Rajasthan: The Heart Of India

Rajasthan is the India I have always dreamed about; the Maharajas, the architecture, the clothing (brightly coloured saris and veils on the women to the white tunic, pants and brightly coloured turbans on the men), the music from the haunting melodies of the Sopera Snake Charmers to the driving beat of Bhangra that made its way south from Punjab (and around the world) to the lyrical folk music of each region of Rajasthan.  The state has a long history of internal war, invasion (from the Moghals) as well as wealth and poverty as the camel caravans moved through the region.  The terrain is rugged and desert like in many parts (it’s home to the massive Thar Desert (the second largest in the world) affecting everything from the sandstone architecture to the use of camels and elephants.  It also features some of the most colourful cities I have ever visited; the pink city of Jaipur, the Blue city of Jodhpur, and the Golden city of Jaisalmer.  After Delhi and even Amritsar I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to spend 3 months in the country, but Rajasthan has changed my mind.  As soon as I crossed over into the state, my opinion about India improved.  It was a scary ride into the state on a two lane highway that narrowed to a one lane country road, even though we still had to pass buses, cars, trucks… oh and camels! There was a spectacular sunset over the desert like landscape; sand and brush and just a few trees.  The terrain reminds me of East Africa, the land, even the straw and mud round houses like the Masai, the people even dress similarly, the men wearing blankets sometimes covering their heads and thrown over their shoulders, the women wearing brightly coloured fabrics with long veils.  We arrived in Mandawa and drove up to the Haveli I would be staying in, and as soon as we passed through the gates, I was overwhelmed.  The entire mansion is covered in hand painted murals. I walked into the lobby and my jaw dropped.  You are transported back in time to the era of the Maharaja, with more painted murals mixed with mirrored mosaics and extravagant antique furniture.  The front lobby is open to the sky, ringed by rooms on two levels and as you walk back to the inner courtyard it is also open air with rooms facing into the centre on the first and second floors.  I asked to see my room, after some of the grotty places I’ve had since arriving in India and I was bowled over. A king size Maharaja bed, beautiful wood antiques, painted murals behind the bed in a small alcove, one fairly erotic representing the Kama Sutra.  The desk clerk also showed me the best suite, small but on two levels.  The first is all in red and mirrored mosaics and upstairs a second bedroom, equally as beautiful.  The hotel must also be close to a mosque because a lyrical call to prayer echoed through the hotel.  I hired a boy the next day to take me on a tour of the old Havelis, pretty rundown but you can still see the splendour they once were.  I also visited a small school where I got to meet the kids. It’s a private school but only has one teacher for all the grades. She showed me some of the students work, explaining about Diwali and the Holi Festival. Later my driver Ram and I drove the 4 hours to Jaipur.  I started getting nervous when we entered the city because once again there was the traffic and noise, but after being here for almost 2 days I realize it is nothing like Delhi.  Everywhere you look there is something interesting; the people, their dress, and the architecture. I had an early night to get up for a full day of sightseeing. My driver and tour guide Dev showed me all the highlights and then some. We started the day at the Amber (Amer) Fort, a magnificent palace set inside a walled city.  The wall climbs the hills and mountains and is reminiscent of the Great Wall of China but is only about 12km long.  The fort is high up on a big hill overlooking the entire city and was home to the Maharaja (King).  There were brightly painted elephants to be used in weddings that day, and also dozens of elephants giving rides to tourists to the palace.  My guide Dev, was so knowledgeable about every place we went to, explaining not only the history of the Maharaja, but also the palace and what each room and area was used for. He also knew the best spot to take the perfect photo, he even took one of me through a mirror that other tourists tried to copy after they saw him do it.  