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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)

Once more unto the Thar, dear friends, once more...

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer - 4 March 2017

sunny 35 °C

It’s hot in Jaisalmer, this desert jewel in Rajasthan’s crown. Last year, I was here a month or so earlier (Into the Thar and Farther Into the Thar) but now, in March, summer’s on its way to this harsh, arid land. When I arrived a week ago, it was still winter, reaching a mere 28oC by midday. Today, it reached 35oC. By April, it’ll start to climb to its 50o zenith.

There were some clouds today and rumours of cooling rain. As this city averages only eight days or so of rainfall each year, I took the predictions with a pinch of salt.

Then the heavens opened!

Torrential rain flooded the hotel’s rooftop. The roads were awash with muddy brown water rolling downhill at a rate of knots, carrying all manner of flotsam and jetsam with it. Children splashed with glee in the unexpected waves.

Then, almost as quickly as it arrived, the downpour stopped. A rainbow appeared in the sky. The sun came out and everything dried to its usual dusty self.

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Over this past week, I’ve tended towards lethargy – winding down after two hectic weeks and preparing to wind up again for my final active week in Jaipur. I’ve found time though, between snoozing and blogging, to achieve the twin goals I’d set myself for this visit. One was to explore the desert in a little more detail than last time and, optimistically, to find the critically-endangered Great Indian Bustard. The second was to learn more about a group of gipsy people who preserve the musical traditions of these parts in the Kalakar (Artists) Colony next to my hotel.

So, once more unto the Thar...

My first foray this time was with Dileep Singh Pau, the proprietor of my hotel, in his slightly rusty jeep early one morning. Through the suburbs of Jaisalmer we went in the half-light of dawn and out onto the deserted desert road. The semi-desert of these parts is sand with yellow-brown rocks, acacia scrub, succulent but poisonous Aak bushes, and spindly cactus, punctuated only occasionally by a small hut with a goat or two tied up outside or a cluster of square, brick houses making up a sort of village. There are very few ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ type dunes hereabouts (those that exist tend to be infested with tourists on ‘spend the night stargazing’ excursions complete with uncomfortable camel ride, anyway).

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Aak (Calotropis procera). A familiar desert plant throughout the Thar.
Sometimes known as The Apple of Sodom or Swallow-wort. It's highly poisonous and can cause blindness.

We stopped at a dusty little group of small flat-roofed houses surrounded by desert sand to collect Kundan Singh, a swarthy Rajasthani with a grand black moustache, who was my driver on a foray into the desert last year. I’d misheard his name on our first meeting and, amid much laughter, enquired why he was named after a contraceptive! Kundan was in the middle of digging a three-metre hole just outside his home in which to store water for his two horses. He willingly broke off to act as our driver again today. His local knowledge of the region, particularly the off-road terrain, would be invaluable.

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There was a pond near that rocky hole in the ground, which attracted some small birds, so this became the start of what was to become a day’s bird-watching safari. Here were the usual Green Bee-eaters, White-eared Bulbuls, Southern Grey Shrikes, different species of Wagtail, ubiquitous House Sparrows and several other small unidentified brown birds. They weren’t what I’d come to see, but they were interesting enough to warrant a few photos before taking tea with Kundan, friends and curious children and then setting off towards the Desert National Park.

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Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) & Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis)

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) & Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola)

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House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) & Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus)

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White-eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)

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I should perhaps say a few words here about the bird I’d really come to find.

The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) is a large bird - about a metre tall, and is among the heaviest of the flying birds. It was once a common sight on India’s dry plains, most frequently found in dry grasslands and open countryside with thorn scrub away from farmed areas. Alas, the dry, semi-desert region where it was found here in Rajasthan has been altered by irrigation canals, principally the huge Indira Ghandi Canal that brings water from the Himalayas in the state of Punjab, hundreds of kilometres to the north. Much of the region has been transformed for parts of the year from barren desert to fields of mustard, wheat and cotton. Good for the people, bad for the Great Indian Bustard.

