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September 2019

Spotted! Leopards!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 15 March 2017

sunny 30 °C

Wednesday was yet another glorious sunny day. I love this weather and I'm definitely not looking forward to returning to grey skies and rain in England in just a days’ time.

Making the most of the hours left, I started preparing my luggage for the journey home, then went back to the optician with Rajshri's younger brother Monty to collect my smart new specs. Monty had been such a great help to me during my stay, available at a moment's notice whenever I needed assistance and acting as interpreter and driver with such warmth and friendship.

In the afternoon, I was collected by my other former Facebook friends Girdhar and his son Yashoraj, both very keen photographers and wildlife lovers whom I'd met on my visit to Jaipur in 2016. Today was to be another journey of discovery in their affable company – Jhalana Forest.

The Jhalana area is an extensive nature reserve spread over 33 sq. km. east of Jaipur city, just half-an-hour’s drive from my hotel. It's said to hold more than a dozen leopards, as well as a wide variety of other wildlife and birds. Formerly a public recreational area, it has only recently become a designated wildlife reserve (or a 'safari park' as it's become known) with limited and chargeable entry. There are currently three prescribed routes in the forest with scope for more as demand increases. There's also a temple within the reserve, which means that, somewhat disconcertingly, there are often people wandering along the paths while you drive past in search of leopards that have been known to seek shade on the temple steps!

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I was forewarned that there was unlikely to be much chance of a leopard sighting in the increasing heat of this time of year. The best possibility might be at what Yashoraj referred to as 'high-ISO time' - a reference to sundown being the optimum time to see them and the need to adjust camera exposure settings to compensate for the consequent poor light.

This is another of the places to which Lajpal’s father-in-law, Dashrath, has privileged access. For unknown reasons, related perhaps to a rather confused leopard being seen a few days ago close to nearby houses and shops, the general public weren’t currently permitted to take their vehicles on ‘safaris’ inside the protected area. Girdhar and Yashoraj are well-known to the reserve's senior officers and we may not have needed special entry permission, but Dashrath had made arrangements through the Minister's office to guarantee access to the area for us all. He came along too, accompanied by the Minister’s personal manager for good measure.

It was still mid-afternoon and very hot when we arrived at the reserve's entry point. After enjoying masala chai served by one of the officers, we all piled into an official jeep complete with Ranger and another wildlife officer and off we went at a steady slow pace around the sandy and stony tracks inside the reserve.

We were extremely fortunate to spot our goal, a leopard, after only a short while – a male, concealed beneath bushes about a hundred metres away. At first reluctant to make an appearance, he eventually moved off, crouching low among long grass before sauntering off into the distance watched by a small flock of nervous Indian Peafowl.

It was a good (but far from great) sighting. It was still early on this hot afternoon and, in any case, the leopard is one of the most secretive of all wild cats, so difficult to see at the best of times.

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Although we were delighted to see numerous Nilgai antelope - ideal food for leopards, a Mongoose or two and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk bathing in a waterhole, we drew a blank on the next few circuits as far as leopards were concerned.

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We took a break while the temperature subsided, stopping for tea and biscuits on the flat roof of an ancient, deserted hilltop fort, complete with tables and chairs – very civilised (and not something anyone could do without being in the company of the reserve's boss!).

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Common Pigeon - Photographed, using my camera, by Girdhar - who clearly has a sense of humour!

Alerted by a mobile phone call from another authorised vehicle, we left the fort and drove as quickly as the terrain would allow to a place where a leopard had been spotted near a waterhole. Disappointingly, it had left by the time we arrived.

We continued driving slowly, scanning the trees and bushes all the while for any tell-tale signs. Then, receiving another phone tip-off, the driver shifted into top gear and, with us holding tight to the grab handles, he hurried along the winding sandy road, twisting and turning through gaps in trees.

