Jaisalmer – The Fort City

Continued from A Day in the Desert

Even as we were leaving for our desert camp, we had glimpsed enticing sights of the golden Jaisalmer Fort located prominently atop a hilltop in the centre of the town. The Fort or the Sonar Quila (made of yellow sandstone) was of strategic importance, giving relief and respite to many a weary travellers. It’s courageous Bhati rulers,offered security to the passing caravans loaded with rich silks and precious jewels and the fort served as a crucial link connecting the east and the west,enabling trade and commerce to flourish. Given Jaisalmer’s strategic importance in the 2000-year old silk route, its no wonder that Jaisalmer is still a rich potpourri of an interesting intermingling of cultures and traditions.

1-img_20161101_124546613

As with previous fort we had encountered, this one too had witnessed bloody sieges, massacres and the almost inevitable Jauhars. Despite the similarities, every fort feels different.Whereas the Ranthambore Fort smelt of mystery and secrecy, the Jaisalmer Fort was alive with vibrancy, not surprisingly because its one of the largest “living” forts.

img_20161102_130014661
View from the fort
img_20161102_124244834_hdr
View of the choc-a-bloc shops lining the bylanes of the fort

As we made our way to the fort, through the narrow and winding bylanes of Jaisalmer overlooked by buildings some reminiscent of an older era adorned by rich carvings and some cloaked by modernity, we suddenly joined the massive rush of humanity entering the fort walls.The fort houses various structures like a magnificent Jain temple, a Royal Palace and various other beautiful architectures along with a plethora of curio shops, shops selling beautiful Rajasthani works of art and eateries.

1-img_20161102_145013412
A vendor in the fort

Since Jains constituted some of the very rich merchants passing through Jaisalmer, many of them soon settled there and the presence of Jain temples inside the fort built by the Bhati kings, is an indication of the importance they were accorded. Apart from the magnificent forts and the palaces it housed, Jaisalmer town also boasted of magnificent Havelis. One of the most striking ones was the Patwon-ki-Haweli which was constructed in 1805 by Patwa Guman Chand for his five sons. The architectural carvings on its “Jharokhas” was breathtaking and also of interest were the interesting array of household items from the past era, that was on display.

img_20161102_120213041_hdr
Jain temple inside the fort
img_20161102_150249515
Patwon ki Haveli
dscn4408
View from Patwon ki Haveli
dscn4376
The intricate carvings on the Jharokhas in Patwon ki Haveli

On the night before we were to leave, we witnessed a puppet show in a theater run entirely due to the efforts of one man, Mr. N.K. Sharma, a retired teacher.Unassuming in demeanor and impressive in what he has managed to accomplish, Mr Sharma donated his entire retirement money for the cause of keeping traditional art forms alive and to provide a decent platform for thousands of unacknowledged but extremely talented folk artists.
As the night ended to the dancing of the colorful puppets jiggling to the tunes of melodiously sung Rumi hymns, we looked forward to our next stop at Jodhpur..

1-img_20161102_193335116

 

Tourist Tips:

  • If you were to visit Jaisalmer, do keep aside at least 3-4 days as there several offbeat places to see near about Jaisalmer, where you can visit old ghost towns and abandoned villages and experience the relics of the magnificent silk route.
  • We stayed at the Mystic Jaisalmer, a nice non-pricey hotel right in the center of the city. They were even considerate enough to give us free packaged breakfast for the train as we had kids with us.
  • Most of the items in the fort were supposed to 70% costlier than what you could get outside the fort, and almost all were cheaper at Jodhpur/Jaipur.

 

 

A day in the Thar

Continued from the Ranthambore trip..

From Ranthambore, we took a train to Jaipur and another overnight one to Jaisalmer. As we neared Jaisalmer, the trees vanished and the landscape changed dramatically.We saw more and more army uniforms as we passed the station of Pokhran, given that Jaisalmer is just around 340 kms from the Indo Pak border.The heat was scorching in Jaisalmer.We were to travel another 40 kms to reach our desert camp situated on the edge of the Thar.As we left the Jaisalmer town behind, a vast panorama of open land stretched out on both sides of the road.It was as if we were travelling to the land of nowhere.

