Fairy tale city – Jaisalmer

The Living Fort - Jaisalmer

The Living Fort – Jaisalmer

I had heard a lot about Jaisalmer and how beautiful it is, but nothing can quite prepare you for the city. The fort in Jaisalmer is the only living fort in the world, and we stayed at a hotel inside the fort itself, which is the best thing to do.

The whole place looks magical, like a scene out of Arabian Nights. It looks like someone has put up a historical set, and opened it up for the public, and that the next time you come, it might disappear! There are lots and lots and lots of shops inside the fort – the city, after all, is a tourist city. Its entire economy depends on tourism. Once you’ve been there, it works such magic on you that you would want to visit it again and again.

Jain Temple, Dancers on the Roof, Jaisalmer

Architecture in temple – dancers on the roof

I think I spent most of my time walking while looking up, because almost all the houses have beautifully carved jharokas and balconies. I kept poking the husband in the ribs and pointing out almost every second house! The guide was also amused, said this is so normal for them that they don’t even see it! Apparently, the government has passed an order that all houses built in Jaisalmer have to have a sandstone front and have to have some carving on the doors and window, since the carving and the sandstone is all that attracts tourists to the city.

There are a lot of Jain temples, built in between and 12th and 15th century, inside the fort, and again, all I can say is that the carving is awesome! The biggest temple has got 11 dancers carved on the roof, with musicians below them, and one figure of Indira. The Jains believe that once the temple is closed, the dancers descend from the roof and dance for the Gods. How quaint! The statue looks like it is made of marble, but is actually made of desert sand! Every year it is polished with diamond dust, milk, sandalwood, and turmeric, which gives it the look of marble!

Patwon ki Haveli

Patwon ki Haveli

The entire temple is built on the basis of interlocking columns, since there was no water for limestone joining at that time, and cement was not invented yet. One of the other temples had different form of Ganeshji carved on the roof. Seeing it just takes your breath away! Especially when you think of when they were built and what kind of ability and skill it would have taken then, to make something that is so timeless in its beauty, without the technology that we have access to today.

The museum in the fort had some interesting things on display – line the entire family tree of the rulers, right down to the present king. There was also the king’s bedroom, and one of the king’s nightgown on display. It’s so huge that both the husband and me could fit into it, and still have some space left over!

One of the most elaborate and magnificent of all the havelis (bungalows) in Jaisalmer is Patwon ki Haveli, which was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who made their fortunes by trading jewelry and fine brocades. The entire façade of the haveli is made of sandstone, which has through-and-through, intricate carving. I went crazy photographing close-ups of different sections of the haveli! And the most amazing thing is that there is a similar house, which was made in 1993! It belongs to someone who is based in Surat, and would have cost him Rs. 1 crore to build! The sandstone is cheap, but the carving is really expensive, about Rs. 500 per square foot!

Tazia Tower

Tazia Tower

Following the trend of converting palaces into hotels and leaving a section open for visitors is Badal Mahal, which is topped by the Tazia Tower. Each story of this five-tiered tower has a beautifully carved balcony. Muslim craftsmen built it in the shape of a Tazia and gifted to the king. Tazias are ornately decorated bamboo, paper, and tinsel replicas of a bier carried in procession during Muharram. Visitors can’t go into the tower, because the king has his residence in that section of the palace.

Surprisingly, this desert city also has a lake! A man-made lake, but a lake nevertheless – the Gadisar lake. At one time it was the town’s main water supply, but is currently a big tourist attraction. Who wouldn’t want to go boating in the desert?

And of course, how can I neglect to mention the desert itself?

Riding Into the Sunset, Jaisalmer

Riding Into the Sunset

We went to Sam Sand Dunes for New Year. It is a one hour drive on a lonely road, there are hardly one or two small villages along the way. Sam is not really just sand dunes, though, there are a lot of shrubs too, which I wasn’t expecting. It just didn’t fit into my mental image of what a desert should look like, but it did give me a sense of serenity and timelessness, despite all the crowds that were there for New Year. We plan to return here again, and spend a couple of days in the desert.

