In search of the Incredible India, Uday K Chakraborty rediscovers the fabled land.
A woman in a dazzling sari slowly climbs the steps of the pool at Gadhisar in Jaisalmer. She is barefoot, her ankle ringed with silver anklet, and she carries her copper pot like a queen. The simple, alchemical magic of Rajasthan makes a goddess of a peasant. Of all India’s provinces, this “land of Kings” (to translate its name) surely works the most powerful charm.
Between the steppes of Punjab and the plains of Gujarat, Rajasthan is the living incarnation of the Indian soul. Rajasthan is filled with romantic legends and heroic sagas. To journey through Rajasthan is to journey through history. Their history is one of chivalry and honour. Tales of heroes and heroines abound. This state has all the ingredients of a bygone era: forts and palaces, prince and princes, camel safaris, turbaned men and wide eyed women.
Even today, the legendary land still echoes with the memory of the great chivalrous deeds that shaped its history. The Rajput lords were sons of the kings and proclaimed themselves the descendents of the “line of fire”, or Kshatriyas, a warrior cast of ancient origin. Rajputs once fought all foreign invaders of northern India. For years they bore the brunt of Muslim invasions until they made military and marital alliances with the great Mogul empire, which opened an era of stability and prosperity and, with it, artistic revival. Whether its royal cities or its undulating deserts, romance of Rajasthan remains a continuing fascination for me since our childhood.
Progress has come to Rajasthan but the land still retains its old-world charm, hearkening to an era when the countryside was covered in lush forests that sheltered deer and bear, tiger, wild boar and elephants. As in the past, Rajasthan today is an intoxicating land of mountains and deserts, walled cities and maharajah’s palaces. The people are visually some of the most exotic in the world. The women drape themselves in brilliantly coloured swathes of cloth and even in the most barren rural areas are heavily laden with gold and silver jewelry. And the men are just as fascinating as the women.
Traditional rural folks are tall, simple, proud, and often sport fierce “soup-strainer’ moustaches and are topped with voluminous and dazzling turbans. With their earrings and curly-toed shoes they seem to have stepped from the pages of the Arabian Nights.
The dream palaces of Amber, Udaipur and Bikaner are matchless in their opulence and refinement worthy of the Thousand and One Nights. Outside, a maze of courtyards and gardens and marble screens vie with interior rooms lined with miniatures and with fabulous mirror-lined Shish Mahals, where every wall, vault and ceiling is inlaid with myriad reflective fragments which magically transform a solitary candle flame into infinity of lights. Some of the palaces have been converted into hotels that allow moneyed visitors sample the Maharajah’s lifestyle.
Fortunately spaces for commoners also offer a sense of cleanliness and order. The trains are less crowded and stations are clean. Its congested mohallas offer a kind of symmetry. When I first visited Rajasthan on a shoe string budget, I stayed in cheap hotels and dharmshalas, I liked the royal state just as much.
All over Rajasthan, The shops in the bazaar are candid and colourful with striking frontages made up of myriad wares on sale. Provincial handlooms and handicrafts bring to the bazaar a certain ambience that is inevitably associated with Rajasthan. There is so much colour here. Shoes made of camel skin are embroidered in vivid shades, twinkling mirrors set in vibrant hues form patterns on lehengas, cholis and chunaris. What is mundane to the locale is exotic to the wide eyed visitors.
Today, a cursory survey of the land around Rajasthan, its undulating sand dunes still ringed by the dark Aravalis, an occasional camel or cow, the fields of swaying millet or corn, water birds on the wing in deep blue sky – and nothing seems to have changed. But as you drive on a smooth, wide road, the glass rolled up for the sake of your air-conditioning, the speed will remind you that you have passed the centuries of the past. Then when people in sleek cars and motorcycles whizz past, overtaking their contemporaries on a camel cart, you may agree that the Middle Ages and modern – present still exist side by side in our land. Though, today the exposure to modernisation and materialistic aspirations is changing the balance.
Indeed, like the rest of India, Rajasthan has moved with time, but its soul appears to be standing still as it has been for centuries. Langas play the Sarangi in street corners and as you amble around the state you perceive how it is a dream land for many who spend their time in the humdrum of a metropolis, away from a life which is steeped in the traditional and mundane.
Indeed, in the crowded and chaotic northern plains of India, Rajasthan offers an oasis of calm and charm, which remains most enchanting even today.