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Rajasthan Memories

It is rather difficult to write a travelogue about a trip that was undertaken some time agao. The mundane details of the time you woke up, what you ate for lunch or the various “must-see” locations that visit each day get merged with each other and lost in the mists of memory. What remains are those shining moments that truly make the trip memorable. Perhaps that is the best way to write about any trip. Wait for a while, till the real memories surface. But even while delving into memories it is best to have a rough framework of what we did.

When we started planning our India trip ( which starts right after we return from the previous one ), I was determined that this time around, we would take a mini vacation while in India and visit some-place we haven’t been to. I picked Rajasthan as our vacation within a vacation spot. It had always ranked high on my must-see lists, and this time I was determined to go there. When we started researching Rajasthan ( Per Seejo, every day of vacation requires at least 3 days of good quality research ), there were so many places to choose from. There were plenty of online guides and recommendations —given that Rajasthan is probably one of the most popular tourist destinations for non-Indians. Jaipur was a given, it being the capital city ( and the cheapest city to fly into ) but how do we pick the others? Should we go to Jaisalmer? Should we pick Ajmer or Bikaner ? Jodhpur or Udaipur ? Can we fit in Sawai Madhopur in the week that we have? All these questions needed to be pondered, debated, researched and answered. After a long drawn process, this was the route we picked. Once that was decided, booking the hotels and a car to take us around was fairly simple. My mother contacted Tirupati travels and they booked the hotels at Bikaner , Jaisalmer and Jodhpur ( they gave us a choice of few at each destination, we picked the ones that seemed ok and then they confirmed the booking for us ) and also arranged an Inova with a driver for us.

The itinerary was rather relaxing, compared to our usual mode of travel. We were to land in Jaipur, and spend two days there and go from there to Jaisalmer, stopping at the Shekhawati regions and Bikaner for a night. After a day in Jaisalmer, we would travel back east to Jodhpur for a day and half and then to Jaipur.

The driver was waiting for us when we landed in Jaipur airport early Saturday morning and took us to the RBI officer’s guest home in Jaipur. Dwiti and I loved the previous experiences at the holiday homes where a resident chef had cooked mouth watering dishes for us, while we rested in plush suites. Somehow that memo hadn’t reached the Jaipur office. The rooms were barely clean, the cupboard was bare, the bed linen was missing and there was no friendly resident chef.

IMG_5436Anyway we were here to see Jaipur, so off we went. We were just starting to complain of not seeing any pink buildings when we reached what must have been the Old part of town and the pink (or orange-pink) sand stone structures sprung up from all directions. The City Palace was large but did not leave a striking impression—what remains in memory were the 1.1/4 flag that was flying on top of all buildings representing the Sawai (one and a quarter) dynasty. The flag would be flown at full mast only if the present Maharaja of Jaipur was in town. The Jantar Mantar Observatory was interesting and The Hawa Mahal- the face of Jaipur- was quite unremarkable, the only remarkable fact being that the outside façade is only one room thick….something I did not gather previously from seeing the pictures. The other places we saw in Jaipur included the Amer Fort, the focal point of which seemed to be fact that it was a residential fort as opposed to the nearby smaller Jaigarh Fort that was a military fort. Amongst all the history of Jaipur that we heard that day, all that I remember is that the Kings and Queens used to flee from the residential Amer fort to the military protected Jaigarh fort whenever there was an invasion.

But the memory of Jaipur will always be Chokhi Dhani—an extremely touristy but well laid out model of a Rajasthan Village complete with free mehendi artists, camel rides, Ferris wheels, swings, and a troupe of folk dancers. There were many raise platforms that served as makeshift stage where these dancers performed the local dances, a magician performed card tricks and an astrologer with a parrot read your fortune. It was very clichéd, very touristy but it was great fun! The star attraction, though, was the food- served in traditional style: serving utensils were plates made of leaves and earthenware glasses and the eating style was sitting cross-legged on the floor. And the servers urging us to “ jeemon, jeemon” as they served the various dishes and poured ghee and sugar over the yummy moong khichdi as though there was no tomorrow and no heart disease. And to end the day, my father in law trying to wash his hands with fennel seeds, mishearing the “saunf” that he was served, post meal , as “soap” and thinking that it must be a local soap substitute.

We drove to Bikaner & Shekhwati after two days in Jaipur. I must tell you about our driver-Kailas. He was a good driver in terms of his driving skills- steady, cautious and without unnecessary jolts and with an eye on the speed limit. He even won Seejo’s rare stamp of approval. But the guy rated a zero on his social skills; he was withdrawn, morose and did not know what a conversation meant. He would stop the car suddenly, open the door and walk off and we had to figure out that the reason for him stomping away was “It is lunch time, I am hungry. Eat if you guys want to, but I am ready to eat here at this dhaba”. By the end of the trip, we were accustomed to his stops; in fact on our way back, when Kailas stopped the car and rushed off, we were all ready to spring out of the car till we realized that he had actually stepped behind the bushes for quick relief!

