Sunday, 10 June 2012

Travel: Jodhpur ~ Shades of royalty

Umaid Bhavan palace

(I wrote this piece in 2001)

Jodhpur claims it has a direct line to the legendary Lord Rama. In what way? This imperial capital of the former Marwar State in Rajasthan was founded by Rao Jodha, chief of the Rathore clan of Rajputs, in 1459 A.D. And the Rathores claim to be direct descendants of the epic hero. 

The city, which is currently the second-largest in Rajasthan, became a major trade centre in the 16th century. Situated at the edge of the Thar desert, it resonates with tales of antiquity and royalty.

Rajput lore surrounds us at the majestic 15th-century Mehrangarh fort that soars 125 metres above the city on a rocky hill. The 5-km long, apparently impregnable structure was built by Rao Jodha at the heart of his city. Stolidly invincible from the e xterior, long and winding roads lead to Mehrangarh's four gates. In tune with the fortress mentality, Jodhpur is encompassed by a high wall -- 10 km long with eight gates -- and innumerable bastions.

Within Mehrangarh's battlements, we come across an array of palaces, each with an evocative name -- Moti Mahal, Phool Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, Sileh Khana and Daulat Khana. Collectively they showcase fabulous trappings of Indian royalty, including palanquins, elephant howdahs, miniature paintings, musical instruments, costumes and furniture. 

The blue city at the base of Mehrangarh fort

After a steep climb up stairs worn smooth by antiquity, we catch our breath with wonder. Before us is an array of magnificent outfits, apparently made for generous royal girths. The angarkhan-style kurtas in the display case seem fit for a regal giant. Beautifully ornamented with zardosi work or tailored from Banarasi brocades, these garments transport us to imaginary durbars.

As we wind through another sun-lit passage en route to an assemblage of palanquins, we come to a dead halt. In a cranny between two ancient doors sits a dignified elderly man with a fierce moustache, surrounded by relics of a bygone age. On his lap rests a sword sheathed in red silk, while an elaborately embellished shield rests on the wall behind him. As he puffs at the hookah by his elbow, the mid-day sun glints off his safa or turban of burnt gold.

We edge into a conversation in broken Hindi, when he ushers us to a priceless view of Jodhpur below from a stone-latticed window. ``Look,'' he says, twirling the tip of his moustache, ``ours is a blue city.'' Why, we ask. ``To keep the houses warm in w inter and cool in summer,'' he confides.

We reluctantly leave Mehrangarh, passing by an exquisite palanquin edged with gold, its lacquered finish dulled by the desert sun.

As we gaze entranced, it's easy to imagine a dazzling princess in an elaborate silk poshaak or outfit crouched within its confines, her face hidden by a deeply drawn veil.

Close by, we stop to listen to an exquisite flute melody from a white-clad musician perched within the ramparts, his orange sash hinting at the bandhini that adorns his safa. He plays on, unmindful of the gaggle of tourists who stop to listen, in tune with flautists in ancient Mehrangarh.

His tune lingers on as we drive to Jaswant Thada, a cluster of royal cenotaphs in white marble built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II in 1899. At the entrance, we come across an enchanting sight -- a family of itinerant musicians playing folk tunes. The father plays with zest on the ravanahatta, a traditional stringed instrument, while his tiny sons -- clad in rustic outfits -- literally dance to his tune. They are aware that spirited steps add to the family coffers , evident from the 10-rupee notes tucked into the rims of their tiny turbans.

Within the main cenotaph of Jaswant Thada is a hall filled with portraits of Jodhpur rulers. Along the railings are fluttering flags, which turn out to be handkerchiefs, paper towels and even baggage-tags tied by believers in search of a boon!

The regal route next takes us north to Mandore, the former capital of Marwar. This popular picnic spot, 8 km from Jodhpur, contains royal cenotaphs. But its main attraction is undoubtedly the Hall of Heroes, which has 15 Hindu deities carved on to a soaring rock face.

Back to contemporary times, our last stop is Umaid Bhavan Palace. Partly converted into a Welcomgroup hotel, the palace is still inhabited by the royal scions -- Gaj Singh and his family. The sprawling palace, with its magnificent gardens, is based on an intense human story. It is the only 20th-century palace built under the Government's famine relief project over 16 years to help victims survive. Maharaja Umaid Singh's opulent sandstone edifice houses an unusual museum with limited access. A wing of the palace, manned by handsome Rajput personnel, houses relics of the family -- gold-edged Dresden and Wedgewood dinner sets, an unbelievable range of clocks, intricate writing tables and classic pens to match and even samples of the family crest on crockery, uniforms, shields and other items. 

Dal bati churma
 Finally, we decide to round off the flavours of Jodhpur by sampling traditional local fare. So we dip into steaming bati, which is atta kneaded with ghee and roasted over embers after the fragrant dal has simmered for hours. To accompany the dal-bati, we have churma, made from the same dough which is sweetened and crumbled.

Though Jodhpur is now a distant memory, its royal relics remain richly alive, as alive as the taste of dal-bati-churma -- food for rich and poor alike -- on our tongue, especially on winter days.

(The Hindu Business Line 2001)

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