypsy families housed under hastily erected roofs of plastic sheeting were going about their daily chores or searching rubbish tips for useful objects.
On the edge of the Thar desert once more, we crossed Kaniyana, where a small boy was driving a withered balloon across the sandy road with a stick. There was a small, colourful market here, with a cage full of chickens, the first ones we had seen this trip. A bunch of schoolgirls wore their hair braided, all tied with the same spotless, white ribbons that must have been part of the uniform.
Then suddenly, after a right-turn, we were in Deogarh, crawling up the slope that led to an impressive gateway, which, in turn, took us into a sort of courtyard. The reception was in a fancy, red building on the left and the receptionist came out to greet us. I was so busy admiring her beautiful pink, silk sari and watching the musician, whose drums welcomed us with an Indian salute, that I almost missed the bougainvillea petals that came raining down on us just in front of the entrance door. I quickly looked up to see a turbanned man strew handfuls of these out of a basket. We were given a sauna towel for our dusty hands and a lemon soda, followed by a briefing.
We were shown to our room, through another majestic gateway, across a gravelled courtyard, up a ramp, into a lift, down a passageway overlooking a smaller courtyard, over a step and into our own private entrance.
The spacious room was lit with a spectrum of colour, filtering through the stained glass windows above our beds and coming to rest in cushioned alcoves on the opposite wall. It is said that each room in this palace is unique. Certainly, someone had put a great deal of thought into the furnishing and decoration of this wonderful room, with an eye for stylish detail. It had an elegance all of its own, but was at the same time very cosy. The bathroom was also very large and had been restored with consideration, leaving the quaint details such as the tiny, antique soap dish on the customary shower affixed to the toilet. This made the room if not particularly practical, certainly very idiosyncratic. Outside the room was a peaceful area with two deckchairs and a small table, above which monkeys later came to play in the tall trees.
We normally skipped lunch, but the palace was too beautiful for us not to want to explore it right away and our exploration led us to the restaurant, just off the gravelled courtyard. I settled for a pakora dish, vegetables and paneer battered and deep-fried, while Willi chose grilled vegetables on olive bread and we shared a Kingfisher lager. After lunch, we walked around for a while, then remembered that we had been offered an audio guide of the palace. Lasting almost an hour and a half, the guide turned out to be an interview between a British historian and the maharaja, actually the father of the maharaja who now runs the place with his wife. The interview was easy to understand and full of anecdotes which made the history of this palace, exemplary for all the maharaja palaces that we had been fortunate to stay in, come very much alive.
The tour of the palace took us into parts of the buildings that we would otherwise not have seen and included a stroll on the roof, between gigantic onion towers and turrets and along walls that offered fantastic views across the town and onto the roofs of the people living in the town. It was this voyeuristic picture that pleased us the most. You could see coloured garments flattering in the afternoon breeze and housewives flitting across the roof collecting the dry ones. A man came onto his roof to roll up the thin mattresses that had been spread out to dry in the sun. One woman lay asleep on her mattress, while a few houses away, another woman sank back on her staircase to doze. There were stores of clay water pots stacked in a corner and a carpet of red chilies drying on the floor. Peeping right down into the corner of a street directly below us, we could just see three headscarved girls shelling pods. In the background, carts and vehicles were crossing the main road, while next to a dry lake, the maharaja’s own house nestled against the mountains in the watery sky.
The scene looked so peaceful that we resolved to have a walk into the town before dinner. But before we set off, we asked the receptionist to show us the maharani suite, which our guide book had so highly praised. This was pure luxury! Several rooms branched off an elegant sitting-room equipped with every comfort. To our left, there was another small sitting room, dark and cool in the daytime. This was fitted with tiny, stained glass windows, the walls covered in tiny mirrors. The receptionist told us that this room would be filled with candles in the evenings. In the centre of the bathroom, with a double hand basin, a separate room for the loo and another for the shower, there was a beautiful tiled jacuzzi.
On the way back to reception, the young lady told us her own, rather sad story. She had been brought up in the busy, modern metropolis of Bangalore and her parents had married her to a Rajasthan farmer in this village. This meant that she now had to live without the comforts of a modern city. She had three children, the youngest of whom was just five months old. In the village she had to cover her face and was heavily scrutinised by the other ladies. Her day began, as theirs did, with fetching water from the village pump and preparing food for the family for the whole day. It was not socially acceptable for her to take on a job, but their financial situation was not rosy, so she had persuaded her husband to allow her to work at this hotel, a job that she did from 10am to 4 pm. The job was her lifeline, providing contact with the rest of the world and the opportunity for her to use her very good English. However, it seemed awful for her to have to leave the hotel in the afternoon and cover her head on the way back to her village, where the other women would perhaps scorn her for her choice to work outside the desert community.
Visiting the town was a real treat. Passing stalls selling food and some souvenirs, we turned into the main road, where things were being sold that we had never seen before. Among other things, we tried to fathom out what the thin, grey slabs of something resembling broken tiles, sticking out of a sack, could be. I asked a teenaged customer, who could probably understand English, I thought. She said it was for washing your hair. There was also something resembling mouldy, yellow cheese, which Willi said was soap. At a tea shop, heaps of Assam and Darjeeling leaves were sitting on a counter. At mobile stalls snacks were being fried. Rolls of flimsy, embroidered fabric and thick cotton with a batik design were waiting to be unfolded and rubbed between two fingers, to reveal their quality.
At the end of the market, an old town gate, heavily studded with the sharp nails that were supposed to keep elephants at bay, opened onto the main road for traffic passing through the village. At a water pump, a cow was trying to drink from the pot that a boy was filling. A somewhat backward boy with the idiotic grin of the mentally depraved followed us, making gurgling noises. Peasant women, many of them carrying broken baskets containing the half-dried cow dung cakes they had picked up on the wayside, were pulling at stubborn bullocks on fraying ropes. It was getting darker, so we made our way back into the other half of the main street, continuing past the town clock, a clock with an unusually loud imitation of Big Ben’s chime, affixed to a gaudy temple.
Willi watched with a mixture of disgust and curiosity as a poor, ill-clothed man carrying a very heavy sack was pushed around like an animal until he was told where to unload his burden. Two girls had lined up with us and were showing off their English, which I praised. Hemma and Mani, they were called. After a few stock phrases, they wheedled us off to their father’s shop and he, in turn, tried to sell us some silver jewelry, fastening bracelet after bracelet onto my wrists to show how beautiful they looked. Fortunately he was not of the VERY persuasive kind, so we were able to refuse politely and continue our stroll. This was Sunday, but the tailors were working hard in the poor light of dusk, their bare feet pushing the treddle of old Singer machines to and fro. I watched as a young man stitched a golden border onto a very long length of fabric. He managed a wry smile.
At the other end of the road, we came into the area where the untouchables had their own stalls and their own shrine, a small, shabby shrine to Lord Ganesh. A few held out their hands, but most of them were more amused by our being there than interested in begging. We had reached the dam that filled the lake we had seen from the roof of our hotel. It was clearly an area where the Dalits, the untouchable cast, kept to themselves.
Before dinner, we were telephoned from reception to be reminded about the entertainment, which had just begun in the courtyard below. It was yet another display of Rajasthan dancing, executed by a mother and her two grown-up daughters, more professional than those we had seen before. Without the phone call, we would probably have given the entertainment a miss. The added delight of pappadums served with delicious sauces made our Kingfisher particularly tasty. The hotel had advertised a kebab buffet, all you can eat, for that evening, but neither we nor the other guests were interested in paying quite a large amount for food that they could not really afford to eat – you don’t burn up many calories visiting India by car! So the buffet remained empty while the guests headed for the à la carte restaurant. We chose cauliflower and ginger, lamb and maize dumplings in onion and tomato sauce with rotis. Indian deserts are not usually the best items on the menu, but we had a kulfi, a sort of ice-cream with saffron and dried fruit between us and enjoyed it.
