Amjer, Pushkar Nagaur & Bikaner  Fri 20 – Sat 28 November 2009    

Our next stop on the way through to Pushkar was  the town of Ajmer. The town - pretty dusty and hectic - is the site of a shrine of very major importance to muslims - apparently as a place of pilgrimage it is second only to Mecca. As we're not allowed to go there we thought we ought to visit here seeing as we were driving right by. The shrine is to a muslim saint - Khwaja Muin  Ud-Din - who lived and died here in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. He preached tolerance of all religions - which is why the shrine is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus and other faiths too who relate to aspects of his teachings.

 

 The walk through the bustling streets to the shrine went past numerous stalls selling caps to cover your head as well as flowers to throw on the shrine (and the local muslim toffees which are apparently a bit of a specialty!) The shrine is obviously a place of worship rather than set up for foreign tourists so we felt a bit lost when we got to the security gates (which  were thronging with masses of devotees) and weren't sure where to go. Thankfully a young guy came to our rescue. He wasn't a guide and didn't want money and we worked out he was put there just to rescue lost looking foreigners  (and no doubt stop them causing offence by doing the wrong thing!)  We were very grateful! We had to go through security and leave our shoes cameras and phones behind - so sorry no pictures of the shrine.

Akbar - the renowned mughal emperor - was a follower of the saint and he built a mosque here as well as donating a huge iron cauldron - of which there are now several - to be used to cook food which is dispensed to the poor. This is still done today and there are a lot of beggars - many in a distressing state with limbs missing - outside the shrine area. The architecture inside is very striking all immense gates, and courtyards with a lot of marble. The saint's tomb was like the one we visited in Fatehpur Sikri. You queued up to pay your respects and we had a cloth placed over our heads and were blessed. There then followed a request for a donation. Actually it went to a fund for needy muslim kids and seemed to be pretty legitimate so we didn't mind. It was pretty impressive and obviously a real big thing to many people to be here - a lot were praying with tears of emotion running down their faces.

 

We went for a good muslim lunch of mutton curry next - as Pushkar is very strictly a no meat town and we thought we'd have it whilst we could! After this we visited a local famous Jain temple. I've spoken of the Jains - a wealthy merchant class - before and they once were a big presence in this area. The Nasiyan or Red Temple was a very striking example of their work. We weren't allowed inside the main body of the temple but what we did see was amazing. Built by one very rich family in 1865 (who own it to this day) inside was a double storey hall filled with a diorama in golden depicting the Jain concept of the ancient world - which apparently had 13 continents and oceans including a flying city depicted in awesome detail in gold silver and precious gems. Apparently as temples go it is a real one off - which we can well believe!

 

 So, before night fell we took the  drive over scenic desert like Snake Mountain to arrive at the Hindu pilgrimage town of Pushkar.  Luckily we very quickly found a camp spot - in the grounds of the government run RTDC Hotel Sarovar. These hotels are usually a good bet for camping though they can be a bit soulless but this one was very nice and had a great setting on the lake - not that there was a lake but that's another story! We also had two canine camping companions Duke and Blackdog who moved under our truck and protected it with their lives - all in exchange for a pat every night! 

 

Pushkar is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus (although it also has a striking Sikh Gurdwara and a lot of Hisidic Jews - when we visited anyway!)  It is strictly pure vegetarian - no meat, fish or eggs are sold here, and also no alcohol. Ironically it seems to be a big centre for smoking hashish for  both westerners and sadus. The mixture of hippy travellers and pilgrims is a bit of an odd one and maybe explains why a few temples are strictly Hindu only. There are lists of rules to govern behavior everywhere including: "no smooching" "no hugging at the ghats" "no revealing clothing." Whilst  we were there everyone seem to interact well  and it was a friendly little town. The centre of the pilgrimages is the holy lake which Pushkar is built around. As mentioned before when we attended the lake was almost dry. Apparently there was a problem with the fish dying (it did look filthy!) so they were taking advantage of the drought to completely empty and clean the lake. This was undoubtedly a good idea but it did affect the atmosphere from our viewpoint!

Never mind we still saw the bathing gnats, the many temples (around 400) and sacred cows and fell asleep to the sound of drums and chanting so we did get into the spirit a bit!! Pushkar is significant as it is the only place which has a temple dedicated to Brahma -the 4 faced god- which is one of only a few in the world as the result of an ancient curse put on him by his consort saying he could only be worshipped in Pushkar! We had a look in the Brahma temple- again no cameras- to us it didn't look that different to many of the other temples!   These white domed buildings are dotted all around the lake (or non lake!) and do still look pretty as the sun drops. 

