Monday, March 31, 2008


Jain temples are very elaborate. We paused en route to Jodhpur in the town of Pokran to visit this exceptional example. Pokran was a major stop over on caravan route but the tall houses stand as home to the bats now; their elaborately carved sandstone walls and windows are all that remains of a lost lifestyle. Although these havelis are empty the temple is very alive and used for daily worship.

The irony is that some well-meaning Christians sent fine Belgium glass balls to India so the locals could decorate their Christmas trees. The locals were not Christians and there are no Christmas trees for thousands of miles. The Jain broke the balls and used them to embellish their temple with stunning results. You can see the balls in vertical rows just above the lower arches. There is additional tile and glass imported from Europe all over the temple and the Jain also covered their door with a thick layer of solid silver. Not exactly the impoverished Indians that needed the European charity.

The road to Jodpur, like most of the roads we traveled, was good and there was little traffic away from the towns. The women appeared to do most of the maintenance work although it was the men who worked with the equipment.

I had heard of Jodhpur when I was a child as this was where the British discovered the tight riding pants known as jodpurs that I used to have to wear when I rode my horse in England. I actually saw some people wearing them but the overwhelming attraction in this part of India was the Mehrangarh Fort.

Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur is another of the forts of Rajastan that appear to be completely impenetrable. It rises imposingly out of the desert, sitting on top of an acropolis with walls rising over a hundred feet higher.
The fort was taken. These are the hand prints of the wives and concubines of various maharajahs who threw themselves on his funeral pyre rather than become prisoners. I find it hard to conceive of such an act.

The entrance to the fort is a winding path to prevent a high speed elephant charge. This picture was taken looking up from the entrance way to the houses inside the fort.

The houses inside the fort are magnificent examples of finely carved sandstone and marble.

Jodhpur is known as the Blue City and it is clear to see why. Many locals paint their homes blue. The chemical copper sulphate in the whitewash turns it blue and deters termites. They believe it keeps the houses cooler as well. It does give a distinctive cool charm to the city.

We then went down to the market in the center of town. The approach was through
an elaborate tower with arches.

It didn’t matter whether it was bags of rice or children’s dresses there was always vibrant color.
Piles of various rices and beans were available with a selection of spices to tickle your nose.

Beyond the actual market, shops extended into the narrow streets of Jodhpur offering everything you can imagine.

... and in the middle of it all there is an assortment of vehicles to avoid.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Jaisalmer, India

The fortified city of Jaisalmer rises out of the Thar Desert like an ocean liner at sea. It was built to protect the traffic on the Silk Route. It grew magnificent from the tithes it incurred

The Raj, or warlord lived in the fort and protected the merchants who built their homes in the town at the foot of the fort walls. Some of the merchants became very rich and are the forefathers of some of the elite of today’s India. Both the castle and the town below are still vibrant with life.
Although the merchants had to pay homage to the Raj there was still enough profit to build magnificent homes. Without air-conditioning it was important that the air should flow through the havelies. It was also important that the women were not seen by the outside world. Sandstone was the material at hand and artisans carved delicate designs like lace into the stone.

From our room in the castle we could look down on the town below. The streets were filled with life, people and animals during the day but in the middle of the night when I looked our from our balcony there wasn’t anything moving. All the cattle must have gone into their homes. It was still and calm beneath the stars.

At sunrise the fort shone like gold over the town below. It was no surprise that Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City.

There were cattle wondering everywhere within the castle and this beast nearly knocked John over simply by bumping him out of the way in the narrow lanes, as he ambled by. Walking was a little uncomfortable as you had to be careful not to twist an ankle on he rough cobbles and you had to keep an eye out lest you trod in a cowpat.

Meandering around the fort was like returning to the middle ages with the narrow streets and the high walled houses. We came across the milkman delivering fresh milk from churns fastened to either side of his motorbike. He just fit down the lane and we had to wait to pass him while he ladled his product into the jugs of his customers.
This was a mighty fort and it looked impenetrable. Surely no one could breach the walls and the entrance-way had bends so that no elephant could charge. Most of the time these Bhati Rajput people held supremacy over the Mughals but they were defeated three times. They could not survive a siege as long as seven years. The warriors capitulated and rode out into the hoards below to certain death but taking as many of the enemy with them as they could. Before that the women took the rite of Jauhar; preyed and cleansed themselves and then threw themselves onto a fire rather than be taken by the enemy. They left hand prints on the walls before they died.

The city fell into decline when the British opened Bombay as a port and trade was easier by boat than by camel. Now, resting near the Pakistani border, Jaisalmer is an important military base although you seldom see a soldier.
I don’t like to hand out money to beggars although I occasionally give fruit I have some on me. Today I bought some vegetables I didn’t need from an elderly lady sitting at the corner of one of the markets. That evening while John was taking this picture of the fort a little boy came up who was living with his family under canvas nearby. He literally skipped away, barefoot over the rocks, when we gave him the vegetables. You can just make out his home.