Breakfast was the best we had eaten in Rajasthan. There were about seven different bread types to choose from, all home-made, I trust. We discussed the remark in our guide book, that if the authors had been forced to choose one palace hotel that stood out from the rest in excellence, then this would be it. Certainly this palace has been restored with devotion and is architecturally fascinating. The present owners have left their stamp on the hotel, choosing the interiors and the food in the restaurants and running the shop themselves. The management left no wishes unfulfilled, I am sure, offering countless activities from camel safaris to cooking courses. However, I personally felt the presence of the owners overbearing. The maharani was physically present in the hotel while we were there and spent most of her time talking to guests about the local hospital project she was running, clearly appealing for donations. I really do not approve of this. Nevertheless, this was a small price to pay for the otherwise wonderful privilege of staying in this truly wonderful hotel.
We spent the journey to Jaipur discussing all the reasons for which the local lorry drivers feel the need to sound their horns. Not the kind of horns you hear in Europe, of-course. Indian horns play a tune or a variety of tunes. The lorry driver uses this to warn other drivers that he wants to overtake or to reprimand them for overtaking him or as a greeting or to say thank you or to impress someone or just because he feels like it. The longer and louder, the better. The car driver uses his horn more selectively, usually to indicate that he has no intention of stopping for anybody, so it’s better to give way to him. This type of driver is not particularly aggressive, he is just in a hurry. Less sportive drivers blow their horns in a traffic jam, letting off a bit of steam, or as a warning to, for example, a scooter driver doing some dangerous overtaking or children crossing the road. In fact, Mano made very little use of his horn, which is an enormous compliment to him.
We had passed a number of ladies operating water pumps over the past few days and I had seriously thought of having a go myself, so when Mano pulled up beside a young woman drawing water and asked if I’d like to try, I did not need to be asked twice. I asked the veiled young woman if I could help her and Mano translated for good measure, then she moved aside, giggling a bit, and I took over. I had imagined it to be more strenuous. Once the water had begun to flow, it was quite simple. When her pot was brim full, she replaced it with another one. Some eight to ten litres later, the pot was full and I gave up my post behind the pump, rubbing my back to show that I was not used to the bending. The action had caused quite a stir. First some children appeared, fascinated, then a man, probably the girl’s father, came onto the scene, clearly amused. He actually thanked me for “helping”. The young girl who had been pumping the water took the pot and placed it on a padded ring on her head and walked gracefully to their hut. We gave the girls some sweets and moved on. Afterwards I was sorry I hadn’t had a go at carrying the pot on my head, but I suppose there IS a limit.
There were serious road works going on on this toll road around Beowar. There were at least as many women working here as men. They paced tirelessly back and forth carrying huge platters of stones to the male workers or crouched in the dust, chopping stones with their axes. The women wore heavy bangles round their ankles; these must have been so uncomfortable with all that dust and the heat. Like the quarry workers, the men were caked in white chalk from the knees down. Plastic sandals and skinny legs emerged from their smutty dhotis. We by-passed the town of Ajmer, where I noticed that there more mosques than we had seen so far. Almost all the women were heavily veiled. In single file, three ladies marched along the roadside with heavy bundles of firewood on their heads. Lorry drivers at a roadside cafe stood in their underwear at the water pump, having a wash. The nearer we got to the mountains, the hazier it got. At a midway cafe called Laxmi Vilas, we stopped for the masala chai that often served as lunch.
I liked Jaipur from the moment Mano steered us into the centre of the town along broad, relatively clean roads. Having said that, our haveli was situated on a very busy, dusty and loud road that was anything but attractive. The hotel was inside a courtyard that miraculously protected it from much of the noise and confusion. The rooms were across a further courtyard, clean and relatively quiet. The walls of this pretty haveli were all in a cream colour with blue and gold floral decorations. Golden outlines flattered the cusped arches of the dining area. Like many of the hotels we had stayed in, there were pleasant sitting areas and fountains and potted flowers all over the place and it was easy to feel at home here.
Our room was very pretty, too. The comfortable bed was covered with a cheap but attractive cotton-print bedspread with large green and orange-coloured marigolds and red and orange floral borders. There were curtains to match. It was a four poster bed strewn with red and gold mesh fabric loosely woven with shiny, golden dots. The black and white tiles on the floor were arranged in a floral pattern. Blue and orange outlines on the sculptured ceiling accentuated the arches and reliefs. Two lamps in the middle were encircled by orange and blue floral paintings. The furniture was old, scratched and dark. Left and right from the bed were two marble-topped octagonal tables with huge, curved legs. All in all a chaotic blend of styles and colours that was so sweet and so feminine and very cosy.
After so many hours spent sitting in the car, we both felt the need to stretch our legs and the thought of discovering this noisy, bustling town on our own was nothing short of thrilling. A rickshaw driver in shabby, white clothes stopped us right outside the hotel and followed us for quite some time before we could brush him off. The pavement was virtually non-existent. There was a broad, slightly raised area on each side of the road that pedestrians could, theoretically, walk along, but this was full of parked vehicles, piles of sand and rubble, wares that were being loaded or unloaded, dogs and cows and heaps of dirt and rubbish. It took us several minutes to reach the nearest of seven huge, red stone gates leading into the old town centre.
The entrance to the old town was filled with parked buses belching fumes and making rude noises as men and women of all walks of life alighted or boarded them. Rickshaws and scooters and bicycles wove in and out of the hooting lines of traffic. Streams of people made their way past the shops on the sidewalk, (which was two large and usually very uneven steps higher than the road), pushing and shoving and spilling out into the rows of parked bicycles below the pavement. Some peasant vendors of home produce were selling fruit or vegetables on woollen blankets or from baskets and plastic bowls on the bare asphalt, between the parked two-wheelers or dangerously near the road.
Because we are not used to pushing and shoving, it took us some time to file past the shops, having a quick look here and there but at the same time trying not to show too much interest, because we did not intend to buy anything here. Eventually we reached the central square, where the traffic was horrendous, and turned right into a street full of silver and gold shops, which we hoped would lead us to the emporium Rajasthali, where I wanted to buy another shalwar-kameez. The jewellers’ shops were naturally posher than the others. They had proper shop windows and regular doors and were protected at night by metal shutters. People left their shoes outside these clean shops and inside they were invited to take a seat. There were also shops selling building materials and bicycles and spices. There was a broom shop and a tea shop and a shop selling kites, not bright and colourful ones like European children buy, but sombre, serious ones, folded and stacked man-high in a corner. Almost every time we crossed an alleyway, men could be seen pressed close to a wall relieving themselves. There were ominous puddles everywhere and in a busy town where it hardly ever rains, this creates a horrid stink. There were latrines placed strategically in the middle of the road, stand-up ones as well as squatting ones, not particularly private, I admit. Still I cannot accept the fact that the men had to dirty the streets as they did. You never find women taking the same liberty.
Leaving the old town by another painted gate, we crossed the road to the emporium that we were looking for. A crippled man in the dark, colourless garments of the very poor bravely faced the heavy traffic, shuffling with his hands and bottom and pushing his lifeless legs out in front. The emporium was, in contrast to the other shops, a modern European type of shop, where I was able to look through the clothes without being pushed, physically or psychologically, and without having to bargain, since the prices were fixed. I left the shop carrying a pink, cardboard carrier-bag containing a black shawl and tight trousers and an attractive red and black tunic with golden embroidery.
We decided to take another route back to the hotel, slightly away from the hustle and bustle of the main street, foolishly believing it would be quicker. The first road we took was broad and relatively empty, but as we navigated towards our hotel with only a rudimentary street map from the guide book to follow, the streets became less simple to identify and we came onto roads that no tourist in his right mind would dream of taking. Having said that, we felt perfectly safe. But dusk was setting in, we were not entirely sure that we were going the right way and very few people in Rajasthan speak English, even in the hospitality trade. Willi directed us through streets full of motorbike mechanics and chai vendors and open-air barber shops, consisting of a chair and a mirror which was usually affixed to a metal fence, and ladies with old-fashioned irons filled with coals who had ironing businesses on the street. These streets were full of dogs and busy people. A group of small children wearing what looked like pyjamas were jumping on and off a pile of rubbish, screeching with glee.
