Journey into the kaleidoscope of sights, smells, sounds, and flavors of Rajasthan! A wonderful piece of travel writing from my dear friend Lova.
Text by Lova Blåvarg Photography by Susanna Blåvarg
I have never traveled through a desert before, and the Thar in India’s northwestern province of Rajasthan is nothing like I had imagined. I expected it
to be dry, dead, and lifeless, but, as we drive from the airport, the landscape near Jaisalmer explodes
in life and colors. Violet flowers grow tall as trees and windmills decorate the horizon like giant flowers. Once, we have to stop to let a camel and her babies cross the street. Wispy mint-green trees line our path and gaunt cows, goats, and boars walk
on the road among men dressed in white tunics and turbans and women dressed in saris in every possible color. A young couple on a motorcycle whisks by, and the woman’s sheer bright yellow sari billows in the wind like an overgrown brimstone butterfly.
Later I learn that turbans are both ornamental and practical wear in the Thar desert. You can tell a person’s hometown by the color of his turban. Crafters often wear pink turbans and people in mourning wear white turbans. A turban also keeps the wearer’s head cool, and, when unfurled, it becomes a 10-yard-long piece of fabric that can be useful for obtaining water in the desert.
Our first stop is Damodra Desert Camp, where we will stay in tents. Damodra’s proprietor, Prithvi Singh, welcomes us and shows us around. He opened the
business eight years ago, after traveling around the desert with his friends to find the ideal spot for camping. Protecting and aiding the community
is just as crucial as taking care of the guests for Prithvi. He employs locals from his village, and every morning he feeds the peacocks that walk
freely around the area. He has no desire to expand the camp to render it more profitable; he wants to give the guests an intimate experience
where they feel close to nature.
We soon realize why. After the sun sets and a bright moon rises, paneer, aloo gobi, dal, and freshly baked chapati are served on a central terrace with a handful of low tables and mattresses where the guests can lounge. The evening is lit by lanterns hanging from an old withered tree and a brilliant canopy of stars above. After watching the stars dance in quiet darkness, we head to bed. The tents are as comfortable as can be, with sturdy beds, a bathroom, and air conditioning, but there’s still something special about sleeping with only a thin wall of fabric separating us from the surrounding nature. There’s a rustle of leaves and the gentle tapping of tiny bird’s feet on the roof of our tent. I’m not sure if it’s the peaceful surroundings or if I’m just exhausted from a long day of traveling, but I soon fall into a deep, restful sleep.
The next day we make our way to the first of three colored cities of Rajasthan we will visit on our trip. The “Golden City” of Jaisalmer towers over the flat desert, but the buildings carved out of golden sandstone melt seamlessly into the surrounding landscape, glowing like another enormous sand dune in the light from the setting sun. Jaisalmer is a former medieval market town centered around a sprawling fort on a hill where a quarter of the city’s population still lives. According to legend, the fort’s softly twisting and coiling walls were modeled to mimic a dress fluttering with buoyant movement in honor of the Rajput’s wife.
We walk the serpentine path leading up the hill to the fort. The only entry is guarded by four impressive consecutive gates. Occasionally during a siege, elephants were watered with alcohol or opium to turn them wild and violent, but the twisting paths ensured that elephants couldn’t gain enough speed to charge forth and break the gates. The gate is an intimidating guard against enemies, but it is also embossed with a gentler message: carvings depicting flying pairs of birds, symbolizing young married couples leaving the nest.
The intricately carved sandstone reminds me of the beautifully crumbling university buildings of Oxford, but upon closer inspection, the patterns here are more reminiscent of honey golden filigree. In certain places, the carving is so delicate I cannot comprehend the buildings are made out of stone and not gossamer lace, throwing playful patterns of light and shadow on the walls and floors when the sun shines through. Jalis, or pierced screens, are often carved out of one single slab of sandstone.
The stone carvings combine symbolism from several cultures, the crescent moon is a Mughal symbol, and the lotus flower and peacock are Hindu symbols of welcome. In the small city of Jaisalmer and the surrounding villages live Hindus, Muslims, Jains, and wandering peoples who all have their own cultures, customs, handicrafts, and places of worship in the city.
