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A tribe called 29

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jodhpur - 27 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

‘The best laid plans of mice and men...’, so the saying goes.*

I usually plan my journeys in advance and in detail, with much careful thought. Doubtless, that’s something to do with what I once did for others when I worked in the holiday industry. This time, I’d pre-booked a train from Abu Road to Jodhpur, First Class Air-Conditioned (1AC Class), of course. Here in India even that’s quite a bit short of equivalent to the old British Railways’ blood and custard coloured corridor carriages of my childhood. Those on Indian Railways are probably even older than that - and they’ve been used by millions more people before me without much in the way of maintenance and refurbishment, which leaves their condition to your imagination.

All this information’s a bit irrelevant anyway. I changed my mind at the last minute and cancelled my train ticket!

The Suryanagari Express, you see, was scheduled to leave Abu Road at 01.30 in the early hours of Saturday morning, arriving 400 kms later in Jodhpur at 06.30. ‘Scheduled’ is the operative word - only an eternal optimist would expect it to run according to the timetable. The potential lack of a night’s sleep would take a big chunk out of the limited time I had in Jodhpur. What was I thinking when I planned this?

I decided to hire a taxi on Friday afternoon instead, effectively adding an extra night and a full day to my stay in Jodhpur, a slightly more expensive but more sensible option. I should have done that in the first place.

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The taxi meandered its way through the suburbs of Jodhpur, into the crowded old town and through Sardar Market to Gulab Sagar. It drew up beside the steps to my hotel. I opened the taxi door to a deafening cacophony of three nearby restaurants and pop-up drinking and eating places competing to play a mixture of what sounded like religious wailing and Bollywood tunes - at maximum volume through huge loudspeakers, sub-woofers vibrating madly! I could barely hear my driver confirming the pre-arranged fare nor, once inside, the hotel proprietor welcoming me.

I’d overlooked the fact that today was Maha Shivrati, a festival for the powerful god Shiva, and that here, in Rajasthan’s second-largest city, this important holiday would be celebrated by people in vast numbers and with much gusto.

The hotel owner shouted his apologies for the noise, adding with a smile and a grimace that it should finish by about four o’clock in the morning.

The noise in my bedroom overlooking the lake and the aforementioned places of celebration was, if anything, louder than it was at street level. Perhaps I should have stuck with that train booking after all. I wouldn’t have had much more sleep, but the rail's usual clicketty-clack, clacketty-click, clicketty-clack would have been preferable to this unbearable din.

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I dropped my bags in the room and took a short walk around the neighbourhood to investigate if there might be a quieter place to stay. Alas, it was a big holiday weekend so even the peaceful but seriously overpriced Pal Haveli just down the road (pictured, right), where I'd once enjoyed an outstanding meal in the rooftop restaurant, was full to overflowing!

Fortunately, I’m not a novice traveller, so the earplugs always present in my toilet bag permitted some sleep. Nonetheless, the huge procession that passed the hotel at 5.45a.m. was loud enough to wake the gods – and me!

I’ve been to Jodhpur a couple of times before, most recently four years ago with my brother and sister-in-law, those Grey Haired Nomads (blog: "I wanna tell you a story"). The vast Mehrangarh Fort, brilliant-white-marble Jaswant Thada, the Clock Tower with its chimes on the hour and quarters, together with the hubbub of Sardar Market are all familiar sights.

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This time, my prior booking was at a modest guesthouse called the Jee Ri Haveli. It wasn't the Pal Haveli by any stretch of the imagination but it proved very convenient for my planned itinerary, my room was comfortable and well-equipped, the owners were helpful and friendly, and there was a superb view from its rooftop restaurant (see picture above) towards the fort and other important monuments, all of which were illuminated at night too. Perhaps its only slight drawback was that the entrance, concealed between two other buildings, was accessed by a long flight of steps - a challenge after a walkabout in the heat of an average Indian day.