 

On the first day we were there the local elections were about to start and one of the party leaders was visiting. The streets were full of young guys on motorbikes hooning around town sporting  party colours - no doubt someone was paying them to do it!

We headed down to the ghats -there are 52 all around the lake- where we got our "Pushkar passport". This is where you are blessed and get a red bracelet tied on. A lot of people bath in the holy waters so photography is banned.  Our "priest" was a bit pushy for a donation but we only gave a small amount. We're now doubly blessed - by both Hindus and Muslims  in 2 days!!

 

Pushkar grew on me as it is an interesting little town - the chaotic shopping streets next to the many temples and the chanting and drum beating - it was fairly atmospheric though I couldn't stay for months at a time as many travellers apparently do. As it is a big centre for  travellers a lot of the poor desert people gravitate here where they make and sell various handicrafts. There are various other entrepreneurial money making ideas around - the little boy in our picture is dressed as Shiva the god of creation and destruction and he was posing for pictures - for a fee!    Sadly there are also a lot of beggars many of them very young kids.

 

As mentioned we missed the camel fair though we've now seen many camels as (with buffaloes and donkeys) they seem to be a major means of transport in these parts. The area  in the background of my picture with the 2 boys is the site of the camel and horse sales and was thronging with people just weeks ago. We'll try and come back one day for the fair.  

 On our last day in Pushkar we met some other overlanders,  Carina and Michael and Roxy have all driven from Germany by Landrover. Roxy as you can see in our picture is a cairn terrier - very like Mary Andrew's mums dog Toto - so it was really great to meet all 3 of them!  Our 2 dogs though were less than impressed and Roxy had to be protected, especially when she had the cheek to climb in "their" car i.e.) ours! We'd love to travel with a dog but I think Michael and Carina are brave as these  issues with territorial local dogs must happen all the time!

 

We got very fond of the dogs - it was nice being greeted whenever we came "home" with barks and wagging tails - so we were sad to leave. On our last morning in Pushkar we were lucky enough to meet Kush a really nice Indian guy on a trip with Shakti his brother in law to be just prior to his wedding to his fiancé Diyva. We really enjoyed meeting him and he was kind enough to invite us to his " simple wedding" in Jaisalmer at the end of the week.  We were soon to find that this description shows that all things are subjective - anyway we went and it was an amazing experience. You'll have to wait till our next page to hear all about it!

 

So after this fortuitous meeting on Wednesday 25 November we left Pushkar (and sadly Duke and Blackdog!) behind and headed north towards Makrana. This isn't a tourist destination by any means but we were interested to go as this is where the special white marble "white Makrana" of which the Taj Mahal was built is from. It is still a very dominant industry around here and we passed trucks laden with huge slabs of rock (worryingly often not tied down!) and camels buffaloes - and some poor little donkeys - laden down with carts full of roughly hewn marble.  

We stopped and looked at a couple of mines - as mentioned this really isn't a touristy area and we were swiftly mobbed! It didn't look like there'd been much in the way of progress health and safety wise since the Taj was built!!

 

The deep pits were being worked by hand - men were lowering each other down by ropes and we saw no hard hats or safety shoes at all. It looked like hard dangerous work!   Apparently there are over 800 mines in the area, and we were invited into one by the owner's son who spoke English and showed us  around. The machine in our picture is used to slowly cut the marble - one foot takes an hour - and the slabs produced are up to 5 feet thick!

 

We were directed to 2 places that deal more with the export market and thus had English speakers one RK Marble www.rkmarble.com exports slabs, and another Dhoo  Stonecarft - www.dhoostonecraft.com did more "value adding" producing incredibly beautiful carving. We'll be back for an order when we finally are ready to build the Hawkesbury mansion!!!

 

We headed on and stayed that night at Nagaur where the Hotel Mahaveer International kindly let us camp in their compound. We had a wander round that evening - again we were the focus of a lot of attention here! The town was fairly dusty but certainly had a lot of atmosphere. They seemed to have a real skill in dressing up their auto rickshaws here and all the drivers were desperate for us to take their pictures!  There was a bazaar going on and the usual chaos prevailed with goats, cows and pedestrians jostling for room.  The next morning we were up early to visits the town fort which was the main reason we'd decided to stop off here. Ahhichatragarh or Fort of the Hooded Cobra - is a massive 12th century monument - beautifully restored in an award winning project which was apparently financed by the Getty Foundation. There are 9  very upmarket apartments where you can stay (one the abodes of one of the maharajas 9 wives) as well as  very swanky tents and a good restaurant where you can camp in style! There is a camel & cattle fair here also - apparently more authentic than Pushkar's and less for the tourists - but this time we were too early - we can't win!!

