India: Honor and Shame in Rajasthan
Woodrow W. Denham
Fujairah, United Arab Emirates
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The great earthquake that hit the Indian State of Gujarat in January missed us by about 300 miles. When it happened we were riding in an old car on a bumpy road in the Aravalli Hills of south-central Rajasthan. We felt nothing, but other people in the vicinity who were not travelling felt it when it happened. No serious damage was reported in Rajasthan, but as I'm sure you know, it took an enormous toll in Gujarat. Estimates of the number dead range from 18,000 to 100,000, and the actual number almost certainly never will be known.
When we traveled for three months in South India in 1990, we still fancied ourselves to be old hippies. We followed our Lonely Planet Guide religiously, found hotels on the run, rode the trains a lot, and had the “real” India right in our faces for much of the time. This year we looked carefully at our ages, our past experiences in India and Bangladesh, and our tight schedule of only fifteen days, and did it differently. Emirates Airlines carried us back and forth between Dubai and Delhi, and we flew Indian Airlines to Jaipur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer. We had advance reservations at good hotels and ate safe food all the time so we never got Delhi-belly. However, both of us came down with respiratory infections. I recovered quickly, but Nancy ended up with a nasty form of pneumonia, a close cousin to Legionnaire’s Disease. She’s on the mend now, but swears she’ll never return to India. India is a difficult place to travel regardless of how you do it, even if the earthquake misses you.
One of our major concerns about returning to India proved to be unfounded. During our travels in 1990 in South India, Agra and Delhi, we were constantly besieged by touts trying to sell us things we didn’t want, lepers waving diseased hands in our faces and demanding money, and unwelcome encounters with dead bodies lying in the streets waiting for somebody to haul them off. We saw none of that this year. Perhaps the economy really has improved, maybe Rajasthan is more fortunate that some other parts of the country, maybe we were just lucky. Al- hamdulillah.
January is the middle of the dry season in Rajasthan. We did not encounter a drop of rain during our visit, and the sky was perfectly blue throughout except for a few clouds one day. However, January is the season for morning fogs in New Delhi, so our arrival there from Dubai was delayed by eight hours, and all of our Indian domestic flights were delayed from four to eight hours because of poor visibility in the capital. We read a lot in airports.
The State of Rajasthan is a synthesis of thirty-six Rajput princely states, formerly called Rajputana, that emerged after the British Partition of India in 1947. The Rajputs are and always have been Hindus, they are members of the Kshatriya or warrior caste, and are among the world's great militaristic peoples. When the Moslems invaded India, they ultimately established the Mogul Empire centered in Delhi in the 15 th century. The Rajputs fought them relentlessly and while the Moguls acquired a lot of influence over the Rajputs and established marriage alliances with most of the princely states, they never conquered many of them even though the eastern border of Rajputana was only a few miles from Delhi.
The princely states of India were notorious for exploiting the peasants and nomads who lived on the land. But while trampling the little people into the ground, the Rajputs constructed magnificent mansions, palaces and forts, leaving a vast legacy that is well represented in UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. We focused our travels on the monumental architecture and the arts and crafts the Rajputs developed to decorate themselves and their buildings.
In South India, we completely overdosed on Hindu temples, and it would have been easy to do the same on palaces and forts in Rajasthan. But this time we were reasonable enough to see the experience as a kind of gargantuan buffet dinner where we had to sample carefully rather than consume everything and remember nothing.
Honor and Shame As is our wont, we spent a good bit of time talking about the little people who were trod upon in the process of building the Rajput high civilization, but we spent much more discussing the status of women in Rajput society, for the architecture that the men built makes no sense without a clear understanding of their women’s roles.
Having lived in the Middle East and South Asia a lot in recent years, we were aware that the linked concepts of honor and shame largely define people’s attitudes toward themselves, and especially their attitudes toward women, not just in Islam, but throughout that vast region. The trip to Rajasthan brought this alien cultural world into focus more sharply than ever before.
The European fringe of the honor-and-shame culture area lies in the Christian Mediterranean where honor killings still occur in Italy and Greece. It extends throughout North Africa and traces of it appear in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. In prevails in the Moslem lands of Turkey and the Middle East with special emphasis on Revolutionary Iran and ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia where veiling is mandatory. It reaches into Central Asia and especially Afghanistan where the Taliban government keeps women in their place with a vengeance. It encompasses Pakistan where the novel Shame is perhaps the premier novelistic treatment of the concepts, and it has produced a skewed population structure in Bangladesh that indicates that millions of female babies have been systematically exterminated there since Partition. Finally it dominates much of Hindu India with special emphasis on the awesome chivalric code followed by Rajput royalty well into the 20 th century.
The forms vary somewhat depending upon one’s religion and location, but the bottom line is pretty much constant throughout the region. From an Eastern perspective, most of the honor of one’s family is intimately connected with the purity of its women. In order to maintain that purity, no action is too extreme. Such actions include performing female infanticide as needed, refusing to educate female children for fear they will be polluted, performing child marriages and arranged marriages with no regard to the wishes of the women, secluding high status women in a condition called purdah or a location called zenana or harem, requiring that women cover themselves in public ranging from symbolic veiling in some areas to total concealment in others.
Among the most extreme manifestations of the load carried by women in these honor-and-shame cultures was the demand in India for individual suicide called sati when a woman’s husband died, and mass suicide called jauhar when the destruction of a city or fort was imminent. In the case of jauhar, all of the women were expected to throw themselves onto a mass funeral pyre and destroy themselves rather than suffer the defilement that would occur in the event of their capture by an invading enemy. Records show as many as 24,000 Rajput women committing suicide on a single day when their men were certain to be defeated in battle. Jauhar seems to have happened as often as several times a century in what is now Rajasthan until it was outlawed and suppressed in the 19 th and 20 th centuries. Sati still happens rarely, but jauhar probably is extinct.
Most men and a great many women in that region argue that purdah, zenana, harem, veiling, jauhar, sati and an enormous complex of related cultural concepts are designed to honor and protect women and insure the purity and sanctity of the family. As such they must be followed scrupulously, and women may have even more interest than men in doing so as a means of protecting their own positions in society.
But from a Western perspective, and increasingly from an Eastern perspective as well, the practices associated with enforcing honor on the women are viewed as barbaric. According to Western feminist thinking, they do not honor women, but rather enslave and destroy them. Half the population is systematically denied even the most basic human rights, a concept that is distinctly Western and is fundamentally incomprehensible to many in the East. Individual and mass suicides are coerced, hence are not suicides at all but rather are murders, including India's infamous bride-burnings. The female half of the population is simply thrown away by means of sex-selective abortion and infanticide, ignorance, confinement and condemnation to a life that is limited almost exclusively to reproduction.