At this new location, we were just in time for a very clear view of a female leopard relaxing on a small ridge, obscured only by a few wispy branches of nearby trees. We were not alone for this close view – there were several other keen photographers there, regulars with special permission, most with big cameras and even bigger lenses clicking like machine guns. I was introduced to a man I recognised as a person I’d followed on Facebook for some years. He’s one of India's leading leopard specialists, who regularly visits this reserve and has taken some remarkable photos as a result.

My friends Girdhar and Yashoraj are frequent visitors too – apart from knowing most of the leopards by name, Yashoraj has taken some truly great shots of them. When I met him last year, he was passionate about birdlife and could easily identify species, both on sight and by their calls too. This had now switched to an even greater passion for leopards and a close study of their behaviour, their habitat and even locations they frequent within the reserve.

Most of the leopards seen in the reserve have names - Yashoraj recognised this one immediately as ‘Katrina’ - the name he had given her and by which she was now formally known. She remained unfazed by our presence for a good ten minutes or more, initially facing away from us, but then moving to watch us curiously before eventually slinking off over the ridge and into the bushes. What a fabulous sight and a remarkable end to my journey of discovery!

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Elated at having had such a good sighting - and in relatively good light just before sunset too, we called it a day and returned to the reserve headquarters. There, we boarded Girdhar’s car and I was delighted to be invited to come to his home for a light meal before being dropped back at my hotel.

It was a great pleasure to meet his wife and some of the children of his brother, who also lived in this large house in an important suburb of the city. It was also a interesting to discover their royal connections - Girdhar is the son of the Maharaja of Khandela, a town to the north of Jaipur, where his former stately home has been converted into a heritage hotel. Their 'haveli' (mansion) in Jaipur is also now a hotel, supervised by Girdhar as part of varied business interests.

We shared some interesting conversations about my favourite country and about our quite different lives, before parting with a promise to meet again soon. Much of my fondness for this country revolves around the warmth of its people, this lovely family being just one illustration of the genuine and unexpected hospitality I have experienced here throughout the years.

It’s always sad to leave friends. I have so many of them in Rajasthan after this, my 11th visit to India. I’ve phoned or messaged them of course to say farewell and to thank them for giving so freely of their time, but I repeat my gratitude here for public consumption.

To all my friends in India, I say: by the grace of whichever of your many gods receives your devotions, we will surely meet again in this life. Until then everyone, remember: muskaraate raho! keep smiling!

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:13 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan jhalana Comments (2)

The hills are alive - and I was too (but only just!)

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 14th March 2017

sunny 30 °C

The effects of Monday afternoon's excesses lulled me to sleep on the mattress from hell.

I awoke on Tuesday in time to meet Manish again at the Jorawar Singh Gate on the far side of the old Pink City shortly after 7.30a.m.

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Kindly, knowing I wouldn't have had time for breakfast at my hotel, he took me on his motorbike to his home a few minutes away. His wife Krishna had prepared masala chai (the sweet, spiced tea found throughout India), together with what they usually had for breakfast at this time of year.

There on a tray were:

- hot, golden-brown Moong Dhal Halva (a filling sweet dish made from split green chickpea paste simmered gently for a long time in clarified butter - ghee),

- some yummy Petha (little cigar-shaped sweet biscuits made from the ash gourd, a white melon-like vegetable),

- potato-chip-shaped Mathri (a hard biscuit made from wheat flour, spiced with black pepper, carom seeds and cumin, then fried in ghee),

- and some dry, crumbly and sweet fudge-like Besan ki chakki (a typical Holi sweet made from chana dal - a variety of chickpea, split, soaked, ground and fried in ghee).

Writing this down, I've just realised how much time it must have taken Krishna to make all these delicious and filling breakfast treats - and how much ghee she must have used!

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Sufficiently replete, we re-boarded Manish's motorbike for a journey up into the hills above Man Sagar. Round and round we went on the zigzag road that leads higher and higher towards Nahargarh and Jaigarh Forts atop the hills about 700 feet above the city.

