Jaisalmer to Jodhpur
To mix things up on yet another lengthy drive between the poster cities of Rajasthan, our driver, Anand, took us on a less travelled route via Osian. This town is home to a 12th century Jain temple, Sachiya Mata, from which you can see all of Osian. Always happy for the opportunity to stretch my legs on a journey, we followed Anand’s instructions to get to the temple (he stayed with car and luggage – much appreciated).
We walked down the main street for 200m where the temple would be on our right. We were about to take a turn to find the entrance and some women sitting in the middle of the intersection told us to take the next turn…then asked for money. I should’ve known by this point to always have a few rupees within easy access, but I didn’t. I thanked them and kept walking with the intent of fishing something out to pay them on our return.
We climbed the many, many steps to this temple, whose views of the area as we ascended were marred by the bright blue tarpaulins over the carved stone archways, in place to protect the devoted from the blaring desert sun.
On our descent from the temple, the helpful women were waiting, not giving us the chance to make an offer of payment before moving in with attitude and personal space issues. I think they expected resistance, but I had always intended to pay, and handed over the money. The tiny eyes that had been watching the exchange leapt at the opportunity to start their own little lobbying skip beside us as we walked back to the car, chanting their demands all the way to the end of the street. At which point they desisted, not being able or willing to pass the invisible barrier between the end of the street and the dusty car park.
The real India is enlightening and joyous in its positive encounters with humanity, but the negative elements of poverty and lack of education sit with you for a long time. It was a common sight of a morning at round-about intersections to see many people gathered, standing and waiting in the hope of being offered work for the day. And it would not matter in what capacity they would be working, labourer, carpenter, anything…as long as it was paid. Unfortunately, it can be far too easy as a visitor to climb back into the comforts of the airconditioned car and drive on. And, thus, we arrived at RAAS Hotel, Jodhpur, within the walls of the old city, yet private and secluded behind its own high wooden gates (see here for our article on RAAS Hotel).
Our first morning in Jodhpur we swung by Jaswant Thada on our way to Mehrangarh Fort – another aesthetically gifted monument to the royal dead commissioned by their grieving beloved. Not only did we get gorgeous architecture, but also a view of the entire city, albeit somewhat shrouded in the cloud of pollution. We could even see the silhouette of Umaid Bhawan Palace in the distance through the haze.
Mehrangarh Fort is one of the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site listed hill top forts of Rajasthan, and is a very popular destination for tourists and pilgrims alike. We were glad to have made a relatively early start to the day; there were a few people about, but nothing compared to the amount arriving as we were leaving. Our original itinerary had us visiting the fort the evening that we arrived in Jodhpur, but our wise driver, Anand, said it was better to visit in the morning – so many people go for sunset, and we were very happy that we followed his advice.
It was quite a hike from the ticket purchase booth to the actual entry – all on a steep cobble stone slope; quite precarious for the foolhardy fashionistas attempting to navigate it in teetering heels! A few musicians on the way up were placed strategic distances apart so as not to encroach on busker cash flow. Clearly experienced at this gig, but also not used to too many people this early in the morning, they were still setting up and not too bothered to push for funds from the early risers. The offer of the services of guides was not as insistent as at other places, which was a nice relief, AND we were able to use the credit card for our entry (anything to save cash in these times of terrible cash shortage!).
We enjoyed the complimentary audio guide at Mehrangarh Fort and learnt about Gaj Singh II who succeeded his father at the age of 4 (his father was killed in a plane crash). This angelic looking little boy foreshadowed what his reign would be like on his coronation day (Rajyabhishek ceremony), when as he received monetary offerings from many noblemen, he would ‘pay them forward’ to the next man in line. Many thought this was an auspicious sign – the innocent boy was not keeping the money, but giving it to someone more needy than himself.
Umaid Bhawan Palace
Umaid Bhawan Palace is the sixth largest private residence in the world, with one wing now managed by the Taj Hotel group (only 64 rooms, but they treat every guest “like a king and queen”). We had heard about an exclusive ‘royal tour’ option that included not just access to the onsite museum, but a detailed commentary through the public areas of the hotel. When researching this option online, the listed price had been 2,000 rps per person, which was then taken off the dining bill if you stayed for lunch. Our man at our accommodation, RAAS Hotel, rang to sort it out for us and told us that the price was now 6,000 rps per person ($120 AUD !!). Clearly being announced as TripAdvisor ‘Hotel of the Year’ has seen the popularity shoot up, and they felt they could charge three times more (AND they no longer removed that price from your dining bill!).