I saw the area where the Queens would watch through latticed stone windows as the King held court below and also where they would be bathed.  I then went down a tunnel that was an escape route in case of invasion.  We then headed over to the Water Palace, on a manmade lake that the King used to entertain visiting men.  I was also entertained there by a cunning young magician who did variations on the coin under the cup trick and was pulling coins and nuts from parts of my body, he shouldn’t have been touching.  We stopped at a textile factory and showroom, and even though I had planned NOT to spend any money, I ended up laying out about a grand for a Camel wool carpet that is about 2 inches of plush carpet that feels like walking on moss, a tablecloth and blanket.  We stopped for samosas from a street vendor that were delicious before we headed over to the old city – the Pink City was originally painted pink in honour of Prince Albert’s visit, who later became King Edward Vll (but to me it looks more orange than pink) – to visit the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Wind.  It was built by Prather Singh in 1799, is 5 storeys high and it now looks down over the traffic mayhem below.  The only yellow buildings on the main streets of the Old City belong to the King, which is why the palaces are yellow and the city buildings (at least on the main streets) are pink.  We wandered over to the market, narrow shops with craftsmen like metalsmiths creating their wares right out in front.  We entered Jantar Mantar, a world heritage site and filled with all kinds of astronomical inventions; two sundials, the small one is accurate to 29 seconds and the world’s largest sundial accurate to within 2 seconds.  There is also a massive instrument dug into the ground that determines the signs of the zodiac, another that reads longitude and latitude, and another to find the north star with precision.  We also visited the museum that was actually getting prepared for a massive wedding later that evening, an elaborate undertaking for hundreds of guests.  The museum is set next to the City Palace, the home of the current King (there are still 21 Kings in India, none have real power but are figure heads). I learned that you can tell that the 79 year old monarch is in Jaipur based on the two flags flying over the palace.  The museum is filled with regal antiquities, mostly costumes of the Maharajas (including a massive pair of pants for one of the kings who was 7 feet tall and weighed 250kg!), with  separate facility containing the various weapons of the Rajput fighters.  Unfortunately no cameras were allowed inside.  We went into the room where the King would hold court with his advisors and the prime minister… again no photos inside.  But outside in the courtyard there were some magnificently painted doors that I did take pictures of.  We didn’t go inside the City Palace, you can get a tour but it costs about  $50usd/person.  In the area where the wedding would be held are two massive silver jars on display, the largest silver objects in the world, and each made of 14000 silver coins, for Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh ll, who filled the jars with sacred water from the Ganges River to take with him on his voyage to England for the coronation of King Edward Vll in 1902.  I also visited a gem cutting factory where I saw each stage of the process followed by a pitch to buy a piece of jewellery… and I did, a silver and Onyx ring.  Our final stop for the day was the monkey temple where we saw numerous peacocks along the way.  We had picked up 3 bunches of bananas to feed the holy monkeys which drew a crowd of them all around us.  They were very polite though, no fear of getting scratched or bitten.  There’s also a small waterfall where sacred water pours into a pool where young men were taking a dip, and a temple where I was invited to pray.  It ended with a bindi swipe between my eyes.  The day ended with a perfect full moon and a wedding next to the hotel where a DJ played wild Rajput music with a driving beat, all evening.  I wandered over and checked it out before anyone arrived .  Later fireworks were set off to honour the newlywed couple… my first experience of Rajasthan and it’s culture… and I’m already a fan, with a lot more of the region still to come.

