Jodhpur: What a Joy

February 21-23, 2017

Turns out, despite the way my time here ended, Jodhpur is a love at first sight city. Beginning at the airport, where not a single soul clamors for my taxi dollar, and on the way into Old Town, where traffic is manageable and borderline polite, Jodhpur has a sense of order and civility to it that is surprising considering that it’s the 2nd biggest city in the state of Rajasthan, and that sense of civility extends even into the crowded, narrow streets of the old city itself.

During my research, I had grown somewhat enamored with Jodhpur… visually, she is a photographers dream. Logistically though, I almost gave up trying to get here as the location wasn’t synching well with my plans and timings, but somewhere deep down I had a pull to make it happen, and I’m very glad I did.

Mehrangarh Fort... the view from my window.
Mehrangarh Fort… the view from my window.
The Blue City
The Blue City

The charm here is instantaneous, due in large part to the city’s aesthetic. Known as the “blue city,” it’s predominant, cool-watercolor hue gives maximum appeal as juxtaposed onto the haphazard, timeworn construction of a city this age. Visually mesmerizing, there is so much detail to soak in, but most importantly, this city provides the personal space to enable full absorption.

The tight alleyway-like streets of the city are entirely reminiscent of Varanasi, except without any of the chaotic energy. There is a softness here that is absent in most of the other large Indian cities I’ve been to, and that dramatically alters the way one moves through the streets… particularly as a single, white, female tourist. Refreshingly, as I wander about, no one approaches me, bothers me or engages me in any way, save for the occasional “namaste!” as I walk past a shop or home, or the random smiling child, asking my name, wanting to practice their English. In the busier parts of town, tuk-tuk drivers offer out their services and vendors half-heartedly beckon me into their store, but it’s all very friendly and easy-going, enabling me to take my time, take tons of photographs and just absorb the details… and it is positively delightful.

Afternoon card game
Afternoon card game
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Color contrast
Keeping Shop
Keeping Shop
Lovely ladies on the stairs
Lovely ladies on the stairs

Mehrangarh Fort, as any guide book will tell you, is a Jodhpur must-visit, made easy since it’s situated in town. Luckily for me it’s a short walk from my guest house and an incredible way to spend a few hours learning about the rich history of the city.

The imposing Mehrangarh Fort as seen from its approach.
The imposing Mehrangarh Fort as seen from its approach.
The infamous Handprints of Sati, outside Mehrangarh Fort. Sati was the ancient custom where widowed wives (and concubines) cast themselves upon their deceased husbands funeral pyre out of love and devotion.
The infamous Handprints of Sati, outside Mehrangarh Fort. Sati was the ancient custom where widowed wives (and concubines) cast themselves upon their deceased husbands funeral pyre out of love and devotion. These are the purported prints of the queens who committed sati at this castle.
More handprints around town, although I can't seem to find the history or correlation to those at the Fort.
More handprints around town, although I can’t seem to find the history or correlation to those at the Fort.
Doorways and handprints.
Doorways and handprints.

One of the things I made a point to seek out was the local and rather large baoli, or step-well. These structures, like the ones I visited in Jaipur, are part of Rajasthan’s rich history and I find them to be mesmerizing artifacts of a bygone era. All of the step-wells in Rajasthan (there are reportedly thousands of them) and their historic importance (or lack thereof) vary greatly. Some, like the well known Chand Baori outside of Jaipur which was part of an important temple complex, have been protected by the Archeological Survey of India, a governing entity that oversees conservation of important historic structures, and as a result tourists are restricted on where they can walk and what they can see. Others, like the site outside of Amer Fort in Jaipur, are guarded, but half-heartedly so… we were able to walk down into the well and take photos for awhile before being shooed out.

This site in Jodhpur, Toorji Ka Jhalara, has no boundaries whatsoever, and as such, has become a hang out for the locals. The day I visited, a group of children frolicked and swam in the water below and teenagers hung out, taking selfies (the culture is positively obsessed!) and listening to music, while a few tourists such as myself wander around, taking photos and seeing how far down the steps we dare to go. It was an engaging way to spend a couple of hours.

