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On the banks of the Rio Tomebamba

Ecuador day eight continued


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View from our hotel room

After a morning exploring the heart of colonial Cuenca we returned to the Hotel Victoria, where we had left our bags on arriving some time earlier, to check in. The man on the reception desk, who appeared to be the manager himself, greeted us with the news that he had allocated us a very nice room. He led us a short distance down the corridor to one (#307) on the ground floor, opened the door and all we could see at first was the view!

The whole of the opposite wall was window, and because the hotel is situated on the steep river bank, what is the ground floor on the street side, is several stories up on the river side, where we now were. This isn’t so much a room with a balcony as a room on a balcony. The construction of the traditional houses along the river was designed to make the most of the location, with a long balcony on all the main floors that overlooks the water, and the Hotel Victoria, like some others we saw later, has been sympathetically modernised to glass-in but not otherwise alter those balconies, creating extra space while maximising the views. The view looks south across the river to the newer part of town, with the viewpoint Mirador de Turi, which we were to visit the next morning, on the middle horizon, and is framed by the tall palm trees that grow in the hotel’s lovely garden a few floors below.

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6468830-Another_view_of_the_room_Cuenca.jpgIn our bedroom, Hotel Victoria

Once we tore our eyes from the view we could see that we had a very nice room indeed. It was of a good size, with ample wardrobe space and a bathroom whose large shower shared the same view. We had a TV (which we never turned on), a large and comfortable bed with crisp white linen, plenty of towels and nice toiletries – everything we needed. Our earlier good impressions of the Hotel Victoria were certainly confirmed.

La Parola

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Lunch beckoned next and we looked for somewhere nearby on the Calle Larga. La Parola caught my eye because it had an upstairs terrace which seemed an attraction on this warm sunny day and which we thought might offer views over the Rio Tomebamba. However when we got up there we found that it was largely glassed in and rather hot, but we managed to get a table by a window, which the waiter helpfully opened, so we decided to stay, prompted by a tempting menu.

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Pitta

This is really more bar than café and I am sure is very lively at night, mainly attracting a non-local crowd (and one rather younger than we are, I suspect). But it was a quiet relaxing spot for lunch, though a bit pricey by Ecuadorean standards.

I had a delicious pitta bread stuffed with various vegetables – tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, onions, olives, and with cheese. There were skewers of grapes and more olives too.

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Big sandwich

Chris had a huge sandwich with different meats and cheese, accompanied by very good chips. We both drank sparkling water. The bill was considerably more than we had got used to paying for lunch in Ecuador, but also a rather bigger lunch than we would normally have, and very tasty, so probably worth it.

Leaving La Parola we decided to explore the area to its immediate east and south, near the banks of the Rio Tomebamba.

Todos los Santos

The first thing of interest we saw was this small complex of ruins, named for the nearby church of Todos los Santos. The complex was closed (I have read that it usually is) so I had to content myself with peering over the fence. And to be honest, the ruins are so compact that you can see a fair bit that way. Although small, this is an important site in the history of Cuenca, as it was the first place where the Spanish founders of 1557 built over the old city. The ruins therefore are a mix of Cañari, Inca and Spanish with remains of all three civilisations including Inca walls, ruined arches and an old Spanish water mill. In my photo below, you can see the distinctive Inca construction technique, with the large stones in the walls neatly locked together without any need for a cementing substance.

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Ruinas Todos los Santos

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Todos los Santos

Near here is the Museo del Banco Central, with the archaeological remains of the Inca city, Pumapungo. But we had too little time in the city to see everything, and I lost the argument with Chris about how many museums we would go to in that limited time! So that will have to wait for a possible future visit ...

Also nearby is the church of Todos los Santos that gives the ruins their name. This was the first church built by the Spanish, but various restorations, most recently at the start of the 20th century, mean that today it shows elements of colonial, Renaissance, neo-classical and Gothic architecture. The main west-facing front is ornate with architraves, friezes, balustrades, niches etc. and an attractive and elaborate bell-tower. Despite the newer work, it still has its adobe walls. Unfortunately though, it is only open for Mass on Sunday evenings (18.00) and can’t be visited at other times, so as with the ruins I had to content myself with photos of the exterior only.

Puente Roto

From Todos los Santos it is only a few steps to the Puente Roto. Several bridges cross the Rio Tomebamba, linking the colonial city to the more modern area to the south. One that doesn’t however is the Puente Roto or Broken Bridge. This is an old stone arched bridge dating from the 1840s, a large part of which was washed away by a flood in 1850, only a few years after its completion. Today there is a small gallery under one of the arches whose paintings and sculptures spill out on to the path. On Saturdays this expands into a mini open-air art fair but on the Thursday we were here this part of the river bank was fairly quiet.