Such arguments against the traditions tend to skip right over powerful women like Indira Gandhi, Sheikh Hasina, Benazir Bhutto, Hanan Ashrawi and many others who are products of the honor-and-shame culture. They also tend to ignore the evidence of the stones – that is, evidence concerning women’s status and roles that appears today in the architecture of the vast array of mansions, palaces and forts scattered throughout the region from Morocco to Northern India.
We didn’t go to Rajasthan to investigate honor and shame. In fact, we weren’t fully attuned to the extent to which honor and shame were issues there until we arrived and began to look around us. But after living for most of the 1990’s in the Arabian Peninsula and Bangladesh, we were sensitized. Suddenly, what had been one of many threads running through our reading leaped out as a dominant theme of the trip. As we take you on a tour of the places we visited in Rajasthan, this theme will appear repeatedly.
Jaipur Our first stop was Jaipur, India's famous Pink City, huge, dirty, with shades of grandeur everywhere. It was established as a walled city in 1727 and retained its fifteen mile encircling wall until 1958 when a protracted political battle between the former princely states and the Indian Congress Party and central government resulted in its deliberate destruction by the Congress Party in an act of political vandalism that has striking similarities to the Taliban’s recent destruction of statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan. But the pink is still there - pink paint that was applied to the buildings in 1876 to welcome a visiting dignitary from the British Empire, and maintained until the Congress Party allowed the city to deteriorate. Now the paint is in sad condition and looks much better in a photo than it does for real.
The city planner who laid out Jaipur began with a grid of broad avenues separating the old city into nine sectors on the plain at the base of a small mountain. From the Mansingh Hotel where we stayed just outside the city walls, we focused on the core of the old city that contains the Hawa Mahal wind palace, the Jantar Mantar astronomical observatory, and the City Palace Art Museum, traveling by auto-rickshaw since distances within this city of two million people are so great.
The Hawa Mahal has become the hallmark of Jaipur. It appears in almost every collection of photographs from Rajasthan, and is one of the quirkiest manifestations of the honor-and-shame culture. It is a long five-story building covered with screaming pink paint, whose ornate front wall contains more than 900 windows, screened with delicately carved sandstone, overlooking one of the city’s original broad avenues. But that’s all there is to it. It is simply a privacy screen. There is nothing behind the front wall except seats from which royal women could look down on the activities of the city below. Since the women could not go outside to participate in life beyond the wall, their men built this colossal “grandstand” for them to use whenever something interesting was going on out there. Such privacy screens in more modest proportions embellish domestic architecture, inside and out, throughout the honor-and-shame culture area, are defining features of old residential neighborhoods in Jeddah and Marrakech and Istanbul, and appear on almost every building that we visited in Rajasthan.
A couple of blocks behind the Hawa Mahal is the Jantar Mantar, an 18 th century astronomical observatory built by Maharana Jai Singh, the great Rajput ruler, poet, mathematician and astronomer. Begun in 1728, a year after the death of Sir Isaac Newton in England, Jai Singh’s Jantar Mantar represents an independent and parallel approach to describing and understanding the stars and planets. Making no use of telescopes, it instead is a collection of monumental stone instruments sitting on the ground and imbedded in the ground that enables observers to measure positions and movements of the heavenly bodies with great accuracy. Their shapes are conventional spheres, cubes and triangles, and from a distance the astronomical observatory looks like a playground for giants. But up close, the precision scales still are there, and it is clear that these instruments were a manifestation of a scientific tradition as robust as the one that developed at about the same time in the West. The two women sweepers who clean the grounds daily and the langur monkeys who play in nearby trees keep the observatory alive even after everyone else leaves.
The public entrance to the great, sprawling City Palace is just down the street from the Jantar Mantar. Part of it remains in use as an official residence, so only the first courtyard is accessible to visitors. Among the buildings facing that courtyard is one containing a single large room that houses the Art Museum. The display cases are old and the collection is lighted and labeled poorly, but the items on display are breathtaking. They range from a large collection of Persian carpets as much as 19 feet wide and 57 feet long that once were used on the palace floors, down to a microscopic copy of the Koran that can be read only with a powerful magnifier. The manuscript collection contains a 15 th century Arabic text on falconry that fits well with the current passion for falconry among Arabs in the UAE. And the art exhibit includes early Rajasthani miniature paintings that depict Lord Krishna on shimmering moonlit nights where everything has the appearance of mother-of-pearl.
As we left the museum, we heard loud music from drums and a shennai, a powerful oboe-like instrument often used for sacred music in Indian temples, but also used in a slightly different form by the Ottoman Turks to scare the hell out of their enemies during military attacks. After much searching, we finally found a passageway to the room where the music originated, a tiny space upstairs packed with young women who were in the last minute of some kind of ceremony when we arrived. Within seconds all of them were gone and we have no idea what was going on, but the musicians were friendly so with visited with them for a while.
Just east of the old city wall is a small garden compound – maybe one or two acres – that contains a cluster of perhaps eight or nine cenotaphs for Jaipur’s former rulers and their wives. A small mountain sits behind the garden, and a defensive wall runs right up the side of it from the cenotaphs to the temple on top. Each monument in the garden has a base maybe 20-30 feet in diameter. Several to many columns are distributed in various ways on each base and a dome atop the columns acts like a roof but looks like a crown or a turban. Each cenotaph is unique, and most of them memorialize both the Maharana who died however it happened (combat, palace intrigue, natural causes) and his Maharani or wife who ordinarily died by sati when she threw herself on the Maharana’s funeral pyre. The delicate garden is well kept and no other visitors were there when we arrived late in the day. The afternoon sun, filtering through the trees and columns and back-lighting the domes, was magical, almost lulling us into forgetting some of the grimness of the past.
Amber and Jaigarh Since the Jaipur City Palace was largely inaccessible to visitors, we got no real sense of how it was laid out. But our first day trip outside of Jaipur took us about ten miles north to the 16 th century fortified palace at Amber in the rugged but not especially high mountains that surround Jaipur. Amber and its immediate neighbors form a kind of stair step arrangement on the hills. The heavily fortified Amber Palace is located on top of a moderate hill. A lake is at the base of the hill, and the massive Jaigarh Fort is on top of a higher hill behind Amber. On all of the nearby mountaintops, small garrison forts and defensive walls indicate that combat traditionally was a dominant feature of life in this region.
Primary access to Amber from the lakeside below is via a colossal stone ramp that hugs the side of the hill as it climbs up to the elevation of the palace itself. It is an elephant ramp, and we slowly rode up to the palace on the back of an elephant, passing through a series of monumental gates designed to prevent any unwanted person, animal or object from reaching the palace.
