Rajasthan is bristling with pride in its heritage of Rajas and princes fighting for peace and power. Every major city has its own fort, and I’m not talking about the 10th century Motte and Bailey mock up we’ve got near Stansted Airport. Each one is a goliath of sandstone rising out of the desert, impossible to attack but each an irresistible prize and threat to neighbouring Rajas. The fort in Udaipur was still used to house a royal family until the 1950s. Where outside, sandstone blocks the size of estate cars tessellate perfectly to create buttresses, inside are mirrored tiles and coloured glass cut to create glittering, lavish interiors. The Rajas definitely liked their bling.
Souvenir shops sell ornamental Damascan knives showing the concentric rippling of each hammered layer. I resisted the urge to buy my own piece of what I imagined was the closest thing to Valyrian Steel, but the Game of Thrones comparisons were all around us. George R R Martin could learn a thing or two from Rajasthan. Near the entrance to the fort in Udiapur is a list of the brave and glorious dead who had defended the Rajput. This included the tale of one brave warrior during a battle who lost his leg, but undeterred, carried on swinging his sword from his cousin’s shoulders. There are depictions of the Raja cutting both his adversary and horse in two in one viscious swipe of the scimitar. Fort entrances and gateways all had clearly visible murder holes through which hot tar or arrows could be rained down on the treacherous. Each room and walkway was sided with complicated stone lattice panels, enough to balance the light and heat from outside, but also to keep princesses inside hidden from view.
In Udaipur we also found a tailor visited by Bill Nighy, Judy Dench and Maggie Smith whilst filming Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Bill was charming, we were told by the proud tailor, Judy also, but Maggie apparently was a bit cool. Perhaps she was just getting in to her reluctant and slightly racist role in the film.
With all this epic history and richness going on, it was hard not to remember Akash’s advice to me before we left; ‘Find somewhere romantic in India and propose.’ For all those interested in Jaisalmere and the answers to questions including, ‘did he get down on one knee?’ Rose has written a separate post.
Mid-way through Rajasthan we hit Jodhpur, the blue city so called because most of the buildings clustered around the fort are so painted – associated with the holy Brahmin caste. Only a short stop here, but nowhere in Rajasthan is without drama. Whilst it was a relief to no longer be treated as a curiosity, the familiarity of the vendors, hawkers and tuk tuk drivers had its own stresses. Playing on your desire to be nice and polite, it was almost impossible to ignore calls of ‘Hey my friend, yes please can I ask you something?’ or ‘Yes how are you? Which country?’ Even the slightest sliver of eye contact elicited a lightning quick follow-up question and before you knew it, you were ensconced in some sort of frustrated John Cleese routine. Entering conversation meant either buying something you didn’t want or pissing someone off because you talked to them then didn’t buy anything. The other option was to just ignore everyone who spoke to you, which is the last thing you want to do when travelling.
Rose and I went to hang out in the more tranquil Pushkar for a week. Because it is a highly religious spot, it gets a steady stream of Indian tourists, which totally takes the pressure off western travellers. Vendors are much more chilled and so we took this opportunity of hassle free shopping to buy enough rugs and ornaments to decorate our house several times over.
A shopping trip to us, but to the faithful, this is a mecca. Our hostel lady made us sign an agreement not to ‘engage in disgusting bedroom practices’ nor to ‘walk around in half-naked position’ whilst in town. She then explained we had to wait to use the shower because they needed to clean the monkey shit from the water tank but not to worry as it would take only five minutes. This was not a job I thought should be rushed so we went to explore this holy city built around a holy lake, created around springs formed from petals that fell from Brahma’s lotus flower when he was used it to slay the demon Vajranabha. (Of the main religions, Hinduism must surely have the best stories). The view of all this is particularly stunning from a temple on the hill where you can see how the whole city sits neatly in the valley surrounded by arid desert.
The obvious thing to do here is to get a blessing at the lake. We went along with two people from our hostel and the hotel owner who would perform this ritual. All was well with the Om Shiva chanting, the red and yellow paste on our faces and bracelets on our wrists, but then came the inevitable donation time. We were more than happy to make a generous donation to the temple, a sentiment ingrained when our man got us to repeat after him, “I Luke (repeat) freely give (repeat) 600 rupees (repeat) to the temple (repeat)” and then “I Rose (repeat) freely give (repeat) 600 rupees (erm, actually that was for both of us) hmm ok. Our man then took the money away and returned to ask now how much we would like to kindly give to him personally for making the ceremony. This was beginning to feel a bit like booking a Ryan Air flight. It worsened when our man explained he was able to do the blessing only because he was a Brahmin. “How do you become a Brahmin?” one of our group asked as I cringed in to my offering plate. Whilst it was one of the most eye-wateringly stupid questions I’ve ever heard, it reminded me how ridiculous a religious principle I find it that by right of birth some people get more opportunities than others.
And then the complete opposite happened. Whilst walking home one night we ran in to a cacophonous procession taking up the whole street. Ladies in beautiful matching dresses carrying huge lamps. Electricity cables between them led to a man in a decorated carriage hammering out excitable riffs on an amplified keyboard just behind a brass band, immaculate in white suits and red hats. Behind was a mele of dancers and drummers followed finally by a very handsome young man in spectacular white traditional garb mounted on a jewelled and armoured white horse, prancing to the music and occasionally rearing. They dragged us in to the throng and made Rose and I dance and bang drums and have their photos taken with us to help celebrate their cousin’s wedding. It felt like being in a video promoting Indian tourism. Once that had passed, we stopped to stare at a cow with five legs, but only quickly because its owner tried to charge us 100 rupees for doing so.
We finished off in Jaipur with another magnificent sandstone fort and another white one floating in the middle of a lake. After three weeks in Rajasthan, the daily struggle of heat, noise and mania was wearing me thin, but there is no place like it.