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Thar Desert

Rajasthan, which literally means “the land of kings”, is often cited by Indians as the place where the “real India” continues to thrive. I assume Indians are referring romantically to things like the continuation of regal Rajput traditions, the prevalent use of camels, the elaborate turbans the men fashion and the famed Rajasthani handcrafted textiles, rather than less pleasant aspects of the state like the high levels of poverty and illiteracy and the resilient strength of the archaic caste system. So ignoring these inconvenient truths, Rajasthan is celebrated as India’s most touristic regions, with evocatively labelled attractions such as the Pink City, Blue City and City of the Lakes. Rajasthan reminded me somewhat of Morocco, with its colour-coded cities, enthralling bazaars and edge-of-the desert atmosphere. The culturally defining Thar Desert sprawls across the north and west of Rajasthan and into Pakistan. I spent the first week of my loop around Rajasthan in the Thar Desert, visiting the cities of Bikaner and Jaisalmer.

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Rajasthan is the homeland of the Rajputs, warrior clans that were renowned for their unparalleled bravery and honour. The Rajputs established more than a dozen principalities in the region and constructed magnificent fortresses as their capitals. The Rajputs continuously fought between each other for pride and independence. Tradition demanded that when defeat in battle was inevitable, a ritual mass suicide was required. The warriors would ride out to battle in saffron garb and face certain death, while the women and children would burn in the flames of a funeral pyre. Due to the disunity of the Rajputs, the principalities were eventually absorbed into the Mughal and then British colonial empires. However, the militancy of their unique culture enabled them to preserve some autonomous powers. After Independence, the Government of India was forced to pay allowances to the Maharajas for their allegiance to the newly formed country, though this and their titles were officially abolished by Indira Ghandi in the 1970s. The maharajas still retain property, wealth and influence in their home cities.

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Bikaner is basically a microcosm of all that is inherently wrong with Indian society (I could ramble on for days on this subject). Despite a relatively moderate population of 700,000, Bikaner is swarming with horrendous traffic, particularly moronic Indians on motorcycles – my pet hate. Like elsewhere in Asia, Indian motorcyclists drive recklessly fast and give no indication what direction they are travelling in (other than at you!). But the most galling aspect about Indian motorcyclists is their penchant to honk ALL THE TIME, usually needlessly and often without taking their hands off the horn. I seriously think my ear drums are damaged just from dodging traffic on the roads (remember, no footpaths in India!) of Indian cities. Bikaner doesn’t boast the burgeoning tourism sectors of other Rajasthani cities, yet the locals have certainly mastered the art of hassling. One guy managed to find me thrice in the same day in different parts of the city, determined to book my train ticket. I stayed at Vinayak Guesthouse, where the owner tried to coerce me into changing my travel plans to Jaisalmer to join his camel safari, wanted me to upgrade rooms because he was clearly irritated by the price I paid online and pressed me to write a positive review on Tripadvisor in gratitude for the bargain. Instead, I’m writing this in annoyance at being encouraged to leave in the morning with all my luggage when I had a late evening train to catch. The locals demonstrate total disregard for their environment with rubbish and shit (mainly from cows) strewn everywhere. Bikaner does have some redeeming qualities, like the grandiose red sandstone Junagarh fort, home of the former Rajas of Bikaner, and the mysterious winding streets in the old town with colourful houses and some intricately detailed facades. Overall though, Bikaner is a dusty, gritty and unpleasant city, absent of the magic and charm of other Rajasthani centres.

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I travelled to Bikaner specifically to visit a very unusual attraction in the nearby village of Deshnok: Karni Mata, or the Temple of Rats. The temple is indeed swarming with thousands of rats, with the residents of Deshnok believing that the holy rodents are the reincarnated forms of their ancestors. Despite general open-mindedness to foreign cultures, clearly we all have limits; the Temple of Rats was undoubtedly the most repulsive, barbaric, insane and disgusting thing I had ever witnessed – until the shameful election of Donald Trump. The temple appears to be relatively harmless from the outside, with kitsch pink walls separating a clean public space from the horrors lurking inside. Visitors are required to dispense of their shoes before entering the temple, though thankfully tourists can wear a (flimsy) feet cover. Indians believe that if a rat runs across your feet or perhaps even takes a nibble, its especially good fortune, though I obviously had no intentions of allowing that to happen. Passing through the entrance gate immediately commences an unforgettable nightmare. Every nook and cranny is literally filled with rats, which scurry quickly and unpredictably in all directions. Indians amble around the temple grounds oblivious to the squalor, sometimes feeding the rats and sitting beside clusters of them nonchalantly. Like other Western tourists though, I was mortified by the sights and smells. The occupants of the temple are particularly decrepit rodents, partially hairless and rather gaunt, which is surprising considering their auspicious statuses and diets. With each step I needed to summon the courage to proceed further into the compound, petrified of the rats but fascinated by this ridiculous “religious” site. I discovered that the rats never scurried into the sunlight, fortunately providing me with a refuge when things became too overwhelming. That was certainly the case when I delved into the inner sanctuary, which had such a high concentration of rats that I couldn’t last more than a minute or two at a time. However, one thing was completely inescapable: the uniquely putrid stench emanating from the combined excrement of the rats and flocks of pigeons that also inhabit the temple. Probably the most horrific scene I witnessed in the 40 minutes I could tolerate in the temple was dozens of rats drinking simultaneously from a large bowl of milk.

