Posted on December 27, 2013
Our second stop was Jodhpur. Jodhpur is 340 kilometers west of Jaipur, and you could also say that Jodhpur is the gateway to Jaisalmer which, in turn, is the gateway to the Thar Desert. Jodhpur gets blistering hot in summer, and what makes it worse, is that most of the buildings are made of yellow sandstone. The sun is really strong in summer, and reflects off the buildings, making your eyes burn in the noon day sun. Temperatures can touch 47 degrees Centigrade or more, and when I was in sales, I remember telling my sales rep – “only two kinds of people are seen in the mid-day sun – mad men and salesmen”. It is true.
On one of my trips, we also got talking about the eccentric dietary habits of the people of Jodhpur. They eat really spicy food, and one shopkeeper told me that unless the vegetables are almost red in color (because of the color of the red chili), it is not worth eating. When I asked him why, he said that the internal heat that the spice generates in the body helps beat the external heat from the sun. I never figured the logic, and while my stomach acids were rising at an alarming rate as I heard him talk, I remembered that people in the central part of India (which, also gets equally hot) eat similarly spicy food. There has to be a perverse logic to this. It cannot be otherwise.
On that famous trip, we also got talking about the regional delicacy, which is called “mirchi bhajji” in Hindi. This is like a spicy cake. Now, fool that I was, I declared that this would be a piece of cake for me to eat, and I was taken around to eat it. It was, I remember, 6 pm, and the temperature was 42 degrees Celsius. There was a lien of people about 100 meters long, waiting to eat “mirchi bhajji”. I decided to see how they make it, and almost died of an anticipatory stomach ulcer. There were these guys, squatting on their haunches, mashing red (with red chili) potatoes in their hands. Then, when this was converted into the shape of an oval sausage, they stuck a thin, evil green chili into the center of the thing, rolled it in gram flour, and served it deep fried. I did see some more in Pushkar about a month back, but did not dare to repeat the experiment. On that fateful day, I had one bite, consigned my soul to The Devil, and promptly declared that I could not eat any more. I was dead!
Jodhpur was founded in 1459, by Rao Jodha, leader of the Rathore clan. The Rathores, incidentally, are fiercely proud, as a people. Their word is their law. We stayed in luxury, in the Umaid Bhawan Palace. This was an actual Palace that was built by Maharaja Umaid Singh (1929-1942), and is now a five star hotel. Built for a king, used by tourists for a pretty fee!
The buildings in Jodhpur – the ones in the shadow of the fort – are painted blue. I never did find out why.
What dominates Jodhpur, is the huge fort on the hill – the Mehengarh Fort. This is situated about 150 meters above the town, on a craggy hill. It is pretty well maintained, I must say. When we went visiting, we did get to see some of the rather fantastic palaces in the fort. The old kings did live in style. Well, so do the kings of today. Some of them are real kings and queens. The rest are rich business men and politicians! True dat!
The Fort has seven gates. Legend has it that, when Rao Jodha started to build the fort in 1459, he unseated an old holy man. Even though he arranged for alternative quarters for the old man, the old man cursed the fort, and said that it would always be short of water. Which, it has been actually. The fort has had its share of battles, and the some of the scars of the cannon balls, in the wars of Jodhpur with Jaipur can still be seen.
Most of the work on the fort was done by Maharaja Jaswant Singh (1638-78). Jaswant Singh was famous in his time for another event – he supported the emperor Shah Jahan in his succession battles. This is another story, which I will come to when I talk about the Taj Mahal. I am reading the story of Shah Jahan these days, and it is fascinating. I wonder why the history books in schools rob history of it’s life, it’s romance, it’s blood and gore. History lessons should pulse with the life of the past, and not just be a succession of drab dates that kids have to remember by rote.
These thoughts were far from my brain at that time. We sat in the little alleyways of the town, drinking the famous but sickly-sweet lassi that the town is famous for. Buttered lassi, they call it. However, I must say that this is not a patch on the lassi we get in my home state of Punjab.
Visit done, the car was packed with suitcases and beer. We were off!
Posted on December 17, 2013
This old road trip takes me back to 1996, to early October in 1996, to be precise. Oddly, I am physically much fitter now than I was all those years ago. It is strange how you discover the importance of good health late in life. The drive to Jaipur was much better those days, and we got through relatively quickly. It was indeed a five our drive, with a stop at the Midway Restaurant. That was the only decent restaurant those days. Now, there are many more, but the road between Delhi and Jaipur has deteriorated to the point where it is better to take the train. This is a bit of a pity, as there is a sense of romance and freedom when on the road. There is a smell to the air, the smell of freedom. When you drive on the highway, you can almost smell this. You can breathe deep, and fill your lungs with the air of the universe.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, the princely North Western state of India. Most of the old palaces have been converted into hotels for the rich and famous. On the one hand, it is a pity, but on the other hand, the palaces do get preserved, even though they go out of the reach of the common man. Most of the time it is impossible to enter these fancy palace hotels.
