Sampling Sandunes at Jodhpur

(This is a travelogue I wrote for the paper that pays me to do such stuff — yes my life is that awesome, sometimes! — and I am rather proud of it. Also, Jodhpur is a fun place to visit, especially at this time of the year. Another reason you might want to pack up your bags and head for the edge of the Thar is the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, which promises a rather intriguing cocktail of rustic tunes, camels, forts and food for the nomad soul! See you there, perhaps!)

A view of Mehrangarh Fort from Pal Haveli’s terrace. Go to the Indica restaurant for its view, the cool desert breeze at night and cheap liquor. Photo: Akash Gupta

In a tiny ‘Bishnoi’ (Vaishnav, as per the Hindu caste system) village called Salawas near Jodhpur, an old man, browned and lined by a lifetime of physical labour, shows us around his humble abode – mud-caked houses, thatched roofs with goats and cows tethered, with a couple of peacocks frolicking close by – and treats us to some home-made afeem (opium) and chai.

“Salman Khan shot his infamous black bucks in our village only,” he states pompously, as he unwraps his stash with a flourish. Scraping off bits of the dry stuff, he directs us to eat it and says, “Ab hum aapka apne ghar mein swagat karte hain.”

Singh then proudly shows us his afeem-making machine, a fascinating contraption carved out of wood, with a crusher, two cones for accumulating the juice of poppies and a little serpent idol. He explains that afeem is not so much an addiction as a way of life. “No marriage is sanctioned unless the father of the bride gives his new in-laws some of this. We celebrate, commemorate and cure with the help of this flower. Of course, we cannot grow it here nor have we ever thought of marketing it,” he laughs, his white whiskers, which could be the envy of any royal heir, twitching with mirth at the tourist’s surprise.

There is a practiced aura around all of Charan Singh’s movements. We are instructed to give the man a little token of appreciation. Not that one minds, especially since the man has given us a peek into a hitherto unknown world. We are then driven on to a potter’s and a weaver’s houses – at both places we repeat the routine. Clearly, the burgeoning trade of tourism in Jodhpur has infiltrated the suburbs too, in spirit as well as in economic returns.

This delightful little ‘trip’ is unexpected as our train Mandore Express pulls up earlier that morning into the railway station, disgorging us at an unearthly 5 am. We’ve only planned a romp in the lap of old-style affluence, basking in the reflected light of this warrior clan’s heritage, even as we sample some of that famed Marwari hospitality. Clearly, we are to get much more than we’d bargained for.

Jodhpur was founded by a king called Rao Jodha in 1459, with the nearby town Mandore functioning as capital initially. The Rathores, a clan of Rajputs to which Jodha belonged, ruled the Marwar region for centuries till it finally became a fief under Mughal rule and then a princely state under British rule.

We headed to Ranbanka Palace, a beautiful heritage hotel, situated a bit away from the main city’s bustle. At dawn, the place looked like an oasis of greenery bordered by sandstone in the middle of a rambling desert. The hotel used to be the residence of Prince Ajit Singh, Maharaja Jodha Singh’s (founder of the town) younger brother. Much of the opulence of earlier centuries have been retained and added upon – badges of honour in the form of stuffed deer heads, tiger skin rugs, photographs of previous kings and residents standing over hunted conquests find pride of place everywhere.

Ranbanka Palace at dawn. Photo: Akash Gupta

The present generation has a different sport to excel at – the bar exhibits Rajkumar Karan Singh’s (the current owner and also a cousin of designer Raghavendra Rathore) laurels at Polo. In fact, we’re informed, the palace hosts a tournament during the winters. We take all this in – the pink walls adorned with bougainvillea creepers, colourful frescoes for windows, rangolis on the floor combined with Jacuzzis, swimming pools, spas and wi-fi connectivity — and realise that the distance between old and new money is easily bridged.

Umaid Bhawan, an important spot of historical importance in the city, is another example of this phenomenon.  Commissioned by Maharaja Umaid Singh in 1924, the palace took 20 years to build. Situated on a hillock, it glows a magnificent golden, the sandstone is intricately carved in the style in Rajputana style, and is surrounded by well-tended gardens. While a section of the palace is still the residence of the current king, Maharaja Gaj Singh II, the rest is a museum showcasing royal paraphernalia – jewellery, furniture, armoury, attire and an impressive array of vintage cars, including Bentleys, Cadillacs and even Humbers.