Swimming
Swimming
Hanging out
Hanging out

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I don’t normally spend much time talking about accommodations, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my guest house, as it had a direct effect on the authenticity and entire feel of my experience here. I am staying in what’s known as a haveli. Haveli’s are old mansions that were generally occupied by large, upper caste families, and this particular haveli, constructed approximately 500 years ago at the same time as the Mehrangarh Fort, was gifted to the Singhvi family by the Maharaja Royalty as a thank you to Shri Akheraj Sa Singhvi, Maharaja’s Commander in Chief.

The mansion-turned-guest house is still owned and operated by the Singhvi family today, and the antiquated charm of the property, from the fountained courtyard to the rooftop deck overlooking both city and fort, to the delightfully (and authentically) decorated rooms, is undeniable. The building keeps much of its original construction detail… heavy wooden doors at all the entryways, steep and narrow staircases, ornate archways and the tale-tell lattice-work type architecture that the Mughal Era influence of construction is famous for… all adding to the charm and making this beautifully quirky and historic place an absolute asset and integral part of my time here. As icing on the cake, the family that runs the place was incredibly kind and hospitable, making me feel as if I were an honored guest.

Singhvi's Haveli
Singhvi’s Haveli
Singhvi's Haveli
Singhvi’s Haveli

Evenings here were some of my favorite times. From my central locale, with the imposing fort situated just above me to the East, and the gentle slope of the city rising out in front of me to the West, I feel as if I’m in a lovely oasis amidst the heart of the city. At dusk, an echo of conch horns erupts all around, amplified by distant loudspeakers, commencing the beginning of evening prayers, and a short while later loud bells and chants ricochet off the surrounding hills and fill the city’s airspace with evening worship, giving an even more enchanted feel to the already beautiful dusk. As I sit on the rooftop deck, watching the sun set over this charming city, listening to a ritual that probably hasn’t altered much in the last thousand years, I feel as if I have been transported back to another time. Again, absolutely delightful.

Dusk, overlooking the city.
Dusk, overlooking the city.

This city was without question one of India’s highlights for me, so it’s a little bit ironic that it was here, on the morning of my departure, that I had the most unfortunate occurrence I’ve had to date in all of my travels! (You can read about the event here.) Regardless, this blue city gave me a couple of absolutely delightful days and for that I thank you, Jodhpur… you were a real joy!

Art decorating the walls wherever you look
Art decorating the walls wherever you look
Airing out
Airing out
Bangles for sale. Lot's of them.
Bangles for sale. Lot’s of them.
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Art everywhere
Two elephants at a little make-shift temple on a deserted path.
Discarded toys? Holy symbolism? Art? Hard to tell, at this little makeshift, roadside alter.

Ladies and Elephants – Jaipur, India

February 1, 2017

The Ladies

The big excursion for the day, and something I had been looking forward to for quite some time, was a visit to an elephant sanctuary. But before I describe my time with the elephants I must talk about an unplanned experience that in retrospect almost supersedes my excitement about the pachyderms.

In a small village outside Jaipur, on a dusty dirt road leading to the sanctuary, we encroach upon some sort of small parade that takes up the entire width of the single lane path. Dozens of women are slowly trailing behind a large flatbed truck that blares festive music. They are dancing and singing and throwing flower petals in a flurry of color and song, many of them precariously carrying ornate golden, silver or copper bowls atop their heads.

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From the car we watch the women revel while the surrounding men and children hold flags and banners that sway to the music, joyfully supporting these women in their celebration of what, we’re not sure. Our driver tries to explain but the language barrier prevents us from getting much detail, and although we didn’t understand what this was all about, that seemed entirely beside the point. The joy of simply watching them was overwhelmingly infectious and I felt privileged just to be witness.

Then, our driver asked if we wanted to join.

Personally, I had a split second moment of questioning whether or not it was appropriate to interfere, as we had been able to discern from the driver that they were heading toward the temple, but it quickly became apparent that any feelings of intrusion I had were of my own conjuring. These smiling, laughing, dancing women pulled us in, twirled us around and showered us with love. The warmth and joy they extended us was nothing short of pure magic.

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After 20 or more minutes of dancing in the midst of these joyous women our driver kindly insisted we proceed to our destination, but it became obvious after repeated attempts to keep us in their circle, that if these women had their way we would have accompanied them the entire way to the temple… we were their guests and it was as much a pleasure to share this experience with us as it was for us to experience it with them.

