A Fort Fiesta in Rajastan - Part 1

Trip Start Aug 20, 2008
Trip End Apr 14, 2009

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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Thursday, October 30, 2008

If we believe everything we're told you're never too far away from disease in India. Thankfully the one malady they haven't succumbed to yet on the sub-continet is Country & Western music, though it's arguable that if they ever did decide to start twanging banjos they'd have plenty to inspire them in Rajastan. Welcome to India's Wild West!
Isolated, conservative, pious, caked in desert - this vast state is an authentic slice of India, a place where men are men and women..... well they're probably kept in outhouses (at a guess, I saw so few). This here is frontier country. Dang it they could even go the whole hog and start motto-ing their licence plates with that favourite local saying Delhi door ast - "Delhi is far away."
Actually to be fair "far away" might not be entirely accurate. It's geographically, spiritually and culturally in orbit in a galaxy all of its own. I should know. I spent twenty (yes twenty!) hours of buttock beating, haemorrhoid inducing torment on a train from Delhi to the desert town of Jaisalmer in the far west of the state. Showing a complete distaste for irony, the train was called the 'Jaisalmer Express'.
This was my first experience of train travel in India and it's an experience that any visitor is bound never to forget. Setting off from new Delhi station, the first thing that strikes anyone used to the ordered, punctual rhythm of European stations is the sheer bewildering chaos that suffocates you the second you reach the platform (assuming that is you can find it....New Delhi station has sixteen platforms and to add some extra frisson to your journey most noticeboards indicating your departing platform are "indicative" only i.e you're on your own mate) Before you even begin to navigate the hordes of passengers, which are of such a volume that it makes elbowing your way down Henry Street in Dublin on Christmas Eve seem like farting through silk, you have to sidestep a myriad of stalls selling cups of chai tea, chapati and other nibbles, dodge the persistent clouds of flies and then somehow find your correct carriage.
Then there's the spitting. It's without doubt a national pastime. All around you are signs imploring the public to refrain from phlegming up the platforms and yet, young and old are blithely hawking, snorting, projecting a constant stream of gelatinous spew hither and yon. I swear it's like happy hour at a TB sanatorium. So trust me, once you've survived all of this, twenty hours of clickety clack will seem like a spiritual retreat!
If you're taking a long journey (and seeing as this is India nearly most of them are) it's more than likely you'll end up taking a sleeper carriage. For this you will get one of three bunks facing each other, a blanket, pillow and several hours of sleepless anxiety wondering if you're baggage will be there when you wake up. Luggage is tucked under the lowest bunk and it's not unheard of for passengers to wake up and discover their bags got off a few stations ahead of them. Because of this the lower bunk is equipped with chains to attach your bags to - though do bring your own padlock! Oh and if you're over five and a half feet tall prepare to sleep in the shape of a coat hanger or endure you're feet getting walloped by every passenger on a loo run as they dangle perilously over the side.
Still as they saying goes 'it's not the destination but the journey', but luckily on this occasion Jaisalmer didn't come up short. Left aligned photo tag: The town's towering centerpiece is the Golden Fort, a bustling twelfth century architectural marvel that seems to have sprung organically from the desert. What makes it so unique is that it's home to a thriving community. It  weaves and winds it's way along a labyrinthine network of narrow streets that appear little changed from when they were first laid out. Right aligned photo tag: You can spend (as I did) many hours idling your way through the streets, then climbing up on the ramparts to gape in wonder at the spellbinding view of the desert beyond and if you're lucky/unlucky depending on your point of view, the Pakistani border. 
My hotel had laid on a guide so I was hardly going to refuse. It turned out to be a wise decision. Apart from the diminishing hilarity of his catchphrase "No chicken, no curry - no panic, no worry" (seriously) he was a mine of information. As we ambled our way through the old fort we paused to look at the ornate carved balconies that decorate the havellis build by Jaisalmer burghers of yore. Left aligned photo tag: Below them, the elaborately decorated doorways stood stoutly, precise and imposing as they day they were first hung. I was told the teak used to make them was imported all the way from Afghanistan, often through the spoils of the opium trade which gave the town its wealth at the time.....though sadly many of them are now being bought up and removed by wealthy Europeans to adorn their summer villas on the Amafli coast and elsewhere. Most of those that remain are reproductions. It struck me as such a pity because the entire town is as close as you'll ever get to a living museum....even the most inauspicious side street holds an architectural delight that would be declared a priceless wonder if it were back home. Left aligned photo tag: Above many doorways hung a very strange totem of seven chillies and key limes strung together,  which I was told are to ward off bad luck.....though more startling is the preponderance of swastikas painted above thresholds and gable walls. Here in its original Hindu incarnation its presence is meant to signal 'Welcome', India's very own Cead Mile Failte doormat.....though accustomed as we now are to its later use by the Nazi party, it does catch you off guard the first time you spot it! Right aligned photo tag: Sadly the fort is literally falling apart at the seams. Decades of development and increasing levels of water being pumped inside to service the booming hotel market, have left the forts foundations crumbling apart. As you walk up along the side, it's very evident that unless urgent remedial work is carried out soon this living museum itself might one day only exist as a reproduction.