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By day, large birds, Black Kites and Griffon Vultures in particular, spiralled high above on rising thermals, the kites nesting on neighbouring communication towers. At sunset, feral pigeons and flocks of cormorants came from out of nowhere to roost in nearby trees and, at night, subdued lighting picked out the black shapes of huge fruit bats lollopping in slow motion over the lake and just above the rooftops.

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Of course, I couldn’t avoid a short walk into the lanes and market late next morning just to remind myself of this colourful and vibrant place. It hasn’t changed much over the years - more people, a bit more commerce perhaps, but intrinsically the same.

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In the relative calm of my second evening, I was delighted to receive a short visit from my dear friend Devendra, who runs the Akhey Vilas at Mount Abu with her husband Shivendra (Shibu), and who was here in her home town visiting her parents. We hadn't met since 2013 and, I hadn't previously seen her 18-month-old daughter Lavika. It was kind of her nephew to bring them and Prakash - one of the young members of staff from Mount Abu whom I'd met last year, in his jeep all the way across town. It had taken them an hour to negotiate the traffic and the busy streets.

Gulab Sagar, which I overlooked from the window and balcony of my hotel room, was new to me. It’s actually a man-made lake or, what’s called a ‘tank’, constructed in the late-1780s on the orders of Gulab Rai, a wife of the then maharaja. It’s fed by canal with waters from Bal Samand Lake many miles to the north of the city. The tank is divided in two by a footbridge. One half is clearly poorly maintained with green surface weed and lots of litter. The other is cleaner and inhabited by catfish that are ritually fed by local people. Concealed around the perimeter of this one are religious bathing places (ghats), littered at the time of my visit with remnants of marigold flowers and other offerings from the Maha Shivrati festivities.

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I was attracted to this area by its proximity to some of the blue-painted houses for which Jodhpur is famous. I have to say that they look better from above, from Mehrangarh's ramparts, as a conglomeration of buildings. Close up, they’re individually just houses, shops and temples painted in a distinctive blue among others that are painted white or not painted at all.

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The Bishnoi people

The main focus of my visit this year was to learn more about the Bishnoi (pronounced 'Bish', as in 'fish', and 'Noi', as in 'toy'), a tribe of farmers and shepherds which has grown prosperous over the years through their religious beliefs and hard work. Their villages are encountered in harsh terrain within a half hour drive of Jodhpur city.

The men are easily recognised by their all-white clothes and turbans, differentiating them from other local men wearing red and multi-coloured turbans. Women traditionally wear colourful tops and dresses that exclude the colour blue as that would have to be dyed using pigments obtained from cutting large quantities of shrubs, a big no-no among these people who revere trees and the environment in general.

The Bishnoi follow a 500-year-old religion deeply rooted in environmental beliefs. Their name comes from their religion’s 29 tenets (Bish = 20, Noi = 9), which were laid down by a Guru Jambheshwar in the early 1500s. These tenets relate to human relationships and attitudes to the earth’s resources, moral behaviour, physical cleanliness, purity of the soul and religious practice. I don't remember all 29, but I know they include things like: think before you speak, bathe every morning, don’t eat meat, be sympathetic to plants and animals, and don’t cut trees...

Indeed, legislation protecting trees and animals, dating back to the early 18th century, exists to this day in the region. It's said that, in around 1730, the Maharaja of Jodhpur had sent troops to gather wood from where the Bishnoi had been cultivating a type of acacia tree called the Khejri (Prosopis cineraria). The trees grew well in the poor soil there, provided shade for animals and was extensively used in folk medicines for almost anything from piles to leprosy. It was a sacred, multi-purpose tree, essential to the Bishnoi's existence.

The villagers therefore resisted the felling of their trees. Each hugged a tree and each, in turn, had their heads chopped off by the soldiers. Over 350 villagers died. The Maharaja, devasted that this had happened in his name, ordered the logging to cease and declared the Bishnoi state a protected area. There's now a temple in a grove of khejri trees commemorating the villagers' martyrdom.

