One of Rajasthan’s most evocative allures is to see the “Blue City”… though few people know there are two cities that covet this label. Of the two, Jodhpur is the internationally famed destination, renowned for its staggering fortress as much as the blueness of its old city. Located at the geographical heart of Rajasthan, Jodhpur is invariably included on itineraries through North India and consequently the traffic-choked city is rather touristic. Few people though venture to the comparative hamlet of Bundi, a serene escape from the big cities of India. I travelled to both Jodhpur and Bundi, though visited Udaipur in between (next entry).
After five days of relative peace in Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, I was rudely brought back to the reality of Indian cities upon arrival at Jodhpur. I was approached on the train platform by supposedly benevolent locals, who claimed the old city was in the exact opposite direction to its actual location. However, these conniving tuk-tuk drivers were no match for a man with such an impeccable sense of direction… or at least 21st century technology in the form of Google Maps. The streets of Jodhpur were heaving with traffic, occasionally preventing any movement whatsoever for vehicles and pedestrians alike in the compact old city. Maniacal motorcyclists blared their horns so loudly and unnecessarily that I could literally feel my ear drums being damaged. I hopped between murderous motorists, enormous cattle, vicious dogs, beggars, excrement of various descriptions and endless piles of garbage to reach my guesthouse. I was beginning to question the worth of visiting this gritty, overcrowded city. But my doubts immediately evaporated when I ascended to the rooftop terrace of my guesthouse and viewed the colossal Mehrangarh Fort.
Mehrangarh Fort rises magnificently above the Blue City of Jodhpur in a similarly dramatic and imposing fashion to Edinburgh Castle, though on a larger scale. The fortress walls are literally carved from the rock of the hill it occupies, creating a virtually impenetrable barrier for invading armies. Indeed, the maharajas of Marwar can proudly boast their stronghold was never conquered until the proliferation of foreign tour groups. Within the robust defences of the fortress is a sumptuous palace festooned with delicate Rajasthani carvings on the facades and elaborately decorated Indo-European rooms inside. Like most historical attractions in India, unfortunately visiting the fortress is prohibitively expensive for many backpackers. The entrance ticket is roughly the equivalent of Western prices and grossly disproportionate to other costs in India (and the infinitesimal local fee). This extortionate behaviour is demonstrative of the contempt India systematically has for “cheap” tourism (in comparison to competitors like Thailand and Vietnam). The government can charge whatever they fancy for the Taj Mahal because of its international fame. But I would bet that anyone reading this entry who has not travelled to Rajasthan has never heard of Mehrangarh Fort, despite its World Heritage status. Consequently, many backpackers struggle to justify paying these ludicrous fees repeatedly since India is littered with fortresses.
The central bazaar area of Jodhpur, while colourful from the merchandise and women’s clothing, is certainly not recognisable as “the Blue City”. Perhaps only one in five of the old, crumbling townhouses are actually painted blue, leaving many tourists disappointed. But if you venture further into the narrow residential areas that surrounded the vertical slopes of Mehrangarh Fort, the streetscape gradually becomes more vibrantly blue. Indeed, in the oldest neighbourhood tragically unfrequented by tourists, almost every dwelling is painted different shades of blue. The houses are like miniature compounds, with only charismatic wooden doors and small windows breaking the monolithic blue stone walls.
While ambling aimlessly through such areas, one local attempted to usher me back to the touristic zone by suggesting I follow an alley leading to a traditional spice market. Aware that he was trying to stooge me, I still decided to walk in that direction in curiosity. Five minutes later, I noticed that he had been stalking me and was making phone calls. When I arrived at a busy junction, I was approached by a man who claimed to be the cook at my guesthouse (I had foolishly mentioned the name to the first chap)! Amazed at the audacity of their lies, I sarcastically complimented his preparation of a delicious lunch (it actually was rather good). He quickly redirected conversation to the enthralling spice market around the corner that I simply had to visit right at that moment (5:30pm on a Sunday night). I then noticed the original turd-cake was failing miserably to watch our conversation discreetly from a corner shop. I thanked the fake cook for his advice and said I may visit the following day, but in irritation he warned me the market would be very busy then (as if visiting an empty market was a preferable alternative). I giddily exclaimed that would be perfect and scurried off, though loitered at a distance to catch the fake cook gesticulating with the original turd-cake about my departure. I walked past the fake cook again the next day and he denied ever claiming to work in my guesthouse while trying to lure me into his souvenir shop.
