Jaisalmer is the westernmost town of any substance in India, deep in the Thar Desert. After Jaisalmer there is nothing but scattered villages and barren soil until you reach an imaginary line in the sand separating India from Pakistan.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
We arrived there after a five hour bus journey from Jodhpur, during which we had crossed an empty, untamed moonscape of sand and rock. Jaisalmer stands on the only raised patch of ground within a few hundred kilometres, and is surrounded a full 360 degrees by menacing fortifications and walls. The whole place is built of a flaky, yellow stone that almost seems to glow, so it is extraordinarily beautiful, especially at sunset. And, whereas most other ancient forts in Rajasthan have emptied over the centuries, as people moved into new settlements outside of the walls, the majority of Jaisalmer’s inhabitants continue to live in the fort itself, just like their medieval forebears did.
We were dropped off outside the walls of the town, and entered Jaisalmer via its main Arabesque-style gateway, passing into a hotchpotch of ramshackle buildings, lanes, pokey shops and temples. There were turbaned men in flowing white cotton robes, strolling along bustling alleyways; women in bright saris shopping for fruits and vegetables; walls plastered with murals and graffiti and election posters; noisy markets brimming with piles of colourful spices and vegetables; cows roaming about; heat; dust; more heat; more dust. It was like we had somehow hitched a ride on a magic carpet, leaving India and landing up directly in a scene from Aladdin, instead.
This is no accident – at one stage in its history, Jaisalmer was an important staging post in the overland spice trail from Asia to Europe, and picked up influences not just from India but from wherever the traders went, including as far away as the middle-east. The merchants of Jaisalmer became fabulously wealthy as a result of their strategic hold on the valuable spice commodity. This is what had necessitated the construction of Jaisalmer’s impressive walls in the first place, so as to offer protection from enemies and marauding thieves. But once this mammoth project was complete, Jaisalmer’s rich merchants needed another way to flaunt their fortunes, and so took to building themselves magnificent townhouses, known as havelis.
Typically a haveli consists of a plain but very solid square block, three or four stories high, facing inwards to a central courtyard. From the outside they don’t look like much, but inside they can be architectural works of art, with elaborate interior facades, balconies, latticed windows, domes and turrets. That said, some of the bigger havelis do boast spectacular murals painted on their exterior, normally scenes of folk life or tales from Hindu mythology. Although in the case of one famous haveli the mural took the form of a public plug as to how “hip” the current owner is, its external paint-job featuring a telephone, a car and an airplane.
Anyway, we spent our first forty-five minutes wandering around Jaisalmer’s narrow laneways searching for cheap but hospitable accommodation. It was the low season and tourists, Jaisalmer’s main source of income since the spice trade disappeared, were few on the ground. We were thus inundated with offers of places to stay, as people cat-called to us from doorways and cafes. We eventually decided to follow one particular man for no reason other than he had a sweet, trustworthy looking face.
The man led us to what he described as “my family’s haveli”, a large, slightly run-down three-story building at the heart of a tangle of laneways so tiny and higgledy-piggledy I immediately began worrying that we would be trapped there, never able to find our way out. We had to stoop low as we entered the haveli through a midget-sized doorway, walking down a dark, quite sinister tunnel before finally emerging into the central courtyard. We looked up but there was none of the splendour and opulence of the grand havelis mentioned in the guide books, or featured on postcards. Instead, we saw three levels, surrounded by simple balconies, walls of weathered brick, and washing hanging out to dry from the railings. A few creaking ceiling fans strained to turn in the hot air, whining softly like exhausted puppies. I swallowed hard, absolutely convinced that our room would be dirty and rat-infested.
Still, we followed our host up a flight of narrow stairs to the second level, where he theatrically flung open two ancient wooden doors, revealing a cavernous room within. There was a bay window, a small table at which to take tea, a bed, a threadbare carpet on the stone floor, and a series of sturdy stone columns holding up the ceiling. It was clean and neat, but we didn’t notice that at all, because every surface in the room – ceiling, walls and columns – was covered with the most exquisite murals. And even though they had faded and cracked with the passage of time the paintings were still bright and vivid, enough for the whole thing to look like a colour bomb had exploded right before we entered, spattering the walls with streaks of red and blue and yellow and gold.