IMG_5668Anyhow, the Shekhawati region with its painted Havelis was quite the highlight of the entire trip for me. Several havelis in this region belonging to the rich and influential traders of yesteryears had been painted with elaborate designs all over. When I mean painted all over…that is exactly what I meant. The exterior of the house (even the support columns that hold the parapets), the floors inside, the ceiling, the walls—every available surface has been used as a drawing canvas. Only the basic naturally available colors have been used but the design ranges from nature scenes, mythological figures, prominent Hindu & Mughal men and women. The descendents of those art loving traders who live in this havelis now cannot afford the upkeep and so the designs have faded away and there is an atmosphere of shabbiness that is very prevalent. But amongst the entire general derelict, there are a couple of houses that showcase the original grandeur of these painted havelis. One of them, ironically called “Angrez Ki Haveli” is actually owned by a French artist, Nadine (something). We were shown around the house by a talkative local girl –Shabnam who switched between Hindi & French effortlessly. The house was beautiful, and actually lived in by Madame Nadine who used the upstairs bedrooms & the kitchen & laundry room etc. She has spent upwards of crore trying to maintain these havelis. Each façade is painted as soon as there is a hint of fading by local artists, infact we saw a couple of lads who were hard at work outside refreshing the paint. They were descendants of the original artists in the area “yeh kala to khoon mein hai”, was their statement. I joked that if my mom knew painting, even I might have inherited some artistic taste, the response was quick “ Hamaari dadi thodi painting karti hai…aap khana banana to zaroor seekhi hogi apne maa se ”. I knew it was time to shut up and leave.

We also stopped at another painted Haveli nearby, which was smaller in size and recently restored by the Singhania (of Bombay hospital fame) family. The Haveli was open for tourists, Singhania family also owned a “modern” bungalow opposite the painted haveli, where the family stayed for a couple of weeks a year.

We visited the Junagarh fort at Bikaner (nice but not special) and stayed that at night at Haraser Haveli. Many hotels in Rajasthan are old havelis that have been converted into hotel rooms. One of the highlights of the trip was staying at these hotels. Most of them had all the modern conveniences you expect in any good hotel, offered free breakfast : good hearty parathas or Alu-puri , cutlets, pohas in addition to normal continental fare. Every single hotel we stayed at was a find and is highly recommended. The wonderful and beautiful Jhalamandgarh at Jodhpur or the food service & location of The Hotel Moonlight in Jaisalmer—right opposite the grounds where the annual Jaisalmer festival was going on. When we reached Jaisalmer and checked in the tiny entrance way of Hotel Moonlight, we were excited to discover that the annual Jaisalmer Desert Festival held for only 2 nights a year started that night and was about to start in the maidaan exactly opposite to our hotel. Dwiti, Seejo and I crossed the road to listen to Vasundhara Das sing, watch kids enjoying camel rides and also catch a glimpse of the beautiful and aptly named Sonargarh fort lit up in the nightlights. We also caught a glimpse of Mr. Desert 2008 (lucky lucky me), who twirled his moustache for us and posed with me for a photo!

IMG_6012The Sonargarh fort in Jaisalmer is a “living” fort…about 300 families still live inside the walls of the fort. Inside there is a famous Jain temple….where rows of similar looking Thirthankar idols were placed, each of the 24 being identified by a symbol at the base of the idol. We roamed a little in the main market region of Jaisalmer – very colorful and stopped to see the various Havelis in Jaisalmer. The highlight of the Havelis were that they were multi-storied structures (the Patwon Ki Haveli which is almost like 5 townhouses joined together had about 4 floors + main floor) and had elaborate carvings on the exterior sandstone structures. These havelis belonged to the King’s ministers and one of them even had the roof paved in gold. Another interesting thing that we noted as we roamed the bylanes of Jaisalmer was that wedding invitations were painted on the main wall of the house proclaiming the wedding of X with Y. Per our guide, they stay there till the next wedding in the family. We spent a lot of time looking at these wedding logs and noted a wedding anniversary was just over for a8 year marriage and that there as a wedding in one house in two days time. Very Fascinating!

