Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati

In order to break up our tour through the Shekhawati region, we stayed the first night in the town of Nawalgarh. I had read that it had a good selection of havelis as well as a colorful market – two great ingredients! We were arrived in time for a great home-cooked dinner, seated around a long table with other guests. Partway through the meal, a cow poked its head through the door, on the lookout for a snack. The tourist pension owner said that the cow visited often (several times a day, sometimes) and had a particular fondness for chapattis. With the small fire in the courtyard of the haveli growing dim, we retired to our upstairs bedrooms, each beautifully painted and containing handmade carved furniture.

After a breakfast prepared from ingredients grown in the pension owner’s garden, we headed out into the muddy streets to begin our haveli tour, aided by a map indicating the location of some of the main sights. Some of the places were closed, so we could only enjoy their frescoed exteriors. Others, such as the Uattara Haveli were open (small admission fee), giving us a chance to experience more of its glory. Entrance was usually through a tall, rather fortified-looking door framed by an archway. With the really tall entrances, a smaller normal-sized could be opened within it for normal use. An outer formal courtyard, typically single-storyed, was used for attending guests and conducting business. The real beauty was in the inner courtyard, typically more spacious and multiple-storyed. This is where the women spent most of their time. Fluted arches framed the courtyard. Some framed intricately carved doors or shuttered windows. Others led into small rooms with thick walls. Adorning nearly every square inch of wall space were frescoed murals. Framed by floral motifs were scenes of Krishna and Rama, interspersed with paintings of red-uniformed soldiers, locals riding elephants, women milking cows, etc. In some havelis, one could find scenes of local merchants driving a car, locomotives (some painted rather naively), gramophones, and bicycles.

Also of note in Nawalgarh was the Bala Quila with its mid-19th century room filled with mirrorwork, large portraits, and painted domed ceiling. Had there not been a sign out in front of the rather plain-looking building, we would have walked past it. The Ganga Mai Temple, dating back to 1868, also has some fine floral motifs on the fluted archways of the courtyard.

The state of condition of the havelis varied greatly. Some appeared to be recently restored, with its murals very bright in color and structure intact. Murals on other havelis were fairly intact, but rather faded. In many, the lower portion of the building’s exterior no longer contained images, instead replaced by plain plaster, exposed bricks, or graffiti. Some of the havelis were still used as dwellings; others were bricked up or abandoned, sadly falling apart. Others were stripped of their intricate carved wooden doors and shutters, sold as antiques or made into tables. We were told that most of the owners no longer lived in the Shekhawati region and of these, too few seemed to care enough to pay for any upkeep or maintenance on the buildings. We saw some havelis being torn down, probably being replaced with more bland, modern buildings. How sad that these historical national treasures are literally and physically crumbling before our eyes, with little being done about it!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Samode, Shekhawati Region

One of the areas of Rajasthan that I was most looking forward to was the Shekhawati region, located NW of Jaipur. I had seen photos of some of its painted havelis, the grand homes of merchants, in some books and wanted to see them for myself. Many of these painted wonders date back to the 18th-late 19th centuries when the region’s towns were important trading posts on the caravan route from the ports of Gujarat. In addition to rendering more traditional subjects such as Hindu mythology and everyday life, many of the murals (covering both the interiors and exteriors of the structures) depict contemporary events of the time and new innovations. Often times such scenes were depicted from imagination without having ever actually seeing them. As such, there is a certain naivety and innocence about the murals.
A series of narrow rural roads took us to the various selected villages. On our way, we passed through stretches of countryside with rather bare scrubby trees, thatched conical huts, homes made from mud brick or cement, and ploughed flat land.