I don't recall ever riding pillion on a motorbike anywhere else in the world, except here behind Manish - holding on tight as if my life depended on it. We both wore crash helmets and he drove very sensibly and gently - he knows that, while I may have the mind of a young man, I have the body of an old one!

Our first halt was at the transmitting station of the government-funded TV, radio and online broadcasting organisation called Doordashan. Manish is a technician for the company and, although now based at their downtown studios, he'd worked here for some years and we were given a warm welcome to this fenced and guarded area. I had a quick guided tour of the control, computer and generating rooms, satellite dishes and the transmission tower itself, before leaving the motorbike and camera bags in this secure compound.

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We walked a little way down the road to the Shri Krishna Charan Mandir. The footprints preserved at the shrine inside this ancient temple are said to have been made by Lord Krishna himself - and by his cows too.

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If such a thing as a Health & Safety Executive existed here, they’d have a field day installing all manner of currently non-existent safety rails, repaired surfaces and suitable warning notices up the steep, deep and very worn steps of the temple's tower. It was an exhausting bare-footed climb to the top (respect and tradition demand removal of footwear before entering temples and people's homes). It proved a well worthwhile ascent though as there was a cooling breeze at the top and the views towards the town, Man Sagar and the Jal Mahal were stunning, albeit somewhat hazy on this hot, cloudy morning. When he was working at the transmission station, Manish would sometimes retreat up here to cool off in the height of summer.

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Shortly after descending, I took a call on my mobile phone from Lajpal to tell me that he’d decided not to return home today and enquiring if I’d like to join him on a trip to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve with his father-in-law, Dashrath (who happens to be Private Secretary to the government Minister responsible for the state’s wildlife reserves). I’d never seen a tiger in the wild despite many disappointing game drives in Ranthambore four years ago, but it’s at least a three-hour drive each way and, in any case, I was at the top of a mountain with another friend. I had no option but to continue my planned walk.
(Sod’s Law: I discovered in the evening that they’d seen a tigress on a fresh kill – with her three cubs – from less than 30 metres away! Ho Hum...)

We retraced our steps to the transmission tower and then through a hole beneath some barbed wire to enter what Manish termed ‘the jungle’, an expanse of stony, thorn-scrub frequented only by lost cows and goats and even fewer humans.

We followed an indistinct, meandering path in loose rocks and stones, through low-growing trees, downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill and downhill again, arriving about an hour later at the foot of a long flight of deep steps up to Garh Ganesh Temple. We’d stopped occasionally to take short rests and water, but the vigorous walk was starting to take its toll and I had to have a long sit down before attempting the final climb.

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This temple pre-dates the city of Jaipur, so it must have been built pre-1726. Its design is fort-like, square, with turrets and on a hill with walls surrounding it – the ‘garh’ in its name, translating as ‘fort’ is a bit of a give-away. Also, as its name suggests, it’s devoted to my all-time favourite of the thousands of Indian gods, Ganesh - the elephant-headed god of new beginnings and the remover of obstacles. He's usually depicted with a huge trunk, four arms and riding on a tiny mouse. Here, he's present in the form of Purushakriti, a child-like being without a trunk. Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, so no illustration of the idol alas, although a few of the view and some of the birds we saw while there are included here.

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The temple was built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, founder of Jaipur (‘Jai’ from his name, ‘pur’ meaning ‘city’). The statue of Purushakriti in a little white shrine on the roof of the temple is carefully positioned to face the City Palace, built later, so that Jai Singh could see it from afar with the aid of his binoculars.

After a blessing from the chief priest and a traditional tilak (a bright ochre-coloured spot dabbed onto the forehead between the eyes), we descended the way we’d come.

The sun was now high in the sky. Even frequent stops made the slippery descents and long uphill climbs back to the transmission tower a difficult proposition for my knees and lungs.

