Jodhpur’s Old City

Even if you have memorized the map of a new city, you have no feel for its life until you have walked through the streets. I’d left all the planning for Jodhpur to The Family, so I was constantly surprised. It began with my surprise that she chose a hotel right inside the old city, nearly at the base of Mehrangarh. After that the city laid out surprises one after another. We arrived, had lunch and decided to go for a walk. The temperature was twenty five degrees below Mumbai.

The roads of the old city are narrow. Cars will not be able to reach most places, so the default mode of transport is a motorbike or a scooter. Buildings are beautifully decorated. The traditional blue of the “blue city” is a mild colour obtained by adding natural indigo to lime wash. The bright blue of some walls is always a modern chemical paint, and the brightest are those on the walls of cheaper hotels. A surprisingly large fraction of buildings are faced with the local red rock which is often called Jodhpur sandstone. Quite a few use the golden stone of Jaisalmer. The light was wonderful. People and horses were doing their own things. There was something new around every corner. The Family and I were happy to lose ourselves in an unguided walk, occasionally peeping through open doors.

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.

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.