Rajasthani dancers

Rajasthani dancers

New Year celebrations were organized by the hotel, and were held at one of the many desert camps. There was traditional Rajasthani folk music and dances organized at the venue, along with dinner and drinks. While we had originally planned on staying till 12:30 am at least, it was too cold to even think about it. While we were sitting in front of the fire it was fine, but our backs were bearing the brunt of the cold air blowing in, despite all the layers of clothes we were wearing!

The New Year program was an interesting experience, though it wasn’t really what I was expecting. I had a completely different image in my mind, fueled by all the things we had heard from people when we mentioned we were planning to spend New Year at Jaisalmer! It was a little disappointing, but an experience worth remembering nonetheless.

(All images copyright Modern Gypsy)

The Blue City – Jodhpur

Traveling is one of the best ways to expand your horizons and learn about different cultures. It has been such a long time since I’ve taken a long holiday with no obligations attached that I had almost forgotten what a wondrous experience it is!

Cenotaph at Madore Garden

Cenotaph at Madore Garden

We were to travel to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer during Christmas and New Year, and the excitement was building up since almost a month. I spent quite a bit of time after work looking for places to stay and researching the two cities and all that we could do, that I was dreaming of all the places we would visit and what they would be like weeks before we even left!

Our first stop was Jodhpur. We were staying a bit out of the city, at Madore, which was the original capital of the Marwar region. It had to be shifted, though, as it was difficult to defend, and once the fort was built at Jodhpur (in the 15th century), it became the capital of the region.

Mandore is famous for the Mandore Gardens, a beautiful, sprawling garden that houses the chhatries (cenotaphs) of the Rathode rulers. One of the most imposing is the Cenotaph of King Ajit Singh, which sports carved elephants, amalake (disk-shaped flourishes with fluted edges), and a pillared fore chamber with fine sculpture. The 17th century centograph of King Jaswant Singh is a huge octagonal pavilion with a vast dome and huge pillars. A lot of the centographs are dome-shaped structures supported on about 7 pillars.

Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh Fort

The main attraction at Jodhpur is the imposing Mehrangarh fort, which has now been converted into a museum, with only a few of the palaces open to the public. The fort museum is one of the best, making most other museums we visited later pale in comparison. The fort appears to rise from bluff-colored sandstone hill itself, so well built into the base that it is difficult to tell where the hill ends and the walls begin. It is approached by a series of seven gateways, past which is the fort-palace.

You are steeped in history the moment you walk into the fort. One of the walls still bears the marks on canon fire, on another, there are a number of handprints, which are carvings of the hand of all the queens who committed sati, and there are some huge copper pots – so huge a man could fit into them – that were used for cooking.

Interiors at Mehrangarh Fort

Interiors at Mehrangarh Fort

A short, steep walk brings you to the main fort area that is open to visitors. Most of the fort has been converted into a sprawling museum, and there are some amazing sights to see! There are a lot of elephant seats made of wood with gold and silver carvings, plakis to carry queens and princesses, including the queen’s wedding palki, which is carved in gold. One entire room is filled with cradles of princes, and what amazing cradles they are! Huge wooden cradles with lovely statues and birds forming arches around it, painted with vegetable dyes and gold, and some of them were even made of silver!

There were huge displays of swords, cutting knives, battle axes, spears, and rifles, as well as tapestries, jharokas (windows), the vedas, and the queen’s cosmetic box and exercise poles. The most stunning, though, was a palki made of pure silver, intricately and finely wrought, with such workmanship as cannot be surpassed today. It was part of the spoils of war that the rulers won from the Mughals.

The palaces that were open to the public are breathtakingly beautiful. The pierced screen windows of Moti Mahal overlook the coronation seat where Rathore rulers have been traditionally been anointed to rule; Jhanki Mahal is the apartment from where the women would watch ceremonial events; and the royal throne room with its octagonal throne and seating for ministers.

Jodhpur - The Blue City

Jodhpur – The Blue City

The Moti Mahal has lovely Belgian glass stained windows, and the afternoon light filtering in gave it a look of mystery. All four walls have niches carved from floor to ceiling, which were filled with oil lamps and lit in the evenings, throwing the whole room in a glow of color reflected from the windows.