It’s believed that as few as 250 individual birds could now survive in the world. Its status was upgraded in 2011 from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Critically Endangered’. In 2013, the state of Rajasthan introduced a project to identify and fence the birds' known breeding grounds. Now, several parts of the Desert National Park, 45 minutes’ drive from Jaisalmer, are surrounded by wire fences – not to keep the birds in, you understand, but to prevent destruction of the grasslands by roaming goats and cows. I was told that these protected enclosures, covering many hundreds of square kilometres, hold only 11 or 12 birds. However, I’ve also read reports that, in December 2016, 11 new chicks were hatched and that these brought the total here to 151.* Whatever the true picture, this is still a very rare bird – not as threatened as the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat of Australia perhaps, but very scarce and difficult to find nonetheless.

Our journey to seek out this bird took us first on single-lane metalled roads, swerving to avoid occasional oncoming vehicles at the last minute and sending up clouds of dust behind us, then bumping and skidding on deep sand through unmarked off-road areas. The jeep’s four-wheel drive was essential, as was the skill of driver Kundan.

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Along the way, we glimpsed a variety of animals and birds – a group of female Nilgai antelope, Egyptian and Indian Vultures, White-eyed Buzzards and Chinkara gazelle to name but a few. Alas, while we spent a good few hours skirting the outside perimeters of two or three of the grassland enclosures, the Great Indian Bustard eluded us.

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Nilgain (Blue Bull) females

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Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) & Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus)

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White-eyed Buzzard (Butastur teesa)

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Chinkara - Indian Gazelle (gazella bennettii)

We stopped at a village for a late lunch – a hard brown chapati made of millet flour, broken into pieces then mashed by hand into a lentil stew. I admit being dubious about eating from the communal bowl where the grubby hands of several people had done the mashing! It was unpleasant to watch and to look at but, bravely ignoring the potential after-effectcs, I politely tucked in. it was surprisingly tasty - and I lived to tell the tale!

I did, however, avoid drinking what Dileep said was ‘desert water’, offered to him by his village friend Rug Singh. I preferred my flask of cool mineral water laced with Robinson’s Squash’d, apple and blackcurrant flavour! (This was fortunate as the desert water turned out to be hooch, a strong raw spirit made from fermented sugar cane and, as you will learn later, it proved to be Dileep's undoing the next day - and the day after that!)

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Then, it was off to the headquarters of the Desert National Park authority – a big hut in the middle of nowhere, with a straw roof topped by a female Peafowl.

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Indian Peafowl (female) (Pavo cristatus)

My hotel proprietor friend Dileep was clearly well known here, for the boss immediately put his large jeep and three of his men at our disposal and sent us off into the enclosed grassland. Within ten minutes, we spotted a white shape, definitely a Great Indian Bustard, moving quite swiftly with a strange gait. We slowed to a crawl and I was able to get a distant photograph of this strange bird with its unmistakable black cap and pale head and neck. It quickly disappeared into the long grass and we moved on.

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We paused near a hilltop to allow one of the park’s yellow-shirted spotters to scan the area with his binoculars, to no avail, Moving on, following tracks worn through the long grass, we saw another glimpse of white about a kilometre away, certainly another of these unusual birds. By the time we reached where we thought it was, it had gone!

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Then, some 20 minutes of zig-zagging bumpy ride later, as the sun started to drop lower in the sky, there was another, nearer this time. We got down from the jeep and, keeping behind a tree in the bird’s direct line of sight, we walked, crouched low and in silence, closer and closer.

Judging the distance to be right, I stepped to the right and there it was - an adult male Great Indian Bustard. It’s the start of the breeding season for this bird and he was standing still, displaying with his black, crested head puffed up and his well-developed gular pouch inflated. He was probably ready to use the pouch to make the deep resonant call that’s part of the mating display – but, startled by my unexpected movement, he ran off and leapt into flight, calling in alarm at this unexpected interruption.

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What an experience this was – I’d seen not just one of the world’s rarest birds today, but three of them! Those Grey Haired Nomads (my brother and his wife, both very keen ornithologists) will be so jealous!

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A gap of two days ensued before we again drove out into the desert.

With guilt showing in his bloodshot eyes, Dileep told me the reason why he hadn't been seen or heard of for these two days was because he'd over-indulged on ‘desert water’ - not just at our village lunch-stop but on the bottles he'd smuggled onto his jeep that day without me noticing!

