Sunday, 26 February 2012

Mandawa to Bikaner

In which the white rat proves elusive and the silver is edible
Starring Mr Jain a 32nd generation priest with exceptional digital photography skills.

From Mandawa we got a "private" bus Bikaner. Alas this was not a bus just for us but a line run by a private company and therefore, we were told, much nicer than the over crowded government buses. It was already packed when it pulled up (even the compartment around the driver was jammed with people) so we had to wedge ourselves on. People got off, people got on (quitee a few with large instruments - a trombone, a huge drum), we all shuffled around a lot. It was all very entertaining - mostly for the locals who passed the time by staring at us. The only issue was the toilet stops - there were none in the whole four hour journey. Well there was one where all the men got off and wee-d against a wall but from my point of view, that doesn't really count!  

The main thing to see in Bikaner is the enormous Junagarh fort that despite not being on a hill (as was customary in this area) still looms over the city. It was pretty crowded with tour groups compared to most of the places we have been so far, but the sheer size and number of courtyards and rooms meant we managed to shake everyone off. Each courtyard is completely different from the next - some were in red stone, some completely carved in white marble. There was a turreted roof top affording an excellent view of the Royal Gardens and elephant accommodation and a number of rooms filled just with guns and swords of various shapes and sizes. One of which had a barrel over three metres long. 

About 20kms away is the other main "attraction" - Karni Matar Temple at Deshnok. It's dedicated to a woman who lived in the 14th century who decreed that all her family would be reincarnated as rats. They now reside happily in the temple where pilgrims feed them prasad and milk. There was of course much squealing and squeaking - particularly as you have to go shoeless - perhaps why our efforts to find the famous, and very lucky, white rat, were unsuccessful. As we were leaving a wedding party came through with an extremely young bride - about 12. She will apparently go back to get family after the ceremony until she is collected by the groom after her 18th birthday. 

The road between Bikaner and Deshnok is a highway only in the sense that it is called such and the speed at which people drive - often swinging out in front of oncoming traffic, horns blaring and expecting the other party to make way. A truck had collided with a tractor at some velocity and both were lying on their sides in the dust with the relaxant parties remonstrating alongside. You can spot the industrial area on the outskirts of town because the number of camels suddenly increases - either pulling carts laden with stuff or standing around looking haughty. 

We also visited one of the biggest Jain temples in the country - Bhanda Shaha - where we were shown around by a man who introduced himself as Mr Jain. He's the 32nd generation of priests in his family and possibly the first to equip himself with some enviable photographic skills - he whipped all of our cameras off us and set them all up to take group shots with the ceiling above us. The temple is exquisitely decorated with hundreds of hand painted screens and statues.  The Jains are strict vegetarians who additionally won't eat anything that has grown in the ground. You have to leave your water bottles, shoes and any leather outside and some castes of priest preach in the nude - making the televisation of their addresses a rather complicated affair. 

We were finally alllowed to try some street food (possibly because the next day didn't include a no-toilet bus ride!) and sampled got samosas that were suspiciously ray shaped but thankfully vegetarian and some marzipan like triangles that were covered in a layer of extremely thin silver (real apparently!). 

The culinary delights continued at the camel research centre later that afternoon where, after we'd visited the camel's in their various corrals and watched them being milked, I had a saffron flavoured camel's milk icecream. There was also an exhibition of camel uses (which include pulling a school bus with up to 25 children in it) and a shop with items made out of various camel parts. 

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