Jaipur has always been the pink city and it is easy to associate the color with the predominantly pink sandstone buildings that dominate much of the central part of the city. This stone has travelled to other parts of the country and so we are familiar with it. However, it takes a visit to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer to really appreciate the colors that are linked with these towns.
My previous trips to Rajasthan had taken to me to Jaipur many times and to Ajmere, Udaipur and Chittorgarh and Kota during a car trip more than 2 decades ago – a Maruti 800 trip much like the one I discussed in a previous blog. So, the opportunity to visit Jodhpur and Jaisalmer with a couple of friends was not to be missed. Unlike the previous trip, Jet Airways carried us to Jodhpur in an hour. We stayed a lovely heritage hotel and spent a day and a half in this lovely town.
Early morning on the second day we set out for the famous Mehrangarh Fort which rises above the old city in a most impressive manner. The fort itself is one of the most impressive I have visited, the more so, because of the evident attention that is being given to all aspects of its maintenance. The renovation and maintenance is overseen by the Maharaja’s Trust. As I had recently experienced in Khajuraho, there was the facility of the self-guided audio tour. The commentary was informative and well presented. And it is nice to see that our tourist centers are getting better organized.
The walk up to the top is quite a steep one. At the entrance are the hand imprints of the widows as they leave the palace for the last time to immolate themselves on the pyre of their husbands.Although ‘jauhar’, as this practice was known, is an integral part of Rajput history and as such cannot be wished away, I found it disturbing that the commentary of the audio, actually eulogized this practice. This is unforgivable and it was the only jarring note, in an otherwise, balanced commentary.
The climb upwards leads up to a spectacular view of the old town, and suddenly you see why this is called the ‘blue’ city! You see awide range of a beautiful blue – provided by the ‘neel’ that is added to the whitewash. And as you reach the upper levels, you can gaze at the magnificent palaces with their jaalis and Jharokas and interior work – separate ones for the royal men and women. There are also the audience halls and meeting rooms etc. and tastefully displayed exhibitions of the paintings, howdas, arms and other articles from the Royal Collection.
In the afternoon, we went to see the gardens of Mandore, just outside Jodhpur.These gardens have a charming collection of temples and memorials, including the Chhatris or cenotaphs of many rulers of the erstwhile state of Marwar. The Mandore Gardens also house a government museum, that has a wonderful collection of 8th to 10th century Budhist and Hindu statuary and some amazing miniature paintings displayed in the most horrendous way. One rues the condition of the State run museums and if such treasures will ever get the due recognition and show casing they deserve.
On the following day, we drove to Jaisalmer where we spent 2 days, walking around the fort, camel carting in the desert, and enjoying the ambience. Here too the fort is an imposing presence over the sorrounding area – but I have to admit that the first sight was a bit of a disappointment! This is probably because it is too photographed and shown in isolation, which is not how you see it in reality!!
Every guide who touts for business spouts that Jaisalmer is a ‘living’ fort – which means that a few thousand people live their ordinary lives inside the fort. So, they eat and drink and carry on all the daily activities – and have water and electricity.
Although the houses are many hundred years old, electric wires are hanging everywhere and houses have running water and sewage systems. In fact, Mr Vyas, who runs one of the innumerable jewllery/ antique shops was kind enough to allow us to go into his house and look around – small, living quarters with a kitchen and bedroom on the first floor and toilet facilities on the ground floor. One really wonders how long this magnificent fort will bear the burdens of modern 21st century living!!
The fort houses a wonderful Jain temple – where the main deity is a Jain Thirthankar and the walls have a whole pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. There are meandering gullies and some house have modern facades that cannot be distinguished from the old ones – giving reassurance that the old crafts are still alive and well here. All the buildings are made in the local yellow colored stone which gives off a ‘golden’ glow at sunrise and sunset – thereby giving it the name of golden city.
Outside the fort we wandered through the Patwon-ki-Haveli which consists of 5 separate houses, of which the first and fifth are open to the public. The first is in private hands, having been sold by the original owners in the 60’s for a lordly sum of Rs 80,000. Large parts of it have been redecorated by the new owner in fairly garish colored glass and an assortment of utensils and furniture and other bric-a-brac are on display to give a flavor of life in times past. Most of these are reproductions of the originals and the refurbishing, which has probably been done to add value and justify the Rs 50 entrance ticket, is tasteful only in parts and mostly garrish. In contrast, the fifth house was bought by the Government and the interiors are bare as no one has bothered to do anything. Which is probably good, because for Rs 10 entrance you get to see the magnificent building as it would have been and can let your imagination do the rest. The second, third and fourth houses are occupied by the original family and I am sure that these would have the real treasures worth seeing!!!
Jaisalmer was the on the trade route across the desert from Central India to Afghanistan and further West. For many centuries it prospered and the Jain community, which traded in silk, spices and opium were prosperous. These havelis, and there are many more in various stages of collapse and disrepair and I am sure even more that would have disappeared, were built by these wealthy families. They have secret entrances and stores for their goods, especially the opium and for the traders. The decline started in the 19th century, when the East India Company started dominating the trade and these families then migrated to the larger cities, especially Bombay and Calcutta. The town saw a century of absolute decline, and in the immediate post-Independence stage extreme penury and even starvation as their traditional commerce with Sind also got halted.
Life revived after the 1965 Indo-Pak War, when the strategic location of Jaisalmer was recognized – you can reach the border by traveling 100 KM or so to the north, south or west! So, the Army arrived and then the Railways came, followed shortly thereafter by the tourists. So it is only post-1980 that the hotels and other touristy things have come up. Now, over 80% of the locals work in and around this activity, which lasts from October to March. The young guide who showed us the fort was a 12th class student who was fluent in HIndi and English and knowledgeable as well. The young salesman in the shop, was illiterate, but could speak French and Spanish in addition to Hindi and accent free, idiomatically correct English. All thanks to tourism!
The in flow of tourists has also given a boost for the local hand work, done by the women folk in the desert villages. They do exquisite applique and other kinds of embroidery and the wonderful double bedspreads they sell are at prices which are comparable or even less than the machine made counterparts. This really is a reflection of how we value these talents – a hand made Belgian lace table cloth would be 10 times as expensive as its machine made counterpart. I learnt that these women are paid equivalent of Rs 50 per day. Is it any wonder that the next generation would look for the first opportunity to escape this? Here as elsewhere I have travelled, I can see that the local craft is being sustained by the poverty of the people. If we cannot break this cycle, and intervene appropriately and urgently, we will lose these irreplaceably. One does hear of the attempts of various organizations trying to save this and that craft – but, it is not enough. The cynical view is, of course, that at the rate we are tackling poverty, especially in these remote areas, we will have the privilege of enjoying these wares at the ridiculously low prices we pay at Dilli Haat!
Of course, the trip did have the other mandatory elements, such as the trip to the dunes and tasting the local cuisine. Even in late January, the days were really warm and sunny. It is a destination, I can recommend to all. But, should we all rush there? Maybe, we should develop some innovative means of restricting the inflow of visitors while sustaining the local livelihood which is dependent on them, in a manner that future generations will also be able to enjoy these treasures!!