January 11, 2014.
After spending 5 days in the old Mewar kingdom (Chittorgarh, Udaipur and Kumbhalgarh), it was time to move on and get acquainted with Mewar’s arch-enemy – the Marwar dynasty and its capital Jodhpur. Second largest city in Rajasthan, Jodhpur has a few names and all of them are correct. It is called the “Gateway to Thar”, implying city’s strategic location on the border with the Thar desert; it is referred to as “Sun City” for the bright, sunny weather it enjoys all year around. But the most obvious name, which I could witness with my own eyes, is “Blue City”, a name given because most houses in the city are painted in all shades of blue, honoring Jodhpur’s large population of Brahmins (whose color is, apparently, blue).
Sunil and I arrived to Jodhpur around 8 pm and since no vehicles are allowed to the old town (really, again?!), I had to call the owner of the Haveli to come and pick me up by the Clock Tower. He speedily sent a tuk-tuk for me and in less than ten minutes, I was checking into my new home – Shahi guest house, located in the middle of the rustic, vibrant, always- moving old town. Shahi, the owner of the Haveli, has done a great job converting this old house with large courtyard into a wonderful, romantic and very traditional home-stay. I paid $50 per night and got to stay in, perhaps, the largest room in the Haveli, with huge king-size bed, balcony overlooking the temple across the street, an ottoman corner with thick carpets and thousands of pillows and the bathtub! A bathtub is a rarity in India, and even though it lacked a plug and could have caused the shortage of hot water for all other guests, if i decided to fill in the bath, the fact that I had my own bathtub was super exciting. But the most remarkable feature of the room was its wonderful mosaic floor, a floor you wish you had in your own house, if you had a house and the beautiful hand-carved head-board for the bed. I am not an expert, but I could guess it was made a few centuries ago. And the perk of the haveli was the roof-top restaurant, offering the views of the dramatically lit Mehrangarh perched on top of a rocky hill. As the only late-night client in the restaurant, I enjoyed my dinner and thought that my visit to Jodhpur started successfully. Sadly, I was wrong.
January 12, 2014
According to the Hindu epic Ramayana (composed in the 4th century A.D.) Abhiras (or Ahirs) were the first inhabitants of Jodhpur before they got succumbed by Aryans. Later, the region was part of the Gujarat-Pratihara empire and until 1100 A.D. was ruled by a powerful Bargujar king. In 1200 A.D., the Rathore Rajputs, long before founding Jodhpur and a new dynasty, were driven from their land in east of Agra (Kannauj) by Afghans, serving Mohammed of Ghori, to the region around Pali, 70 kms southwest of Jodhpur. They grew and prospered, conquering surrounding territories and eventually succeeding to oust the Pratiharas of Mandore (9 kms from Jodhpur) in 1381, making the city its new capital. In 1459 the fifteenth Rathore ruler, Rao Jodha, one year after his accession to the throne decided to move his capital to the safer location, as the one thousand years old Mandore fort no longer provided sufficient security. He founded Jodhpur as the new capital of the Marwar kingdom (which cheerfully translates as “The Land of Death”).
The city was located on the strategic road linking Delhi to Gujarat, thus it enabled the Marwar dynasty to profit from a flourishing trade in opium, copper, silk, sandalwood and date palms. The harsh topography and rugged terrain allowed them to extend their borders from modern Pakistan to Jaipur, and from Jaisalmer to Bikaner. Early in its history, the kingdom became a fief under the Mughal Empire, owing fealty to them while enjoying some internal autonomy. Jodhpur and its population benefited from this relationship, because new styles of art and architecture were introduced to Marwar’s court and opportunities opened up for local tradesmen to make their mark across northern India.
However, after the decline of the Mughal empire in 1707, instead of benefitting from the circumstances, Jodhpur drowned in court intrigues and Marwar descended into strife, inviting on their poor heads an intervention from the Marathas, who soon enough replaced Mughals as new lords of the region. By the time Marwar kingdom entered into subsidiary alliance with the British in 1818, its wealth was long gone and its land was torn by continuously raging wars.
