From Udaipur we turned back towards Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. For the last week we have been travelling further and further into ‘The Land of Kingdoms’ from Delhi not just in distance as Rajasthan is India’s largest state but culturally and even ethnically as we moved from nowadays Hindu Delhi, back to the more Mogul or even Middle Eastern past, from the desert next to Pakistan to the lusher south where the monsoon fed these lake cities. Rajasthan with seventy million people is so ethnically diverse with not only the Rajputs and Gypsies but also the Ahirs, Jats, Gurjars, Rajputs, Rajput Mali, Meenas, Bhils, Kalvi, Garasia & Kanjar and this shows in the many faces I photographed.
There is something about going back, more so for Laurence who in a week would be back in France. It’s that psychological turning point where one has to stop just going on and on, I remember vividly thirty odd years before when I decided to return to Khartoum from the Nuer village of Ayot, when only a few more days of travel would have taken me to Sudan’s elephants wintering grounds near the Ethiopian border. But Rajasthan isn’t southern Sudan and before that there was still so much to see, and Laurence is a romantic and there was not only Jaipur but Agra and the Taj Mahal to see.
Shortly after leaving Udaipur we happened upon one of the most interesting experiences on Indian roads ..the level crossing.
After the gates have closed, and thank god they have gates otherwise Indian motorists would be trying to cross up to the last second.
All the cars, trucks and motorbikes, mainly the Honda hero, and assorted agricultural vehicles jockey for position at the front of the queue as if it is the start of an important race.
They spread across both lanes and on both sides of the road, and Rajesh like all Indian drivers when it comes to a level crossing, change mood and a sort of red mist comes down. So we are on the pavement side with nose of the Tata just a few centimetres in front of a truck that had mistakenly left the smallest of gaps between him and the truck in front.
Now cars and trucks are on both sides of the road and on either side of the crossing so when the gates finally open there is just a mass of vehicles facing each other ..now comes the cacophony of car horns as everyone tries to untangle themselves and get through .. how its done without a bit of road rage I don’t know, but somehow with just a little bit of give and take the traffic jam unwinds with lots of noise and miraculously no-one starts a fight…
Mark Tulley wrote about railway crossings and apparently the Indian word for this ability to manage to solve something or muddle through is ‘jugaar’ and it applies to all of an Indian’s life.
Rajesh turned off the main highway to Pushkar, a small town surrounded by hills with the large lake in the centre. It is one of the most sacred sites in India for Hindu pilgrimages and also holds one of the largest camel fairs in India.
We stopped first at an hotel on the edge of the old town where we had tea on the rooftop overlooking the sacred lake and temples of Pushkar.
According to Hindu theology, the pond was created by the tears of Lord Shiva which he is believed to have shed after the death of his wife, Sati. The story goes that when Sati died, Shiva cried so much and for so long, that his tears created two holy ponds – one at Pushkara in Ajmer in India and the other at Ketaksha in Pakistan.
Its great having a guide who knows what he is doing. We could relax, drink tea and see the town’s temples and lake before having to throw ourselves into the throng of pilgrims.
Rajesh pointed us in the direction of the Brahma temple and told us to meet him later back at the hotel.
Pushkar, as a centre of Indian pilgrimage has all the trappings of a the tourist town with the canny businessmen selling ceremonial daggers and knives, printed cloth and saris to the devout vistors.
The temple is the only Temple to Brahma. According to legend Brahma was to perform A Yagna ceremony here but as Savitri, his wife, didn’t arrive he married another woman. When Savitri arrived and found out she declared that he would never be worshipped anywhere else except Pushkar.
But here was the hustle and bustle of thousands of Indian tourists and the crowd pushed one along towards, around and in the temple. There were so many pilgrims that personal choice of direction was denied, and because of this a chatty and personable young Indian attached himself and was helpful enough to explain the history of the temple and as we exited the temple he offered to take us down to the lake.
Hi friend, a priest attached himself to us, first to take us to the lake explaining the creation of lake and Brahma .. then he was going to bless us.
We both thought this was rather moving and held still as he wound the coloured string, the Kavala, around our wrists, right hand for men left for married women. As he does this he incants a prayer which included our names while looking into your eyes. At this point I thought ..here was spiritual India and as a complete atheist even I had this little twinge and one thinks is there actually something .
However it didn’t take long to see the other side…on finishing the prayer he asked for a donation.. From day one I had always kept 2 or 3 hundred rupees hidden in my shirt pocket so it could always be maximum given..”this is all I brought with me” ..
however this wasn’t enough for our noble priest..after giving him the equivalent of £3..in India a fortune for 10 minutes work.. he started hassling forcefully for more, pressing us to borrow from our driver ..it was pretty intense pressure.
