Saturday, February 15, 2014

India Adventure: Jodhpur

Jodhpur Fort and the old (blue) part of the city.
My six hour train ride from Jaipur to Jodhpur on Monday, February 10 was unusually enjoyable. It began with what appeared to be the conclusion of an Indian wedding. A young couple with hands covered in henna designs stood on the Jaipur train station platform next to my window, and affectionately waved goodbye to my travel companions as our train left the station. I was sitting with a group of older women dressed in nice saris, whose hands were covered in henna. They were accompanied by a group of what I guessed to be male relatives. They never spoke in English and although we shared a train compartment, we never spoke, so I can’t be sure about the wedding, but there was a lot of joy in the air.

I spent the entire train ride leaning out of our open window, gazing at the beautiful scenery. The land nearer to Jaipur was almost perfectly flat, and was covered in scrub bushes and bare trees. The topography turned to mountains about an hour outside of Jodhpur. I saw some wild deer from my window, and very few signs of humanity. The sun was shining, and a cool breeze was blowing. It was a gorgeous afternoon.

I had been looking forward to visiting this part of India, the Indian state of Rajasthan. Bordered on the west by Pakistan, Rajasthan is one of the poorest and most traditional regions of India. Most of the brightly colored handicrafts imported to the US from India came from this state. My trip to Rajasthan was inspired by photographs taken by the subject of one of my first blog posts, Steve McCurry. Indians in Rajasthan wear very bright colors in contrast to the desert, which begins west of Jodhpur.

My train arrived at the Jodhpur train station in the early evening. I walked across the street to the Rough Guide recommended Midtown Restaurant and had a delicious dish of bangain bartha (Sowmya’s recipe here) and a masala dosa. I went back to the train station (called “railway station” in India) to hire a pre-paid  auto rickshaw to take me to my hotel, Durag Niwas.

Durag Niwas is a family run business – part hotel, and part Indian nonprofit that aids women and girls from the lowest Indian caste, the untouchables. The nonprofit’s office, a classroom, and international volunteers are housed in the hotel. When I arrived the volunteers were about to begin their weekly meeting with the nonprofit’s founder/director. Of course I invited myself to the meeting. It was fun to be living with the volunteers, most of whom were women in their 20’s who had committed to volunteer with the nonprofit for a minimum of a month.

I spent my only full day in Jodhpur touring the Mehrangarh Fort perched on a hilltop overlooking the city. The Rough Guide correctly says the sandstone fort and palace seems to have grown directly out of the hillside. Built in 1459, its ornate rooms – unlike anything else I’ve seen in India – was home to the rulers of the Rathore clan. The Rathores traditionally rulued the Marwar region of Rajasthan. It is now a historic site owned by the Indian government and beautifully maintained by the current maharaja and his family, who live across town in the Umaid Bhawan Palace.

The highlight of my visit to the fort was the “Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur” exhibit, which contains beautiful paintings created by the painters at the Marwar Court. The second floor of the exhibit, housed inside of the fort’s buildings contains well preserved examples of the hand woven and embroidered tents the maharajas took with them and set up in fields when they went to war, or hunting. Another room housed beautiful silver palanquins and elephant howdahs that the maharajas rode in, one of which was a gift from Shah Jahn who built the Taj Mahal. It was outstandingly beautiful, of course. I also enjoyed seeing the collection of elaborate baby cradles. The audio tour of Mehrangarh Fort was the best of the many audio tours I’ve taken in India, and even better yet, it was included in the admission price so all visitors receive the same great account of the fort. 

I found two books I’d like to read in the fort’s lovely gift shop, and took down their names. There is no room in my backpack for books. Check out the pictures in the book Garden and Cosmos – the Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, ISBN 978-0-934686-08-2 for examples of the beautiful paintings I saw when I visited the fort.

I had a beautiful view of the city from inside of the Mehrangarh Fort. Jodhpur is known as the blue city because the houses inside of the older walled part of Jodhpur are painted a light blue-purple color. The color originally indicated that the home belonged to a member of India’s highest caste, the Brahmins. The color came from the indigo that was added to lime-based whitewash in order to protect the houses from insects and keep the houses cool in the summer. The color spread over time, and now the skyline of the old city is dominated by beautifully colored light blue-purple buildings. I took some nice photos, which I’ll have to upload to this blog post when I get back to the US. I enjoyed Jodhpur. While it’s popular with tourists, it’s a much quieter and more relaxed city, as compared with the rest of my recent tourist route – Varanasi, Agra, and Jaipur.

After visiting the Mehrangarh Fort I had dinner with one of Sowmya’s friends, a Bishnoi named Khemkaran at a great Jodhpur restaurant he suggested called Kalinga. The Bishnois, a religious sect that originated in 1485, are some of the planet’s earliest treehuggers. In 1485 a guru named Jambeshwar Bhagavan observed that a drought was caused by deforestation. He formulated 29 rules for living in harmony with nature and the environment. His followers, the Bishnois, are named after the Marwari word for 29. The Bishnois are vegetarians who forbid the killing of animals and the felling of trees. They engage in activism to protect the land and its animals, in particular the land they live on outside of Jodhpur. At least part of this land is now protected by the Indian government, and is off limits to hunters.