The other great thing about the town was the food. Carnivores might want to look away now, but Rajastan is all about the veg, but god do they do it well. Shameless plug or not I had the best vegetarian meal of my life in a small little restaurant called Nataraj. Trust me, even if you consider bovine slaughter essential to the preparation of any meal, you'll be doing a Meg-Ryan-eyes-rolling-orgiastic exultation after tasting the food there. Its that good!
Of course I couldn't visit the desert without getting on a camel. That'd be like visiting Temple Bar and not stepping in vomit. So off I was whisked, in the company of two good humoured Californians straight out of central casting, to the bowels of the desert to spend a night "experiencing" life in Rajastan's scorched dust bowl. I say "experiencing" because it was the usual touristy simulacrum......accommodation was in reproduction mud huts (with shower), food was cooked on a gas stove and our camel ride was a mild saunter about two kilometres off the main road......and yet it was fantastic!
For anyone who's never been into a dessert, it truly is a haunting experience. We trotted (is that the correct verb?) off in late afternoon in order to catch the sunset. After the mayhem and chaos of Delhi just a few days previous, the overwhelming sound of silence was marvelous. The only sound, apart from the crunch of the camel hooves against the sand was the whisper of wind snaking across the vast orange expanse. As the sun began to dip below the horizon (with astonishing haste it has to be said) the landscape was painted a dazzling pallet of colours - oranges, reds, ochres, tans - a captivating kaleidoscopic dance that suddenly ended as the stars began to poke out and moonlight took over. It was the essence of pure peace. After that we arrived back to our "huts" for some local entertainment. An illegally produced bottle of liquor (this is dry state!!!!!!!) may have helped in persuading me and the two Americans to eventually get up and join the brightly attired dancer in a few local dance moves. Shame had long left the building. As had co-ordination and rhythm.....yes there are photos and no, you're never seeing them!Left aligned photo tag:
After Jaisalmer it was time to don the riding breeches and head to Jodhpur, home to yet another fort (this will become a bit of recurring motif so strap yourself in) The town itself is a thriving commercial centre, choked with traffic and people. The desert already seemed like a fond and distant dream. But beyond the manic chaos of the town's marketplace lies the old town or 'Blue City' and gateway to the fort. Right aligned photo tag: The distinctive indigo tint applied to the whitewashed houses gives the city an appearance not unlike a Cubist painting when viewed from one of the cafe rooftops and is a photographers dream. I lost count of how many pictures I took. Rising up behind is the aforementioned Mehrangarh Fort, yet another impressive testimony to the legacy of Moghul architectural achievement. Left aligned photo tag: Its a good place not only to view the living Picasso below you, but also to acquaint yourself with the and customs history of the once great Kingdoms which held sway here until relatively recently. Especially fascinating are the details of the Purdah system, the practice of keeping men and women separate. Within the palace many of the ornately adorned screens which fill the windows were designed to allow the lady folk look out but shield their view from passers-by. But as with any such customs, they do not die out overnight. That afternoon, after getting hopelessly and utterly lost in crystal maze that is the old town, I eventually found one of the streets leading to the main market square. It took me about ten minutes to figure out what was wrong with the picture. All around me were tuk tuks, scooters, cars, market stalls of every description and hundreds of people fighting for space in this thronged thoroughfare and yet I cannot recall seeing a single woman. Not one. Women it seems still exist in the background here. The few that you do see are kept well hidden behind ornately coloured veils. In so many ways Delhi really is far away.Left aligned photo tag:
The following day as I prepared to set off a so-called 'Village Safari' - a chance I hoped to learn more about how life is traditionally lived here -  I heard that at least 150 people had been killed in a crush at a temple within the Fort during a religious festival in the early hours of the morning. Apparently a stampede had begun after a false rumour began circulating through the massive crowd of pilgrims that a bomb had been detonated. Most of those who died were suffocated or trampled to death. It was incredible to believe that I had stood in that temple just twelve hours beforehand. The town itself was much quieter that day as many market stall owners shut up shop as a mark of respect.....though by that night it seemed as if it was business as usual. That resigned acceptance of death, which I was to see more of later on this trip, really struck home with me that day.Right aligned photo tag:

The Village Safari itself turned out to be very instructive. First of all I was brought to an out-lying homestead many kilometres beyond the city. This time there was nothing reproduction about the circular mud-hut. A family of four lived in tiny cramped conditions.....a small hole in the earth for a cooking stove, rolled up beds, pots and pans were hanging from the thatch roof. It was claustrophobic and miserable. Incredibly I was told that the walls and floors themselves were coated with a mixture of mud and cow shit. As luck would have it the lady of the house was busy applying a new layer. Not only is it cheap and hard-wearing, apparently but it seems scientists from Italy have been studying this diy plaster for its alleged homeopathic properties in helping to combat TB! (Why cows get struck down with the disease all the time then is beyond me, but however.....) It's also used as fuel and funnily enough when cut into blocks it doesn't look unlike sods of turf. However life here is very frugal. Most subsist on the income from a few crops of lentils, mung beans, millet and barley which is grown on small farmsteads. Drought is another recurring problem. Which might explain why they are happy to supplement their income with a bit of dodgy dealing. Left aligned photo tag:

Step forward opium! Although long since illegal, there's still a roaring trade in the drug locally which is widely used for medicinal purposes and for helping guests chill out. Beats a mug of tea and hob nobs any day! Anyway as I was a guest I had to partake (the things I do for you) A block of opium was slowly brunt before being filtered through the water in a hookah. The liquid is then, as tradition dictates, passed around in the palm of the hand as slurped away. Did I feel incredibly zenned out? Giggle hysterically? Have a yen for frosties? Alas no though I didn't exactly imbibe much. Either that or I'm completely immune to illegal drugs at this stage.Right aligned photo tag:

Still munchies or not we headed off in search of that authentic Rajastani meal and stopped at a house belonging to some of the state's most disadvantaged communities, the Bishnoi. This tribal community of nature worshipers is one of the lowest castes in Rajastani societies (although the caste system has long been made illegal it is still widely enforced) Although outwardly very poor, they live by a very simple creed and traditionally earn a living through hunting and making crafts such as weaving. Efforts are now underway to help them set up a co-op system to sell on their wares and keep most of the profits without dealing with middlemen. Women of the Bishnoi tribe are easily recognizable by their brightly coloured saris and a very ostentatious nose ring.....men wear simple white robes and turbans. Ok the food was dull but it was a fascinating glimpse of traditional life outside the maelstrom of the city and proof that Rajastan is still a land unto itself.
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Where I stayed
Hotel Palace Heights
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