Court life

Mehrangarh, the seat of the Rajas of Jodhpur contains a gallery of paintings. The ones on show are largely from the 18th and 19th centuries. They show what life at the court was like during this peaceful period in Jodhpur’s history.

A painting by the renowned Mughal artist Dalchand shows Abhay Singh listening to court musicians. The painting contains a portrait of the king, as well as many details of the court. I can recognize the dholak, but the stringed instruments are different from modern ones. The singers have cymbals in their hands. Notice also the lack of tables to hold food, although the wine is on a table. Although Abhay Singh is supposed to have built the exquisite Phool Mahal, this scene is not set in that room.

This painting of a hunt by royal women was extremely instructive. Some women were not cooped up in purdah, but trained in the arts of riding and the use of weapons. I spent a long time admiring the painting of the deer and of the typical Jodhpur horses. The artist’s name is not recorded, unfortunately.

The painting of Holi at the court of Man Singh is an enormously detailed collaborative work by Rai Singh and Shivdas. I found it interesting to compare the portrait of Man Singh in this painting with that of him playing Polo. Notice that Holi is not played by women. Another interesting thing is the differentiation of the troops on foot: some wear white, others have largely bare bodies.

The painting of Man Singh and one of his queens playing polo with other courtiers is by Shivdas. I liked the beautiful geometry of the polo sticks around the puck. The portraits of the king and queen are also executed extremely well. Notice again the Jodhpur horses.

These two portraits of courtiers by unknown artists are separated by three quarters of a century, but shows a nice continuity of cultural style. The courtiers ride with attendants carrying a staff, a whisk, and a hookah. The style of the hookah also remains unchanged. There is little change in the style of saddle cloths too.

I’m sure there are many more paintings with the Mehrangarh trust. I hope they get a curator to put together a larger display at some point. It would be lovely to see such an exhibition. I’m especially looking forward to seeing the very rare paintings which show the life of less exalted people at the court.

Treasures of the Maharajas

The truly posh have always been parsimonious. That’s a conclusion I have come through after roaming through the collections of many major dynasties of the past. The rest of us may agonize over throwing away a jeweled couch to make place for the platinum encrusted sofa, but a royal will just build another palace to house the new.

Mehrangarh is no exception. You can see a collection of palanquins spanning two centuries which is large enough to make you feel that the family has more salted away in various cellars.

In the middle of a large number of decorative pieces I came across the incredibly historical: a sword which is said to have belonged to Akbar the Great. Akbar’s personal armour is in the collection of the museum in Mumbai. The fact that the sword is in Jodhpur is a testimony to the influence that Jodhpur had in the Mughal court during this period.

The oddest thing that I saw was a statue of the local goddess Gangaur. The festival of Gangaur is celebrated even now, and she is said to listen to entreaties of women to keep their men safe. The statue was decorated with enormous pearls.

Jolly good fellas

The Family and I lost ourselves in the little back lanes of the old town of Jodhpur on the day we arrived. There were lots of interesting and decaying havelis. Eventually, on Ajay Chowk Road we came across a lively temple. In the tiny verandah around it ten people made quite a crowd, laughing and chatting. I saw two games of cards in progress, and wondered how they would take to being photographed. It turned out that they were quite comfortable with it.

When I’m traveling outside the country I’m often in places where I do not speak the language, and my conversations are therefore very limited. Here we could chat with the friendly blokes whom you see in these photos. It turns out that they were retirees, and liked to spend the afternoon chatting and playing cards together. The temple was the only place where they could sit for the whole afternoon.

They were thrilled when I assured them that I would love to join them after retirement. I now have an invitation to join a post-retirement club if I decide to relocate to Jodhpur. Nice chatting with you, fellas. I just might join you one day.

The Hall of Flowers

Inside the oyster of Mehrangarh is the pearl called Phool Mahal: the Hall of Flowers. Originally built in the mid 19-the century by Abhay Singh, the paintings that we see today come from the 19th century re-decoration carried out by Takhat Singh. I was blown away by the exquisite paintings and the colours of the audience hall.

The central court surrounded by gilded balusters and flutings are derived from the Mughal style of Shah Jehan’s era. The outer part, including the jaali and windows are typical of Marwar. Just below the gilded ceiling is a panel with royal portraits which runs all around the hall. This means that the room was probably used as a private audience hall for the raja to confer formally with ministers and local landholders. Below that is a series of raga mala paintings which use the iconography which had been standardized by the 19th century. This signifies that the place could have also been used for musical performances and less serious business of state.

Mehrangarh

The Hindi word garh means fort. Mehrangarh, with its sheer walls, is one of the most impressive forts I’ve seen. It was built in the late 15th century by the Rathore ruler, Rao Jodha, who moved the capital here from Mandore, which is about 10 kilometers to the north. The old “blue city” of Jodhpur is contained within its walls, but the modern town lies outside and below the hill on which the fort stands. The estate is managed by a trust headed by the descendants of the old rulers. We found the audio guide very useful.