Shopping in India


Friday, March 28, 2008

Rohet and the Road West

This hidden cluster of tents in the middle of the Rajasthan desert is where Madonna chose to spend New Years 2007. It was certainly away from the crowds. When we were there the only people occupying three of the other half dozen tents were interesting couples. The only concession that was made to the celebrity was that instead of having hot water for just 2 hours a day her party could take a hot shower at any time.
This is the only mark they left; besides the smiles and memories among the staff.

Around the tents there was nothing but scrub desert and the occasional peacock. The thatched hut in the center is the community room where guests can sit in the cool of the evening and enjoy the company of the other residents and the good food provided. A waterhole was being created behind the tents to attract more wildlife which visitors would be able to watch from comfortable lounge chairs.
At night without any ambient light at night the stars were bright and stretched deep into the universe.
The road heading east was bare, but always there were women dressed in colorful sari. They cover their faces for protection from the sun more than in modesty.

There is a distinct shortage of transportation vehicles. It seemed that everyone would climb onto anything heading their way. This is a little Jeep.

If there were no longer seats inside a bus or train passengers just climbed on top. We wondered if they got a discounted fare.

In fact almost every vehicle was overloaded

The landscape was becoming more and more baron as we drove into the Great Indian Desert.

Camels were everywhere; wondering freely and nibbling the vegetation when not carrying or pulling enormous loads. It was interesting to know that a camel can carry a greater load than an ox. It was only the tourists we saw riding them but they pulled carts and carried whatever was piled upon them.

We were heading for the fortress of Jaisalmer where we were going to stay the night.

Ranakpur, Rajasthan, India

The road across Rajasthan to Rohet didn’t have much to say for itself. Fortunately there was not much traffic and always some treat to feed the eyes. Turbans became more prevalent on the men and it was a wonderful picture that I missed of three men on a motor scooter. There was a turbaned driver in the center and a turbaned head on either side of his, coming straight towards us. Folks around here are a little careless about which side of the road they drive on, they just avoid each other and the stray animals.
We happened upon a lone tree dripping with fruit bats.

Where there was water it took a bit of an effort to get it to the fields. The boy behind the oxen kept them moving and turning the wheel that lifted the water in the little buckets and spilled it into a canal.

Even the least advantaged woman dresses colorfully and looked elegant beneath her load of wood. That is more than I could carry wearing jeans!

We saw a few monkeys along the way. They were mostly hanging around the road waiting for someone to toss them dinner. We also passed signs warning us to be on the lookout for leopards but we had no such luck.

Ranakpur was an oasis in the dry wilderness. This is Jain temple was built in the 15th century. Its main feature is the 1444 pillars finely carved from marble creating cool cloisters. Each pillar is unique but together they create a serene whole. The air flows around and through open arches pulling up the heat and it is carefully designed to capture rainwater.

This picture was taken looking up at the central dome.

Many of the carvings were made to instruct the congregation who could not read. Some were straight out of the Kama Sutra.
We then headed away from the towns and into the back country to look for wildlife. We spotted several Black Bucks with magnificent coiled horns like corkscrews.
They are foraging in the cultivated land where the farmer is waiting for the season to change to plough it. There is competition for fodder from the cattle and camels that graze the area and I was surprised that we saw so much wildlife. The local Bushnoi community is famous for their conservation work and look after the wildlife. We also saw several of the Indian National bird; the peacock.

The locals also conduct frequent opium ceremonies. I am not sure about the legality of this but it seemed to be sanctioned by the authorities and the leader of the community certainly didn’t mind repeated performances. He and his compadres were very mellow.
We were welcomed into his home which consisted of a walled courtyard with a covered area around the edge and a few closed in rooms. Before we started we had to wait for the cattle to pass through.

They assured us that this was not the bad kind of opium. (?) and we ere offered little quarter inch crystals to eat. It was bitter. Then the tribal chief poured some water of dubious clarity into a couple of strainers and we watched the liquid drip into a bowl.
Additional cattle wondered through the enclosure and our hosts smoked home rolled cigarettes and smiled and nodded at us.
Then there was the most interesting part. Some of the liquid was poured into the chief’s hand and he drank. Then more was poured into his palm which was slurped up by each member of his party and then our guide in turn. He did pour some “clean” water over his drinking hand and rub the fingers together but I was just wondering how clean his hand was when it was offered to me so I graciously sucked up the clear bitter liquid. The procedure was repeated. If it had any effect on me it was minimal. I was happy enough to start with.
We continued on our way to Bishnoi ki Dhani, a cluster of six circular mud homes with neat thatched roves that was considered a village.

This is a dry desert in which to eek out a livelihood, however, like everyone else we met they were smiling and very friendly.