To make sense of the architecture of the palace, I’ll put it in the context of several Oriental palaces that we have visited, and mention some of the ways in which their architecture reflects honor and shame. Specifically Rajput palaces such as the one at Amber have a lot in common with Topkapi Palace over 3000 miles away in Istanbul, and that similarity springs directly from the honor-and-shame culture.
In each case, the palace is a walled compound covering many acres, typically located within the security of a larger walled city or walled fort. The palace walls may be from twenty to ninety feet high and are impenetrable except at a small number of heavily defended gates. Inside the walls, the palaces tend to be laid out in a more-or-less standardized fashion around a series of marble paved courtyards embellished with gardens and pools.
At Amber, Topkapi, the City Palace in Udaipur and elsewhere, upon passing through the main gate you find yourself in a public courtyard surrounded by public audience halls or diwans that correspond to the Arabic majlis, as well as offices, temples or mosques and other public buildings. This courtyard and parade ground were used for military reviews, welcoming of visiting dignitaries, and the ostentatious pomp and ceremony that made court life such a memorable spectacle in the eyes of Western observers. At Amber, the huge forecourt where elephants deposit their passengers has a lovely garden at its center.
Behind the public courtyard was another wall as strong as the outer walls, through which typically a single internal gate provided access to the first of a series of inner courtyards. This first inner courtyard was the private area of the ruler where he might hold private audiences with subjects and visiting dignitaries who were welcomed in the public courtyard, listen to the music of court musicians, or simply relax. The buildings in this area might include more elaborate audience halls, throne rooms, temples, mosques, libraries, the treasury and kitchens for the entire palace complex. At Amber, the open audience halls in this courtyard look down over the forecourt and provide glorious views of the lake far below, the elephant ramp, nearby garrison forts, and the colossal Jaigarh Fort hovering above that stands guard over the entire region.
Behind the ruler’s business chambers was another wall as strong as the outer walls, penetrated by perhaps several gates and other passages that provided adequate but difficult access to the third major courtyard. Generally speaking, this section of the palace was the ruler’s residential area. He might sometimes invite especially close friends and other guests into this area, but essentially it contained his private apartments and perhaps quarters for his immediate servants, his own temple or mosque, his wardrobe and baths, perhaps repositories for his own arms and jewels and books. At Amber this section is less discrete than at Topkapi, but it is nonetheless clearly discernable.
The fourth, and at Topkapi and Amber the last, section of the palace, hundreds of yards from the main gate and totally isolated from public areas, was the lavish harem or zenana where the women of the palace lived. The population of this section could reach into the hundreds, including one or more wives, many concubines, a host of serving women and often an enormous crowd of children. Access to this area was prohibited to all men except the ruler and, in some cases, eunuchs who were multipurpose guards and servants. At Amber, the main level of this courtyard contains, among other things, individual apartments for twelve wives, and other apartments above for many concubines.
From an ethnocentric Western perspective, the harem or zenana section of the palace could be thought of as the “back forty” – a combination of slave quarters and livestock breeding area where women were imprisoned and impregnated. From an ethnocentric Eastern perspective, it could be thought of as something like the royal chambers in a beehive where a multitude of queens busily produced the next generation in the midst of fabulous wealth, near-perfect security and a degree of comfort unimaginable in the West. Whichever way you look at it, the harem or zenana is a defining feature of domestic architecture throughout the region, whether in monumental royal palaces, in mansions of wealthy merchants, or in more modest homes of wealthy landowners.
Residential, industrial and agricultural areas for the enormous staff required to keep such palaces functioning were outside the palace walls but within the city walls, or in designated royal towns nearby, or in more diffuse suburban and rural communities.
This schematic representation of a palace is subject to many variations and permutations, but basically it describes Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where the Ottoman Sultans reigned for hundreds of years. Furthermore it fits the Rajput City Palaces in Jaipur and Udaipur, it constitutes something approaching a verbal blueprint for the heavily fortified Amber Palace, and it captures the spirit if not the details of the amazing jewel of a fortified city at Jaisalmer, all of which we visited in January.
Of the hundreds of rooms and audience halls at Amber, some of the most stunning have inner and outer walls decorated with thumbnail size pieces of mirrors. The wall surfaces are deliberately uneven, so the tiny mirrors reflect light in every direction. The slightest movement of your head makes the entire structure shimmer like a mirage far out in the open desert.
The intricately carved privacy screens that cover windows throughout most of the palace buildings suggest that women as well as men had access to many parts of the palaces that were not reserved exclusively for women. Both of us took quite a few photographs from behind these screens, imagining what it would have been like to view the world filtered that way.
Jaigarh Fort, a purely military complex encircled by a ten mile long stone wall averaging about seventy feet high, overlooks and defends Amber and the surrounding areas. Our driver took us as far into the fort as we could go in the car, then we walked through the preserved buildings and out to the bastions and parapets and cupolas high above Amber. There were only a few other visitors there, but the flashes of color provided by the women’s iridescent saris seemed to restore some vitality to this huge remnant of a way of life that largely collapsed in the last century. Outside the walls, on steep slopes descending into valleys and nearby scrub forests, a troop of langurs with graceful limbs and long curving tails plunged down toward a distant lake and jumped in. We had no idea that species of monkey could swim, but we were wrong. Meanwhile emerald green parrots rested briefly on the walls and trees, then sailed out into the great void below us just to make us envious of their beauty and freedom.
At both Amber and Jaigarh we saw many Indian visitors, most of whom could not possibly have been descendents of the Rajput aristocracy. It probably would not have been politically correct for aliens such as us to ask them how they thought of the spectacular architecture, positively as part of their own glorious heritage or negatively as symbols of the exploitation their ancestors experienced at the hands of their Rajput masters, or perhaps as both. But we wonder how they would have answered.
Sanganer Monumental Rajput architecture is matched by a fascination with color and design in smaller things as well. It appears in a great many forms, most of which still are alive and well in Sanganer Village about ten miles south of Jaipur. The village got its start as a craft center under royal patronage, its products destined for use in the palaces of the Maharanas. Later, in the days of Empire, calico from Sanganer was so popular in Britain that it cut into flax sales and was banned. Now that the royal and imperial ages have passed and multinational consumerism has replaced them, the village has grown into a small city and the cottage craftsmen have in many cases outgrown their cottages. Their income comes from tourists who visit Jaipur, the burgeoning Indian middle class who wear Sanganer fabrics and decorate their homes with Sanganer’s finest crafts, and multinational corporations such as IKEA, the Swedish home furnishings giant that distributes Sanganer’s products worldwide. We were afraid we would find the city overrun by tourists, but in fact we didn’t see any tourists at all.