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It was, without question, a half hour of my life that I will never, ever forget. That kind of joy has a way of embedding itself deeply and permanently into your heart.

———

The Elephants

From where we leave the dancing ladies it is a quick ride to the elephant farm, Elephantasic. Before describing my time with these incredible creatures I have to spend a couple of minutes addressing the question that was most prominent in my mind as I was planning, and a concern that I know many others share as well, and that is the question of ethics.

India is a country steeped in old world tradition and the domesticated use of these wild animals has been around for a very long time. With domestication and service, the doors to mistreatment and abuse also open, and so I will simply echo the voice of many, who know they would like to take the opportunity to visit with these animals in countries where that is an option, but in no way want to support any organization that perpetuates mistreatment of any kind.

I personally have declined visiting elephant farms in other countries because I wasn’t comfortable with the information I was getting, and I approached Elephantastic with the same sort of skepticism. But after digging extraordinarily deep for information, everything I came up with seemed to support their claim of being a true sanctuary where elephants who no longer work come to rest or retire.

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I must interject here, however, that if there is a single emphatic lesson to be learned in India, it’s that there is always more to the story and that your are nearly always being sold a bill of goods on some level, particularly as a tourist since our dollars spent here are extremely valuable.

So after hearing conflicting information from our driver that brought us to Jaipur (not the driver bringing us to the sanctuary, as he worked for the farm) we vacillated back and forth on whether or not to even go, but after doing yet more research the night before we were scheduled we (obviously) decided we needed to see it for ourselves.

There is no question that the four hours we spent here were absolutely incredible. We were paired with our own elephant, 19 year old Ahnoo, and being this close to a creature of this magnitude was more than I could have imagined. The first several minutes are spent letting her get to know us by sight, sound of voice and smell. We feed her and stroke her, letting her unique texture become familiar under our skin. It’s nearly impossible to describe.

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After a good hour or more of feeding and bonding with her we are offered the opportunity to paint her using all natural glycerine paints. Painting is an old tradition, decorating the animals for weddings or other religious ceremonies. This little activity ends up being much more difficult than it looks given not only the perpetual swaying of the animal and texture of her hide, but the course hair all over her body, which ends up flicking nearly as much paint on me as I got on her.

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Colorfully crooked OM
Colorfully crooked OM

We then wash her off and give her water to drink, which is pretty incredible. She takes in massive amounts through her trunk to then deposit in her mouth, part of which she drinks and part of which she stores for later.

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Finally, we have the option of riding her, sans the hard saddles used at the tourists sites, as the saddles are more comfortable for the rider but less comfortable for the elephant. Annabell declined, but I could not resist.

For me, this was a meditative, almost transcendent experience. Sitting atop such strength in motion, I closed my eyes and just let myself be swayed by her gentle movement, feeling her power underneath me. It was like a dance, being led by enormous grace and beauty.

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It’s hard to describe the idea of an elephant “nuzzling” but all through this experience and particularly after I’d ridden her, there were moments of undeniable connectivity. When leaning my forehead against her at the space between and below her eyes where her trunk begins (this is where we connected given her “small” stature) and feeling her slowly and gently push back into me, well nuzzling is the only word that comes to mind. Their social nature is apparent and it’s easy to see how humans bond with these intelligent beings.

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At the end of it all, I have to admit my take-away is conflicted. I believe they are in fact treating the animals that live here with great respect, but from what I can discern there are many elephants who still work and who come and go from this place, so their welfare when not here is unknowable. Ultimately, there is just no way to get accurate information about what goes on behind the scenes here at Elephantstic or at any tourist-involved activity in India for that matter, but I do believe they are in the right path with good intention.

The good news is, India has begun a ban on using elephants at any tourist sites and they have already shut down circuses here as well, so change IS happening. These animals were born into domestication so the best we can pray for is that they are being treated with the great respect they deserve… and that eventually their domestication here and in other countries will end so they can remain in the wild where they belong. Meanwhile, I feel immense gratitude for this experience and leave taking a little piece of Ahnoo with me in my heart.

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Another of the elephants, showing some intricate painting.