We threw caution to the wind and decided to go for it anyway, taking comfort in the money we would be saving on the Sri Lankan leg of our trip! So our concierge took care of our reservation, booking for both a 1pm lunch and a ‘royal tour.’ Unfortunately, when we arrived they had no record of us wanting the tour, only our lunch reservation. But of course, nothing is a problem and we were encouraged to pop next door to the museum section of the palace (open to all general public for 100 rps) and they would be ready for us when we returned. Fantastic. So we enjoyed our time in the museum, full of photographs and information on the royal family and the palace.
Construction on the palace began in 1929 and was completed in 1943, commissioned by the then maharaja, Hanwant Singh, who died in a plane crash in 1952. It wasn’t only built as a showcase for the royal family of Jodhpur, it was built in a time of famine and supplied employment to thousands in the city. His son, the current maharaja (who ascended the thrown at the age of 4), still lives with his family in the private residence wing of the palace.
Gaj Singh II appears an interesting chap, and is a hero to his people. He built many hospitals in Jodhpur and funded the Indira Gandhi Canal, which brought water to the desert state of Rajasthan. When all titles and “privy purses” were stripped from royal families in the 1970s, Gaj Singh was determined to preserve his heritage by forming trusts and companies to protect and reinvest his assets. In listening to some of India’s best conservationists and environmentalists, he was able to save his legacy and revitalise his city. The people still revere the maharaja, and his photo stands in pride of place in the homes of the people of Jodhpur.
After drooling over a very nice collection of vintage cars (most of which looked like they were still in good order), we went back to the hotel. We were bowed to and ushered through the ‘no entry’ fence that separated the hotel from the museum section of the palace. Nice touch, I thought. Then when we got to the covered driveway where guests alight from their cars, all of a sudden, startlingly loud trumpets and drums began and four people holding poles that supported a red velvet canopy sprang out to cover the steps. We instinctively went to step back out of the way before we realised that we were the focus of all this pomp and ceremony! We climbed the steps under the plush symbol of royalty, and stood grinning at each other until the fanfare stopped.
We turned and entered the glorious Indo-Art deco foyer. There we were greeted by another staff member offering an orange forehead dot adornment before moving on to the next step in our ‘ceremony’. This involved us being ushered through the Palm Court; a round, twin-staircased reception room made of pink sandstone and the same marble as the Taj Mahal at Agra.
The doors in the centre of the Palm Court led to the expansive octagonal lounge area, enhanced at this time of the year by a giant Christmas tree that stood in the centre of the marbled inlay floor. The symmetry of the space with the classical domed roof was strikingly beautiful. Clusters of furniture rimmed the edge of the space in groups of one sofa, two arm chairs and a mirror-topped table combination, designed so that when sitting you could see the rest of the room in the mirror (even the sofa had a mirror in it! – all made in Mehrangarh Fort for this room in this palace).
We were shown to one of the gold trimmed red velvet lounges and received a glass of Indian sparkling wine from a silver tray carried by white-gloved hands. This was our first sample of Indian wine, and we were very pleasantly surprised. We had been avoiding the local drop, but this label was good – Sula (as if you would be given rubbish at a palace!). We must try their other grape varietals while we are in the country.
The official tour followed and our palace guide, Jitendra, did an outstanding job. He had only been working at Umaid Bhawan Palace for five years, but this young man took such pride in his position and his work, and was well-versed in all aspects of the palace, confidently answering all of our questions.
While on the tour, walking in the footsteps of the maharaja and maharani, marvelling at the design, materials and beauty of every single thing in the palace, it was fun to imagine life as a royal. But imagination only takes you so far, and true comprehension of such a life is impossible. No wonder Gaj Singh and Prince Charles are good friends; not only are they the same age, but few would have a genuine connection that is based in absolute understanding.
Jitendra deposited us at the Risala restaurant, hailed as one of the best fine dining experiences in India. As chairs were deftly slid underneath us, another red, plush, padded stool appeared for my handbag (!) and we settled in comfortably at a window table with views of the topiary gardens. The hand-made Villeroy and Boch place settings in royal blue with gold trim awaited our first course, and our waiter, Bopal, poured us another glass of Sula sparkling wine. Service at Umaid Bhawan Palace is as you would expect: discreet, attentive and charming, and Bopal was a master. His service numbered over 30 years and he took immense pride in his work and role at Umaid Bhawan Palace.
