Postcard from Rajasthan

8 mins. to read
Postcard from Rajasthan

Monday, 18 January 2016, Mandawa, Rajasthan, India

The headline news from Delhi this morning. Capital faces canine crisis: one dog bite every six minutes. The experimental 15 day odd-even car registration entry scheme has just concluded – and air quality has got even worse. India is now free at last to resume normal trading relations with her important neighbour, Iran. Crisis in the UK: David Cameron’s tough stance on immigration is causing havoc in the restaurant kitchens of Great Britain – two curry houses are closing every week and questions have been asked in the House of Commons. Religious intolerance is holding India’s economy back, says His Excellency, Prime Minister Modi.

On the Curry Crisis in the UK, the Hindustan Times reveals the scandal that a great many so-called Indian restaurants in the UK are actually run by Bangladeshis. The good people of England should be told, an editorial intones.

Meanwhile punch drunk investors on the Bombay Stock Exchange are exhorted to hang on in there.

I learnt from reading Nicholas Nassim Taleb[i] some time ago – perhaps one of few men alive who really understands how financial markets work – that reading newspapers is largely a waste of time. Unless you wish to tell people what other people are saying.


We drove out of Delhi and across the state of Haryana through a cold fog. Indian cars rarely have proper fog lights and instead rely on their hazard lights. Normally prone to the easy use of their horns, in thick fog the honking and tooting is overwhelming, so one’s journey becomes a cacophonic lurch into the unknown. Driving on Indian roads is febrile perhaps, but rarely ill-tempered.

The prosaic flatness of Haryana is soon pierced by the outline of distant hills. As we approach Rajasthan the camel-drawn carts appear – the imperious beasts trot nonchalantly with their heads high in the air. The roads are lined with fields of mustard, young wheat and scrawny tikka trees. Groves hiding beehives are now replaced by a succession of small brick kilns, each marked by a single chimney. The undulations of the red-brown land betoken generations of brick-making here. What princely palaces have been given form from this dirt?

Today there are processions of pilgrims everywhere along India’s country roads, mostly bearing dark blue flags trimmed in gold. “Where are they going?” I ask Mr Ramesh, our driver. “To the temple” he relies. “It is the day of Shiva”. That’s all clear, then.

Nearing Jhunjhunun, the geology transforms. The landscape is a kind of scrub now, where juniper trees grow out of sand-dirt soil. Was that an almond tree? The sun is now out and one could be traversing remoter Andalucía. The desert cannot be far away. These hills, the northern spur of the Aravalli Range, are the vestiges of unimaginably ancient Pre-Cambrian mountains that were formed when the Indian sub-continent was still attached to Africa (in a super-continent geologists call Pangea). They have been gradually eroded over aeons of geological time into the long shoulders of gnarled limestone one sees today.

We brake to avoid a cow and then swerve to save a posse of goats from certain death. Some lazy dogs sunbathe on the highway. Sometimes I have to put my hand over my eyes so sure I am that an idiotic animal is about to perish. And yet none do.

We decide to have lunch at a road-side tabba (a sort of roadside Indian greasy spoon), with us as the only customers. A collection of men of different ages who apparently work here (or do they?) eye us suspiciously. With the help of Mr Ramesh, we order – chapattis, dal, bhuna, the usual casual local fare. As we eat, three hairy pigs saunter by snorting cheerfully. Then a motley group of villagers (all men, of course, there being no women in evidence) gather to gape at us, some of whom pull up chairs. Here staring is normal. Evidently we are objects of fascination. The food, however, is wonderful.


The hotel here at Mandawa is a haveli – a Moghul era palace, though sometimes palaces and fortresses get confused. Shades of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. No sign of Dame Maggie, however, nor the splendid Penelope Wilton. Instead there is a coach party of geriatric French tourists, who all seem stressed. My bathroom is a ridiculously huge marbled chamber, complete with columns, filigree screens and heavy gilt taps. The plumbing’s a bit dodgy though.

This is a pretty round-about route, I must admit, to get to the Jaipur Literary Festival. But it’s all part of getting better acquainted with India. Rajasthan: the land of the moustachioed Rajput princes, famous for their chivalry and valour. They are outstanding swordsman and good cricketers too. India’s finest!


Tuesday, 19 January 2016, Bikaner, Rajasthan, India

I woke well before sunrise and went to breakfast. It was only when I emerged into the light that I climbed up to the top pavilion above the ornate dining hall to survey the castle and the town beyond. I suddenly realised, architectural ignoramus that I am, that I was staying in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace.