About 50 km from Jaipur, we stopped at the town of Samode. Our objective was to visit the 19th century palace, now converted into a rather luxurious hotel. Walking through the arched gateway, an employee stopped us and said that the hotel was closed, due to preparations for a 3-day wedding for around 400 guests being held there. Although disappointed, I spotted some colorful piles of flowers being used for the wedding decorations and asked if we could at least go there to take photos. Sensing our interest, he made a phone call and told us we could come in. To our surprise, we were given a tour of the palace’s main rooms. In true Rajasthani style, each room was lavishly decorated with contrasting colors and patterns. Even the ceiling contained floral patterns and portraits. Through an archway, the reflective mirrors of the Diwan-i-Khas room sparkled, begging us to enter. Inside, we admired the mirrorwork covering most of the walls and ceiling, as well as naturalistic and figurative murals near the bottom. Back out in the courtyard, several men were draping long garlands of marigolds and jasmine to form a canopy. Another created designs out of different flower petals arranged along the path leading up to the main door. Scents of rose and jasmine filled the air. No doubt it would be a beautiful wedding!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Anokhi Museum, Jaipur

Our next destination was the Anokhi Museum, housed in an excellently restored haveli. An admirer of the wooden block printed cloth for which Anokhi is so famous, I was interested in learning about the process and history of the technique. The displays were well lit and signposted, giving those interested plenty to read. In an open courtyard, a man sat on the floor, deeply engaged in carving a wood printing block. He explained that it took him 10 days working eight hours a day to make one block out of teak wood. Many of the prints used three blocks to create the pattern, requiring precision and planning on the part of the carver. A wood block could stamp around 1,600 meters of cloth before it needed to be retired. Mr. Mugeebulla Khan had 35 years of experience, having started at ten years of age, following the footsteps of his father.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Amber Fort, Jaipur

On our way to the Amber Fort, we stopped briefly at the pink Hawa Mahal “Palace of the Winds” building, and the Jal Mahal palace that seemingly floated in the middle of the lake. At the Amber Fort, colorfully painted elephants carried tourists up through the Suraj Pol gate and into the main courtyard. Some of the entrances such as the Ganesh Pol were beautifully restored, containing intricate floral patterns with the elephant god above the door. The Aram Bagh comprised of a geometric maze made out of carefully trimmed bushes. The splendid Sheesh Mahal room contained inlaid mirrors along with arabesque and floral designs. The bottom portion comprised of relief flowers in white marble, reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. Perched high up, we had a great (although misty) view of the Kesar Kyari Bagh ornamental garden below, surrounded by water.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

When it Rains in Jaipur, Go Shopping!

Using the rains and muddy streets as an excuse, we went in some stores and did some jewelry shopping. A few chais later, we managed to pick out a few that we liked , both as gifts and for ourselves. We also enjoyed wandering through the narrow streets, peeking in the shops were jewelry metal was being pounded and lac bangles formed. The brilliant colors and intricate ornamentation of the saris was enough to tempt the eye of any woman. Inside the shops, women poured over piles of the colorful material, with the salespeople pulling out more to show them.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Train to Jaipur

After an extended power outage in our hotel, we were eager to go to Jaipur. When the train arrived, I double-checked with a man waiting on the platform to confirm that we were entering the right car. Just as we began preparing our berths for the night trip, the man came in, sure that the train was not going to Jaipur, as the gujar strike had blocked the track going to Jaipur, causing a rerouting of the train. While my friends watched the luggage, the man took me to the ticket booth and helped me purchase tickets for an alternate train that was leaving shortly. Alas, there were no 2nd class AC tickets, so we would have to be content with general boarding. Perhaps, the helpful man noted, a conductor on the train would be able to help us move to another car. Once inside, we were greeted with slight confusion and stares by the passengers, comprised entirely of men. For the first several hours, our four-women crew were the recipients of warm smiles and staring by the young men. A few kindly vacated the bottom berths, enabling our friend who was unwell to lay on one while the other three of us sat on the other. At 5:30 AM we arrived in Jaipur, the third stop in the famous “Golden Triangle” of India.
A big thanks to my travel partner Pat for these photos

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ivory Scenes and a Silver Gangaur

Out of the rain, I admired the bamboo screen whose individual vertical strands were meticulously wrapped with silk thread, forming an overall pattern. In one corner was a large 19th century cosmetic box with intricate scenes carved out of ivory. Near it were ladies’ dumbells, decorated with inlaid wood, ivory, and lacquer. The Hindu goddess Gangaur commanded attention with her “skin” made from silver, ornamentation out of gold, and bright fuchsia dress.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mehrangarh Fort - Howdah Seats and Jharokas

