Saturday, November 15, 2008

PS: Jodhpur's Pants

I bet you thought Jodhpur was one leg of a pair of dubious baggy trousers, which fit everywhere and nowhere, didn’t you? In fact, Jodhpur means, the City of Jodha (you can work out for yourself which bit means “city” then...) because Rao Jodha founded it in 1459. Jodhpurs, as worn on polo fields the world over, were invented here. Today, Shivraj Singh, the Crown Prince of Jodhpur, is captain of the city’s own polo team, the Jodhpur Eagles, so the tradition carries on. I like a bit of continuity.

The road to Jodhpur is long and often unmade. Mano’s a top driver, and the Innova’s newer than our own, in Mumbai, but the air-conditioning’s either temperamental or defunct, and any more than ten minutes driving anywhere leaves us all limp.

Along the dusty track, we pass a woman, toting a baby on one hip. She’s towing three more children, between two and five, and a goat, all on the same piece of string. (This is exactly why women aren’t in charge of UNESCO or the G8, or even ASDA – they are irreplaceable, multi-tasking and managing, on the domestic front.) I give her a sisterly wave, as we sail by, and she smiles, and waves back.

You can’t drive for two minutes, in Rajasthan, without meeting a cow. They drift along, with their own bovine agenda, unaware of the traffic whistling by their horns. Are English cows exceptionally wussy and skittish, or are Indian cows coolly phlegmatic and nonchalant, in the safe knowledge of their protected status? When they learn to talk, these Indian cows, their first words will be, “Two years in the clink, mate, mind the fetlocks....”

We swerve to avoid a stranded truck, flanked by four loose cobbles. It’s only the third time I see this arrangement, like Contrary Mary’s cockleshells, all in a row-ho-ho, that it comes to me – it’s a red triangle, Rajasthan-style. In Mumbai, they use a torn-off tree branch, as a Distant Early Warning of trouble ahead, but here, cobbles are clearly the way to go. Very pragmatic, since everyone’s boot’s usually full of passengers and goats.

We go round Mehrangarh Fort together, but not together. We have separate audio-guides, so we drift along in a pack, without speaking. We’re all more or less at the same spot in the tourist-blurb, focussed on the middle-distance, listening to a disembodied voice, and you can guess when we each get to the amazing/saucy bit, because there’s a small Mexican wave of silent gasps/giggles. We stare at the grim plaque, by the inner gate, where Rajiya Bhambi was walled in, to secure prosperity, when the fort was built. He volunteered to be buried alive, and his descendants still live on the estate, gifted to them by a grateful Jodha, more than five centuries ago.

From the walls of Mehrangarh, much of the housing you can see is painted blue. In Jodha’s day, only members of the Brahmin caste were allowed to use indigo emulsion – it is not only cooling, in the heat of summer, but it also acts as an insect-repellent. These days, I’m glad to hear, any old peasant can paint his house blue, if he likes.

Within the fort is the Chamunda Devi temple, where hundreds of worshippers lost their lives only weeks ago, during the Durga festival. There was a stampede, in the men’s queue. Our papers, in Mumbai, said it was because the stone path was slippery with coconut milk, from the ritual offerings, but the current theory is that an explosion nearby caused panic. They couldn’t get the death toll right for days, because people came to recover their own dead, without telling the authorities. In Mumbai, there were collections, even in Muslim communities, for the families of the Hindu victims.

While the boys are absorbed by cannons and scimitars, in the museum, I drift off to look at a nineteenth-century cosmetic box. It comes complete with an ivory-inlaid exercise-club, which I’d have trouble fitting into my make-up bag. I begin to realise that my four-minute wash-and-brush-up may be inadequate; there are apparently sixteen rituals of adornment for a woman, from painting the lips with beeswax, to placing the final tikka on the forehead, before she’s ready for love. This box clearly belonged to a woman who was not responsible for rolling out the chapattis or swilling down the fort sulabh, then.

In the courtyard, a man takes his hat off, and everyone applauds. We’re not so starved of entertainment, here in the far reaches of north India, that a bloke with his cap in hand creates a ripple of delight – this is millinery like you’ve never seen before. His mate holds the loose end, and by the time the bareheaded one has unravelled his hat, they’re at opposite ends of the courtyard. He then winds eighty-two feet of fabric (I know: I asked) back round his head, into a neat turban, and tucks the end in. More applause.

We admire the hookah, in its little alcove, complete with a real-live sheesha-wallah, with his curly moustache. He has a downcast look about him, probably because of the new smoking ban. Does it count as smoking, if your tobacco’s water-filtered? He’ll be relegated to weddings and bar mitzvahs, at this rate. I’m charmed to note, that the guide says, “Opium and hospitality go hand in hand.” Not in the East Midlands, they don’t.

When we finish our communal-but-separate fort-tour, there’s the unexpected bonus of a market, on the way out. Some of us are a little less up for this bizarre bazaar, than others, so they sit around looking bored, while I buy seventeen scarves and a pair of curly-toed camel-leather shoes. I only stop then, because Mr Roland squirrels away his credit card, before I find the jewellery stall. Look away, if you’re expecting a parcel, under my Christmas tree, and feign surprise and delight, when you open one of Ishfab’s tie-dyed specials. Ish is the craftsman, but his brother, Rav, has the patter off – well, pat, really. He switches to French, then Dutch, as variously flavoured tourists pass by. I ask him for “Look at these lovely scarves!” in German, then in Italian, and he doesn’t miss a beat. He can do Russian, and Korean, if you ask nicely, too. I ask him to say, “I’d like a cup of coffee!” and he admits defeat, laughing. He’s brilliant, if you want to know about washing instructions, or wax resist techniques, in a dozen languages, though. Camilla stopped to shop, when she was here with Prince Charles. I wonder if she got a free one, for buying in bulk? I did. Don’t worry, it’s not the one I’m giving you.

Then, glutted with culture and retail, we find Mano again, and head north-west, for the desert. Follow that camel.