This is #10 in my series on India. If you are new to my blog and would like to start at the beginning, just follow the link below.
I arrive this afternoon, via a heavily guarded airport, into a blue-painted 15th Century city known for its manic hustle and bustle. To book this leg of my trip was one act of simple decision with a teeny skein of bravery behind it, as from here on I travel through India alone. I won’t let fear trump my insatiable curiosity; I would much rather be brave than beautiful. But if anyone good-looking asks, tell them I am both.
Jodhpuri houses and havelis in the maze-like old city are washed in at least fifty shades of blue. Cornflower, periwinkle and baby blues with the occasional mauve or lavender-coloured buildings make up the bulk of the rambling, haphazard township. It is said to be coloured for its supposed ability to deter insects, but is better known as the way in which Brahmans (upper caste people) distinguished their homes from lesser mortals. Narrow streets are only passable by tuk-tuks some of the time, foot traffic usually prevents them from getting anywhere anytime soon. A face mask and a neti pot are essentials in Jodhpur.
From my haveli’s rooftop bedroom windows I have spectacular views of the Mehrangarh Fort (Fort of the Sun), founded by the first king of Jodhpur, Rao Jodha. Dating back to 1456 AD, the palace has been restored to a version of its former glory and is today funded by a trust created by the current Jodhpuri royal family. I gave the museum two viewings and enjoyed the opportunity to use Eftpos to pay for my lunches – not an easy thing to find in Jodhpur during a financial crisis. ATMs were of course empty across the city.
Built and re-built over five centuries from red sandstone, Mehrangarh housed many generations of feudal Rajasthani Maharajas and their families. It is a well-maintained museum and a jewel in the lands of the Mewar kingdom (Land of Death). The site was abandoned after independence and so bats became the only residents. Copious amounts of their guano had collected at the site, so in the early 1970s this had to be scraped off to begin work. Ingeniously, the bat droppings were sold to local chili farmers as fertiliser. This funded the initial restoration efforts. Odious stuff, but worth its weight in gold.
Most of the buildings have been carefully restored; gold filigree ceilings guarded by saffron turbaned mustachioed men (recognisable as Rajputs, descendants of Rao Jodha), jewel-coloured stained glass windows in jail cut frames, miniature portraits of hindu deities alongside the royal family – all painted in crushed minerals (malachite, lapis lazuli, silver oxide etc.) with a fine brush made from the tail hairs of the tiny squirrels that race from branch to branch here. Large monkeys and goats skillfully traverse the steep cliff-faces sloping away from the fort.
Interesting to me was the use of wild animals in maintaining a stronghold on the land and the fort itself. Bull elephants (garh) were trained to wield swords, crush the enemy’s cavalry and barge the fortified wooden gates. One medieval gateway was laden with 20cm long steel spikes at elephant height and another was positioned around a bend in a steep roadway to prevent an elephant from ‘getting a run up’ or enough momentum to penetrate the fort. Tigers and lions (singh) were used as weapons to tear into enemies at speed.
At each of the entranceways, cannonball marks could be clearly seen and the museum housed a collection of weaponry from each era of the fort’s history. Canons are displayed on the parapets along a walkway that lead to the temple where views of the old city can be enjoyed from small window seats. I reposed there for quite a while and rebuffed the efforts of two over confident, twenty-something Indian men who practically insisted they should be allowed to sit with me and enjoy my company. I gave them a firm no and a cold shoulder. I thought of the thrice-bladed dagger in one museum cabinet, designed to enter the belly of a victim as a single blade before shredding the victim’s organs when the spring-action handle was released. Perhaps women travelling solo should be packing one of those.
I learnt a lot from the excellent museum audio tour. The Phool Mahal or ‘pleasure room’ was three-quarters restored with scaffolding at one end covering an area with little to no surface decoration. The ceiling, pillars and textiles were gold filigree and many small paintings ran around the room’s walls. The royal family believed in the concept of ‘raga’ – a harmonious trio of painting, poetry and music where spirituality is fundamental to all creative forms. In a small side room, a handsome santoor player gave a short demonstration and explained the chakra balancing power of long-playing ragas. I hoped to see his evening concert while I was in Jodhpur, but he was secretive about the details.
At the Clock Tower market afterwards I wore earplugs to lessen the awful blasts of tuk-tuk and motorbike horns, as well as the verbal diarrhea from persistent male shopkeepers. I gave nothing away and closely guarded my bag. Toward the back of this busy market area, I found a gentle and quiet man who sold me a splendid outfit of indigo tie-dyed salwar kameez and matching flowery shawl. My new pants are elastic-ankled and -waisted, sporting a zigzag pattern, while my shirtdress is a bold blue line striking across a white background. The ensemble was not at all painful to acquire as this salesman seemed too ill to be pushy with me. Now I continue my habit of wearing blue in India. It cools my pitta fire and pleases my eyes.
The neon blue of the light globes on the Shahi Haveli rooftop were a soft beacon as I made my long way home through confusingly similar-looking streets. This city is five centuries old, I reminded myself. Although blue is ubiquitous in Jodhpur, other colours stand out particularly vividly in the desert state of Rajasthan and represent the cycle of seasons, festivals and life itself.
- Pink- auspicious for married women to wear. Pale pink (or khaki) may also be worn in mourning.
- White – worn in mourning and in July to bring monsoon rains by encouraging clouds to form.
- Red – wedding colour and worn with white during harvest festivals.
- Peacock blue – worn during Diwali for celebration
- Saffron – a sacred colour and used for turbans
Haveli – a guesthouse or (in Arabic) it means private space. Picture a mini McMansion of 16th century design, featuring an inner courtyard space, some lovely carved features and coloured glass windows all spread over several levels with stone stairs winding to a rooftop restaurant. If you want some authentic architecture for a stay in India and are trying to avoid the beige, concrete hotels catering mainly to businessmen, book yourself a consistently well-reviewed haveli.
Garh – a bull elephant. Their valiant rider would be seated in a ‘howdah’ or elephant saddle.
Singh – a lion. Just like the popular brand of beer, many things have the name of Singh in India. Lions are thought to be the ultimate in strength and vitality. Asiatic lions still live in the state of Gujarat in India.
Santoor – a trapezium-shaped, wooden, 100 stringed instrument played delicately with small hammers.
Want to keep reading…?
11. India: Men
12. India: Women
13. India: Dogs