Jaipur! The (Sort of) Pink City

January 31, 2017

First things first: the Pink City isn’t actually pink. It’s more of an apricot color, but the charm of the walled Old City holds fast no matter the  color descriptive.

Palace of the Wind
Palace of the Wind, Old City Jaipur
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The Peacock at Pearl Palace Hotel

Arriving in the dark, starving and tired, we are thrilled to find out that the rooftop restaurant in our hotel, The Peacock, is one of the best in the city, and it does not disappoint. From several stories up, amidst twinkling lights and charming decor we listen to the bustle below us and enjoy one of the best meals I’ve had yet. Full and happy, we retire early to try and catch up on much needed sleep.

Our first full day here is all about seeing the sights. We begin at Amer Fort, one of 3 immense mountain top forts built a several centuries ago in order to protect the city of Amer. I won’t go into all of the historical details here, but will suffice to say that the splendor of a bygone era is still palpable in this majestic place.

The Gardens
The Gardens

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Getting lost in long hallways
Getting lost in long hallways
Working ladies
Working ladies

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After Amer, we stop at Panna Meena ka Kun, the second baori (step well) of the trip, and this one satisfies me on every possible level. Aside from a couple of locals hanging out, we are the only people at this site (you know how that thrills me) and considering the lack of gates and fencing, the first thing I do is climb down as far as I’m able to. Unfortunately, a security guard eventually appears and makes it known that this is against the rules, but not before we’re able to take some incredible photos.

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Before heading to lunch we take a photo-op at Jalal Mahal, the floating palace, which is no longer open to visitors. There are many vendors selling food and wares along the waterfront here, and I see a street snack I had last time I was in India and am compelled to give it a try here. A clear moment of hesitation makes me question whether or not this is wise, as there are half a dozen reasons why this is completely unsanitary and high-risk, but I justify that since this is my second trip I now have the antibody’s in my system and I go for it. I ask for extra lime and spice (I’m convinced this helps kill the bacteria) and I’m happy to report there was not even a hint a of a tummy trouble! And yes, the crunchy, tomato-y, limey snack was as good as I remembered!

Skeptical, yes... but I really want this snack!
Skeptical, yes… but I really want this snack!

After lunch we spend a couple of hours walking around the Old City portion of Jaipur shopping and mostly just taking in the feel of this city and it’s inhabitants, both human and otherwise.

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One of my absolute favorite things about being in a foreign land is photographing the people. I learned a few trips ago that while there are many moments when the foreign faces appears skeptical and unwelcoming, eye contact, a smile and a nod hello can go a very, very long way.
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Killer smile only moments ago, but they all want to be serious for the camera

As we waited for our driver to take us to the next site, I saw a man sitting in his cart, selling coconuts and was immediately drawn to him. I approached and asked in my typical manner of gestures and smiles, if I could take his photo and he happily agreed. As is often the case in these scenarios where a particular person compels me, a conversation of sorts ensued. One where verbal language has little bearing and the warm energetic connection is the real tie that binds.

Bonding over secret handshakes
Bonding over learning secret handshakes
He got it!

After we’re done it’s time to head up to Nahargarh, another of the three hilltop forts here. This one is known for it’s panoramic view of the vast city below, and if I had any question about the enormity of Jaipur, this view gives me proper perspective.

One of the things I noticed on the way into town yesterday and that I see again and again in this city are the kites, and I’m sad to learn we missed the annual kite festival by only a couple of weeks. If you’ve read The Kite Runner you know a bit about the competitive sport of kite fighting, and from different perspectives around the city it’s impossible to tell if all the kites I see are part of this aggressive sport or just for folly, but they are a delightful visual either way. From this perch high atop a mountain, the bobbing kites below are such a simple pleasure to watch.

One of the main downsides to a densely populated city this size is of course the palpable pollution, which makes a clear photo of the view impossible (not to mention the toll it takes on one’s respiratory system.) The only upside however, is that pollution tends to create a stunning visual effect on the setting sun.