When we finally arrived back at the hotel it was dark and my feet were beginning to ache, so we plonked ourselves down on two bar stools and treated ourselves to a gin and tonic. After an internet session in the lobby, we sat down to the buffet dinner, which was very good. The bharapi and carrot halwa that our waiter brought us for desert, despite our protests that we had to watch our weight, were delicious. The sound of drums and the dreadful squeak of the Rajasthan whistle from the puppet show outside wafted in every time a new guest opened the door.
The next morning we were woken before sunrise by all manner of sounds. First there was the distant rumbling of heavy vehicles accelerating as they churned up the hills. This was punctuated by the frequent screeching of brakes and hooting of horns. From other rooms came the soft padded sounds of doors opening and closing and furniture being gently pushed aside. There was the vague booming of a boiler and the sound of running water in invisible pipes. Then the choir of muezzins started up, a different voice in each neighbourhood, all with the same message, calling to prayer. The strangest sound of all was a mournful melody coming from a brass instrument, that it could have been a trumpet. It sounded like a funeral march. Later I realised this must have been tannoyed from a temple. Interestingly, no bird songs could be heard in the tumult, though later, when I got up to watch the sun rise from the gigantic terrace on the roof outside our room, the sound of thousands of squealing pigeons greeted me from the treetops.
After a breakfast with idlis and a bland-tasting chutney, we met Rajesherma, our serious, worried-looking guide, in reception. Mano took us up to the incredible fort in Amber, some 11 kilometres north of the city. On the way we parked for a photo stop at the famous palace of winds. Here Rajesherma explained that the city had been painted pink for the visit of Prince Albert in 1876 and has remained that colour ever since. The palace of winds is really not much more than a facade of lacy screenwork, from behind which the maharaja’s concubines could observe the goings-on in the town without being seen. However it is a beautiful sight and was very attractive in the warm light of the early morning, with only a handful of hawkers to spoil the view and the romantic atmosphere.
Amber, on the other hand, was already brimming with tourists and hawkers alike. At first, a most peaceful scene appeared on the horizon. This beautiful medieval fort, a pale yellow giant of a complex, was partially reflected in the still shallow waters of a small lake. As we got nearer, the crowds became visible. We were dropped off with our guide at a queue near a raised platform, from which you were at level with the elephant’s back and could easily slide onto an elephant seat. In front of us in the queue, frustrated tourists tried to ward off the hawkers or bought the formed turbans with long tails or the samplers of miniatures that were being sold. From the side we were attacked by aggressive young men trying to make a quick turnover, the ambiguous words “ten for ten” or “twenty for twenty” shouted loud enough to drown the offer of the next man. We were amused by the disdainful murmurings of an elderly Italian tourist behind us. The crowd managed to move along and within minutes we were at the top of the platform, boarding elephant number 120. Our guide snapped a metal bar into place and off we went.
Thankfully, there was not much time to think about this, because as those who know me well will realise, I am terrified of elephants, at least of African elephants in the wild. While the movement of the animal beneath me was unnerving, I don’t think I was actually afraid of these Asian elephants. They are, after all, trained animals in India. These elephants do not resemble the African ones much. They are generally smaller with smaller ears that are spotted and look tattered. Many of them have been carefully painted with coloured powder.
The mahud introduced the eight year-old lady as Jaya and himself as Islam. He was a wiry man in a red turban, who spoke relatively good English. He spoke softly to the persistent hawker who followed us up the hill, agitatedly waving miniature paintings in his hands. Like the other mahuds, he kneed on the elephant’s neck and steered and braked with her ears. The knees and short sticks were used to urge the animal on. Some of the mahuds preferred to sit cross-legged. We bumped along sitting sideways in the uncomfortable iron seat, shifting our weight on the mattress when asked to do so, to balance the seat. Behind us and in front, a slow, steadily rocking line of elephants lumbered up the steep hill to the open space of an entrance to the complex. Trying to take photographs while clinging onto the iron bar across our middles was not easy. There was a pause, which I could not explain, then the russelled lady in front also stopped, relieved herself noisily on the path, then opened her fleshy buttocks to deficate. When we reached the square, Rajesherma reached up to take my camera from the obliging Islam and took a few souvenir pictures. Jaya sided up to a second platform where we were able to shuffle out of the seat.
The fort at Amber is truly remarkable, firstly because of its size and secondly when you consider its age. The remains of an even earlier fort, built in the 11th century, could be seen lying below the new one from many of the viewing points. Our visit began with the audience hall, where the maharajas listened to their people every other Friday. Then we entered the main palace buildings. As we had seen in the other heritage forts, there was a winter palace and a summer one. The winter palace was spectacular and could only be visited from the outside. Remarkable marble carvings and inlay work decorated the exterior walls, while inside, gold, silver and mirrors shone and glistened.
In former days, the walls inside the palace had had rubies, sapphires and other semi-precious stones integrated into the decorations, but it was said that the British had stolen these – which I found both very sad and shameful. The summer palace opposite was a more simple building, lighter, with a veranda and pastel paintings on the walls. In the past, a stream had run through the palace to cool it down from a huge tank on the roof, where water had had to be carted up by hard-working folk.Further on there was a magnificent outside hall with twelve pillars, where the maharaja would have been entertained. Moghul gardens, laid out geometrically, made the palace green and fresh.
On the way back into Jaipur, Mano dropped us off to have a look at another lake, in which the Jal Mahal, a water palace, is waiting to be converted into a luxury hotel. From here we had a good view of the old Nahargarh fort, the so-called “Tiger Fort”, that was constructed in such a way that the maharaja could visit any of his nine wives in their rooms at any time without being seen by the others. We drove though streets where the precious stone-cutters were at work and the gold and silver workshops were situated. Our next stop was at a block-printing and carpet workshop.
The technique that was demonstrated to us at the block-printing factory reminded me very much of the potato printing I had done with my children. It was really interesting to see how the stamps, all placed on the fabric by hand, transferred four different colours to the tablecloth that was being made. The carpet weaving came next. The male and female workers spun, wove, knotted, washed, seared and cut the Cashmere wool making the most beautiful shimmering carpets, carpets that I would probably have been coaxed into buying if our luggage had been less heavy and our house more suitable for them. The workers had some enchanting smiles for my camera.
Driving through the milk market, where people were carrying their own steel mugs to be filled from huge churns of milk, straight from the cow, I suppose, we reached the town palace. The present maharaja lives in part of the city palace complex, in pale yellow buildings that contrast with the red stone of the public parts of the complex. This was also the home of his grandmother, the beautiful Gayatri Devi, reputed to have been the most beautiful woman in the world. We were told she had been won by her husband as first prize in a polo-match, but having since read her biography, I am pretty sure this is not true.
In the audience hall, two enormous silver pots are exhibited. The maharaja Madhu Singh ll took these with him, full of water from the Ganges, when he attended Edward Vll’s coronation in London. Even empty, each pot weighs 345 kg. The guide led us into a huge hall hung with portraits of the maharajas and a black and white photo documentary of visits from British members of royalty taken in the last century. We ventured into a courtyard, the peacock courtyard, with four beautifully carved and painted gates, one for each of the four seasons. Here a film crew was fixing lights for a Bollywood scene to be filmed the next day.
My favourite building was the Mubarak Mahal, a wonderful white marble palace in a square courtyard, originally built as a guest-house for Prince Albert. Today it houses a textile museum, displaying royal garments worn over the years. The dresses worn by the maharanis of the times were so heavily wrought with gold and silver, that they were too heavy for the ladies to walk in, hence the use of sedan chairs. The most amazing costume in the exhibition was made for Madhu Singh l, who weighed 250 kg and, not surprisingly, only lived to see thirty-two years. I was very surprised to see rosaries here, which I have always associated with the Catholic religion. They reminded me of Greek and Turkish “worry beads”.
