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Glamping in Rajasthan

India day eight


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Thar Desert stay

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Desert sunset

Rajasthan is in part a desert state, and a visit here, for a desert lover such as myself, would not be complete without spending a night in one of its desert camps. It was this that brought us to Dechu. The Thar Desert is the 17th largest in the world and home to 40% of Rajasthan’s people who for the most part eke out a living growing what crops they can in its arid soil or raising livestock. But in recent years eco-tourism has brought a much welcome boost to the region, and we were here to help!

We left our lovely Jaisalmer hotel, Fort Rajwanda, after breakfast and set off through the desert, at first retracing our steps eastwards from a few days previously but then branching off to the south towards Dechu. The drive took only three hours, mostly across flat scrubby desert.

Along the way we enjoyed seeing our first mongoose on the road, while I failed to photograph successfully, and a large herd of camels, some 400 strong, by which Mehar stopped for photos. One of the herders explained that one camel had fractured a leg and they were trying to separate it from the rest. This was a great photo opportunity and I also managed to shoot a video of the herd – I found their constant movement rather mesmerising.

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Another sight, well-spotted by Mehar, was a small antelope, I believe a Chinkara, resting under a bush in a lentil field. According to Wikipedia around 80,000 of India’s population of 100,000 of these live in the Thar Desert so it was perhaps not surprising that we saw several while there.

Near Dechu the scenery got more varied, with sand dunes dotted with stunted trees either side of the road. About seven kilometres beyond the town we turned off the road into Samsara Resort.

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Chinkara

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Scenery near Dechu

We didn't stay at Samara Resort itself but at the Desert Camp about eight kilometres away. However we arrived here around midday and were given the use of a room and the run of the facilities until our transfer to the camp some four hours later (in October when we visited it is far too hot in the desert during the middle part of the day so guests only spend the evening, night and first part of the morning at the camp).

The room we were given was really lovely (we dubbed it "the nicest room we never stayed in"!) and we enjoyed a good lunch in the restaurant and a few pleasant hours swimming in, and relaxing by, the pool. I am pretty sure this would be a great place to stay if you'd like to sleep in a proper bedroom and see the desert on excursions rather than spend a night in a tent, however luxurious.

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The nicest room we never stayed in, and hotel pool

But that was not for us – we were headed for a night under canvas …

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Our stay at the desert camp was one of the highlights of our trip to India. The whole experience was wonderful, starting with our late afternoon jeep transfer to the camp from the resort, which, although a distance of just eight kilometres as the crow flies, is lengthened into a mini safari through the surrounding countryside. The return journey the next morning was to take just 15 minutes, but this outward ride was more like 90.

Our luggage was transferred separately (the next morning it was to travel with us) and we had the jeep to ourselves. After a short ride along the main road we turned off on to a sandy track that wound among some scattered houses. We passed the government-run school and the all-important water tank. We made a wide loop through this area, at one point spotting some more Indian antelopes, Chinkara, like the one we had seen earlier on our journey to Dechu.

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Chinkara antelopes

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The grandmother

We stopped at one house to visit a local family. Obviously this was a bit set-up compared to the visit we had made with Mehar a few days previously (see my earlier blog entry), but it was nevertheless interesting and the family were very welcoming. Mum and Dad were away working in the fields, so we met the grandmother and children. All were very happy to pose for photos. Unlike that previous visit with Mehar, we were able to go inside the various buildings which included a kitchen, living/sleeping house and storage room.

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Family possessions

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With our hostess and her oldest grandchild

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The home

Leaving the village area we returned to the main road, only to leave it again after just a short distance. Now we were among the dunes proper, although in this desert you find scrubby growth on the dunes rather than the empty wide sweep of sand you see elsewhere. Our driver took us on a roundabout route that involved at least three very steep descents – the sort where you get something of the sensation of being on a roller coaster (although much more fun to my mind). We stopped for photos at the top of one dune, and at another the guide got out and borrowed my camera to take pictures of our descent from below – although I was surprised when I looked at the photos later to see that the steepness wasn’t that apparent. Much more effective was my own photo taken looking down on him just as we started down from the top of the dune.

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Jeep ride in the dunes

Eventually we topped one particular dune to find ourselves looking down on the camp. We dropped down into it and pulled up at the edge of the circle of tents.

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Samsara Desert Camp, late afternoon

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We were greeted with the news that our luggage was already in our tent, number three, and our camel was waiting for us, ready for the next part of the experience as soon as we had freshened up. So we hurried to our tent to leave our day bags, taking only our cameras with us on the next experience, a camel ride on the dunes. We have ridden camels in the past and it is something I always enjoy (although after an unfortunate encounter in Uzbekistan, which I will no doubt share here some time in the future, Chris is slightly less enthusiastic!)

On this occasion, we both rode on the same camel. I was up front and could hold on to part of the harness, but Chris, behind, had only me to clutch. If I had fallen, so would he! This was quite a short ride compared to the one we had in the Uzbek desert – just up and over the nearest dune, a short stop for photos and then up to the highest point from where we would be able to watch the sunset.

