Rajasthan Diaries

Rajasthan Diaries

Article dated - 2006 to 20012

 

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer is so beautiful. It is completely overwhelming.
I like the fact that even new buildings are being made with the same old architecture and design. The sculpting still remains. And there is seamless continuity between then and now. The fort is magical. Typical pictures of the Fort Walls, which seem golden in God knows which light are just that. Pictures. It is a bit of a let down, but inside the fort is magical. It's like stepping into a a period film. The people, the buildings, the brilliant sculpting, everything just wraps around you, crowding your senses. I also specially liked the cenotaphs, the chatris. Beautiful place, and I went a little early and had the place to myself all morning. There is still a tangible atmosphere about it.

Little disappointed by the fact that rampant tourism over so many years have made the local people here very unlike typical Rajasthanis. Innocence, honesty, hospitality, chivalry... there is hardly any to see here. And I know this will seem like a naive comment but maybe I expected the difference to be in degrees, like a little less, but didn't expect the complete lack of it.

Anyway, the cyber cafe I am sitting in right now is strangely surreal. It’s an old Rajasthani building. I climbed up a narrow stair way with stone steps two feet high, reached a room with 4 feet tall door, yellow lime wash, pillars, arches, photographs of many devi devatas laminated and garlanded, with electric diyas for good measure. One do-tara sitting on a little corner alcove and a huge carved wooden pentagonal table that sits the computers make up the room. A very crazy keyboard that has a mind of its own, much like an irate husband, and the mouse, like the typical wife only agrees to co-operate under protest. The ornate window overlooking the bazaar has a padded seat under it with cushions, which is a most tempting place but a wee bit dysfunctional in a cyber cafe.


Off to Bikaner tonight. First time on a sleeper bus and dreading it!

Bikaner:

Well the sleeper bus turned out to be just fine. I could open the windows on top and let the breeze in. I could've done without the "amorous" display from the white couple on the opposite "double" bunk bed. But then who am I to complain if all parties involved were enjoying themselves.

My free pick up came to pick me up at 4:00 in the morning. No problem there.
Vinayak Guest House is the best place you can be in Bikaner. A really good experience it was for me. After spending vacant-hotel-ceiling evenings in Jaisalmer, not to mention touts and thugs, coming across the Solanki family was a real treat. The rooms are a steal for the kind of comfort they offer. Very nice clean room with air cooling facility, and an excellently well fitted western toilet. The best home cooked Rajasthani food provided by the lady of the house, a lovely, warm hearted person with a charming smile named Raj. The head of the family, Kamal ji, is an ex Air Force person who is now associated with Urmul, an NGO which works with village craftsmen. Their son Jitendra, (Jeetu) who now runs the place is the most wonderful host who will look after your every small need and comfort. All said, a readymade family in the middle of Thar, and the rare opportunity to stay and interact with the local people and get a taste of their life and culture.

I really liked the fact that they did not try to sell any trips or safaris, or recommend any stores for shopping, not unless asked to. There is no "touristy" pressure of any kind and that leaves you unstressed. Another stress buster is of course, the chhole!!
You must not miss the "chhole" made by Raj ji. Heavenly. Same goes for alu paratha.

Must contact for Camel Safari and other tours around town: Dilip Singh Rathore.
Check out his website: http://www.tharcamelsafari.com/
He is a really nice person. And he arranges for desert safaris. Apparently, it's sometimes a better deal than going for a safari in Jaisalmer 'cause it's less touristy and less crowded. The other thing is, even though I wanted to, I didn’t take up 2/3/4/5 day camel safari in Jaisalmer 'cause I was travelling alone and I just didn’t feel comfortable with the operators there. ("Madam, you can trust me. We never force anyone. Only if something happens naturally, if both people want it...") Excuse me??????????? I mean, not that anything would happen, but if it did, what would I do in the middle of miles of sand dunes. Of course, you can book yourself for some group safaris, then it wouldn't be a worry. Anyway, this guy in Bikaner is really nice, and very, very gentlemanly. This goes out to all women travelers out there alone. So in case, you plan to, you have the time, try a safari. Go out into the golden yonder for a couple of nights. Real villages. (as opposed to designer villages.) They'll arrange for food and everything. Bonfire under the starry sky and sigh... Well, it's just beautiful.

