Destination Divali

After Jaiselmer, back on the road to another famous ‘J city’ in Rajasthan, Jodhpur. Sounds like an effete kind of pants…yes indeed, the horsey-set pants, jodpurs, that my mom made me wear, were invented in this city.

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On the way, through more typical flat, dry landscape, we made a heart-warming stop at the Sambhali Trust project, another local initiative supported by us Dragoman travelers. The Sambali trust is a charitable project that works for the empowerment of women and girls in Rajasthan, enabling the underprivileged, including Dalits and a few boys, to obtain basic life skills and access to formal education.

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The school the Trust operates also trains women in employable skills like sewing. We started this visit with a game in the school yard (which also functions as a garden growing food). We were joined by about 50 kids, who taught us a field version of British Bulldog. A couple of our group members (women of course) ended up winning the game, as the last to survive running the gambit from one side of the field to the other. After the game we were serenaded by the assembled kids. Then we lunched with them.

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After lunch, Archie fetched his guitar from the truck and we repaid the serenade with some songs that quite enchanted the kids.

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The school in particular is supported by a local businessman-aristocrat who runs an adjacent trades school and donates space for the Trust’s activities. Throughout the trip we discussed poverty and other social issues and the local response to very visible problems, learning from our guides the sometimes conflicting attitudes, for example, to the reality of begging. It was encouraging to not only view but participate in local self-help projects.

As we traveled south, the terrain became increasingly rugged, as we left the flatness of the Thar desert region and reached the edges of a mountain range running north-south for 1600 km. to the bottom of India. The range marks the edge of what’s called the ‘Deccan trap’ one of the largest accumulations of ancient lava flows, covering about 500,000 sq.km. northeast of Mumbai. The mountains block the monsoons from moving inland, creating the lush coastal plain.

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India is full of rocks, so it is not surprising that they are put to use, collected in massive quarries and piled up into houses, buildings, walls and forts, sometimes hundreds of km away.

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After struggling over sometimes very tough roads through these rock piles we reached the edge of Jodhpur…

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…looking for our first ‘homestay’: “we will make our way to our accommodation, rooms that have been set up by local families in their own homes for visitors. We will be splitting up into 2 or 3 small groups for our homestays” (Dragoman notes).

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Not quite. In fact we entered a gated community at the foot of the Jodhpur Royal Family Palace, created as a modern suburban development by the local Royal Family’s raj (more about that later).

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The community consisted of several modern streets lined with buildings like ours, some not quite completed, some in a distinct style, reflecting very obvious wealth.

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Ours belongs to a family of four, probably a professional dad, a son about 12 and a charming girl of 9, plus a coterie of servants, Nepalese I think, all men, with a decent bunkhouse attached to the garage.

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We ate well, in the luxurious dining room, or on the wonderful rooftop patio. Our rooms were quite elegant. Greg and I shared, as we often did, alternating between the double bed and the floor.

Our main activity in Jodhpur was a visit to the fort. Built in the late 15th Century CE, the colossal fort of Mehrangarh is the largest in the whole of Rajasthan, and has never been taken by force. The fort complex itself is huge and spreads over thehill looking over Jodhpur – it houses the Maharaja’s Palace as well as a number of temples, extensive gardens and some of the most well-stocked museums and galleries in all of India. (Dragoman notes).

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Jodhpur Fort

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In fact the main event for most of our fellow travelers was the zip line from the fort’s walls (discernible as a spot in the air on the left in the Jodhpur Fort shot above). Pete and I, the incorrigible nerds, headed directly to the fort instead.

Mehrangarh was started in 1459 by Rao Jodha, raj of the Rathore clan, to move his capital from a less secure site at Mandore, about 9 km. north of this new site, a 400-foot high volcanic outcrop previously known as Marwar. The Rathore clan has a distinguished history, originating in the Pratiharas of Mandavyapura who ruled at Mandore from the 6th century. In 1395, a Rathore leader, marrying a Pratiharas princess, received the Mandore fort as a dowry. Once a significant force in Rajasthan, the Rathores’ empire has been reduced to forts in Bikaner and Jodhpur.

Apparently, Rao Jodha displaced the sole occupant of the Marwar hill, a hermit, who condemned the site to eternal drought. Jodha supposedly tried to cancell the curse by burying a local alive in the fort’s foundations. Not entirely successful, as drought returns every 3-4 years.

Mehrangarh, the sun-fort, has Sanskrit roots: ‘Mihir’, sun or Sun-deity; ‘garh’, fort.

 

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Fortunately we were not visiting the fort on 30 September 2008 when a huge crowd of religious pilgrims panicked at the gates, killing about 250 of them.

No crowd at all this day. Maybe everybody was zip-lining.

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We immediately entered the really extensive museum, located on several levels of the massive structure.

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I spent about two hours wandering though the galleries.The various levels of the museum were devoted to different art forms, impressive collections too voluminous to reproduce here.

