Blue city

The blue city of Jodhpur is technically the little walled hamlet behind the Mehran fort, called Mehrangarh in Mewari. It is said that the fort was built in 1459, so the blue city must be about 550 years old. That’s what you see in the featured photo. The so-called old town of Jaipur, which most tourists see, is a later growth. I could not find out when the town spilt out of the fortification and became what it is today. My best guess is that this must have happened at least a century after the founding of the fort, when the rulers of Jodhpur joined the court of Delhi.

We walked briefly through this oldest part of the Jodhpur. The narrow roads were mostly hemmed in between closed gates of the kind that you see above. The Family and I spent time admiring the little decorations around the doors: inevitably elephants and some auspicious plant. It took us a while to discover what was hidden behind the doors.

We passed through Chandpol, the Silver Gate. This massive door had spikes embedded into it far above our heads. This is usually a defensive measure. The spikes are meant to injure elephants which would otherwise be used to batter the doors down. This door didn’t look like it needed an elephant to break it down.

Just across the door was a little chapel for Shiva. We admired the amateur decorations before moving on. At this place one of the residents asked me where I was from. When I said “Mumbai”, he asked whether I was location hunting for a movie. The fort and the blue city has been used in many films. I must have disappointed him when I said I wasn’t.

We came to this beautiful example of a blue house whose door was open. Inside was one of the old havelis. Traditionally the blue colour could only be used by Brahmins. Rajasthan remains very conservative, and most blue houses probably still belong to this caste. The colour was traditionally due to indigo mixed in with a lime wash. I guess it is still used today in some of the buildings, like this one.

We walked through the open doors into the entrance courtyard and saw a rambling house broken up into multiple living units. Presumably the ancestral property is now used by multiple inheritors. We admired the construction: the lintels, the snaky line of the railings on the passage on the upper floor. The highest floor seemed to be unoccupied.

We walked on and came to other doors. The one you see above had a little cutout door which was probably the everyday entranceway. Inside we could see a large property broken into many different living units, all painted blue. We began to think that every doorway hid a haveli occupied by a large number of families closely related to each other. Did all the houses share a single electric meter? I would have thought that unlikely, but going by what you see in the photo above, maybe I was wrong.

Off the main road we saw a wonderfully decorated door. We loved this painted door. The little gate in front of the door was a feature we had not seen before; nor did we see it again later. There was much more decoration around the door than we had seen elsewhere, although elephants figured prominently.

The other interesting feature of this was that the house was more modern in layout, and not at all like the gated havelis we had seen till then, the painted coffers and pillars notwithstanding. There was no sign to tell us anything about this house. Since it was not blue, in a cluster of other blue houses, I guess this did not belong to a Brahmin family. That probably says something about the different economic status of this family.

Further one we came across more blue houses. This one was interesting because the main means of transport through the blue city are parked outside: a bicycle and a scooter. The roads here are too narrow for cars. Two-wheeled vehicles are the preferred way to get around this city. Interestingly, in Jodhpur, both men and women use scooters.

A shop as bare as this has disappeared from all of urban India. I was shocked to find it here; in the absence of packaged food to sell it looks like an impoverished shop from the 1960s. Perhaps the blue city is impoverished; large industries are conspicuously absent. The owner of the shop does not seem to do much business. Shops in the main city below the citadel look quite different.

It is common for houses to be elevated above the road, but the one you see in the photo above was an extreme. We stood and admired the beautiful windows. The Family asked me about the sign at the bottom of the stairs, “Why does it say Thank You?” I had no answer, not even a plausible guess.

Just opposite was this other blue-coloured pile. The child hanging off the railing on the upper floor did not seem to register our presence even when I made a big show of trying to photograph him. This is another building where the pattern of occupancy is different: the ground floor is completely given over to shops.

The structure you see in the photo above seemed to be part of an old town wall. When I realized this I guessed that the “Thank You” sign was perhaps to thank visitors as they left the walled city. The change in the pattern of buildings made more sense now. The stairs next to the “Thank you” sign led to the top of the fort wall, and we had probably just walked out of the original blue city at this point. The newer style of building was genuinely more recent than the gated havelis, perhaps even less than a hundred years old. It will take a bit of research to figure out the urban history of this part of the town.