Today, just before sunrise, we found a familiar pond, one I’d visited very briefly a year ago, at Jessari. At this early hour, as dawn broke at this little oasis in the desert, a pair of Eurasian Spoonbills was joined in the shallows by a Grey Heron and a variety of other small wading birds.

The tranquil scene was rudely interrupted by the arrival of three tractors, noisily hauling water tanks. The birds flew off. The men filled their tanks and left. I’m told that 30 to 40 tanks of water are extracted from here every day, clearly lowering the already much-reduced water level in the pond.

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When the tractors left, the birds returned. They were soon joined by Black-winged Stilts, a Green Sandpiper, a pair of Little Grebe, Common Kingfishers and White-breasted Kingfishers, a solitary Eurasian Collared Dove, even a Eurasian Sparrowhawk and a Common Kestrel.

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Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

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Green Sandpiper (Tringo ochropus) & Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)

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Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). Commonly seen, seldom photographed by me!

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White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) and a Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus) and Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

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The rare Jaisalmeri Hotel Proprietor, Dileep Singh Pau, wrapped up against the chill of morning at Jessari and catching up on yesterday's news

After a couple of hours, with the birds committed to memory and their photos committed to memory card, we set off home. First though, we called in at a little village community where I’d photographed some of the children last year. I’d brought with me copies of the photo and, although many of the older children were at school today, those remaining were delighted to see themselves and to pose again, with the photo.

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Our final stop was at a small mud-brick house in the middle of nowhere with the strange sight of a motorbike parked in front of what was a primitive dwelling. This was the home of Dileep's aunt and uncle and their extended family. While Dileep chatted with his cousins, his aunt was churning butter and other cousins helped with chores or just lazed around in a shaded spot.

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We bid farewell to these folk, encountering Dileep's uncle wandering wearily home across the dry sand as we made our way back towards the road. It had been interesting to see first-hand how harsh life really is in this unforgiving desert. As you can see, it also plays havoc with your skin and hair!

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*‘ Source: The Indian Express’ 15 December 2016 ‘Desert National Park records 11 Great Indian Bustard births’

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:07 Archived in India Tagged animals birds india rajasthan jaisalmer thar_desert Comments (1)

The face of success

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Khichan - 1 March 2017

sunny 30 °C

As the sun rose, a bright orange ball on the eastern horizon, the calls of a thousand cranes filled the air – krr, krr, krr, garroo, garroo, garroo...

Thousands more birds, in typical V-shaped skeins silhouetted against the morning sky, circled and slowed as they dropped lower and lower. Hundreds landed among grass and sparse trees away to my right. The others circled suspiciously directly overhead.

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I was the only watcher here on the flat, bare concrete roof of Sheva Ram's house overlooking the chugga garh, the 'feeding house'. This place was established some 50 years ago here in Khichan to help ease the plight of Demoiselle Cranes on their annual migration from the plains and steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia. I was enthralled by this sight last year and would encourage you to read my previous blog 'The eighth Wonder of the World perhaps?' too.

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As the minutes ticked by, Sheva Ram brought me a welcome cup of hot chai and a young photographer from the village joined me to enjoy the spectacle unfolding before us. Numbers of birds continually increased and soon the protected piece of sand below me, covered the previous night in heavy lines of grain, was crowded with the grey, white and black shapes of feeding Cranes.

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While I was again amazed by the synchronised chaos this morning (and would be again this afternoon and yet again at dawn tomorrow), I had come this year to discover more about one of the people responsible for this wonder and to see a part of the village that had previously evaded me.

Yes, you'll find many photographs of the cranes on my previous blog - and on this one too. Inevitably, the birds will always be the main attraction. However, I wouldn't be here - and nor would the birds - without the devoted hard work of a few people and the village environment that provides these people's homes.

It was one Ratan Lal who started feeding the cranes here in the 1970s. Those initially small numbers rapidly increased until he and his fellow villagers could no longer fund the grain provisions unaided. A prominent member of the community, Ganga Ram, stepped in and started fund-raising in earnest, calling upon wealthy Jain merchants, many of whom no longer lived in the village, to contribute to the work. A 'Trust' was established, of which Ganga Ram became Chairman and, although he is now retired at the age of 73 - after 35 years in the role, his work continues to this day.