Quite uniquely, the main foyer houses LED displays that pay special tribute to the Edwardian architect of the palace, Sir Henry Vaughan Lanchester, and to interior designer Stefan Norblin, who can be credited for some stunning but slightly out-of-context Biblical murals to be found on the palace’s ceilings. A new gated colony adjoining the palace premises is the most intriguing sight before us. Umaid Heritage Estate is to be a high-end residential area for the industrialists and the super-rich, most famously Mankichand Panwala. Kumar finds this capitalist desire to be part of royalty quite awesome; in some way, this new development makes him feel part of it all.

Kumar tells us with immense pride that Jodhpur has its own culture, quite distinct from, say, Jaipur or Jaisalmer. “Look at the clothes – we invented the jodhpuris,” he laughs. The main part of the town, housing an archaic clock tower, is fairly ordinary, except for the amount of colour on display. From the men’s turbans, which are blue, white or multi-coloured depending on what caste they hail from, to flowing ghaghras in shocking pink and electric green, there is colour everywhere. Living at the edge of desert, one would want this kind of palette to keep the eyes feasting on some life.

We make a beeline for Gypsy, a popular restaurant, for a Marwari thali. We’re served a wholesome meal – daal, baati, choorme ke ladoo, dhokla, rotis soaked in ghee, gattey ki sabzi, pooris andsaffron pulao – and coaxed into seconds by the owner, Mr. Chandali, who waits upon his guests in person, carrying out his cultural duty of ‘Manuhaar’ (hospitable persuasion) with elan. Replete with satisfaction, we head out to the next must-visit place in Jodhpur – the Mehrangarh fort.

Rajasthani Marwari thali at Gypsy. Slurp! Photo: Akash Gupta

The fort, situated on a hillock for strategic reasons, is a ramshackle giant of a site that is visible from anywhere in the city. It truly does look like the work of ‘angels, fairies and giants’, as Rudyard Kipling said way back in 1899. From its higher vantage point, one can see an ocean of blue houses winking up at us. Today, it wears a haunted look – threadbare, swept clean of life, unlike the living fort of Jaisalmer. It is perhaps this quality that led Christopher Nolan to feature the fort in The Dark Knight Rises as the backdrop for the prison-well in the middle of nowhere.

Within the fort, a few rooms are open to the public as a museum – on display here are accessories of the subject’s life, cultural investments that the kings endowed the kingdom with and religious strains. Miniature paintings between 1725 and 1843 that depict the transition from portraiture of the monarchs to sketching out abstract ideas of Vaishnavite religion find pride of place in the Diwan-e-Am (the court of the commoners). And we also spotted a more expensive-looking version of the afeem-making machine in a glass case here.

As the sun goes down, we ascend to new heights of magnificence. Strains of the sarangi, fused with sounds from the city below, waft in through exquisitely carved wooden doors and windows, cannons and other outdated armoury, and domes of all shapes and sizes, giving the evening a scintillating hue. We look upon the city milling about in the everyday, and are struck by the many contradictions that history has ordained this long-surviving nub of civilisation with.

Like Aldous Huxley once rather floridly stated: “From the bastions of the Jodhpur Fort one hears as the gods must hear from Olympus, the gods to whom each separate word uttered in the innumerably peopled world below, comes up distinct and individual to be recorded in the books of omniscience.” Perhaps this over-the-top description was also an inspired conjecture on some afeem-swilling night.

The Blue City. At Mehrangarh Fort. Photo: Akash Gupta


THE moment in Kasol…

…was digging into Banoffee Pie (which was an Israeli delight according to Pinku bhaiya, the sweetest simplest waiter at Sasi Restaurant who hailed from Mandi and prattled on cheerfully about life, love and loss and kept us satiated with conversation while we waited for our Shakshuka plates or Enchiladas to arrive) on a candle-lit check-cloth covered table under a star-studded clear sky, with the white Parvati raging endlessly to our left and the solid black mountains of Himachal all around.

Never had i thought that bananas could taste so delicious. Some Parle-G or chocolate biscuit crumble, honey, condensed milk, glazed bananas, almonds and walnuts, cream, butter, your expertise at layering and voila! you’ve got an eighth of an orgasm in each bite. Oh, and it is very much an English invention.

Of course, apart from partaking of such wonderful food, we did the usual frolic in the hills, dipping into cold water, emerging from shivering trances to take walks along green winding roads, talking, playing catch like children. Meeting fresh-off-the-Army-bus Israelis who loved India and chai and ‘gulab jabun’ and travelling. Scouring tiny shops for semi-silver cheap trinkets. Sitting on a lovely big balcony, wrapped up in sweaters and music and good company, sipping chai, breathing pine scent, feeling life re-coursing through one’s veins. Embalming bad patches, building reservoirs of energy to brace against more rough wind. Praying there wouldn’t be any.

