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Of Monkeys and Maharajas

As I come to my last blog post about my amazing trip to Rajasthan, I think back to the people I met along the way; I think about the sights I’ve encountered which seem to come from another world; I think about how crazy an opportunity it is to be alone, wandering through India, and experience this country on the ground.

For all the complaining I’ve done about the tourism and how aggressive it can be, I’ve also been blessed with my fair share of what we call ‘authenticity’.

In Jodhpur I somehow found my way through steep windy side-streets to a small plateau just below the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, where a small Durga Temple overlooked the setting sun. Many of the houses in the Old City of Jodhpur are painted blue to indicate the Brahmins - the priestly caste - who live there. The priest of the temple invited me to sit with him on the rooftop, where I spent over an hour chatting with him and his family (who also live in the temple) in Hindi. His father told me about his days working on the railways, and his sister and her son sang me English lullabies he had learnt in school. Another sister brought me a chai and I sat, dangling my legs over the edge of the Temple and the steep cliff drop below, while the blues of Jodhpur shifted to orange and then to darkness.

Bikaner was delightfully un-touristy. Lying in the northern part of Rajasthan, out of the way of most tourist-trails, I felt like many people in the packed markets had never seen a foreigner. Children called me over while they lounged on parked motorbikes to take photos of them. Women smiled as they tried to sell me bangles and bananas. The touristy-aggression I had encountered in many other cities was replaced by genuine smiles and interactions.

I spent my last day in Bikaner wandering through the dusty lanes. An old (and probably senile) woman was sitting on a hard, low bench. She smiled and beckoned me over. She only spoke Marwari, the local language of Rajasthan. She scooted over towards an equally old-looking woman, who I later learned was her daughter. I sat down next to her. She called for chai, and we sat drinking together. A crowd gathered. Everybody wondered what I was doing there. Nobody understood my broken Hindi, and for the next half-hour, the extended family who had appeared from nowhere asked every passerby if they spoke English and could translate for us. I tried to tell them about my travels, about my job in Mumbai, even where I came from, but they didn’t understand any of it. We spent a long time smiling at each other and communicating very little.

Despite the lack of hordes of tourists in these cities, they were still every bit as grande as the tourist hotspots. Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur was one of my favourites, elaborately covered with tiny intricate designs carved straight into the sandstone. Junagarh Fort in Bikaner was beautiful with its pink stone walls rising high against the cloudy grey skies. Apart from a few package tours, I saw very few tourists even within the Palace. One bored security guard even opened up some of the locked doors for me so I could see some of the decorative glass and mirror work which is usually off-limits.

The blue-washed buildings of Jodhpur’s Old City create a whole new world of ancient rituals and crumbling architecture. Many non-Brahmins also paint their houses blue now, and the combined effect of varying shades of blue contrasted with yellow rickshaws and saturated sarees was amazing.

But perhaps the greatest contrast was that in the very make-up of the culture. Ancient palaces - many still housing the descendants of the royal families - are lined with beggars selling 5-rupee flowers and cotton candy on sticks. Monkeys climb the priceless engravings on the walls, while audio-guides tell tales of Maharajahs whose feet never touched the ground as they were carried from place to place in crystal palanquins. And the palanquins are set out for view, behind large glass panels, for visitors to admire and reminisce about the high days of the Rajput clans.

There was a tradition in India that was quite prominent until the mid-1800's, in villages and royal courts alike. Sati involves a wife, or often many wives, self-immolating themselves on the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands. Wives would wait at the gates of the palaces as the men came back from war, to see their fate. If they were to commit sati, a symbolic handprint would be carved into the palace entrance to commemorate their noble actions. Many of these handprints remain till today, often decorated with flowers and other offerings left by visiting pilgrims.

And while sati today might be outlawed (although it is still rumoured to be practiced in some interior villages), the customs and rituals which I saw across Rajasthan are still very much alive. Here in Mumbai I get used to my surroundings, things don't shock me. These outposts of Rajasthan showed me a whole different India, a part of this country I'd never seen before. As I'm writing this I'm about to set out on another journey, this time to the deep South of the subcontinent, where I'll surely find an India as vastly different as the one I encountered in the North.

The Temple I visited in Jodhpur was dedicated to the goddess Durga. Durga is characterised by her many arms and the tiger she is often pictured on. The priest pointed out the giant tiger sculpture in the main offering area. He showed me each of Durga's arms, each brandishing a different weapon.

Durga was created to fight the invincible buffalo demon Mahisashur. None of the other gods could overcome him, so each gifted their most potent strength to Durga so that she could go forth and destroy him. She was gifted the face of Shiva, the arms of Vishnu, and the feet of Brahma. The other gods all gave her weapons to fight with. Durga is seen both as a ferocious destroyer of evil and as a nurturing mother figure. Everything about her seems to be a conglomeration of different ideas, often contrasting with each other.

Just like India. From the bustling market square of Jodhpur to the sprawling desert just outside the ancient town walls; from the bejewelled bangles of Bikaner's bazaars to the trash heaps piled behind them; from the smiling children dressed in rags to their dishevelled grandmothers squatting in the dust below. And from Jaisalmer to Calcutta, Dharamshala to Kanyakumari, and the thousands of miles of train tracks that run between them, the contradictions are immense. But so are the moments of harmony that fill the spaces.

I arrived in Jodhpur late at night, and found my way to a fourth-floor hotel room only several inches larger than the bed inside it. I awoke early to make the most of my day, and upon opening the door of my room was greeted with the exact moment of the sun appearing from behind the fierce Mehrangarh Fort towering over the city rooftops; The solitude of a sweeperwoman sweeping in the early morning, before the tourists arrive, where it's just her and her bamboo broom and hundreds of years of history; the sacks of grains lined up endlessly in the markets, in total chaos but total order.

But it's that tension that makes it exciting - the pull between the harmony and the contradictions. In Judaism we call this Tiferet - the synthesis of moments that pull apart from each other. Tiferet means beauty, glory, harmony - Tiferet is what we strive for. And so as I finish writing about Rajasthan and head out for my last Indian journey South, I'm excited to continue finding these moments of tension, and to share them with the people around me.

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