At the Shahi guest house, I had to deal with January weather. The disadvantage of having a large and beautiful room in winter is that it’s impossible to warm it up, no matter how many space heaters you ask for. And even though, I was comfortably warm under 3 extra blankets, a very close proximity to the Hindu temple kept me awake and alert all night long, and the following night too. Until that day I didn’t know any religion in the world that would go on celebrating something and nothing for 24 hours a day. To my sad amusement, I found it and unfortunately, the temple of that religion was located right by my balcony. Listening to the wildest …hmmmm religious songs (??!!), slipping in and out of nightmares, I was acoustically present throughout the entire Hindu feast. The church bells of Rome, the impressive appeals to Allah from the mosques of Beirut have never bothered me before, au contraire, they were always the authentic part of the experience I craved. However, the teeth-pulling, soul-annihilating , nerve-destroying suicidal sounds coming out of that temple were more than my non-schizophrenic mind could handle. Despite all, I was in a bright state of readiness to leave the haveli and spend a day exploring Jodhpur.
Shahi, the owner of the haveli, provided me with a map and explained how to get to the main site – Mehrangarh fort and more importantly, back to the haveli, because the tangled streets of old town were unforgiving to newbies. Shahi mentioned a few times the route I should take to the fort, stressing that the goat path, I saw from the roof-top, led straight from the old city to the fort but wasn’t a safe option even at 9 in the morning, since it was rarely used even by locals. After packing my backpack with everything I might need for a full day in town, I went to discover Jodhpur.
Obviously, I never found the main road because all roads, narrow and narrower didn’t seem like “the main” to me, so shortly after and with help of few locals, I ended up at the beginning of the path that Shahi warned me not to take. Evaluating my chances and considering the lack of other options, I decided to climb up the path. It was 9.30 am, barely any people on the streets and sun brightly shining over the blue city, made me forget about an awful sleepless night. Along the path, ascending the steep rocky walls of the hill, Jodhpur presented itself in its full morning glory – quiet and dignified.
On the path, I met a man, perhaps Indian-American, since he had no accent, who told me to be careful because some parts of the path lay among the trees and if one of the trees fell over the path, I might have to come back and take another route. I took my chances and proceeded. They say, everything happens for a reason, there are moments in life when we are tested, there are moments when we are given a second chance and there are moments when we have to stand up and act. Sadly, destiny was about to test me.
Half-way up the hill, I glanced back and saw a few men quickly approaching me from behind and I knew, they weren’t going to the fort, they were going after me. Later, analyzing the situation, I was surprised to realize how quickly our brains process the information. Those men didn’t waste their time and surrounded my from all sides, but the few seconds of advantage I had from the moment I spotted them were enough for me to compose myself and try to look for a way out. The older guy, perhaps 40 y.o., jumped ahead of me on the path (which none of us could abandon, since it was the only way on the cliffy surface of the hill) and took his pants down. I looked around to see that other men were closing up on me from behind, trying to grab my shoulders to keep me still and perhaps pin me down. By then, the guy who took his pants down, got his pathetic “member” out jerking it off and trying to get it up. Have you ever been scared to the extend that the palms of your hands involuntarily start to sweat? That is how i felt, trapped and scared! I knew it was the end, if not the end of my life, but definitely, if those men succeed, some part of my soul would die and nothing will ever be the same. I looked into his eyes and I saw a sign of victory. He hasn’t insert his d**k inside me but he was already celebrating. He was already glorifying himself for something that I consider the most heinous crime against human being – rape! And something clicked in my head when I saw his eyes – I was ready to fight and if I had to, I was ready to kill him, but never allow him to touch an inch of my skin, yet rape me. All the kindness and continuos petty I felt towards Indian people throughout my trip turned into the strongest bout of anger I have ever experienced. I was so terrified but I swang my very old and heavy Nikon D70 off my shoulder and with full force landed it in the head of one of the rapists. They didn’t expect such move from me and retreated back by 1-2 meters, releasing my hands. A man who was blocking my way, made a move to seize me but because he had his pants down, he couldn’t move freely, so he bent over to pull his pants while I grabbed a rock and started hitting him with it on the back of his head. He was strong enough to easily overpower me, but I was ready to kill and that sealed my destiny. Blood started to pour from a gash on his head and he slowly slid off the path. Without waiting for the events to unfold further and not looking back at his friends-rapists, I ran… and ran.. and ran… and I never run, but those ten minutes to the front gate of the fort seemed like an eternity to me.
