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Published: April 22nd 2012
Rajasthan; India’s desert state. It’s everything one might expect from a desert, especially at this time of year in the searing pre-monsoon heat which makes the land arid and void of colour. Nonetheless, Rajasthan is the most colourful state of all India, for the people paint the landscape here.
Our train passed though many small settlements where the women and men alike appeared from a distance as many-coloured, iridescent marbles, reflecting light and drawing the interest of our foreign eyes. The saris and turbans are subject to careful colour coding relating to age, marital status, caste, mood and even season. Upon closer appraisal the married women wear florescent pink scarves, tucked at the waistband and hanging over their faces as a veil to protect from harshness of the Indian sun. Beneath the cloak is a crimson streak of henna worn on their middle parted hairline, a symbol of their unavailability and attachment. Silver anklets jingle delicately as the women pad barefooted through the ally way, marketplace or bazaar, unconscious of the hot dirt floor. Every other toe is decorated with a ring of twisted silver and often the hardened heels are stained amber. Their faces, beautiful in their own right
with almond shaped eyes and browned, flawless skin are baubled like Christmas trees; studs and giant hoops fixed to flared, kidney shaped nostrils attach to heavy silver chains which are then linked to ears, similarly fixed to chains encircling the head. They wear it effortlessly. As do they, the many bangles on their wrists and the plastic hoops starting from their elbows, growing ever larger up to their shoulders. All this costume and reverie just for their day to day activities; washing clothes, feeding children, cooking, selling vegetables in the chowk. For myself, being a proverbial magpie, their iridescence makes me secretly jealous, though not in the least envious of the discomfort and hassle of their costume.
Confusion set in as the train stopped at Jaipur Junction. We asked whether this was our stop and our fellow passengers told us that there was another station coming called simply “Jaipur” and that was our stop. The woman who had whacked my knee not an hour before as though testing my reflexes no longer wanted to know me, having my coveted picture now in her possession, she turned her back as we made enquires. Then we saw two backpackers
on the platform. Other tourists were getting off, and so would we in a rush and a panic.
We arrived at a hotel and enquired about a room. They told us to wait so that they could fix the cheaper room for us. We were naturally curious by this point as they had told us earlier that they had only the expensive rooms available but then just happened to remember that there was one cheaper room left... Half an hour later we found ourselves in a living space with shelves full of family photographs and children’s school books. Later, sat on the bed reading, a little girl opened the door without a knock of warning, passed through the room without so much as looking up, collected her belongings and before leaving turned her head say “soooorry” petulantly. This happened a further three times, confirming our suspicions that the room which we were occupying was used by the family and not the hotel...
The heat in Jaipur was immense, as we knew it would be for the duration of our time in Rajasthan. It was so hot we found it quite difficult to muster the will to leave the
cool of the room. Finally, we did and took an auto-rickshaw to the old city, also known as the “Pink City”. Well, first and foremost: city it is, pink it is not! Terracotta at best, a muddy brown at worst. We spent our day navigating the maze of alleyways inside the city walls; rows of streets selling decorative bangles and other pieces of jewellery, and others selling only saris. The more residential streets showcased dwellings unceremoniously. Homes with beautifully constructed archways painted or mosaic in typical, stunning mogul style, all in states of decay and disrepair; the kind that we as typical tourists love to photograph despite its unconventional beauty and the innate sadness of its decline. Poverty has never been so exotic...
Really getting lost within the old city, as we did, was less pleasant than my Arabian Nights daydreams... The tighter passes were no longer passable. To speak plainly, they were at times waist deep in human- and other kinds of waste. In the heat particularly, the open sewers really detracted from any remaining romanticism.
Walking around the outskirts of the city walls provided more pleasant sensory experiences than some (the minority) of the interior streets.
Spices piled high in sliver bowls perfumed the pavements and created eye catching, miniature pinnacles of colour. Burning incense at small road side shrines emitted smoky plumes of Sandalwood. Every whallah, hawker and seller reaches out to touch your arm, vying for attention in the hope that you will buy their goods; sugar cane juice, silk scarves, formal occasion turbans, massala spiced peas... And then comes the unexpected and greatly undesired proclamation of love as the strange, deranged man tries to kiss you in passing... I kid you not.
In time we came upon the Hawa Mahal, a beautiful palace in which coloured glass windows spilled a spectrum of light across stunning tiled floors and elaborately painted woodwork. Tiny windows behind miniature wooden doors were opened to reveal partial views of the street below, or perhaps the inner courtyard. The view from above was impressive and warranted the effort of standing outside the shade to capture the city view.
All in all, the not so pink city of Jaipur was worth the visit, though we found little else to do in the town other than eat, which we did. Excessively.