Just as we didn't set out to focus our trip to Rajasthan on the concepts of honor and shame, neither did we consciously decide years ago to have ethnic fabrics and pottery thread their ways through all our travels. It's just a theme that emerged. We've found that exploring handicraft production is a good way to find out a lot about a culture that we're experiencing for the first time and comparing with other places we've come to know.
Our guide for the day was Vinod, a man in his fifties who understood that we wanted to see craft production. We made it clear that we could buy the finished products in Dubai where only the best is imported and is sold for less than it costs in India, so we would not buy anything in Sanganer. Since guides earn part of their money from the shopkeepers to whom they deliver visitors, we told Vinod we would pay him a bit extra to compensate for his loss. In return, he and his driver did an outstanding job of taking us deep into this major center for the production of cotton fabrics, handmade paper and pottery, with no stops at tourist traps.
We knew we were in Sanganer when the car eased into a rutted ditch by the side of the road. Vinod led us across the field to a shady tree where a dozen men and women were working in and around an open cement matrix that looked a bit like a three-dimensional checkerboard. Up close we saw that they were washing block printed and tie-dyed fabrics in chemical baths used to set the dye. Each cell in the matrix contained water, chemicals, fabrics and people walking on the fabrics to keep them submerged as long as needed. We have no idea what the life expectancy of such people might be, but suffice it to say that all of them were young.
Just as we got there, we noticed three camel carts arriving at a much larger washing facility in the next field, so we dashed over to take photographs. Each cart was about the size of a pickup truck bed, pulled by a healthy looking camel and driven by a young man sitting on top of an eight foot tall pile of fabrics arriving from a factory in Sanganer where they were produced.
The sheets were perhaps fifty feet long. They had been dyed every conceivable brilliant color, and then had been printed or tie-dyed further with designs ranging from small flowers to medallions the size of a coffee table. As they came off the carts, they were unceremoniously dumped into the baths with others of their own color and design. But when they came out they were attached nose-to-tail to their vat-mates so that the resulting single strip of red or blue or yellow cloth was perhaps half a mile long. This great long strip was then pulled up and looped over wooden racks maybe forty feet high where they hung in the brilliant sun until they dried. Then they were taken down, separated from each other, folded carefully into neat piles of a single color, and put on other camel carts that hauled them away. As we became attuned to what was going on, we spotted more and more establishments of the same sort in others fields as far as we could see.
The shops in the city where block printing and tie dying occur are scattered everywhere along narrow, dusty back streets, some of which are remarkably placid and quiet, others of which are full of cow dung, children, auto-rickshaws, camel carts and Indian film music. Vinod knew the people he took us to visit, and they welcomed us graciously into shops where their skilled workers were applying designs to the dyed but undecorated fabrics and preparing them for their trips through the chemical baths.
The blocks used for block printing are remarkably similar to those used in batik production in Java, in both cases maybe six inches on a side with simple to highly intricate patterns carved into them. The people who apply the designs to the fabric must do so with great precision, and Repetitive Motion Syndrome must be rampant in all the shops. But beyond that, block printing and batik making techniques are quite different. In batik making, the blocks are used to apply wax to the fabric that is then dyed so that the waxed areas remain unaffected by the dye. Something like the reverse is true in block printing where the fabric is dyed first and the blocks are then used to apply designs using different colored dyes.
From afar the results look similar, but close up it’s clear that batik making is much more complex and a great deal slower. Even when a fabric in Sanganer has multiple overlapping designs block printed onto it, there is none of the technical complexity associated with applying and removing multiple layers of wax as in batik making. So block prints are just about as beautiful as batiks, but a lot less expensive.
It isn’t a coincidence that fabric making and paper making occur in adjacent buildings, for the two crafts are tightly integrated here. Economists use the term vertical integration to describe such closely related industries, but initially visitors might not see the connections. In Sanganer, many of the same materials are used in the dyes, mordents, paints and glazes, and waste material from one kind of production are used as raw material for another. For example, handmade paper from Sanganer is to a large extent made from cotton wastes from fabric production. The same tree provides pulp for paper, dye for fabrics and fuel for pottery kilns. Some of the same designers work on both clay and cloth and when you see handmade paper and textiles of the same hues drying on racks on adjacent roofs, the similarities are striking.
Especially in Sanganer, but also in Jaipur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer, we saw a lot of hard working camels, most of them pulling carts of fabrics, water, gasoline, concrete blocks, construction steel, and almost everything else that can go on or in a cart. They were tired but happy, and completely unlike the cranky racing camels we see by the thousands in the UAE. We don’t have anything personally against racing camels, but they live a fairly degenerate sort of life, wearing cute little blankets on their backs, running in circles all the time and doing nothing useful for themselves or anybody else. Every racing camel I have every talked with says the same thing. Their breed has not been subverted by the local culture, they really would like to return to the good old days of the camel caravans that gave their lives some meaning, and they snarl and slobber a lot because they’re so beastly unhappy. I suppose some of the hard working camels in Rajasthan would like to change places with their effete cousins in the UAE, but I’m sure they would learn very quickly that the grass really is not greener in the Empty Quarter.
Back in Jaipur after the exhilaration and exhaustion of a day at Amber and Jaigarh Forts and another at Sanganer, we retreated to the Rambagh Palace Hotel for dinner. Among its most famous recent guests are Bill and Hillary Clinton who stayed there during their triumphal tour of India last year. Since we couldn’t afford to stay in the royal suite, and probably couldn’t even afford to go into the dining room, we settled for dinner in the coffee shop. But mostly we wandered around the palace for a while. It’s a magnificent sprawling building surrounded by acres of lawns and trees with the outer walls so far away that they are invisible from the palace. It began its life only a century ago as a family retreat and hunting lodge, sort of a bedroom suburb for the City Palace where the formal business of ruling the state was conducted. With only a hundred bedrooms, it is tiny in comparison with the City Palace. The building is completely outlined with fairy lights that come on at dusk, and its nightly cultural programs of Rajasthani folk music, dance and puppetry give it a lively air. People who are not staying there are welcome to attend the performances, but I sensed that we may have been among the few such outsiders there.
As we returned from the Rambagh Palace to our own infra-digs, we passed a million dollar wedding being held at a sports stadium. Our auto-rickshaw driver thought it strange when I insisted that he stop so I could photograph a pair of brightly decorated elephants standing under the spotlights at the gate. No problem. If auto-rickshaw drivers understood everything, they probably wouldn’t be auto-rickshaw drivers, and the world as we know it would cease to exist.