Towering over the predominantly blue buildings of old Jodhpur is the Mehrangarh Fort. Although I had visited this fort before, its architecture, royal collection, and excellent guided tour made it worth a second view. The musicians were in their same spot, playing their traditional instruments. Passing through the elephant gate and past the sati hand impressions, I once again entered the palace grounds. The view of the “Blue City” below was diminished due to the light rains and overcast sky. The Howdah elephant seats once again impressed me with their details and skilled silver embossing. We saw the open palanquins that carried men and the covered ones that carried the royal women. Out in the courtyard, I once again took my share of photos of the jharokas (overhangs inspired by those of huts) shading the jali (lattice-like carved) windows.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In the Narrow Streets of Old Jodhpur

Away from the market and the modern city commercial area, things were much calmer. Women swept the area in front of their blue homes with huge natural-fiber brooms. Old men offered some chapatis (unleavened flatbread) to eager cows along with some grasses, hoping that their good deed would enhance their karma. (The first chapatis that are made are given to the dogs, while the last and best chapatis are given to cows). The occasional auto rickshaw (shaped like the ones in Thailand) deftly navigated through the alleys. Our hotel was an old haveli amidst the narrow maze-like streets of old Jodhpur. From the rooftop of this narrow building, we had a great view of the famous fort above.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jodhpur City - Back to the Bustle

After the tranquil time spent in the rural areas around the Bishnois villages, Jodhpur brought us back to the chaotic, colorful part of India. In the Sadar Market area, lots of buying and selling was taking place. Some were selling plastic containers, while others were rearranging their vegetables or brooms in hopes of attracting customers. Women selling bangles called to foreigners and locals alike, wanting to encourage them to try on a few. Fluorescent-colored turban materials were piled high in the “souk” area of the market. Shoes and leather slippers filled other shops. Glittering sari material draped in the front of stores, with groups of women sitting cross-legged inside, surrounded by piles of cloth. Near the entrance of the market, women were promoting a sale of 100 rupees for sari material, popular with tourists and some locals. Their children were even better salespeople, with tourists buying the cloth just to get rid of the persistent (or pesky) kids. Spice touts came up to tourists, encouraging them to visit their spice shop, the place to buy the “best spices in Rajasthan.” Due to the rains, the pavement was now a slippery muddy mess. This didn’t seem to deter many, with commerce continuing to go on as usual.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Recycled Textile Art

Having seen a fair amount of textiles in Rajasthan, the shop outside of Jodhpur provided a different twist. Although it also sold new pieces such as mirrored bedspreads and pillowcases along with the ever-present Kashmiri scarves, the shop specialized in a type of recycled art. It bought up old dresses from Rajasthan and Gujarat and employed women to take them apart and sew new textile pieces out of them. Many of the dress pieces were made into wall hangings and looked like a crazy quilt of a similar color. The intricate embellishments of the dress pieces (the “U” of the neck area was a common element) and varying patterns was impressive. Although one could find cheaper ones, these imitations could not match the intricate work and character found on the older dress fabrics.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Opium Ceremony

We stopped at one house to view a ceremony. Opium, still commonly used in the region, is seen as a way to relax, particularly during the monsoon season. It is also used to welcome people. This opium is grown in Chittor, located in the southern part of Rajasthan. The opium pieces were crushed, after which water was added. The opium liquid was then filtered twice through a funnel-shaped cloth. The first drops are offered to the gods.

Shepherds around Jodhpur

According to our guide, the original sheep of the region were a gift from the Maharajas who worked for the rulers but have since gained independence. Many of the shepherds here are nomadic with the animals, moving them to the central area of India during the dry season. A typical shepherd will have between 30-35 sheep, along with a few cattle. Women are also shepherds and can be identified by their short skirts.

