India assaults all the senses in every imaginable way – through the ears, the nose, the eyes.
In his excellent novel “Life of Pi,” Canadian author Yann Martel writes that “a stint in India will beat the restlessness out of any living creature.”
Sometimes I feel that we travel because of a restlessness that we can’t seem to satisfy at home.
In India I certainly don’t feel restless – just beaten – by the ceaseless noise, the brain-piercing scream of the horns, the roar of the tuk-tuks, the tap, tap, tap of a small hungry child’s fingernails on the car window.
The pain reaches right inside your head and it never stops, even if you plug your ears.
I look at the girl’s pleading eyes and I feel her pain; I look away and I feel guilty. I ignore her hand-to-mouth gestures, begging for money to eat, and my guilt subsides, but her pain is seared into my brain and it won’t go away so easily. And so it is with the pain of India. It is everywhere, like the beggars on the streets.
You force yourself to ignore it, but it doesn’t go away.
And it’s impossible to ignore the smells, the pollution, the garbage, the burning sandalwood of the funeral pyres.
The ever-present sacred cows, contentedly eating their plastic-wrapped garbage, leave not-so-tidy reeking piles on the streets. In the older parts of cities, the not-so-holy pigs root through open sewers looking for something to eat. In some parts of India the stench of rotting garbage, cow dung and sewers is overwhelming.
I’m thankful for my cold that blocks out some of the smell and for the surprising discovery that all you can smell at the burning ghats in Varanasi is the scent of burning wood. The rich can afford exotic nice smelling woods, the poor get ordinary firewood. Thankfully wood smoke is all we smell.
The guidebook describes the older parts of Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, as more “authentic” than some of the other cities in India. Translate this to mean open sewers, cows rummaging through garbage piles, packs of dogs, screaming motorbikes and belching tuk-tuks racing through the narrow laneways. Dodge a bike and you might step into the open sewer.
But, in spite of the smells and the chaotic streets, India treats the eyes to a marvelous kaleidoscope of brilliant colours.
In Jodhpur, the Indigo blue walls of the ancient “Blue City” contrast sharply with the dark red of the massive Mehrangarh Fort on top of the 120-metre red rock plunked in the middle of the brown desert. The fort, built in 1459, is one of the most impressive in India and is very well maintained. Inside its imposing thick walls are several palaces with royal palanquins (litters), shiny jewelry, and delicately carved stone latticework, cleverly angled to allow the women of the palaces to see out without being seen.
On one massive wall you can see the imprints of cannonballs and on another the handprints of the wives who sacrificed themselves by immolation (sati) after the death of the Rajah.
Nearby is the Jaswant Thada mausoleum, so stunningly white it almost hurts the eyes in the bright desert sun.
And everywhere in this city in the very traditional state of Rajasthan, women flit about like butterflies in their brilliantly coloured saris. In the market or even working in the rice fields, they wear their best, brightest saris. At weddings, they dress up a bit more by adding gold trim to the saris and gold bracelets around their arms and ankles.
We were fortunate enough to witness a traditional wedding ceremony at our hotel. The child bride and groom arrived on a white horse preceded by a marching band with horns and drums. Over a thousand guests in gold-trimmed finery feasted at tables set up around the lawn.
Earlier I had helped the cooking staff peel corn for the feast and watched as they prepared massive amounts of curries and gravies and rice in huge cauldrons on open fires. The family was from the Krishna, or “peace” sect, and no onions or garlic could be used in the cooking. Sadly for us, they don’t allow alcohol either.
December is wedding month in Rajasthan, so we saw and heard several of these ceremonies every day until we left this state. The noise of the bands, the music and the compulsory fireworks kept us up at night.
The brilliant colours continued into the desert.
Driving through the countryside, we passed irrigated fields of bright yellow mustard, dark green winter wheat that had replaced the rice, and white cotton. I spotted a rice factory where they were burning piles of rice hulls. Curious about the process, I asked the manager if I could tour the plant to see how they processed rice.
The tour was conducted in Hindi, but I managed to decipher the following. They burned the hulls to create hot water and steam to clean the rice. It was then funneled through a series of tubes that took it to drying belts and then to a computerized optical scanning machine that sorted the rice into the proper shoots for packaging either for local consumption or export. It was modern, clean and quite impressive given the antiquated methods used for growing and harvesting the rice.
In our rambles through the countryside around Jodhpur, we drove through a small village on market day. Here the Rajasthani men all wore traditional brightly coloured turbans. They wrap metres and metres of coloured cloth around their heads, the pattern and colour of cloth changing according to their caste or religious sect.
The overall effect of saris and turbans in the marketplace is a riot of colour that is so distracting you forget about the cow paddies or the screaming motorbike that grazes your elbow as it races through the narrow, crowded market laneways.
Down a dusty brown dirt road, we came upon a farmer’s hut. The patriarch was an opium drinker and was to perform the ritual of cleaning, filtering and drinking the opium. He said it was not only legal in India (which is true) but that it was safe, and invited me to join him. His glazed eyes told another story, however, and I politely declined. His daughter showed us the traditional mud and cow dung hut that they lived in and offered us some masala tea, which we also declined. But even here, in the middle of the arid brown desert there was colour.