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Chariots. This is an Elephant Howdah

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Models of various forms of human carriage, from the medieval to this Victorian palanquin (for a royal visit to  Queen Victoria’s Jubilee).

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A large collection of 18th century paintings, largely of heroic scenes.

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Suits of armour and weapons.

The palace sits above the topmost gallery.

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Fabulous rooms for reception of visitors and relaxation.

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Climbing further, one reaches the parapets, with a view of the surrounding terrain, and the town below on the right..

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A prominent feature of the town is its blueness. In fact Jodhpur is commonly known as ‘the Blue City’.

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Blue City from the fort wall. After spending the whole morning in the fort, I bumped into Pete on the parapets, and we descended into town for, what else, a shopping foray.

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Down through the ‘blue light district’ into a maze of narrow streets clogged with cars and bikes and shoppers.

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Pete stopped at a miniscule corner shop to try some perfumes as a gift for ‘she who remains behind’. Great stuff, a terrific range of scents. I got one for the spousal unit. Further down the street, in a rather bizarre incident, we encountered, or were encountered by, a guy who claimed he had met us at the homestay. Either that was true or the guy had extraordinary powers. He knew we were into rugs so he dragged us down, down the street, then up, up into what he claimed was the best rug warehouse in all of India (they can’t all be ‘best’). Anyway, in a small loft a well-practiced salesman (they can all be ‘well-practiced’) dragged out endless samples, some extraordinarily beautiful scarves and rugs, especially rugs with mystical deer woven into them. Fortunately I already had my bunch of shawls, dispatched homeward, and a rug bought in Turkey years ago that only me and the dog like, so I did not need another one.

I went out and through a massive throng retraced our steps back to the perfume shop. On the way I was grabbed by another perfume shop guy (more extra sensory perception) and took the opportunity to check his prices. After a monumental struggle through thousands of pedestrians, cars, bikes, even a police van making things worse rather than better, I made it back to the first perfume shop. Where I decided that the other guy had better prices, so back through the throngs to buy another scent and then try to find the rug den. The locals seems exceptionally attentive to foreigners: when I got close the rug denizens waved me in. There in the loft was Pete with a new set of packages, including one of the fine rugs.

We continued down the alleyways to the large open market, Nai Sadak I think.

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Here, not surprisingly, we bumped into the zip-line gang, who had done that and the fort as well. They were looking for something to eat. I think Mike wanted fish…

Pete and I grabbed a tuk-tuk to go back to the homestay, to deposit our loot. After a short rest, we thought we should get a bite. By happenstance the lady of the house was heading into town, so we hitched a ride and some advice on restaurants. She dropped us at a very modern place on the main drag, not far from the community’s gate…

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…where we had really excellent thalis, and milkshakes, for next to nothing.

Sorry Pete, go ahead.

After a good burp we flagged down another tuk tuk to head for the Umaid Bhawan Palace overlooking our homestay.

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The tuk tuk was already occupied by a small family returning from a shopping trip. No matter, white man rules: the driver diverted to the palace. However, we had a fine chat with the rightful occupants, and I suspect we paid most of their fare home.

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Umaid Bhawan Palace is one of the largest residences in the world (before Bill Gates etc.). It is the modern seat of the Jodhpur Royal Family, Rathores I presume. I guess the museum crowds made life in the Mehrangarh fort castle difficult…

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The Raj opened up part of his home as a museum, apparently did good works like improving local water supply, and started the development of the gated community housing our homestay. The museum had some interesting stuff, was really full of visitors- the real treat was the impressive architecture, like a cathedral.

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From this palace we could see our home below. I had heard from the caretaker of an impressive mosque in the community that there was a path to the palace. I mentioned this to Pete, and he, against his better judgment decided to track it down instead of taking the long road down the slope. We could not find any trace, and ended up making a long journey of maybe three km in the wrong direction….the sort of mistake that typically I make.

We were almost barred from re-entering the community by a fiercely protective dad-dog, uncharacteristically filling the mother-role.

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Oddly, this dog was the only security on this road into the community. At the other end there were a couple of security guards we had to go through to leave, even to use the (finally!) functional ATM in the elegant shops just outside the gate.

On our last night we had a fine meal on the rooftop patio, and nestled down with a Kingfisher or two awaiting the Divali celebrations. This was the big day, the end of a holiday that seemed to go on forever. I remember our beloved Rekha and Hazel remarking during our Nepal segment that Divali was a highlight of the year for them, in faraway London.

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Houses all lit up

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The homestay family started things off,  the truck be damned.

Every house around us had its own display. In the near and far distance on all sides there was spectacular bomblasts. From the patio I tried to capture the flowering burst of light (Japanese for fireworks, hanabi, fire-flower). It took dozens of attempts to get the timing right for a few…

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Our journey to Divali ends in a blaze of colour.

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