A Rustic Interlude in Rajasthan

From Jaisalmer, we headed onwards to Jodhpur. The magnificence of the fort of Jodhpur was dazzling, but my memories of Jodhpur, interestingly,are dominated by a very different experience. To the extent, that I will park my experience of the fort, and head straight on to where we went next.

After the tour of fort (which is for another post) we headed from Jodhpur to a homestay “The Chhotaram Prajapat homestay” in the tiny village of Salawas. In fact Mr. Chhottaram (I will refer to him as C) himself came to escort us to his village, which was well over 20 kms from Jodhpur. The air was getting progressively chilly as it was nearing dusk when we left Jodhpur and as the jeep finally turned into the small homestay entrance,we were quite eager to see what it would entail. C’s mother put the traditional tika on us before we entered the threshold and then we stepped onto a different world.

There were small mud huts to stay,which was built by C himself, and were also equipped with nice clean western bathrooms. The rooms were basic and rustic as one would expect, but were also comfortable enough for the village sounds to lull you into slumber. There was a central courtyard where some welcoming charpoys lay under the undulating branches of a tree, enough to seduce one to catch a leisurely nap.

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All the meals were made over a slow fire on the earthen chulha and took at least 4-5 hours. Food was served on small wooden tables on the floor and we ate with the family a meal consisting of delicious hot bhakri and the very flavorful sabzi of Ker Sangri.

What was slated to be just an overnight stay for us, changed into a 2-night stay.We hurriedly shuffled our dates, as we realized what a treasure we would have missed had we proceeded to Jaipur as per our original plan. As it turned out, it proved to be one of the main highlights of our Rajasthan trip.

The sounds of the village stirred us awake as we awoke to the rhythmic milking of the cow and crowing of the roosters. C’s brother came to take us on a jeep ride to the village. As he drove, he narrated several tales of how people lived, of which one was about a religious group of people called Bishnois. Bishnoi stands for ‘Bish’ (20) + ‘Noi’ (9) – 29 rules which are staunchly followed.One of them states that every person should have a bath very early before sunrise and apparently the rule is strict enough to include small children and infants. Among the other rules, there was also one which shunned them from cutting trees.And what followed was a legendary tale about a Bishnoi woman, who hugged a Khejri tree , refusing to let go, when the erstwhile rule Maharaja Abhay Singh’s soldiers came for cutting wood. She died in the process and so did 362 other Bishnois who were hacked to death. The King was deeply saddened and declared the cutting of the trees illegal.

Another transgression to the Bishnois holy beliefs, which has recently made for a lot of news, was the killing of the Black buck by actor Salman Khan. Black bucks are considered to be the reincarnation of their Guru, Jambaji and a Bishnoi would die to save them.We were taken to the very place where the incident apparently happened and we also had the good fortune of spotting some handsome Black bucks.

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The Handsome Dude !

We visited the potters and the traditional dyers, where we were shown the process of creating beautiful pots and also the method of creating the traditional block printed Rajasthani prints.

We then proceeded to the house of the village headman, where we had a chance to observe their daily life.The old man sat on his charpoy under a tree observing life as it went by. The cattle was tied outside and the harvest laid out in the sun, ready for threshing. Time seemed to have slowed down and it passed at a meandering pace, a far cry from the frantic bustling of our city lives.

And then we noticed this curious looking thing right in the center of a room, and we were told it was the “Khad” – an appliance used to filter opium. Supposedly the Khad is not something one can buy, but is only passed from one family to the other,purely as a symbol of status and importance that the family was accorded in the village. As we listened with growing fascination, we realized the importance of opium in these far flung villages in Rajasthan. Be it a marriage or a death, no ceremony is complete without serving opium. It’s considered an insult to refuse the offer of an opium and prospective brides or grooms could well find themselves unfit for marriage, if their guests weren’t served opium.We were informed that 1 Kg of opium costed nearly 4 Lakh Rs. and it was jaw dropping to think of what such expenses could entail for the poor villagers.

Rajasthan,probably on account of its strategic location in the trade route, was exposed from the very early times to opium ,an important trade commodity.Its usage has been traced back to the 16th and 17th century where it was commonly used as a drug and later progressed to being used as a narcotic drug during the 19th century. The drug in the form of a drink called Kasumba was quite popular among the Rajputs and also the Mughals.

Our own cup was full with all these rich experiences, but one still remained. That of the sighting of some visitors from distant lands – the magnificent Demoiselle Cranes !

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After a day well spent, it was time for us to leave the hamlet of Salawas behind, but along with the memories of magnificent forts, the jungle and the desert, this amazing rural experience will also be etched in our minds.

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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.

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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.

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View from the fort
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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.

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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.

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Jain temple inside the fort
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Patwon ki Haveli
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View from Patwon ki Haveli
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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..

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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

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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 !