At times, I seem to have run out of oxygen and felt giddy, with my knees creaking and my legs clearly experiencing an unwelcome build-up of lactic acid - but, with the aid of rest stops and the dregs remaining in my water bottle, I thankfully reached the tower, where I collapsed onto a bed in the staff restroom and closed my eyes. I'd somehow lived to tell the tale !

Fully recovered about half an hour later, I got back on Manish’s motorbike for the return journey down the winding road to Man Sagar. There, we bid each other a fond farewell and I picked up an auto-rickshaw for the scary ride in heavy traffic through the Pink City back to my hotel.

The journey took longer than usual as the driver had clearly not been to Civil Lines for quite a while (or maybe ever!), and didn't have a clue where to find my hotel. His English was virtually non-existent, so Manish had had the foresight to write down the hotel's name and address in Hindi on a piece of paper, which he'd given the driver when we'd left each other at Man Sagar. He stopped to ask directions on at least five occasions, each time showing the piece of paper and being given wrong information - no-one liked to admit they didn't know, so they said the first thing that came into their heads - it's the Indian way!

Eventually, from afar, I spotted overhead metro tracks - a recognisable landmark, and was able to locate the correct road and ultimately the turning towards the Barwara House Colony. It had taken us an hour, but the agreed fare was only 150 Rupees - less than £2. I added a 10 Rupee tip. It might have been 20 if I hadn't had to show the driver the way.

This was a dangerously tiring, but very rewarding morning - an adventure with more new and interesting discoveries at every turn, thanks to my friend Manish. It was made doubly pleasing for me that we'd walked totally off the beaten track to places seldom seen or experienced by other overseas visitors. The near-death experience was easily forgotten.

The afternoon was spent prone on my board-like bed at the Shahar Palace Hotel and writing a few more lines of this blog in the cool shade on my balcony. I also managed to capture those pesky little Sunbirds with my camera; it needed infinite patience - and deletion of numerous missed shots from my camera's memory card!

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Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus), ♀ or juvenile

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Purple Sunbird ♂

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I'm hoping to end my month in India on yet another high - meeting friends Girdhar and Yashoraj, and searching with them for the elusive leopards of Jhalana Forest.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:10 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan Comments (1)

Spring is sprung. I wish the mattress was!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 12 March 2017

27 °C

It’s obvious, sitting in the early morning sunshine on the balcony of my hotel room, that Spring is on its way to Jaipur.

A pretty little Laughing Dove, twig in beak, keeps flying within inches of where I’m sitting and disappearing into a tall, broad-leaved shrub nearby. Her mate meanwhile sits unafraid on my balcony rail, puffing up his tiny chest and emitting a chuckling coo, roo-roo, roo-roo.

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Numerous miniscule, metallic blue-green and light-brown birds, male and female Purple Sunbirds, flit among the fragrant pink flowers of a Butterfly Tree (Bauhinia purpurea) uttering a shrill tzeet, sometimes tzeet-tzeet, sometimes tzeet-tzeet-tzeet. They fly quickly from flower to flower, stopping for a mere fraction of a second each time. They’re a challenge for a photographer – by the time they’re in focus, they’ve gone!

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I’m in the hectic capital of Rajasthan for a whole week. Venturing out onto the roads here is like one of those fast racing-car games on an X-Box – but with a hundred times more cars, countless motorbikes and auto-rickshaws weaving in and out, a cacophony of madly honking horns, and endless people, cows and dogs wandering aimlessly beside and across the roads.

It’s bliss to return to the tranquillity of the Shahar Palace, a sort of stately-home once upon a time and now a small guesthouse. Along with many other grand houses, most occupied by government Ministers, doctors and diplomats, it’s in the up-market Barwara House Colony of the Civil Lines district. Its huge garden, overlooked by my balcony, is full of mature shrubs and trees, birds singing, ubiquitous Palm Squirrels chirping and clicking, and the occasional strolling macaque too.

