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[NOTE: this post continues yesterday’s story of our visit to Jodhpur, as influenced by that old Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler. (image credit: all photos unless otherwise noted are ©Janine Smith & Jayalakshmy Ayyer)]

“Never count your blessings when you’re seated at the table”

It was well past 9:00 the next morning when we were shown to a lovely breakfast table outdoors on the shaded veranda. Mr. CallMeSami triumphantly added a careful spoonful of the “good strong coffee” to his french press, instantly depressing the plunger. We stared at the delicately transparent brew while he went back inside to fetch the sugar we wouldn’t need.

Janine: “Quick, throw it out before he gets back!”

Jaya: “Here. Put it on this dead bush. I’ll bet that’s where all his coffee ends up.”

Janine and I pulled our chairs around to block the view of the sad little bush which had taken one (again?) for the team.

When Mr. CallMeSami returned, he congratulated himself on providing the excellent coffee we’d finished off so quickly. But he did not, we noticed, offer to make more. Instead he asked about our plans for the day. We confirmed we’d be starting with the Mehrangarh Fort, so he reminded us to take the lift to top of the Fort and walk down. He also mentioned a beautiful nearby stepwell, a local secret not revealed to most tourists. Until recently, he said, it had been derelict but Caron Rawnsley, a 70-year-old visitor from Ireland, had begun to clean it, alone at first and then with help from locals and from a trust set up by the former royal family of Jodhpur.

After the late and extended breakfast, we finally set off for Mehrangarh Fort whose massive walls rise over 400 feet out of the sheer rock above Jodhpur.

 

Our first stop at the fort’s entrance with its 500 year old murals marked the site where Rao Jodha (for whom Jodhpur was named) dedicated his new fort in 1459. Things being what they were in India of 500 years ago, the dedication ceremonies included the murder of a soldier named Raja Ram Meghwal, who willingly let himself be buried alive in exchange for the promise of compensation for his descendants. Apparently, this novel form of estate planning worked well for soldier Meghwal, or at least it worked for his descendants, who occupied an estate known as Raj Bagh (Raja Ram Meghwal’s Garden) for the next five centuries. [NOTE: today Raj Bagh is a luxury hotel, but hopefully Raja Ram Meghwal hasn’t withdrawn his protection of the fort above his lonely grave.]

As advised, we took the lift to the top level. From the ramparts, we looked down at the famously blue-washed buildings of the town far below, still watched over by ancient cannons. (Sadly, following a fatal selfie-accident, this vertigo-inducing view is now off limits to tourists.)

From the ramparts, we began the long downward exploration of the massive structure. Although Rao Jodha’s initial structure was carved out of the rock itself, Mehrangarh Fort was enlarged over the centuries, along with over ten kilometers of border wall enclosing the numerous palaces, streets, shops, and mansions of India’s largest fort. Raj Bagh’s sacrifice must have (mostly) worked, because five hundred years later—despite some setbacks, losses to Mughal invaders, and recovery through strategic marriages—Rao Jodha’s Rathore dynasty still ruled Jodhpur.

“Know when to walk away”

Following Indian independence in 1947, Maharaja Hanwant Singh, the last ruler of Jodhpur, considered joining newly-formed Pakistan, but was persuaded to remain in India by Lord Mountbatten of Britain and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister. But when their support allowance from the Indian government was eliminated in 1971, Maharaja Hanwan’s Sing’s son, Maharaja Gaj Singh II, decided the massive old fort was both a problem and a solution.
He began to renovate the structure, turning it into a historical and tourist destination, filled with incredible treasures from over five hundred years of Rathore rulers. The Fort now beckons thousands of tourists every year to tour its palaces, marvel at its treasures, shop in its shops, and eat in its numerous restaurants and cafes.

We had just stepped into one of the conveniently placed gift shops when I turned to ask Jaya a question. But she and Janine had disappeared. A glance at my phone confirmed there was no signal, but I wasn’t worried. How hard could it be to find two people inside a fort the size of a city? Leaving the shop, I pressed on.