In contrast to
Jaipur, the “Blue City” of Jodhpur is truly blue. Having explained the significance of colour in Rajasthani culture, it will come as no surprise to learn that traditionally, the blue houses were a sign of the Brahmin caste, or the religious social class of India, the most highly regarded. Nowadays anyone can paint their house blue, and doing so is thought to keep the building cool and deter pests. Where we stayed, on the west side of the fort, was the true, historical Brahmin area of the town, and in fact the hotel where we stayed was an actual Brahmin house, (not that you would know from the unfriendly and unhelpful staff).
Other than the city’s “blueness” the main attraction is the fort (a running theme in these popular Rajasthani towns), but also of interest in Jodhpur is Sadar Market around the old clock tower. The large, contained square is filled to burst with hawkers of everything from vegetables to gold and silver. It made a great opportunity for photography, but here Chris found himself in a spot of bother as an old woman grabbed him by the neck of his shirt, mistakenly believing him to be taking photographs
of her, up close, without her permission. She was soon reprimanded by the many other women in the market for her behaviour, and half-humorously they held her by the arms, telling Chris to take a photograph of her... He didn’t, of course.
In time we visited the famous fort, which stands elevated on a hilly mound above but surrounded by the town. Unlike the fort at Jaisalmer, it is no longer inhabited as the Royal Family lives elsewhere these days. To enter you are required to pay a fee. The foreigner price is inclusive of the irritating “camera charge” and also an audio guide. Chris turned his nose up at the guide initially, as I would have if not for reading its positive review in the “Popular Guide Book” which was spot on, for a change.
Wearing our 80’s style headphones, the cause of ample ear sweat (you know it’s hot when your bloody ears are sweating, let me tell you!) we began the entertaining and informative tour around the fort. At first we couldn’t take things seriously, and cracked up laughing at the heavily accented and dramatic style of the narrator, but given time, we learned to
love him and on behalf of both Chris and I, we’ll give Jodhpur Fort and its audio tour guide a well deserved “two thumbs up”. One interesting thing we learnt from our audio-guide was with regard to the many red handprints we found on the stone wall at the entrance gate. Apparently they were made upon the death of the last king by his many (many!) wives. As their late husband’s body was set alight on his funeral pyre the wives threw themselves upon it with him and burned alive in complete silence... I’ve forewarned Chris not to expect the same act of devotion from myself when he kicks it, and to my surprise he seemed a little disappointed.
After a pleasant day of sightseeing we started down the steep descent from the fort to the town. By the gate through which we had entered some hours before was a little girl, squatting... and you know the rest! Her straining face turned to a smile as she saw us passing tourists, and she said “hello” unabashed as she continued her business in the middle of the street.
And that, my friends, was Jodhpur...
stop in Rajasthan was the “romantic” city of Udaipur. We were beginning to wonder which deluded individual had bestowed these monikers on India’s well-loved towns and cities. Our time in Udaipur does not warrant a blog of its own, though we did like it. Again it was hot, and as such we were well and truly worn out. We visited the main palace (Udaipur has many) and its museum, which was tedious, uninteresting and what’s worse- poorly curated. The Bond flick “Octopussy” was forced upon us at the breezy rooftop restaurant, many times. The people of Udaipur were very proud to tell us that their town was the scene of the movie.
One thing that we did very, very much enjoy during our stay was the Indian cooking classes we under took with the enigmatic Shashi, a woman with a story... Nine years previous to our meeting with her, Shashi was made a widow with two young sons. She had married young and it was arranged. She was from a village and spoke only Rajasthani, her husband was from the city, where she relocated, and he spoke only Hindi. “Problem number one”, she said with a smile. Shashi is
a member of the Brahmin caste which made life very hard for her following the loss of her husband. She has never been allowed to remarry, making her a lifelong widow. Worse still, she was not permitted to leave her home for a year after her husband’s death. Forced to sit in a corner, fasting for 45 days whilst silently entertaining grieving family and friends she worried how she would support her two young sons. Shashi worked in secret, washing clothes for a little money, a task strictly forbidden by the Brahmin caste.
With time, life moved on. One day her son brought home a foreign friend, an Australian who suggested that Shashi’s cooking was so good that she should open up her small home (made of just a very small kitchen and another room only big enough for a single bed and a table). “Problem number two,” she joked “No English!” With hard work and help from other foreigners Shashi is now Trip Advisor’s number one rated tourist attraction in Udaipur. “Bigger than the palaces, bigger than the horse riding,” the tiny woman boasted in good humour. And we would agree to that.
Should you ever visit
Udaipur make sure to go cooking with Shashi, you can find her beneath the “Sunrise Restaurant” and in all the major guidebooks.
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