Udaipur Udaipur is utterly different from Jaipur in just about every way you can imagine. With a population somewhere around 300,000, it’s much more manageable than the monster that is Jaipur. It’s built in the mountains and the city itself is quite hilly, not flat like Jaipur. Udaipur is built on the east side of two lakes, unlike Jaipur where there are no lakes. In Udaipur our Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel overlooked one of those lakes and the mountains behind which the sun set in nightly splendor, unlike in Jaipur where our Mansingh Hotel overlooked a construction site.
Udaipur was the capital of the Mewar clan, the acknowledged leader of the thirty-six Rajput princely states. The Mewar dynasty, which still exists in an attenuated form since Indian Independence, has ruled without interruption for seventy-six generations, making it the world’s oldest ruling family. Each Rajput clan traces its origins back to the Sun, the Moon or Fire. Mewar is the premier Sun clan, and its position of leadership among all the Rajput clans was based not on military power, but on its adherence to the ancient moral code. It was the only Rajput clan that never bowed to the Moguls, and the only one that never allowed its princesses to marry into the Imperial Mogul dynasty. It was a matter of honor and shame.
The Udaipur City Palace is the largest palace in Rajasthan, a massive structure towering over Lake Pichola and overlooking the small white marble Lake Palace Hotel which seemingly floats on the surface of the lake a couple of hundred yards off shore. The City Palace began as a small palace in the 1560s and continued to grow for about four hundred years, retaining its design coherence throughout. The Lake Palace was built in 1754, entirely covers the small island on which it sits, and has not grown at all since then. Each palace provides superb views of the other, and together they form an extraordinary solar system, the awesome City Palace of the Sun Kings as the sun, the jewel-like Lake Palace locked in a close orbit as the moon.
The layout of the City Palace resembles that at Amber, but it is much larger and even more opulent. Rooms and even entire courtyards dazzle with inlaid glass, chandeliers, larger than life jeweled peacocks more alive than real ones, light and shadow working together to emphasize and conceal. Exquisite wall paintings abound, often depicting elephants caparisoned, fighting each other, parading, prancing, dancing, working, going to war, taking the royal family on picnics. Clearly elephants were not just beasts of burden. Rajputs loved their elephants the way Gulf Arabs love their camels and horses. The zenana, deep within the palace at its safest point, has an untold number of cloistered apartments facing onto a serene central courtyard nearly as large as a football field. I simply cannot imagine how glorious it must have been when the finest carpets covered all the floors, and the fountains, pools and gardens were maintained to royal standards each and every day.
Ever since we saw The Jewel in the Crown back in the 80s, we’ve wanted to visit the Lake Palace Hotel, which served as the setting for much of that film. Not to stay there which shall forever be beyond our budget, but rather to see it up close, touch it, smell the flowers and the incense, imagine what it was like when it was a real palace and not one of the world’s finest hotels, imagine what it was like when it truly was one of the jewels in the crown of the British Empire. So we had lunch at the Lake Palace Hotel. You should promise to do that at least once in your life. It's extraordinary to experience perfect attention to every detail.
When you leave the City Palace by the main gate, you immediately head down a hill into the Old Bazaar. The main street is tourist tacky now, with souvenir shops, fabrics for sale on all the walls, signs for restaurants, a few people trying to sell you things you don’t want. But turn off the main street into any of the side streets and immediately you find yourself in the midst of tiny shops where old men sit on the floor making silver ankle bracelets, younger men swing heavy hammers as they shape copper cooking utensils, placid cows amble along and nuzzle your leg hoping you’ll scratch them behind the ears. Now and then you’ll spot a sari shop full of women selecting material to use for their daughters’ weddings since January is the wedding season. And spice shops add an unmistakable aroma of cardamom and cinnamon to the entire neighborhood. We could have walked there for hours, but the day was short.
As we strolled beside a garden at the end of the palace, we heard what we thought was a Salvation Army Band, but it turned out to be a bass drum, several trumpets and a couple of saxophones playing in a bride’s wedding parade. The musicians were followed by the beautiful young bride-to-be riding in a cart that was so completely covered with dazzling flowers that I don’t even know what propelled the cart. Behind the cart came a group of maybe a hundred smiling and laughing women wearing the most brilliantly colored collection of saris that we saw during our stay in India. A moment after they passed us, the parade ended and the women in their glorious saris dispersed into the surrounding crowd like a fireworks display. You have to be REAL fast to photograph an event like that, all of which lasted less than a minute.
The Udaipur Folk Museum is a major center for puppetry. When we arrived no performances were scheduled, but we and a few other visitors were invited into the theatre to see a brief rehearsal by master puppeteers. Afterwards we went backstage for a demonstration of how such lifelike movements are produced with only six strings on each puppet. The museum's ethnological collection is quite good, especially for Rajasthani tribal groups, but the exhibits are sadly in need of refurbishing and would benefit greatly from a year’s attention by an anthropology graduate student.
The monsoon has bypassed Rajasthan for several years, so lake levels were very low. While this detracts from the full effect of palaces reflected in the water and has resulted in a decline in tourism, the low water levels gave us glimpses of more mundane aspects of daily life. Along the dry edge of one lake we could see large pits where clay had been excavated from the bottom to make bricks. Dhobis continued to wash clothes, fishermen continued to catch their food and a few people bathed on the ghats.
Ranakpur About sixty miles north of Udaipur is the tiny village of Ranakpur sitting in a narrow valley beside a river, so small you wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking for it. The only thing of interest there is Chaumukha Temple, a Jain temple built in 1439, and one of the most beautiful temples in all of India.Jainism is one of several Indian religions derived from Hinduism, and is especially well known for its emphasis on ahimsa, an extreme form of nonviolence that leads their priests to wear masks and sweep before them as they walk, both intended to prevent their killing even tiny insects. But the concept of ahimsa also was the basis for Gandhi’s nonviolent protests that did so much to drive the British out of India, and later served as the basis for the nonviolent element in Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement.
As Indian temples go, Chaumukha Temple is not especially large – a square maybe 200 feet on a side - and is made of white marble. The outer surface consists of a series of semi-cylindrical towers standing like soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, facing in to the center of the temple. Their outer surfaces are not especially ornate, and from the outside the building is pleasant to look at but not remarkable.
As you climb up the steps to the only entrance, you pass through a kind of ascending tunnel and emerge inside the temple facing the central altar. From that point on, there is no doubt that you’re inside a work of art that has few equals anywhere.
Chaumukha is as unlike a South Indian temple as anything you can imagine. When we visited Hindu temples in South India, their gopurams or towers were painted joyfully, but the atmosphere inside often was oppressive, reeking of incense and burning ghee (clarified butter), perhaps not actually dirty but feeling as though dirt had coated every surface for aeons, claustrophobic, often filled with black statues of the gods, unbearably dark and heavy in every sense.
