Rajesh insisted on an early start, so we packed, breakfasted on a mild curry, ensconsed ourselves in the white Tata and wondered what lay ahead in Rajasthan. Yes that does sound exotic..A tour round India’s largest state which under the Raj and up until 1949, was called Rajputana.
Everywhere we travelled in or going out of Delhi we passed the famous Hanuman Temple or the monkey god temple, with an outrageously impressive statue of the monkey god, disneyesque in size and impact, overseeing about the busiest roundabout in Karol Bagh where cars, trucks, cycle and auto-rickshaws and even bullock-carts all competed for that small space at the front of the jam, and Rajesh wanted to get beyond here before the morning rush, any time before 8.30 is ok after that delays could run into hours.
There aren’t that many cows in central Delhi but as we hit the near never ending suburbs a few of the holy cows appeared, first one or 2 but later many more, often just standing, motionless in the middle of the highway. Drivers hooted and then circumnavigated them.
We had had a taste of Delhi driving a couple of days before but now we had the full Indian driving experience.
Indian drivers use the horn for many reasons some obvious, warning people to get out of the way or other drivers that we were on the road too, but an Indian driver is pretty much addicted to the horn and if it hadn’t been used for a bit the average driver just tooted thin air to satisfy himself it was still working and his place in the world assured.
Rajesh, like all other drivers loved his horn, however his hooter as we left Delhi sounded a little strange and ten days later after extensive use sounded like a suffering animal. I asked Rajesh if he was going to fix it and he said that he was waiting until after the religious festival of Durga Puja some 4 weeks ahead.
By mid morning the temperature had reached about 40° C and the airconditioning on the Tata was working flat out to keep it just uncomfortable. There was a direct correlation to the temperature and the condition of the road, the hotter it got the worse the road.
Normally with the motion of a car and the heat and the early start I would have drifted into an uneasy sleep but Indian roads and drivers don’t allow that luxury. I was mesmerised and for the first few days couldn’t take my eyes from the road even though I had total confidence in Rajesh it was the other road users from cars, trucks, tuc tucs, bicycles, motorbikes, camels, dogs and even wild boars that one had to keep an eye on.
The road from Delhi to Bikaner is probably about the worst in India, well certainly in Rajasthan. There are still a number of toll roads. It used to be that a landowner would improve a stretch of road and charge the public for it, but here there’s a toll but no improvement ..
I asked Rajesh how come they could charge for a bit of pot-holed tarmac and his only answer was to rub thumb and forefinger together.
Rajasthan, and certainly this northern part was pretty much left alone by the Raj, allowing the landowning Maharajahs to continue in their old feudal ways and in modern India, with it’s huge governance problems, these landowners, with considerable political influence continue in their semi-feudal system by bribery and corruption.
Every hour or so, or when there was a junction where a dirt track from the villages in the surrounding areas joined the main, or only road across northern Rajasthan there are tea and rest stops. Here a small restaurant with a row of basic Indian beds, charpais, the necessary tyre repair business and stalls selling fruit, were next to the small buses and taxis that served these unseen villages, hidden in the scrub for many miles in each direction.
Rajasthan service station[/caption]
These ramshackle service areas, made of wood and corrugated iron reminded me so much of that other poor, edge of desert region of Sudan. For many, especially the young this was their contact with an outside world and here they would hang out and watch the tourist buses and painted trucks that came and went to Delhi.
The closer we got to Bikaner, at the edge of the Thar desert the more camel carts we saw. Every year, in January a huge camel fair is held here.
Bikaner was only a stop on the two day drive across Rajasthan to Jaisalmer, so we stayed at a modern hotel on the edge of town.
Next morning, Rajesh, already proving the jewel in the crown of modern India, here as everywhere chose a great guide..
Our guide took us to visit the beautiful Jain temple at the top of the town, with immense views under a ever present blistering blue sky, broken momentarily the previous day for a five minute havoc causing monsoon downpour, over the surrounding brown scrubby countryside. Here as in most of India… Jain, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh temples existed almost side by side proving that if politicians can stay out of it all of India’s religions can co-habit peacefully.
Here in rajasthan women wear such colourful clothes and watching a woman buying fruit was almost a colourist’s Stendhal moment.
We visted a stunning havali or even palace hotel Bhanwar Niwas, owned by an Indian family living in Kolkota, full of wonderful period furniture perhaps spoilt a little with large oil paintings of the owners family.
As an outsider it is difficult to spot someone’s religion, Muslims and Sikhs are easily identified by their headwear, but Janists, Budhists and Christians are harder, but that is nothing compared to finding out which caste someone belongs to. Even Indians find it hard to work out which caste someone is from if they are outside their district, but often clothes and jewellery are a giveaway.
Here in Rajasthan, not that far from a semi-feudal society, caste is apparently easier to identify than elsewhere.
The colourful women with their ankle bracelets here in Bikaner panning for slivers of silver or gold from the jewellery trade washed into the open sewers are probably from the dalit caste.
From Bikaner we set off for Jaisalmer. The roads were packed with thousands of colourful pilgrims many holding flags rather like a medieval army off to battle, some walking, others on bicycles and even on trailers pulled by tractors, all on their way to the Baba Ramdev Temple at Pokaran. Although it is a pilgrimage for both Hindus and Muslims it is one of the pilgrimages that Hindus must perform.
Jaisalmer is the last outpost of Rajasthan and in fact India before Pakistan. This fantastic shimmering desert city rising out of the plain like a dream sandcastle is like something from the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights…one could almost imagine flying carpets hovering over the city. And as Jaisalmer has the only legal Bhang shop in India, many probably see them.
The city is built from the surrounding yellow sandstone and as we arrived in the late afternoon it looked like a golden mirage. All the buildings are constructed from this stone and adorned with maginificent carved windows, doors and much superfluous decoration.
Most hotels in Rajasthan have restaurants on the roof and here the tables had sofas and cushions rather than chairs, there was a rajasthani band, they served wonderful vegetable curries, there was view up to the fort, and all under the stars …..
Unlike most forts, this is a living town with shops and temples and a plethora of regional crafts shops from silversmiths to puppet makers.
One has to start early, as even at 8 oclock the temperature is over 35°.
Rajesh had telephoned his favourite guide, a very cool rajputian, and we met him at the entrance to the fort.
After an hours journey through the myriad of small alleyways and outside the exotically carved and stunning Jain tremple I had to sit down. I thought perhaps I was ill I asked our guide was it me or was it the heat .. It was 44 centigrade. Enough !
India is full of guides that only take you to places where they get commission but all of Rajeesh’s guides were more his friends and here we were given the choice of whether we wanted to shop or have tea, and as we needed scarves for the next days camel trip into the desert we visted a textile shop with silks, wall hangings and carpets.
Then we had chai with his wonderful family and his very vivacious and charming daughter.
Jaisalmer is outside most of the Rajasthan tours and there were more Indian tourists than westerners. There’s less hassle than most other fort cities and by far the most relaxing.
Next….camel ride in the desert …
***If you would like to tour Rajasthan with Rajesh http://www.essencerajasthantourism.com
I recommend him to anyone ..