Camels, forts and deserts: travels with Elise

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March 1st 2014
Published: March 10th 2014
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1 March

With much excitement Elise and I jumped in the car with our driver and headed north to Jodphur. While the roads varied greatly in quality, there were a few idiosyncrasies that stood out. Merging onto the highway can be done from the left or right side to go in either direction - you just drive on the wrong side of the road till you can cross over. And according to our driver, you can drive on the side of the road you prefer – this is especially so for trucks as they have their favourite trucking stops.

The terrain was mountainous and pretty barren as we pasted through the Mewar area. We drove through a game reserve, where our driver had seen many leopards as he travelled at night. We passed through villages large and small, with people always standing and sitting beside the street, little shops and cart stalls.

As we drove through the flatter Mawar area, the mountains disappeared and we were in the plains. Lots of animals on and beside the road, as there are no fences. Goats, sheep, cows or bulls were herded by their masters using long sticks. The red turban of the herdsman denoted his caste.

Those gorgeous colours and block designs of fabric across India have to come from somewhere. Pali is built around dye factories, creating a waste land around the town, including green waterways. Environmental and occupational health nightmare.

The 15th century Jodphur fort is set high above the town and dominates the scene. The Meherangarh Fort is a beautiful maharajah fort that has never been captured. The ladies enclosed court yard is intricately carved and cool with marble floor and fountains. The swish of Rajasthani glittering skirts, and the whispers of the ladies, was not hard to imagine. The maharaja’s elephant howdahs (the riding chairs) were intricate ensembles of gold and silver, while the queen travelled in an enclosed chair so that her face was not seen. The temple of the fort, the Jaswant Thanda, was exquisitely carved from white marble.

We stayed in a very charming homestay in the old town, arriving by auto-riskshaw as the old city streets are not wide enough for cars. The house was built in 1642, and was the home of the Brahmin family who served as priest for the royal family temple. Thus our house had
Cattle herderCattle herderCattle herder

Aside from the clue of the animals - his red turban identifies this man as from the herder caste
many blue internal and external walls denoting that the owner was of the Brahmin caste. The private roof top terrace looked up to the fort and over the old city.

I was on the lookout for a silk Kashmiri carpet. Well, once spoken, that set the cat amongst the pigeons of the collective ‘cousins’ of Jodphur. We were feted and transported with lots of pizazz. The highly decorated rickshaws of Jodphur added to the pizazz. Alas, no suitable carpet was found.

2 March

Travelling north-west from Jodphur, the countryside because flatter, and was sandy with very little vegetation. Lots of animals still, with camels and deer now included. The road was great – perhaps funded by the military budget. Many many military trucks were on the road, and as we got closer to Jaisalmer and thus closer to the Pakistan border, there were numerous military facilities, barracks and border control installations. These tribal lands had some small villages, but mostly family compounds of 3-4 small brick single room structures with some animal houses made of sticks and straw and all surrounded by a rock perimeter wall.

Not sure if it is the importance of welcoming people,
Meherangarh FortMeherangarh FortMeherangarh Fort

Standing above Jodphur
which we often experienced, or poor business planning, but we passed many properties with large colourful pillars at the entrance and little or no development inside the estate walls. This included new housing estates and tourist facilities. We stopped at a monthly animal market, where camels and bulls are bought and sold for about 20,000 rupees each ($400). These are clearly prized animals, and a source of great wealth. In the Mewar language, the definition of depression is the feeling when your camel dies.

By mid-afternoon the yellow sandstone fort of Jaisalmer was ahead. This incredible fort shimmers in the desert. It has been continuously occupied since the 13th century, and even with the 3 walls of fortifications has been captured several times. Inside the fort are a labyrinth of narrow alleys and ancient houses as well as the much more ornate king’s and queen’s palaces. We wandered the narrow streets of the fort, under projecting stone balconies of the old houses. Down alleys, through arched doorways you could catch glimpses of the hidden life of the fort houses. We drank coffee, we wandered, we perused the many shops and purchased a few gifts. Everyone knows that negotiation is a game, and here especially there was much laughter and joking about ‘ripping us off’ etc.

