An Indian adventure… part two
In part two of their great Indian adventure, Mike and Chris Simm have been in Delhi, headed to Srinagar, went through Amritsar and Shimla, and are now continuing along their journey…
(if you haven't already read Part 1, please click here
Having come down from the hills of Shimla, we next headed for the Thar desert and the town of Jaisalmer: the latter’s airstrip is a military preserve, so we had to land at Jodhpur (which, although also military, has a walled enclave in which to park the odd passenger plane – and we’re not exactly talking Jumbo Jets!), before embarking on a drive to Jaisalmer, where we arrived just as dusk fell.
Our driver for this part of the journey was a splendid chap, ever keen to draw our attention to points of interest along the way – his enthusiasm was not however always matched by his command of the English language. Nevertheless we did gather that the area is famous for its stone (and I am sure he could take ‘The Stone of Rajasthan’ as his specialist subject on Mastermind) and that the further away from Jodhpur, the lesser quality the stone.
Before we set out on our first morning’s tourism, we decided that it might be time to launder some of our clothing, given that we had now been underway for two weeks, and therefore summoned the Dhobi Wallah (I presume I’d been following normal practice of wearing my food as well as eating it!). Since he arrived as I was completing my morning ablutions, I concealed myself in the bathroom and, once the Mem sounded the all-clear, emerged into our living quarters: at this point the Dhobi Wallah re-entered and, faced with the sight of me vigorously towelling down my rear elevation, reeled back in horror. The Mem somewhat let the side down by finding this amusing, but the poor DW was mortified (I assume he is now receiving psychiatric treatment…).
As we departed the hotel I paused to deal with administrative matters and the Mem wandered off to take a picture of a grumpy-looking stuffed tiger (presumably as a precautionary measure in case we failed to come across a real one!). Whilst my back was turned she decided to conduct experiments in gravitational forces (with the assistance of a rug and a highly polished floor), and I discovered her at floor level in a less than sunny mood!
We eventually got away and started our tour at Gadisar lake, originally built some 600 years ago as a water conservation tank. Its banks are dotted with shrines and temples, and the entrance is named after a famous courtesan of yesteryear.
We then moved on to the area’s most famous sight, Jaisalmer fort which, unlike many forts around the country, is not merely a part of a preserved heritage/museum, but a living, breathing occupied city – it has about 4,000 inhabitants. We noticed, on the way into the city, a business advertising ‘Child Beer’, which made me wonder whether it was a beverage made from fermented infant, or a beer suitable for children – and I’ve known a couple of English ones which could have qualified! Sadly, it turned out that it should have read ‘Chilled Beer’…. further up the road, a restaurant advertised itself as having a “bloody good view”.
Jaisalmer fort is split into two parts: one is occupied by the Brahmin and meat-eating classes and the other by vegetarians (many of them Jains). The guiding focuses of Jainism are self-discipline and asceticism, and it prescribes non-violence towards all living creatures: killing ants and flies because they are being annoying is frowned upon. We visited a Jain temple and saw many magnificent carvings, and in the course of the morning learnt much about the local culture and customs (particularly those relating to marriage) and, to finish our tour, went to a spectacular haveli – a historic townhouse. This morning had proved so rewarding and interesting that we had not completed all the prescribed elements, and therefore agreed with our guide that we would resume the following morning.
When we did so, we started at Bada Bagh, a 500-year-old site where nobles were cremated and are memorialised by individual cenotaphs: it is some 6km outside town and a wonderfully peaceful place. We then went back to town, visited another haveli (this one designed in competition by two architect brothers, who each created half, but without visible design disharmony) and then walked through the old town, where I discovered that cows not only believe they have right of way amidst wheeled traffic, but also that they should also not be required to deviate from their chosen path just because there is a European tourist wandering about – basically the creature just shoved me out of the way!
Our final activity in Jaisalmer was a trip out into the desert (which is basically sandy scrubland) to see sunset over the Sam dunes (which are not the towering dunes of, say, Namibia, but gentle undulations). Originally we were threatened with a camel ride into the desert (a prospect which did not fill me with great enthusiasm), but this proved to be a false alarm. It did however become apparent when we reached the area that we did need some means of getting out into the desert if the visit were to prove worthwhile. Walking through the sand did not seem to be a viable option, and we therefore hired a camel cart (cart tethered behind camel, tourist sits with legs outstretched and without benefit of much in the way of padding facing backwards, and camel owner – a wizened old chap – walks alongside). The camel plodded along, sometimes at speeds rising towards 1mph, emitting occasional sounds indicating that he was glad to have us on board: we viewed the sun sinking towards the horizon, although a slight cloudiness blocked the final moments, and noted the occasional artistic shot of camels and/or humans silhouetted against the setting sun.
The following day we headed back to Jodhpur, where we were booked into the Umaid Bhawan palace
: this, for a hotel, appears gloriously OTT, but it is the former residence of the Maharajahs and indeed the current one inhabits one wing whilst the rest of the building deals with the tourists. There is also a welcoming ceremony for every guest: the Mem got caught at the rear of arriving Americans, whereas I, having dallied to discuss admin matters, got the full treatment, which involved tottering up red-carpeted steps whilst petals were strewn in my path, drums were banged and flourishes of trumpets were played. Given that there was no way I could pretend that I was used to this sort of greeting, I opted to adopt an expression which I hoped conveyed self-deprecating modesty!