My journey to Bundi was certainly a hellish bus trip. Two bus trips actually, because contrary to the advice I received at the bus station the day before travelling, there were no direct buses to Bundi due to Diwali celebrations. Instead, the same duffus I had spoken to suggested I take a bus to a town I had never heard of and then transfer to a bus bound for Bundi. My initial expectation of a five hour journey ballooned out to eleven hours overall. Nevertheless, the first bus was uneventful and the transfer relatively smooth thanks to an English speaking benefactor at the terminal. It was the second bus that was particularly unpleasant. I was squished with my 18kg rucksack and 6kg day-bag into one place in the very back corner, completely deprived of leg-room (or an escape). As the bus became overcrowded, a group of about ten men, both seated and standing, began staring at me, chatting in Hindi and laughing about me. Something I loathe about Indian culture is their propensity to stare endlessly but never to return a smile. After the usual mundane question of “where are you from?”, they disconcertingly inquired about whether we use dollars and what the exchange rate is. One of the men, fascinated by the appearance of a tall, white man on this rural, government bus, managed to slip in beside me and proceeded to creep me out for the next 90 minutes. With no command of the English language, all his communication was through pointing and poking. First, he noticed a fresh scar on my knee and poked it with his filthy fingers, forcing me to wrap my jacket around my legs. He made a bizarre comparison between my stubble and leg hair, attempted to hand-fed me a lolly I had given him, seemed to stroke my leg not accidentally and insisted I take a selfie on my phone with him. It was the first time in more than two years of backpacking I felt genuinely uncomfortable on public transport, though I was eternally grateful not to be a single woman in that situation. The strange man’s departure was an enormous relief and I was ecstatic when we finally arrived in Bundi, albeit after dark.
I really, really liked Bundi, the hidden jewel of Rajasthan. The city’s fame pales in comparison to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer, but Bundi is arguably more beautiful than the lot of them. Despite a relatively small population of 100,000, Bundi boasts a surprisingly expansive old city which is excellently preserved and radiantly blue and golden. The “Blue City” moniker is certainly more apt for Bundi than its rival Jodhpur. Countless Hindu temples with honeycombed rooftops dot the winding alleys of the old city, while grand Mughal gateways align the fortified walls and main thoroughfare. Situated on a thickly vegetated slope directly north of the old city is Bundi Palace, an enchanting structure that has been left to crumble, decay and be conquered by bats and monkeys. The slope on the opposite side of the valley affords magnificent views of the old city and palace. The most pleasant aspect of Bundi is that extraordinary Rajasthani architectural heritage can be enjoyed the incessant traffic and honking of other cities. I stayed in a centuries-old haveli (traditional Rajasthani upper class abode) beside an ornamental lake bordered by frangipani, lawns and crumbling ruins. Astonishingly, for just $6 I had a double room featuring period furniture and decoration and with three stainless glass windows overlooking the lake.
The people of Bundi were especially friendly… or perhaps just a little bit too friendly. Every shop owner and tuk-tuk driver seemed to want to have a genuine chat – beyond the usual sales pitch. But since walking around Bundi required passing through one major thoroughfare, I found myself passing the same people several times a day. Their ceaseless efforts to engage in small talk became rather tedious and irritating, especially when I needed to attended a lavatory. While ambling around the colourful backstreets of Bundi, children would spot me and gleefully pounce at the opportunity to have their photograph taken. Their mothers would often request I send them copies, though unfortunately when they always wrote down a postal rather than e-mail address, so they shouldn’t get their hopes up!
