A train journey south from Jaisalmer of about six hours brings us to Jodhpur known as the Blue City. Approaching the station, through the flat plains of the surrounding land, you can see the magnificent citadel of the Mehrangarh Fort that dominates not only the skyline but the city of Jodhpur itself.
Tuktuks (always a squeeze with two large backpacks) took us from the station to our hotel, the Jagat Vilas on the outskirts of Jodhpur. It is situated in a sandy side street in what seemed a small commercial area, far from the hustle of the central bazaars. Turning off the road, expectations weren’t high, but when we arrived, we were greeted by our larger than life Indian host (with his larger than life belly!) and by Lilly and Ludo (the owner’s two dogs).
The heart of the hotel is a green courtyard filled with the sound of birds from both the cage of budgies and finches and from the flock of sparrows feeding from the dishes of food and water left out for them. A pleasant little oasis away from the noise and bustle of the city.
The hotel is a heritage hotel, so after a lunch of traditional Indian vegetarian fare washed down by the obligatory mineral water, we jump back into the tuktuks that had brought us from the station to visit the Mehrangarh Fort, the Clock Tower and bazaar.
First a little about the Blue City. Historically, members of the Brahmin caste populated the area around the fort inside the 10km outer city walls (much of which you can still see from the top of the fort). Brahmins were permitted to paint their houses a distinctive sky blue colour, so the area around the fort took on a distinctive blue aura, particularly when viewed from above when the painted blue roofs reflect the evening light. Nowadays, painting your house blue is not restricted to Brahmins so the practice is now more widespread.
Another tuktuk ride takes us around the old town to the base of the fort that is built on a rocky outcrop which stands 120 meters above the surrounding city. The fort has colossal walls and ramparts that rise up to another 36 metres higher and seem to grow out of the rocks (the sandstone blocks are hewn from the pedestal on which the fort sits). It’s a spectacular sight, even before setting foot inside.
The fort dates from the 16th century, with the usual additions over the years. A steep path leads up through a massive gate (18th century) to the old original entrance which bears the scars of cannonballs from a siege, but the walls were never breached. Just inside the gate are some small hand prints, the sati (self-immolation) marks of royal widows who threw themselves on their maharajas’ funeral pyres where they would sit in silence as the flames engulfed them. This tradition lasted until 1843, when Maharaja Man Singh’s widows sacrificed themselves.
Inside the fort the old Palace, now a museum, is a network of corridors and halls, exquisitely carved from marble and sandstone. The museum now houses many exhibits from elephant howdahs (chairs that sit on an elephants back to ride in during processions) to an armoury and a collection of royal cradles.
The highlights though are the dazzling chambers, rooms and halls, used by the maharajah. They are filled with sumptuous furniture and coloured glass windows casting their hues around the rooms and reflecting from the mirrors, or turning the pearly white marble from white to green or blue or red. The visit wouldn’t be complete without looking out across the city from the ramparts complete with a range of canons still pointing out toward the distant desert.
As dusk deepens, we descend 300 metres down a steep path into the old city below. As we get further from the citadel, the inexorable city sounds and smells increase in intensity. We’re heading to the old bazaar situated around the old clock tower to see the market and soak up the atmosphere.
A quick aside. On our trip there are three other girls as well as Helen, and they have helped her to resurface her ‘shopping’ gene as they’ve enjoyed looking at clothes and textiles and silks whilst wandering around the alleys of Jaisalmer.
So when we enter the bazaar (after another chaotic road crossing outside the main gate) the group of them are immediately drawn by some ladies selling colourful saris. The boys disperse in different directions and when we meet a half an hour later at the allotted point the girls all arrive having shelled out an extravagant 100 rupees (£1) on a sari each. They didn’t see the rest of the market which was the usual mixture of lovely fresh produce, flowers and other bling.
Dinner was taken in what I would describe as the equivalent of our greasy spoon cafes or transport cafes. Formica tables, concrete stairs and lots of Indian families eating the ridiculously cheap masala dosas and other fare. Helen, resplendent in her new sari, also attracted a few glances and nods of approval.
The next day was set aside for what was dubbed a ‘village safari’.
In the area surrounding Jodhpur live the Bishnoi people, a Hindu sect who follow the 500 year old teachings of Guru Jambheshwar, who emphasised the importance of protecting the environment. Apparently there is abundant wildlife in the area, something that was conspicuous by its absence the day that we were there. The most well known occurrence in their history was the 1730 sacrifice of 363 villagers to protect khejri trees. This is commemorated every September.
If the roads in the city are bad, then these are appalling, with crater sized potholes and areas where they seem to have forgotten to tarmac the surface at all. Even in jeeps, the ride is bumpy and uncomfortable (or maybe that’s just the suspension on the utilitarian Mahindra vehicles we’re in).
Before we visit a new temple, still under construction, Sanjeev takes us to a field to explain about the crops they produce locally. Lentils for dal and millet, ground into flour, used in making chapatis.
This temple being built is quite large. It’s in the middle of nowhere and you have to wonder who’s funding it and why it’s being built considering all the other things that the money could buy locally to support the community. Outside the temple area is a memorial to the 363 Bishnoi villagers mentioned earlier. Also there are a group of schoolchildren, probably between 8 or 9 and 12, out on a day trip.
The teachers invite us to join them all for a class photo, so we all mingle in, and we are surrounded by a mass of boys and girls all wanting to shake our hands, know our names and find out where we’re from. Even the teachers wanted selfies with us. It’s lovely to see the happy faces and talking with one lad who said that it was his dream to visit England one day.
Having seen millet in the fields, we move on to a house where a local lady makes millet chapatis over a wood fire. First though, Sanjeev answers a question that’s been asked about the cow and it’s role in Hindu society. If your interested, see this separate post.
After a brief stop at a (very dry) lake, where migrating cranes stop off, we visit a potter. He makes it look easy, whilst a couple of the group try it to prove it isn’t.
Next we stop off at the centre of a cooperative that makes the traditional durry. These are woven rugs made from cotton (or wool/silk/camel wool and combinations of these).
A turban clad gent, with excellent English, demonstrates the hand weaving techniques, slow and time consuming, and explains that big rugs (10×19 feet) would take 4 people 4 months to make. The workers earn a meagre 50 rupees (50p) a day. Obviously there is an opportunity to buy, and for once it is really tempting. Only not knowing where we might put such a rug stops us from buying one (the Indian government supports small traders like these by helping to pay shipping costs which is one major barrier for foreigners to make purchases).
Last stop is lunch in Salawas village, a traditional home cooked Rajasthani meal of ker sagri beans, dal, cabbage, a chilli chutney and millet chapatis. We all sit cross legged around the floor, eating the food, watching the women cooking the chapatis. The men serve the food, which is good, and we’re warned about the potency of the chilli chutney.
The family’s children arrive home from school, and are excited to have their photos taken and for the second time we get to see the smiling faces of the local children.
As we leave the owners see us off with a parting request for us to review them on trip advisor. It’s all about business in the end, but we’ve had an interesting, enjoyable and full day.