Not literally, of course. I found myself in a prototype of Mughal-Persian princely architecture: expansive facades pierced by jalis (latticed stone screens) framed around a succession of geometrically unequal courtyards, some arcaded, onto which jharokhas (ornate balconies) protrude. Each courtyard offers concealed staircases leading up to flat open upper stories which are decked with unsymmetrical high pavilions, each one a different size. It’s rapturous.

This little town, which does not even get a mention in the index of my Eyewitness Guide is thronging with 16th century palaces and merchants’ mansions[ii]. This was an important caravanserai on a southern spur of the silk route which linked Persia to China. In nearby Fatehpur, and indeed in many towns of the Shekhawati district of Jaipur Province, you cannot walk a hundred metres without stumbling across an architectural marvel – hand painted frescoes, intricately carved porches leading into cool galleried courtyards set out around a central fountain in the Arab style… And they are all, literally, falling down. It is like Florence or Marrakesh after a particularly vicious aerial bombardment. There are piles of rubble in the streets which, upon inspection, contain shards of intricately carved marble. It’s heart-breaking.

Strange to reflect that in Shakespeare’s day, these lost cities of now provincial India were much more wondrous than anything that England had to offer. Italian craftsmen, whose mosaic work is evident at Junagarh Fort in Bikaner, were much in demand here then. This must have been an incredibly wealthy civilisation. What went wrong?

Ah, that’s the question that failed investors are always seeking to answer. It is not at all easy to say, but probably the silk route fell quiet because, with the rise of maritime navigation, seaports like Bombay grabbed much of the trade and no doubt ports in China made trundling goods across the Himalaya redundant. I know I have often said that nothing is inevitable, but once a long-term economic (or climatic) process takes hold, it’s virtually impossible to reverse it. Europeans should take note: our steel and glass palaces might be ruins in 400 years’ time if we don’t stay on the right side of history.

On the other hand, some of the painted havelis date from the 18th and 19th century so the merchant class remained in business under British rule.

Well, the silk route is open again now, in a manner of speaking, with rapidly rising trade between India and China. Upcoming Indian billionaires take heed. Your country needs you to save its heritage. Perhaps these havelis will be restored to their former glory. I hope so.

Bikaner is Rajasthan at its glorious best – and worst. Mr Ramesh squeezed the Toyota through the pullulating alleyways of Bikaner’s old town like a dog trainer coaxing a Jack Russel down a rabbit hole.


Wednesday, 20 January 2016, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India

The hotel in Bikaner was, by night, a freezing dark palace. It was like sleeping in the British Museum – with no heating or hot water in the morning. I was glad to hit the road.

Another cold fog enveloped the countryside until about ten thirty. This drive was hellish. At one point we had to veer into the dirt to avoid an oncoming bus that was attempting, unsuccessfully, to overtake an oil tanker. Huge trucks bore down on us in both directions. The worst drivers are the charabancs over-laden with timber (Indians still overwhelmingly cook on and heat their homes with wood-stoves). Mr Ramesh, in a misguided attempt to reassure us, told us cheerfully that a lot of Indian truck drivers are big drinkers and opium eaters.

At least this important arterial highway is being upgraded. I note that the train line which abuts the highway for long stretches is busy too. At one point I saw the longest freight train ever – it must have had about 40 carriages and been more than one kilometre long.

Lots of animals today. At one point a chital (a large deer, like a springbok) pranced across our path. We encountered a congregation (if that is the correct collective noun) of camels at the roadside just over the border in Jaisalmer Province. The jaywalking cows got larger. The Toyota, on leaving the highway, was chased by a pack of athletic dogs.

Jaisalmer Province throngs with military. There are bases all over. The frontier with Pakistan is only one hundred kilometres away, cutting through the wastes of the Thar Desert. This is the edge of India.

One thing I have noticed in Rajasthan is that guides and others are never shy about telling you their caste – if they are of high caste, that is. In India, the caste system still very much alive. In the past, caste determined profession, so a boy born to a dhobi family became a laundryman. I am still trying to find out to what extent this terrible break on individual liberty and economic progress still obtains.

After the old fortress city of Jaisalmer, Jodphur awaits. But I am sure you have had enough of Mughal architecture for now. Next week: the Jaipur Literary Festival where, amongst other things, I hope to hear the views of a Nobel Prize winning Indian economist on India’s manifest destiny. See you there.

[i] See Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan

[ii] I subsequently discovered that there is a remarkable guide book for enthusiasts: The Painted Towns of Shekhawati by Islay Cooper.

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