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It's an uncommon oasis in this congested and over-populated city. In common with many similar small hotels, this one lacks a bit of TLC, but it’s comfortable enough - despite a wafer-thin, unsprung mattress that might just as well not be on my hard wooden bed. I get numbness down whatever side I choose to sleep on, although admittedly I've been so exhausted by all the activity most days that I've managed to sleep on it just the same.

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I’d arrived in Jaipur before daybreak on Thursday aboard the Jaisalmer-Delhi-Express after a restless night in a First Class sleeper carriage. The four-berth compartment was occupied at first by me, a lone Japanese man travelling all the way to Delhi to catch a flight back to Tokyo and a young Brazilian guy who’d flown all the way from São Paulo for only two weeks in India. At Jodhpur, the Brazilian left and was replaced by an Indian businessman who insisted on sleeping with the light on. Hence the restless night!

The friendly and helpful guesthouse owner, Colonel Virendra Singh (ret'd), raised from his bed at this ungodly hour, escorted me to my room immediately after I arrived.

I unpacked and dozed for a few hours before being collected by Lajpal’s brother-in-law Yogeshwar, familiarly known by the more-easily pronounced 'Monty'. He whisked me away, with two friends in the back of his car giving directions - including driving against heavy traffic the wrong way up a main road at one time (quite usual here). As I needed a new pair of specs, they took me to a couple of recommended opticians with modern shops and a wide choice of frames and lenses. I'd brought my recent eyesight prescription from the UK, as had Miriam Margolyes in the first of the 'Real Marigold Hotel’ television series. She'd bought several pairs extremely cheaply during her stay in Jaipur, but I guess they may have been basic single-vision ones. I opted for titanium frames with complex, premium-quality progressive lenses, but even these were a third of the price they'd have been at Boots in the UK. They’ll be ready in a few days – compared to a few weeks back home.

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Friday morning was spent exploring with my friend Manish, once only a Facebook friend but now, having spent time with him last year, a real friend, a kindred spirit, a passionate photographer and birdwatcher.

I'd hailed a passing auto-rickshaw at 6.45a.m. and told the driver I wasn't a tourist, so would only pay half of what he asked. We bounced our way through light traffic into the Pink City, past the Hawa Mahal ('Palace of the Winds') and out of the Pink City by the Jorawar Singh Gate onto the road leading to Amber Fort. It's the best time of day to see the old city, devoid of tourists and locals, grimy from yesterday's detritus and cool into the bargain.

My destination was the Jal Mahal , the 'Water Palace' in Man Sagar lake, close to Manish's home. This is a popular 10-minute stop for tourists on their hurried sightseeing tours of the city and, sure enough, the Japanese and Chinese sightseers were there with their huge, professional cameras (I guess they're cheap in their lands of manufacture), snapping the palace with birds in the foreground as the sun rose above the distant hills. I couldn't resist photographing them doing just that.

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However, what these and other tourists miss is the real joy of a walk around Man Sagar. A small fortune has been spent dredging and cleaning the lake over the past few years. It’s now bordered by colourful trees and shrubs, been stocked with fish and is a haven for water-birds. It's rumoured that the ancient palace in the lake has been, or is being, converted into a five-star hotel, but I saw no promotional effort for this anywhere.

I confess that, even after many visits to this city, I didn't know that there is a little-used road to one side of the tourists' pedestrian walkway. It was that road and a footpath beyond it that I walked today with Manish, his charming wife and two of his three sons, discovering unusual views of the Jal Mahal and hundreds of birds on and near the water.

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The list of birds spotted (and photographed) included Spot-billed Ducks, Pelicans in huge numbers, Ibis, Egrets, Swamphens, Cormorants, Asian Pied Starlings, Herons and Mynahs, to name but a few. Oh, and there were also a few Langur Monkeys too. It was one of the best three-hour walks I've ever had in any city.

