THE BLUE HEART OF JODHPUR
It’s early morning. I’m up, eagerly ready for my guide, to explore Jodhpur‘s Old Town. I’m determined to capture the blue city through my lens and, in this heat, need to do so before the sun gets too high.
Off we set at 7am, before heading up to Mehrangarh Fort. The Old Town is cast under the shadows of the fort at every angle, which panoramically juts above the city. My guide walks me deep into Jodhpur’s blue heart. Brahmins, who are traditionally considered the superior class of Hindus, are thought to have originally painted their homes blue to distinguish themselves apart. That’s one theory.
Another is that they were advised to do so, as a shade of insect-repellant. No such luck.
I wander through spindly snaking alleyways down a steep hill lined by every hue of blue. Half admiring the colours, half keeping one eye to the floor, I maneouvre wads of muck, from stray dogs, stray bulls, cows and humans. It doesn’t get more local than this. And one thing’s for certain, the blue shade isn’t keeping the flies away. The streets are infested with that infuriating buzzing. But it’s now wonder. My guide tells me that the concept of taking rubbish from the home to the nearest bin store hasn’t yet caught on. He assures me homes are spotless inside. But household waste is dumped right outside the front door, on the street, in all it’s odorous glory. It makes for a wreaking walk. But I’ve been fully expecting it and it somehow brings the essence of old India to life.
Deeper in we delve, from the heart to the soul. At one point, half way down the hill, I capture some striking morning colours. It’s difficult to distinguish between homes, walls and sky. Everything is painted a shade of innocent baby blue.
Add to this the streaky pink remains of Holi, the colour-throwing festival of Spring, with porches and tarmac still blemished, and brown dirt coating the sides of blue buildings, and you have a palette of pastels within the pulse of Jodhpur.
I pass women in sarees carrying home goods, like pots, on their heads, a boy farmer directs his flock of donkeys and men ride to work on motorbikes; they share the cramped alleyways with bullcarts, dogs and pedestrians. This is the essence of local Rajasthani life, that I’ve been so eager to witness.
WELCOME TO MY HOME, HAVE SOME OPIUM…
An aspect of Jodhpur that I am extremely eager and excited to see and learn about is the Opium tea-drinking ceremony. Yes, you read correctly, no misprint, Opium tea.
Now I’ve tried some unusual items of food & drink in the past, in the name of travel, including Coca Tea made from same plant as Cocaine. That was legal in Cusco in Peru, South America, to help alleviate the effects of altitude sickness at 13,000 feet abo ve sea level. Well in Rajasthan, Opium tea is a regular highlight within the Bishnoi village communities. Known for their love of nature and protection of animals, it’s a peaceful and placid tribe.
Now don’t get me wrong, Opium is officially illegal in India. But my guide informs me that the Bishnois have been granted a pardon for it’s use during ‘religious rituals.’ Being out here, I can see how the decision makes sense because, in the middle of the desertscape, it would be impossible to police. Moreso, having used Opium for centuries and generations to counter the effects of arduous days of labour on farms, addiction is still a large problem. So banning it outright may only force it underground rather than encourage a stop.
The tea is traditionally produced from the Opium seeds but now I’m told it’s mild and taken form the shell. Villagers, historically, use on occasions such as weddings or family disputes to drink handfuls of the stuff from each other’s palms. It was their way of relaxing and re-energising.
I’m very eager to watch the tea being made so I head out into the heart of the Rajasthani desert to meet the Bishnoi people.
I find myself in the back of an open-air Jeep en route to discover this long-practised and deep-rooted tradition. As a ‘Jeep safari’ the time also includes spotting wild animals in the desert and visiting local handicraft sellers. I opt out of the latter two on this occasion. Soon, the city of Jodhpur fades into the sandy horizon behind us, as we make tracks in the desert. Miles of arid land, lined with stray lazing dogs, dunes of red-golden sand dunes and the occasional bare tree become familiar sights.
Through a panorama of barren haze I spot, every so often, flashes of colour; huts and makeshift homes, or catch glimpse of a rural farmer in a bright neon turban, indicating the season.