To be perfectly honest, this was the umpteenth monument we had visited in ten days or so and our concentration was beginning to dwindle somewhat, but what we were taken to see next was something completely different. In the 18th century, Udai Singh built a series of observatories, the most famous of which is the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. When you walk into the immense garden, you get the feeling you are entering into a totally modern complex, because the enormous sundials and astronomic instruments here have a futuristic look about them. Built in marble and sandstone, the constructions made it possible to calculate the time within seconds of accuracy, reveal the position of the zodiac and their ascendants at any time and provide other astronomic information. Trees in full leaf provided the necessary shade. Many families were picnicking.
However we really were beginning to feel the strain of listening attentively for days on end and were pleased to retreat to the sanctuary of the swimming-pool area of our hotel. After a couple of sandwiches and a delicious lemon soda, we watched as an industrious gardener switched on his hosepipe and virtually drowned the garden and flooded the seating area, washing down tables, chairs, the sandals of some of the guests and anything else within his reach. Not the best time to do this as far as we were concerned, so we changed our minds and refreshed by our snack, made another excursion into this fascinating town.
This time I concentrated on how many different types of shops the main street contained. Under the arcade were the best shops, the unofficial ones were forced onto the pavement and the makeshift stalls had to find a place between the bikes and scooters on the roadside. Strangely enough, the shoe shops in Jaipur had the best shop windows, with different types of footwear set out in a European way. In the more expensive fabric shops, it is usual for customer and salesman alike to sit crossed-legged on the floor while the material is spread out on the floor to be examined. Precious jewelry is usually shown on a counter, cheap goods are presented on a stand. Shops selling grain and pulses and sugar are often no more than empty rooms containing huge sacks, with sample wares in open baskets. Plastic bowls serve as scoops. There are shops selling drug-store articles or packaged foods. These have a few articles on display on rickety shelves. It is not usual for the customer to walk in to these shops; the articles are ordered at the front of the shop at a kind of counter and fetched. Shops selling cakes and sweets sometimes have small showcases and the better shops stuff drinks and milk or packaged joghurt untidily into refridgerated ones. The poorest, least trustworthy shop we saw was a filthy hovel, in which a huge, blackened pot over an open fire took up most of the space. A man in clad in tattered clothes of non-descript colour was stirring an oily liquid in the steaming tureen.
The stalls we saw were mainly selling cheap jewelry or decorations for the hair and were doing good business. Those selling fruit and vegetables on the roadside often had nothing more than a couple of tiny cauliflowers or a handful of carrots spread out on a sheet of newspaper, occasionally with a pair of scales and a pile of lead weights. Men making jewelry out of golden thread had the garn fastened round a big toe, acting as a bobbin, as they worked. Marigold sellers threaded garlands, which people bought for the temple or for welcoming guests. A tea seller had improvised by putting a camping gas stove and a kettle on a steep narrow staircase between two shops. A small tray carrying about 6 or 7 blunt, scratched glasses on the steps below completed his shop. Other tea vendors had squeezed a couple of wobbly tables into the alleyways.
As we returned to the gate that led out of the old town, we stopped to marvel at a goat on someone’s balcony, chewing on a plant. Children on a nearby roof were flying kites, a popular pastime here as in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A few torn specimens were flattering from the electric wires that crossed the road. Outside the gate, the very poor had their own market, tiny stalls covered with rags and torn sheets of plastic. Cows, pigs and goats scrambled for a place to stand in. A beggar, an old lady, grasped my tunic and murmured sad words, her hand outstretched in an unmistakable gesture. It took us ages to cross the smelly, busy road back to our hotel in the dusk.
Jaipur – Agra
Again, the voices of several muezzins roused us from our heavy sleep. One of them carried on singing long after the others had finished and unfortunately, he was ever so slightly out of tune. That was an effective wake-up call. The crowns of many trees hiding hundreds of pigeons also hid the rising sun but the morning sky was full of a pinkish glow and the air full of the wholesome smell of burning charcoal when we went down to breakfast.
We left the city on a slightly different route, one that took us past government offices and the attractive building of the Science and Technology College, and along Central Park. The park is huge and looks remarkably well kept. Situated within its green lawns is Jaipur‘s most exclusive hotel, Rambagh Palace, owned by the maharaja. Rounding a corner, we passed Jaipur’s polo ground on the left and the cricket grounds on the right. A wonderful group of dark statues representing a marriage procession on elephant back concluded the park area. A brilliant white marble temple rose before us, a symbol of wealth and extravagance, while on the other side of the road, people were sleeping on the blank pavement, huddled only in blankets. It takes a while to understand what Indian people accept every day, that is, that you are born rich or poor and it is unlikely that you will ever improve your stand in this life. One could get angry about the complacency, but that would prove ignorance of the Hindu religion, for example. A very large government tent for the homeless, that we saw a few metres further on, proves that the state is not completely inactive.
The old town wall with its tiny turrets, high up on the hill, seemed to follow us out of the city. We stopped to take a snap of the Dhosa temple, a place of pilgrimage in almost sickly rainbow colours. The modern houses were soon replaced by mud huts in the countryside, comfortable dwellings, many of them painted on the outside in white geometrical designs. We were no longer in Rajasthan, but had passed over the border to Uttah Pradesh. There were fields of marigolds, the flowers themselves already harvested. Tall grasses were stacked to dry for thatching the roofs, which all seemed in perfect condition. And in the yards, discs of cow dung were arranged artistically in coiled heaps, the shape of a carefully peeled pineapple. There were more brick factories. Near the kilns, brick houses had been built, most of them with at least one open side, across which gamchas were hung out to dry. An old man stood at a pump, naked.
This road also takes you to the bird sanctuary at Keoladeo, but Mano claimed there were no longer many species left. At the roadside, large, almost bald, hairy monkeys were devouring the bananas that had been tossed out of the windows of a bus in front of our vehicle. Our destination was the world cultural heritage Fatehpur Sikri.
The complex was built in red stone in the 16th century by the mighty Moghul leader Akhbar the great. The legend says that he came up here to ask a well-known holy man, Shaikh Salim Chisti, who lived in isolation, to pray for him to have a male heir, which he did. It is the size of the complex that is awe-inspiring and probably the legend that has made it so popular. The buildings are still in excellent shape, but they are completely empty and it would take a good guide with a passion for the history of the place to make the buildings come alive. Ours, Gituan, was not inspired and even less inspiring, which was a shame. Squirrels, goats, begging children and the inevitable hawkers accompanied us to the small electric bus that ferried us a few metres up the hill to the entrance.
It was difficult to appreciate how the complex really functioned, as Gituan was not very forthcoming. Many impressions of the place remain in my mind, however. One is that Akhbar, a Muslim, not only allowed his 300 Hindu concubines to follow their religion, but even had a wonderful temple built for them on these premises. It appears that he really enjoyed the company of ladies around him. The Pachisi courtyard, named after a board game, was in fact an over-dimensional copy of that board. It is said that Akhbar played the game with slave girls dressed in different colours, sometimes 200 of them in one game. Large water basins and incredibly wide spaces between the palaces make this entire complex airy and free. With its extraordinary dimensions and its low, flat buildings, the living- quarters have something quite modern about them. Exquisitely fine sculptures on pillars and chapters gives the impression that some of the stone constructions are made of wood.
Set apart from the living quarters in the south is an enormous mosque, the largest in India, with two impressive gateways. The mosque itself is no longer used as such and was relatively dirty. Visitors were craning their necks there to admire the vaulting, huddled around knowledgeable guides. In the centre of the great open space between the gates is a white, marble mausoleum dedicated to the holy man who helped Akhbar to fulfill his wish. The walls of the mausoleum consist of dainty, filigree pieces of screenwork, apparently the finest in India. This was the only time in India that I was requested to cover my head on entering the building and I was glad I had my own dupatta. The largest of the gateways is a 54 metre tall colossus, broad and built like a fortress, flanked by thick walls and with a low, narrow entrance door that brings out the full size and the strength of the whole gateway. A series of small domes decorate the roof of this, the largest mosque gateway in the world, and its walls.