 

The fort was very impressive - a huge assortment of buildings including a number of mosques (one built by Akbar for a disciple of the saint whose shrine we visited in Ajmer see above) and much richly carved marble & sandstone. The architecture was very cutting edge for its time with many cooling chimneys and water features inside to deal with the punishing Rajasthan summers. There were a network of viaducts which ran around the top of the place walls and fed the bathing areas and internal fountains keeping the building cool and eventually providing water for the gardens.

 

 

The real highlight though was the paintings in the palace complex - all done with vegetable colours these mainly depicted ladies in the harem. One showed a lady talking to a standing baba - one of a group of holy men who reach enlightenment through never sitting down! Thus in the picture he is seen leaning on a support. These exist to this day amazingly - they are mentioned in Gregory David's book "Shantaram."

 

The next stop was one I was approaching with trepidation. Deshnok is the site of the Karni Mata Temple which honours the goddess of that name. It is more commonly known as  "The Temple of Rats."  The belief is that the goddess' children never die - instead they are reborn as sacred rodents. In the next life they come back as men then as rodents etc etc   Thus various local families believe that the horde of sacred rodents which roam freely through the temple are their ancestors! You have to take off your shoes before entering. I really don't like rats so was pretty apprehensive. That morning at breakfast we'd been watching the little local squirrels playing and I tried to rationalize that the rats were similar so I would think of them as squirrels just missing the stripe and with hairless tails.  This vision vanished very quickly when we got there!

 

I made it in through the ornate beautiful marble and silver work doors past the gates into the courtyard until one ran over my foot and I was out of there handing over to Andrew! You have to remember for the pilgrims (who arrive by the busload) it is an important religious site so me screaming and leaping around might cause offence. That was my excuse anyway I was out of there!!!

 

Andrew stayed on to see the inner sanctum where devotees place yellow sweets in a bowl - let the rats crawl over them and slobber on them and then eat the "blessed "food!!!   Yeuch!!!!!!!   A lot of the sacred rodents looked a bit mangy to me- apparently this is a result of too much sugar! The devotees were bringing in veggies and milk to redress the balance.   Never again!!!

 

With relief (and after a good foot washing!) we drove on to Bikaner. By this time the landscape had stopped simply being arid and was very desert like. Rajasthan is definitely a particularly colourful state -the desert landscapes, the camels and the gorgeous people - the ladies with  nose rings, camel bone bangles &  wearing vivid colours  and the mens' bright turbans - provide  a lovely splash of colour against the sandy back drop. They are famed here for fantastic mirror inlaid embroidery work which you see for sale everywhere.

 

Bikaner itself isn't a particularly scenic town but it does have a few things of interest to see and is apparently far less touristy than the renowned "golden city" of Jaisalmer. On the way in we stopped off at the National Research Centre of Camels - a few kms out of town. With around 300 camels of 5 different breeds this is the biggest camel breeding centre in the world. Apparently insemination of local camels is free and some of the camels shown  in our picture are breeding stock.  Bikaner did very well in both the world wars  selling camels to the English for their war zone in Afghanistan!

 

There are 50-60 baby camels  produced here a year - they come in a variety of colours and are very cute. We rounded the trip off with a camel ice cream.

These animals are so versatile - they are a means of desert transport, their hair is spun into lovely warm clothes and blankets and jewelry is made of their bones - all of which are for sale here. The dairy produces milk soft cheese and ice cream - hard cheese can't be made as the fat content of camel milk is too low. They are trying to actively promote these milk products as they are very low in fat and thus healthy. We thought our ice creams were a bit too camelly for comfort!!! Their site (for a list of camel products available though I wouldn't trust the ice cream in the post!!) is www.inar.org.in/nrccm/home.html

 

 

We hit Bikaner as the sun was setting and were lucky enough to get a great  camping spot at the local government RTDC hotel Dhola Maru - they had a nice shady  garden area in which we could sit and generally they went out of their way to make  us very comfortable.

 

The next day we headed off to the main site of interest here - yes another fort - Junagarh. As you may have noticed Rajasthan has many forts and they tend to merge together after a while - but we'd been advised this one was really worth seeing. The basic structure was built in the 16th century by Raja Rai Singh - a favourite general of emperor Akbar's -but various increasingly opulent extras were added by future generations of maharajas. Whilst unusually this fort isn't on a hill top it still managed never to be conquered. Even despite a bit of "fort fatigue" we both found it incredibly impressive.

 

The internal work - carvings in marble, gold painting and exquisite miniatures were quite jaw droopingly impressive. The school of miniature art grew here. These are paintings done using brushes of one hair thickness which you have to view  through a magnifying glass to see the detail. Everywhere the skills and attention to detail were phenomenal - these people were amazing artisans.