I met Ganga Ram this evening, with my hotel’s restaurant manager acting as interpreter, beside the ponds where his beloved flocks of cranes gathered in the cool of evening to rest and drink before moving off to night-time roosts in surrounding fields.

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It was a proud moment for me to meet the man who helped establish the chugga garh, this small piece of land in the centre of Khichan that is now walled to provide a safe landing and feeding place for the cranes. He also petitioned the government to remove electricity cables that prove so disastrous to landing birds and he expects many of the poles and pylons to be eradicated and the cables placed underground in the not-too-distant future.

With the addition of donations of grain from villagers and money from international and national visitors, enough is now raised to provide up to a claimed 1,250kgs of grain (the volume was variably described to me as 700kgs and 1,250kgs!) to be spread on the ground of the chugga garh every night during the winter. Ganga Ram modestly said he was only doing the Lord’s work.

The daily job of feeding the birds - and providing a roof and chai for any visitors - has now passed to Sheeva Ram (despite the name, he is not related to Ganga Ram and they are actually of different castes too). Sheeva Ram clearly continues to work hard to provide for the cranes as numbers have risen year on year, reaching around 20,000 or more each winter. He also collects birds that are unwell, apparently from eating chemically-treated crops elsewhere in the countryside, and takes them to an animal hospital for treatment.

To see so many birds of this graceful species in one place is a truly wonderous sight and one which I hope to have the privilege of witnessing again at some time in the future.

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The village of Khichan itself is another world away, a world for which I'd failed to find time on my previous visit. On this trip, my remaining objective was to make good that omission. So, after returning to the hotel for breakfast, I ventured forth into the village with a member of the community.

It's said that 'a traveller sees what he sees; a tourist sees what he has come to see'. Nearly all tourists visiting Khichan, like me last year, come just to see the cranes. On this occasion, I'd also come specifically to see the village's havelis, something most tourists do not come to see. Does that qualify me as a tourist or a traveller?

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An ‘haveli’ is a merchant's house, built in opulent style to demonstrate his wealth and his standing in society. Most of the havelis in Khichan are owned by Jain families, who settled here originally because the former non-Rajput rulers of this region let them live their peaceful vegetarian lives unhindered and when trading conditions were different to what is found here in this desert region today.

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The grand stone buildings mostly date back to the 1900s, when trade routes across the desert into Pakistan and Afghanistan were at their peak and providing fabulous opportunities for accumulation of wealth. Following India's Independence in 1947, when borders were raised and traditional routes declined, these traders moved their businesses to the big metropolises, like Mumbai and Chennai, and even overseas. Their sumptuous properties were abandoned.

They are a rather sad sight in consequence, architecturally beautiful with skilfully sculpted stonework and decorative doors and windows, soulless, empty, left to the mercy of the environment. The owners, I was told, do come back from time to time to check on the buildings' condition and to meet socially, but many of these heritage structures have multiple owners, resulting in complex maintenance, buying and selling issues, and some have simply fallen into ruin during heavy monsoons.

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The village is quiet, with few people or animals in evidence by day. I did have a humorous conversation with a kindly old gentleman, Shurad Kuran, during my walk around the village. We shared similar ailments, creaky knees and the like – the main difference being I’m only in my early-70s, while he was in his early-100s (102 to be precise)!

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Well, that was Khichan – an interesting village, a fabulous wildlife encounter.

Accommodation:

I stayed again at the Kurja Resort, Bird View Point, Railway Station Road, Khichan, Phalodi, Jodhpur
Tel:+91 09649417417 email: kurjaresort@gmail.com (Response to emails may sometimes be slow due to communication problems in this area. For that reason, you might be best advised to reserve through Booking.com)

I was impressed that the standards of accommodation, food and service were all even higher than last time. The rooms here are particularly large and both food and service are very good indeed.

It’s efficiently managed by Abhay Singh Bhati, for whom no request seemed impossible. He very ably arranged my meeting with Ganga Ram and all my car journeys in and around Khichan and onwards to Jaisalmer.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:52 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan khichan Comments (2)

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 Comments (1)

Spotting Leopards

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jawai » Chandravati - 25 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

Our plans to visit Jawai changed a couple of times - or rather the place at which we’d be staying changed. Originally, Lajpal had arranged for us to stay at a new guesthouse owned by a friend of a friend, but it turned out that it wouldn’t be finished in time. Then we were going to stay at an inexpensive hotel that Lajpal had been told about.