It was amazing. Anywhere else in the world this would probably have been preserved as a museum piece. But here it was casually hidden away in a non-descript haveli, an astonishing, glorious room, all the more so because it was so completely unexpected. We stood there speechless, marvelling at both the beauty of the room and our good luck.
Later in the haveli’s courtyard we were introduced to one of the other guests, a young man, with handsome features so fine and delicate he could almost be described as “pretty”. He introduced himself as Jean-Paul, an American photographer who had been living in Hong-Kong for the past few years. He was no en-route to London where his boyfriend and a new job were waiting for him, but had stopped in India on assignment from an English magazine, to take photos of the Indian elections.
While we were chatting to Jean-Paul the hotel owner appeared, and invited us all to go up onto the roof-top terrace. He told us that there was a Jain temple located right next to the haveli, and he said that from the roof we would be able to see the carved domes and spires of the temple’s roof, which were otherwise not visible from the ground.
The Jains are one of India’s lesser known religious groups. They believe so firmly in the sanctity of all life – human and animal – that its members walk barefoot and wear a facemask, lest they inadvertently kill an insect by crushing or swallowing it (although I doubt that your average Mr. Ant would thank you for your sensitivity if you stood on him, even if without shoes).
The austerity of Jain life is offset by the opulence of their temples, which are usually superb collections of stone-carvings. Indeed, we had been told many times on our travels that the Jains were the best stoneworkers in India, which, after having seen a good number of truly spectacular Hindu temples all over the country, seemed a pretty big compliment indeed.
But on the rooftop in Jaisalmer that afternoon we learned that even this was something of an understatement. The domes of the Jain temple were magnificent, and the carvings unbelievable in their perfection. From the rooftop we could almost reach out and touch the intricate and beautifully worked designs. I was amazed – so much painstaking work dedicated to a rooftop that was completely invisible, except from on high. Although perhaps that was the point.
The setting was equally spectacular, what with the temple domes in the foreground, the town of Jaisalmer in the middle ground, and then the vastness of the desert beyond that. The sun was setting, and the stones of Jaisalmer and the sands of the desert seemed to come alive, both burning with a soft-orange glow. I think Jean-Paul must have snapped a thousand photos. The haveli owner brought us mugs of steaming tea and cookies. We all sat there, in contemplative silence, slowly sipping tea as we watched the sun descend towards the horizon. The colours intensified, the sky seems to catch fire for a few brief moments, and then in a matter of minutes the most perfect day dissolved into night.
As moments go, that one was pretty special.
Bikaner is not a place that features on most tourist itineraries. It is a nowhere town in the heart of Rajasthan, and the only reason we went to Bikaner was to pass through, a transit point on the journey from Jaisalmer to Jaipur.
We had been told that the bus ride from Jaisalmer to Bikaner would be under six hours, giving us plenty of time to catch a connecting train to Jaipur. Surprise! – the bus ride turned out to be an eleven hour endurance test, and when we finally got to the chaotic free-for-all that was masquerading as Bikaner’s central bus terminal, we were in no mood to continue our journey. So we decided to stay the night, only to discover that our guidebook’s Bikaner entry consisted of two depressingly short paragraphs, devoid of any practical information.
So there we were, in an unfamiliar town, late in the day with darkness fast approaching, nowhere to stay and no idea of how to go about fixing that problem. We had become spoilt – reliant on guidebooks and the hotel-touts who seem to swarm every arrival platform at every Indian train station. For the first time in India I positively wanted to be hassled, but it was not the tourist season in Rajasthan, and Bikaner is not a tourist town, and so for once there was not a single tout on hand. Shit, I thought.
We set off on foot to find a hotel, and quickly became lost. Each time we turned a corner the dusty street ahead of us looked exactly like the one from which we had just come. Eventually, we emerged into a fairly wide square which had around one hundred cows crammed into it, grazing happily on scattered grass and straw. If the sanctity of a place in India can be measured by the number of cows (which are, after all, considered to be living deities), we had just stumbled onto the Indian equivalent of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Except that every few seconds one of the nearby Gods would fart, or else dispose of an enormous turd.
I was convinced that a suitable hotel lay just beyond the next corner, which meant, however, that we would have to walk through the mob of masticating cows. I led off, charging directly into the herd. I hadn’t got more than five feet before one of the cows suddenly turned and moo-ed viciously at me. In my panic I jumped to one side, landing myself directly into a freshly laid pile. Shit, I thought, just this time quite literally.
