Friday, 21 February 2020

Travels in India, 2020 - The Wedding Crashers

Over masala omelettes and chai on the rooftop the following morning, we asked Vikram what the early morning marching band was all about and were told that it was wedding season. Weddings in Rajasthan are lavish affairs, costing hundreds of thousands of rupees and lasting at least three days. The band who'd awoken us at 8am was heralding the start of festivities in a nearby house. 

We took advantage of our accidental early start and, despite the bracing 9°C temperatures, decided to set out on a walk. Gorgeous Rao Jodha is a 72-hectare desert rock park situated in the shadow of Mehrangarh Fort, lovingly restored and planted with native species to show the natural diversity of the region. The park is criss-crossed with nature trails taking you up to the city walls and around Devkund Lake with loads of bird and butterfly spotting opportunities. So peaceful it's hard to imagine that it's slap bang in the centre of the bustling city of Jodhpur (population 1,033,950). 

One of the sights I was most excited about visiting in Jodhpur was Tunwarj ka Jhaira, a geometrically perfect stepwell recently rejuvenated after decades of use as the city rubbish dump. The clean lines and clear, fish-filled water had us both mesmerised, we loved it so much we spent at least a couple of hours a day drinking in its beauty. It was also a bit of a suntrap and usually, by midday, we were able to take off our coats and bask in 21°c of delicious sunshine.

The stepwell was built in the 1740s by a queen, Maharaja Abhay Singh’s wife, continuing an age-old tradition that royal women would build public waterworks. As with all step wells, the steps follow the fluctuating water table down to provide easy all-year-round access.  

Can you imagine how hard it must have been for the womenfolk of old Jodhpur negotiating these steps daily, filling up their water vessels and carrying them back up the steps with them precariously balanced on their heads? No wonder the ladies in all the antique portraits I've seen have incredibly toned arms.

During the restorations, the excavations went down over two hundred feet to expose hand carved treasures in Jodhpur’s famous rose-red sandstone; including intricate carvings of dancing elephants, medieval lions & cow water-spouts. 

 The well’s original system consisted of a Persian wheel driven by a pair of bullocks circling the platform on top, which drew water up to two different access levels and a separate tank.

I was determined to pose inside this spectacularly carved niche, which once housed Hindu deities, although it scared the life out of Jon, who hates heights with a passion. He had to cover his eyes as I scaled the lichen-covered steps in my bare feet and leaped across to reach the ledge at the top. The things I do for blogging!

The area around Tunwarj ka Jhaira had also undergone regeneration with some seriously cool boutiques, cafes and hotels surrounding the well. Every day we had lunch in the Stepwell Cafe, a grand 18th-century building offering a delicious Indian fusion menu, with stylish Mid-Century furniture and moody blue grey walls lined with antique photographs of Jodhpur. 

A short walk away is the Victorian-era clock tower, an old city landmark. Mr. Iqbal has been responsible for the maintenance of the clock since 1968.

 Surrounded by the vibrant sounds, sights & smells of Sardar Market, Jodhpur's commercial heart is a series of crowded alleys and bazaars selling vegetables, spices, sweets, silver, and handicrafts. I had to giggle when Bablu, assistant manager at the Gouri, described the textiles on offer as being Walmart quality, he wasn't wrong there.

We were surprised at the lack of Western tourists out and about in Jodhpur, I think they must spend all their time closeted in the uber-posh £410 a night hotel which backed on the Gouri Heritage. As a result, the touts were out in force trying to get the only two daft-looking foreigners in town into shops selling stuff we really didn't want.

While neither of us needed any spices I was beyond excited to touch the bike which featured in one of my all-time favourite films, The Darjeeling Limited. Shot mostly in Jodhpur in 2007, co-writers Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola & Lydia Dean Pilcher popped into MG Spices during filming and were offered the use of the shopkeeper's Honda.

Do you get a better insight into a country when you stay in a five-star establishment or a cheap and cheerful lodging-house? While I'm sure posh hotels are all well and good I bet you wouldn't get the hotel manager suggesting he bunks off work and the three of you go and gatecrash the neighbour's wedding like Vikram did.

As neither of us can barely string a sentence together in Hindi it was brilliant to have Vikram ask the driver if we could have a ride in the bridal carriage before the bride got there.

Jon managed to video a lot of the madness on my camera but I can't for the life of me work out how to rotate the film on YouTube but when I do, I promise to share it. The atmosphere, the noise, the horses and the light show (and the beautiful bride and groom) were unforgettable.