Khemkaran and his brother own a resort outside of Jodhpur that offers guests insight into the life of the Bishnoi villagers. His brother runs the resort, while Khemkaran, a civil engineer, works on rural communityimprovement projects, under the Indian government's Ministry of Rural Development, that benefit low income Indians. It was fun to meet Khemkaran, and learn more about the Bishnois and life in Jodhpur, where Khemkaran lives with his wife and children, the oldest of which is 24. And as I mentioned, the food at the restaurant was delicious and not spicy. (My body strongly dislikes spicy Indian food.)     

I had read that the hotels arrange tours of the nearby Bishnoi villages. Khemkaran offered to schedule a tour for me, with Jodhpur’s tour company that has been running “Bishnoi Village safaris” in safari-colored green jeeps for at least the past 7 years. An Indian named Kamal picked me up in an open air jeep the next morning, at my hotel. He drove me through the Rajasthan countryside for the next 3 hours, stopping to show me the sights. We first pulled over to see some wild peacocks. A milkman riding on a motorcycle drove by us. The Bishois are farmers who also keep cows. They sell their milk to the milkmen who ride through their villages on motorcycles and collect their milk in big silver metal containers that they strap to their motorcycles, and transport to town where the milk is sold to businesses. We then pulled into the driveway of a traditional Bishnoi home. It was a little awkward, to just walk into this house in rural Rajasthan as a random foreigner, but it was a great visit. I met some of the 30 family members who live at the house, pet some of their cows and 2 calves, and observed a demonstration of how opium is made for home use, alongside two other tour groups who arrived at the house shortly after me – one couple from Florida, and another couple from Bombay.

My guide/driver, Kamal and I drove and walked through some small villages where I got to meet and take some photos with children and young women – using both my camera and their phones. I was glad that I wasn’t the only one enjoying the photos. Kamal and I stopped at a wildlife viewing point next to a large lake where I got to see more birds, a baby owl perched in a tree, and some deer far off in the distance. Kamal was always watching for wildlife, while driving me through the dusty, brush covered, flat countryside. At one point he had me get out of the jeep and follow him up a short hill. He froze and then ducked at the top of the hill. A herd of deer were just on the other side. I walked up just as a blue-brown male was beautifully leaping through the air, pushing his herd into the field beyond and away from us. Kamal told me I was so lucky – he couldn’t recall the last time he’d been that close to wild deer.

On the way back Kamal and I stopped at 3 workshops located in a small village where craftsmen demonstrated pottery making, block printing on fabric, and rug weaving – and then the artisans tried to sell me their wares. I enjoyed the low pressure visits, particularly the block printing visit. The fabric is made using wood blocks, natural dyes, and mud. The mud is painted onto the fabric so that the fabric resists the next color of dye used on the fabric, just as you would use wax in batik dying, or rubber bands and knots when making a tie dyed t-shirt. Once the fabric dries, the mud is washed off of the fabric, leaving a multi-colored design behind on the fabric.

While touristy and a little pricey, I enjoyed the “Bishnoi Village safari”. I experienced big city life thanks to Sowmya, Maddie, and Sowmya’s grandmother K. Pati, and now life in rural Rajasthan.

Kamal dropped me off at the hotel, where I spent the remainder of the day hanging out with the international volunteers, comparing tourist itineraries and swapping travel tips. I then met up with Rawat, one of the Indian airplane technicians that I had met at the Agra train station. He lives in Jodhpur. We went back to Kalinga Restaurant, where I had a delicious vegetable burger and received train ticket reservation tips from Rawat. Khemkaram had mentioned that Kalinga Restaurant is popular with foreigners. When I was there with Rawat, I met a family from New York who had just arrived in Jodhpur from Jaisalmer (a desert town in Rajastan popular with tourists). The wife was from New City, a suburb near the one where I grew up.

After dinner Rawat gave me a ride on the back of his motorcycle to the Jodhpur train station, and helped me find my spot on the train, bound for Delhi. I travelled in Third Class A/C for the first time, which was a significant step up from the Sleeper class that I’d been travelling in to date. It was much cleaner than the Sleeper train cars I’m used to, likely because the windows in Third Class A/C are sealed closed, and the train is air conditioned. I was given two fresh white sheets, a pillow and pillowcase, and a brown wool blanket. My top bunk was separated from the train aisle that ran alongside my bunk by a maroon curtain, which helped me sleep slightly better than I do when I travel overnight in Sleeper class, but really not much better. I was still sleepy when I arrived in Delhi, the capital of India at about 6am the following day. Delhi will be the subject of my next blog post.


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