Outside the gateway there is a forlorn village, where a few dogs roam the unplastered streets and a few, mainly old people go silently about their daily chores. With this almost desolate view in mind, we found our way back to the electric bus and Mano at the car park and continued our journey to Agra. At a railway crossing, we stopped right next to a place at the side of the road where a gypsy family was setting up camp. On the wall behind a huge pile of rags, mattresses, canisters, a battered suitcase, bicycle wheels, a long wooden pole, wire and countless other objects that could no doubt be of use in an impromptu dwelling, an elderly man, a woman and a child were in the process of fixing a cloth roof. A pair of small feet dangling out of dirty trousers showed that a child was sleeping amidst the belongings. Next to the heap, discs of cow dung were stacked in the traditional manner.
As we waited for the train to pass, several children appeared at the car windows with the usual request for pens and rupees. The children were filthy, with matted hair and smelly clothes, but had cheeky, lively eyes, even if they were clogged up. They grabbed with brown, encrusted hands for the hotel packs of shampoo and soap and the wrapped toffees that I gave them. A great herd of buffalo was drinking at a waterhole further down the road.
Later we were told that India’s president stays at Jaypee Palace Hotel when she is in Agra. This splendid hotel left absolutely nothing to be desired. We were greeted by exceptionally friendly reception staff, smiling but not slimy, who slipped marigold garlands around our necks and gave us delicious, sweet rose syrup drinks to sip. Our room was not ready, so the receptionist gave us a guided tour of the place, which included at least four restaurants, a two kilometer-long jogging track, a sedate swimming pool and a gorgeous wellness spa. On our way down shiny, marble corridors, he told us that Daler Mahindi, a popular Sheikh singer, would be performing at a private function in the gardens that night, on a stage with a backdrop of a mini Taj Mahal. Full of apologies for the fact that our room was still not ready, he guided us to a pair of armchairs in the lobby, and brought us masala chai with semi-sweet biscuits.
Willi was not feeling too well that evening. Nevertheless, we dropped into the bar for a gin and tonic, then had a modest meal in the absolutely beautiful Indian restaurant, where a trio of entertainers provided traditional background music.
Later I ventured into the garden, where Canon was holding an annual party for its top employers. Before the band appeared, a female compère was handing out prizes to the employers of the year and the winners of the internal photo competition. Then the pop idol appeared, a smallish, plump man in a red leather jacket and, like his back-up group, wearing a bright red turban. I have no doubt that the man could sing, but his mouth was so close to the microphone and the amplifiers were so ridiculously loud, that I could not bear to stay and listen.
The next morning, we were mentally prepared for an absolute highlight. We packed our cases into the car and drove to a car park, from where yet another electric bus took us to the entrance to the legendary Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan’s declaration of love to his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The safety procedures took quite some time, since hardly any of the female visitors had taken heed of the warning that only cameras and a bottle of water, provided with the tickets, would be allowed onto the site. Fortunately we had made an early start and the queues were not as long as they could have been. We crossed a pleasant garden, perfumed with jasmine bushes and some white hibiscus, and carried on through a gateway topped with small domes.
I would recommend any visitor to the Taj Mahal to take the advice of our guide and walk very slowly through the gateway. By doing so, the vision of this magnificent palace unfolds peu à peu in all its perfection. Don’t ask me why, but the palace exudes real magic. It seemed to float in the morning air, still slightly hazy. It is made principally from the white marble of Makrana, but it doesn’t shine brilliantly like the Jain temple in Ranakpur or stand out glaringly against the blue sky like the mausoleum in Jodhpur. It doesn’t dazzle, it just imposes. Its symmetry is calming, its pureness mystifying, its simplicity charming.
It is difficult to take your eyes off the Taj Mahal. Gituan kindly took a souvenir photograph, then we walked down the central path, through which a long, straight pond with fountains directs the eye through pleasant lawns to the palace. At the steeps steps leading to the main entrance, we pulled the red, plastic bags provided over our shoes and joined the small crowd admiring the inlay work on the marble in the porch. This is so fine and so beautiful that I couldn’t stop admiring it all. Agate, turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, onyx, cat’s eye, jade and bloodstone are worked in floral patterns into the white marble, creating a kaleidoscope of muted colour on the simple white background. Below the inlay work, vining floral designs have been painstakingly sculptured into the pietra dura. Calligraphic works in black lettering complete the embellishment of the world’s most romantic tomb.
We entered into the interior of the mausoleum, a shrine of chiselled white marble, with screens and curtains of stone as fine as lace. The tombs of Mumtaz, in the middle, and Shah Jahan, to one side, were resting in the soft light that enters the building in patterns from the screened windows. It is absolutely forbidden to take photographs in here and guards try to make sure that this rule is adhered to. I found it extremely annoying that one lanky, blonde European tourist completely ignored the warnings to stop taking pictures, as if the guard was an idiot with no authority. I would probably have told her so if we hadn’t been urged to pass round without stopping so that everyone could get a chance to peep at the tombstones.
There are buildings that one automatically tries to regard in perfect symmetry, but the Taj Mahal is pleasing however you look at it. Thus we were pleased that Gituan left us to savour the beauty of the palace on our own at this point. We walked round behind the Taj first, where a platform looks over the river Yamuna, that flows via Delhi from the Himalayas. It was still a little misty and the river was fairly dry. This treasure of Indian heritage must look incredible from the other side of the river at sunset.
To each side of the marble building are red stone mosques, only one of which ever functioned. A group of young adults took it in turns to pose in front of the mihrab. A monkey scrambled into the picture as we were taking a side view of the Taj. There were many Indian tourists, besides the foreigners, some of them obviously rather poor, all in their Sunday best. Several bespectacled Buddhist monks, Chinese and Japanese, dressed in saffron yellow and clasping yellow sunshades, grinned at the monument. Everyone was impressed, most people holding cameras and mobile phones at arm’s length to click the image of the Taj Mahal onto digital memory.
I kept turning round to have a last look as we walked out of the site and back to the bus. By now the tourists were streaming into the place where bags and bodies were checked. A group of elderly Rajasthan men caught my eye, festive in their traditional tunics, gathered at the waist and falling into many white pleats down the front, with their turbans and their dark waistcoats, white bristles gleaming against deep, dark wrinkles.
We had to cross one of the busiest parts of Agra town to get to the fort, which I had badly wanted to see, as we had been unable to visit the fort at Delhi, even if it was also impossible to imagine that any human building could match the perfection of the Taj Mahal. Blurred images of local people buying, selling, carrying, building, ferrying, driving or trying to cross the road filed past our vehicle on the way. One image stands out from the rest. It was a huge, great cooking pot covered with a gamcha, steam escaping from one side, that was being transported on a handcart, presumably to be ladled out at a food stand.
Looking at my photographs today, I can see that the entrance to the fortress is indeed remarkable. A monumental gateway and a strong, well-kept wall led into a maze of palaces, with balconies and halls and turrets, offering views across the still misty countryside as far as the Taj Mahal, barely visible. The world heritage site is a tribute to Moghul architects and a living proof of the immense power and wealth of their rulers. Not only the colossal constructions, but also the richness of the decorations of the palaces within, more impressive marble inlay, more gold leaf pasted ostentatiously onto ceilings and walls, more intricately moulded pillars and doorways, exuded the mightiness and prestige of another age.
That day, however, neither Willi nor I were fresh enough to fully appreciate the treasures that lay before us and our visit was little more than a rapid tour of confused elements. The only item that really stood out from those that we had seen in other sites was a gigantic stone bathtub in the middle of a courtyard, with steps along the outside and the inside for the raj of the day to climb up and into his bathwater. The abysmal state of the public toilets also stands out in my memory.
