We drove out into the rather scrubby Thar Desert, not the desert of dunes nor as I had experienced many years before in the desert west of Assiout a desert of windswept bare rock for miles..no sand at all, but here scrubby bushy succulents with the occasional dune.
Rajesh had taken us out to a small village some thirty miles from Jaisalmer where we were going to stay the night in a compound of thatched mud huts and travel out into the desert sunset on camels..
It is rather alarming when the camel stands up but not nearly as frightening as when the camel kneels for you to get off.
My camel, Babaloo came with a boy of not more than 8 or 9 to lead him, Laurence had a grumpier camel and a granddad with a typical rajasthan moustache.
Up on the camel with its rhythmic swaying one tries to stay on by gripping with your thighs…I thought how could Lawrence or Thesiger spend weeks without incurring bruised inner thighs, but after an hour one realises that you just have to let go and let your body move with the camel.
The gentle rolling motion, the late afternoon heat, the absolute tranquillity, my white headscarf wrapped around to protect me against sun and sand and with the Pakistan border not that many miles in front of us one easily envisaged oneself as a Thesiger heading out into the empty quarter.
It was really not that long ago, 1947, that millions of then Indians but divided by religion had crossed perhaps near here during the Partition into the states of India and Pakistan. It was the largest mass migration in human history and led to probably over a million deaths. A tired and bankrupt post war British governement rashly chose the inadequate Mountbatten, who was bamboozled by Nehru, while having an affair with the Lord’s wife, into a hasty partition, which resonates still in the disgraceful partitioning of Kashmir ( 80% of the population in 1947 was muslim). * See http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n14/perry-anderson/why-partition
It was a memorable experience sitting atop of sand dunes watching the sun go down over the Thar Desert. Back at the compound we ate a tourist-mild curry buffet and were entertained by a rajisthani band and dancer before taking our charpoys from the hut and sleeping under the stars. Well attempting to sleep..The tips given to the band were soon spent on alcohol and very soon they were wandering around drunk and falling over, and they forgot to close the gates, so during the night we woke to a clip-clop of a huge cow who ended up not only snuffling next to us but then rummaged through our bags in the empty hut.!
The drive continued south to Jodhpur in the late summer heat, the jolting of the car in contrast to the peaceful rhythm of Babaloo. The road was a continuation of mad Indian driving but now with even more motorbikes as the pilgrimage traffic to the Baba Ramdev Temple was intermingled now with that other Indian pilgrimage to the Royal Enfield temple. Locally known as the Bullet Baba’s Temple, the story goes that a peasant from a neighbouring village, Om Banna, was cruising on his Bullet and he met with an accident between Jodhpur and Nagaur. His bike hit a tree and he died on the spot.
The bike was impounded and taken to the police station, only to return to the accident spot in the dark of the night. The police tried all that they could to stop the bike — they chained it at the police station, emptied the fuel tank — but to no avail, no matter what they did Om Bana’s Bullet returned to the accident site in the dead of the night. The news spread and people from villages in the area built a memorial — a temple to worship the Bullet motorcycle. Now it is a pilgrimage site especially for young bikers.
Young Indians love their motorbikes, the Honda Hero the most popular, the Enfield, a cult bike here is too expensive. India makes over 15 million a year and although I cannot find figures for how many there are on Indian roads but it must be hundreds of millions. They ride them waving to each other, turning round to chat to the 2 or 3 passengers behind them and generally oblivious to other cars and trucks so it came as little surprise to me that as
we slowed down to pass an ambulance blocking the road and I saw a huge pool of blood and a mangled Honda.
Jodhpur, known as the blue city and famous for it’s handicrafts has the most imposing fort overlooking this strange town of blue houses.
The Mehrangarh Fort built in the fifteenth century looked from a distance a little like a mountain in Monument Valley or the Karoo, with a solid block of brown rock and the eroded scree below. It is one of the more impressive forts in Rajasthan, and there are many, with a number of palaces and a museum inside, protected by three solid gates.
In 2008 a human stampede occurred at the Chamunda Devi temple inside of the Fort, and 249 people were killed and more than 400 injured.
Whereas many towns have names relating to the colour of the sandstone they are built from, Jodhpur is the blue city after the painted blue houses. Although there are many theories as to why the houses were originally painted in this rich blue it is generally accepted as having something to do with India’s caste system.
Apparently Jodhpur is Lonely Planet’s number one city in Rajasthan and yes it does have an interesting market spread out around the Raj built market clock tower and some interesting blue backstreets but as there are many tourists one is hassled more than Udaipur and Jaiselmer.
It’s too late I’m afraid to get your easy degree from Jodhpur university as Kamal Mehta, chairman of Jodhpur National University was arrested by Special Operation Group of Rajasthan police recently from outside a hotel in Delhi, for his involvement in providing fake degrees of his institution without having students attend classes or appear for examinations.
On the surface Rajasthan and India is a colourful homogeneous place, and as I had only arrived recently the complexities of religion and caste were still a mystery but land and money were more easily understood.
Throughout Rajasthan scrubby bits of land by the road have been enclosed by walls, some elaborate and expensive but now tumbled down and nothing had been built or farmed.
I often read the local Rajasthani newspapers in English and there were constant property disputes some involving the legal system others that ended in violence.
Some just the straightforward corruption as with Sonia Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, who it was deemed had obtained a large tranche of property fraudulently but other news items much more alarming.
There were two cases that stuck in the memory, both involving property left to widows. The most frightening one involved the family of a deceased farmer who was tortured by cutting off the nose and four fingers of the poor widow in an attempt to get the land and similarly another widow tortured and then paraded round the village stark naked on a donkey.
The landscape changed dramatically from dry desert to a hilly forested area, almost alpine in contrast, as we decended into a wooded valley and were confronted by the stunnin,g ornate Jain temple at Ranakpur.
The entry ticket said no guides and no tips which I presumed was in accordance with the Jain religion, so when a saffron robed priest came up to ask questions, say a few prayers and rub a little red spot into our foreheads I was a little taken aback by the then strong demands for money.
The inside was full of fantastic carvings many of them elephants
At one such carving all the indian tourists were crawling under the elephant I presume for good luck. If there is one thing about India , you will never be short of a wonderful temple to visit.
Arriving in Udaipur, with lake Pichola and the White Palace seeming to float in the middle is a little bit of everyones dream of India..The many ghats, the palace, the fort and the islands with the wooded hills as a backdrop, so different to the rest of the dusty Rajasthan.
James Todd of the East India Company on arriving here in 1829 described Udaipur as ‘the most romantic spot on the continent of India’.
The rooftop restaurant of our hotel, Lake Pichola Hotel served not only excellent pungent curries with wonderful sofas instead of chairs, a little live rajasthani music but most of all it had the most fantastic view over the lake to the palace and old town.
Facing out hotel was the town’s main ghat,..a ghat is steps leading down to water where people not only wash and pray but wash clothes as well.Constructed out of a light brown sandstone, at sunset with all the women sitting around chatting, a few men washing, the odd cow drinking and the kids diving from the highest point into the lake, it was the perfect picture of peace.
The old town was a warren of little streets with another beautifully carved marble Jain temple, lots of local craft tourist shops with the attendant hasslers but after a few withering looks from both Rajesh and I we didn’t get bothered much, but apparently the main tourist season of late autumn Udaipur is tourist mecca.
We spent three nights here and there are so many things to do and places to visit, take a boat over to Jagmandir Island for a pot of tea with liveried waiters, visit the fort or the two museums or just wander round ..there are other lakes and magnificent vistas.
Next off to the Monkey Temple and the ghost city……..