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Puente Roto

Rio Tomebamba

We strolled west along the north bank of the river. There are actually four rivers that flow through Cuenca – the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara. Indeed, the presence of these rivers gives the city its full and rather grand name of “Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca” – Santa Anna of the four rivers of Cuenca, with “cuenca” meaning watershed or basin.

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The Tomebamba

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Typical house

Of these rivers, the Rio Tomebamba is closest to the old city, forming its southern boundary in the area consequently known as El Barranco. A walk here is a very pleasant way to see another side of the city – literally, as it will give you views of the river side of the old buildings on Calle Larga, with their traditional balconies almost overhanging the river. The path is lined with trees and the several benches invite you to sit for a while. I have read that in the mornings local women still come here to do their washing, but on this afternoon visit the activity was of a very different nature, with the riverbanks hosting some of the city’s Independence festival celebrations.

This part of the festival was designed to celebrate the cultures of all the Latin American countries, with dancers from Cuba and Argentina, among others, and stalls selling alpaca scarves from Peru and wood carvings from the Brazilian Amazonia. Locals mixed with tourists, all enjoying the spectacle and the sunny weather. It was a super atmosphere and an unexpected bonus.

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Dancers and audience

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Craft stall

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Colada morada

After some time sitting on the steps that lead down to the river here, watching the dancing and soaking up the atmosphere, we sought more refreshments back at the nearby Coffee Tree café where we had eaten breakfast. This was an opportunity for me to try the traditional drink, colada morada. This is made and drunk only around the time of the Día de los Muertos, and is peculiar to Ecuador (unlike most other elements of that festival which are common to all Latin American countries). It is a thick drink (or some would say a thin porridge) made from purple maize and Andean blackberries, flavoured with cinnamon and other spices and served hot. The traditional accompaniment is guagua de pan, a (usually sweet) loaf shaped to look like a swaddled baby. Guagua means baby or small child in the native language, Quechua, and pan means bread in Spanish, reflecting the dual nature of the origins of the custom, mixing native and Roman Catholic beliefs. I rather liked my colada morada but I passed on the guagua de pan as I’d had a rather larger than usual lunch.

By now we were flagging a little after our early start to the day (having been up at 5.00 for the flight from Quito), so it was back to our lovely hotel to relax a little and settle in properly.

Tiesto’s

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In Tiesto’s

Betty and Marcello, our friends in Quito, had told us that Cuenca was the place to eat the best food in the country, and I had read that Tiesto’s did the best food in Cuenca, so it seemed that this was a place we should try. We had popped in while passing earlier in the day and reserved a table, and it was just as well that we had, because the restaurant, split over two small rooms, was packed. Even with a reservation we had to wait five minutes for our table. But the food was worth the wait.

On seating, we were brought a basket of baguette slices and eight (!) little bowls containing a variety of chilli sauces which were named and described so quickly by the waitress that we didn’t really take in what she said – though I do know one sauce contained pineapple and another apple, while one was very hot indeed!

We were still enjoying these when our mains (we had wisely opted not to have starters) arrived – rather too quickly really. These were both delicious. Chris had chicken in a sauce made with blue cheese (en salsa de queso azul), while my chicken was cooked in sauce of tomatoes, peppers and onions (el Tiesto en su salsa). The latter was an especially large portion so Chris had some of that too. More, slightly larger, bowls appeared with a variety of accompaniments including boiled potatoes, rice, salad, white corn, a semolina salad and marocho (a variety of maize and my favourite, though Chris was less keen).

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Bread with eight dips, and my chicken dish

You could spend quite a lot of money here, especially if indulging in the tasting menu, but our bill, with two Club beers, was very reasonable. The only sour note (apart from the over-speedy serving of the main course) was that we were short changed, and although this was corrected as soon as we pointed it out, there was no apology. But plus points for the cosy atmosphere, lovely old building and gregarious chef, who makes a point of visiting each table to check that you are enjoying his food.

As we only had two evenings here, and as we were equally impressed with our dinner on the second of these, I’m not in a position to vouch for this being the best – but I can say that it was very good food indeed, despite the few issues with the service.

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In the Wunderbar

Colonial Cuenca appears to have rather more of a nightlife scene than Colonial Quito, lacking the latter’s competition from neighbouring districts perhaps. I had read about the Wunderbar on a VT friend’s Cuenca page and it sounded like our sort of place – I liked the sound of the cocktails, and Chris liked the pun in the name! What is more, it was only a few doors from our hotel, the Victoria, so we really had to check it out.