From the top of the fort you can see the entire city spread below you, and the famous blue houses, that give Jodhpur the name of The Blue City. Originally the color blue denoted higher caste houses, but now, most people color their houses blue to give the illusion of coolness, as Jodhpur gets searingly hot in summers, with temperatures reaching between 48 and 50 degrees.

 

Unmaid Bhavan

Unmaid Bhavan

The other big attraction of Jodhpur is the Unmaid Bhavan Palace. Constructed of marble and pink sandstone, this is the world’s largest residential palace. Begun in 1929, it was designed by the president of the British Royal Institute of Architects for King Umaid Singh, and took 15 years to complete. Ironically, Umaid Singh died in 1947/8, four years after the palace was completed; the current King Gaj Singh II still lives in part of the building, the rest has been converted into a hotel – an extremely expensive hotel!

Although the palace museum pales in comparison to Mehrangarh fort, it does have a lovely collection of antique clocks and china. As it was designed by a British designer, it doesn’t have the intricacy that I have come to love in Rajasthani architecture, though it does cut an elegant and imposing figure. The part I enjoyed there most was the walk up to the palace, and eating a scoop of ice cream at the garden café, under an umbrella with the sun beating down on us and a cool wind blowing through my hair.

Blackbucks

Blackbucks

An interesting experience at Jodhpur is to go for a Village Safari. It’s a trip to a Bishnoi community village that was arranged by our hotel. The owners do a lot of community work there, as was evident by the way in which the owner’s son, who accompanied us, was stopped along the way as the villagers told him of their complaints and gave them a list of medicines they wanted! Most of the villagers were very friendly, and loved getting their photographs clicked, especially the children, who got really demanding and pestered me until I took all of their snaps, individually and in groups! We also got to see a lot of blackbucks there, which the Bishnois protect, and we saw the place where Salman Khan was caught hunting blackbuck, that led to the court case that he is currently embroiled in.

Bishnoi Village Children

Bishnoi Village Children

The Safari apparently is very popular, judging by the fact that they had kept intact a 70-year old traditional hut made of cowdung with a thatched roof and an enclosure for cattle to show to tourists. Most of the villagers now live in brick houses. We also met a weaver there, who is the only man left in the village who still weaves with actual sheep thread. Some of the shawls and blankets he had made were very pretty – simple and rough, but pretty. The other highlight there is the sunset point, which overlooks the watering hole. As dusk approached, a lot of animals, including blackbucks, camels, and a number of birds, came there to slake their thirst. Though it was quite cloudy, the sunset was beautiful, as the orange rays of the setting sun hit the water, turning it into a pool of liquid silver.

Maha Mandir - Arches

Maha Mandir – Arches

We also stumbled upon the sleepy, almost forgotten Maha Mandir temple. I had read about it during my research on the Internet, and was very keen to visit it. The temple is an architectural splendor, supported by 84 pillars and ornamented with detailed designs and figures depicting various Yoga postures. The temple was built by one of the Marwar kings for his priest, who was a disciple of Shivji and a yoga guru.

A man who lives opposite the temple told us the history of the temple.

Apparently, the king who built it had lost the kingdom when a Mughal army invaded Jodhpur. He consulted his priest and asked him how he could win back his kingdom. Following the advice given by the priest, the king won, and built Maha Mandir (a palace), within which he built the temple.

Yoga Postures

Mahamandir – Yoga Postures

The temple was a kingdom in itself – once the king was inside the temple, anything he said was law, and could not be refuted, no matter what happened outside the temple walls. Finding the temple was a task in itself, as hardly anyone ever comes here, and we had to walk quite a distance to find it. Although the temple complex has been converted into a government school, the temple is still open to the few visitors who do trickle in.

And of course, we couldn’t leave Jodhpur without having lassi at Ghanta Garh! It was the most deliciously thick lassi I have ever had. So thick that you couldn’t drink it, you had to eat it with a spoon, and so filling and refreshing that that was all we had for lunch! Ghanta Garh is a nice, crowded market. Tiny shops line both sides of the narrow lanes, and you can find handicrafts, aromatic spices, vegetables, and lovely bedcovers in these shops.

Our next stop – Jaisalmer!

