It’s a fair old way from northern Karnataka to southern Rajasthan but we decide to get the travelling over with as quickly as possible, so 2 nights (in Mumbai and Ahmedabad) and 2 long and very crowded train journeys later we find ourselves in the Land of Kings (the literal translation of Rajasthan).
It’s starting to feel like we’re living on train food these days – samosas, pakoras, unidentified taboule-like stuff and chai. In fact I was going to name this blog entry ‘Snacks on a Train’ – a rather cheesy pun on that dreadful film starring Samuel Jackson that you feel compelled to watch purely on the name alone…
I openly admit that we are pretty cavalier about our food with regards to hygiene but, touch wood, neither of us has been sick so far and I am a strong believer in challenging the immune system! A conversation with two very sweet and very green backpackers in Sravanabelagola who wanted my advice on the hazards of lassis took me back to the days when I too was deeply suspicious of everything that was set in front of me on a plate or in a glass but in truth it’s been many years since I’ve been an overly cautious eater while travelling. My greatest/stupidest moment may be in 2004 in Hunza Valley when I asked a rather skeptical Pakistani shop keeper to turn on his Mr. Whippy machine (which looked like it had been out of action for a while) because I fancied an ice-cream. He and Rich both watched askance as I happily chomped my way through that gastrointestinal minefield but in fact nothing bad came of it and since then I’ve been seemingly blessed with a pretty strong stomach.
So food aside (which we seem to be obsessed with, to the point where Rich was almost barred from an all-you-can-eat thali place) here we are in the beautiful land of Rajasthan, one of the poorest and most conservative states in India, in spite of it’s popularity as a tourist destination. Still an extremely male-dominated society, one half of all village girls are married by the age of 15 (although 18 is the legal minimum). Suttee, the custom of burning a widow alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, is claimed to have last been practiced here as recently as 1987 and literacy rates are shockingly low, especially amongst women. Rajasthan also achieves high to middling marks in the crazy stakes; in one tribe near Jodhpur (the Bishnoi) women breast feed an endangered species of deer. I say ‘high to middling’ because nationwide it does face some pretty stiff competition when you consider that in Orissa a woman married a snake and in West Bengal another married a tree….
Anyhow…first thing we notice here is that mornings and evenings are cold! I feel a bit off complaining about that when I know the UK is currently 10 inches deep in snow, but compared to what we’ve been used to it’s chilly and in a hot place like Rajasthan nowhere is properly set up for it really – so out come the long sleeves and down gear (see above right!). During a particularly cold snap this January over 150 people have died throughout north India which we are at first shocked to hear, until we remember just how many people there are in north India. Hey – probably more people die every day from being bitten by snakes. Snakes that they’re married to.
Our time here takes us to two of my favourite places in the whole of India; Udaipur and Jaisalmer. Despite many visits to these towns during my tour leading days I’m still keen to come back to take the photos I never had the time or equipment to capture on previous occasions. Udaipur and Jaisalmer, although both wonderful are quite different in lots of ways. Udaipur is polished by Indian standards – full of midrange hotels, clean streets, urbane individuals and a plethora of rooftop restaurants with THAT view – of Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace (see image above). It’s touted as the ‘Most Romantic City in the World’ and with good cause – it’s truly incredible. If you only visit one city in Rajasthan this should be it, in my opinion. It’s my birthday while we’re here too so we celebrate with a spot of afternoon tea at the Fateh Prakash hotel – food again!
Where Udaipur is watery, Jaisalmer is all about earth – it’s a dry, sandy place in the middle of the Thar Desert and the city, magnificent fort (see image right, taken from the roof of our guesthouse), intricately carved houses or havelis (see image below left) and everything around it are a golden brown colour. Perhaps it’s the town’s historical legacy of banditry but there is a definite edginess here that is missing in most of Rajasthan; the feel of a frontier town and in fact Jaisalmer is only about 40 miles from the border with Pakistan. Udaipur and Jaisalmer both have a typically colourful Rajput history but where Udaipur has a tradition of honour and valour, the rulers of Jaisalmer built their wealth on cattle rustling and thievery and won renown not only for their bravery but also for their treachery. As with many Rajput kingdoms Udaipur and Jaisalmer have incidences of jauhar in their past, a form of mass suttee where the royal women, rather than fall into enemy hands, throw themselves enmasse onto a funeral pyre when it becomes clear that a battle is doomed to be lost and all their men-folk slaughtered. Jaisalmer has had two and a half cases of jauhar and if you’re wondering how you can half burn yourself to death what actually happened was that the Maharawal (local name for Maharaja) slaughtered all the court women himself during an attack on the fort when all his knights were out of town…. What a charmer!
But Rajasthan is no two trick donkey! Once you’ve filled your boots with palaces on lakes and desert fortresses there’s the holy lake at Pushkar, the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur and the teeming market at Jodhpur to visit. It’s no wonder that the majority of tourists to India come to Rajasthan – it’s the India you picture in your dreams; men in turbans leading camels through dusty streets with a backdrop of massive forts and delicate temples. If you haven’t been here before you simply must – no two ways about it.
Rajasthan has proved quite challenging when it comes to landscape photography mainly because there is a layer of pollution/dust/smog seemingly covering even small towns like Pushkar (shown in the image to the left). Traditionally the best times for photographing landscapes are just after sunrise or just before the sun sets when a lovely warm directional light is cast over the scene. Here, though the sun has to break through this layer of haze before it can create any shadows and by that time I’m finding that the colour of the light is already too white.
For this reason the best images I’ve taken here have tended to be well before sunrise or after sunset when city lights cast a lovely yellow light over buildings to contrast with the cold blue of the sky. Although Pushkar doesn’t have the floodlights of Udaipur or Jaisalmer, I feel the small pool of warm light from a street stall in this image, although subtle, makes the picture.
The general consensus amongst photographers is that night scenes of towns and cities are best taken when some light is still remaining in the sky, where the contrast of blue and yellow complement each other perfectly. This creates a fairly short window of around 10 minutes before the sky becomes black and the effect is lost.
This image was taken with a shutter speed of 2 secs and an aperture of f/11. I’ve used an ND grad to balance contract – as usual!