I scurried back towards Camilla, who in the meantime was laughing so hard tears were rolling down her cheeks. Maybe it was the laughter, or maybe it was the sight of how pathetic I must have looked, but just then Camilla had a brainwave. Over the past months we had spent so many hours trying to avoid being scammed by rickshaw drivers, intent on delivering us to commission-paying hotels. Why not now turn that around, she suggested. Let’s just throw ourselves on the mercy of a rickshaw driver, and see what happens?
So we hailed the first rickshaw that came along, climbed aboard and with deep misgivings asked him to take us to a hotel of his choosing. Perhaps I am imagining it, but the poor fellow seemed genuinely shocked at this strange turn of events, although that may have just been disgust at my cow-shit covered shoe which I had to keep dangling out the size of the rickshaw. Nonetheless, he set off, and five minutes later dropped us off outside a solid, imposing brick building. By now it was totally dark, and before setting off the rickshaw driver emphatically informed us it was a hotel, despite the lack of any lights or other signs of life.
We stood on the pavement, not quite sure what to do, but then the lights flickered on, a door opened and a young man came out towards us. He introduced himself as Pradeep, a Nepali working in India, manager of the hotel, and offered to show us a room. To be honest, he looked kind of surprised to see guests, and his hair was a bit mussed up, suggesting we had woken him from his all-day nap.
I stayed to guard the bags, and Camilla went off with Pradeep. She returned five minutes later, and before saying anything to me turned to Pradeep and told him: “The room is fine. We’ll stay”. I asked Pradeep how much it was for the night, and he said 450 rupees (about $20). Not a lot of money, but in the world of Indian backpacking paying that for a room is outrageous. By comparison, our daily budget in India was US$12, and that was for the two of us, including all food, accommodation and transport. We had more or less managed to survive this way for months, yet here Camilla was proposing to blow almost two day’s budget on a bed for a night. I looked at her as if to say “are you mad?”, but she just nodded to Pradeep: “OK, we’ll take it”. I began remonstrating, only to receive a most withering look: “Just be quiet please, until you see the room”.
She was right. I would have gladly paid a lot more to stay in what was actually a suite of three very large, quite stunning rooms. The main room was a spacious sitting hall, with a large wooden bed, an antique dressing table, two large sofas covered in faded upholstery, and a coffee table. The walls were covered in framed pictures, and a collection of guns and rifles was mounted above the door. Hanging above the bed was a full leopard skin. Leading off from the main room was a large private dining room, with a solid wooden table that could have seated at least ten, and yet more old pictures on the walls. The bathroom was located down a small corridor, an enormous space with a free-standing tub in the centre, and original black and white tiles on the floor.
But what really made this so special was how genuine it all was. In many of India’s finest hotels, the rooms are colonial reproduction wannabes, filled with carefully sourced furnishings and decor, assembled specifically for the benefit of tourists. Here in Bikaner though we had stumbled on the real thing, in a room jam-packed with originals, old and neglected, but all unquestionably authentic. The photos hanging on the wall were of the local Rajah and his family. One bizarre photograph showed a group of turbaned Indian men wearing Scottish kilts. We flipped through an address book we found in the dressing table drawer. It read like a “who’s who” of colonial India, overflowing with the neatly printed addresses of rajahs, sirs, lords and ladies, earls and viscounts.
Later that night, Pradeep knocked on our door. He wanted to check that we were comfortable. We asked him about the hotel, and he told us it was an old palace, a small but nevertheless plush residence that had belonged to a cousin of the local Rajah, who had been the province’s treasurer. The current owner, his son, had inherited the palace on his death, and has decided to open his family home to the public as a hotel. Pradeep said the son had only done this because he loved fast motorbikes and four-wheel drive jeeps, both of which were proving to be rather expensive hobbies to maintain. The hotel had only been open four months, and according to Pradeep we were the third guests in that time.
Pradeep walked around the room, pointing out to us several of the photographs that were on the wall, and referring to people in the photos by name, in the way that one might refer to family members. “This is the owner’s father”, he said, gesturing towards a photo of a stately looking man dressed in splendid ceremonial gear. He told us that the leopard whose skin hung above the bed had been shot by the hotel owner’s grandfather, and then pointed to the gun with which that unlucky feline had been shot.