Sunset over Jaipur seen through the fort wall
Sunset over Jaipur seen through the fort wall
Beautiful end to a beautiful day
Beautiful end to a beautiful day

As the sun makes it’s descent over Jaipur and ushers in the night, we head back to the hotel and it is here that we feel the full impact of Jaipur traffic. Our driver has told us that that Jaipur beats both Delhi and Bombay in the bad traffic department, and we get into a friendly argument about it. Last year in Bombay I thought there was absolutely nothing that could compare to the absurdity and chaos I witness and experienced there… but I quickly conceded my viewpoint as we joltingly stopped and started for over an hour, packed in sardine-style amidst blasting horns, yelling motorcyclists, food vendor carts and the occasional (and extremely brave/insane) pedestrian, just to get us the 2 kilometers back to the hotel.

Thus ends another exhaustingly successful day. Thank you, India.

A Road Less Traveled: Delhi to Jaipur

January 30, 2017

After a quick one-day, jet-lagged visit to Delhi, (which I will summarize after my return visit on the way home) we set off for Jaipur, taking a long detour to the small village of Abhaneri in order to visit one of the oldest baoris (step-wells) in India: Chand baori.

Step wells are old structures unique unto India. A perimeter of long criss-crossing staircases were built around vast, deep holes in the ground that either occurred naturally or were excavated. During monsoon season these vast wells would collect water that would be used long after the rains stopped. The lower the water levels got, the deeper they could descend via the stairs to retrieve it.

 

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Although I had only ever visited one other step-well before on my last trip (in Delhi) I became slightly obsessed with these ancient structures. Their aesthetic and functionality from days long gone have a sort of mystical effect, and their appeal led me to explore options for visiting more whenever the opportunity arose.

As per my usual method of operation, part of the appeal to visit Chand baori was it’s somewhat remote location (read: very few tourists) and I had visions of climbing down into this well like you can in the Delhi locale, but unfortunately the steps here have been partitioned off, safety and preservation both being clear concerns. Still, the gorgeous symmetry and artistry remains alluring from our vantage point above. This particular baori was built for a King in the 8th Century and the structures surrounding the well show it’s regal purpose.

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Adjacent to the well was the King’s temple and we spent time photo-documenting the site (as we love to do!) when some delightful local children joined our fun.

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From here we linger in the village for a cup of chai, but this was no ordinary chai. The tea itself was delicious as always (fueling my chai obsession from the last trip) but the gift here was in the cups. Traditionally you see chai being served on the streets in tiny plastic glasses, but here the earthy, clay pots they used gave the tea an entirely different taste and texture. In general, old world traditions still have immense value in India, but in the countryside that is particularly so. These little clay cups were being made right around the corner and after we finished drinking, we paid the artisans a visit and were privy to their process.

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Annabell, having dabbled in pottery, jumped in and got her hands in the clay.
Annabell, having dabbled in pottery, jumped in and got her hands in the clay.

Overall, this was an intimate, authentic experience, and exactly why I prioritize getting off the beaten tourist track.

Yoga in an ancient temple is my favorite yoga.

——

Headed now toward Jaipur, we stop just outside the city at Galtaji, an old temple affectionately known as “The Monkey Temple”. Nestled between rocky cliffs, this place is still in use for daily prayers but is in quite a state of disrepair, which only adds to its charm. It is dusk when we arrive, and the man giving us our very informal ‘tour’ is a humble man who has dedicated his life to feeding the wild monkeys here. Many forgotten years ago I had seen a documentary talking about people in India who are committed to caring for and feeding animals and as we approached the temple the familiarity of it triggered my memory of seeing this place on television.

This man began feeding the monkeys as a child and his relationship with these wild creatures many decades later is clear. I have been to other places where monkeys integrate with the public, and caution is always warranted with these somewhat aggressive and wiley creatures. Here, most of what we saw were docile (but hungry!) animals, save for the occasional screeching outburst when some young monkey didn’t respect the pecking order.

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Most of these little guys obeyed his commands to back off if their behavior got too wild near us, but when left to their own devices they simply wanted more peanuts. Clearly, they have become less wild here at the temple, but it’s no free-for-all. You are asked to stick to the peanuts they provide and not to provoke them in anyway. We watch as hundreds of them descend from the surrounding cliffs down onto the temple grounds or go back up to their homes. It is absolutely delightful.

As darkness descends upon us, exhausted by the excitement, lingering jet lag and long hours in the car we head toward our home for the next three days, Jaipur.