Planning it would’ve been to ruin it. We went with the flow, wherever our mood and the buses took us. If vacations are about suspension of reality and taking a chance at living out a fantasy, this was IT.


Ten days in the month of June, three girls (very much like that Maggi ad) roamed the road less travelled in Himachal. It has to be one of the most memorable trips for me, all thanks to R and B. Yes we did it all – saw, ate, slept, wrote, dreamt, stared, gaped, prayed, loved, inhaled, trekked, read, heard, felt, yelled, guffawed…it was like an endless journey through the thick and thin of nature and what mankind has made of it. It was a much needed break from the city, the cosmopolitanism and the competition. It was an exploration into depths, searching for love, religion, words, sights, ideas and eventually, for existence…for just being. It was an opportunity, to bond with strangers, to grow closer to acqauintances and to get to know friends better. Somewhere between the loud singing along to Coldplay, The Beatles, ABBA as our little Alto zipped and zoomed round hills and blind turns, we learnt of some of the simplest forms of bliss – silence in good company, golden hot aloo paranthas with loads of melting butter at 7 am in the middle of nowhere (and this view is from this very point), gaping at the immense capability of the sky to hold stars, touching the innocence that only children can have, but that is sadly going amiss in this day and age of ‘little TV stars’, sipping hot lemon ginger tea and making friends from beyond borders, being awed at the spectacle of a 1,000 year old looming Buddha statue carved into an even older wall, sleeping in a car for the night for lack of money but only loving the stories this stuff makes, absorbing what village elders have to give us, laughing our lungs out at the most inane jokes, falling asleep through rambling tipsy conversations at 2 am…

It was an escape that i needed. It was a rejuvenation i got.

Spontaneity works pure magic sometimes.

Elizabeth Gilbert, and now Julia Roberts, ‘Eat Pray and Love’


Sheer indulgence, this.

 Imagine travelling to three countries on the other side of the world, within the space of twelve months, and living on a thematic basis for four months at a time, the primary themes being gluttony, meditation and sheer adolescent romance. Imagine meeting people of all sorts in all sorts of situations, living in beautiful edenic garden full of orchids in the middle of Bali and steeping oneself in culture and heritage, totally getting under the skin of a place. and the people who make that place. And now imagine being paid (n i mean being sponsored from day 1 of said journey to the time one manages to settle back into everyday life back in dear ol’ Manhattan) to write a book about all the ‘adventures’ one might have on this stupendous trip of a lifetime!

Hell, you n i might not even ever be blessed with such good fortune. But the author of above mentioned book sure was. (And that’s a tautology). Liz Gilbert’s romantic fiction bestseller  sure shows that she was fortunate to have had the chance to account for all the wonderful things that populated her life for an entire year, and she knows it. Which might be why she spends quite a large part of her time being thankful. By doing the ‘smile meditation’, putting it through in her little diary, by helping her poor Indonesian woman buy a house, by hunting down restaurants that serve the best pizza in the world, and chomping her way through all she could eat, and finally, by falling in love with a ‘good’ man.

Of course, it all came at a price. She actually troops out in search of herself, her spirituality and some much needed happiness after a horrible divorce and more heart break while on the rebound.

Gilbert’s expression is as precious and endearing as the many people she meets and the many experiences she cherishes. Witticisms, insights and emotions tumble out in an unceasing outpour -she opens her heart out for you, and as you accompany her through sunshine and high tide, you’d feel like she was your closest buddy or even family. She builds her narrative around complete honesty, a fine sense of what goes into the makings of the world like we all know it, a highly liberal frame of mind and flexibility of the heart, a readiness to embrace it all, for she’s got love enough for the world. (mosquitoes, again, not included).

This journey is pivotal to her life in more ways than one. (And here I will display all my English Hons credibility.) It’s a lot things rolled into one trip of a lifetime. It’s a pilgrimage at one level, an eat-all-you-want parade, a nomadic irresolution of one’s destination in life and a transcendence of all sorts of boundaries which any society or upbringing maps into psyches. (Hah! i told ya!) And the fact that she goes beyond physical continental lines to attain her spirituality only becomes symbolic of the three different ‘I’s that she reveals to herself.

In all, terribly delightful. She makes you laugh and cry with her. Breathe the air around the world and feel the spirit of different civilisations. She finds her answers in the end, and she finds the handsome, rich, fabulous South American man for cherry on her cake, that she finally, finally has, and eats too. It’s a whole different science-fictional level of transformation – the tired but persevering snail (who carries her house on her back) turns into the New Age Buddha. Talk about transcendentalism!

Hope the forthcoming movie, and Julia Roberts, make the magic come alive on screen.