A little further down the track, we came to a weaver’s compound. The head weaver explained the process, gave us a demonstration and told us about the caste system. I never knew there was a weaver caste, but he said he could only marry someone from the same caste and actually worked side by side with his wife to create beautiful traditional duries or Indian rugs.
He offered us tea and laid his creations out on the ground for us to see. Having drunk his tea and seen the rugs, Carolann, of course, just had to have one. We bought a lovely blue one as a Christmas present for her brother and sister-in-law Mary and had it shipped home.
On the road we passed a woman in a purple sari carrying two bright silver containers of water on her head. In Udaipur, we saw a traditional dance performance where one adept carried 10 water jars on her head. In the town of Chittorgagh, we saw a young child in a bright red costume with a smaller vase on her head. She was balancing on a tight rope at the side of the road to entertain the crowd and raise money for her family. She swayed back and forth in time to the music as her apprehensive father stood below waiting to catch her. At one point she dropped onto a tin pie plate and slid across the rope on her knees.
We drove from Jodhpur to Bundi and passed through an area populated by followers of the Jain religion. On the way, we stopped at an incredibly delicate Jain temple, again brilliantly white. Every marble column, arch, wall and ceiling was intricately carved with depictions of gods, demons and symbols. Here the absence of all colour was dramatic.
In Bundi, we discovered another “Blue City” and another red fort, smaller and less well preserved than the one in Jodhpur, but still quite interesting. Bundi had the advantage of being less crowded and noisy, with fewer tuk-tuks and motorbikes, and no cars in the older part, which had narrow laneways lined with bright Indigo blue walls. It was actually quite peaceful compared to Jodhpur or Udaipur, but the Taragarh Fort, which is government run, was in a sad state of disrepair and overrun with vegetation.
But even here, there were splashes of colour. Beautiful wall paintings with highlights in real gold were hidden in locked rooms. It is best to hire a guide or you won’t be able to see these treasures. Locals are forbidden entry because they have been known to scrape off the gold figures. We climbed through a secret trap door on the second level and emerged on the third level onto a patio with large trees, a lawn and pools of blue water. Again, without a guide you would never find it.
Our guide was an amateur archaeologist known as Kukki (Mr. Om Prakash Sharma), who had become famous by discovering over 80 sites of pre-historic rock paintings that were totally unknown until he found them. The paintings are from the Mesolithic period and are estimated to be 15,000 years old.
He took us on a trek in the desert, an Indian version of an African savannah with scrub trees, termite mounds, cobras and sloth bears. Luckily we didn’t see any snakes or bears, but we did see evidence of the bears, including dug up termite mounds and scat.
We were lucky enough, however, to see two galloping Indian antelopes that dashed away as I was trying to take their picture. They were huge animals that looked like a cross between a large horse and a cow, but with a dog-like face. A Dr. Seuss creature if I ever saw one!
We hiked through the parched brown desert dodging antelope droppings and termite mounds to a deep gorge. A peek over the lip of the gorge revealed a lush green jungle and a large waterfall, the bright green and blue contrasting sharply with the brown sandy desert.
At the bottom, Kukki pointed out the top of a 35-foot tower that was barely discernible above the treetops. He explained that in the time of the Rajahs, the Rajah would perch in the tower with a rifle. Beaters on elephants would drive tigers up the gorge so that he could shoot them. Hundreds were killed this way.
I eased myself over the lip of the gorge and followed Kukki down 30 metres to a ledge with a rock overhang where the rock paintings were. He went first and beat the ground and rock to see if there were any cobras. He assured me it was quite safe, but all I could think of was my friend Dick’s saying about rattle snakes at our cottage. “The first person wakes the snake up, the second angers it and the third gets bit.” Carolann wisely chose to stay up on top of the gorge while I slide down behind Kukki to the rock paintings.
The bright ox-blood coloured pre-historic stick figures of men hunting antelope and large-horned buffalo were surprisingly well preserved having been protected by the rock overhang. In the corner of the large cleft in the rock, a pile of ashes indicated where shamans still conducted sacred rituals at night.
Even the cows in India can sometimes be colourful. The white Brahmas often have their horns dyed to show ownership.
In Udaipur, the “White City” where all the buildings are made of white stone, the highlights are the ornate and lavishly decorated City Palace, the Lake Palace Hotel from the James Bond movie Octopussy and the Rajah’s summer home, both on islands on a lake in the middle of town. Both are a lovely white during the day, but lit up like torches at night. The best view we found was from the Ambrai Restaurant right on the water. This was the best restaurant in town and the setting was priceless.
Udaipur was probably our most enjoyable city in Rajahstan.
It still had tuk tuks and piercing horns, but it was more peaceful, had a more relaxed atmosphere and it was easier to walk around the narrow streets. This is where we attended the performance of traditional Indian dance and saw the woman balancing 10 water jars on her head while walking barefoot on crushed glass. It was a fitting end to our tour of Rajasthan, not because we felt we had been walking on shards the whole time, but because the brilliant colours of the costumes will always remind me of this part of India.
Travel diary shared by Dan Cooper