Yesterday my boss walked into my room to find me staring out of my office window, apparently lost in my own thoughts. He waited a while before clearing his throat and saying, “Thinking about that Rajasthan Trip of yours again?” My sheepish smile confirmed his guess that I had indeed been thinking my recent 11-day trip to Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh, Chittorgarh and Udaipur.
It has been 2 weeks since I returned to Mumbai, but you are still in my mind during all my waking and sleeping hours. The bright blue skies, starlit nights, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and peacock calls are something that I sorely miss. It was a trip that challenged and reiterated in equal measure my notions of who and what you are. It was also a trip that delighted, surprised, awed, and sometimes saddened me.
Do you know that my visit generated 1,752 photographs? That 90 percent of the photographs have been deleted is testimony to my photography skills, and not due to any fault of yours. How clearly I remember the first of the many photographs I clicked: the arid yellow landscape, green shrubs, the bright blue skies and a woman clad in bright-coloured clothes.
Bikaner Railway Station was the first of the many surprises you sprung up on me. Are you sure that it was not a sprawling haveli once-upon-a-time, which then got converted to a railway station? When I posted a picture of the railway station on my Facebook timeline, many people did not believe that it was a railway station !
Continuing with the theme of architecture, may I say that I loved the way you have taken care to maintain a unique architectural identity for each city. This was particularly true in Jaisalmer, where everything, and I mean everything from centuries-old havelis to police stations, to chowks, to hotels, to hospitals to lamp posts are made from the same golden yellow sandstone and limestone. I also loved Bikaner’s deep red sandstone, Jodhpur’s light pink sandstone, and Udaipur’s painted frescoes on whitewashed walls.
After a lifetime of seeing photographs and films and reading about them in books, magazines and blogs, I finally got to see some of your famous forts — Junagarh, Jaisalmer, Mehrangarh, Kumbhalgarh, and Chittorgarh. Each of these left me breathless and sometimes dizzy with delight. Though I liked all of them for different reasons, there is something about Kumbhalgarh Fort that made it just a wee bit extra special. The sight of an illuminated Kumbhalgarh Fort and a full moon shimmering above it will stay with me for the rest of my life.
If the forts, palaces, museums, cenotaphs and memorials brought a large part of my school history book alive through the tales and exploits of Rana Kumbha, Rana Pratap, the Battle of Haldighati, Chetak, Panna, Udai Singh…
… then the Jain Temples of Bhandaesar, Lodhrava and Ranakpur sparked off a dormant interest in everything about Jainism. It is an interest that has almost turned into a quest after my return home.
I was glad to discover two places that were not overrun with tourists. In fact, in both the places I was the only one around — the Wood Fossil Park at Akal near Jaisalmer, and the Rao Jodha Desert Park near Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. They were real finds and I hope it gets overrun only with tourists who will love and understand the treasures that you have and not just any tourist who wants to tick a place off on a list that says “been there, done that”.
And thank you so much for having given me the opportunity to meet fellow bloggers. I finally met Puru & Ekta of Shadows Galore in Jaisalmer. It’s really funny, you know, we being neighbours and all with they based in Pune and me in Mumbai. And yet, we were fated to meet in your land. And then, in Jodhpur, I met Monishikha of Mini’s blog, and spent an evening with her discussing watercolours and going through her entire portfolio. What to say, I came away with two more paintings of hers.:-)
Dear Rajasthan, this trip will be memorable for another reason: the range of hotels you hosted me at — from the heritage Bhairon Vilas at Bikaner, to the not-heritage-but-equally-grand Devi Bhawan at Jodhpur, to the nice and new-but still-finding-their-feet Haveli Resorts at Kumbhalgarh, to the so-so Panorama Guest House at Udaipur, to the friendly, but dirty and smelly Royale in Jaisalmer.
And food, that finger-licking food that you dished out meal after meal: safed aloo, daal baati, gatte ka saag, ker sangri, pyaaz ki kachori, mirchi wada, mawa ki kachori, rasmalai, rabri, kaju sonpapdi, kaju gulkand barfi, ghotua, gujiya, ghewar … Suffice it to say that I have never eaten sweets like this before and I don’t think I ever will again. I have amended my usual “I don’t like sweets and I don’t eat them” to “I don’t like sweets, but will eat them if they are from Jagdish Mishthan Bhandar (JMB) near Suraj Pol in Udaipur.” Yes, I am that specific and choosy now. You have spoiled me, you know ;-)
I was constantly being told that Mumbaikars are pretty “flexible and adapting”. But did you have to display different weather conditions to test this hypotheses? I felt cold in Bikaner, was wet & cold in Jaisalmer, delighted with the spring like weather in Jodhpur, almost froze in Kumbhalgarh, and got roasted in Chittorgarh and Udaipur. Thank you for the weather show, Rajasthan, but really it wasn’t necessary.
Dear Rajasthan, many things about you wowed me. But I regret to say that there were also certain aspects about you that disturbed me, saddened me and raised many questions in my mind.
- The remnants of Sati made me very uncomfortable. Be it the hand imprints of women who had committed Sati outside the forts/palaces or the plaques dedicated to dead Rajput kings and their wives who committed Sati at the cenotaphs, I had a hard time reminding myself of the context and trying to be objective. What made me most uncomfortable was seeing people still worshiping at the Sati Mata Temples. But what scared and disgusted me was the tour guides glorifying Sati.
- You claim a rich folk music heritage. And rightly so. But if you ignore the very musicians who maintain and nurture that heritage, and let them fend for themselves, you will soon have no heritage to talk about. I cannot forget this musician couple and their children
beggingsinging in the hot sun in Chittorgarh. I saw them when I arrived and I saw them, still standing, when I left 5 hours later.
- Jaisalmer has made it to the top of my list of the dirtiest cities in India, knocking off Varanasi. I was appalled to see the open and overflowing sewers, the piled up garbage, and camel and cow dung and what not all over the place. For a city that receives so much tourist footfall, your infrastructure is sadly lacking
- It is evident that all the places that I visited, with the possible exception of Jodhpur, are almost entirely dependent on tourists. What happens in the long, hot and dry summers when it is not the tourist season? How do the people support themselves? What do they do?
- Do I look that different that you thought I was a foreigner? Constant questions of “Which country you are from?” was not funny at all.
I could go on and on, but just realised what a long letter this has turned out to be. I love writing letters and this was a perfect opportunity to share with you the highs and lows of my trip. Not all the highs and lows, mind you, just some of them. For if I write everything in this letter, there will be nothing left for me to write in the series of blogposts that I have planned on my Rajasthan trip. :-)
But let me leave you with a precious memory of my last day in Rajasthan, before boarding my train from Udaipur. That afternoon, after lunch, I went to the Sajjan Niwas Garden and had the most refreshing nap ever on its lawns. The cool fragrant grass and bird call was soporific and I couldn’t have asked for a better send off.
Thank you, dear Rajasthan, for a trip so memorable. I think I now understand the meaning of the word, “exotic”.
Lots of love,
PS: If someone is coming to Mumbai from Udaipur, I wouldn’t mind a kilo or two of Kaju Sonpapdi from JMB. I have severe withdrawal symptoms, and you wouldn’t want me to suffer, would you?