Walking through Jaisalmer, you sometimes see buildings with stone carvings that look untouched by time and weather. Although the style has remained the same for hundreds of years, these buildings are in fact entirely new. Building a house with exquisite stone carvings is still a status symbol in the city, the stone is still sourced locally, and the carvings are done by hand in workshops in the nearby villages. Historically, a haveli—an important mansion or town house—in Jaisalmer was often built as a palace of the wind, where the architecture allowed for air to flow through, making the palace into a cool oasis in the middle of the city during the hot months.
In the late afternoon, we head off to the sand dunes to watch the sunset over the desert. The yellow sand lit by the sun contrasts graphically against the sharp, fluid, blue shadows until the sun sets, turning the landscape a smoky gray and the sky a smoky pink. We sit down to watch the sunset on the soft, speckled sand. Children are sand-boarding nearby, sliding down the dunes on a piece of cardboard. It reminds me of the downhill snow sledding I did as a child in Sweden and suddenly I don’t feel so far away from home anymore.
The golden city of Jaisalmer and the surrounding desert feels like a landscape from a dream or a fairy tale, an impossible place, but as we talk to locals we also learn about some of the real issues they are facing. As we drive, I notice a sign written in both Hindi and English which proclaims, “Keep the desert clean and unpolluted.” Prithvi tells us that the local people are disappointed that the government has sold land near Jaisalmer to private investors to set up windmills. They are noisy, disruptive, and earn the private investors millions while many of the locals still live without electricity. Prithvi is also disappointed that tradition still dictates that only boys are sent to school. He tries to be an influence on his community by sending his own daughter to school, and now several of the families from his village has followed his example.
Jodhpur, “The Blue City” of Rajasthan, is a larger city than Jaisalmer and this is instantly apparent as we drive through the busy streets. High above the city towers is another fort, the Mehrangarh, one of the largest in all of India and the filming site of many Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters, like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” But films and photos could never do Mehrangarh justice. The fort is out of any conceivable proportions, unbelievable and humbling. The city below is rich in expressions, sights, smells, and sounds. A rotting peach is crushed under a tuk-tuk wheel; candy wrappers and flower petals dance like confetti in the breeze. The air smells of spices, jasmine, incense, and freshly baked bread. Sounds of prayer calls from the local mosque, birdsong, honking, and people in the markets announcing their wares surround us. But my biggest impression is of the characteristic blue buildings that range from light turquoise to violet-blue, with pale chalky tones in between. The suffix "pur" in Jodhpur means a settlement near a lake and, at a distance, Jodhpur truly looks like a pool of bluest water in the midst of the golden desert.
Our hotel, Raas, feels like an idyllic oasis in the midst of all the tantalizing but exhausting mayhem of the city. Raas is Jodhpur’s first boutique hotel with contemporary additions to a traditional 18th-century haveli. The rooms, an array of ancient converted buildings and modern supplements, surround a garden of white blossoms and clementines, arches surviving from the palace stables, a pool reflecting the tranquil sky above, and a terrace restaurant with a spectacular view of the Mehrangarh Fort as it lights up around sunset.
In the marketplace, we meet Vicky who owns a textile shop selling all types of fabrics, blankets, and scarves. Like everyone we’ve met on our trip, he is incredibly friendly, and he shows us how to tell the difference between real hand-woven fabrics and the cheap factory-made copies commonly sold to tourists. He also recommends we take a cooking class in Jodhpur. We agree that learning to reproduce some of the delicious food we’ve eaten here will be a lovely way to remember the trip. We end up taking a course offered by Vicky’s wife Aastha in their home in the outskirts of Jodhpur.
Aastha meets us on her motorcycle to guide us to her house where she lives with her husband, parents-in-law and four-year-old son. Aastha shows us how to make chapati, naan, fried rice, curries with pumpkin, cauliflower, potato, paneer, and spinach, and an absolutely heavenly mango lassi, a refreshing yogurt drink originating from this part of India. Aastha’s everyday spice collection contains cinnamon, coriander, chili, mustard, masala curry, mango powder, turmeric, cloves, cardamom, pepper, and plenty of freshly grated ginger and garlic, and most of these spices go into all of her dishes. She makes powdered spices herself by buying or growing her own fresh produce, roasting it in the sun, and grinding it. Aastha explains that she makes her own spices to ensure they have the best possible, undiluted quality. This must make all the difference because Aastha’s homemade dishes are by far the best food we have on our trip.