After breakfast the following day (a repast accompanied by the sound and presence of peacocks on the terrace steps and lawn) we set off for the sights of Jodhpur, starting with Jaswant Thada, a 19th-century, white marble cenotaph in memory of maharajah Jaswant Singh II, before moving on to the city’s most prominent tourist attraction, the Mehrangarh fort, the best place from which to view the blue buildings which give Jodhpur its moniker of the ‘Blue City’. The fort consists of a number of palaces (amongst them Pearl, Flower and Pleasure) containing historical artefacts and decorative styles from bygone ages, and offers a splendid panorama over the city.
In the afternoon we did the more or less obligatory visit to local craft demonstrations and also went to a Bishnoi village. The Bishnoi are an interesting people: their lives are governed by a number of guiding tenets, involving personal hygiene, worship, social behaviour, and above all, protecting the environment. The killing animals and green trees is banned and they are required to protect all life forms – they are also the original (and literal) tree-huggers, in the 18th century, 360 of them were killed protecting trees from the king’s men in this manner. In the light of the foregoing it is somewhat surprising to discover that they conduct an opium ceremony for tourists (it is suggested that the Indian government turns a blind eye), but having discovered that it could involve a certain degree of mind alteration we decided to scarper before we could give offence (I have enough trouble making my mind behave itself, and certainly don’t need outside help!)
At this point we headed for the jungle (see In search of the Bengal tiger
), and emerged a week-and-a-half later in Nagpur, where, when delivered to the airport, discovered that our airline’s computer had said “No” – although to be exact it didn’t say anything at all, instead sitting there sullenly refusing to cooperate. It is to the airline’s credit that despite the chaos of a manual check-in, we still departed on time (possibly because the majority of passengers only had cabin baggage) for Mumbai.
There are times when I really should stop picking up ideas from television programmes: in this particular instance a documentary series on the Taj Mahal Palace hotel
led to a determination to stay there when next we visited Mumbai – so we did! Our reward was a room in the Palace wing with a view of the bay and the Gateway to India (to my mind rather better than the alternatives of the Tower Wing or a view of the swimming pool!).
Our guide for the city tour was a formidable lady of similar vintage to our own, and with an outlook comparable to that of a benevolent martinet – on a number of occasions I was sharply reminded to look at some passing sight! We started at the Dhobi Ghats, where we saw the city’s laundry being dealt with (I had hoped that the Mem might learn some useful lessons, but she insists on carrying on with washing machines and steam irons, rather than beating the dirt out of various items and then using a flat iron!).
We moved on to Churchgate station to see the tiffin wallahs at work (although on a Saturday there was not too much action), walked through Chhatrapati Shivaji station (better known as Victoria Terminus) and then travelled on to St Thomas’ Cathedral, the first Anglican church in Mumbai. The walls are decorated with memorial tablets for those (mainly attached to the East India company or the military) who passed away whilst in service: we noted that many of them had died young, usually of some form of tropical fever, and were touched by the nature of the tributes paid by their fellow officers.
As tourists we also sat on the Mother Teresa memorial pew (a lady famed for her good works among the poor and for dying almost unnoticed five days after Princess Diana), before switching religions to Zoroastrianism and getting as near as we could to the Towers of Silence, the last resting place of the Parsees (a dying breed since marrying out is forbidden) on Malabar hill: we did however see the vultures (who pick the bones clean) circling overhead. We then visited the house occupied by Gandhi from 1917-34, which contains pictures of important moments in his life, a library and rooms preserved as he had left them – it was fascinating and added much to our historical knowledge.
On our final day in Mumbai, we undertook a trip to Elephanta island (so named not because it is the home of hordes of pachyderms, but because the arriving traveller was greeted on disembarkation by statues of elephants). This involved trundling across the bay at a not particularly great rate of knots on one of the regular ferry boats for about an hour (during this journey we fell into conversation with a young Indian lawyer and his wife, a doctor: he had obtained his degree at Kings London, a college which figured both in my past and in that of the Mem, giving us a good start on topics of discussion).
On arrival, we were advised that it was now a climb of a specific number of steps to reach the caves (121 rings a bell): being a trusting soul I decided to count them for myself. Encouragingly, I not only managed to remember all the numbers between 1 and 121, but didn’t manage to forget where I’d got to halfway through! At the top of this climb we arrived at the caves, which are believed to have been carved out sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries. The main complex is dedicated to Shiva and contains many carved representations of the god, both as statues and on relief panels. A guided tour provided us with religious and historical background – Indian religions are infinitely more interesting in their variety, breadth and history than the dogmatic and linear approach of most western religions.
This was basically the end of our serious tourism as we headed for the Maldives via Bangalore, where we met up with our driver (and his family) from our last visit 8 years ago – an enjoyable personal end to the India trip. The Maldives leg was much as one might expect: the Mem snorkelled and found Nemo and many of his relatives, and heard the familiar chomping of parrot fish gnawing on the coral: otherwise we ate, drank, swam and sunbathed.
India remains a land of widely varying landscapes, from the snow-covered mountains of the north, to the deserts of the west, the central jungles and the beach resorts of the south. It is also, as it ever was, a land of stark contrasts, between conspicuous riches and grinding poverty (although it is possible to discern a simple dignity even amongst the poorest in society), and between the high-tech IT world and the minimal technical (particularly electrical) arrangements in many cities. It is also difficult to comprehend how what is expected to be one of the major economies of the 21st century happily litters the entire country with rubbish. Despite, or maybe because of, the foregoing, it remains to me a fascinating country which I could visit time and again.
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Images by Chris Simm and iStock.