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Manish is fortunate to do this walk most days, evidenced by the numerous beautiful photos of birds and flowers he so frequently posts on Facebook. I can't compete with his knowledge or with his superb photographs of birds, but include with this blog a few of mine taken on this walk. We're planning to meet up again towards the end of my stay for another walk, this time in the hills above Jaipur, when we expect to encounter more new views that are little seen by visitors.

My afternoon was spent with two other Facebook friends, Anil and Ramakant, who are very active photographers, one of them running the Jaipur Photographers Club that I follow closely. We whiled away a couple of hours at the Tapri Tea Shop, one of two in Jaipur. I was intrigued that it offered a many-page menu of teas from around the world, hot or cold, with or without milk, by the pot or by the cup. The atmosphere was a bit like Starbucks or Costa Coffee without the over-priced coffee. It was good to put faces to names and we promised to keep in touch until we meet again.

I've found it interesting to actually meet some of my many Indian 'Facebook Friends', all of whom have been genuinely pleased to give of their time and to share some of the things we have in common, photography and wildlife in particular. A couple of them differed from their aspirational public profiles – the Jaisalmer ‘jeweller’ turned out to be a builder’s mate and the ‘professional graphic designer and photographer’ was still a student – but, hey, we can all dream of what we might be some day. My business card says I'm a Travel Writer and Photographer because 'Blogger' probably wouldn't open quite as many doors!

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That night, Lajpal arrived with Rajshri and Dhruvi after a six- or seven-hour drive from Abu Road. They'd come to spend the holiday weekend and their fifth wedding anniversary with Rajshri’s family. He called in on me on Saturday morning and, later in the day, collected me for a party at Rajshri’s father’s house. There, we ate particularly well with lots of snack starters, followed by some 'non-veg' courses of tandoori chicken, ‘white meat’ (mainly goat offal) in a tasty sauce, and a delicious mutton curry. Somewhere before and after that we enjoyed a huge cream cake with a big ‘5’ candle on it and the traditional feeding of pieces of it by everyone to everyone else amid much laughter and cream on noses. I think we may have drunk rather too much whisky too. Sunday was a leisurely day, doing very little on my balcony, in consequence.

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The week ahead would hold more new things for me - the Holi festival, a walk in the hills and possibly even more sightings of elusive leopards.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:56 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan lajpal man_sagar Comments (1)

In tune with Jaisalmer

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer - 7 March 2017

sunny 35 °C

If you want to make a difference to at least a few of the people of India, stay here in the Kalakar Colony of Jaisalmer. My hotel, The Silk Route, you see, is not only built in its midst but a percentage of its profits goes towards supporting a community of gipsy musicians on its doorstep.

My time last year was devoted to the tourist sights of this city – the imposing hilltop fort, the lake at Gadisar, the dunes of the Thar Desert. The hotel, then only a couple of years old, was a comfortable, inexpensive and convenient place to stay. I didn’t really choose it for anything else.

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It was while staying here that I learned about it having been constructed partly to provide the basis for permanent settlement of gipsy families in the vicinity. When the hotel’s foundations were being laid, these families were already living around the site in tents and crudely built shacks, with no modern-day facilities whatsoever. Now, four years on and with government permission, they live in brick buildings with electricity, a central piped-water supply, and the inevitable Sky satellite dishes on their roofs. Of course, there are still piles of rubbish, plastic and so on – it will take a bit longer for a change in culture. I mentioned in last year’s blog 'Into the Thar' that arriving at the hotel is a bit of a shock in consequence. Dirty water still runs in channels to an open drain at the bottom of the hill. Cows, feral pigs and dogs still wander at will. This is still India.

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However, once the path is negotiated and ‘hello’ said to many cheerful little children along the way, the hotel remains a good place to stay. Its rooms are large, comfortable and well-equipped. There’s air-conditioning if you need it and ceiling fans if you don’t. Water from the hot tap is hot. There’s a rooftop restaurant with a great view over the town to the fort. The food served here is basic but cooked to order, tasty and plentiful and it's a joy to sit here in the fresh air at breakfast time or sipping a lemon tea and exchanging tales with guests from other parts of the world. The staff, Guman, Akhabar and Jamal, together with proprietor Dileep, are friendly, helpful and always eager to please. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to spend a week.