I spare you the details of my trials and tribulations with Indian police when i showed up by the Mehrangarh with a bloody camera in my hand screaming that somebody attempted to rape me just 400 meters away from the entrance. No one cared! Indians think that Western or European women are whores so by raping them, they are doing them a favor. I am 100% serious! They are sure, that even if a foreign woman doesn’t enjoy forceful sex with them, she won’t go to the police but simply take a shower and forget about it. And if something goes so wrong that a woman does go to the police, no one would assist her there, because either policemen are just like other Indian men or because police is a big Indian joke, but likely a combination of two. To wrap up my story, police refused to open a case on the ground that they didn’t speak English and apparently, couldn’t record my story without a translator (who probably doesn’t exist). But, I couldn’t let this situation slide, how could I? I am immensely grateful to the US Embassy in Delhi who helped me to open the case and supported me all the way throughout this situation.
But let’s back to Mehrangarh…. Shaken, scared but alive and unharmed, I reached the front gate of this fort. A British father-son duo witnessing my conversation with the Tourist police, volunteered to accompany me to the fort if I wished to continue. I could have called Sunil to come and pick me up, but I knew that being alone, scared and frustrated in my hotel room, wouldn’t be the best option. So, I decided to stay with the British couple and at least walk around the fort.
Rao Jodha laid the foundation of the fort on May 12, 1459 on the rocky hill 9 kms to the south of old capital Mandore. The hill was known as Bhaurcheeria – the mountain of birds. According to legend, in order to build his fort, Rao Jodha had to displace the only human inhabitant of the hill, a hermit called Cheeria Nathji – lord of birds. Angry at Rao Jodha, hermit cursed the place with scarcity of water and until today, the area is plagued by a drought every 3-4 years. In order to ensure that Mehrangarh will be populous and prosperous, following an old tradition, Rao Jadha buried a man, named Raja Ram Meghwal, alive in the foundation of the fort. In return for his favor, Rao Jodha promised the man’s family to be looked after by the Rathore kings and up to this day, his descendants still live in the Raj Bagh, an estate bequeathed them by Jodha.
Construction of Mehrangarh (Sun-fort) started in 1459 by Rao Jodha, however, most of the fort which stands today dates from the period of Jaswant Singh (1638-1678). The fort is located in the center of the city, spreading over 5 kms atop of 122 m high hill. Its walls, which are up to 36m high and 21m wide, protect one of the jewels of Rajasthan and despite multiple sieges and attacks, Mehrangarh has never been conquered. Still run by the Jodhpur’s royal family, Mehrangarh is full of history and legends. The complex houses the Maharaja’s palace, several temples and, tucked away in the back, an extensive garden still farmed to this day. After paying Rs.300 entry fee, Rs.100 per camera, I picked up my audio guide and joined the British couple. Unfortunately, I was still deeply distraught and didn’t want to come across as a ungrateful friend, so shortly after, I excused myself and left to walk around the fort by myself.
I entered the fort via Jai Pol “Victory Gates” built by Maharaja Man Singh in 1806 to celebrate his victory in a war with Jaipur and Bikaner. Walking all the way up the ramp, I got to Dedh Kangra Pol, built in the 16th century, it was the original external gate to the palace and still bears the scars of bombardment by cannonballs from 1808.