The highlight was being handed over the reins of two pom-poms bedecked camels and leading the wedding procession through the streets of Jodhpur. One of the most memorable nights of my life!

See you soon.

PS For more photos see HERE.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Travels in India, 2020 - The Blue City of Jodhpur, Part 1

 We left Walsall on 14th January, 2020 and three flights, two taxi rides and twenty-three hours later we were in the northwest state of Rajasthan, in the midst of the heaving bazaar of the legendary Blue City of Jodhpur.

As always, our arrival into India was a total assault on the senses, the aromas of cow dung, incense, roses, and wood smoke hung heavily in the air whilst a cacophony of car horns, Bollywood filmi music, and bicycle bells assaulted our ears; we feebly attempted to shrug off the motley assortment of beggars, pariah dogs and touts desperately vying for our attention whilst avoiding treading in the open sewers running parallel to the curb on which we stood. Before too long a tuk-tuk pulled up, we threw our bags inside, wedged ourselves on top and gave the driver our destination address. As the driver bumped his way through the tangle of twisting Medieval lanes, many little wider than the tuk-tuk itself, swerving to avoid cows, goats, immaculately sari-clad ladies and groups of chai-drinking men clustered on street corners shrouded in wool shawls and exotically tied turbans, we wondered how we'd ever find our way out of our lodgings once - or, if ever - we'd found them.

Just when it felt that we were never going to find our destination I spotted the familiar green gates of the 250-year-old heritage haveli I'd seen pictured online (and fallen in love with) three months ago. We handed the driver a 100 rupee note (approx. £1), squeezed ourselves out from the confines of the tuk-tuk and entered what was to be home for the next five nights.

I still can't believe this beautiful heritage house cost us £15 a night with breakfast included! Link HERE.

  A smiley man gestured for us to leave our bags in his care and to climb the stairs to the roof where we were warmly greeted by hotel manager Vikram who directed us to a table and served us sweet masala chai accompanied by Marie Gold (the equivalent of Rich Tea) biscuits while we caught our breath - although we were breathless again within seconds when we looked out over the rooftop and took in the spectacular view of the imposing Megaranth, said to be the finest fort in all of India.

Chatting to Vikram and the gentle heat of the midday Rajasthani winter sunshine, the day-long journey started to take its toll and we could both feel our eyes closing and struggled to stifle yawns. We were shown to our room where our bags were already waiting, closed the door, pulled off our boots, threw ourselves on an inviting-looking antique bed and caught up on some sleep.

A couple of hours later we were refreshed, wide awake and ready to brave the maze-like city streets to explore the fort - which wasn't as tricky as we'd initially feared. On the climb uphill we were stopped by an elderly couple lounging on the doorstep of their tiny home, both fascinated by my jewellery and the vintage Indian kaftan I was wearing. Of course, this being the country we know and love we were soon beckoned inside to be shown the prized family photograph album. No wonder it always takes us ages to get anywhere in India.

Promising to drop by the next time we passed, we continued on up the hill to the magnificently muscular Mehrangarh Fort. Standing 120m above Jodhpur's skyline it was built in 1459 by Rao Jodha, the chief of the Rajput Rathore clan. We explored the museum - the fort's former palace - and marveled over the splendid Rajput architecture and opulent decor (and needless to say, I fell wildly in love with the beautiful 18th century Indian textiles on display). The network of courtyards and halls feature carving so fine that it looks more like sandalwood than soapstone.

The sun was starting to set as we left the fort. On our descent, we popped into a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop just outside the fort walls to buy a bottle of India's cola, Thums-Up (to accompany the rum we'd bought with us) which causing much amusement to the shopkeeper who called her entire family inside to giggle at the strange goras (Hindi for fair-skinned people) on the premises. Back at the Gouri we piled on the layers (Rajasthan's winter evening temperatures are pretty similar to those in the UK minus the luxury of central heating), unpacked our bags and poured ourselves a drink before heading upstairs to Indigo, the Gouri's rooftop restaurant for dinner and to once more marvel at the mighty Mehrangarh.

With thirty-five nights ahead of us, we decided to go to bed early which was just as well, the drums from the Hindu temple and the mosque's call to prayer awoke us shortly after dawn and by 8am Jodhpur's marching band had struck up directly below our bedroom window....more about that in my next post.

See you soon!

Find my entire album of Mehrangarh Fort and Gouri Heritage Haveli photos HERE.