Bikaner is not as splendorous as Jaisalmer. But it has its charm. Wild horses couldn't drag me to the rats temple, so I DID NOT, yes I did not go there. The other temple built with tons of ghee in the foundation, was exquisitely painted. Sine I was on the hunt for the haveli route, I was a little disappointed, since all the havelis here are locked up. You can't go inside, and the outside just doesn’t stand a chance if you've been to Jaisalmer two days back. The thing I really liked in Bikaner was the old part of the town, it's narrow streets, old fashioned shops, the general chaos... That was really fascinating. The Junahgarh Palace is very nice, as palaces go. Exquisite paintings and carvings. Was fascinated with the royal family pictures, glimpsing into their life and times. Visited the camel farm some 30 KMs away. Met Miss Bikaner. A camel, sir, if you don't mind. Also the cenotaphs. Rather nice. But I guess I was suffering from acute Jaisalmer hangover. Nothing else seemed to please me anymore.

Shekhawati:

Ah, now Shekhawati is a different story altogether. It's like stepping into a fairy tale world. My first stop was Fatehpur. Stayed in the RTDC guest house, just before you hit the old town. I hired an auto (all manners of people seem to be doing that these days, no? well, the children did ask me "which country, madam", if you must know.) Anyway... where was I? Yes, auto... well, I got on one. I did have a list of all the havelis I wanted to go to, so... I was like how in the old movies, the typical villager comes to big city for the first time and gawks. My mouth was hanging open for the rest of the day. Imagine a small town where all the houses are  havelis. And all the havelis are painted inside out. Every inch of wall space is painted. Only fishes would need to fly and birds swim to make the fantasy complete. As I said, fairy tale world. An amazing painted world. And you could just walk into any of the havelis and just wander around and get lost in it all. Well, I was yet to discover that Mandawa ad Nawalgarh are ever more beautiful, but since this was the first place I saw...

And to think that I have been travelling for so many years now, and I had never heard of Shekhawati until this summer. Anyone talks about Rajasthan, it's Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, and so on... Is this like a well kept secret, or was it just me? 'Cause the foreigners don't seem to have any trouble finding it on the map.
The Open Art Gallery, they call it. Well, in case any of you didn't know, which is slowly seeming like a dumb thing to say, but let me tell you, your tour of Rajasthan is incomplete, even an India trip is incomplete without visiting Shekawati. Well, unless, you don't like paintings or you think havelis are morbid or something. What a thought. Well, you never know, it's possible, right, I mean...

Well, my next stop was Mandawa. It is a special place. It's a charming little sleepy town with beautiful sleepy haveli's, a very interesting market place with typically Indian sweetmeats and fritters being made and sold on the street. A lot of nice heritage options to stay in but they are mostly expensive. I stayed at Hotel Shekhawati, and a very interesting boy named Rahul showed me around the place.
There are four main places to visit when you are there. Fatehpur, Mandawa, Nawalgarh, Jhunjhunu. If you are interested in more, there are quite a few more small towns scattered here and there that are very interesting, but you would need more than a few days to cover it all. It's a good option to camp in Mandawa, in terms of distances. It's more or less at the centre of the other three places, anywhere between half and hour to an hour away from the other three. I found it really convenient. The next option would be Nawalgarh, which is half hour closer to Jaipur than Mandawa, but a little farther from both Fatehpur and Jhunjhunu.

Well other than beautiful intricate traditional paintings of Hindu mythology and typically flowers and animals and so on, (it's called the Shekawati school of painting) what's interesting is that these havelis date back some 300-400 years, and a lot of them were built / painted around the time that the British first started making an appearance. So people were exposed to new technologies, like the train, and the gramophone, and the flying machine, and the bicycle, and the telephone, and foreign cars and so on. Apart from "mems" in gowns and "sahibs" in wigs. So the paintings sometimes are a bizarre fusion of the traditional subjects against the backdrop of these new found objects. So you come across a painting of Ram and Sita, with their halo's intact, riding a car. This quality, I think, lifts this otherwise very beautifully painted town into a place that are also extremely interesting and uniquely telling in terms of history.

Well, from Mandawa, as I was saying, I also visited Jhunjhunu and Nawalgarh. A day’s worth trip each. Of course you can always go back, or if you have the time, stay in each of these places. Nawalgarh is the biggest town here. District headquarters, I think. Anyway, very charming, and a fort for a bonus. A quaint old bustling bazaar which you have to cross to get to the fort. All very fascinating. The haveli's get bigger and more beautiful, but you have to pay an entry fee in most of them here. There is the "aath haveli" here, a cluster of 8 havelis, that you must not miss. Must visit the Morarka Haveli also, one of the very few that are being restored.