If this is Friday this must be Pushkar, the next stop on this marathon journey through Rajasthan.  It was a fairly quick drive from Jaipur… just a couple of hours.  We arrived early afternoon, checked in and I headed into town to check things out.  My plan was to head to the Brahma Temple, one of the few in the world, but I had to walk through the market to get there.  It was so interesting that by the time I got to the temple, I decided not even to go inside… I think I am templed out! I’m sure it was beautiful, as was the Sikh Temple that I also walked past.  To me the market was the place to be. Pushkar is a desert town, and a mecca for backpackers.  The market was full of them… travellers from all over the world, most European, and most hippy throw backs to the 60’s or wannabes.  The market itself was fascinating with all of the beautiful Rajasthani goods for sale, everything from blankets and hand painted t-shirts to leather bags and jewellery, not to mention the plethora of food stalls all over.  I wandered the market until I was exhausted and then decided to go for pizza (I haven’t had western food for a while) and I thought I would trust Lonely Planet’s suggestion and check out Little Italy, about a block from my hotel.  I now know not to trust everything the travelers bible tells you. It was nice enough, but the food sucked.  Soggy pizza that tasted like the sauce was made with canned tomato soup. There was only one other couple there and about a million flies.  Pushkar has also got the reputation as a chill city, and that’s what I did.  I chilled out.  Headed back to the hotel and had an Ayurveda massage… amazing!  It started at the top of my head, the masseur poured oil all over my hair (I should have waited to have a shower) and then started massaging, that included several minutes of thumping on my head, and then a complete massage from the tips of my toes on up (it was totally clean this time).  I finished up there, had a shower and then stayed in the hotel for dinner.  I called it an early night and headed back to my room to get caught up on my writing and photo editing and managed to sort through my bags, my newest pastime.  The next day we got a late start, noon, so I was able to sleep in and take my time getting ready in the morning and it gave Ram a chance to visit his brother and his family in Pushkar.  As we got close to Bikaner we took a bit of a detour to the town of Deshnok to visit one of the strangest temples I have ever seen, the Karni Mata Temple where pilgrims come to worship rats! You can read about my visit to the temple here.   As we arrived in Bikaner we stopped off at the Camel Research Centre, basically an agricultural station where the focus is on the camel.  They breed them, milk them, study them and even have a program using camels for power generation.  It was an interesting place to see and learn all about these giant beasts and also to sample camel milk… I had a coffee with camel milk, a slightly sweeter and heavier flavour than cow’s milk.  Before we got to the hotel, we made one more stop at an artists’ studio and gallery.  It’s more like a museum with artwork dating back to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and the prices were remarkable. The most expensive piece dating from the 17th century and very detailed was just 6000euros. It is family owned and run and my guide is part of the new generation of artists but his work reflects the style that has made Bikaner miniature paintings famous around the world. Again I wasn’t planning to buy anything and kept telling myself I didn’t need any art, but I fell in love with one piece that was just 500euros, portraits of the Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Theirs is a famous love story and he built the Taj Mahal as a memorial to her after her death while giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. They are beautiful paintings, very detailed and are framed with carved camel bone that looks just like ivory.  I negotiated the price down to 400euros and they would ship it back home for me for free.  I have to watch my budget or I won’t be able to afford the rest of this trip.  The hotel I stayed at is a beautiful red sandstone structure, probably the nicest hotel in Bikaner and is similar to a Haveli with the big open inner courtyard and all the rooms face into it.  The room itself was just okay, the furnishings are nice and it shows well, but again on closer inspection it needed some attention.  We waited until the next morning to tour the city, hitting the major attractions, Bikaner Palace and museum and later the Fort and palace.  The museum is a tribute to the Maharaja Ganga Singhji featuring artefacts about him and his life in Bikaner.  On the same grounds is the palace which has been converted to a 5 star hotel.  I walked around and through the hallways looking at the building and the furnishings. There was no one around to tell me where I could and couldn’t go, so I just kept looking around.  We then headed over to the old fort, a massive structure, so it’s best to get the headset, it only costs an extra 50rs or $1, and is well worth it because it describes not only the fort but also the history of the Maharaja and the city. There was also a whole unit of Indian soldiers taking a tour at the same time, the only chance I’ve had to photograph them (because of security reasons you’re not supposed to take photos of soldiers, police or their facilities). Again every place that I visit in Rajasthan has an amazing history and almost a separate culture within the larger Rajput family.  