While a restaurant of this calibre caters to all tastes and offers many cuisines, we chose to be pampered with a range of delicious and exquisitely presented Indian dishes. We thought we had ordered a modest meal, sharing two starters and one main between us, plus bread, but we were amply sated at the end. Grateful for the opportunity to stretch our legs on a final wander through the palace, we leisurely made our way back to the entrance and our driver was called to collect us.
Full to the brim and not really wanting to exert ourselves too much, Anand took us spice shopping just outside the walls of the old town on our way back to our hotel. We spent a small fortune on spices and will have to transport them home in a newly purchased, sturdy bag that will hold all the textile bits and pieces we have amassed.
A rural area outside of Jodhpur is home to a religious sect called the Bishnoi, who are worshippers of nature. The cluster of villages in the area give visitors a true taste of tribal India, with their farming, pottery, cooking and rug weaving.
As with most areas of the state, cows would walk down the middle of busy highways, not at all phased by the cars. They do not alter their plodding pace, only occasionally pausing in their trajectory if, for example, they are crossing the road and a car is coming quickly and honks. They wait for the vehicle to divert and then continue on their way. Otherwise, they just keep walking and know that the cars will avoid them.
Our first stop was at a village called Guda Vishnoyan. We were taken to a house where an old man (who really could have been only my age!) gave us a demonstration on the preparation of opium and extolled its many medicinal and religious purposes. We had a taste of the mixture (awful and bitter), but felt no effect – obviously a very mild dose! He performed a ceremony for each of us where, dressed as maharaja and maharani, we sipped a watered down version from his hand (three ‘cups’ full). Made for a fun photo opportunity! He was humble and kind and had a friendly smile. We showed our appreciation of him welcoming us into his home and sharing with us this important ritual with a tip, as is expected. And while the cultural lesson was wonderful, it was his adorable pocket-sized granddaughter with gigantic kohl-rimmed eyes that was the true delight of the experience.
We journeyed further down the road to another group of houses where a family of potters lived. They demonstrated the entire process as we watched, amazed at the speed of the guy working the clay: fast, efficient, moving on to the next lump of wet earth. As with most similar forms of income, this was a family business, and while we didn’t buy a pot (far too fragile for transporting), we demonstrated our gratitude with payment. This is a very poor part of the country, and tourism is relied on for income.
On the visit to the Guda Bishnoi Lake, our local guide explained in his limited English about the Bishnoi people’s relationship with nature. Their primary law is to conserve animals and trees and any act that damages the environment is forbidden (modern civilisation could learn a lot from these people). In 1730, soldiers were sent by the maharaja to the forests of the area to cut down trees for the construction of a new palace. The people of the area protested but were ignored by the soldiers, so each person hugged a tree in an effort to protect them. Instead, the people were ‘cut down’ with the trees – 364 Bishnoi were slaughtered before the maharaja heard of the massacre and gave the order for the soldiers to cease. He designated the Bishnoi state as a protected area, forbidding harm to trees and animals.
While at the lake, Anand stayed with the car, putting up with a bit of ribbing from the local jeep drivers for being an ‘out of towner.’ There is a big push for tourists to pay 3,500 rps for a jeep drive through the area, and they saw him as taking business from locals. Why would I want to do that and bump along in an open air vehicle in the sun and dust? I told Anand to tell the jeep drivers that the cranky white lady demanded airconditioning.
The final stop of our tour of the villages was the house of our local guide. His family are rug weavers and it takes about two months for two of them to weave a 3ft x 5ft dhurrie (a rug made of jute, cotton, wool, silk or combinations). We bought a simple patterned one of a jute/wool combination. Did a bit of bartering, as is expected (we had checked out the prices of dhurries before going shopping). We were reassured by Anand that we had paid a fair price – a little less than was asked, but not so much as to rip them off. It’s a good transaction where both parties part happy. It was also reassuring to chat to a couple of guys from the neighbouring state of Gujarat who come every couple of months to make purchases – they swore by the quality.
Happy with our purchases and our diverse experiences of Jodhpur it was time to move on. We left full of admiration for the people doing daily battle with poverty in this challenging climate, and somehow still managing to sustain the joy in their lives. Respect.
Our Indian journey continues in Narlai…
Accommodation: RAAS Hotel
Tour Company: Intense India Tours
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