Driving along the grand National Highway 8, connecting Delhi to Mumbai, we passed Ajmer on the way to Jodhpur. Ajmer is home to the shrine of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. Dev, our driver, mentioned that the city was also famous for its nearby marble market in Makrana. It was marble from this region that was used in the building of the Taj Mahal.
The sun was beating down on us as we moved further towards the Thar desert. The landscape being drier, though still without the sand dunes that would have been prevalent in Jaisalmer. We had difficulty keeping our eyes open and we were worried that our driver might also doze off. I was keen on not getting into a road traffic accident a second time and kept checking in the mirror to confirm Dev was awake as well. My mother was finding the heat very taxing for her eyes and I was wishing the car windows had been tinted or had some shades to provide some relief from the desert heat.
We stopped midway for a lunch of vegetable pilau and spinach and paneer curry under a tent. We eventually reached Jodhpur and were taken to Meharangarh fort.
We met our Rajput guide at the entrance of the fort, which was built in 1459. It was a steep climb to enter the fort and by the time we came to what looked like the entrance, the guide told us that we were on the 15th floor of the fort. Gasping for breath, we were thankful for the guide’s lecture to give us a minute of rest. The guide paused by a plaque and pointed to the opposite side of the fort wall, where it looked as if someone had patched up a square hole in the wall of the fort. The guide said that at the time that the fort was built, the King had been adviced that if a man was buried alive in the foundation of the fort, the fort would withstand the test of time and onslaught of enemies. The King’s Meharan (palanquin-bearer) volunteered to be the sacrificial being and the patch was the last stone placed as he was buried alive. While the story of the sacrificed man is true, it is not clear whether the fort derived its name from the buried man or the Rajasthani word for sun, which the ruling clan was connected with. It was a ghastly tale of origin for such a magnificent fort that still stood strong and powerful.
Walking up the ramparts, we had a partial view of the city below and we saw the reason why it was also known as the blue city. Most houses were painted in dark blue as the high caste brahmins of Jodhpur liked painting their houses blue.
We first visited the fort museum. In one section, there was a display of palanquins that had been used over time. The one that stood out was a more recent one specially made for the King’s mother, for her visit to England. Her palanquin was fashioned as a telephone booth. I can’t imagine how she could have been comfortable travelling in that booth though.
The next section was the royal cradle museum, in the former women’s section of the palace, which had some of the cradles that had been used in the royal family. A more recent contraption was the electric cradle that was gifted, by the Department of Public Health, to the newborn Maharajah in 1948. The cradle was designed such that it would automatically swing, when it was switched on.
It was also from this room that the married women, who still had living husbands, threw rose petals at the Maharajah and his retinue, when he left for or returned successfully from a war. Women whose husbands had passed away were considered inauspicious. Among the exhibits in this room, another interesting exhibit was a display of dumbbells, which the guide mentioned had been provided by the Maharajah to the royal women so that they could exercise and keep fit, despite being confined to their zenana. There was also a painting of the women exercising with the dumbbells.
We visited a couple of apartments open to the public: the Phool Mahal, or the entertainment hall of the Maharajah; the Maharajah’s apartment and the hall of public audience. The artist who had designed Phool Mahal had died midway and the King had left the hall unfinished as it was, in memory of the artist.
From the fort, we saw a smaller monument a slight distance away, which we were told was Jaswant Thada or the crematorium of the royal family. As we left the fort, we saw at the entrance gateway, small hands imprinted into the wall. The guide said that they were the hands of the women who had committed sati and that sati originated in Rajasthan, during the Mughal invasion era. The practice was initiated to prevent the abuse of the women at the hands of invading armies, once their King had been killed. While the suicide practice had been initially a voluntary one, it soon became part of the culture, especially among the nobility, and women who had lost their husbands were expected to commit suicide. The practice was only banned in 1952. It was horrible to think of the women, who had placed their hands on the wall as a last imprint of their existence before burning themselves on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands.
The tour operator had booked Mandore Guesthouse in Jodhpur, which had been one of the places I had specifically requested for during this tour. I was interested in Mandore guesthouse for two reasons: that it offered a traditional Rajasthani hut-style accommodation at a family-run guesthouse and secondly, because the guesthouse owners ran a community volunteer programme in the nearby Bishnoi village.
Mandore, the former Marwar capital, is about half-an-hour away from the city area. Myth has it that it is the birthplace of Princess Mandodri, the wife of King Ravana of Sri Lanka, in the Ramayana. We visited the nearby Mandore gardens, where the cenotaphs of the Maharanis were. In front of the entrance to the garden, there were many stalls set up. It being the day after Eid, the festivities were still continuing in the neighbourhood. The gardens seemed a popular hang-out place for the locals as much as it was for the langurs.
After our short walk in the gardens as we were not too keen to be wandering around the cenotaphs at dusk, we returned to the entrance area. We spotted a boy playing some lovely folk music on a traditional Rajasthani musical instrument. My mother was very much taken by the music and the string instrument so we asked the boy where we could get a similar instrument. The boy replied that the instrument was 500 rupees but he wouldn’t sell it, as it was his living. We weren’t able to make him understand that we were not trying to buy it from him but from the place he had it made or had bought from, so we gave up and returned to the guesthouse.
We were a little early as we had requested dinner at the guesthouse around 7-7.30p.m. so we decided to sit in the garden till it was ready. The proprietor of the guesthouse introduced himself and spoke to us about the village and his days growing up there. As a poor boy growing up in the village, he said he dreamt of speaking English and wearing trendy clothes and had to endure jokes made by his college mates, when he went there on a bicycle. He was proud of all he had achieved since then and especially of his initiative of giving back to his community. The idea for the guesthouse and tourism venture, he said, sprung from his strong feeling that the palaces and forts though a great testament to the past were not where life was and that India, the current, living India was found elsewhere among the rural communities. It was with this opinion that he had founded his tour company, which offered tours to rural villages. He added that he felt that tourism should be a two-way process, not just tourists coming and enjoying sites but contributing meaningfully to the communities they visit. He felt that his venture provided that by combining short volunteer programmes in surrounding villages, which enabled the voluntourist to experience village life first hand and get to know the residents. He said that to make it more attractive for the volunteer, he incorporated special interest themes, like learning puppet-making or henna designs or cooking into the volunteer programme, to enable a cultural learning as well.
When he initially started his community tourism concept, he said it had been difficult to sell the idea to major travel operators in Delhi. However, over the years, his venture had built its own name for the volunteering programmes and had even been mentioned in the previous year’s Lonely Planet guide (2005) and he had been invited to attend a conference organized by ILO and UNCDF on responsible tourism in Bangkok. Most of the people who visited the place, he said, were those who had been recommended the place by others who had come earlier.
Dinner was announced and he invited us over to the table that had been set up for us in the garden. His lovely daughter-in-law served us the home-cooked dinner which did not taste like the Rajasthani meals we had on the road or at the hotels, but very much Sri Lankan (rice with dhal, okra curry, potatoes, pappadam). The garden was lovely but full of mosquitoes and we were slightly worried with all the dengue news going about in India.
Finishing our dinner, we went back to our cottage. The accommodation was as described in the webpage, but the only drawback was that in the middle of the night, the a/c stopped working and it became extremely uncomfortable, as there was no window. The walls seemed to have absorbed the heat of the day and were releasing it in the night.
Despite the air conditioning system that stopped working and the uncomfortable, sleepless night, it was a lovely stay due to the wonderful hospitality of the family and their responsible tourism venture, which I enjoyed more than my visit to the fort.