 

One room had a blue sky - supposed to give the impression of rain so the maharaja could sit in it and feel the illusion of a downpour  in the scorching summer months. You wouldn't need it in the UK!

 

There was a huge carved hall showcasing generations of maharajas' weapons and a display of nails used by sadus in the old "bed of nails" trick. The Bikaner area was renowned for fire dancing - by which holy men (a Hindu sect the Jas Naths) dance on hot coals feeling no pain and the dancing on swords and nails routines are an extension of this. Various black and white photos illustrate the displays once put on for visiting dignitaries. The fire dances are now only performed on festival days. 

 

 

On one gate at the fort's entrance there were many sculptures of hands. Apparently these commemorate Satis - women who choose to die on their husband's funeral pyre and thus honor the goddess Sati Mata. These women were the widows of warriors killed in battle. Whilst this practice existed throughout India it was particularly prevalent in Rajasthan - indeed the last one took place in 1987!  Understandably this one ( a one off!) caused a lot of controversy and court proceedings!

 

Finally we climbed to the roof to get a good view over the whole complex including the landscaped gardens.  This was one of the most impressive forts  we've seen to date.

We next planned to visit the old city though we knew we couldn't get our car there so we took an auto rickshaw.  This turned out to be a really good move as Krishna as well as driving us around all the points of interest was an excellent guide and unparalleled source of local information. He comes highly recommended as a guide for the area - contact him on 9829145362 for a great tour of Bikaner. He clearly loved his city!

 

The old city is enclosed in a 7km long wall with 5 entrances which was built in the 18th century. It was chaos driving within them - especially as on the way we encountered at least half a dozen marching wedding bands and mobile sound systems alongside the usual jumble of camel carts, stray  cows etc We had a look around the old bazaar which was  very atmospheric and not at all touristy.

 

Rajasthan is famed for Havelis a particularly style of house built mainly for rich merchants with exquisite carving - we were to see many more of these in Jaisalmer. 

We then saw 2 very ornate Jain temples built in the 15th century by 2 very rich brothers who were both childless but keen that their name should live on. Whilst there we met the temple priest - the 23rd generation of the same family to hold this office!

 

The larger temple "Bhandasar" was particularly stunning- full of lovely vibrant paintings and with a very elaborately gold  painted ceiling., with inserted cooling blue clouds - in the same manner as at the fort. Due to water shortages in the area the foundations were built using ghee or butter rather than water - which apparently oozes through the floors making the temples unusable on very hot days! The marble carved pillars were lovely. We climbed up to the roof for a great view down over the city roof tops. The second smaller temple "Sandeshwar" had excellent carving and marble images of the Jain gods. Both were worth a visit.   

 

Finally as the sun was setting we drove out to the Devi Kund cenotaphs or monuments to the dead maharajahs. There are many groups of cenotaphs here but this is the largest with 366 monuments dating back over several centuries to present day.  One of the most imposing - that of Maharaja Surat Singh- was all in marble but many were in red sandstone with marble inlay work. There were a lot commemorating  Sati widows and the most recent - over 100 years old thankfully!- has become a shrine with people visiting to tie on threads and pray for divine intervention in a variety of matters.  These women are still very much revered particularly in rural parts of the state. The sunset made a lovely backdrop to the cenotaphs.  

 

 Before we left Krishna he took us to see Raju Swami a renowned miniature painter. This artist has exhibited all over  Europe and now works here teaching this art so it doesn't die out. His family has  practiced this art for generations, much work being done on royal appointment.  He had done an amazing picture of a banyan tree  with almost 18,000 leaves - each of which could be identified separately when viewed through a magnifying glass! This picture put him in the Guinness book of records!   We had a wedding present to buy and so got one of his depictions of a wedding procession for Kush & Diyva. We planned to get it framed (as well as scrape together a half decent outfit each!)  en route!  To have a look at Raju's work see his site www.rajuswami.com

 

Krishna was a great guide keen that we miss nothing so the next morning on his  recommendation we left  via the Laxmi Niwas Palace. Now a luxury hotel this beautiful building  had gorgeous ornate carvings all over the front façade, as well as a truly immaculate doorman!  It was a bit beyond us price wise (we knew before asking! ) but if you fancy a splurge it looked an amazing place to stay have a look www.laxminiwaspalace.com

 

Everyone there was very busy setting up for a big wedding that evening - which reminded us we also had a wedding to attend.  So on Friday 28 November we drove on through the desert (and across 3 railway crossings all of which we had to stop and wait at!) to our next destination the golden city of Jaisalmer - and more importantly to Kush & Diyva's wedding.