The Hawa Mahal, which is pictured above, is in the centre if you will, of the old city. The women of the palace did not appear in public, and they would peep through the windows, to get a glimpse of what was happening on the street. I am sure that some of them would have had secret paramours on the street, and would signal their readiness, or not, for a midnight rendezvous. The Hawa Mahal was constructed in 1799 by the Maharaja of the times, Sawai Pratap Singh. The main structure has been constructed on a thin platform, and the walls are less than a foot thick. The windows, or ‘jarokhas’ allow air to circulate freely, and this is needed. Jaipur can get blistering hot in summer. These days, they light up the windows at night, and this looks good.
The Hawa Mahal is built in the centre of the market place, with lots of shops and places to eat. When I was standing on the road, looking at the red & pink sandstone Hawa Mahal, and looking at the rows of shops in pink sandstone, I could not help but marvel. The roads would have been very wide for their time. Indeed, even considering the narrow state of most of our city roads, I think that the early kings had an eye for infrastructure.
Standing there, on the roads, you can actually see the Nahargarh Fort, even today. It would have been quite something in those days.
Standing on the street today, I cannot imagine taking a picture like the one above. Look at the poor beggar girl and the snake charmer. Look carefully, and ask yourself what could possibly be different now, compared to 1996. You still have little beggar girls. You still have snake charmers. So, what is the answer to this amazing riddle?
Aha! The answer lies on the pavement! In those days, there was space to walk on the pavement, and in these days not! Those were the days when Jaipur would be filled with foreign tourists alone. Now, you have Indian ones as well as the foreigners. We opened our economy in 1991, and this gave people the money to travel. Maybe, when the day arrives and I use my monopod as a walking stick, we shall have responsible tourism in India, but this is not that day!
Sadly, I don’t have any photographs of Pushkar from that trip. I do have some color pictures of Jaipur. I was traveling with my OM2N, with which I shot black and white, and a cheap Canon point and shoot for color film. I was back in Pushkar recently for the camel fair, but photos from this trip shall come by later.
Pushkar has changed since those days. These days, the town seems over run by westerners who came for God, but stayed for the marijuana. The town is flooded with them, and many of them are from Israel. They were more at home in Pushkar than I was, and this is amazing.
Pushkar is also famous for the Brahma Temple, the only one in the world.
Now, when my ancestors, the Aryans came into India from Central Asia, they brought their four religious “books”, the Vedas. I use the term “books” in inverted commas, because in those days, the Vedas were learned by heart, and in order to distinguish pure blooded priest from the hoi polloi, they made much of the proper pronunciation of the Sanskrit. They also brought their Gods with them, and the early Vedic religion came into India. The beliefs of the Aryans slowly merged with the beliefs of the Dravidians (the original inhabitants of India), and the Vedic religion gave way to the Hindu religion.
The tem “Hindu” is a bastardization of Sindhu, meaning people who lived east of the Sindh river, as the Indus was called those days. Some say the term Hindu was given to us by the Muslim invaders from the Middle East who could not wrap their heads around the complex rituals, and sects that prevailed in India. Tell that to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad!
The three Gods of the Hindu trilogy are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiv, and each has an extremely complex mythology. As per my rather irreverent version of the myth, Brahma created the original universe, and then took early retirement. He is, therefore, not worshipped, and here, in Pushkar, is the only place where he is still worshipped.
The road from Pushkar to Jaipur is good, even now. You can, of course, take the train from Delhi to Ajmer, and then do the last 15 km to Pushkar, but why rob the road of it’s romance? Why indeed?
Posted on December 5, 2013
Next week, I shall start writing about an old road trip to Rajasthan, India. A bunch of us went all over the state, largely by road. This was one great trip. Luckily, we had a driver, so we could travel the state with crates of beer in the car. As we drove, we drank, and listened to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I sometimes wonder how I got any photography done at all. The mood was somewhat – high – during this entire week, and we felt absolutely liberated from the shackles of the office, sales targets, profit targets and all that holy crap that takes up so much of our time and mental space.
I have always loved road trips. There is something about being on the road that brings you back to nature, and brings you back to the very breath of life. It can be devastating, and can be absolutely liberating. Oddly, all those years ago, the road between Delhi and Jaipur was actually quite good, and you could sail through in what seemed to be a breeze. We normally stopped at a mid-point restaurant for some food, tea and some alcoholic stuff. It was a strange combination, but who cared? The world was a wee bit younger, we were much younger, and our constitutions could handle all kinds of rubbish. This was in the days before salt-and-pepper hair, in the days when our natural hair color was all black, and the future stood before us in all its glory. The future is still there, but just a little less of it, and this is the time when I, and people of my age, start to think and, we start to wonder if we have made a meaningful difference to the world.