So within a blink of an eye we had seen the spiritual and the venal ..but not to put anyone off India, I didn’t experience this again. Much later at a festival in Kolkota a priest had tied a yellow kavala to my wrist and although he haggled, we joked and settled on 20p, but that was probably down to a couple of months experience.
Jaipur is known as the pink city as the limestone here is a pinky/ochre and
the city palace is the best example of this ochre architecture, although the Amber fort is built of a yellow stone.
Jaipur the capital is a big busy city, over 3 million , with an outdated infrastructure, and
after a great meal in a posh restaurant we had to listen to the night of a thousand and one generators .. one being just outside our hotel window. Odd facts..It has the third highest crime rates in the country, and India’s most famous literary festival. !
One of the great places to visit in the whole of Rajasthan is the Galta Monkey Palace. Our guide Keshen according to Rajesh, who by now we had elevated to Guru status, featured in the National Geographic series about the macacque monkeys at Galta titled ‘Monkey Thieves’.
However the monkeys at the top pool were the greatest fun, one could spend hours just watching them climb to the top of the temple and then throw themselves into the water, swimming to the edge and repeating the exercise with even more flamboyance, not unlike exuberant children.
This entertaining bunch live in luxury because worshipers believe they personify Hanuman, the cherished ‘Monkey God’ who banished evil in the Indian epic Ramayana.
The Amber fort is the opposite of calm, it is great to take the elephant ride up to the top but the hassling, here to sell you photographs of your ride reaches fever pitch as you find out who you thought was the official photographer had been usurped by a few other commando snappers ..all pushing to sell you a dozen pictures of yourselves at a ridiculous price. As they had all invested in some instant printing none of them were keen on losing money. Another job for Rajesh…!
The decoration and craft skills that went into some of the rooms, as in all of Rajasthan were exceptional with carvings and mirrors and wall paintings of real quality., and the view from this hilltop fort was magnificent.
After the Amber fort the relaxing Tomb complex of Jaipurs ruling family, The Royal Gaitor, is full of beautiful carved marble mausoleums and as there are no tourists there are no hasslers.
The most impressive marble cenotaph, with a dome supported by 20 carved pillars is that of Jai Singh II, the ruler famous for taking 5 wives and 18 mistresses yet supposedly had no legitimate children. In noisy Jaipur, it is wonderful to sit here amongst the tombs watching the monkeys play.
Our last stop in Rajasthan was the abandoned ancient city and Unesco site of Fatehpur Sikri.
Rajesh telephoned ahead for our guide who took us by TucTuc to the back of the site first to arrive through the old Elephant gate and Caravanseri before walking through a small gate to see the splendours of the city.
In about 1570 the Emperor Akbar, according to folklore was visiting a Sufi mystic at the vilage of Sikri who predicted he would soon have an heir to the Mogul throne. When it happened Akbar built his new capital here.
The resulting architecturally wonderful city was abandoned, probably due to lack of water at this site, after only 14 years.
There are many beautiful buildings among them 3 palaces for his 3 wives, a hindu a muslim and a christian and one of the largest mosques in India.
As no shoes are allowed one has to walk on wet sacking across the painfully hot courtyard to the carved marble tomb of Salim Chisti, the Sufi saint who predicted Akbar’s son, and is a beautifully symetric example of Mogul architecture.
We crossed into India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh and paid what is the highest daily tourist tax of any state. According to Rajesh, and it is his home state it is the most corrupt in India.
We arrived in Agra and as it was early evening we went to the park on other bank of the Yamuna river and where the Taj Mahal can be seen best at sunset and appropriately this
small park was full of Indian lovers canoodling in the gardens with one of the world’s great backdrops for lovers.
One has to see the Taj Mahal properly at sunrise so up at 5 and there before dawn.
Since the Bombay terrorist attacks and as the Taj is India’s iconic architectural site the security on the road leading to the Taj is overpowering..
As the sun rises and the first rays catch the white marble dome of
the greatest monument to lost love on the planet one cannot fail to be impressed.
In 1631, Shah Jahan, emperor during the Mughal empire’s greatest period, was grief-stricken when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess, died during the birth of their 14th child, Gauhara Begum. He assembled the greatest architects and craftsman from throughout the empire and 20,000 workers to build one of the modern wonders.
Just as we were setting off back to Delhi the car started to overheat..not that surprising as even at eleven in the morning it was 35°c. Rajesh poured water into the radiator and we found a road with a choice of mudhut car repairists. It was a burst tube and a fuse on the fan.. nothing to a team of open air garagists..