Our Indian family gave us the usual warm welcome and we enjoyed our few days in Delhi together. Once again we’re in India when such a terrible act of terrorism occurs. These events only harden the party line for the Hindus: “See! I told you that all terrorists are Moslems. Even against their own people.” Over dinner with CNN in the background repeating the gory details of the Pakistani school massacre, the comments from the men around the table clarified the deep suspicion that the Hindus and Moslems have for each other. Everyone was shocked that the Pakistani Taliban could murder their own kinsmen and feared that it was only a matter of time before there was a similar act of terrorism in India.
Three days later we set off by train for Nawalgarth, a “backwater” of Rajasthan not yet on the tourist map but remarkable for its concentration of old havellis with frescoes. The day began standing on the station in bone-chilling fog at dawn. Finally the milk train pulled in an hour late. I could barely lift my bag up the steep step on to the train – either I’m out of practice or my attempt to pack a lighter bag failed.
A short two-hour ride and we had traveled far from the modernity of Gurgaon to the border of Rajasthan. Getting down in a dusty little town we dragged our bags to a spot where our next bus would stop. The bus turned out to be a sleeper with two levels of “beds”. This time I needed assistance to heave my bag on to the bus and then up to the top level. Jostled and jolted, we went hours further as the land became increasingly wind blown and arid semi-desert.
The area of Shekhawati once lay on an important caravan route before the rise of Bombay and Calcutta diverted trade to the south. Grown rich on trade and taxes the merchants spent their fortunes competing with each other to build the grand and overly decorated havellis that still line the streets of the region’s dusty little towns. Gerard saw a picture of Nawalgarth online and said, “Let’s go there!” Only catch, it’s not easy to get to. Typical! After yet another bus ride we finally arrived late afternoon and with some difficulty found our guesthouse. Since there’s very little competition, it was grossly overpriced, but did include a good breakfast with home made marmalade.
The town did not disappoint – over 300 havellis built around the turn of the last century in varying stages of decay, although one has been restored and opened as a museum.
Many of the colorful frescoes are still evident; some have been touched up albeit with a heavy hand. I fantasize how Nawalgarth must have looked100 years ago with so many grand houses with freshly painted frescos lining the streets and only horse-drawn tongas.
Today large noisy diesel-powered rickshaws spoil the town. Everyone hates the noise and pollution. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before like Delhi they have the sense to move to compressed natural gas.
A chance encounter with a young man qualified in acupressure was too good to pass up. I’d had a sore neck for over a month and Gerard a shoulder problem. For $12 we each had two treatments, plus one extra thrown in for Gerard’s plantar fasciitis. Neeraj had the gentle temperament and touch of a healer. He treated us in a little room in his family home, where his beautiful mother, as serene as her son, brought us chai in porcelain cups. We were treated like guests in his home. It was a great experience…and dare I mention, my neck has improved. Gerard’s shoulder issue is more problematic. Neeraj spoke no English but his brother, who is a writer and has translated material for the Discovery Channel, mediated for us.
The next day we took an early morning bus from Nawalgarth to Pushkar. After about 30 kms, when the smell of petrol became overpowering, the driver pulled into a bus station. A mechanic appeared with a cup of chai in one hand and tools in the other. After prolonged discussion around the motor the driver takes off across the scrub land and comes back two minutes later with a new fuel line in hand – another two minutes, it’s installed and we’re off again! This was supposedly the direct bus to Ajmer but no one mentioned we would be on a single lane meandering through every village and hamlet on the way. Finally we emerged out of the scrubland on to a proper highway but still going so slow even the camel carts were passing us. Then the bus came to a complete halt and we are shunted to yet another bus for our last ten kilometers.
It goes without saying that travel in India is a shared experience, especially on long bus rides. We’re all crammed in, windows that don’t open, seats that are no longer properly bolted to the floor, music blasting. Then we pull into a bus station – vendors push fruit and water through the windows, young boys climb aboard with platters filled with deep fried snacks, the man sitting next to us cautions us not eat them and offers to go get us chai. The young girl two seats in front amuses herself making faces at us…we still have 100 kms to go and more than half the bus needs a WC!
Our guesthouse owner offered to pick us up at the bus station and for no charge no less. As in Varanasi he feared that we would be diverted to another guesthouse before reaching his. Unlike our last accommodation, Rising Star is a great bargain – better facilities and a third of the price.
Pushkar is a “destination” similar to Rishikesh, Hampi, McLeod Gunj etc. We’ve known about it for a long time but have had little interest because of its reputation – lots of young Israelis getting stoned. (It’s a rite of passage for them to come to India after they finish their military service.) But this time, it lay so close to our route south to Gujurat, why not come and see for ourselves? Legend has that Pushkar came into existence when Lord Brahma, the Creator, dropped lotus flowers to the earth and where they landed water magically appeared in the midst of the desert to form a small blue lake. Now surrounded by temples and Ghats the lake is revered as one of India’s most sacred sites. Its waters are believed to cleanse the soul of all impurities, attracting pilgrims from all over the country. Perhaps because it’s nearly Christmas time and alcohol is not allowed in this sacred town, most of the tourists are in Mumbai or Goa to party. So the whole atmosphere is quite different from what we had expected. And the lake with its white-washed temples and Ghats for bathing pilgrims is enchanting.
Being a “destination” there is a load of teashops and restaurants where you can sit and watch the colorful Rajasthanis pass by. More than ten years since we last visited Rajasthan I’ d forgotten the colors – the red and gold of the women’s veils, men’s turbans, a different color for each caste or region.
One afternoon we walked on the Ghats surrounding the lake. As the sun shone through the arch of an old palace a young girl emerged out of the light, offering us her cup of chai. “Do you like tea?” Beautiful and well spoken, she was captivating. She was staying with her uncle who still lived in the old palace beside the Ghat. Pointing to an open turret above us she told us she slept there on hot summer nights. And Gerard said, “Like a princess?” We asked if we could take her picture. At first she said no, then she turned to her father some distance away and asked his permission. She insisted I should also be in the picture.
Back at Rising Star guesthouse every evening after sunset, the family performs their prayers. In the middle of the courtyard a shrine sits beside a large banana tree. Grouped around it, they chant a mantra. The little children join in – and the baby yells.