They’re welcome signs of life in an otherwise sterile setting. The unhospitable landscape is unnerving yet liberating. It quickly becomes more of the former as we turn off the one main road for miles, onto a rough dirt track into the heart of nothingness. Several kilometres along, an inconspicuous village appears. Five or six huts coincide. We drive all the way through to the last one.
BISHNOI TRIBE VILLAGE IN RAJASTHAN
I’m greeted by the Head of the village. He looks stern but is welcoming. Without much in the way of conversation, I’m led into a shed where my host brings out the equipment.
One copper bowl, one masher, one tall copper filter and one chunky solid mass of Opium.
Having heard and seen so much about the substance and having learnt about it’s effects, I’m a little displaced by it. Seeing it in person feels a touch overwhelming (prudish as that may sound). What catches my eye and raises an alarm is the start of the procedure. He holds it before the statue of a prominent Hindu God and prays. Instantly, questions swirl around my head, as I wander whether that’s ‘normal’ or allowed and why drugs would be blessed before God. At this stage, nobody speaks.
He crushes up some Opiate with water before pouring into the filter. Eventually, a liquid drips through which he collects in a bowl. That is the Opium tea.
It’s custom & tradition that this is offered to guests in the palm of the host’s hand. I know refusal is thought offensive. But refuse I do. For countless reasons. I then watch him offer it to the guide before taking some himself. The way they scrunch up their faces indicates just how bitter it must taste. The guide complains of a dry throat and quickly dunks a large bottle of water. He says that’s a common side-effect.
The experience is interesting. But I am disappointed as it’s not as open as I’d imagined, where men gather and are freely drinking it on a day off. This is staged. It’s a show and it’s specifically put on, I suspect, for tourists. So the lack of authenticity is annoying. Nonetheless, it is an experience and one which, in hindsight, is safer to have witnessed in a controlled manner.
THE MIGHTY MEHRANGARH FORT
Anxious to learn about the history of this blue-painted land of Jodhpur, I make for the uphill walk to Mehrangarh Fort. Passing through 8 gates, each bears reminders of battles.
‘SATI,’ BANNED RITUAL; THE SUICIDE OF WOMEN WHO’S HUSBANDS DIE AT WAR
At the final gate is this chilling orange sculpture. It bears the handprints of Indian women who practiced a shocking ritual, ‘Sati’. Women, who’s husbands joined the army, would anxiously await their safe return. For the men who didn’t make it alive, their bodies would be brought back for cremation. But the wives who lost their husands had to commit suicide by openly throwing themselves on the same pit of fire alongside their deceased husbands! This was expected and it happened! Before leaving the world in this brutal manner, they imprinted their hands on a wall at the fort, as a symbol of dying for customs. These women were the innocent bystanders; equal victims of war. I hold back the tears looking at their tiny handprints; mere young girls themselves.
Venturing through museums and marvelling at artefacts, Mehrangarh is a wonderful way to spend a day.
The views from the top of Mehrangarh Fort are simply spectacular. If you don’t go for the royal ornaments and museum, go for the views across the blue city of Jodhpur, your camera will love you for it.
The curious culture of Jodhpur is facinating and my favourite in Rajasthan to date. The city’s effortlessly romantic and breathtakingly beautiful trhough it’s sights, colours and people. But after what is now weeks of sightseeing and travelling, I’m eagerly anticipating the ultimate luxury hotel for the ultimate pampering. Enter the world of the Taj Palace hotels! I’m heading to the Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel, which is currently home to Jodhpur’s Royal family, with the Taj having set up an ultra-luxury, uber-exclusive fantasy Royal feast for guests who pay the price to live the Royal lifestyle. The photographs on the internet are absolutely awe-inspiring and I cannot wait, equally cannot imagine, what’s to come…
- LUXURY vs GUILT? HAVELI HAVEN AMIDST JODHPUR’S LOCAL BAZAAR (ani-shah.com)
- Impressions of India; Portraits of a People (ani-shah.com)
- The Gohemians Guide To India: Part Four – Jodhpur (gohemiantravellers.com)
- Bhanwari Devi case: Court sends accused Kailash Jakhar to 10-day police custody (ndtv.com)
- Maharaja Express Indian Splendor Journey : Unveiling the Royal Splendors of India (slideshare.net)