Then, we had that party with Khuman at Mount Abu – and everything changed.

Khuman, it transpired, had been to school with someone who lived at Castle Bera, a heritage pile in the heart of Jawai’s leopard country, which he’d converted into a guest-house. So, a short phone call to that old school chum, Winku – and Castle Bera (with the compliments of its proprietor) it would be. Proof, if proof was needed, that it’s not always what you know...!

The area called Jawai surrounds a vast reservoir created when Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur built a dam across the Jawai River in the late-1950s. The lake, when full, now covers an area of over 400 square kilometres and is the main water supply for Jodhpur city. If you’re looking for it on a map, draw lines south from Jodhpur, north-west from Udaipur and north-east from Mount Abu; where they cross is more or less the place.

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The waters of the lake are filled with fish and, inevitably, crocodiles and many species of birds find a home here. Surrounding the lake is some fantastic scenery, arid but dramatic in parts. Jagged, weather-worn, sand-coloured hills contrast with huge outcrops of rounded, grey, boulder-like hills and plains of low-growing thorn scrub. Parts are verdant, productive agricultural land. Parts are dry, sandy terrain with little but scrub, cactus and stunted bare-leaved trees. Lajpal has interests with a partner in a plot of land here, currently being farmed, but with plans to construct a small hotel among the intriguing huge rocks. The region is home to a considerable number of leopards, 60 or so at last count, and this has lead to a growth in tourism over the past ten years or so. It’s still only visited by those ‘in the know’, however.

Castle Bera is a huge, family-owned heritage property, part of which is run as a guest-house, with only a handful of its many rooms available to fortunate guests. While simple and not in any way luxurious, it’s full of character with pictures of past family members and distinguished guests lining the walls and memorabilia from bygone times decorating the comfortable rooms.

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Part of the complex is still occupied by other members of the family whose quarters are guarded by a very large and vociferous Saint Bernard dog, a rarity in this hot country. The part available to guests is ably run by the diminutive and utterly charming Thakur Baljeet Singh (known to friends and guests alike as ‘Winku’); his command of the English language is excellent and his hospitality is legendary. The food and service from a friendly resident staff are both excellent.

And so it was that Lajpal and I were welcomed at this fascinating place, our home for only two nights but with so much activity that it felt considerably longer.

We arrived from Abu Road late on Tuesday afternoon and were almost immediately whisked away by Winku in his own jeep for a ‘safari’ in the surrounding countryside, the first of several searches for elusive leopards.

Our first stop was a part of the reservoir with particularly fine views across the water to islands and hills beyond. It was still hot, even at 5.00p.m., so crocodiles and most birdlife were conspicuous by their absence. After, while we enjoyed the ride, we encountered an unusual sight of two Grey Francolin squabbling violently, and waited patiently near several rocky areas where leopards were known to live, but failed to spot that one difficult-to-see creature.

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We returned in time for dinner, to be taken ‘en famille’ at a large dining table in a lovely room, with drinks beforehand in an adjoining green and tranquil garden. Unfortunately, I had a temperature resulting from a raging sore throat (suspected airline malady!), which saw me take to my bed with pills, but no dinner.

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Fortunately, as Wednesday morning dawned, I was well enough to take the 6.00a.m. safari, again with Winku himself at the wheel. Our route took us to a particular rocky hill, where we waited quietly and patiently in that peculiar grey gloom before dawn – you know, that near darkness most of us only see if answering a call of nature in the early hours.

Shortly, a good 100 metres away on top of a large, round rock, a small shape appeared – a leopard cub, followed by a second. They played together for some minutes before eventually disappearing. The accompanying grainy photograph was the best I could do, given the distance and lack of light!

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We continued our drive in an unsuccessful search for more, our only consolation being a variety of small birds – Bay-backed Shrikes, Red-vented Bulbuls, an occasional pretty little Prinia, familiar Eurasian Collared Doves, and numerous unidentified ‘LBJs’ (that’s ‘little brown jobs’ to the non-birdwatchers among you).