Jaded Consumerism

I was discussing the changing face of consumerism in India with a friend a few days back. There was a time, even until about 4 years ago, when almost any purchase could give you a high for at least a few days. Nowadays, we seem to be so jaded, that even when we buy something we’ve been hankering for, the joy is missing. Like 6 years back, when I was staying alone in Bombay, I spent a “princely” sum of Rs. 2,000 on books, and I was kicked about it for weeks! I could never have imagined spending that much on books before, not for lack of money, but for remonstrations from my mother. Now, about a month back, I spent Rs. 8,500 on a woolen rug for the hall, again something I had been wanting for a long, long time, but when we came home and laid it down, I just looked at it, said yeah it looks nice, and that was it! Even when I bought my first car a few months back (ok, I know, I learnt driving really late!) it should have been a monumentally happy occasion—but it was not! I just felt like yeah, ok, I got my car. Why?? Where’s the joy gone? It’s not like these purchases were “unnecessary” and neither is it that I have truck loads of money and shelling out about 9k is no big deal—9k still is a lot of money for me! But there’s just no joy!

shop.png

Maybe it’s just that it has become easier to buy things, what with banks falling over themselves to give you loans and credit cards. Or that we are earning increasing amounts of money with lesser time to enjoy it; so, when we do buy something, its generally taken such a long time to manage to get the time out and buy it, that we just don’t get that kick anymore. Or could it be that we are so spoiled for choice, that we’ve become jaded about our purchases? Whatever it is, it isn’t a very pretty place in which to be.

Connecting to the Wellspring of the Universe

I was reading an article on Flow, and how it can be easily achieved by everyone. Flow is the current that enables our lives to unfold effortlessly, and moves us toward a feeling of “completeness” and harmony. When we are in flow, we experience synchronicity—events line up and fall into place, and obstacles just melt away. Flow has tremendous power to transform our lives, for it is dynamic and moves us unfailingly toward joy and aliveness.

When we are in flow, things happen, seemingly without any major effort on our part; almost as though we were in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. But it’s been a long time since I’ve felt connected to the Universe. There was a time when things just seemed to happen, when I just knew something was pre-destined, and events unfolded almost perfectly. I seem to have lost my way to the wellspring, and can’t seem to find it!

According to the article I was reading, there are nine qualities that engage flow:

  • Commitment—Living by our deepest values
  • Honesty—Telling the truth to ourselves and others
  • Courage—Overcoming fears
  • Passion—Engaging with what we care about
  • Immediacy—Being in the moment
  • Openness—Saying Yes to whatever comes our way
  • Receptivity—Listening to inner and outer messages
  • Positivity—Finding the value in each situation
  • Trust—Having faith in ourselves and the Universe
  • Somewhere along the way, I forgot how to spend time dreaming, to be receptive to things around me….I forgot about me and how to myself….I had no time to purse my passions, or to look at things objectively and honestly. With no time to introspect, it seems to be no wonder that I lost my bearings.

    However, the article does go on to list out techniques that help us deepen the aove qualities in ourselves:

  • Be aware
  • Accept yourself and others
  • Express who you really are
  • Create silence
  • Follow your intuition
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Do 100% of what you know to do—and trust
  • Finish things and move on
  • Take risks
  • Break with your old reality
  • Appreciate yourself
  • Express gratitude
  • Give of yourself
  • Get a point of view from the Universe
  • So, will I have the time and the courage to find my way back? Only time will tell….

    Suspended Reality: Jaipur

    Fort at Amber, India

    Amer fort, Jaipur

    After planning, hoping, waiting, fighting, and crying over it, the husband and I finally managed to co-ordinate our days off and go for a vacation – after years and years!! The destination: Jaipur. Although we had been there before, about 5 years ago, and had done all the touristy things, we hit upon it due to paucity of time, and the fact that I wanted to indulge in some retail therapy. And what better place to sooth a girl’s heart than Jaipur, where you get lovely silver jewelry, and much cheaper than you’d ever hope to find in Delhi!