This fair price shop next to the yellow painted door of a little temple was part of a building in a style which is no more than seventy years old. The pattern of air holes above the door was familiar in older buildings when I was a school boy. If I had the right sense of the citadel walls, then this house would have been built outside the old city just after independence, and the accession of Jodhpur to India.

I could see a little walled garden through this door above which is written “Garden of the Ved Sen society”. Two men stood in the garden putting on jackets. I stood and watched as they came out for a stroll. I wonder what this society is, and whether it maintains that serene looking garden inside. Beyond this the town grew more sparse. We hopped on to an auto-rickshaw and left.

Chandni Chowk

Sunehri masjid is linked to Nadir Shah's sack of Delhi

Chandni Chowk was the centre of Delhi after Shah Jahan moved his capital to the walled city in 1639, and before Imperial Britain built a new capital a few miles to the west in the early 20th century. This is the area west of the Lahori gate of the red fort and north of the Jama Masjid. A walking tour of Chandni Chowk naturally starts from the Sunehri Masjid: a beautifully proportioned mosque with golden domes in old paintings, now fallen on hard times. If the story of Nadir Shah standing next to the domes on the roof of the mosque to survey the massacre of a panicked Delhi which he had commanded is true, then at one time it would have dominated the area. Now, as I emerged from the exit lane of the Chandi Chowk metro and looked at the mosque this was no longer the case. Mughal architecture blended use with aesthetics; when the mosque was built the space was surely sufficient for the devout. That aesthetics is completely lost in the extensions made to the mosque in order to cater to the increased population.

Sisganj gurudwara is a major landmark

More striking today is the Sis Ganj gurudwara which stands next to it. It must have been a special day; the gurudwara was decorated with balloons and buntings. I realized that a large part of the crowd in the Metro was headed here when a young mother of two finely dressed children asked me which exit led to the gurudwara. I’d just read the directions, so I was able to tell her to take exit 5, as I did. A gurudwara was first built here in 1783 CE, in memory of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, who was beheaded here on the orders of Aurangzeb. The present structure was built in 1930. I discovered the news, known to all Delhiwalas, that the gurudwara has become a bit controversial recently by building unauthorised extensions.

Street scene: sardarji and rickshaw

Traffic barely moves in this crowded road, there’s such a muddle of bicycles, cars, rickshaws, carts, three-wheelers and pedestrians. Notions of lanes and priority perhaps never arose in the days when this area was less densely populated, and were never internalised later. The chaos and cacophony gave me ample opportunity to do surreptitious people watching. I liked this forbidding old Sikh gentleman in white striding down the road, ignoring the traffic. Even the young rickshaw-wala in the photo seems to be a little wary of him.

Kinari bazaar: bling market

Instead of walking on to the Red Fort, I turned right on Dariba Kalan. It is not hard to find: the lane runs between a lovely but crumbling red building with a post-office, and the area’s most famous jalebiwala. I’ve already written about this little eatery. I walked through this narrow lane and turned into the longest bling market in Delhi: the Kinari bazaar. Tourist agencies try to push this as a market destination. In fact, only a movie or wedding set decorator would shop here. It is interesting to walk through this crowded bazaar just looking at people and their lives. I’d chosen a time when the sky was beginning to get dark, and the lights in the shops were coming on. Crowds were at their lowest; it was getting close to the time for an evening snack.

Kachoriwala corner

Every few steps there was a little shop selling kachoris and samosas. Judging by the crowds, it doesn’t look like any shop is particularly better than another. Each seems to have a few regular customers and a few walk-ins. The shops don’t seem to innovate either: they concentrate on getting the kachoris just so, for their loyal followers. There are probably neighbourhood rivalries about which shop has better food. As far as I could tell, it would need a lifetime of training your palate to tell the difference between them. This is a world so far removed from that of malls and food courts, that it is a wonder that the two exist in the same city at the same time.

Door in a haveli off Kinari bazaar Beautiful arches in a dilapidated building

If you are a student of architecture, then there are gems hidden away inside these narrow and smelly lanes. I peered past a gate which led off to a side lane and discovered a beautiful building with a blue door (photo above). Elsewhere a grand building with lovely arched verandas (above) was partitioned into tiny apartments. Stylistic differences which are visible even to an untrained eyes like mine would probably enable a knowledgeable person to peel away the centuries and imagine the area as it evolved over time. If someone offers a walk through this area to show such visions, I will queue up to take it. In its absence I go back every decade, after a little more reading.