We had already driven 1200 km, but we were hungry for more. I had been apprehensive that a road trip may end up feeling as stressful as my everyday commute, instead there was something about open roads and open expanses of Rajasthan that felt therapeutic. We left the sands of Jaisalmer looking forward to the adventures which lay ahead.
The journey itself felt like a metaphor for life – we couldn’t get too attached to anything, good or bad, and had to be ready to leave it behind and move on.
Our next destination was Jodhpur. Ekta drove and I was happy to just sit and daydream. We overtook a large Army convoy on the way. Ekta, already nervous from a small mishap earlier got even more unsettled as she overtook several menacing looking artillery guns. To settle her nervousness she asked if the Indian army kind. I wasnt much help when I told her that kindness wasnt much help on a battle field. This was an important area for India given its proximity to Pakistan. My father had served in the Indian army and like most army kids I had seen my father go into the desert with his army unit for extended periods of time as part of battle readiness practice. So I had mixed feelings about Rajasthan, which were much different than how I was experiencing this place now.
We passed close to Pokhran, the place where India had successfully tested its nuclear bomb as an assertion of its military power and surprised the world. That event had also rejuvenated tourism in the area and even a remote Jaisalmer had came onto the tourist map.
Our hotel was 85Km ahead of Jodhpur at a place called Fort Khejarla, and we decided to stopover at Fort Merangarh on the way. Merangarh is an awe inspiring sight because of its sheer size. By the time we reached the fort it was late in the afternoon and the tourist office had no more guides left. We were forced to take the electronic audio guide – they were comprehensive, though a tour guide is always more interesting.
The fort had seen enough wars and it had the battle scars all over its walls. One side of the fort had the older part of the city with its blue houses, apparently to keep off insects by using Indigo, and the other side was the more modern one. Being the highest point in the region, the views from the fort were spectacular, With the battle guns looking over into the city.
In Rajasthan, women seem to always have had a tough deal. Right from the practice of Sati, where the woman had to follow her husband into the funeral pyre if he died, and was formally banned only in the 80s, to the prevalence of so called Purdah system which is explained away as part of the culture and and seems to justify why women were not allowed to stepout of their house and had to spent their lives looking at the world through these intricate sieves on the windows.
However beautiful these sieves were, I couldn’t imagine living a whole life seeing the world though them.
We headed towards Fort Khejarla with an open mind, esp after the Disastrous Sam sands experience I was open for anything. This was a relatively less known place, and was 25 km off the main highway. It was more like a haweli and was surrounded by an impoverished village. Inside its fort like walls was a world of luxury and opulence.
We chose to stay in the older part of the hotel and which was totally deserted and most people seemed to have chosen the modern side. We were happy for the silence.
The morning was cold. I got onto the roof of the fort to capture the sunrise and the waking life of the village.
The smoke was just rising up from the Village as the chulaas got lit for the morning meals and warm water.
People were getting busy cleaning and sweeping their houses as the first rays of the sun hit the village. I didn’t want to think of what they would do to me if they knew how I was peeping their lives through my 300mm lens. We spent rest of the day in the lawns inside the fort eating, reading, chilling, just slowing down totally. I finally opened IQ89 by Murakami that I had carried to read on the trip.
In the evening I decided to walk to the old temple about 3 Km away. I walked past the village getting silently stared at by idle groups of men. A bunch of kids who were playing in the dust saw me and started acting hyper and started to shout dialogue from an Amitabh bacchan movie – I can walk in English, I can talk in English. I clearly didn’t belong here. The daylight stared to fade out and there were no street lights.
The temple was many centuries old, and was funded by the owner of the fort. By the time I reached the full moon was out and it was time for the aarti. The silence was shattered with a loud cacophony of drums banging without any rhythm. The drums were kept in a small store room and the sound was made by mechanical arms that operated by motors that made the arms hit the drums, that explained the violence of the sound. A audio system would have been a better and cheaper solution, but this arrangement somehow seemed more raw. I got used to the sound soon.
I offered my prayers and my donation to appease the gods and started my nervous walk back. I walked back in the full moon light to the sounds of howling dogs and rustling bushes back through the village with half crazed children. Felt a sense of relief as I walked back into the comfortable, protected walls of the well lit fort.
At dinner we met with an American couple. The guy was from MIT and headed a company related to solar energy in the US. He had been an antique dealer in Japan in his earlier avatar, and his wife was Japanese. She seemed mildly disapproving of his past. He told me how there are some crazy deals ready to be picked up from the Mumbai Chor Bazzar and the guys selling the stuff have no idea of what they are selling. He showed me some of the antique coins he had bought from there. I told him I had about 2 Kg of these coins in my own coin collection, but I myself had never quite been able to figure out the worth of them. A Sikh driver was sitting on the table with them and sharing their meals and drinks. The guy was their cab driver, but they didn’t seem to have any issues with him sitting there, however awkward I thought the driver felt about it. Soon we were all good friends, including their driver with beer flowing. We advised them against spending too much time in Sam-sands, but they had already done the smart thing by booking their stay inside the fort in Jaisalmer.
AJMER AND PATAN
The last leg of our journey was to Patan Mehel, midway between Jaipur and Delhi. We had planned to celebrate the new years with a bunch of friends who were meeting us there. On the way we decided to take a detour and visit the shrine of the Sufi mystic at Ajmer. This would be a bit off track for us, but what was another 50km when Akbar was willing to make a trip all the way from Agra 14 times to visit this shrine.
The entire visit in and out of the shirine took us about an hour and costed us Rs 1200. It worked like a well oiled machinery, oiled by money ofcourse, but worth it. As we arrived into the town we were ushered into one of the many parking lots catering to the tourists. There were autos lined up outside to take us closer to the shrine which was in the older part of town. The auto manoeuvred with outstanding skill through the narrow lanes and took us to a dead end. A guy was already waiting to walk us into and out of the crowded shrine. He told us to buy some chaddar to donate at the shrine and walked us inside skipping the long line. We got a quick blessing from the priest who insisted the bigger blessings come with a bigger donation, which we didn’t fully buy into. We were ushered out, into the auto, back to the car park, and we were on our way. We now had a thread on our wrist to show for our efforts and a feeling of being blessed. We ate at Ambrosia at Hotel Ambassodor, which was a recommendation online, and it was great. We were on our way to Patan Mehel.
The haveli was connected to the highway by a poor broken road. It was as spectacularly restored as the other heritage properties we had seen till now. Soon we were with friends and having fun playing board games and partying through the night. The last day started with a climb to the fort, kite flying in the afternoon, and a new years party in the night.
We drove back into the cold Delhi with a warm lighter heart having finally covered 2060 Km. The experience was more enjoyable than what I had imagined before we started. We knew that we would be back soon.