From Bikaner to Jaisalmer but we had to make a change of plans and kept going to the small desert town of Khuri where I was supposed to go on a short camel ‘safari’.  You can read about that here.  The next morning we headed into the golden city of Jaisalmer… and another fort and another palace.  I got a guide to take me through the walled city, one of the oldest in India, founded in the 12th century… definitely the oldest city I’ve ever visited.   As you enter the gate there are hand prints carved on the wall and when you women didn’t want to get married they would paint their hands with red vermillion and leave their handprint on the wall before setting themselves on fire… a tragic practice that continued until 1980. We wandered through the narrow streets taking photos of the detailed carvings along the walls of the buildings. I visited the second largest Jain Temple in the world, its’ floors are said to have been strengthened with ghee (clarified butter) that becomes slippery in the heat.  It’s also unusual because there are only 5 Jain families remaining in Jaisalmer although the temple is an important pilgrimage site for followers of the religion.  I took a tour of one of the largest Havelis in the city, built by one of the first Prime Ministers and home now to his descendants who have opened up part of it to the public, selling off some of their family antiques to help pay the bills. As the sun started to go down we headed to sunset point to watch… the sun set.  It’s actually a site where Hindu families bring their deceased relatives for public cremation among the temple like structures, but it has spectacular views of the fort and of the setting sun. The next morning I toured the Mandul Gardens, beautifully kept grounds with some massive Shiva Temples, very reminiscent of the temples I had just visited in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The park was alive with chipmunks, birds, begging children and MONKEYS.  So many monkeys everywhere, flying through the trees, tumbling together on the grass or just resting on ledges and even park benches.  We were back on the road again and on the drive to Jodhpur we passed a field with a few camels including a couple of babies that were only 1-2 weeks old.  I got out and walked into the field to take a couple of photos before we hit the road again. The next town we drove through had another unusual site.  While you get used to seeing cows on the streets everywhere, sacred to Hindus, you are also careful to step around the souvenirs they leave behind.  But in this one small town, two bull suddenly began fighting right there in front of the market, certainly not the safest thing for shoppers trying to buy their fruits and vegetables.  As we drove into the city we stopped by a lake for a few photos.  The water level was higher than it had been in years.  Parts of the desert hadn’t seen rain for 13 years, but luckily this year they have had plenty, so everywhere we went people remarked on how much greener the landscape was.  There was a street vendor beside the lake so I stopped to take a quick photo of his food.  He looked at me and demanded 100rs, considering each item was no more than 20rs each I just laughed and walked away, which is when he started yelling at me, ‘100rs, 100 rs’.   We headed to the Mehrangah Palace before heading to the hotel.  As you enter the Iron Gate, you see red vermillion hand prints cast on the wall, handprints of the widows of Maharaja Man Singh, who put their marks there before throwing themselves onto his funeral pyre in 1843.  I wandered through the fort and palace, a little jaded after touring several already in India. This one was similar to the others, all very beautiful with carved, latticed stone work, with the windows all around the inner courtyard for the women (who must not be seen by men) to watch life going on around them through the stone curtains. The fort also has some beautiful views of the Blue City (I learned it’s the colour of the Brahman, the highest cast, but also helped to keep the bugs away).  We also stopped off at the nearby Aswant Thado mausoleum, a memorial to the Maharaja Jaswant Singh ll, clad all in white marble, with spectacular views of the city below.  We drove through the market on our way to the Hotel and after checking in did quick stroll around the open shops (sometimes just sidewalk space).  The hotel is another beautiful Haveli right in the centre of the city. It is a little older and probably had seen some better days, well-kept but my room at a nasty smell that I was glad to leave behind.   Before leaving town we had to visit the spectacular Umaid Bhawan Palace, now a 5 (or 7) star luxury hotel with the most expensive suite going for 145,000 rps/night (more than $3000usd).  It’s one of the newest palaces in India and construction started in 1929 but took 15 years to complete for the Maharaja Umaid Singh who died shortly after it was built in 1947.  Photos of the original furnishings and some of the architectural elements reflect the art deco style, unusual for a palace.  It’s also the only place I saw the Jodhpur pants that made the city famous.  We also made a pit stop at a small family run Durry rug shop.  They make the famous rugs themselves and gave me a quick demonstration, and then sell them on to the big emporiums in the big cities.  