This is a really cosy spot and one where you are likely to feel comfortable whether old or young, or in-between. There are a number of small connecting rooms, each with just a few tables. We found it busy enough but not crowded – there was no problem in securing a table. We discovered that Thursday was “Ladies’ night”, meaning that all cocktails are half-priced for female customers, so I had an excellent caipirinha for just $2.25 (it would have been good value even at the full $4.50) while Chris stuck to beer.

A very pleasant way to end our first day in Cuenca, a city we were already starting to like very much indeed, and we were looking forward to seeing more of it the next day …

Posted by ToonSarah 13:34 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ruins hotel river restaurants dance festival customs cuenca Comments (5)

A few hours in the Blue City

India day nine


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The blue houses of Jodhpur, seen from Mehrangarh Fort

On the edge of the Thar Desert lies Rajasthan’s second city, Jodhpur. Often known as the Blue City, because of its many blue painted houses, it is also, due to the desert heat, the Sun City.

We only spent a few hours here, en route between Dechu and Narlai. It was enough for a good visit to the fort and a short walk in the markets of the old city. The briefness of this visit may account in part for why this was not my favourite of the cities we visited in Rajasthan, as may the less good than usual guiding. Nevertheless, we were glad we had visited the Blue City.

Mehrangarh Fort

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We started our explorations (and spent most of our time) at the Mehrangarh Fort which towers above the city of Jodhpur. The oldest part dates from around 1460 when it was founded here by Rao Jodha, the fifteenth ruler of Rathore, who moved his capital here from Mandore, nine kilometres to the north. It is from him that the city takes its name. Jodha’s chosen site for his fort and palace was this hill known as Bhaurcheeria, the “mountain of birds” or Cheeriatunk, “the Bird's Beak”. According to a legend, in order to build here he had to evict the hill’s only resident, a hermit known as Cheeria Nathji, the Lord of the Birds. The hermit cursed Jodha and his fort: “May your citadel forever suffer a scarcity of water!” Rao Jodha managed to appease the hermit by building a house for him in the city, and a temple in the fort near his cave, but this was only partially successful, as even today the area is plagued by a drought every few years.

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Jai Pol

Jodha also buried a man, Rajiya Bambi, alive in the fort’s foundations as a form of sacrifice to ensure the gods would look kindly on his endeavours! In return Rajiya’s family were promised that they would be forever looked after and protected by the rulers of Rathore – a promise that has apparently been kept to this day. Some even say that up to four men were entombed alive, one in each corner of the fort. Of these, one was supposed to have been Rajiya's own son and another a Brahmin named Mehran. The story of the three additional men is however disputed, as it seems unlikely that Jodha would pick two men from the same family, while a Hindu king sacrificing a Brahmin, i.e. a priest, seems equally implausible. Those who believe the legend point to the name of the fort, Mehrangarh, to prove its likelihood, while those who dispute it argue that the fort is named for the sun, known as “mehr” in Rajasthani.

Over the centuries that followed the Rathore family grew in power and as they did so they further developed and expanded their fort. Its battlements were strengthened by Rao Maldev (1532-1562), during whose reign they were at the height of their power. The main gates, Fateh Pol and Jai Pol, were each built to celebrate a great victory – against the Mughals in 1707, and against the army of Jaipur a hundred years later. Much of the palace that we see today is from the period of Maharaja Jaswant Singh (1638-1678). And perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Rathores in all of this is that Mehrangarh Fort has never once been successfully captured in a siege, standing firm through every onslaught.

Incidentally, while Jodhpur is now part of the State of Rajasthan there is still a maharaja, although his title is mostly just decorative. He has a shiny new (well, early 20th century) palace in another part of the city, and his own website: www.maharajajodhpur.com/. But the Mehrangarh Fort still belongs to the family and is administered as a trust, established by the maharaja, Gaj Singh II, in 1972. The trust looks after the fort and the museum within it.

Our visit started as we passed through the Jai Pol (Victory Gate). This was built by Maharaja Man Singh in 1806 to commemorate victories over the armies of Jaipur and Bikaner. On the outside of this gate are some interesting paintings depicting these battles.

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Jai Pol battle scenes

Beyond this point you have a choice – a steep climb uphill through several more gates or, for a small additional fee (35 IR in 2015), taking the lift which has been cleverly cut into the rock. This had been prepaid for us by TransIndus and I wasn’t sorry to take advantage of it, but after our visit we walked down so we did get to see the other gates.