Indira Gandhi’s progressive governments of the 1960s and 1970s attempted to liberate the masses by officially abolishing the caste system. Yet to my surprise, the caste system stills defines India’s social structure, especially in conservative and rural areas (like Rajasthan). Hindu society is generally divided into four castes: Brahmin (priestly caste), Kshatriya (warrior and administrative caste), Vaishya (merchant caste) and Shudra (labour caste). Below the castes are the “Untouchables”, who work menial jobs like cleaning India’s incomprehensibly wretched drains, live on the fringes and must avoid all physical contact with members of the higher castes. Outside of the cosmopolitan mega-cities, marital unions between people of different castes are totally unacceptable; and honour killings can be a disgraceful response to such occurrences. Castes are not completely analogous to classes, because they are defined not by socio-economic factors but by religion. Nevertheless, the caste system is simply another manifestation of an elite minority ingeniously subjugating a marginalised majority. The Brahmins have successfully coerced the Hindu populace into believing in reincarnation, and that the form someone reincarnates into is determined by the fulfilment of their moral duties (defined by their caste). Hinduism is thus a mechanism to avert the rebelliousness of the lower castes and preserve the status quo advantageously for the Brahmins. I suppose its not too dissimilar to Christian clergymen hypocritically babbling on about sin and the commandments while indulging in a gluttonous and, for some of them, contemptible lifestyle.
The Brahmins are easily the wealthiest, healthiest and most educated in Indian society. Their houses are easily discernible in traditional areas because they’re typically painted blue. When I walked around the “Blue Cities” of Jodhpur and Bundi, children would often run out of their large, beautiful residences begging me for rupees, pens or chocolate – in plain view of their disinterested parents. I found this particularly galling, because much poorer parents in other countries I have travelled to usually have the dignity to scold their children for hassling tourists. Evidently, traditional Brahmins shamelessly believe they are entitled to privilege. An example of the privileges Brahmins enjoy is their dominance of professional cricket in India. I’ve often wondered why a country of 1.2 billion people totally obsessed with cricket cannot produce an utterly unbeatable team. The caste-system is the simple explanation. Only the Brahmins can afford coaching, only Brahmins occupy important administrative positions and therefore only Brahmins and members of the highest castes are selected for the national team. Indeed, almost every star Indian cricketer in history is a Brahmin. Interestingly, Brahmins traditionally don’t do physical occupations, which may explain why Indian cricket teams are notoriously mediocre at fast bowling, fielding and running between the wicket; the athletic components of cricket.
If you can learn the English translation of twelve Hindi words, you can basically decode any North Indian menu. Aloo = potato, baigan = eggplant, chana = chickpeas, dal = lentils, gobhi = cauliflower, kofta = balls of food, korma = nut-based sauce, malai = creamy, masala = spicy sauce, mattar = peas, palak = spinach and paneer = cottage cheese. Virtually every vegetarian curry in North India (meat is hard to come by outside of Sikh and Muslim neighbourhoods) is simply a combination of two of the aforementioned words. Needless to say, after a while they begin to taste rather similar. My favourite curries are palak paneer, chana masala, aloo gobhi and malai kofta. Palak paneer features cubes of cottage cheese cooked in a tantalisingly rich gravy of pureed spinach, tomato, spices and ghee. Chana masala is a wet curry of chickpeas served in a spicy gravy. Aloo gobhi is a dry curry consisting of chunks of potatoes and cauliflower shallow fried in spices. Malai kofta, which I found to be very hit and miss, is usually balls of mash potato and cottage cheese served in a creamy tomato gravy. However, one of the best curries I ate in North India was a humble, delicately spiced dry pumpkin curry in Bundi. Unfortunately, Indians typically destroy their curry concoctions by adding putrid coriander leaves; it was always tremendously upsetting when I neglected to request “no coriander” and the meal arrived smothered in the poisonous leaves.
Rajasthan’s Blue Cities of Jodhpur and Bundi were both intriguing cities to visit. However, Jodhpur is only a “must-see” destination because of Megrangarh Fort; Bundi has a much more pleasant and colourful old city vibe.
That’s all for now,