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Jaisalmer was an appropriate antidote to my previous five days in chaotic Indian cities. I wouldn’t say “perfect”, because the murderous motorcyclists were still prevalent, but at only 90,000 people Jaisalmer is a comparative hamlet in this humungous country. A hamlet defined by a stupendous fortress literally rising from the interminable flatness of the desert (analogous perhaps to Uluru) and resembling a life-size sand castle. The 850 year old Jaisalmer Fort is preserved well cosmetically, though its foundations are severely threatened by the unregulated use of water for touristic purposes. The fortress features an imposing stone wall of 99 fairy-tale like watchtowers and an opulent palace, the former abode of Jaisalmer’s maharajas. Hidden within the winding streets of the fort are souvenir shops attempting to rip you off and Jain temples with priests attempting to rip you off. I haven’t had the time or botherance to learn anything about Jainism, other than 1% of India’s population subscribe to the religion, they control a disproportionately large amount of wealth while rejecting the caste system, and cosmology is rather central to their beliefs. Jain temples are distinguished for their incredibly detailed designs, with all internal and external surfaces covered in intricate carved sculpture or painting. The temples are thus somewhat overwhelming artistically, yet still refined unlike gaudy Hindu temples. The atmosphere is kind of spoiled by the stalking behaviour of the priests, who guide visitors to donation boxes and give unsolicited descriptions of the temples – playing for tips (and not receiving any from me!). The sandstone buildings of the old town that surround the fort radiate a beautiful yellowish colour, giving Jaisalmer the apt moniker of the Golden City.

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I joined a Norwegian couple for a three day camel safari into the Thar Desert, led by the self-proclaimed “Real Camel Man” (replete with a purple turban and grey Rajasthani moustache) and his nephew. The Real Camel Man offered an obscenely cheap price for his services, as he cut out the middleman (all accommodation and travel agents in Jaisalmer gleefully arrange camel safaris) to the chagrin of my guesthouse. Despite some apprehension about the quality considering the price, the safari was actually rather good, though the Real Camel Man did have an irritating preponderance to redirect conversation back to his financial plight. I have no doubt his intentions were to incite sympathy and perhaps earn some donations from these generous, golden-hearted Westerners, but of course he was barking up the wrong trees. Norwegians are notoriously frugal people despite their unfathomable wealth, while I'm desensitised to crying-poor stories coming from people living relatively comfortably for their context.

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The Thar Desert is regarded as the most “lived in” desert in the world, which is certainly understandable since we passed villages, herds of livestock and wind turbine farms with unexpected regularity. The desert is almost blanketed with dry shrubbery and even trees, with only splotches of rolling sand dunes interrupting the greenery. It therefore doesn’t quite provide the quintessential desert experience of utter nothingness, aridity and isolation, though it was still a welcome escape into nature from the crowds, noise and pollution of Indian cities. It was also exciting to be riding camels once more, easily the most impressive, fascinating and graceful creatures on the planet. Riding the camels was not as painful as my ordeal in Morocco, as my legs did not chaff or cramp in agony. I needed to hold on vigorously though when the camels stood up or sat down; they’re very sudden and jerky movements. We rode the camels for a couple hours at a time, rested in the heat of the day and slept on the sand dunes under the stars. Fortunately the Real Camel Man seemed to treat his camels with respect and care; they were only required to work for four hours a day lugging us around and were then released to graze in the desert. I was amazed how the Real Camel Man’s nephew was able to track down the animals each morning after they had wandered more than four kilometres away overnight.

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Indians typically eat a thali for lunch or dinner, which is a multi-dish meal consisting of 2-3 vegetarian curries, dhal, raita, pickled lemons, salad, roti, papadum, rice and sometimes a sweet. Each state of India features its own variations of the thali, usually with different vegetarian curries served. I sampled several traditional Rajasthani curries in humungous thalis including a curry of chickpea flour balls served in a rich gravy and a dry curry of vegetables similar to green beans and grown in the desert. The only notable street food I had in Bikaner or Jaisalmer was aloo tikki, which are patties of mashed potatoes mixed with chana masala (chickpea curry) and chilli sauce, fried on a hot plate and topped with crispy bits.

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Thus ended the first stanza of my Rajasthani tour!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 17:20 Archived in India

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