img_20161101_141338421As we drove towards the Rajputana desert camp (the one we had booked), we passed several others on the way, an oasis of white roofed tents with some jeeps and camels around. On reaching the camp,a row of small white,tent style cottages greeted us. The cottages were built with concrete walls and a canvas material used for the roofs. Considering the room rentals,I was initially taken aback by the almost spartan facilities, but then on second thoughts, it appeared reasonable when I considered that it’s probably much harder to get even basic facilities in a desert camp situated miles away from anywhere.

dsc07415img_20161101_164333503_hdr

The first thing on the agenda was a jeep safari into the desert and I visualized a leisurely drive up and down the sand dunes awaiting us. The open jeeps promptly arrived and off we went.Soon the driver veered off the road and we were bouncing over a rough shrub strewn track.We reached the “Sam” sand dunes and the driver accelerated wildly. We just managed to hang on to the vehicle by entwining our hands into jeep’s metal side bars.We went uphill on each sand dune on full throttle and hung precariously on the top before descending steeply.The wild life safari in Ranthambore seemed tame in comparison to this. As always, while hanging on for dear life, cameras are far from the mind, except for those poor individuals who seem so bent on perfecting their right “selfie” that they give up their lives for it. Having no such noble intentions myself, I am forced to use a YouTube video to show you the thrills of the Jaisalmer Jeep safaris.

We were finally dropped in the desert and we were relieved to see that all our limbs were intact and functioning.There were some people taking camels to travel deeper into the desert while many others lounged around doing photo shoots. A camel safari agent dogged our heels stating that he would show us the place where the shooting of Kareena Kapoor’s Refuge film happened.There were a group of gypsy women who were dancing and demanding money. Soon, the gypsies and the camel safari agents got tired of us and left us alone.

As I experienced the desert in it’s vastness,it reminded me of the sea and this poem I read on the walls of a hotel in Jaisalmer.

img_20161101_124228141_hdrimg_20161101_174517569

The nights in the camps are a big attraction.People gather under the open sky and a group of rural folk artists sing and dance.Finger-foods are continuously served as you soak in the ambiance. The folk musicians used a very interesting set of musical instruments.One was called a Kartal, which is just two blocks of wood.Despite its simplicity, it produces a very interesting percussion sound.

 

The dancers performed the “Ghoomar” dance and the “Kalbelia” dance where the dancer bends her torso backwards and lifts a note using her mouth from the floor. Traditionally, the dance is performed by the Kalbelia community whose occupation consisted of catching snakes for their venom.So the Kalbelia dancers wear black and the sinuous movements resemble that of the serpents. Their performances also include dancing while balancing on top of plates and glasses, on knives and on glass shards.

Amidst the dancing and singing, night descended on the desert and it started getting chilly. There was a traditional Rajasthani dinner buffet consisting of various delicacies including Gatte ki Sabzi.

Early in the morning was our camel ride to see the sunrise. The ride was novel and we soon learnt that the trick was to keep your body loose and adjust to the camel’s rhythm of movement.

dsc07397

What we didn’t bargain for however,was that we would be riding a celebrity. Our camel’s name was Michael Jackson! So, MJ apparently ate 20 kgs of Bajra and Jaggery ! Looking at him peacefully chewing his cud from the previous night, he was probably happier than his namesake.

img_20161102_072913882

As the sun rose high over the desert, we headed back to Jaisalmer town where a magnificent “kila” and the “havelis” awaited us..

Ranthambore : A fort with a story and the elusive jungle cat !

A trip to the beautiful state of Rajasthan had been on our bucket list for so long, that it had gathered moss. Finally it materialized this October, when we managed to  cover a tiny bit of what Rajasthan had to offer. Even though we had nearly 8 days, travel time within Rajasthan ate up quite a bit of it.

Our first stop was Ranthambore, roughly a 4-5 hours drive from Jaipur and connected by good roads.Train journey is only 2.5 hours and there are regular trains to the small town of Sawai Madhopur. Typical of tourist places, Ranthambore hotels are generally expensive and in the best interests of our wallets, we chose to stay at the Vinayaka residency run by RTDC.They offer clean functional rooms with good bathrooms.

img_20161030_120945409_hdr

Ranthambore Fort,one of the main attractions in Ranthambore,is a beautiful fort and was once counted among the most impregnable forts of India. It was coveted by the Mughal rulers because of its strategic importance in the trade route and was built sometime during 944 AD during the reign of Chauhan Rajput King.

img_20161030_121025969_hdr

The sharp spikes on the main entrance door prevented elephants from breaking open the door.Even more ingenious was the use of a right-angled shaped entry to access the gate. This prevented any possibility of exerting a strong force to break open the door.

dsc06989
Andheri Pol

Called the Andheri Gate or Pol, this gate falsely leads an enemy to an open ground which had a pit covered with grass, while the real entrance was on the right.