I passed through some of the famous seven gates to the fort, including Loha Pol with the handprints of the ranis (queens) who committed sati in 1843 by immolating themselves on the funeral pyre of husband Maharaja Man Singh.

Palace after palace beckoned me on.

Built between 1730 and 1750, the lavishly gilded and elaborately painted walls and ceilings of Phool Mahal, the Flower Palace, were optimistically designated as the “special hall” for dancing girls and royal celebrations.

In Sheesh Mahal, the Mirror Palace, a single lit candle would bounce light across surfaces. [note: part of the ceiling has be set out along the floor.]

With its ceiling decorated with mirrors and gold leaf, and crushed seashells mixed with plaster giving the walls a luxurious glow, Moti Mahal, built between 1581 and 1595, is known as the Pearl Palace.

The Takhat Mahal, flamboyantly decorated with paintings of Radha and Krishna and dancing maidens, was the chamber of pleasure-loving ruler Maharaja Takhat Singh (1843–1873), Jodhpur’s last ruler to reside in the Mehrangarh Fort—along with his 30 queens and “numerous” concubines.

But there was no sign of Janine or Jaya.

I continued to wander through museums with fabulous displays of textiles, paintings, palanquin, and maharaja’s mechanically-rocking cradles.

There were no old friends.

I marveled at massive cookpots which looked like they could make rice for an army, gaped at a maharaja’s even more massive bed,  poked into shops filled with branded merchandise from posters to polo shirts, listened to musicians performing on traditional instruments, and checked my phone again.

 Still no message from Janine or Jaya.

I started to worry. It was clearly caffeine o’clock, and I’d worked my way well down the fort’s various levels. Something would have to be done. In front of me, I saw one of the upscale restaurants aimed at tourists. A glance at the menu on display had me wavering. Milkshakes! In our travels, we try to avoid obvious Western-tourist restaurants and eat regional specialties. But there was still no sign of Janine and Jaya. They’d never know. And… Milkshakes! I went in.

The bright interior held two surprises. The first was Janine and Jaya, waving me over to their table. The second was the elegant velvet-draped shape in the middle of their table.

“Vase?” I wondered. “Centerpiece?”

“Ketchup,” they confirmed. “We can order milkshakes AND fries.”

And that’s how we had a diner-style lunch in a five-hundred-year-old fort which had been the stage for bloody wars, political battles occasionally pitting father against son and brother against brother, and sometimes as many as eighty ladies committing sati by immolating themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre.

The french fries, velvet-wrapped ketchup, and milkshakes were delicious.

 

We made our way out of the Fort, met up with our driver, and headed to Jaswent Thada. This dazzling marble temple was built in 1895 as the cenotaph (crematorium) of Maharajah Jaswant Sing II, who is now worshipped there. It’s constructed from extremely thin sheets of marble which give the walls a translucent glow in daylight. Set in gorgeous gardens and cooled by fountains, it also houses the cenotaphs of other members of the royal family.


“Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away

We decided to look for the stepwell Mr. CallMeSami had told us about over breakfast. We love stepwells, which are usually gorgeously decorated and constructed structures embodying the Indian reverence and respect for water, and are ancient engineering feats of water harvesting and management. This one, we’d heard, was called Toorji Ka Jhalra, and was built by a Maharaja’s queen in the early eighteenth century.

Now it was supposedly not only a favorite destination for locals, but had also achieved underground cult status among thrill-seeking cliff divers who scorned its gorgeously carved stone steps to leap from its walls to the pool two-hundred feet below. Alas, although later pictures showed us the stunning structure that eluded us, it didn’t appear on our maps or phone navigation.

[NOTE: For an amazing cliff-dive perspective of this stunning stepwell, see video snippet here from Jackson Grove’s instagram.]

Eventually giving up our search, we headed for Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur. Waves of invaders left Jodhpur on the verge of bankruptcy, and in 1818 they entered into a subsidiary alliance with the British. This allowed the royal family to retain the throne but placed their diplomatic affairs in the hands of the British, and obligated their armies to fight under the British flag in engagements from Afghanistan to the middle-east to World War I. But as the era of the British Raj unfolded, the Jodhpur royal family decided they needed a dwelling more fitting to their status as contemporary rulers. The old fort was abandoned in favor of the spectacularly opulent Umaid Bhawan palace. Some of this royal residence’s 347 rooms have been turned into a luxury hotel, and some of it is now a family museum.