Before we left we sat on outside with the head of the family. As a way of thanks I offered him a packet of watermelon seeds. He beamed with delight nodded his thanks and smiled some more. We left there feeling fine. Perhaps it was the after-glow of the opium. 20080224_06013 We slept in tents that night. But these were no ordinary tents. These were tents that were good enough for Madonna.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Udaipur, India

2007 was the Year of the Pig and a very auspicious year for the Chinese to get married. 2008 in the Hindu Calendar has very few days that portend well for a wedding. We arrived in Udaipur on one of the recommended wedding days. The daughter of one of the Government Ministers was to be married and all the hotels in town were booked. It was even prohibited for anyone who was not a resident to eat at a restaurant in town. An Indian wedding takes many days with a variety of joyful ceremonies and visits to the houses of the in-laws and dining at feasts whenever possible.

The inconvenience to us was that we could not take a boat ride around the lake to see the Jagniwas Lake Palace close up. It has been converted into a hotel and we had previously declined staying there at $450 a night but a boat trip would have been pleasant. The location is spectacular; even James Bond visited to make the movie Octopussy. It was built to take advantage of the cooling water and used as a summer palace. The main City Palace that overlooks it is only a couple of miles away.

The hotel as seen from the City Palace.

Wherever we went we came across groups of ladies in their finest wedding regalia going to a relatives house to show off gifts they had for the mother-in-law or some one similar, as is the custom.

An important part of the wedding tradition is that the groom ride to the ceremony on a horse or an elephant. We didn't see any going by elephant but we saw at least a dozen on horseback. This sturdy breed is local. Note the ears that curl to touch each other. There is a powerful story of a white horse carrying a Raj into battle and although fatally wounded by an enemy elephant, managed to swim a river and save it's master before dying. There is a statue honoring this white stallion.

A local horse in wedding finery to take a groom to the wedding. He might go to several weddings in a day.

We stayed the pleasant Rajputana Resort hotel just our of town and had an hour by the pool to unwind. The previous week had been very cold and without a heater the water was too chill for my liking. In the evening there was a dance show by the pool which we watched from our window.
The room with two large bay windows was excessively decorated in the Indian fashion with drapes and tassels everywhere and an elaborate three dimensional mosaic picture of a peacock with dozens of pieces of cut glass making up each feather. In the middle of all these sparkles and greens and browns hanging in the center if the room was the most elaborate blue glass chandelier I have ever seen.

The City Palace and Museum is still home to the current Raj. Although these kings, for want of a better title, lost all their power when the British unified the country, they are still held in great respect and much loved by the locals. He has made part of the palace into a museum but as it is still his property he can use it as he wishes. This day the courtyard was going to be used as a venue for one of the wedding parties so our trip was a little curtailed.

The palace with the setup for the evenings wedding party, and I couldn't imagine a more beautiful setting.

The Elephant God Ganesha is one of my favorite Hindu gods and the only one without a human head. Every home has a Ganesha near the door and he is the first one that is prayed to because he brings good luck and keeps problems at bay. He is a little chubby as he likes to eat sweet morsels but humble enough to ride around on a rat. It was therefore no surprise that the first thing inside the palace door was a representation of Ganesha.

Looking down over the palace roves to Udaipur beyond.

This is one of the numerous courtyards in the women's area. Needless to say, the men who are invited these days don't have to be eunuchs.

The open air rooms and courtyards are decorated with the very best available from Europe at the beginning of the last century. Tiles from Holland and England and glass from Belgium decorated every surface. It was clear that there was a divide between where the Raj lived and were his wives and concubines were kept.

This is one of the balconies overlooking a courtyard in the women's part of the palace.

Murals can be seen on buildings all over the country. Here in the palace they were particularly fine.

We then left downtown and drove to see the elaborate temples of Eklingji. Unfortunately no photography was permitted. We removed our shoes as usual and I purchased a garland of flowers to offer inside. The flowers cost about 2 ½ cents but the woman didn’t have change. She said she would give it to us as we left.
Eklingji is an irregular complex of 108 temples nestled closely together inside a high wall. Some of them are too small to enter and you can see Buddhas sitting inside. Others large enough for the faithful to gather. The tall grey stone temples were reminiscent of the sandstone monoliths of Bryce Canyon in the U.S. but all these were lovingly carved with figures and knobs. They ranged in height from ten to thirty feet. It was like walking through little canyons. The stone beneath my feet was hot where the sun warmed it and cooler in the shade, changing as I progressed around the sandstone and marble temples.
Eklingji was all the more amazing that this was built almost a thousand years ago in 734 AD.
There were statues of three cows lined up facing the alter of the largest temple. A brass one was outside under a shelter, a slightly smaller one made of a solid piece of black marble was in front of the brass one, and a silver one was inside the temple door. A drum was pounding and bells were ringing and the priests chanting and walking with dishes of flickering flames. It felt not only holy but also stirring; the friendly people, the sounds of bells and drums and the children playing on the perimeter, the incense wafting and flowers draped on various statues adding touches of yellow and white, all drawing me in. It was a very special place and my only disappointment was that I could not take pictures to share.

As we were leaving the lady who had sold us the garlands called to me and had the five rupee change ready. A great smile crossed her face as I insisted she keep it.