This was also the time when digital photography did not exist. I learned all my photography shooting with black and white film. I was an extremely reluctant, and extremely late convert to digital photography, and my Olympus OM-2n camera was my beloved companion. I still have that camera, and shall never give it up. I have a Nikon F75 for the times that I shoot in film, which is rare. My ambition is to buy a Nikon D800e, and for film, the king of them all – the Nikon F6! Sadly, it is so damned hard to find film these days.
I did find a lab in Shanghai to process my B&W film, one in Singapore, one in Bombay, and now I have found one in Delhi. Yay!!
So, what you will see in the next posts, is some stuff from that old road trip, shot in black and white.
For good measure, the picture above, is one of the first pictures I ever shot.
When my dad bought me that OM2n in my younger days, the doorway to the wonderful world of photography was opened up to me, and magic entered my life.
Posted on December 2, 2013
A couple of days bak, I had to drop a young chap to the station in New Delhi. The poor fella could not get a reservation, and I was charged with ensuring that he got into the train in Delhi, so that he could get home to his folks in Bombay, or Mumbai, as some people call the city these days. The poor chap had never been to Delhi, and was petrified of making it to the station alone.
Now, when we got to the platform, I had to shove him into the train. You can’t see him in the picture, because he is squashed deep in that crowd of people. Squashed deep somewhere. Watching him squeeze his way into the unreserved compartment, I was reminded of similar train journeys when I was in college. As soon as we would get to college, which was in a town called Kharagpur, in East India, we would book our tickets home for the Durga Puja Holidays that generally take place around October. Those days, we would get cardboard tickets, with the ticket seller’s comments in blue ball pen ink on the ticket. We would never get a confirmed seat, and by the time we would get close to the holidays, the tickets would have become damp with the humid weather, rendering the writing illegible. And so, we would get into the unreserved compartment, at 10 pm at night, in conditions very similar to the one above, to start our 46 – 48 hour train journey back home.
Now, a lot of tourists go “goo-goo” and “ga-ga” about the sights, smells and sounds of India, about the romance of drinking tea in the earthen cups – the kullars, about getting food from the platforms, only to complain of diarrhea later. When you travel 46-48 hours in an unreserved compartment in India, with one hand on your butt to protect your precious ten rupees from the pick-pocket’s greedy fingers, then you get India up front and close. Here, I must add that, if you are traveling in states like Bihar the hand on your butt protects it from the lecherous fingers of a grizzled old Bihari villager who fancies his young boy the same way he fancies his young girl.
Now, as I was saying, you get India’s sights shoved into your eyeballs, the smells shoved into your nostrils, and the sounds shoved into your ear-drums. You need to be carefully joyous when you get a place to sit on the floor, as someone else normally wants it, and you never know what has happened there before.
Contrary to what you think at the age of 17 and 18, these do NOT make great stories for your future kids and grandkids. I tried telling my kids about these tales of bravery and endurance, and all I got was an annoyed snort, as I seemed to have disturbed their WhatsApp or SnapChat conversation. The glories, no matter how exaggerated, of these grand old stories pass over them, like white clouds pass over a desert, with nary a raindrop in them.
My son once did say that he felt sorry for me.
So, how did we get there this time?
Since those days, the ball-pen has been replaced by computerized tickets. When we got to the station, the chaps behind the ticket collectors were standing, not sitting. One hand was scratching their dirty bums, and the other hands were waving computer cables around. It seems that the computers had crashed, and the chaps at the counter, in the brilliance of their insight, had yanked the cables from the computers, to show the software chaps that there was a problem. No hope at this counter, I felt, and what little chance ( 1 in a million) of getting him a confirmed seat went up like a puff of that white cloud in the proverbial desert. Not to be outdone by this glitch, I ordered the young fella to follow me, and dashed off to the ticket counter for unreserved tickets. Remembering the famous Sardar of Indian jokes, I bought two platform tickets for myself. Two. Not one. Just in case I lost one. Anyway, each ticket cost me 5 Indian rupees, or 3 US cents!
His ticket for a 22 hour journey cost 290 Indian rupees. Roughly 4.4 US Dollars. Cheap. But, look at the conditions he had to travel in. When you pay peanuts, you get to travel like monkeys, and sometimes with them.
Since India has become an unsafe place since I was a teenager, we have to put our bags into X-Ray screening machines practically everywhere. Too many terrorists, you see. We had to put ours through the machine in the picture, even though the machine was broken. The protocol must not break, however.
We finally reached the platform, and I swear, half of India’s population was standing on the platform, waiting to be squeezed into the train. Half. No exaggeration.
There is no better way to get a sense of India’s population than to stand on a platform, especially during the holiday rush. Or, you can travel by bus in the interior, village markets. This, I have done as well. So, here we were, with half of India’s population at the platform, all ready at the quick to jump into the train as it approached the platform.
And then, it arrived, as you have seen.
I left the poor bugger, with nostalgic memories swelling my heart, a tear drop at the corner of my eye, and a sense of what a brave lad I was in my youth. As I watched the sun go down, I felt proud of myself.
And, I did spare a thought for the poor young blighter who was about to get mashed in that train!
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