Surrounding the fort, old women with colourful sarees perfectly in place laid out their produce for sale - cauliflower, onions, garlic, carrots, cabbages and other vegetables. Gnarled old men, turbaned as designated by their caste, pushed carts of small household items – the Rawleighs men of India.

We had dinner at a roof top restaurant which came with many sights and sounds – lit fort, fireworks, the thumping drum of a wedding procession (spring is wedding season in the north), military aircraft flyovers and even guns in the distance. The military of both India and Pakistan continuously have military exercise near this tense border. But wonderfully, at midday each day, a gate is opened at the border and guards from both sides shake hands in recognition of continuing peace.

3 March

Heading west in the Thar Desert, we stopped at the Bara Bagh Cenotaphs, which have been the royal cenotaphs of the Jaisalmer maharaja from the 15th century till 1949. Each maharaja has their own structure with the earlier ones higher up the hill and the more recent getting grander
Looking out over Jodphur old town from the fortLooking out over Jodphur old town from the fortLooking out over Jodphur old town from the fort

The blue houses indicate that the residents are of the Brahmin caste
and grander. Completing the picture was the adjoining wind farm, which is part of the 14% of India’s energy provided by wind. And the fighter jet manoeuvrers continued overhead.

The deserted town of Kuldhara has kept its secrets. Established in 1291 by members of the Brahmin caste, this well laid out town integrated 84 villages. One night in 1825 it became a ghost town. All the residents up and left. Where they went and why is unknown. The story is that the maharaja had decided to forcefully marry one of the daughters of a village chief. This was unacceptable and all the elders agreed that they would move on overnight – no trace has ever been found of these people. Locals believe that the town is cursed and thus it has been left to the elements and the site never reoccupied. Except as a set for Bollywood movies and for a single older women who sits near the temple each day in the hope of donations from tourists.

The Sam Sand Dunes Desert National Park is an expanse of flat yellow sand to the horizon, with occasional rock outcrops and small spindly scrubs. Within the park are also classic sand dunes – large rolling hills of golden sand with no vegetation. The camel safari we were part of for sunset resembled a circus. We got on our designated camel, remembering to lean back as the large animal rose from the ground in a step wise fashion. Our party was 5 people – a young Indian couple on holiday from Bangalore, our driver and us. Off we traversed with the driver walking ahead leading our camel by rope, Elise at the front and me behind. I had the job of leading the second camel with the Indian couple. Sunset was glorious, although a little cloudy. The camels rested on the sand re-eating their lunch and generally looking at home. As soon as the sun fell, it turned cold and we set off for our camp for the night. Our young driver flirted shamelessly with Elise. Part of his routine was to run, making the camel run and thus make the girl squeal. Same the world over. Nuances on this were: Elise was not scared at all and thus no squeal; our driver took a mobile phone call; and Mama hung onto Elise really tight. Clearly, I was just there to make up the numbers, as Dad would say.

Camping is the desert was magical. Well our style of camping was really staying in swish tents with solid floors and ensuite. Stars filled the black sky and it was so quiet. And desert dry cold away from our camp fire. Local tribal people sang and danced. The male singer sang many a mournful tale, and a skilled woman danced and even tried to teach us some of the steps. We didn’t try to mimic her dancing with the 7 water pots on her head as she stood on the blade of a knife or rocked on the rim of a metal cooking pot.

4 March

Basking in the sun on our tent porch recounting our adventures on this trip, my overwhelming feeling was of privilege that Elise and I have had this special time together.

In our estimation, a trip to the desert was not complete without a ‘Vogue’ photo shoot involving scarves, hats and virgin sand. We laughed as did our driver Remash. But we will keep our day jobs.