The operative word at Chaumukha is light – light and airy, delicate, floating, spotlessly clean, white, gently illuminated by filtered sunlight. The interior contains the central altar area surrounded by 29 halls lined with small niches containing serene marble statues. The superstructure above the alter and the halls rests on 1444 marble pillars, a multitude of delicate legs supporting a gleaming spaceship eternally ready to be launched from within the walls. Many of the pillars are intricately carved with all manner of figures, so densely covered with intertwined plants and animals and people that no space is unfilled. Other pillars are essentially plain, with only sparse and simple carving. They work together in an amazing way. The heavily decorated ones are so intensely busy that they are almost exhausting to look at, while the plain ones offer a place to let your eyes and mind pause for a while, like a rest in a musical composition.
Visitors walked here and there, men and women sat admiring the sculpture and chatting softly with each other and the monks. At the central alter, a monk rang a large bell now and then, and small bells high on the surrounding towers seemed to answer. Chaumukha was an unexpectedly pleasant olfactory experience too, starting with offering plates heaped with fragrant rose petals, then the subtle odor of ground sandlewood used to paint holy carvings, and climaxing in spicy, flowery incense near the main altar. Sound, sight and scent all seemed to coalesce.
I sat down on the floor to absorb the ambience and almost instantly fell sleep. The very idea of falling sleep in an oppressive South Indian temple is ludicrous, but Chaumukha Temple was one of the most relaxing places I have ever been, an ideal vehicle in which to drift silently toward another galaxy or another universe.
We visited Chaumukha on the day the earthquake devastated Gujarat. Thank God it did no damage to that amazing temple.
As one of our last acts before leaving Udaipur, we went to the Rajasthali Government Craft Emporium and bought a fabric to hang on our dining room wall in Fujairah, and in some future year to hang in the stairwell of our home in Franconia. Traditionally Rajasthani tribal women near the western city of Barmer made brilliant red and black clothes that were decorated with many small fragments of mirrors, like the tiny mirrors that decorate the walls of the palaces. Since international tourism was introduced in the region following World War II, the clothing craft has been modified somewhat to appeal to visitors who wouldn’t know what to do with a skirt or blouse made in that style. Using the same materials and techniques, the women produce rectangular tapestries, typically 4x6 feet or thereabouts, too fragile to serve as carpets but ideal as decorative wall hangings. The one we bought is in subdued shades of gold and black, and the patchwork design is suggestive of some Oriental carpets. But the tiny mirrors gleam like jewels and make this tapestry unique in our fabric collection.
Jaisalmer Close up against the western border of Rajasthan stands the ancient fortified city of Jaisalmer, surrounded forever by the sands of the Thar Desert, surrounded only temporarily we hope by the Indian Army and Air Force in their half-century standoff with their neighbors in Pakistan.
We were struck first by the modern military presence. Our Indian Airlines flight landed on a runway at the air force base and taxied between bunkers, hangers, fighter planes and mobile weapons to get to the two-room building that served as the passenger terminal. As we got off the plane, the outbound passengers stood by to board, and the plane was out of there before we knew it. It’s a pretty rough neighborhood, and they don’t let passenger planes sit there for a second longer than is absolutely necessary.
Since we have lived and worked in deserts in Central Australia, the Middle East, the American Southwest, and Alaska’s North Slope (a cold desert), we felt that we had to take a comparative look at India’s Thar Desert. We hired a jeep and driver for a day to take a ride in the desert and visit some villages occupied by some of the “little people” upon whose backs the Rajputs built their great civilization.
The desert itself through which we drove east and south of Jaisalmer was nondescript – gently rolling, no mountains, no sand dunes, no dry riverbeds, sparse vegetation, bleak, dull. Guidebooks say visitors should see a great dune field at Sam, about forty miles west of Jaisalmer, but having lived for years on the edge of the Empty Quarter, we decided to skip something that was likely to be an anticlimax.
Of the three villages the driver took us to, one was a tourist destination catering to visitors who do multi-day camel treks into the desert. The last time I rode a camel, my backside was in serious pain for a week, so camel trekking was out of the question. The village consisted of tumbledown mud huts with thatched roofs and a few attractive wall paintings in a style vaguely similar to palace art, some scruffy trees and a man who immediately attached himself to us as a guide we didn’t want.
The second village was much more interesting and attractive, well outside the visitor’s circuit and much more of a living village than a moribund tourist spot. It was built on a small but complex knob of land that no doubt provided good drainage during rare rains. The thatched mud huts were grander and each was part of a free-standing residential compound surrounded by mud walls, there were mud barns and some very handsome cattle, and all of the walls were coated with smooth mud plaster and beautifully decorated with paintings in the Rajput palace style. Most of the people ignored us, but those who noticed us were friendly and welcoming. Much better than the first village. We should have stopped there.
The third village belonged to members of the Kalbeliya Tribe who are related to the Gypsies. In the past I’ve been rather fond of Gypsies and their music, but I’m reconsidering now. This village was well away from the tourist route too, out in rocky scrub country. The huts were in terrible shape, suggesting a forgotten refugee camp. As soon as the driver stopped the jeep, about twenty children and young women popped out of the huts and ran straight toward us. When they reached the jeep, they attacked like The Birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous horror movie, swooping in to grab at us, rip the water bottles out of the jeep and demand money. We left immediately, quite shaken. This was our only really unpleasant encounter with anybody in Rajasthan. The Rajputs may have been onto something when they trampled those vicious savages.
We stayed at the Rawal Kot Hotel, a new property built on a gentle rise of land about two miles east of Jaisalmer Fort. It is a low structure with only thirty rooms arranged along the east side of a cloistered courtyard. The west side of the courtyard is open and faces the fort across an expanse of empty desert. As you have breakfast beside a window in the dining room, you can watch the rising sun flash directly onto the yellow sandstone walls of the fort, a spotlight that suddenly reveals the ancient fort where nothing existed a moment earlier. During lunch in the courtyard, the vertical rays of sunlight reveal fewer of the fort’s secrets, and you would be forgiven if you thought Jaisalmer were a mesa in the American southwest, an isolated rock sentinel lying at the end of a long ridge that juts out into the flat desert. At dinner, the sun slowly settles into the sand and silhouettes the fort against the pink or violet sky or a few clouds here and there, then winks out as the stars appear. I highly recommend the Rawal Kot Hotel.
Upon first entering the fort, I reacted with disgust and disappointment. Ascending the ramp to the central courtyard, I instantly knew the place was nothing more than an incredible jumble of rocks, with 40,000 people crawling in and out of every crack and crevice and tourist junk hanging on every surface. Why would guide books say wonderful things about such a dismal waste of time? I was ready to go somewhere else, but since Jaisalmer was the final stop on our trip there was nowhere else to go.