If we had thought that the streets leading to the fort were busy, we were to be amazed at the congestion that followed. The road out of the town towards Delhi was so packed, that the traffic literally stood for minutes on end, eventually inching forward, bumper to bumper, amidst thick smog and indelicate smells. This at least gave us the opportunity to scrutinise what was happening around us. We saw hoards of monkeys sitting on the walls of derelict houses, once the pride of India’s colonial past. We saw people and bicycles lying in water pipe dwellings. There were women washing clothes in puddles, beating the dirt out with sticks. There were cows munching plastic snatched from overflowing rubbish containers. And a few men huddled round a huge tureen of what Mano told us would have been chicken biryani on sale at the roadside. Those directly affected by the traffic jam were immune to any excitement or frustration, for this was an everyday occurrence. Drivers smiled knowingly at one another, hooting their horns for fun, drumming their fingers on their steering wheels out of boredom rather than stress. Rickshaw passengers, ladies in bright saris and kameez, men sporting mainly western dress, sat in the back of the rikshaws with imperturbable, weary looks on their faces, waiting for the traffic to move. Which it did, of-course, eventually.
Back to Delhi
Once the traffic jam had thinned out, the journey to Delhi was relatively simple, most of it on good dual carriageways that furrowed the countryside in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Just outside Agra, we passed the tomb of Akhbar the Great in Sikandra. On another trip, in different circumstances, it would be interesting to visit the tomb of a man so revered. We also caught a glimpse of Krishna’s birthplace, Mathura, naturally a place of pilgrimage. We were able to photograph Jaigurudev Temple, conveniently situated at the roadside, a romantic-looking white marble temple surrounded by a scrappy iron fence. Shortly after, we stopped for a fizzy orange drink at a fast food cafe, where Mano’s company, “We shall do”, does a lot of business.
By now, our initial opinion of Mano – Manohar Lal – had been confirmed many times over. Mano is a short, stocky guy with very thick, black hair combed into a conservative side parting. Like most Indians he has brown eyes – sharp, concentrated eyes that peep from under short eyelashes. His smallish nose is slightly beaked. Mano has a quiet voice that mumbles rather than articulates. At first he modestly gave us to understand that his English was somewhat limited, but what Mano lacks in grammatical perfection, he makes up for with a richness of vocabulary. He’s not the type of man that smiles and laughs continuously, but in the mornings, after a good joke, he could laugh heartily enough. He was always respectful, but never servile.
Mano’s movements are slow and deliberate, much like his style of driving, which, in India, is a blessing. He seemed phlegmatic much of the time, but this was a calmness that was more than useful in quickly assessing awkward traffic situations. On many occasions, we were impressed by his foresight, which saved a number of possible collisions with less experienced drivers than himself. For us, he was a perfect driver.
Passing several red sandstone mounds that were milestones, not measured in miles, of-course, dating back to the Moghul era, and huge, open-air stores of grain heaped in sacks, we gradually moved into more industrial zones that showed a very different side of India than the one we had seen in Rajasthan. It is difficult to imagine the pollution that takes place in these areas. A sort of black smut covers everything and when you blow your nose, your handkerchief turns black. I dread to think what colour the lungs of millions of Indian men, women and children are. The traffic is horrendous. It is a wonder that there are no more accidents than there are, but pedestrians and drivers obviously have good intuition and fantastic reactions.
Undeterred by this chaos, people were milling round everywhere. The schoolgirls impressed me most, all wearing spotless baggy trousers, usually white, with white dupattas slung over the shoulders across jumpers in attractive colours. They queued on the roadside in twos and threes waiting for buses or hopped out of them, thick, black plaits bouncing down their backs, clutching schoolbags or piles of books. It was not unusual to see rickshaws or even camel carts laden with laughing primary school kids, seemingly unaware of the discomfort of the bare iron or wooden seats they were sitting on, sometimes clinging on to poles for dear life.
The noise, too, was unbearable. Hoopings of horns and screechings of brakes were the worst causes, but added to that were dogs barking, people shouting above the traffic, and cars and trains passing. A scruffy child approached the car and indicated that he was hungry by pointing a four fingers and a thumb to his mouth. All we had were some toffees.
The hotel was situated not far from the airport, which meant that we would see a different part of the hopelessly sprawling city of Delhi. We passed a huge university campus set in a lovely green park. On the other side of the road, tattered slum dwellings, crowded together for comfort, turned their backs on us. Occasionally you would see someone spread out on the pavement, wrapped in a blanket. Then an ugly, new shopping mall appeared and beyond that, our modern hotel.
This did not really differ much from any other five-star city hotel. Liveried porters roamed round a large, grand, shiny reception in which beautiful, slim young ladies in high heeled shoes and arrogant young men purred into telephones. An expensive bar and a less expensive coffee shop were strategically placed within sight of the reception. Other, more expensive restaurants were placed around the lobby. There were extensive gardens around fountains and a swimming-pool with no swimmers. Our room was very pleasant but not really spotless. This was not surprising, because there was so much to clean in the black, shiny bathroom equipped with absolutely all you could possibly need, that the cleaners would not have had much time left for the room itself. We repacked our bags so that we could leave the bulky suitcases at the hotel for the next three days and take light bags with us on the train to Ranthambore. Then we opted for a light curry meal in the coffee shop, where stuck-up waiters raised their eyebrows when we refused to buy a bottle of expensive water with our Kingfisher beer. It would have been quite relaxing had there not been renovations going on, leaving a dusty film over everything on the table and a dreadful whining sound in our ears.
Breakfast was better, apart from the thick layer of dust that had settled over the cutlery from the work the night before. But there was a good choice of food to keep us going for the day. Our car arrived at around 10.30 and with joy, we registered that it was Mano, again, who would be driving us to the station.
The Hazrat Nizamuddin is, apparently, the smallest of the three stations in Delhi. I imagine it serves a mainly rural population. As we reached the area around the station, the traffic suddenly multiplied, with scooters, buses, carts and tuc-tucs all looking for places to stop or start. Rows of railway flats that house the staff looked as if they would benefit from a coat of paint. On one of the balconies, a lady was combing her long, black hair like a mermaid. Around the station you find food stalls of every description, that send off a pleasant scent of food cooking in good oil. There are also crowds of people who all seem to know exactly where they are going. We saw workshops and small construction sites, where the familiar sight of dusty women carrying sand on their heads no longer surprised us. At one of these sites, a mother had obviously brought her two children with her. A dirty little girl, about five years old, with terribly matted hair, was crouching in a corner, a baby balanced in her thin arms. She was gently stroking its face.
Fortunately our agents had sent a young man to put us on the train. We fought our way up the stairs, across a bridge and down another flight of stairs, half pushed by the throngs of travellers behind us and banged into by those coming in the other direction. To be fair, people did try to let us pass when they noticed the colour of our skin. We stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. When we reached our platform, one of only seven, the young man whose job it was to put us on the train took us right up to the place where our compartment was due to pull up and I believe he would have waited the whole hour at our side if we hadn’t persuaded him that we would be fine on our own.
The platform stank of unwashed clothes, urine, fumes, and strong Indian perfume. There were literally hundreds of people, many of whom had just left a night train with sleeping wagon. Ladies and porters in red jumpers balanced suitcases on their heads. The platform was strewn with cardboard boxes tied with string and metal trunks and tins and sacks. Not far from us, shoe-shiners were offering their services. A trouserless toddler suddenly squatted, leaving a wet trickle on the platform. The man lying on the bench behind us was asleep, I think. A group of rail staff were sorting out the laundry, thin grey sheets and towels and serviettes, wrapped together in huge bundles ready for washing. One of them was lying across some bundles, head propped up, reading a newspaper. A young boy of about eight was collecting abandoned plastic bottles, emptying any liquid that remained directly onto the tracks, and storing them in a plastic bag.
A vendor passed by advertising his wares in a loud sing-song voice. He was selling metal chains. Many people use these on the train to fasten their belonging to their bodies, in case they fall asleep, I read. Two old ladies came past, begging, murmuring incomprehensible words. Every time an announcement was made, and there were lots, an organ fanfare sounded across the platforms. The night train shuffled off with a hiss and a sigh, revealing a water pump on the platform behind it. A lady filled a plastic bottle with water and poured it over her bangled feet, in flip-flops. Then she filled it again and drank thirstily. Several men came to rinse their mouths and rub their teeth with their fingers.