As he continued around the room it became clear that everything we could see around us was an integral piece of the hotel’s history. I had initially thought that staying in this converted palace would be the equivalent of staying in a well maintained museum exhibit. But with Pradeep there to bring each picture and piece of furniture back to life, it was more akin to staying in the Egyptian room of the British museum, with Ramses’ son as your host.
Which as experiences go was totally wonderful. And something that could only ever happen in India.
As we had learned in Bikaner, if you are a former Indian aristocrat fortunate enough to own a palace, you turn it into a hotel. Rajasthan is practically bursting at the seams with these converted palaces. The Rambagh Palace in Jaipur is one of the most magnificent of these, a stately white building set in beautiful, well-tended grounds, fulfilling every fantasy you may ever have had about what a Maharajah’s palace should look like.
Of course being humble backpackers staying there was well out of our league, but we decided nonetheless to gatecrash and spend an afternoon there one day. We snuck in, no-one asked us to leave, and so we plonked ourselves down in some deep wicker chairs on the cool outdoor terrace overlooking the palace’s gardens. We sat there for hours, sipping fizzy drinks, reading, and generally feeling pretty good about life as we watched a small army of waiters float past, a vision of bygone times in their white uniforms and red turbans.
At some point in the afternoon, I left the terrace to go to the bathroom. Walking back towards where Camilla was sitting I noticed she was talking to a scruffy looking Indian man, who was dressed in torn blue jeans and a ragged red shirt, and with a checked bandanna tied tightly around his forehead. By the time I reached Camilla the man had walked away. I asked her who that was. “I don’t know”, she replied. “He just came over and started trying to chat me up. He said he had seen me here yesterday, or something stupid like that, but he must have got the hint I wasn’t impressed and left when he saw you coming”.
That would have been the end of it, except that a few moments later we were approached by the hotel manager, who politely inquired of Camilla: “Do you know who that man you were talking to was?” Camilla replied “No, I have never seen him before”, both of us assuming that the hotel manager’s question was out of concern that a bedraggled man was wandering around the grounds of one of India’s most exclusive hotel, pestering “guests”.
Instead, however, the manager told us: “He is the Maharajah of Jaipur, and owns this hotel – he still lives here in one of the rooms. I thought you might like to know, as he doesn’t normally talk to the guests”.
I was pretty chuffed at this brush with royalty, but Camilla spent the remainder of the afternoon kicking herself – “how could I be so stupid, to reject the Maharajah of Jaipur”, she repeated again and again. “I could have been staying in a suite in this palace tonight, instead of in a crummy hotel room with you….”
That evening, as compensation for missed opportunity, I offered to take Camilla to the cinema. I had read that Jaipur’s old Royal Cinema is an institution, and one of the best preserved turn-of-the-century cinema-houses anywhere in the world. It holds almost 2000 people, and the selection of seats available sounded positively regal – balcony; royal; orchestra; dress-circle. The place looks more like a theatre than a movie-house, with plush red upholstered seats, velvet walls, a balcony decorated with ornate gilt edges, and a pair of enormous red drapes flanking the big screen.
But the Royal Cinema’s bread and butter was always, and resolutely remains, celluloid. It may look like a West End Theatre incongruously transplanted onto India soil, but seven times a day the latest Bollywood blockbusters are shown. Just like at home, the cinema’s patrons line up to buy snacks at the candy bar before the film, the only difference being, as we discovered, that this candy bar doesn’t sell popcorn and coke, but pakhoras and chai. Snacks in hand we took our seats in the dress-circle, and for the next two hours lost ourselves in the mayhem and music of a random massalah flick. The cinema was packed to capacity, and the crowd for its part was just as animated and entertaining as the film – oohing and aahhing, singing along, cheering, clapping, shouting. We didn’t understand a thing, and yet we understood every word.
I guess in a way this capacity to be simultaneously so familiar and yet so foreign summed up Rajasthan pretty well. Travelling there I felt like I was in a place that I had visited many times before, in books and films and fairy tales. Rajasthan is the India with which Westerners are most familiar – a land of desert and heat, turbans, palaces, forts, Maharajahs, leopard skins and elephants. And, ironically, it is not India at all. It is a land of desert and heat, turbans, palaces, forts, Maharajahs, leopard skins and elephants; a place so utterly unique, and so completely foreign, that I was constantly having to remind myself that I hadn’t floated off into a dreamy fantasy-land where the citizens moonlight as characters in cartoon strips and pulp romance novels.
The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time – The Camel Safari.