I don’t know what I thought I’d find in Jodhpur. I’d always liked the sound of it in a aj sort of way before I knew what the Raj actually meant for India. The names Jodhpur and Jaipur conjured up scenes of athletic pukka civil servants and military types playing polo and enjoying G and T’s afterwards at the club with their memsahibs, gently wafted by punkah wallahs in the simmering Rajasthani heat.
In fact what I did find was more like something out of A Thousand and One Nights. A fairytale palace and fort of breathtaking splendour adorning a rocky outcrop beneath which basked a faded blue jumble of gloriously noble old houses, warehouses, temples and shops. Everywhere we turned there was another fascinating building or scene to take in and savour.
We’d booked in at Durag Niwas Guest House, http://www.durag-niwas.com/ which was outside the old city, at the end of a quiet leafy cul de sac next to a school playing field. It turned out to be a great choice! Only five minutes in an auto into the old city and a welcome relief to escape from the bustle of the old city streets at the end of the day. The whole building was a delight to be in if you appreciate art and antiques and local historic artifacts. The owner obviously did and had decorated all the walls and everything in sight with locally sourced items to hold your interest and inform you about where you were. The rooms were light and airy and almost big enough to be described as a suite, with a sofa, armchairs, coffee table and tea and coffee making facilities as well as a huge bed, the usual bedroom accoutrements and the well appointed en suite bathroom.
My room had a small balcony overlooking the green of the trees in the street and those surrounding the playing field next door. It had a sense of calm and tranquility about it that was very soothing, with all the soft furnishings being artisan-made and gentle on the eye.
We were welcomed into the reception office and given teas and biscuits as soon as we arrived to keep us going through the labyrinthine registration process of checking in that goes on at all hotels in India. Not quite in the ‘fathers name’ category, but almost. A most efficient and helpful receptionist gave us city maps, recommended a self guided walk around the old city, and recommended places to get a sunset drink and food that evening.
After a welcome detour to a glorious and inexpensive fabric store, Anokhi and Fabindia, all within walking distance of the guesthouse, we found ourselves in the central Sadar market square of old Jodhpur , ringed around with open fronted shops of all descriptions. Colourful goods spilled out onto the pavements and a ubiqitous solitary cow settled, ruminating in the middle of the road in front of the colonial era clock tower . With the outline of the glorious Mehrangarh Fort on it’s stony pedestal behind the square and picked out against the setting sun, the whole picture created a romantic and unforgettable scene.
Our recommended rooftop restaurant had an even more breathtaking view of the fort and overlooked the Gulab Sagar Talab lake, glittering with reflections from surrounding lights and a hovering moon. It also served a very acceptable chilled beer, a welcome appetiser to a delicious moonlit dinner overlooking old Jodhpur.
We stumbled upon a marvellous initiative the next morning, after an excellent breakfast, as we were leaving our guesthouse for the Fort. In 2007 our host at Durag Niwas, Govind Singh Rathore, whose Rajput family originates in the nearby Thar desert, set up a charitable trust to teach and empower underprivileged women and children from their native area. The Trust headquarters, graduate sewing centre and boutique for the Sambhali Trust are all situated next door to Durag Niwas and proved to be an enlightening and delightful detour before our day’s adventures started.
We were invited upstairs to meet a group of smiling welcoming ladies engaged in sewing of different kinds. Some embroidering on frames, some at the sewing machines, making up clothing, cushion covers, bags and accessories and others, making and beading small stuffed animal toys for children. All glowing in flower petal pink saris and tops they showed us the skills they’d been taught at the trust that would enable them to lead dignified independent lives, on top of the English, Hindi, Maths and Sociological studies that they learn as well. All their products are sold downstairs in the Trust’s boutique and at a shop in the city centre. I spotted a banana bag in the boutique that I loved, but there wasn’t one in the indigo shibori dyed fabric I’d seen in the studio upstairs. I asked if it was possible to make me one in the fabric I’d seen and the next morning it was ready to collect before we left to take the train to Ahmedabad. It became my do-it-all bag for the next six weeks!
One of their volunteers was in the process of cutting out a pattern for a new design for a top she had devised for the Trust. She was a fashion and textiles graduate from Paris, giving her skills for free for a month while travelling in India. She seemed to be enjoying learning from the women as well as giving them some of her learning. If you’d like to know more about the Sambhali Trust here’s a link to their website, https://www.sambhali-trust.org/
Now our day was back on track as we regretfully left the lovely Sambhali ladies to grab an auto rickshaw to take us the short journey up to the redoubtable fortress that dominates Jodhpur, the Mehrangarh Fort. There must be a million reviews covering this staggering, jaw-dropping palace cum fort, so I will spend very little time in trying to describe it! Just one thing needs to be said and that is that it’s not to be missed on any account if you journey to Jodhpur. For starters, it blows the Amber Fort in Jaipur straight out of the water as far as magnificence goes. It’s ornate, romantic architecture and interiors are straight out of a film set for an Indian version of The King and I!