Our express train entered the station majestically, with the slow speed of an engine that will definitely not be leaving on time. Our seats were in the superior (A/C) car. A kind young gent in spectacles kindly changed seats with me, so that Willi and I could sit together. In front of us, a class of schoolgirls, obviously from the upper castes, dressed as bright as butterflies and chattering in high voices like a cage of canaries, all of them with black, shiny hair pulled back, elaborate jewelry dangling from their ears, filled the seats and the aisles, busily sticking MP3 players and other gadgets into the sockets provided, filling the car with Bollywood tunes.
It started to get warm as the train filled up. Once the journey started, however, with only seven minutes’ delay, the air conditioning clicked in and a rather icy air breathed through the train. We had seats that you could fold back for comfort and feet rests and white, metal tray tables and bottle holders. The train crawled out of the station with the deliberation with which it had crawled in, but within minutes, we had gained speed, the blind windows revealing muted images of corrugated iron huts, rubbish tips, slums and everywhere rows of washing drying in the smoke. Every few minutes, it seemed, a member of railway staff breezed through the wagon offering lunch, cold drinks, crisps, or hot chai. I packed my netbook out and started to record my memories of this extraordinarily memorable trip.
It was already dark when, some six hours later, we chugged into the small station at Sawai Madhopur. It seemed nothing sort of a miracle, when within seconds, a young man approached us to say he was the agent who would take us to the hotel. We walked along the platform, on the space at the edge that was not full of people patiently lying or sitting down cross-legged, across to the other side of the station. The people stared, not with curiosity, but with the open eyes of those who do not really see, of the fatigued and resigned.
The vehicle that was awaiting us was an open jeep that demanded a certain amount of acrobatic flexibility to get into. Even without the airstream, we would have felt the cold and we were very glad of our winter jackets. It was difficult to see anything in the dusky town, with my hair whipping across my face, but I could just make out people doing their shopping and getting into carts and tractors from the station. We passed the town and we moved into the sandy countryside. Our hotel, Nahargarh Fort, presented a stunning sight as we drove across a track on flat land towards it. It was a fairytale castle, all lit up.
All around there were marigold or hibiscus decorations, in geometrical patterns on the floor, in marble bowls, in flower pots. In the main courtyard, a musician was singing nasal, very plaintive songs to the tune of his sitar. His fellow dancer, wearing a red turban and a long, red pleated jacket that twirled with him, spun around and around, taking tiny steps, his arms stretched out and head cocked slightly to one side like a derwish. He reminded me of the pink ballerina on one of those musical jewelry boxes that I’d have died for as a child!
After a briefing, we were shown to our room. This Palace is owned by the same group of hotels as the haveli we had stayed at in Jaipur, and this became evident when we stepped into our room, which was a carbon copy of the one in Jaipur. We were hungry after our journey and soon found the restaurant, where a buffet was laid out. Apart from a tourist group, there were few guests. A very friendly waiter from Nepal took our order for drinks and we sat down to a copious meal. We finished the evening with a Kingfisher lager in the bar, very English in style, with deep leather armchairs. The night was rather short, as we had to be ready for our game drive at seven the next morning.
What a surprise that turned out to be! I suppose we had expected a game drive Kenya-style, with our own vehicle and a free choice of route. After a cup of tea taken outside in the extremely cold courtyard, we were taken aback by the long, open canter that drove into the driveway, already filled with about 14 people. This vehicle can probably be best described as a cross between a jeep and a bus. There were just enough seats left at the back for Willi and I and another German lady from the hotel to squeeze into. The system here is that the vehicles, equipped with a driver and a naturalist, take you on one of five prescribed routes. In this case, the naturalist was pretty useless because his command of English was about nil.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasant, if freezing cold drive through the jungle. At the entrance to the park, a few local people were wrapped in shawls, some of them trying to sell baseball caps with Ranthambore motives or fleece jackets or warm balaclavas. The procedure was complicated. At the gate, we had to hand in the forms we had filled in on the way, then an officer came into the canter to check our passports. Eventually we were allowed to pass through the gate, past a beautiful ravine, under an archway and along a romantic tarmacked road that offered a spectacular view of the old fortress, originating from the 10th century. This is where the actual tour began.
The variety of game is rather limited in Ranthambore, but we saw spotted deer, the famous sambar deer and the nilgai antelope, the largest in India. The first sign of wildlife, however were the cormorants, many of them, all crowded into the crown of one tree. The sun eventually rose to warm us when we stopped at a lake, where Indian tree pies settled on the heads and hands of those who were prepared to feed them. Green parrots with garish pink beaks squawked above our heads. Several kinds of waders trotted along the lakeside. A kingfisher posed on a branch above the water, waiting for a chance to seize a fish. One of the passengers spotted an owl peeping drowsily out of a hole in the upper part of a tree. There were also a few dozy crocodiles on the banks of the lake. We waited patiently for a tiger to appear at a spot where it often appears in the morning, but this time we had to be content to examine its footprint, firm and freshly stamped into the sand.
As we finished the game drive, it was warm enough for the monkeys, Hanuman langurs, to play and we stopped to laugh at some babies jumping on and off a stone.
After breakfast, we decided to spend the hour or two before lunch looking round the palace. It is a magnificent place, with two large courtyards, arches, small guava domes and turreted balconies offering pleasantly shaded seating areas all over. There is also a finely ornamented conference room and there are wonderful green gardens and a swimming-pool. Now the swimming-pool might have been a place where one could have relaxed between the game drives, even if the water was too cold to make swimming enjoyable. However, the gardener had literally flooded the garden around the pool, so that you would have had to wade through the puddles to get to the sunbeds. We settled for a balcony, where we watched some veiled ladies carry the building materials for the men working on a flat roof, further along the hotel complex.
Lunch was a quick, light affair, because the next game drive was planned for the early afternoon. This time we were fortunate enough to have an excellent guide, who spoke very good English with authority, making it clear to all of us that we would have to be quiet if we wanted to see some wildlife. He was about our age, I suppose, bearded and wore a striped cloth knotted beneath his hat. Unlike the other guides, he stood at the front of the canter like a figurehead, deeply concentrated. Our drive took us through dense forest this time. The deer were visible only in the clearings, where dappled sunlight filtered through the foliage. At one point, there was a group of peacocks with peahens, much dowdier than their male counterparts. Our guide explained that the feathers of the peacocks were in the process of regrowing after the moulting season. We stopped at a waterhole where a tiger might have stopped for a drink in the late afternoon, but other vehicles there were full of noisy tourists and our guide decided to leave, understandably disgusted.
It was growing dusky by now and it was clear that we would soon have to leave the park, without having seen a tiger. Suddenly there was a cry, a short, sharp warning cry from one of the deer. Then, though the foliage, those who are fortunate enough not to be colour-blind were able to make out a huge, striped tiger, stalking majestically through the jungle. It took me some time to actually see him and much longer to identify him in my viewfinder. A tiger takes his time to walk, legs stretched out and head down, his thick belly fur swaying from side to side. His strides are long ones and this one moved rather quickly though the forest on a level with our vehicle. We were able to follow his path for several minutes however, watching him climb a small escarpment until he was a silhouette in front of the last remaining sunlight in the distance.
If you consider that Ranthambore measures around 400 square kilometers and that only an estimated thirty tigers with four young ones inhabit this area, you will appreciate how fortunate we were to have seen a tiger at all. As we left the park, a busload of Indian schoolchildren pulled alongside of us. They had not been so fortunate and for a moment I felt how unfair it was, that they, inhabitants of this land, who would probably never be able to afford to come here again, should not have shared our luck.
There was tea, (we chose masala chai), in the garden when we arrived back, with irresistable shortbread biscuits. The sitar-player, who, I hate to mention, was not the best musician I have ever heard, went through his repertoire of wailing pieces, trying to pick out “Frère Jaques” on his instrument, when he thought nobody was really listening.