In four days of exploring the fort and the ancient caravan city that surrounds it, I completely changed my opinion of the place. In those four days I learned to see it properly, and what I saw was utterly different from my first impression.
The fort itself is quite small, vaguely triangular, no more than a thousand feet on each side. You could paste it to the outer wall of Jaigarh Fort and nobody would notice it. From the hotel it looks large but there is nothing to provide a scale of comparison from far away.
The main gate is massive and the ramp leading upwards is paved with huge stones to carry the elephants that once worked there. Once you’re inside, the buildings and passageways form a convoluted maze with each path seeming to lead past ancient structures now functioning as apartment buildings, to the top of the outer wall overlooking the old city below and the flat desert reaching to Pakistan. There is none of the internal order that we saw at other forts and palaces, and many of the individual buildings are so big that you really can’t appreciate their appearance for you can’t get far enough back from them to see more than a few huge building blocks, maybe a doorway, and some windows covered by delicately carved sandstone privacy screens reminiscent of the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur. To see these features through the tourist junk was not easy, but with practice the junk gradually became invisible and the ancient architecture emerged.
As we wandered aimlessly in the fort late one afternoon, we heard another band playing. Knowing by then what to expect, we went up a narrow winding lane in search of the wedding party. This time we found the groom’s house where preparations were afoot to send him off to his new bride’s house for what may have been their first meeting.
To stage a Rajasthani wedding, you begin by renting things: a huge tent where the wedding and reception will be held, colossal pots and pans to cook all of the food, man-sized fluorescent lights that stand upright and cast a blinding glare but nonetheless illuminate everything in the neighborhood, a dozen or so royal turbans for important men to wear, a horse for the groom to ride to his bride’s house, maybe a couple of elephants to stand by the entrance and greet the guests. Then you paint the houses and add traditional wedding designs to the clean walls. And you invite hundreds of people even if you’re poor and know the event will destroy you financially, because being poor is less of a problem than losing face.
The band played on and all the little boys in the wedding party danced vigorously if somewhat arrhythmically in the street. A few men and lots of women and girls popped in and out of the house doing stuff that we couldn’t see. Men stood in corners here and there winding turbans around their heads, and a group of men arrived carrying large platters of food and gifts for the bride.
The gaily decorated horse stood in a corner looking bored, for he probably had done the same job every afternoon for weeks. After about an hour, the groom appeared and the horse was positioned near the stairs so the rider could mount easily. Good thing too, for the groom looked so dazed that he needed all the help he could get. When he was very precariously perched on the saddle, somebody put a rented crown on his head and his relatives frantically waved money over him to assure his financial success. Then they led him off toward his bride’s house, more like a sacrificial goat than a proud new husband. I’ll bet he doesn’t even remember that afternoon.
There is a Jain temple inside Jaisalmer Fort, but in keeping with our policy of sampling rather than overdosing, we decided to skip it for it couldn’t possibly be more beautiful than the one at Ranakpur.
The old city that surrounds the base of the fort once was encircled by a wall that protected the people who did not live inside the fort, and provided an extra line of defense around the fort itself. Most of the really magnificent architecture in Jaisalmer is in the old city, not in the fort, and it took us a while to figure that out. In fact, much of the old city can be viewed as a single integrated work of art built not by royalty but rather by merchants who made their fortunes from the camel caravan trade that converged on the city for a thousand years.
It was and still is traditional for wealthy Rajasthani merchants to build mansions called haveli (ha-VEL-i). In the Shekawati District, about a hundred miles north of Jaipur, a large collection of these havelis are among India’s major cultural treasures, but we didn’t have time to visit Shekawati. Likewise, we didn’t visit any havelis in Jaipur or Udaipur as we were “saving ourselves” for those in Jaisalmer. That was a good decision, for the ones there are among the finest.
It appears that much of the old city once was filled with havelis. Only three are open to the public now, and we went into two of them. Salim Singh’s Haveli is on one of the broader streets in the old city. It was built about three centuries ago and still is partially occupied by the family who owns it. At ground level the haveli looks a lot like the neighboring stone buildings, but as you look higher, you realize that the windows and walkways on the upper floors are embellished with intricately carved honeycombs of yellow sandstone, vast expanses of delicate privacy screens that make the Hawa Mahal look like a heavy handed imitation of the real thing. Climbing up the stairs to each succeeding level, you look out through the screens to see the world as it must have looked to 18 th century Rajasthani women. Bastions holding up the massive walls of the fort are right above the haveli, and life on the city streets far below filters up softly. Adjacent to Salim Singh’s Haveli are the rooftops of other homes that were not quite as high or as grand as Salim Singh’s, but nonetheless must have constituted a pretty posh neighborhood back in the early days.
Patwon’s Haveli is another tall building, but it is on a narrow lane and is surrounded by other equally tall buildings. It too has glorious privacy screens and beautifully decorated apartments, and its interior is said to be the most elaborate and magnificent in the city. But in my opinion the most memorable views here are from the front of the building. As you enter the lane, the haveli is on your left and other tall buildings are on both sides of the lane and both sides of the haveli. The lane itself is in perpetual shade except for perhaps a brief moment at noon, for all of the buildings seem to be wider at the top than at the bottom, and several stories up they almost meet over the lane, imitating trees in a land where trees are rare. From high in the mansion, you can look down into the lane with the haveli and adjacent buildings serving as an exquisite frame for your view. We paused there for a while to absorb the silent world below where a few old men sat in an adjacent courtyard and a cow meandered along hoping somebody would give her a bite to eat.
The outer wall of the fort is truly spectacular late in the day as you stand beside it and watch its color gradually change from beige to yellow to gold to red-orange, then blink off when the sun sets. Since people still live in the fort, you see them sitting in their windows watching the sun go down, or bringing in the carpets they hung out to freshen. On the road at the base of the wall, busses load up for the long, cold night ride across the desert to Jodhpur or maybe New Delhi. Men in colorful turbans trudge home after a long day’s work, unaware that anybody would think they are exotic. And children play in the dusk, waiting for dinner or bedtime or their favorite TV programs like children almost everywhere.
Learning to see Jaisalmer might serve as a metaphor for learning to see all of India. When you first arrive, you’re overwhelmed by crowds, chaos, poverty, disease, odors, cow dung, smog, and an infinitely long list of other ills. If you focus on them they can dominate and ruin your visit; if you learn to see through or past them, they recede and become distractions, while India’s true jewels assume their rightful place in the crown of the universe.