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Later, we went to visit Lajpal’s piece of land. Since my visit last year ('Rocks and mountains' blog), his partner had invested in a water tank the size of a swimming pool on the site. The farmer employed by them to care for the site, was pleased to partly fill it from time to time from the land’s two deep wells using a pump and pipes previously supplied to him. It would require a costly filtration plant for it to be swum in, but its surround provided us with a good viewpoint to the hills and rocks of the area.

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Satisfied that all was well, we retraced our steps to the shores of the reservoir, where we’d arranged to meet one of my new Facebook friends, Pareekshit, who’d driven on his motorbike from his home some miles away, just to meet me. It transpired that he’s actually still a shy student and not the professional graphic designer and photographer to which his Facebook page aspires! However, he is a very able and keen photographer. Together with his pillion passenger and another friend who happened to be nearby, he showed us one of the best places to see water birds. Pareekshit is the one on the far left of this photo; my dear friend Lajpal is on the far right.

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Here, Great White Pelicans, Woolly-necked Storks, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilts galore, and a multitude of ducks and waders had gathered in the shallows, a lovely sight.

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After I’d taken some shots of the birds, Pareekshit bid farewell and we returned to Castle Bera – just in time for another safari!

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This time, our luck was in. After a half-hour drive, a female leopard was spotted on the skyline. She walked downhill to conceal herself behind a rock. A group of peacocks kept a wary eye on her, giving us a good clue to her position. All we could see was the top of her head, her ears and eyes. Her camouflage was amazing, so much so that I’ve had to circle her for you on the accompanying photograph.

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She later moved position, giving us a much clearer view.

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As night drew in, the light faded, the leopard yawned and sauntered off into the rocks, unseen once again.

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Our search for more continued. As night fell, high-powered lights were used in a vain attempt to pick out the glint of eyes among the scrub and rocks. We eventually admitted defeat and returned to the hotel for drinks in the garden and dinner in that pleasant room with a couple of other British guests.

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Next morning, we set off even earlier than usual, around 5.30a.m., this time in a larger vehicle driven by one of Winku’s experienced drivers. We took a route not often followed by visitors, into an area heavily covered by scrub and trees, described by the driver as ‘jungle’. We encountered only one other jeep, also one of Winku’s.

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Our route took us over and onto the gigantic rocks themselves, bumping and zigzagging our way in four-wheel drive to the foot of a large hill. Leopards - and sloth bears too - had been seen here on several recent occasions. Our driver spent a long time scanning the rocks from a variety of positions - atop a nearby rock, standing up in the jeep, squatting alongside it – all, alas, to no avail. Bagheera and Baloo (the Hindi names for leopard and bear used in The Jungle Book and still called thus by our driver today) were not at home. Wildlife never appears on cue!

We returned to Bera through the jungle, spying female Nilgai (Blue Bull), the largest Asian antelope, on the way.

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Then, our cases re-packed, we conveyed our gratitude to Winku for his very generous hospitality, left an equally generous tip in the staff ‘tip box’, and boarded Lajpal’s car for the journey back to his temporary home in Abu Road. Traffic is never good in India, but here there were very few vehicles - just an occasional lorry and overloaded taxi - but lots of shepherds with sheep and cows.

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Rajshri and Dhruvi were very pleased to see us after our nights away. It had been intended that I spend my last night at Lajpal’s apartment, but he and Rajshri felt I’d be more comfortable at a nearby hotel rather than in their spare room. Although the hotel was more suited to Indian visitors – I was one of only a handful of foreigners to stay there each year – it did prove convenient, as we had a small dinner party for some of Lajpal’s colleagues, friends and wives in its garden that same evening.

When Lajpal was still studying, his aspiration was always to become a government officer and he would know when he’d ‘made it’ because he’d then be driven around in one of those big white jeep-type vehicles with a flashing blue light on top. It became a form of encouragement from me for him to do well in his exams; I was always telling him that I would one day sit beside him in a car with a flashing blue light on top. Today, I visited one of his offices, met his boss and fellow workers – and rode with him in his white car with a flashing blue light on top! It was a proud moment.

Next day, we drove out to a place called Chandravati (say: chaan-dra-wot-ee) at the edge of the town of Abu Road. It was a new discovery for Lajpal as well as for me, even though Lajpal said his ancestry can be traced back to the Parmara dynasty which once ruled here.