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It was one of my ambitions this week to learn more about the hotel’s gipsy neighbours and their music. Little groups of musicians leaving to perform around the town are a common sight near the hotel. From time to time, musicians and dancers from all over Jaisalmer are asked to perform outside of India - some have played all over the world. Those I was about to see, though, performed only in the locality, at festivals, hotels, weddings and so on.

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I was given privileged access to a charming family living close by. Their home, really a large square room with a raised platform on one side, housed Dungara Ram Bhopa and his wife Fuli Devi, their four daughters: Suman (13), Pinky (11), Rama (6) and Anna (5), and two sons – one of them, Vijay, aged 3 and an older one whose name I forget. The room doubled as kitchen, bedroom, sitting and TV room for them all. Beds were thin mattresses and blankets, rolled up and put to one side during the day.

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Dungara is a charismatic dark-skinned man with a glint in his eye. Although he’s also an accomplished drummer, his instrument of choice is the rawanhatha (pronounced something like: 'roe-an-hat-ter'). This many-stringed, violin-like contraption was constructed with his own hands. The long neck is made of bamboo. The sound-box, tiny in comparison, is half a coconut covered in taut goatskin. The tuning pegs for the two largest strings, one made of hair from a horse’s tail, the other a piece of string, are of wood turned by hand to a distinctive onion shape. Pegs for the many metal strings, together with decorative pieces around the neck, are made from shiny sheet aluminium cut to traditional shapes.

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This instrument is held in an upright position and played with a bow made from a thin, bent branch fitted with horsehair that hangs in a limp crescent to be tensioned in use by the musician’s fingers. Five or six bells attached to one end of the bow provide percussion, tinkling loudly when the bow’s tapped or drawn sharply against the strings. The sound of this instrument is difficult to describe without offending the musician – an out-of-tune violin being played by a learner, perhaps. Put together with sounds from other instruments and energetic singing, however, it forms the primary noise and gives rhythm to the tunes, all of them cheerful, up-tempo folk songs in the case of this happy group.

Dungara was a changed man whenever he put on his patterned red turban and picked up his rawanhatha. A smile came to his face; he bobbed up and down with the rhythm of the tune and sung the words with glee and gusto, sometimes adding a guttural click, a whistle or a shout for good measure.

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Fuli, his attractive wife, dressed by day in a pretty sari, sometimes red, sometimes bright blue, is the lead singer for most of their tunes and plays a morchang, something akin to what I know as a Jew’s Harp. She had a wide variety of them in different shapes and sizes and made of different metals, most six or seven centimetres long by two or three wide. All are placed against the lips, held in place by the fingers of one hand and flicked with the fingers of the other, using the mouth as a sound-box. The resulting sound is a weird metallic dong, ding, twang, pitched high or low depending on the size, shape and metal of the instrument. It’s even more difficult to describe this mesmerising sound – click here to hear it on You Tube.

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The other main instrument used by this team is the dholki, occasionally played by Dungara but, when he’s playing his rawanhatha, by one of his many relatives. This is one of a family of drums that includes a large two-headed cylindrical drum known as a dhol, the barrel-shaped dholki and slightly larger dholak, and the nagara or battle drum. The dholki is made of wood from a mango tree – a hollowed-out piece of trunk, larger at one end than the other that gives it the elongated barrel shape and the desired traditional sound. The ends are covered in goatskin held taut by metal pegs, which are tightened with a spanner to tune them. The small end is played by resting the wrist and palm of the right hand on the goatskin and tapping hard with the fingertips on the centre or edge to vary the note. The larger end is mostly played with the whole of the left hand in a slapping movement to provide a bass rhythm. It’s a pleasing, often violent sound.