Perhaps it is callous to think of India’s countless problems as distractions for Western visitors, but there is nothing you can do to solve the problems yourself, and your visit as a satisfied tourist can go a long way toward supporting activities that have long term benefits for everyone there. Consider the lakes in Udaipur that are absolutely clean because tourists would be repelled by the filthy water that characterizes many waterways elsewhere in the country. If our having lunch at the Lake Palace Hotel can contribute to keeping Lake Pichola clean, then we’ve helped India more than we could ever help by giving rupees to beggars.
Outward Bound Going home was supposed to be a non-event, but non-events are hard to come by in India. The trip enabled us to make some connections we couldn’t have made "on the ground".
Our Indian Airlines Boeing 737 began its workday every morning in Calcutta. Then it stopped for passengers in Varanasi and Lucknow before pausing for lunch in New Delhi. With a new load of passengers, it then journeyed on to Jaipur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer. That’s all the way across India in six stops by about 4pm if all goes well. Then it turned around and headed home, stopping at each of those cities again before landing back in Calcutta. Each morning in the moments before dawn, the ground crew hastily cleaned and refueled it, and at sunrise it began another day’s journey to the ancient caravan city of Jaisalmer.
Such a schedule does not accommodate anything as trivial as a flat tire, to say nothing of a totally disruptive New Delhi fog that doesn’t lift until 10 am. So we weren’t surprised when our 4:30 departure from Jaisalmer was delayed first by an hour, then by two, and eventually by four. But it took the security folks at the airport all that time to twice inspect each and every item that was destined to go on the airplane with each and every one of the 63 passengers. Every potential hazard was detected. I had trouble with my spare camera battery, while Nancy will remain forever chagrined by the problems caused by her underwire bra. Passengers were feeling mellow after spending time at Jaisalmer, so what could have turned into a nasty riot in Los Angeles was just a peculiar interlude while tucked down behind the sand dunes and combat aircraft at the blacked-out Jaisalmer Air Force Base.
We lifted off and banked sharply as we headed for Udaipur. Jaisalmer Fort was aglow off the wingtip like a dimly lit island, utterly alone, adrift in the black night and the sand of the Thar as it has been for millennia.
As we approached Udaipur, I began to see scattered patches of lights from villages in the Aravalli Hills. Our short stop at Udaipur lengthened to an hour and then to ninety minutes. Passengers were asked to vacate the aisle seats whose backs were flipped down just as an ambulance stopped at the bottom of the ramp. A Rajput with tubes coming out of his nose and mouth and both arms was brought aboard on a stretcher. Commandeering the aircraft to evacuate him to a hospital in New Delhi was a small reminder that vestiges of the princely states linger on.
The airport at Jaipur is south of the city near Sanganer, and on departure we could see the great sprawling metropolis spread out around the mountain behind the cenotaphs. The mountain is very steep and has no lights on it, so in the dark night the city lights outlined it as if it were a lake.
As we flew on to New Delhi, all of the land below glowed softly. My Air Navigation Chart for the area says it well: "continuous habitation". The villages and towns and cities merged with each other under a thin blanket of fog. Lights along the Jaipur to Delhi highway stood out from the background glow, and the plane seemed to follow that highway until it began its descent into Indira Gandhi International Airport. In the cold winter air of 3 am, we were besieged by touts and taxi drivers, reminding us that the cities of Rajasthan were only small towns in comparison with urban Delhi.
Clouds came in as we transferred from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, so we saw nothing more below us until we approached the east coast of the United Arab Emirates just south of Fujairah. In an earlier letter I said that Fujairah is the bunkering port for most of the oil tankers, military ships and other vessels that enter and leave the Arabian Gulf, and can refuel and resupply as many as five hundred ships at a time. While we always can see a few ships on the horizon from shore, the nighttime aerial view made us appreciate the magnitude of the operation. The ships were arranged in a regular grid covering perhaps a hundred square miles, each ship or cluster of ships clearly illuminated against the black of the Indian Ocean.
In contrast to the soft lights of India, we saw Fujairah and the incredible living highway map of the Emirates, where petroleum wealth results in brilliant illumination of every street and highway in the entire country. From 35,000 feet as we began our descent into Dubai, we saw exactly where our apartment building was in downtown Fujairah. On our right, we followed the highway lights through the mountains to the open desert between the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. On our left almost a hundred miles away, we saw the city lights of Al- Ain in the deep desert oasis where we used to live.
As the Airbus parked on the ramp near Dubai’s spectacular new Sheikh Rashid International Terminal, we returned to a land that is trying to do what the Rajputs did - in another way, in a new age, with a radically different technology, but with the same mindset. We wonder what tourists of the future will see. The Rajputs are a tough act to follow.
Homework The literature on Rajasthan is vast now, and the following is just a personal selection of works that helped us expand our horizons.
Paul Scott's Raj Quartet gave rise to the PBS film series entitled Jewel in the Crown, much of which was filmed in Udaipur.
A Princess Remembers is by the Maharani of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi. Now 82 years old, her account covers her life at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace where she has lived since the 1940s. Like the next book, this one bridges the era from the princely states to post-independence economic reality.
Pearl Buck's Mandala: A Novel of India is set at the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur and provides a romantic but nonetheless reasonably faithful view of this living fairytale palace in transition from a private property to a world renowned hotel.
Royina Grewal'sIn Rajasthan, published recently by Lonely Planet, provides an Indian feminist’s close-up view of life and travel in Rajasthan.
Washington Post correspondent Elizabeth Bumiller's May You Be the Mother of One Hundred Sons provides an update on issues of honor and shame and how they manifest themselves in the lives of Indian women today.
James Tod's (1832) classic study of the Rajputs entitled Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan is based on an exhaustive study of ancient written sources and several years of fieldwork in Rajputana before the British arrived in force. It’s available in India as a 1200 page, two-volume paperback. If you can’t buy it in the USA, you probably can find it on an Indian web site, and it's just the sort of thing you might find - pages still uncut - hidden in the stacks of Baker Library at Dartmouth.
Robyn Davidson, well known for her solo journey across Australia, crossed the Thar Desert by camel on the Rabari tribe's annual migration. Her book Desert Places (a play on Robert Frost’s poem of that name) has much to recommend it, but especially its description of traversing the Rann of Kutch, the epicenter of the Gujarat earthquake.
Salman Rushdie’s Shame is a masterful if bizarre novel set in Pakistan that takes you deeper into the honor and shame culture than you may want to go. As an “advanced” study in the subject, it is not a good place to start. Read some of the others first; it will make more sense later.
Excellent and fundamentally different travel guides include: Lonely Planet – Rajasthan and Everyman Guides – Rajasthan.
Travel dates: 17 January through 2 February 2001
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