Fragments of ninth to fifteenth century ruins are all that remain of what must have been an impressive city, attacked and sacked several times in its heyday. In the early 1820s, the first European visitors found many remarkable white marble temples and beautifully-carved statues here. By the 1870s, when excavations were conducted, little was left, most of the best materials having been carried off to help construct temples and other buildings in distant places. Other monuments were destroyed during construction of the railway and extension of Abu Road’s industrial area. What’s left is miserable, litter-strewn, unloved and seldom visited.

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There’s a huge museum building at the site, waiting for someone, some day, to clear up the mess and present the ruins in a meaningful way. We located a caretaker, who opened up part of the museum to show us some of the dusty sculptures that had been identified and mounted on plinths. He also showed us a giant water vessel believed to be 1,000 years old.

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‘Interesting but depressing’ is how I’d sum up Chandravati.

We returned to Lajpal’s apartment and enjoyed one of Rajshri’s splendid lunches together before my taxi arrived for the five-hour ride to my next destination, Jodhpur. There, I’ll continue my adventures alone until meeting up with Lajpal and his little family once again in Jaipur for the festival of Holi in about three weeks’ time.

Accommodation:
Castle Bera, Via Jawai Bandh, Dist: Pali, Bera, Rajasthan 306126 Tel: +91 98298 77787
Contact: Thakur Baljeet Singh Bera (aka: Winku) or his son Yaduveer (Tell them Khuman's friend Mike sent you!)

This is a simple and intimate heritage building with excellent service and food. Deservedly awarded TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence every year since 2015, you're sure of a warm welcome here.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:58 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan bera sadri jawai chandravati Comments (1)

Keep Simaling

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Mount Abu 21 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

I’m always discovering new things about my beloved India. I wasn’t previously aware, for example, that many Indian people don’t know the actual date on which they were born. Until just three or four years ago, there was no official registration of births, so some children were given notional birthdays. A friend here has his birthday on 4th January. He was the fourth child born to his parents. His siblings’ birthdays are on 1st, 2nd and 3rd January.

Some people have two birthdays – one on the notional or actual date and one on a memorable religious date. My good friend Khuman had one of his birthdays a couple of days ago, on Maha Shivrati (a lunar festival in remembrance of the powerful god Shiva). His actual date of birth is not until ten days or so later. He celebrates both, of course.

Anyhow, back to places I’ve been before that I visited again this week:

Udaipur

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While Lajpal, Chotu and I dined at our friend Vijendra’s Vintage Lounge Restaurant and discussed the dubious merits of corruption (some claim to believe there is good corruption as well as bad. I say: corruption is corruption!), a meeting of high-ranking officials was being held at Udaipur’s huge Radisson Hotel to discuss tax reforms throughout India. From our elevated position above Lake Fateh Sagar, we could see the hotel a mile or more away, illuminated brightly and with lasers pointing skywards like searchlights in the night-time darkness.

As we enjoyed a final beer, the meeting seemed to finish as, even this far away, we could hear incredibly loud music and, soon after, we saw the lights of a ministerial motorcade beating a hasty retreat!

Sadri

Next morning, Lajpal and I also beat a retreat from Udaipur. We headed northwards, sometimes on good roads, sometimes on very poor ones. Parched sand and thorn scrub on either side were familiar sights. Our journey was often delayed near tribal villages by herds of goats and sheep with their shepherds dressed in white with distinctive red turbans. Our destination for the night was his home town of Sadri.

Here, Lajpal has a small house, which he built just a few years ago, primarily for his parents to live in. His postings as a government employee could take him and his wife and daughter to almost anywhere in Rajasthan, but he comes here as frequently as possible. Apart from two comfortable bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, there’s a kitchen and a dining and lounge area. There’s also an independent apartment on the top floor that’s just been let to a professional couple and provides a small income.

It was good to see Ranveer and Gajendra, his father and mother, again. Lajpal’s lovely wife Rajshri and their energetic three-year-old daughter Dhruvi were there too. They’re always so welcoming and we know one another so well that there's no longer any formality. I feel like I'm just another member of their family. Needless to say, I took far too many photos of Dhruvi with her parents and grandparents.