I had to pass trough two more 16th century gates – Imritia Pol and Loha Pol (Palace’s original gate) before entering the Palace grounds. Immediately to the left of Loha Pol there are handprints (sati marks) of the ranis who in 1843 immolated themselves on the funeral pyre of their husband, Maharaja Man Singh.
Within the fort, there are multiple fantastically designed and decorated palaces, some of which were turned into interesting museums, exhibiting palanquins, howdahs, miniature paintings, costumes and so on. And despite the fact that I have visited uncountable palaces in India alone, Mehrangarh palaces made the biggest impression on me. Not only were they beautifully and craftily built, but also they had a sense of belonging in them, as if the king just stepped out and would return soon. There were no long abandoned female quarters or dilapidating king’s bedrooms, it felt as if the palaces froze in time in their best state of affair and because excess to pretty much every room was allowed without constrains, I felt as if I were touring somebody’s very …very beautiful home.
The first palace everyone enters is Shringar Chowk or Anointment Courtyard, superbly decorated with finely carved jalis that look more like sandalwood than sandstone. The facade of the upper stories form a continuous perforated screen through which the women could watch proceedings in Shringar Chowk. The proceedings included the anointment of a new ruler, for which the marble throne in the chowk was employed.
The galleries around Shringar Chowk display India’s best collection of elephant howdahs and Jodhpur’s royal palanquin collection. Howdahs were a kind of two-compartment wooden seat (mostly covered with gold and silver), which were fastened on the elephant’s back. The front compartment, with more leg space and a raised protective metal sheet, was meant for kings or royalty, and the rear smaller one for a reliable bodyguard disguised as a fly-whisk attendant. Palanquins were a popular mode of travel and circumambulation for the noble ladies up to the second half of the 20th century, but they were also used by male nobles and royals on special occasions.
After, I proceeded to Daulat Khana Chowk, housing a gallery displaying textiles, paintings, manuscripts and headgear. This gallery hosts the most important and best preserved collections of fine and applied arts of the Mughal period of Indian history, during which the Rathore kings of Jodhpur maintained close links with the Mughal emperors. The armory is displayed in the adjacent gallery and represents a rare collection of weapons from every period of Jodhpur. On display are sword-hilts made of jade, silver, rhino horn, ivory, shields studded with rubies, emeralds, pearls etc. Exhibit contains the personal swords of many emperors, among them outstanding historical Khanda of Rao Jodha, weighing over 7 lbs, the curved sword of Akbar the Great and the sword of Timur.
Upstairs is a gallery of miniature paintings from Marwar school and the beautiful 18th-century Phool Mahal (Flower Palace) built by Maharaja Abhaya Singh (1724-1749). It is perhaps Mehrangarh’s grandest room, decorated with the 19th-century wall paintings depicting 36 moods of classical ragas as well as royal portraits; they say that the artist took 10 years to create them using a curious concoction of gold leaf, glue and cow’s urine. It served as the Maharah’s pleasure chamber to accommodate dancing girls and revelries.
And of course, there is no palace in India what doesn’t have its own Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Hall). The mirror-work includes large, rectangular pieces, rather than an intricate mosaic of tiny fragments; another things is the superimposition over the mirror-work of brightly painted religious figures make in plaster.
A leisurely and fascinating walk around the second floor of the palace brought me to Takht Vilas, which used to serve as a bed chamber of Maharaja Takht Singh (1843-1873), which had just 30 maharanis and numerous concubines. The last ruler to reside in the Merhangarh, his room is an interesting blend of styles, most traditional, but some, like the christmas balls on the ceiling, testifying to the modern age which arrived with the British. The bed chamber is decorated from ceiling to floor with paintings on a variety of subjects; from Hindu gods and goddesses to European ladies. Even the ‘carpet’ on the floor is painted.
I then entered an extensive zenana (women’s quarter), the inner sanctum of the palace once guarded by eunuchs, this is where the Maharaja’s multiple wives whiled away their days. The zenana’s beautiful lattice windows (from which the women could watch the goings-on in the courtyards) are said to feature over 250 different designs. An audio guide had an interesting self-narrated story of a living rani who entered the zenana many years ago as a young girl and a new wife of the last king of Jodhpur.