That evening, our dinner was a barbecue. The tables were set out on a lawn that I hadn’t noticed before, behind the restaurant. The tourist group had left and there were only perhaps four tables set. Between them, braziers were kept burning and candles flickered in the cool, but by no means cold, evening air. Not only meat, but also many vegetable kebabs were roasting on a spit and there were plenty of dishes to go with them including a delicious lentil and squash dhal. For dessert there was a smashing, very sweet moong dhal halwa, a semolina-like pudding with dried fruit and nuts. In the background, the dancer twirled and the sitar player droned. I got the impression that the other guests would have been as relieved as ourselves if the entertainers had gone to bed early. We took our time over a final Kingfisher and had a good old chat with the restaurant manager.
Our morning game drive the next day was different from the others, because we had to drive for a good half an hour to pick up other guests staying on the other side of Ranthambore. This gave us time to have a final look round a Rajasthan village and was fascinating. For the first time we saw buildings resembling those we had seen at the open-air museum in Udaipur, white-washed with colourful naive paintings or left a natural red with white paintings. At the roadside a camel was being decorated for a wedding ceremony. We could also see right into local homesteads where men and women were washing pots or their clothes. Many school children, in their uniforms although this was a Sunday, were collecting water or driving small herds of goats and sheep to graze.
Our guide was a slightly arrogant man, who sat down with the rest of us and was not particularly ambitious. However his English was good and he told us a few interesting facts. He explained for example that porcupines eat the antlers that the deer shed once a year and explained that the noisy birds squabbling outside the toilets were jungle babblers, sometimes called the seven sisters. He showed us the rose-ring parakeet and the yellow-footed green pigeon and spotted a white-breasted kingfisher as well as another owl. We were also shown the tandoo tree, whose leaves are used for beedies, the local cigarettes and the tonk tree, that is used for firewood. And although we were not lucky enough to see a slot bear, he showed us a place where the bear had dug a deep hole looking for mites.
In the short space of time between breakfast and lunch, I decided to have a look at the hotel shop. Why hadn’t I found a shop like this before? I wondered. Apart from the reasonably priced pashminas and tablecloths and ornaments, there was a large selection of fabrics and three tailors on hand to sew Punjab suits in a few hours. I fingered the flimsy material with regret. It would have been ridiculous to have yet another suit made just before we were due to leave the country, yet the colours were so tempting and the patterns lovely!
Our last game drive turned out to be something of a sensation. To start with, we ended up right in the front of the vehicle, next to the driver, which was a welcome change from squeezing in at the back as we had done so far. Although the driver spoke hardly any English, he tried to be communicative and was quite sweet. The guide was very lazy, I thought. No sooner had we entered the park, than a long-tailed langur leapt onto the car rail above our heads, but he was easily frightened away. Our tour took us through a forest of dry tonk trees, through a magnificent natural archway formed by banyam trees, whose roots, hundreds of them, spread for metres along the woods. We arrived at a beautiful gladed area where the usual deer were plentiful and it was great to watch a pair of nilgai antelopes fighting, their antlers locking and relocking with the dry snapping sound of wood on wood. The fight was finished when one of them had forced the other into a nearby waterhole. There was nothing really spectacular about this drive, but the scenery was beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
We had moved back out of the sector foreseen for our game drive and were back on the track leaving the park, when the road was suddenly blocked by several canters and jeeps. People were shouting excitedly and we were told that a tiger was sleeping in the thicket off the road to our right. I don’t know how our driver managed it, but he nimbly wiggled a path through the other vehicles until we were standing right opposite the tiger, some thirty or forty metres away. The animal was on its back, revealing a white striped belly, certainly not the usual position for a sleep. By now there were around twenty vehicles blocking the narrow road and the crowds were getting hysterical. People were standing on the seats, shouting to one another, naturalists were reprimanding them to be quiet, drivers were yelling at one another to move and let others see the tiger. It was all very chaotic and must have been very disturbing for the tiger.
All of a sudden, he sprang up, gave a powerful roar and with an almighty leap, he bounded forward to where the vehicles were parked. As we were at the front of the vehicle nearest to the tiger, an open vehicle, it was a terrifying moment, made even more dramatic by the shrieks of those around us. But having given us this warning, the tiger took off back into the jungle. If he had decided to attack us, all hell would have broken loose, because there would have been no way that any vehicle could have left the scene, as we were all squashed together. Even now, with no real reason to panic, it took the drivers, nervous and with glaring expressions on their faces, a long time to move out of this narrow road.
We thought we had seen our second tiger. However, the guide we had had the day before, perched on the top of his vehicle, told us that this was the same mighty male, some 220 kg of him, that we had spotted the day before. It appears that he was not alone in the thicket, that a female was there, too, which would explain the very relaxed way that he was lying on his back and also his irritation at being disturbed. The experience was thrilling indeed, but not without danger.
Back at the hotel, we sat down with another German couple, who would be travelling back to Delhi with us on the train, and discussed the last minute plans with our agent, who had come to bring the train tickets. It would be necessary to make an early start, as the train would leave shortly after seven. It made sense to have an early night to recover from the excitement of the afternoon.
However this was our last evening in Rajasthan and I felt the need to have a little time to myself, to savour the last moments. I went to sit at the top of the fort under a canopy of marble in the soft evening breeze, which gently caressed my cheeks and hair from all directions. Crickets were chirping in a far-away place, the generator was buzzing quietly, voices speaking Hindu arose from the kitchen, a door squeaked and somewhere, there was the dull, clanging sound of a temple bell being rung. Car lights from the main road, which you could just see from the roof, were winking at me. The starless sky was an inky blue.
I felt very sad to have to leave. But the nerve-wracking, droning sound of the resident musician’s string instrument that accompanies every moment spent at Nahargarh suddenly made me smile. Later, the sound of drums and ladies singing, a happy song if rather monotonous, come up on the breeze and lulled us to sleep.
Musings at the end of the trip
From the minute we had entered the new terminal at Indira Gandhi airport, I had felt at home in this country, safe and at ease with its people. Our expectations of the country, with the grandeur of its past, the intriguing complexity of the Hindu religion coupled with its very simple concept of the human position in life, and its local colour had, by the end of our trip, been more than fulfilled. There were, however, aspects of this trip that I had not imagined.
The dirt, for example, came as a shock. So much so, that I now find it necessary to redefine the word “dirt” for myself. Until the moment where I had seen so many people sleeping on the bare pavement, I had considered it “dirty” to do so. However, many of those I saw rolled up in blankets on the ground, at the station in Sawai Madhopur early in the morning, for example, were perfectly clean men, women and children, who would no doubt take advantage of the many water pumps on the platforms before continuing their journey. Their reasons for sleeping on the pavement outside or just inside the station were probably not determined by choice alone, but presumably by poverty.
The little boy in Ranthambore, who raised a hand to greet us, his mouth stretched to an innocent grin, whilst deficating at the side of the road, had no sense of shame or wrongdoing, I am sure. It is normal for children whose homes do not have toilets to do this. What would disgust most Europeans is in India a perfectly understandable and acceptable act, not in any way connected with “dirt”. The cow that urinates on the street and the little dog who feeds off dry cow dung are also doing what is natural for them to do. If you replace the word “dirt” by the word “urine” or “dung”, it immediately loses its moral connotation. That is probably the greatest lesson that this trip to India taught me: that goodness and self-respect and moral integrity are far more important than the European connotation of “dirt”.
Our train journey back to Delhi was uneventful. We were met by our agent on the platform and driven back to the hotel as planned. Past crumbling, derelict buildings and modern, high-rise ones with glass facades, past improvised stalls at the side of the road and modern shopping malls, past rickshaws crawling past us on the one hand and high-speed monorail trains on the new tracks above us on the other. There were a few young girls in T-shirts and jeans, most of the others wore Punjab suits in brilliant colours. Some children were begging in the traffic queue; most of the children we saw, however, were neat and tidy in school uniform and bearing the healthy glow of those who have enough to eat. We were no longer surprised by these contradictions.
There is clearly a lot more of India waiting for us to explore. In the part of India we had discovered for ourselves through Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra, there was an exciting world full of potential, a world where all things are possible, as Mano always put it. I doubt if we will change our minds on that score, but I can’t wait to have all my senses prickled again and maybe one day, we’ll even find a Delhi that is so clean and so environmentally intact, that the sun will shine there