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Guru Jambheshwar also promised them survival and even prosperity if they worked hard and were patient. He told them to labour hard with their hands, to follow a path of truth, purity, non-violence and cleanliness, and to maintain nature’s balance by careful use of resources. There are some similarities between the Bishnoi and Vedic Hindu faiths, such as the celebratory worship of fire - but here there's an essential difference in that such Bishnoi fires normally involve no wood, just coconuts and clarified butter.

Today, the Bishnoi are a prosperous community of wealthy farmers, milk sellers and truck owners. They believe that animals have an equal right to the earth’s resources, so don't deny them their share. Indeed, cattle keeping forms the backbone of their economy and milk produced by them is supplied to many places throughout Rajasthan. The Khejri tree plays a vital role in this. It not only helps preserve the ecosystem of this arid region, but, in addition to its human medicinal values, its leaves are known to improve the milk yield of the Bishnoi’s cows. This tree, above all others, is highly valued and worshipped by them accordingly. The principal village in the area, with specific sections devoted to Hindus, Muslims and Bishnoi, is even known as Khejerli, a derivation of this tree's name.

Because of the Bishnoi's attitude towards the environment, wildlife of the area continues to be unharmed by them and is welcomed to share the land around their homes. Consequently, while still wild and thus wary of sudden movement, animals such as Chinkara (Indian Gazelle), Nilgai (Blue Bull) and Blackbuck are frequently seen close to habitation throughout the surrounding countryside alogside the Bishnoi's domesticated buffalo, camels and other wildlife.

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My day was spent in a jeep visiting some of the villages to see their lifestyle, their homes, having lunch with a family, and watching (but not sharing!) an old man's twice-daily intake of liquid opium. This man spent much of his time laughing!

Bishnoi women wear lots of white bangles and gold jewellery, in the ears, nose and on the forehead, is everyday wear. Married Bishnoi women wear heavy silver ankle bracelets too.

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I was also privileged to meet Thakur Puran Singh - the Rajput lord of Khejerli village - and spent an hour or so consuming numerous cups of water and tea with him and elders from the village seated cross-legged and bare-footed on the floor of his home. It was a most enjoyable way to learn more about the life of the Bishnoi people.

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The tribes live peacefully among other less wealthy communities, Hindu and Muslim alike. These latter are mainly potters making a variety of clay pots for cooking and water storage, and weavers who laboriously make cotton and wool rugs (durries) on small hand looms. These latter usually involve two people taking a month to make an average-sized rug using a hand loom - and all done from memory without a pattern.

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If you ever plan a similar independent tour, contact Kuldeep Singh Ranawat who calls himself The Real Village Safari (Mobile: +91 09928826921); he speaks quite good English and is well-known to these local people. His presence opened many doors for me.

This was an interesting and rewarding day – and yet another addition to the new things I’m experiencing on this journey of discovery.

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  • Did you know that the well-known expression 'The best laid plans of mice and men...' is adapted from Robert Burns' poem ‘To a Mouse’? It tells of how, while ploughing a field, he upturned a mouse's nest and is an apology to that mouse. Here's an extract - to be read out loud in a broad Scottish accent:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:29 Archived in India Tagged india jodhpur rajasthan bishnoi

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Comments

What an excellent read! I loved your photos of all the bustle on the streets of Jodhpur. I confess I enjoyed our brief visit here the least of all the places we went to in Rajasthan, but that was mainly the fault of the only poor guide we had. He rushed us when we wanted to linger, and (worse in our view) shoved Indian tourists out of the way to give us priority access to the display cabinets in the fort (many of which were of limited interest to us in any case).

I would have loved to make that visit to the Bishnoi and if we return to Jodhpur (probably unlikely, but never say never!) I will remember your recommendation :)

by ToonSarah

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