We were marveling at Umaid Bhawan Palace’s gorgeous facade and gardens when we heard what sounded like a wild animal stampede. Somehow, in just minutes the carpark had filled with dozens of buses. They disgorged hundreds of people who pushed and jostled to purchase tickets, then raced through the museum pausing only to take frequent selfies. Ice cream vendors at the edges of the Palace grounds were buried in a wave of shrieking, laughing, selfie-snapping tourists. Clutching their ice creams, they flowed in human rivers back to the carpark. The buses roared off and we stood in the suddenly deserted grounds, stunned by the silence.

“Ice cream?” asked Jaya.

[Image credit: Wikipedia IM3847 / CC BY-SA]

Ice cream in hand, we wandered over to look at the luxury hotel entrance. No buses for the rich guests, we observed. But no ice cream either.

“And knowin’ what to keep…”

Next we went looking for Bal Samand Lake, another of the palaces the royal family had converted to luxury hotels, and which was supposed to house wonderful bird watching opportunities. But again, we couldn’t find our way there. Although neither Jaya nor our driver Dashrath were impressed with the map programs on our phones, Janine and I convinced them to try the satellite navigation directions.

You have reached your destination,” my phone trilled in crisp British accents. We looked around the dusty road that fell away on either side.

“We’re in the middle of a quarry.” Jaya was not amused. Dashrath looked nervously at the steep drops on either side of us. Reverting to Indian navigation system—open car window and demand directions from all passersby—we eventually located Bal Samand. At least, we found the locked gates protecting it. Alas, the grounds of the palace-turned-hotel enclosed the entire lake and were only available to registered guests.

We each have things we particularly like to do on our trips. Jaya likes to take bird pictures. Janine likes to take non-bird pictures. I like to buy stuff. Defeated in all three, we were heading back to the haveli when Jaya spotted the Birds of Devkund sanctuary, a lake with adorable ducks. She was happy.

 

Back on the road, I spotted the government handicraft store. Like many things in India, these exist on a spectrum. Our favorites are those run as government programs to provide support and markets for traditional artisan crafts, as they tend to contain examples of world-class art side by side with kitch and staff who might be friendly but don’t really care whether you buy or not. Then there are those with a vague quasi-government stamp or two, where shop attendants wear matching uniforms, display the same goods you could find in on any street in India, and are quick to offer you tea and multiple displays of all wares. The one in Jodhpur was somewhere in the middle. I watched as the manager and his staff begged to be allowed to tear open literally dozens of packages. “No cost for looking.” I bought a tablecloth. I was happy. [note: in interests of full disclosure, we didn’t get a photo of the Jodhpur shop so this later image is from a similar shop in Bhuge. Where I also bought a tablecloth. I’m nothing if not consistent. And, possibly, a sloppy eater…]

Janine stayed outside to take pictures of elaborately overdressed horses and bored camels. She was very happy.

Back at the haveli, we went downstairs for the dinner-that-wouldn’t-end. Mr. CallMeSami insisted on serving us beer and himself a whiskey. Actually many whiskies. We heard his life story, the story of the house, about his polo playing ancestor’s England-beating victory, and the grateful Maharaja’s gift of their havali (mansion). But, reward-polo as a career enhancement strategy disappeared with the departure of the British, so subsequent generations sold off bits of the estate. Today, he concluded, like many other haveli owners, he is running part of it as hotel.

After a wonderfulif alcohol-infused and lengthy—dinner in the garden, we met Madam his wife, and refused offers of more (very reasonably priced, he assured us) nightcaps. We had a long drive tomorrow, we told him, and needed to get a very early start. He sipped his drink, nodded sympathetically, and announced that breakfast would be ready at 9:00.

So we came back upstairs and went to bed because it was damn late and we had so done Jodhpur.

“There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done”