For me, apart from the magnificence it was the small things that appealed to me as well. The terracotta plaque at the innermost of the seven entry gates to the fort, embedded with the handprints, or ‘sati marks’, of the fifteen wives of Maharaja Man Singh, who committed sati, or self sacrifice, by sitting or jumping onto the funeral pyre of their husband, in a Hindu ritual of devotion that was all too common historically in Rajasthan and other parts of India in the past. Sati was outlawed throughout in India in 1861 by Queen Victoria during the colonial occupation of India, although there have been rare occurrencies in the 20th and 21st Centuries reported.
More reminders of the sequestered lives that the royal harem led is shown in the collection of litters in the small museum inside the fort. One illustrated below is beautifully decorated in laquer-work, but on closer inspection, must have been like travelling in an oven in the summer months. Inside are printed pious religious tracts and images to keep the ladies minds on the right track. There were only small slats in the ends of the litter to take in any air or to look out from, as modesty demanded that nothing of the lady must be seen when travelling in the litter, so the sliding door was shuttered at all times.
A particularly appealing feature of the fort were the characterful and friendly attendants in each of the rooms and courtyards. Informative, friendly with the inquisitive kids trying to touch everything, always smiling and helpful, also the local musicians playing traditional music in courtyards and on terraces dotted around. A lovely surprise that really enhanced the experience.
Worn out by the excesses of the Fort, we trudged two hundred metres up the road to the Jaswant Thada, a spectacularly cold and clinical memorial in honour of Maharaja Jawant Singh II. The white marble dazzled in the sunlight, but to me, no warmth emanated from it. At least there was grass to sit down on and rest for a few minutes to take in the grandeur of the place. This happy lady gardener gave off more warmth than the whole place.
The next part of our Jodhpur adventure, took us on a late afternoon visit to a perfumed oil emporium for my friend and tea traders for me. After various testings of both, we made our purchases then began our evening stroll through the Navchokiya or old blue city. The cities houses were originally painted blue to denote the houses of the Brahmins, or highest caste Hindus. There are a thousand different hues of blue to see in this amazing old city.
Armed with our self-guided walk instructions, we headed out into the busy streets. We had been told of a few fabric stores to check out, so we headed in the general direction of one but soon found ourselves slightly and happily lost in the labyrinth of blue lanes and alleys. As ever in India, a rescuer will come to your aid. In the process of trying to funnel us to his friends fabric warehouse, which was in fact, truly amazing, he inadvertantly took us back to our starting point, next to the Sadar market. At least we weren’t lost any more! But we were losing time, so armed with more knowledge of our surroundings, we said our goodbyes, minus any purchases, hurried back into the maze of streets and tried again to follow our self guided walk instructions.
This time luck was on our side and we succeeded in penetrating the heart of this fairytale area, a wonderful cacophony of carved and painted architecture straight out of a medieval storybook. We gazed in wonder at the visual feast all around. My camera wore itself out trying to capture the vignettes at every turn. A glimpse into an intimate courtyard room where a couple intertwines, looking back at us from their blue nest. A meeting with a young merchant who showed us around his ancient family warehouse, full of ladies undergarments. Discovering how deep-fried spiralled pastries are made in the street in huge swirling vats of fat. Peering into exquisite jewellery shop windows, gazing upwards to the overhanging carved wooden gables and then down again to catch a hand cart toppling over with colourful vegetables. slowly being wheeled along.
Eventually we were rescued again while looking for an eating establishment. In one blue courtyard a young man pointed out to us a hidden haveli, or mansion house, that has been converted into a hip boutique hotel, like so many. A warm welcome took us up onto an eyrie of a rooftop restaurant, with the most spectacular view of a floodlit Mehrangarh Fort, directly across from our perch. When it came, the food was hearty and delicious. This was all topped off by the manager joining us after we’d eaten, to regale us with outrageous stories of his conquest of Jodhpur, which were deliciously believable while being highly improbable! A brilliant storyteller who completed our last night of Jodhpur adventures.
There’s still a lot of unfinished business for me in Jodhpur. It was so much more than I was expecting and I felt I needed at least four or five days to fully appreciate it’s unique atmosphere and everything that it had to offer, However, we made a splendid start that whetted the appetite for the next time.