Well, there is that one sad thing that persists through all of the awe and exclamations. All these havelis are all in ruins. None of the owners stay in the havelis. They all have businesses outside in big cities, and have left the upkeep of these havelis to caretakers. The paintings that I keep mentioning are essentially frescoes, which last longer, but they are fading away in the face of relentless sun and wind. The buildings are developing cracks, and some of the old ones are just falling apart. The structure of a haveli is such that there is a outer courtyard, with halls on two sides, the main entrance on one side and a passage to the inner courtyard on the fourth side. The inner courtyard will have rooms on all four sides and stairs leading to the roof, or and upper story. Most rooms have wide window seats. So these courtyards are open to all the dust and the sun and the rain. And there's just no one to look after it, and the owners do not have the money for restoration, the government cannot do much because they are after all private properties. So the beautiful, brightly painted fairy tale town is falling apart and for generations in the far future, would really be a thing of the past.

Well, all said, Shekhawati is THE most fascinating place that I have visited in my 30 years of travel. So all you heading to Rajasthan, do not miss, absolutely do not miss this place.

Ajmer / Pushkar

This was my third visit to Ajmer / Pushkar. More than Pushkar, Ajmer has always drawn me for the dargah Shareef and the Dhai Din ka Jhopra. I have always been overwhelmed by the tangible atmosphere in these places. And I am quite proud of the fact that I have been to the Dargah twice because legend has it that not everyone gets to go there - it is very sacred and you have to be chosen and so on... And yet, this time, when I arrived in Ajmer, the place looked different and the people were different, and I found myself making excuses to not visit the Dargah. I tried convincing myself for three days but finally I just couldn't bring myself to go there. Pushkar was good. I was really surprised by that fact that you get amazing food in Pushkar, I mean the continental stuff. And I bought a little wooden “grass” crusher. Didn’t even know something like that exists!

The best parts of my trip were the road travels between places. It is Rajasthan after all, the terrain is beautiful. I really loved the route from Pushkar to Sawai Madhawpur - a slow bus ride through a meandering route, stopping at every other village while a load of interesting passengers mount and dismount, covering quaint villages, dusty little towns and stretches of mustard fields in full bloom - Ajmer, Kishangarh, Arain, Lambaharisingh (What a name!), Malpura, Jhirana, Sohela, Tonk, Kakor, Uniyara (I rather like this name), Sawai Madhopur. Simply amazing countryside.

 

Sawai Madhopur / Ranthambore


My friend runs four schools in the villages surrounding Sawai Madhopur. Look for Grameen Shiksha Kendra in Bodal, Katar Faria and Jaganpura. They are doing some really good work there with the kids. And I got some lovely pictures of them while I was there. And as long as I was close to the Kota border, I made time for a quick foot dip in the Chambal.

While in Sawai, I got to visit the local annual fair at Chauth ka Barwara. Spectacular affair, all village fairs are, according to me, complete with ferris wheel, mobile dhabas and shopping for cow-bells. Village folk walked for miles, some even for days, to get there. It is a picturesque place with a small fort(small by Rajasthan standards) and a temple surrounding which the fair grounds were put up. But nothing prepared me for the jaw dropping experience of "Maut ka Kuan" (literally translated - the well of death). First one bike started doing the rounds and then another bike joined it and if that wasn't enough a maruti car joined the race. And while my jaw was hanging loose, the driver of the car opened his door and stood on the seat waving at the crowd. Absolutely nothing can beat this, unless you consider my purchase of a pair of locally crafted toothpick and earwax cleaner which has a miniature bowl at the end of it... They should just patent it, I say.

It was reassuring to meet the village folk in this fair. Because they are still as beautiful and wonderful and generous as always. And this was a much needed consolation to my increasing despair in the changing character of the Rajasthani man. Whether it is television, or tourism, the sad fact is that the people in Rajasthan have changed, specially the ones in towns. While I felt perfectly safe and happy traveling alone 10 years back, I do not feel comfortable anymore. Every time I expect the same level of hospitality or kindness that was such an intrinsic part of the culture there yesterday, I am invariably disappointed today. Sigh...

Well, on a happy note – have you ever seen a story book jungle? If you haven’t, then you MUST visit Ranthambore. It is the most beautiful Indian jungle ever! What makes it really special is that the jungle has grown around the Ranthambore fort and ruins and that lends a fascinating atmosphere to it all. The rocky cliffs, trees, lake are all made perfect by the abundance of wildlife in it. And I saw a nilgai for the first time. I know I am not proud of it (apparently it is quite commonplace) but it made me so happy. It looks like a mythical creature.

 

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