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Sometimes, this trio is accompanied by the castanet-like khadtaal, which is used to create intricate rhythmic patterns and sounds of varying pitches and intensity. Small children can often be seen using these as part of a musical group. Although this family doesn’t play other instruments, they do team up for special occasions or concerts with those specialising in the surnai, a kind of oboe, and the harmonium, a bellows-operated accordion played one-handed on a keyboard.

It was fascinating to see the instruments being played in the house and to hear some of the songs of welcome and devotion that were voiced by this family in such happy tones. Fuli all the while was also trying to cope with the demands of Vijay, her youngest boy. At the same time, some of her other children were comparing photos on their phones or caring for other little ones, and her younger sister was trying to make chapatis!

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Suman, Fuli's teenage daughter, had just injured one of her big toes – ripping the entire nail back from the toe until it stood at 90 degrees with blood everywhere - one of the hazards of walking barefoot in these parts. Gritting my teeth, I used the emergency kit carried in my camera bag to clean and dress the wound with the entire family looking on, before giving her a painkiller and some cash to pay a doctor for proper treatment. She was a brave girl – it must have hurt like hell – but, when I saw her next day, after the medics had re-dressed the injury and given her antibiotics, she was cheerful and seemed happy to walk around in the dust and grime that were now turning her new dressings a distinct shade of black.

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I was also pleased to see Dungara and Fuli dressed up for an evening performance at my hotel. Dungara wore a white checked coat-like dress and white trousers. For one of their particularly joyous renditions, he rose to his feet and jigged around the floor playing his rawanhatha with abandon and singing at the top of his voice. Fuli was dressed in all her finery, a beautiful red sari trimmed with gold and a mass of jewellery, beads and bangles.

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This year, the hotel had contributed to the establishment of a small school here. It’s sponsored by a vivacious, well-spoken young lady named Tamara, whose parents, an Indo-Dutch couple, had worked in social care in India for many years. She was following in their footsteps, organising volunteer teachers to provide basic education and a lunchtime meal each day to over 50 of the community’s children. My hotel proprietor had secured the use of a building at the top of the hill, near what was known as Sunset Point, and the ‘Sunflower Learning Centre’ was now in full swing. The school isn’t yet registered and can’t receive proper funding, so learning materials and other necessities are currently being subsidised by Tamara’s earnings from modelling assignments.

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Groups of children were eagerly learning the letters of the Hindi and English alphabets by written and vocal repetition, as well as mathematical addition and subtraction by copying examples that had been written by a teacher on a whiteboard at the front of the class. The older children, in a mixed-age group from about 7 to 13 years old, wrote in pencil in exercise books, eagerly keeping the points of their pencils sharpened with the one sharpener they shared. The younger children, in a separate group, used chalk on little slates. I was impressed by how keen these children were to do tasks they’d been set and it was truly lovely to experience the pride in the smallest children’s voices when showing me their writing and telling me: ‘A for Apple, B for Ball, C for Cat...’.

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All the children here also receive tuition in crafts, art and in basic use of computers. Not all children from the colony attend – their parents may need them to help with the household chores or to care for small babies while they go out to work, for example. However, I was told that, even in the short space of time this school had been in operation, there had been many changes in the behaviour of children who attended. Swearing, fighting and generally misbehaving were just some of the things that had markedly improved, and this was now being passed on by the school children to their friends who didn't attend.

Both in and out of school, the colony's children are happy and energetic, enjoying today and looking forward to a brighter future.

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This is altogether an excellent example of social care in action and I wish it every success.

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I was pleased to have spent a constructive and relaxing week in Jaisalmer, where the warm (nay, hot!), dry air had certainly agreed with my health and where the environment had provided me with daytime interest and ample opportunities for photography.

I was sad to be leaving the colony and the hotel's friendly team for the 12-hour rail journey to Jaipur, but looking forward to a whole new set of discoveries in the week ahead.

Posted by Keep Smiling 16:00 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan jaisalmer Comments (0)

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