The lift deposited us in the Shrinagar Chowk or Anointment Courtyard. This was used for royal ceremonies such as the anointing of maharajas and you can see a throne used for the crowning of the current Maharaja Gaj Singh II. A board nearby has photos of that event.

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Shrinagar Chowk

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Throne and coronation scenes

From Shrinagar Chowk you get wonderful views of the city below.

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We lingered a while in the courtyard as a dance performance was taking place, part of the Jodhpur RIFF. This is the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, and it was something of a bonus for us that it was happening while we were here, as our tour of the fort was punctuated with music and dance performances. There is a week-long programme of staged performances, in the Mehrangarh Fort and elsewhere in the city, featuring Rajasthani, Indian and some international performers – I spotted Scottish folk, reggae (with musicians from Ghana, Iran, Germany and Bolivia), Brazilian Latin and Spanish flamenco among others. We didn’t get a chance to attend any of these, as we were only here for a few hours, but we did benefit from the several semi-impromptu performances that were taking place in different parts of the fort. These are described in the programme as “Fort Festivities” and are held on the first three whole days of the event (we were here on the second). The programme website in 2015 (www.jodhpurriff.org/) described these as follows:

“As you wander through the Mehrangarh Museum in the fort, taste the myriad flavours of a variety of traditional dance forms reflecting the distinctive root traditions of Rajasthan – some known and some not so well known. Various forms including Terahtaali, a devotional dance form of Kamad community honouring their folk hero Baba Ramdev; Kalbeliya, probably amongst the best internationally known of Rajasthan's nomadic communities, easily claiming to be the state's resident experts on snakes; Gair, the martial looking visual spectacle from Marwar”

I especially enjoyed the first performance we watched, in the Shrinagar Chowk, and made a little video of the dancers. I also found a good video on YouTube of another Gair dance performance and one of the Terahtaali.

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RIFF performers

Mehrangarh Fort: museum exhibits

Unlike many of the other forts we visited, much of Mehrangarh is devoted to museum-style exhibits rather than restored rooms – in fact, there are fourteen display rooms and just four “period rooms”. While this made a change, on the whole I preferred seeing the old furniture etc. in a room setting. It’s possible too that my experience of visiting these displays was adversely affected by our guide who, although informative, seemed much of the time to be in a bit of a rush, and in particular irritated us by several times by insisting that Indian visitors move aside to let us look in a display case. We would have been more than happy to take our turn, or to look at something else instead while we waited.

Having said all that, there was lots to enjoy and admire here. I was especially fascinated by the howdahs and palanquins displayed in the rooms around the Shrinagar Chowk, and our guide was helpful in pointing out the different constructions and designs. The howdahs were made of wood, and many were beautifully decorated in silver or gold. They were used by maharajas for travel or hunting (hence the lion that appears on many of them) and all have an additional smaller seat for a servant to sit and fan the important passenger.

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Howdahs

The palanquins could be used by men or women, and the design differs accordingly, with those for ladies having screens or curtains for privacy and little peepholes so they could look out.

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In the Palanquin Gallery

Other collections are dotted throughout the complex. Among those we saw were the paintings (in the regional Marwar style – very rich and colourful), various weapons (many of them intricately worked but of less appeal for me) and various treasures and textiles.

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Another of the exhibits

Mehrangarh Fort: state rooms

Although there are some wonderful treasures in the museum collections, and I liked a lot of what we saw, the best part of the fort for me were the four period or state rooms. I loved the richness of these rooms which are on the whole in very good condition – perhaps in part because you are not able to enter any but have to look in from a doorway.

Palace of Flowers / Phool Mahal

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This, possibly the grandest of the state rooms, was created by Maharaja Abhaya Singh (1724-1749) and decorated with gold seized in Gujarat as war booty. It is thought to have been the maharaja’s pleasure palace, where he would sit on his throne and be entertained by dancing girls, music etc. It was also used for private celebrations, such as birthdays. It was modified in the mid 19th century and the paintings around the cornice date from that time, although the wall and column painting is original.

Hall of Mirrors / Sheesh Mahal

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This is in the Raiput style, different from the Mughal Sheesh Mahals we had seen elsewhere (such as the Amber Fort) in having larger, more evenly shaped pieces of mirror rather than small mosaic fragments. Also, there are paintings superimposed on the mirror work in places and these show religious figures (among them Brahma, Shiva, Krishna and Ganesh all sit enthroned; while elsewhere Krishna plays the flute and Rama and Sita confer with Hanuman). These paintings have led to the conclusion that this palace was used not for the rather decadent pleasures enjoyed in such richly adorned rooms elsewhere but for worship or, as our guide suggested, meditation.