Battis Khamba Chattri (32 Pillared Umbrella) is built right in the center of the fort to commemorate 32 years of rule of the King.There was a small Shiva temple which was situated right under the Battis Chchattri, entry to which was again through a secret passage that’s not easily visible.

dsc07024
Battis Khamba Chattri

True to the intrigue that surrounded the place,the walls bear history to a lot of tragic happenings. Hammir Dev, an illustrious Rajput ruler invited the wrath of Mughal Ruler Allauddin Khilji, when he gave protection to Khilji’s enemy. When Khilji found a direct incursion was extremely difficult, he chose treachery and bribed Hammir’s two generals. After the battle, the traitorous generals raised the black flag of the Mughals even though Hammir was very much alive, and all the women in the fort committed Jauhar (suicide).The married women committed Agni Jauhar (immolation) and the unmarried Jal Jauhar (drowning).

img_20161030_121325796_hdr

When Hammir found out about the treachery, he tortured and beheaded the traitors on this very rock. Afterwards, he had no desire to live and he chose to give up his life in front of Lord Shiva.( This was the version as told by the local guide. I did however find some contradictory facts about the nature of his death, some of which claimed that Hammir had died in the battle itself.I also couldn’t find too many details about the exact nature of the treachery. However the guide’s version could have been passed down as popular folklore and was riveting to hear). In fact, the guide also inserted some mythology here and claimed that Lord Shiva did not want to take Hammir’s life , but on the third attempt Hammir had his way !

The fort was huge and involved plenty of walking.There were also a lot of monkeys in the fort eating a whitish powder, which we later discovered to be Bajra powder which the locals fed them.

In the afternoon at 2.30,was our trip to the Tiger Reserve.The safari happens both in the mornings and afternoons.After consulting experts who claimed to have direct contacts with the tigers, we were advised the afternoon safari.The reserve is split into several zones and we were allotted Zone-6 (Again vetoed by the tiger astrologers).One can either take a canter ( which is an open van with seating of about 20 people) or a gypsy (if the number is less than 7). The canter costed us 550 bucks/seat and off we went on a bumpy ride across the town. Sawai Madhopur is a very small dusty town, mainly surviving on the tourism industry.The narrow bylanes and the small run-down shops were a stark contrast to the plush touristy hotels.

Finally we entered the jungle through the Zone-6 entry gate. It’s an interesting forest, very different than the ones we see in the western Ghats. Dry deciduous trees alternate with open grassy meadows making the changing scenery a pleasure to watch.Photography is a difficult accomplishment unless you have more than two hands, considering that you needed both of them to hold on for dear life and to keep ducking to escape passing branches. In fact, one of our co-passengers, a french lady, who underestimated the ride, was unseated ignominiously from her seat.

img_20161030_153054212_hdr

Over 40 species of mammals which includes tigers,leopards,sambar deer,spotted deer,neel gais and jackals ; 35 species of reptiles and 320 species of birds including migratory birds are found in the jungle. We spotted a lot of sambar deer, spotted deer, a wild boar, a crocodile which was catching the last rays of the sun. When we stopped to see a Grey Pond Heron which was busy doing its own thing, a pot bellied Uncleji wanted to know if we were planning to waste time on such things instead of looking for the “main cheez”.

dsc07045-collage

We did finally spot some tiger paw prints on the road, but didn’t spot any tiger, though there were 20 pairs of eyes of straining hard to see moving stripes. As is the norm in such safaris, one gets to hear of the morning travelers who managed to spot or the ones that went after us who got lucky.

dsc07076

We contended ourselves by posing in our tiger T-shirts.Considering that I normally haven’t ever had the luck of spotting any of the big cats or for that matter anything even remotely falling in the “dangerous predatory animals” category, this safari didn’t do anything to upset my comfortable status quo.

My husband, who’s a birder and a naturalist,managed to spot several birds. Photo Courtsey: A Ajit

dsc07106-collage
Eurasian Collared Dove , White bellied Drongo, Indian Robin,White throated Kingfisher, Brown Capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Grey Francolin

We departed from Ranthambore the following day by train and onto our next destination – Jaisalmer !