That evening we made our way to the Sam Sand Dunes in Thar desert . Dwiti & my mother sat on one camel, their camel was hitched to ours (Seejo & mine), the rein was handed to a 7 year old boy and off he went leading all of us through the desert with sparse vegetation into the sand dunes. AS we neared the sand dunes more and more people were visible, Salim clicked a few pictures, very professionally for us using our camera, said Thank you and asked as to enjoy our
“dansodinar” (Dance aur Dinner) and then rode away at full speed. We found a place that got us some solitude, sat on the sands and watched the sun set , sand dunes change color as the sun was setting and then walked down to our desert camp for the night. The folks at Hotel Moonlight had arranged a desert camp night for us, complete with music, bonfire, dancers and food. It would be weird if I wrote all of this and didn’t mention the local food in Rajasthan. My in-laws are amongst the least adventurous people in the world and they are especially timid when it comes to food. They preferred eating in “bigger” and so safer hotels, examined each entry from multiple angles before nibbling a bit and sighing “ What a pity, we can’t have dosa”. On the other hand, my mother & sister , Seejo and I relished each and every morsel, enjoyed the roadside dhaba food and ate the Rajasthan I fare with gusto.  The local dishes like Dal-baati choorma ( a hard baked wheat ball that is crushed , with dal and sweet choorma  added to it with a helping of ghee ) , the gatta ka saag ( besan flour dumpling dish ), ker sangria ( some sort of desert green beans ), kadhi pakodi and of course kachoris , bajra rotis. were all excellent.  Most of our breakfasts were the absolutely delicious parathas (alu, mooli or mixed) and the ubiquitous poori bhaji or cutlets.

We slept in comfortable tents that night and woke up early morning and walked up the desert to see the sunrise. The sand dunes were only restricted in a finite are which was rather different from what I had thought—in my mind the desert sands would stretch as far as the eye….here the sand dunes were surrounded by areas of sparse but bushy vegetations where endangered deer and other such animas roamed freely. Camels were everywhere, the standard mode of transportation for the locals, popular with tourists and we saw them on roads on the way to Jodhpur ambling along on the side of the road paying scant attention to the cars or the loaded trucks ( they were a sight unto themselves—carrying load that was about three times the size of the truck).

At Jodhpur , we saw the Meherangarh fort (a fort carved into the mountain rock and the former residence of the Maharajas of Jodhpur), the Ummaid Bhavan palace (the current residence of the Maharaja), the Jaswant Thada ( a final residence or burial ground of former kings) and the panoramic view of the blue city of Jodhpur . The houses are whitewashed with “neel” to keep the houses cool and ward off insects. Each house individually only displays a slight blue tinge but looking from top of the fort, the entire city looks like a sea of blue.

One facility that makes Rajasthan so tourist friendly are the easily available and well informed tourist guides who are proficient in various languages. I’d strongly advocate the use of these guides as they explain the colorful history of each fort/palace with great enthusiasm and reveal small nuggets that make you appreciate the destination more. All our guides (young Shabnam at Shekhawati, the smart young guide at Jantar Mantar, the guide at Jaisalmer who approached us at evening time and then waited for us the next day morning, the smiling guide at Amer Fort and the smartly named Raja Rana who guided at the Bishnoi Village, which we visited later in the day) were very good. However the pick of the lot was our guide at Jodhpur who proudly told us that the film Zubeida was based on the present King’s father and that she lived in this palace, how songs from Hum Saath saath Hai were shot in the central courtyard at Meherengarh and vehemently spoke against the Jodhaa Akbar Movie. His beef was that Akbar may have married a Hindu, may even have married a girl called Jodha but all he wanted to say was that wasn’t Raja Mansingh’s sister. (The movie did not release in Rajasthan, I saw it later—it hardly mentioned Mansingh!) He was appalled at what he thought of as Indians learning the British version of our own history and spoke with great passion that it was all “bilkul galat baat hai” and that Raja Mansingh’s sister had married Akbar’s son. But then he had to agree when I asked him that Hrithik Roshan aur Aishwarya Rai agar baap beti ka role karte to picture nahi bikta na…,

That evening we also visited the Bishnoi Village – Bishnois are tribal villagers who believe in safeguarding the local wildlife. They came into prominence when they sued actor Salman Khan & co for shooting an endangered black buck. One of the villagers guided us for a jeep safari of the village. Deer & peacock were plenty , the villagers provide them with water and allow them to graze on their land, driving them off periodically. We also saw the rare Black Buck in the distance at the drinking hole. And we also visited the village potter and tried our hands at pottery— the toughest part of which was getting the pot off the wheel without squishing it completely!

We drove back to Jaipur on the very nicely maintained expressway marveling at the six lane highway and passing the Ajmer fort from a distance. We ended the entire trip with a shopping expedition at the local Bapu bazaar, where we shopped to our hearts content! All in all—a wonderful trip. And that was officially the longest time I have spent separated from my laptop in the last 5 years! And to think I didn’t even miss it

Pictures here

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