Takhat Vilas

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This colourful room was built by Maharaja Takhat Singh (1843-1873), the last of Jodhpur's rulers to live in the Mehrangarh Fort. It blends traditional styles with some more recent influences. Takhat clearly liked colour, as the glass balls hanging from the ceiling like giant Christmas ornaments show. There are also beautiful paintings on the walls and on the wooden ceiling beams, showing various scenes – some religious, some from folk tales and even a favourite sport of the Rathores, pig-sticking. The floor here is painted to look like a carpet.

Pearl Palace / Moti Mahal

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This is the largest and I believe the oldest of the period rooms at Mehrangarh, having been built by Raja Sur Singh (1595-1619). It was used as a hall of private audience, where the maharaja could discuss matters of state with his closest advisors. It is located within the Zenana or ladies’ section of the complex and has five alcoves which lead to hidden balconies where, it is thought, the queen and most favoured ladies of the court could listen in on the discussions and later their views sought by the maharaja. If this is so, he must have been somewhat ahead of his time in recognising the value of female advice!

Some more images from Mehrangarh Fort

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Visitors to the fort

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Museum guards

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Interior, and old doorway

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Leaving the fort

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At the Gadisar Lake in Jaisalmer we had seen the memorials to the wives who had committed sati (self-immolation) following the death of their husband, as was the custom in this part of the world at one time among the upper castes. We were to be reminded of that again here at Mehrangarh Fort. After our visit, as we descended the path down through the various gates, we saw by the Loha Pol (Iron Gate) these handprints on the wall. There are 31 on this side (the right as you go down) and five on the other. They commemorate the royal queens who immolated themselves on the death of their husbands, the maharajas. Among them were the six queens said to have immolated themselves on Ajit Singh’s funeral pyre in 1724 (as did 58 concubines though I don’t know if they were accorded any memorial).

The old city

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Ghanta Ghar and market

After our visit to the fort we went into the heart of the old city where bustling Sardar Market lies in the shadow of the old clock tower, Ghanta Ghar. The tower was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh (1880-1911), after whom the market is named. Our guide pointed out that it looked very English, but we thought it looked more Indian!

The market is, as are most markets, a great place for photography. Although there are tourists here aplenty, and also plenty of the items tourists love to buy (bangles, textiles etc.) it is very much a local market too, with streets selling all sorts of everyday foods and practical items. We walked through an area where most stalls had fruits or vegetables or herbs – one selling nothing but apples, another only shallots and yet another with mounds of fragrant coriander.

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Market stalls

In the surrounding streets we found small shops with a wider variety of goods, tiny temples tucked among them, and a few houses and hotels painted in the traditional Brahmin blue. And everywhere something else to photograph!

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Old town street scenes

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Jodhpur is often referred to as the Blue City, and with good reason. Many houses in the old city are washed in a soft shade of blue. Traditionally this colour was used only by Brahmins and is still most noticeable on the north side of town, known as Brahmpuri, where many of them live. There are two commonly cited reasons. One is practical – the colour is made by adding copper sulphate to the lime wash, because the copper is thought to repel the termites that live in this desert region. In the past this copper was expensive, so only the upper castes, the Brahmins, could afford it. The other reason sometimes given is one of status, as blue is a royal colour and the Brahmins wanted to associate themselves with royalty.

Today though, we were told, this blue shade one of the cheapest colour washes to buy, and people of all castes use it. We were also to find that it is not exclusive to Jodhpur as we saw many such blue houses in Bundi, among other places. Disappointingly we didn’t have time to walk the streets of Brahmpuri but we did find some beautiful blue-washed houses dotted around the market area of the old city.

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And, as everywhere we went in India, I found myself taking almost as many photos of the local people as I did of the sights. Characterful faces, colourful clothing and a way of life rather different from ours in England made for endless fascination. We passed one shop where the owner was hard at work giving it a new coat of paint ready for the festival season, and what a bright, cheerful colour he had chosen.

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Later our guide persuaded us to visit a shop selling what I had to admit were very lovely fabrics, but I resisted the urge to buy and instead sat back and enjoyed the patter of the rather flamboyant young man trying to persuade me to part with my money. You can see him below, modelling a shawl in a design he claimed was created especially for Donna Karan – or was this one for Hermes or some other famous designer???

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I know there was much in Jodhpur that we didn’t get to see, notably those blue Brahmin houses of Brahmpuri, but we still had some miles to cover to get to our destination for that night, Narlai …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:21 Archived in India Tagged people history india colour fort market music festival jodhpur rajasthan Comments (4)

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