The outer walls of the fort are chiseled from the underlying volcanic tuff, so that the fort seems to be a part of the hill. During the incredible five year period when Sher Shah Suri captured the Mughal kingdom, he also attacked and captured Mehrangarh. The tall walls of the keep inside the present-day outer walls were built in the 16th century to the order of Raja Maldeo in response to this defeat. Today a lift takes you up to the top of the keep. We took this, and walked down. The inner palaces and their delicate jharokhas were built in the 18th century during the reign of Ajit Singh. This gallery shows photos of all three phases of this structure.

Jodhpuri street food

The street food of Jodhpur is split between things on carts and things available from shops. Among carts crowds are densest around those which carry golgappas. These crisp spherical puris are vehicles for a variety of chutneys, hence the other name for it: panipuri. Pakoras of various kinds are almost as popular, including the special chili pakoras. We found that this is eaten cold. So is the other other Jodhpur special: the sweet mawa kachori. Shops mostly specialize in sweets. I was impressed by the crowd around a shop selling vegetable juices: carrot, spinach, mint and the mouth-puckeringly sour amla.

Click on any of the photos in the mosaic to transit to a slideshow.

Life styles

I took the featured photo as we passed this pair on a highway near Jodhpur just because I liked the turban. In Rajasthan the turban has been turned into touristy kitsch, but the underlying caste identifiers are very much alive. I wondered why this large yellow turban has a white cloth wrapped around it. Is it a social signifier of some sort?

What a contrast to the simple handkerchief tied around the face of the driver. I have no expertise at all in turbans, either in tying one or identifying varieties. But looking at this pair of riders it looked to me as if the pillion rider has actually taken an every day turban, and tied it down with a shawl to prevent it from flying away in the wake of the motorbike. I saw large turbans on the heads of farmers, presumably as protection from the sun. It must have taken decades to elaborate such a simple need into an accessory so complicated that there is a whole museum devoted to it in Jaipur. A hundred years from now will the handkerchief tied across the mouth to protect against dust also become a complex piece of apparel?

If the rule about mandatory helmets actually begin to be enforced, then maybe both the turban and the mask will be replaced by elaborate helmets instead.

Re-imagining christmas

A week ago, in Jodhpur I was struck by the frequency with which one could see the coloured glass balls, which are usually used to decorate christmas trees, hung from the ceilings of restaurants and hotel reception areas. Eventually I traced the popularity of this innovative tradition to Maharaja Takhat Singh. You see his bedroom in Mehrangarh in the featured photo. After I tore my eyes away from the profusion of painting on the walls and floor, I noticed the glass balls on the ceiling. The Maharaja lived in the mid-19th century when these balls first began to be made. His interior designers would have been one of the early adopters in alternate uses of this German innovation.

Every year could be an occasion to re-imagine what christmas could mean. Because it has no particular resonance with me, I tend to neglect it and fall into a default mode of year-ending self-indulgence. Standing with a glass of wine in a beach-side restaurant in Mumbai yesterday, I noticed a pair of Santas seek out two poor kids and hand each of them a christmas present. One of the Santas, maybe the Banta, took photos. A photo could just be someone’s private jog to memories, but I thought it was more likely that it meant that this was the work of an NGO.

The two excited children ran off with their gifts to a bunch of others playing cricket on the beach. The game was abandoned as the two teams ran to the Santas and queued up for the gifts. I watched as all the presents were distributed. As the Santas walked off I called after them. When they turned around I asked “Which organization?” They shouted back, “SOS” as they walked off into the sunset. When I googled NGO SOS, only one organization popped up.

Breakfast on the road

What would you have for breakfast if you were on the road out of Jodhpur early in the morning? We stopped at one of the many eateries which were already open on the main road: Nai Sarak, to check out the options. First thing, a glass of milk with some saffron thrown in. You can see from the featured photo that it is thickened slightly. It has quite a clientele. I prefer a glassful of chai, but I didn’t mind taking a little sip of the local morning’s brew for the taste. That sip told me that quite a bit of sugar had also been thrown into the mix.

Milk and jalebis are a standard north-Indian breakfast combination. Sure enough, right next to the milk wallah was this jalebi man frying his jalebis. I love watching a person frying jalebis; the elegance of movement which produces these tight spirals is fascinating. The hot jalebis soak up the sugar syrup easily. Traditionally, the sugar has some saffron thrown into it for the colour. Wonderfully tasty stuff, but that oil is hydrogenated, as you can see in the large tin next to the karhai. I don’t have much of jalebi any more, but I did give in to temptation and had one. I had to squelch the temptation to have a second one very firmly.

Two sweets left my mouth too sweet. In Jodhpur the antidotes to an overdose of sweets are easily at hand. The shop had batter-fried chilis. We’d seen a man make them the previous evening (photo above). The Family asked for a hot one right out of the frier, but was told very firmly that they are meant to be eaten cold. We shared one in the morning. The big fat chilis are not very hot, but they are flavourful. They reminded me of the fried chilis we ate in Madrid. So that’s a good breakfast: two sweets, a large glassful of tea, and a fried chili. Just what we needed to set out on a long day’s drive into the desert.

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.