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Our camel gets a well-deserved rest, after carrying us both up the dunes!

Desert sunset

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We arrived by camel at the top of the dunes, to find that the camp staff had set out some cushions to sit on and laid on a musician playing the traditional Rajasthani double flutes. A few other tourists from the camp were already here, having come by jeep. There were drinks available (tea, coffee and water at no charge, plus soft and alcoholic drinks to buy). It was all very low-key – we all stood around or sat and listened to the music, drinking a beer or a G&T and chatting, as the sun got lower over the dunes.

It was quite hazy, so the sky was pretty rather than dramatic, but the photo opportunities were greatly enhanced when a local happened to drive his flock of sheep along the ridge of the dune right in front of the setting sun. The sand kicked up by their hooves filtered the rays and created a timeless scene that made a pleasant experience into a totally memorable one.

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Was it serendipity that brought him here at this moment? Does the camp choose this spot because the locals also come here – or even, dare I say it, encourage him to do so to enhance our experience? Those thoughts occurred to me, but no, I think we were probably just lucky as, since neither shepherd nor hotel staff looked for a tip there would have been nothing for them to gain by arranging the scene.

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After he moved on there was time to take a few more photos of the post-sunset sky, and now our camel took centre stage in the photos.

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Dancer

Then it was back to the camp, this time by jeep, to settle into our tent before the evening’s cultural performance and dinner.

Evening in the camp

In the hour before dinner traditional musicians played in an area of the camp set aside for these performances. There was cushioned seating for the audience, drinks could be purchased and the first course of dinner was served, consisting of stuffed potato chunks, chicken tikka and vegetable patties. While we had seen similar shows in several hotels already (and were to see several more before the end of our trip, this was probably the most accomplished of those we saw, with the quality of the dancing especially notable. These dances are traditional among the Thar Desert tribes as are the elaborate costumes worn by both men and women. I hope you enjoy my little video of the performance.

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Musicians and dancer

Cultural performance

Our evening meal started with small appetisers handed round as we sat listening to the music - chicken tikka, stuffed potatoes and vegetable patties, and we ordered beers to wash these down. We then went up the slope, lit by hurricane lamps, to the dining tent where like all the other guests we chose to eat outside on the terrace. The meal was a buffet with lots of choice, and I found some dishes nicer than others (a potato curry and another with cauliflower among them). You pay for any drinks but otherwise all is included. When we had finished our meal we sat out on the terrace a little longer, enjoying the desert air and a final beer.

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Our tent at night

Desert sunrise

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We slept very well in our “luxury” tent, which was both gorgeous and comfortable. It had twin beds inside, with a properly plumbed en-suite with large walk-in shower behind, and a terrace with loungers in front. The tents are set in a circle nestled under a large dune, with another dune opposite. Part way up this one is the dining tent where both dinner and breakfast are served, and at the foot of this dune is a circular area where the evening entertainment takes place.

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The camp at dawn

The next morning we woke early to the sound of the camp coming to life. Some of the staff were walking around collecting the lanterns that had been hung in the bushes and outside each tent the previous evening, while others were up at the dining tent on the opposite dune, starting to prepare breakfast. When we emerged from our tent we found we were the only guests to have done so, somewhat to our surprise. Yes, it was still early, but it’s not every day you get to enjoy watching the sunrise in the desert. Armed with our cameras we climbed up the steep dune on the far side of the camp and were there in time to see the sun rise over the tents circled below us. Well worth the effort of getting up and clambering up the dune!

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Desert sunrise

By the way, when I first went out that morning I did so with bare feet and really enjoyed the sensation of the cool morning sand between my toes. But it’s not a good idea to walk around like that on the dunes as there are some very prickly burrs that attach themselves to shoes and socks and would certainly be painful if they were to attach themselves to you!

Once the sun was up it was time to descend for breakfast, which was a good one, with eggs cooked to order and other items, including fresh fruit, pastries and toast, served at the buffet. The musician who had played the previous evening when we watched the sun set from the dunes also played during breakfast which was lovely.

Music at breakfast

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Farewell to the camp

All too soon though we were leaving the camp behind us, very pleased to have had this chance to experience a taste of the Thar Desert and a stay so different from those that made up the bulk of our tour.

If you get the chance to do this I totally recommend it as it really shows you another side to Rajasthan. Yes, it is all laid on for tourists and is somewhat artificial, but at the same time you are out in the desert and getting closer to a harsh but beautiful environment that is home to many local people. And of course the camp also brings employment and a much-needed source of income to some of those people. I was pleased to learn, for example, that the guide who accompanied us on the jeep safari and looked after us during our stay was from a village just a few miles away.

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Our jeep driver

We met up with Mehar back at the Samsara resort. It was time to head further south ...

Posted by ToonSarah 21:53 Archived in India Tagged desert culture india music camp camel rajasthan Comments (14)

A few hours in the Blue City

India day nine


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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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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