Photographer: Bhaskar Majumder (who has a penchant for raising copyright issues)
Maharaj Chandrashekhar Singh and Rani Bhavna are picture perfect hosts. Singh comes with typical regal bearing—coupled with English public school upbringing: back straight, impeccable English, faultless etiquette. He knows a little about everything and a lot about Rajasthan. And he’s a good listener—a rarety for a royal. Like many of the Rathor clan post the Privy Purse Abolition, he survives “on tourism”. But unlike many he doesn’t have a haveli to declare blue blood (or rent to film producers). So he ensures that his common sandstone bungalow in Jodhpur’s High Court Colony—with antique double beds, handsome lamps and chic curios—stands for what he does: comfort. Bhavna’s culinary skills, known to attract guests for cooking lessons, help.
The bungalow’s country home style living room is covered with photographs: An ancestor standing with a gun over dead boars, a hunting group posing with spoils, another ancestor with medals, pictures of Singh, Bhavna and their son Yashwardhan, pictures of Singh and his son with Maharaja Gaj Singh II (Jodhpur’s current ‘king’). “Baapji is the reason we’ve survived,” says Singh of the Maharaja’s tourism initiatives. Later, Bhavna too when castigating another king, mentions: “He’s not like our Baapji.” “Our Baapji” who’s also famous for his welfare/infrastructure projects was prime media focus a year and a half ago post his son’s Polo accident. “It’s not fair,” Bhavna rues. “He’s such a handsome boy.” Then she changes topic. Grief for the Rajputs is a private affair.
“The best maintained fort in India” could be in London. The Moti Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, Daulat Khana and Takhat Vilas, the various Pols (read gates) and galleries are clean. Imposing aides cum guards watch every room to ensure no one attempts a scratch, let alone name-writing, on Rao Jodha’s legacy. Multi lingual audio guides with interviews of the first family outline details. The antiques look new. Mehrangarh, meaning Majestic Fort, lives up to its name in today’s irreverent age not through origin, but maintenance.
“The Maharaja was clever enough to make a trust for the fort before the government intervened,” our guide Raghuveer Singh grins. Built in 1459 by Rao Jodha and added to by Jaswant Singh in 1638 to 78, this trust settled in March 1972 had paid off six years ago through over 300,000 Indian and 65,000 foreign visitors. By now, that number would have tripled, creating revenue for the current research projects, scholarships and publications that the trust also funds. It’s through similar trusts that Baapji looks after public ventures like the Rajdadiji Hospital, the Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girl’s Public School and the Jal Bhagirathi programme. “Unke liye humein respect hai kyonki we politics se door rehke bhi sab kaam kar rahe hain,” our driver Chanchal Singh sums up.
If Rajasthan is the land of colour and Jodhpur the Sun City, Sadar Market is a prism. With spices, handicrafts and cloth, it projects two of the city’s primary concerns: rang and revenue. It also offers watches, perfumes, jewellery, electronics… well, everything. It includes a National Handloom’s clothes division. National Handloom grew from a modest beginning to set up a multi-storeyed departmental store chain, affording everything from bandhini prints to Mirchivada at fixed prices. On a more micro scale, there’s the Ghanta Ghar area. The engraved clock tower made by Maharaja Sardar Singh (the modification of whose name christened the market) marks spice retail – in everything from a hand cart to labelled display racks spanning a 1000 square feet store.
The spices names read: tea spices, maharaja curry, chicken tikka masala, South Indian curry, fruit spices, Kashmiri Kahwa… across purposes, states and continents. The hiking of prices for foreigners has led to a saying that these small traders perform a forex function outweighing that of government policies. Take Mohan Lal Vermohal of MV spices who begun from a handcart to tour the world, get his store cited in every significant travel guide and win a certificate from the English Curry Organisation. On his website, he charges 25 dollars for a 1000 gm ‘Xmas spice pack’. That’s one rupee for each gram. A wide cross section in Jodhpur, from Vermohal to Chandrashekhar Singh have profited from the web, which, along with the tourist boom, has exposed this small city to the schizophrenia of a 70’s metro. Example: Two giant hoardings, adjacent to one another. One reads: “Angrezi bolna – Kadmon mein duniya. Be a winner with motivational guru Tarun Pahwa – No.1 and the best.” The other is a Hindi hoarding by Hutch (or should we say Vodafone?): “Aap jaye jahaan, network pahunche wahaan.” In a lane not far away, mingling with the red of the famous Mathaniya’s chilli spice, is the red of a Café Coffee Day logo.
“No animals where Rajputs stay, Only in the Bishnoi areas,” claims Raghuveer, a Rajput himself, matter-of-factly. When we stupidly enquire, he answers poker-faced: “We’ve hunted them all down.” As open fields whiz by, we spot black bucks, blue bulls and spotted deer—roaming in great numbers. Jambaji, a Rajasthani warrior disgruntled by bloodshed created the Bishnoi concept in 1451 with 29 (bish: twenty and noi: nine) principles. The Bishnois bury their dead to avoid cutting trees for wood. Even carpenters in the clan wait for trees to fall down during a storm or die. They don’t chase deer away despite more than 30 percent of their crop being destroyed. An Indian Air Force captain, caught hunting, was stripped and set on hot sand for hours. Raghuveer recounts a joke doing the rounds on Salman Khan’s alleged hunting expedition: “While every one was making a getaway, Sonali (Bendre) asked Salman: ‘Are you scared? So he decided he had to confront a hundred angry villagers.”
Entering a mud hut from the scorching sun, we realise a sharp drop in temperature. “This is our AC,” an aged Bishnoi woman laughs. Then she hugs a large square mud-clay box with a wooden door: “This—my fridge.” Inside the box is curd and milk, kept cool. The women wear thick gold bangles and vibrant red and orange colours. “Guruji (Jambaji) asked us to wear such colours because we are the symbol of creation!” a woman explains. Amrita Devi a Bishnoi woman led other villagers to wrap themselves around trees 200 years ago to protest Maharaja Abhay Singh’s felling them. They were cut with the trees in the process—but were to give rise to the Chipko activism concept later on. As we leave, a woman asks a lady with us: “You work?” When she nods, the woman points to foodstuff drying in her courtyard, presale: “Me too, but from home.”
Built to provide work for the poor, Umaid Bhavan’s vast Indo-Art Deco style structure today divides itself into a museum, a five star hotel and the royal residence. While the fee for entering the museum is nominal, an entry into the hotel demands Rs 300 in exchange for a drink while a make-shift café on the lawn next to the museum supplies all and sundry with chai, samosa and cold drinks. The Rs 300 cover would bequeath a drink at Pillars—the hotel’s coffee shop, with an excellent view of city, royal gardens and the Mehrangarh fort. Inside the décor merges contemporary with classic—by Polish interior designer Stefan Noblin. The turbaned doormen, waiters and aides at Umaid Bhavan add to the aura—they talk in English, yet never forget the quintessential “Hukum.” The museum outlines the history of the royal family, including elements like the Maharajas’ model aeroplanes . A quote from Umaid Singh placed on a sign reads: “The royal sport of tomorrow could be flying.” The royal sport of yesterday was Polo. Considering Maharaja Hanwant Singh passed away in a plane crash, and the crown prince nearly lost his life during a Polo game, one can safely assume these are dangerous things…
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/uvey