That Day After Everyday

The demons outside lurk everywhere and in every turn.For a huge majority of women, this is a reality they have to contend with everyday, every hour, every minute.

We talk about issues when they become incidents, but what of the millions of just-missed incidents which don’t ignite the collective furor of the society but leave an indelible mark on the psyche of a person. Strangling her each day, little at a time, till she’s a shriveled up shell who gets startled at every unbidden glance, the beginnings of a whistle, a dress material getting tangled somewhere, a hand which comes too close.

“Eve-teasing”,is an ubiquitous term we encounter in newspapers and everyday life. Interestingly, its a relic from the post-colonial era, with ‘eve’ implying a temptress who can seduce men and hence, insinuating women in it’s very double-edged euphemism.

Sexual harassment of women in public is not only about sex or lust, but also about masculine aggression and domination in a patriarchal society. It’s about simmering frustrations, inferiority complexes coupled with a complete lack of social/ethical/family values.A way to display that a fledgling has earned the rite of passage to become an adult in front of his equally depraved peers.The glamorization of these acts in films just fuels the lunacy further.

We, the urban women, have the luxury of being cocooned to some extent by the comforts afforded by our social strata.For a woman who doesn’t have the privacy of her own vehicle or can ill afford to live in relatively safer localities, it’s an everyday tussle.

Today I would like to present this 22 minutes short film “That Day After Everyday”, which is directed by none other than the brilliant Anurag Kashyap and is written by Nitin Bhardwaj. In spite of it’s very somber theme which can get under your skin, its not a depressing movie. It’s movie about three women who learn to fight.

Do their methods seem practical ? Maybe. It definitely seems fraught with nebulous risks. Is it positive ? Yes. I loved the way the film ended. And it made me ponder about the movies which are too real-life like to leave the viewer with any succor. Treated as an art movie or as a conduit to awaken public conscience, they are great.But in a world that is full of depressing news, where every fight against injustice seems onerous, a little hope is like water on the parched earth. We definitely need more movies which depict somber themes but leave the viewer with the after-taste of hope.

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” –  Desmond Tutu

Haircut

“Akka, can you please buy the pavadai for me from the mall. I cant go in there but I will pay for it” – My help requested me the other day.

The chasm that divides the have and have-nots is so abysmal and vast, that having the necessary financial resources is trivial in the whole scheme of things.

I recently watched an award winning Tamil movie called “Kakka Muttai” (Translated: Crow’s Eggs) which is about two slum kids longing to eat pizza and their unrelenting quest for it. Written and directed by M Manikandan, it’s a marvelously simplistic plot yet rich with serious undertones.

For two very enterprising boys whose life’s goal becomes tantamount to biting into a succulent pizza, their simplistic conjecture, that acquiring money for the pizza was all that was required,was rudely shaken when they face a barrage of hurdles.For a moment, my naivity almost made me make the same mistake.

The simple act of walking up to a pizza shop and eating a pizza seems like a gargantuan task.The invisible shackles that a society enforces is a thought that often escapes our mind when we see only well-dressed folks in a mall.The film is superb in how it translates such a simple aspiration of kids into such deep societal questioning and our so called “normal” way of living.

The Times of India gave the film 4 stars out of 5 and wrote, “Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai is multi-layered; on the surface, it is all warm and inviting — a feel-good film about two kids and their simple desire and the earnestness in the filmmaking invites comparison with Iranian films like Children of Heaven…there is a hard base to it as well and from time to time, the film turns into a commentary on the class divide in our society and how it is exploited by wily politicians, an allegory of the effects of globalisation, and even a satire on media’s obsession with sensationalism”

For me, the best stories are the ones which leave things unsaid. The simple and relatable ones but which are delightfully multi-layered. Kakka Muttai is a movie that’s going to remain with me for a long time. I couldn’t find one with subtitles but if you do get a chance, this is a movie that you shouldn’t miss.

Along the same lines was this succinct 9 mins short film called “Haircut” by Anand Tiwari and Sumeet Vyas. A film about a man from an economically disadvantaged section of the society, who goes to get a haircut at a fancy salon.Unlike Kakka Muttai, the protagonist does manage to gain access to the hallowed precincts of the salon but, the chasm is still too wide to be crossed. And interestingly, is it time that we shouted that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes🙂