In the market, I also take a free class in traditional Rajasthani miniature painting, an art form brought to India by the Mughals from Persia. The paintings are usually tiny, with bold colors illustrating flowers, elephants, camels, royal portraits, court scenes, and hunting expeditions, often in such exquisite detail that individual hairs are distinguishable. Traditionally, the colors are made from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, and sometimes even pure silver and gold. Making and mixing pigments is an elaborate process that can take weeks or even months, and the paintings are created with very fine brushes, sometimes with only three or four hairs per brush. Each Rajput kingdom had its own individual painting school and style, and these techniques are still taught at painting schools across Rajasthan.
On the journey from Jodhpur, the desert landscape shifts into deep valleys and hills covered in ancient mythical woods. The dry heat paints the April woods
in warm autumn colors. Some trees are leafless as if they had been scorched by the heat and some bear little orbicular leaves that glow in the sun
like golden coins. Orange and pink flowers grow among the willows and, while we drive the twisting roads, our car is suddenly attacked by a group of
gray monkeys, many of them mothers carrying
their babies while they knock on our windows. The presence of trees and water suggest that we are now traveling out of the desert.
“A beloved child has many names” is a Swedish proverb, and if Udaipur was a child it would be very loved indeed. Udaipur is known as the city of lakes, as the most romantic city in India, and it is the “White City” of the land of colors. Udaipur is separated from the Thar desert by the Aravali Mountain Range and is, therefore, more lush and green than the other cities we visit. Udaipur is also the set of many Hollywood blockbusters, among others “James Bond: Octopussy,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” ”Gandhi,” and ”The Fall.” Unlike Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, which are dominated by one large central fort, Udaipur is home to a plethora of palaces, forts, museums, temples, and gardens facing the lakes so the reflecting light from lanterns dance on the deep black waters at night.
We stay at cozy Madri Haveli in the bustling city center. The streets are too narrow for cars in some parts of the city, and so we walk the last couple of hundred meters to the hotel. The walk is worth it when we arrive at the rooftop restaurant, where we discover a splendid view of the city and its lakes and palaces.
But we are told that the best way to see all the palaces is to take a boat tour. The lake is mirror-like and still, and the buildings look like they are submerged in water with ghats—steps leading directly down into the lake, creating the impression that the lakes are as much a part of the city as the streets. And although the palaces are large and made of stone, they look like they are floating lightly on the lake. The strong sunlight bounces on the water and casts dancing sun reflections on the facades. We pass under trees leaning out over the lake and see an elderly woman washing her tired feet in the water. Fuchsia-colored flowers spill into the lake from one of the hotel gardens and white curtains billow out of open windows. Countless terraces and balconies face the lake, and, as the sun starts to set, they are filled with people eating dinner and admiring the view.
If there is one palace worth seeing up close, it is the City Palace, which is actually a collection of 11 different palaces: the Ruby Palace, the Pearl Palace, the Palace of Mirrors, and the Palace of Joy, among others. The first palace was built in 1553 by Maharana Udai Singh II, with many additions by subsequent kings. Although the exterior may not be as impressive as the Mehrangarh in Jodhpur, it features some truly gorgeous interiors. On a tour of the palace, I pass by delicate stained glass windows, hidden gardens, walls decorated with gold and mirrors, and hand-painted blue and white floral tiles.
Rajasthan is dreamlike and otherworldly, not just pretty like many places I’ve traveled. But it is a real place bursting with diversity, culture, and well-preserved history. Historically, and still to this day, the people of Rajasthan put loving care and attention to detail into everything they make and create. I am incredibly impressed by the complexity and finesse in painting, handicrafts, stone carving, architecture, and cooking. The rich library of spices, colors, and symbols creates a space where each little village and town can express their own particular culture through little changes to details, while still being a part of a large vibrant culture. The dramatic views, the heat, the smells, the sounds, the lovely conversations, the warm and welcoming people, and this rainbow of plurality stays with me as I bid farewell to the land of colors.
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