Thursday, 1 March 2012

Jaisalmer to Jodhpur

In which I accidentally go into business with a palm reader and a helpful gesture is massively misinterpreted
Starring the Maharaja

The bus to Jodphur was considerably more luxurious than the last. We had our own seats for example and no one sat on our laps. Above the seats there were extremely posh little sleeping compartments that as a veteran of night buses I couldn't help but notice were a lot nicer than anything I've travelled on before. The doors closed. They had a little light. People wasted no time in clamouring over one another to secure one. We made one stop en route at Pokharan site of the first (1974) and last (1999) nuclear testing in the country. Delighted of course to add this to the list of places I've been.

Jodphur wasn't quite as friendly and convivial as Jaisalmer but it does have another quite extraordinary fort - Mehrangarh - though this one is more of a palace with an excellent audio tour that points out everything from cannon ball holes in the walls to the elephant saddles (howdahs) and even includes little anecdotes narrated by members of the Royal family about their childhoods and coronations. As we were setting off with our headphones on, the current Maharaja himself made an appearance, stepping out of his shiny white car and making his way up onto the ramparts.  There are plenty of grizzly details - like the fact that the a man was buried in the foundations to overcome a curse cast on the spot by the holy man who lived here until the Maharaja selected it for the site of the fort. There are also the red hand prints of women who committed sati (throwing themselves on to the funeral pyres of their husbands) on quite a few of the gates - in the case of one ruler a total of 64 wives and concubines sacrificed themselves.

Because by now the absolute gob smacking wonder of these buildings wasn't having quite as profound an effect on me (still think they are beautiful but you know, just not rendered speechless anymore) the most fascinating part of the fort tour turned out to be a palm reading I had done by the palace's resident reader. It all began rather innocuously as I provided some information and he proceeded to describe my personality and relationship history with date perfect accuracy. But then we got onto my job and having got out my phone to explain what an app was and why it was hard to make money from websites, I suddenly found myself agreeing to a 30/70 revenue split on some sort of business venture.  There's no question about his honesty though - he told me three minutes later that I was about to start a new business with "this apps thing" but it wouldn't make any money and I should give it up as quickly as possible.

There's a steep path down from the fort into the main part if the old town where a large number of the buildings are painted in various shades of blue. Originally it was the Brahimin who marked out their houses in this way but now anyone is allowed to and the colour keeps the buildings cool and apparently wards off insects.

The town revolves around an old clock tower built over a hundred years ago and now surrounded by a chaotic network of stall choked streets selling everything from hairpins to gold jewellery. In a hotel next to the southern gate we had the most extraordinary saffron and pistachio lassi - so thick it had to be eaten with a spoon.

On our second day we hired autos to take us around to various other sites including the newest palace in Rajasthan built just before independence as a drought relief project. It employed over 3000 people for 15 years and its architecture is an unusual mix of art deco and classic Hindi. The intended furnishings were sunk by German bombers on their way from Britain in the middle of WWII.  The main reason I loved it was for a collection of old clocks set in miniature trains, windmills and lighthouses.

We also, after a long and protracted negotiation that involved walking away at least twice, convinced two drivers to take us to a garden outside the city called Mandore. It sounded fascinating - full of chhatris and monkeys and temples with statues covered in tin foil. And it was. But it was also much more of a local place and so we stood out and attracted the expected amount of attention. As I was wandering around one of the temples I noticed a man sneaking around the other side so that we came face to face out of everyone else's line of site. He started pointing at his crotch and then pointing at me. I didn't stick around to clarify exactly what he was suggesting feeling I'd rather got the gist of it. Around the other side of the temple he appeared again, gesturing and persuing us across the lawn. Well I was furious by that point and started shouting about the police and pretended to take his picture. He eventually took off. About an hour or so later I noticed that my fly was unzipped. Felt rather bad.  We were also tirelessly pursued by a bunch of young men photographing us on their mobiles and a troop of monkeys wanting feeding none of whom seemed to understand either the English or the Hindi words for 'no'. It was all quite exhausting.

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