    The library, Arya Niwas

    So on a balmy Saturday morning, off we went! Being an eagerly anticipated trip, and one that came about after such a long time, I was hypersensitive to everything around me – including wanting to control the weather, which had started to deteriorate as we were approaching Jaipur (heavy downpours). Luckily, though, it stopped raining in the city by the time we reached, and the roads were clean and dry. So, after checking into our hotel, grabbing a cup of tea and a snack, it was time to hit the market! Time was short, as the main jewelry hub, Johri Market, is closed on Sunday, and we were to head back to Delhi on Monday morning.

    Bangles on sale, Johri Bazaar

    Time changes so many things, and Johri Market was no different. Where there used to be lots of tiny silver shops selling cool “junk” jewelry, this time around there were more shops selling gold and diamonds!! But we (or rather the husband) found a small little shop that had some absolutely fantastic pieces of jewelry – for daily office wear, as well as beautiful pieces for formal wear – and all of it really reasonable. We must have spent about 2 hours there, looking at all his collections, choosing pieces that appealed, and finally short listing the ones that I really, really loved. And the husband is such a treasure with this – he was the one who helped me choose, by telling me which pieces looked good on me and helping me pick out some real show-stoppers!

    The next day was earmarked for a little bit of sightseeing – mainly to put our “new” digital camera to use, and some bedsheet shopping. Jaipur block prints look gorgeous, and of course are very cheap when you know how to bargain! So, our first stop was Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), where we first did, what else, shopping!! at the market outside Hawa Mahal. Picked up some lovely cotton block print bed covers, and two absolutely regal brocade silk bed covers – all of which we got at throw away prices, so much so that we barely bothered to bargain!!

    Hawa MahalFrom there it was on to the monument itself. The gorgeous carving on the outside is, curiously enough, completely lacking on the inside. Made by Mughal emperors at a time when women were in strict “purdah,” the Hawa Mahal was originally intended to allow the royal women to be able to observe life outside the palace without being seen themselves. In fact, the side facing the street outside the palace complex has 953 small windows, which allows the breeze to circulate within the palace, keeping it cool even in the hot summer months, and of course, giving the palace its name. In spite of the lovely breeze, though, the heat was too much for us to bear, so we took ourselves back to the hotel, where we spent the rest of the afternoon/evening lazing around in the room (reading Tara Road by Mave Binchy) and spending some time in the lovely gardens outside.

    Garden, Arya Niwas

    We had dinner at an Italian restaurant – Mediterrano –that was walking distance from our hotel. It is in a complex called Ambe Towers, on the top floor, and the lifts weren’t working! Climbing up about 6 stories definitely whipped up our appetite! The food more than made up for the strenuous workout – their pizza had a nice, thin, crisp crust, though with negligible cheese (which was a bit disappointing), though their Ravioli was to die for!

    Monday, unfortunately, came too soon. The carefree interlude was over, and it was time to get back to the reality of daily life and the stress of living in a big city. Not that I’m complaining too much about it, but a vacation is like suspending reality. Getting right back into the groove can be a bit of a shock! The memories, and the shopping, will stay on, though!

    Solitude

    Solitude…a word at once calming and scary. Calming because it is only in solitude that I can get in touch with myself, examine the effect various events and conversations have had on me. I need my solitude to center myself, otherwise I become like a prickly hedgehog, ready to rise to the defence for almost no reason.

    Its scary at the same time, because I can squander it away….or go alone to find myself and discover there’s no one there. Even though that at least has never happened.

    But in spite of just how important solitude is to me…there are times when I have none. Caught up in this hullaballo of daily life with all its demands, there is no time for self-reflection and contenmplation. And it is during those periods (like right now) that I just wish for a small cottage in a remote hill station where I can lose myself.

    Hello world!

    Aren’t we all muddled in some way or the other? Second guessing ourselves, wondering about our decisions, going through life with some firm opinions and with others that change. Questioning our faith and beliefs. The rationals among us questioning history and faith. After all, it was recorded centuries after the event. How much of it is true? And how do you sift between fact and fiction? How can blind faith explain certain concepts of relegion – like the Immaculate Conception and the Indian Creation Myth? Do we choose to believe? Do we act like we believe? Not only with regards to relegion, but with regards to the many excuses we hear everyday. How much of it goes on in an endless loop at the back of our minds, as we try and analyze what was said and what may have been implied? Confusion and chaos rule….most of the time….and if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know it’s true.