Heading south to Barmer, the harsh desert terrain continued. Wide open sky country, often with wind farms to the horizon on either side of the road. Tribal women worked to obtain some crop, or walked on the roadside, scarf over their faces, carrying animal feed or sticks on their heads. Desert men, with white floating kurta and dhoti, and turban, kept themselves warm with brown woollen shawls. The family compounds consisted of mud huts with thatched roofs, with a white wash surround on the single opening of the dwelling.

The government opium stores are clearly a hit, with perhaps 100 people gathered at each store before opening at 10am. The stores were in many villages and the orderly queues remained all day. The very small amount of opium in each aliquot sold is diluted with water and smoked for medicinal purposes, so we were told.

We stopped at a road side stall for our driver to have a break. Roti were made in a tandoori oven – a 44 gallon drum with fire below and rocks at the base of the drum. The dough was made thin by throwing from one hand to the other, and then placed on a smooth rock on top of the hot rocks to cook. A hacksaw
Jaswant ThandaJaswant ThandaJaswant Thanda

Temple of the Meherangarh Fort
blade served as the cook’s knife.

The road became lined with thorn covered acacia trees, which provide feed for the camels. The villages remained poor, yet such is the value of both education and cleanliness, that school children emerged from houses, the girls in white loose pants, blue kurta and white scarf, the boys in blue shirt and khaki trousers and occasionally even with a tie. We spent the night in Barmer, which was nothing to write home about.

5 March

Mt Abu, the only hill station in Rajasthan, was our destination. The landscape became positively lush, with irrigation from lakes and a stream. Mt Abu is set around Nakki Lake, said to have been scooped out by a god using only his nails or nakh. A beautiful place. Mt Abu is a tourist destination – mostly for Indian newly weds. The Adhar Devi temple is built in a natural cleft in the rock, with the final structure a small temple perched on a rock high over the town. The Dilwara group of Jain temples were exquisite, with incredible marble carving. We were relaxing with a Kingfisher beer watching the lake when we heard the drums of a procession. I ran off to investigate - and as Elise says I was away for five minutes and came back with my face and hands covered in red and yellow powder. It was a procession to celebrate the 61st birthday of a local guru. There were 2 men in a float throwing flowers over the crowd, and a whole lot of women walking ahead of the float. I moved in to take a photo and a couple of women engaged me to join their parade. before I knew it I was covered in the coloured powder, much to the delight of the women.

We watched the sun go down over then plains from a vantage point outside town. We then celebrated with a festive dinner at one of the better restaurants – gin and tonic, lamb in curd, butter chicken and kulfi (Indian ice cream made of condensed milk, pistachios and nutmeg).

6 March

Waking to the morning call to prayer echoing across the lake and hills, I realised that was my last such alarm after 2 months of being in India. Heading down the mountain, we passed an old sadhu and his dog returning from temple to his home in the forest.

Our driver took us to his home at the foothill of the mountain outside Udaipur which has the Monsoon Palace on top. We had visited this palace at sunset much earlier in the trip. The village was on the outskirts of the maharajas’ hunting ground. As explained by our driver, the village had 100 houses owned by tribal people and 100 by other Indians like himself. His grandfather had owned a large tract of land which had been subdivided over the generations such that 100 people in our driver’s family lived in the village. His very tidy 3 room brick house was within a walled compound. The grounds included 2 bore wells, a large vegetable garden and space for a couple of cows and bulls. Across the road his wife was manually harvesting the wheat to be used by their household.

Completing our 1300km circuit we arrived back in Udaipur. I headed home, with Elise to remain in India till June.

Additional photos below
Photos: 72, Displayed: 31


Jodphur old town below the fortJodphur old town below the fort
Jodphur old town below the fort

From the rooftop of our homestay
Tribal woman Tribal woman
Tribal woman

On the road north of Jodphur
Traditional dressTraditional dress
Traditional dress

The bangles on the upper arm were originally made of bone, and were worn to prevent damage to the fleshy part of the arm should a tiger bite.

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