Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Chasing sand dunes, our beloved safari

Ordinarily we might’ve flipped a coin; heads -- mountains, tails -- beaches. Except mountains had been done too often, and year-end beach holidays, we figured were becoming “waaay too bourgeois”. That, along with the more truthful reason -- no Goa tickets -- decided for us that we were going on a desert safari. There were to be four of us -- college cronies, all -- embarking on this glamorous Rajasthan safari of ours. But all didn’t quite work out as planned -- ditching being the key verb -- and only two remaining eager beavers -- friend B and I -- were still on for the trip. It was still going to be fun; we solemnly vowed (and frantically hoped).

First stop Jaipur. First lesson learnt book tickets in advance. Apparently the Goa sour grapes episode taught us both little, and departure was delayed till we got ourselves booked on a non-deluxe, non-AC Volvo from Delhi to the Pink City. Since friend B’s pappy unlike my own is still very much in the Army -- a reasonably big shot at that -- us two brat girls depended on him to double up as travel agent cum sundry troubleshooter.We reached Jaipur on Christmas Eve. Very much in the spirit of yuletide, to get a feel of the festivities, and photograph ourselves with pretty Christmas trees we headed straight to the nearest unaffordable heritage hotel -- the Ram Bagh Palace. Tourist hot spots Amer Fort, Hawa Mahal etc had been done on earlier occasions, and all we wanted after the Delhi-Jaipur bus ride were pretty surroundings, and something hot to drink. The hotel staff though had other ideas, so when we asked for directions to the coffee shop, they cited inane “houseful” excuses, and politely turned us away. Amateur sleuths that we take ourselves to be; on our way out we discovered a delicately lit unpopulated space with smiling waiters. We left, and headed for humbler shelters, when what added insult to injury was the tepid coffee at the Jaipur Barista, saying nothing of the unpalatable walnut brownie.

Ajmer and Pushkar were more fun, Pushkar moreso. Not far from Jaipur -- Ajmer is under 150 kms away, and Pushkar from Ajmer is close enough to cycle to even. (Not that we did, but there were tempting Café Pink Floyd milestone/ sign boards en route that might’ve kept us peddling faster). In Ajmer there’s not much to do or see unless you’re Mayo College Alumnus or dust is your thing. Other than the exalted Ajmer Sharif dargah of course, where we missed Aishwarya Rai by a day, but still paid our respects at the final resting place of the Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti.
One has to walk through a narrow lane leading up to the dargah which cuts through a heavily populated bazaar, bustling with activity. Gazes need to be averted and breath momentarily held while passing through the many mutton shops with their recently slaughtered animals on display. You know you’ve reached the shrine once you can sight the flood of footwear being managed outside, and fakirs begging in the name of the saint. Smells become more pleasant as we enter the dargah, passing long aisles of rose petals distributed in baskets, and being readied to carry overhead as holy offerings. Inside is crowded and the air heavy with incense, as pilgrims – and not just muslims, urgently flock towards the nazrana or the tomb of the saint.
It’s a big compound, beautifully ornate, with plenty of scope for photography as well as prayer. There is also such a monument as the “Adhai-din ka Jhonpra”, very near the dargah marketplace. This Islamic structure – and the name says it all – is said to have been put together in two and a half days by Mohammed Ghori. The archways are delicately carved; the pillars have inscriptions from the Koran, and it’s only natural to walk away from the site with the lingering thought that leaves you completely stumped -- “Two and a half days huh...”

Now Pushkar was a definite highpoint. Even though the cattle fair wasn’t on, and we still hadn’t borne witness to Ms Rai controversy her way through the only Brahma temple there is, the religious hub with all its new age twists totally lived up to expectations one had by word of mouth stories. You can’t miss the Pushkar Lake, nor can you help encounter touts busy hanging around in priest avatars promising assistance in washing away your sins, provided you part with a few hundred rupee notes. How much of the melee you give into is a question of personal faith, but it may not be a bad idea to keep an eye on your wallet in all such places of worship.

Post our date with history we moved on to appease our shopping starved souls, and what we did for the rest of the day was exactly that – indulged in flea market depravity.
With black poly bags full of purchased Pushkar memories, we headed back to Jaipur, all set to head for Bikaner early next morning.
It has to be mentioned that roads in the part of Rajasthan we drove on were smooth, well maintained and all too conducive for friend B and I perfecting the art of nodding off at the mere turn of an ignition key.Bikaner was like homecoming, as B had family stationed there. So besides being pampered silly, and stuffed with all kinds of deliciously fattening food, we did the rounds of forts and the neighbouring hotels, taking in every little detail, at the same time giggling and fighting like we used to in school. At the Junagarh fort, we stooped low enough to frighten our rather plump middle aged guide into imagining he had high cholesterol, and a weak heart, which is why it would do him good to race us right to the top of the fort. For his worried expression, gasping and wheezing, we shall burn in hell.

Our next adventure was another religious excursion. Deshnokh, on the outskirts of Bikaner – 32 kms away — is where the intriguing Karni Mata temple or the rat temple is located. Thousands of rats inhabit this temple, and legend has it that they’re the children of the resident goddess Karni Mata. There’s also a reincarnation angle, while spotting a white rat amongst the hordes of revered greys is supposed to be very auspicious. It is said when plague broke out in the country, nothing happened here in Deshnokh. We let out excited shrieks when the very first rat that we saw was a white one, and we photographed it like women possessed! How one perceives the insides of the temple with rats running everywhere, including over the prashaad thali is again a question of individual belief and tolerance, but there’s something to be said for the sheer number of devotees, and their unwavering faith in the resident Goddess.

So with that to think about, and with days running short, all that we were left with to see were Jaisalmer and a glimpse of sand dunes, that had been eluding us till then. A six hour drive, and 330 kms away, we were in Jaisalmer. Almost anxious to see the dunes, we fast forwarded our way past the Jaisalmer fort, and all similarly exotic sites. And it was well worth it! We finally arrived at Sam (pronounced ‘sum’), which is another 40 kms away from the Golden City Jaisalmer, and had a more than fabulous time camel riding, kicking and rolling in very fine sand, and finally watching the sunset in permutations of orange-red that we didn’t know existed. If any part of Rajasthan has to be skipped, don’t let it be the sand dunes at Sam, for it is here that you can’t tell whether the details overwhelm more than the whole, or the other way round.


IR said...

nice blog

the temple towns tell their own story,
some belive in Rats while other s belive in the healing powers of a dead man's samadhi!

dmb said...

don't know how this well written travel piece got just one comment.

the dunes are supposed to be amazing, no?