Super moon Vishnu Procession in Mahabalipuram

Photos from a procession with the Hindu god Vishnu held at dusk of yesterday's "super moon" in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Dhurry Weavers

Our next stop was to the home of dhurry weavers. Of the Prajapati caste, these weavers were Hindu. Their homes were round, designed to protect against the winds of summer. Erected on poles reaching above the conical thatched roofs were small solar panels that provided some power for electricity. These panels were provided by the government as a way of helping keep craftsmen and rural people in the area. On the cow dung surfaced courtyard (which helped keep the surface cooler and cleaner) was a large kolam. Their woven dhurries are traditionally used as ground covering, but are now popular with tourists. One weaver was quick to demonstrate how compact a rug could be folded, making it easy to pack. Materials used for their hurries include camel hair and sheep wool (both traditional), and now cotton, silk, and jute. It takes two people ten days to weave a 3x5 m (10x16 ft) rug and an additional two days to set up the loom. Nowadays, factories are threatening the handloom industry.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chippa Block Printer

Next door, we met a Chippa block printer, also Muslim. He was busy stamping with a wooden block (the same print I saw him work on last time) a resist made of clay, soap, and cooking oil. Prior to this, a yellow color was stamped, made from tumeric. The cloth was then boiled with salt, lemon, oil, and leaf from a berry, after which the color turned red. After stamping on the resist, the cloth is immersed in dye made from indigo. This cloth will be used for men’s clothing by the Patel farmer caste.

Ornamentation, Norbulingka

Watercolor of a building at the Norbulingka Institute outside of Dharamsala, India. Painting done with only one brush and no friskets/masks of any kind.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Kaki Village Muslim Potter

At the Kaki village, we met a Muslim potter. His family moved to the area so they could do pottery without owning the land. Now they make water pots and more decorative items. Men create the pottery and the women decorate it. The potter explained how his family works on pottery for about 10 months a year when it was not monsoon season. Clay is gathered from local lakes and ponds. The large stone wheel was something I remembered from last time. It amazed me how he took a pole and got the 100 kg (220 lb.) wheel spinning, but never touched the wheel until after finished the pot. Was such a spinning feat due to the weight and angle at which it spinned?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Migratory Birds...and a TV Camera

Prior to visiting the villages, our guide wanted us to visit a spot where migratory birds liked (or used to) stop. We saw some sandpipers, coct ducks, stilt birds, and white herons, but were few in number. While explaining the reason, an army helicopter swarmed overhead, followed by another a couple of minutes later. Indeed, it was understandable why the birds were disturbed with all that noise. While we were discussing this, a truck pulled up and out piled out a reporter and camera crew from a local TV station. The microphone thrust at us, I was asked to give our opinion the wildlife situation before us. Hoping it was the right thing to say, I expressed my opinion on what saw and suggested that perhaps the army could find a different place to practice their flight tests. This is the third time I’ve been on TV while traveling in India!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bishnois Safari - part 1

After an early breakfast, a jeep stopped in front of our Jodhpur hotel to take us on a safari tour of the region where the Bishnois people lived. Thought to be the original “tree huggers,” (after a woman was beheaded in 1730 as the tree she was trying to save was cut down) this sect of nature worshippers live mostly in the central desert plains of Rajasthan. Our guide, a native of the region, explained that this community is more accurately called the Vishnois, because they worship the god Vishnu.

The jeep took us over bumpy terrain and narrow dirt roads, with the rather chilly morning December air blowing through the jeep leading us to zip up our layers and put on hoods. The flat, scrubby land was another reminder that we were in the desert. On the “main” road, trucks with overstuffed hauls of goods and grasses precariously passed each other. Men wore turbans and baggy pants known as “jodhpur” and carried a staff. Even in the distance, the pink turbans (indicative of the Jodhpur region) could be spotted. Women covered their faces.

Short acacias were the dominant trees in the area. It was hard to imagine that these gnarly spiny trees were a major source of wood in the region. Occasionally we stopped to view the Chinkara and other types of small gazelles, present in numbers but still rather distant.