I bought a small handmade silk rug for just 1300rps (about $30). As we headed to the final destination of Udaipur, we passed through spectacular mountains, valleys and forests.  We stopped at a massive Hindu/Jain temple with exquisite marble carvings and right next to it was another smaller temple devoted to Kama Sutra (the love god) with carvings of well-endowed women and men in suggestive poses.  Before we hit the highway again we stopped off at a small roadside stand next to the temple and Ram bought a bunch of cookies that he started feeding to a group of monkeys that had gathered and one stray dog.  A couple of elderly men drove up a few minutes later and did the same thing, but when the dog approached, one of the men hit the dog with its cane and it scampered away yelping.  Unfortunately, that’s the plight of stray dogs in India, and there are many. The forest is home to leopards, bears and monkeys.  As we drove around one curve there was another group of monkeys sitting on the side of the road, so we slowed down and Ram threw them a few cookies.  Within seconds dozens of them started running down the hills, onto the road and jumped all over the car.  We started throwing more cookies at them, some of them would hang over the roof and hold their hand out in front of the open window.  They were very polite, gently taking the cookies from our hands but they were jumping all over the car vying for a treat.  It took some coaxing to get them off so we could continue the journey, and one sat on the front hood refusing to leave.  As we drove away, they ran after us, but gave up when they realized there were no more cookies coming their way.  It was another memorable experience in the wonderful region of Rajasthan.  As we drove along the road and evening approached I saw a bunch of ‘things’ hanging in the trees.  They looked like pods or packets of some kind and asked my driver what they were… turns out they were bats getting ready to take flight once the sun went down.  The final stop on my tour through Rajasthan is the city of Udaipur, considered the most romantic city and I can understand why.  While it still has all of the traffic congestion, crowded narrow streets, and extreme poverty the area around the lake is spectacular.  Surrounded by mountains, it makes the most of its natural beauty.  The views are among the best I`ve seen anywhere.  My first night in the city I had dinner at the hotel restaurant with a view looking down on the lake and the Lake Palace below.  As I dined suddenly fireworks were set off over the palace, part of a marriage celebration.  No sooner did that show finish than other fireworks were set off around the city, lighting up the night sky. This is wedding season in India and I`ve stopped jumping out of my seat at the booms that echo every evening.  My first night in New Delhi, I thought the country was under attack.  I didn`t have my camera with me, so I`ll just have to keep those images to myself.  The next morning I had breakfast and then went up one flight to the rooftop for more stunning views of the lake.  Monkeys clambered up the buildings jumping onto trees below and women had gathered along the lake to do their washing or simply to have a bath or wash their hair.  It was a typical Indian sight to see, but the murkiness and green slime floating on top of the water kept me from even dipping my toes in the lake.  I wandered over to the City Palace… yes another palace with more of the same extravagant architecture and furnishings, probably the strangest was the Maharaja’s official ‘throne’.  I met up with Ram, my driver and we headed to a local garden where the flowers were all in bloom.  Even the big traffic circle (round-about) features beautiful gardens and a massive water fountain.  I couldn`t leave Udaipur without a tour around the lake, so I boarded one of the water taxis that took us along the shoreline,  around the Water Palace and then over to Jagminder Ghat, a picture perfect structure on the water that is the site for many weddings, especially this time of year.  I must say Rajasthan is a magical place and I will be returning next month for the Elephant Festival and Holi, so it has not seen the last of me yet.

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2 Responses to “Rajasthan: The Heart Of India”

  1. Feliks Perera
    March 5 at 11:19 pm #

    Hi Darren,

    this is the India that the British inherited. At least the colonial masters kept it together. Rajasthan personifies the Arab/Moslem rulers who came to india in the 16th century. India is predominantly Hindu from the days of the Indus Valley and the Harappan civilisation. No one is sure how hinduism started. That is why there is still tremendous animosity between Hindus and the Moslems. This journey must have been a very interesting lesson in history for you. Please keep in mind that people existed in the indus valley before egypt. The common factor was that a great river nourished and made the lands fertile for all types of cultivations. The Nile in Egypt and the original river from the melting waters of the himalayas in nothern india. The Ganges came several centuries later probably after a severe earthqueake that changed the face of the indus valley. All this will disappear soon as modern india becomes more westernised and wants to look like MTV. Where will you go next? What news from back home?
    cheers Feliks

    • Darren
      March 5 at 11:35 pm #

      thanks Feliks… you certainly know your stuff… but I’m learning… slowly.

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