Moti Mahal (Pearl Hall) was the last to visit on this tour. Built by Raja Sur Singh (1595-1619) it is the largest palace in Mehrangarh. Pearl-colored inside and decorated with colored glass windows, the palace served as Maharaja’s audience hall. It is equipped with five alcoves leading into hidden balconies, believed to be built for his five queens to listen in on court proceedings.
Before exiting the Mehrangarh fort, I called Sunil to come and pick me up by the gates of the fort because I was still afraid to walk alone back to the city. Coming down towards the Jai Pol, I ran into Nicco and his Argentinian friend, whom I met in Udaipur a few days before. They were coming back to the palace with no particular reason, so I suggested, since I had a car, to go and check out some other places. They agreed and when Sunil arrived, I asked him to take us to the palace which faint but beautiful silhouette was rising above the city – Umaid Bhawan Palace.
Umaid Bhawan Palace is the last grand palace built in India. Divided into three functional parts, it houses a Museum, the current royal incumbent’s, Gaj Singh II, residency and a luxurious Taj Palace hotel. Built in 1929, the 347-room edifice was designed by the Brit Henry Lanchester for Maharaja Umaid Singh. It took 15,000 workers, 15 years and a whooping amount of money to complete. The building is mortarless and incorporates 100 wagon loads of Makrana marble and Burmese teak in interior. Apparently its construction began as a royal job-creation program during the time of severe drought. Currently, only the museum part of the palace is open for public, while access to the rest of the Palace is reserved for those, who stay or dine (another way to get into the palace as I found out) at Taj hotel or King’s court.
Rs.60 would get you a ticket to the Museum, which displays photos of the palace’s interior as well as its past and current kings, a collection of european and Chinese clocks and table wear. Across from the museum is a Maharaja’s large collection of highly polished classic cars.
After checking out a small museum and cars, Sunil drove back to the city and dropped us off by the Clock Tower in the center of Sardar Bazar. It was packed with people and Nicco worried whether I would safe being there alone. There were two things (besides visiting a police office again) that I wanted to do. Primarily, I wanted to order a custom-made set of 3 feet tall gangaurs for my apartment in New York, which I successfully did from J.G. Art & Crafts shop, whose owner took my order and promptly one week later delivered the gangaurs to my friend’s house in Delhi. And the second thing was to buy the world famous teas and spices from M.V. Spices (shop number 209-B, inside the vegetable market near the Clock Tower). Run by 3 sisters, this place is famous to have the best teas in all of India. The shop attendant made me a few different teas to try and 30 minutes later, I left the shop with a bag full of teas, vanilla and saffron. Be aware that many shops in Jodhpur try to imitate M.V. Spices because of their stellar reputation and multiple mentioning in different travel guides; pay attention to the name of the shop you enter, it is not M.M.V. Spices and not V.M. Spices or any other derivation of those or any other letters. On the way to my hotel, I have also purchased a dozen of bangles from a master himself which pleased him and his clients who helped me to pick the right ones, since, apparently, I have very big hands and not all Indian bangles fit me.
Despite having the Haveli’s card with a map printed with me, I still couldn’t find it in the network of complicated streets, so I asked a few people to show me a direction. Every Hindu person told me that Shahi guest house didn’t exist, as if I never spent a night there, but one Muslim boy came to me and told me that he would escort me there because Durgah where he was going to attend his evening prayer, was a block away from the Haveli. And indeed, he took me straight to the hotel.
I was told to inform the owner of the hotel about the rape accident, but Shahi was at the wedding when I arrived and since I was leaving the town at 6 am next morning, I knew I couldn’t seek help from him. I had a quiet dinner at the restaurant overlooking the exact hill where I was attacked 10 hours earlier, and then went to bed. Needless to say that it was a sleepless night, events that took place that day compounded by the crazy music coming from the Hindu temple across the street kept me awake all night.