Upon seeing some men hauling steel containers strapped to their motorcycles, we inquired about the dairy industry in the region. Each family typically has one or two cows, and one water buffalo. Cows are milked twice a day. The average cow produces 10-12 liters per day - about half of what Holstein cows in the US produce. If the family has extra milk, a “milk man” comes around to collect the milk in steel containers.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Ranakpur to Jodhpur

Leaving Ranakpur, the landscape changed rather quickly, from the more lush hilly highlands, to flat scrubby land. Small boys tended large goat herds. The red of a turban contrasted with the beige of camels and land. Fences were formed out of rocks, a fitting material considering their abundance. Buses carried nearly as many people on top as they did inside. Occasionally we saw rather poor-looking settlements of tents, outside which young gypsy children ran. Abruptly there was a stoppage of traffic. Although people were curious, no one appeared to be overanxious or upset at the delay. The rock blast safely executed, people got back in their cars and proceeded onward. Yellow fields of mustard plants gave us brief welcomed patches of color. Small villages provided bursts of activity. Goats were herded across the street. Camels were hitched to wagons. Men squatted in the shade, drinking tea and sharing beedis (a type of local cigarette). Colorful fabric hung from the shops. Women pumped water, with bright odhani cloth draped over their head.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Ranakpur - Worth the Stop

Although it would have been quite a bit cheaper to take the train (or bus) directly to Jodhpur, I recommended to my friends that we take a taxi so we could stop in Ranakpur for a few hours. Just slightly under 100 km (56 mi) NW of Udaipur, this small town in the valley of the Aravalli Hills is home to the Adinath Temple. This 15th century Jain temple complex (dedicated to the god Adinath) is one of the five of the great holy places for the Jain religion. While one could rightly marvel at its scale (29 halls and four separate entrances), its sheer beauty carved in white marble makes it so remarkable. In contrast to the smooth marble floor, the rest of the interior is a feast for the detail-lover’s eyes. A forest of columns (1,444 in all - no two of which are alike) pushed upward on the corbellled ceilings with their radial depth. Sunlight poured through openings and courtyards, radiating the interior with a peaceful glow. Soft chanting and the ringing of bells could be heard in the otherwise quiet complex. Such serenity and beauty - definitely worth the stop.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Jag Mandir, Island Palace

As a Christmas Day treat to ourselves, we booked tickets and took a boat trip on Lake Pichola to the island palace of Jag Mandir. With all on board (including some rather spoiled Indian children) wearing the required life vests, the boat’s motor began, headed towards the middle of the lake. Once on the lake, we had a great view of the beautiful buildings on the shore, as well as daily happenings occurring there. In areas where there were long steps leading down to the lake, people were washing clothes, beating clothing with what looked like a cricket bat, washing dishes, and even bathing. Far enough away from the wake caused by the boat, the shore waters created great reflections of the yellow City Palace. On our way to the Jag Mandir, we passed by the Jag Niwas, otherwise known as the Lake Palace. This royal retreat, built between 1734 and 1751, is now a posh (and very expensive) hotel, made famous by its inclusion in the James Bond movie Octupussy. (Hotels including ours held nightly showings of the movie).

A pleasant ride later, we docked at the Jag Mandir, island palace of Shah Jahan (before he became Mughal emperor) while he took refuge from his father after rebelling. Built in 1620, the buildings were very well preserved and contained elements of Mughal architecture I’d seen in Agra and Delhi, including the scalloped windows and domes. The well-manicured gardens were particularly inviting. Although the drinks were overpriced, they provided a great excuse to stay longer, enjoying the view through the curtained openings and watching some rather animated squirrels. It was fun to imagine what it must have been like for the prince as he stayed here, as well as giving us just a little sampling of what the travel experience must be like for the wealthy. Boarding another boat near one of the eight stone elephants, we headed back to shore, with the sun beginning to set on another wonderful day.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Udaipur Parade/Political Rally/?

While peering at shops rather narrow, but busy street, we heard a band approaching, led by a handsome young man on a decorated horse. Following the band was a decorated truck with Jain priests and a unclothed standing marble figure of a god. In front of the procession of the crowd was a cart with horn-shaped amplification and a man shouting out what sounded like a political rally. With the music playing, an older man in bare feet began dancing and shaking a percussive shaker with silver streamers in his hands. While it seemed rather incongruous to us, it must have made sense to the local onlookers.