25, 2003 -> India: Week 2
* Please read "India Unembellished"
first; it provides
the backdrop for these observations.
Jaisalmer: The Fort at the Edge of the Desert
We took an early morning train from Jodhpur
Jaisalmer. Our AC carriage was comfortable - though
it had its share of roaches. Compared to the bus
journey, it was paradise. No one to pass, a steady
speed, far safer. Though, of course, Indian trains do
occasionally derail and plunge into rivers, or collide
head-on (most signaling is still manual). No one ever
sits in their assigned seats, so finding two seats
next to each other was often a bit of a struggle. Tea
and food vendors walk down the aisles, and the toilets
were surprisingly clean.
A number of Indian soldiers slept in the front
carriage. They were on their way to the Jaisalmer
military base, the last outpost before the Pakistan
border - the so-called "Line of Control." The
long-raging border dispute between India and Pakistan
over the northern Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir
had ratcheted up a notch. Pakistan's President
Musharraf had just done a bit of sabre-rattling at the
United Nations, and the Indian papers were full of
vitriolic attacks on the President and Pakistan in
general. "We will never give up Indian territory,"
high government official thundered, "not one inch!"
As if to drive home the claim, Indian jets roared
overhead several times each day we were in Jaisalmer.
Jaisalmer sits at the edge of the Thar Desert,
six hours away from Jodhpur by train. Ever since I
had first read about the city (when I had planned a
canceled trip to Rajastanh four years ago) I had
dreamed of seeing its hilltop fort. After Meherangarh
in Jodhpur, however, the fort seemed small and
unimpressive, but the city had a certain charm. The
main lanes for servicing the tourists were too small
for cars, so felt much more peaceful. The shop owners
seemed relaxed. The only people we had to look out
for were the very aggressive camel safari touts.
We spent much of our two days wandering about
the labyrinthine inner fort, where Nori had her hands decorated
with henna and I had such a vigorous (and comprehensive) massage
that I told Nori after wards "I'm not sure, but I may
have just been violated." On one of the many rooftop
cafes (every rooftop without a cafe, it seemed, was busy building
one), we both laughed as several white couples came in separately,
each man with dreadlocks, each woman in full Indian get-up.
They sat near each other, in what we imagined was the Dreadlock
Jaipur: The Pink City?
When we arrived by train into the Pink City,
met by Babu, a clever rickshaw driver who showed us a
notebook full of testimonials. "Babu must be the only
honest rickshaw driver in India," a woman from the
Netherlands had written. While Nori went to the
ticket office to look into trains to Agra (site of the
Taj Majal), I sat and talked with Babu. Nearby, was
a large group of very dirty people slouching on a
"How do they live?" I asked. There
were so many of
them. So many children.
"They are beggar people," Babu replied.
"Do any of them have jobs?"
"No. Only begging."
"Did they have jobs before?"
"No. Generation of beggars."
"Why, if they are so poor, do these people
"Many of the women are prostitutes at night.
don't use the condom, so they are pregnant."
"That's horrible." And then, a strange
"Yes. And another big problem is the Muslims.
have so many children - even if they are poor. Many
problems, these people."
Jodhpur was actually blue, but Jaipur's nickname
completely inappropriate. The once pink buildings of
the old town had darkened to a sooty salmon color from
decades of exhaust. The Hawa Majal (Palace of Winds)
was in dire need of reconstruction, its tiered facade
(a pyramid of Mughal alcoves) looked ready to
collapse, and every wall was covered in mostly Indian
graffiti. Nearby was Jantar Mantar, the observatory
of Jai Singh, a collection of structures used to track
the stars and planets. I thought back to Uzbekistan
when I read that Ulug Bekh had been a major
inspiration for Jai Singh - the large, recessed
sundial just outside of Samarkand had been enlarged
and brought above ground in Jaipur, but the design was
obviously the same.
Agra: The Taj
The sun was rising, and we were still at least
from the Taj.
"We stop at art shop?" our rickshaw
"No!" we shouted in unison. We had
told him yesterday
that we wouldn't pay him if he tried to take us to
places that we didn't want to go. But he was
"Just for looking, it is good shop!"
In a country full of touts and scams, Agra is
infamous. Only a few years ago, certain restaurants
in the tourist area were purposefully giving patrons
food poisoning so that unscrupulous local doctors
could make money treating the victims.
We made it just in time, rushing through large
courtyards, and under massive gates to the long,
marble walkway that led to the Taj. The rising sun
imparted a pinkish hue to the great white dome of the
Taj, which reflected in the pools along the approach.
The Taj Mahal is certainly one of the most stunning
sights in the world - and unlike many of India's
'sights' is truly worthy of all the accolades. It is
rare for a building so large to be both powerful and
The Taj is a tomb for the obviously much
of Shah Jahan. Though he had plans to be buried in a
similar (but black) mausoleum across the Yamuna river,
Shah Jahan never got his wish. He was imprisoned by
his son in a corner of Agra Fort, from where he could
only gaze at his wife's beautiful resting place.
Having just spent time in central Asia, we did not
need a guidebook to tell us that central Asian
builders had been involved in the construction. The
Taj was like a white madrassah, with a tall entrance
'pishtak' (similar patterns in the triangular range),
detached minarets, and a giant onion dome dropped on top.
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