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After settling in, we left the ladies to prepare dinner, and took a short excursion to the Ranakpur Dam just a few kilometres away. I spent parts of several previous holidays at the Maharani Bagh Orchard Retreat near the Jain temples of Ranakpur (so many in fact that it felt like coming home each time). However, for some strange reason, I’d never seen the nearby Dam, which is concealed up a track between large trees and colourful shrubs. This new discovery, a high stone dam holding back an expanse of water to supply the increasing needs of the Sadri area, attracts a variety of birds and wildlife. We didn’t spot any crocodiles, although they're known to be there in good numbers. Never before have I seen so many cormorants in one place at a time, however - I guess the lake holds a plentiful supply of fish.

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As the sun dropped beneath the hills to the west, a shepherd gathered his small flock of goats and sheep, a young girl in tribal clothes came to view this European stranger, and small flocks of white egrets, long-billed storks, noisy parakeets and unidentifiable birds silhouetted high in the sky made their way to night-time roosts .

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We returned to a delicious evening meal prepared by the two ladies. After all these years, I do still find it a little uncomfortable that the men eat alone, served each course by the women of the house. Tonight, Ranveer, Lajpal and I enjoyed dinner seated on comfortable chairs at a table. Gajendra and Rajshri ate theirs afterwards, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor. That’s how it is...

Monday dawned warm and sunny – this weather’s becoming boring: cloudless blue skies from dawn at 7.00a.m. to sunset at 7.00p.m, refreshing mornings and evenings, hot (30C+) by noon... day after day after day. I’d happily be bored with this for a few months each year, away from the cold and gloomy short days of winter that I've come to hate so much in the UK.

Mount Abu

Bidding farewell to Ranveer and Gajendra, we squeezed ourselves and our luggage into Lajpal’s little car and retraced our steps three hours southwards, to the hill station of Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a thriving resort, with palm trees and greenery among huge boulder-like rocks, reached by a good road, 25km or so above the town of Abu Road. Langur Monkeys, revered by Hindus, sit on their backsides like little old men, by the roadside or in the trees, hoping for offerings from passing visitors. The road snakes its way up and around dozens of bends, with much honking of horns so typical of this country, to a height of about 1,200 metres.

The town’s proximity to the ‘dry’ state of Gujarat makes it a popular holiday and weekend place for Gujarati families, who come to enjoy its mild climate, its scenery and its many hotels, restaurants and bars, the latter in particular!

For similar reasons, Lajpal, currently a commercial tax officer specialising in evasion, is stationed at Abu Road. It’s a very convenient location for stopping vehicles entering Rajasthan from Gujarat and checking paperwork to confirm correct state tax payments on the goods they’re carrying (and for fining the vehicle owners if they’ve tried to evade any tax). I find it interesting that there's virtually no corruption involved in this; systems have been made very transparent in this particular government department. In complete contrast, however, the RTO (Regional Transport Office) is renowned for bribery. I witnessed this for myself at a vehicle checkpoint on a major highway that carries many hundreds of heavy lorries. Almost every lorry was brought to a halt in both directions, ostensibly to check licences and vehicle roadworthiness. Not one of them was checked - not a single one! Every driver simply held a 100 or 200 Rupee note out of his window. Every note was eagerly pocketed by uniformed RTO officers. This was just one checkpoint of hundreds around the country. It's alleged publicly that the millions of Rupees collected each and every day find their way up the chain to the very top government minister, percentages being siphoned off by equally corrupt officials along the way.

However, what did I do at Mount Abu this year?

We were only staying for one night, but it proved to be a particularly memorable one. Khuman, Lajpal’s uncle and the Thakur (feudal lord) of the town of Gundoj, was there to greet me on arrival at Akhey Vilas, the small guesthouse run by his youngest son, Shivendra (aka Shibu). Hitesh, a long-term friend, who manages the premises was there too. Unfortunately, Shibu was away in Delhi (he also escorts French tour groups) and his wife Devendra was at her father’s home in Jodhpur. I hope to catch up with both of them later in my travels. Meanwhile, until the sun went down, it was great just to enjoy the views and birds in this simple hotel's grounds.

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Khuman had kindly organised a special welcome dinner for me. As night fell, and with it the temperature (down to about 20C, which felt cooler as there was a stiff breeze), the staff collected firewood and lit a brazier. We gathered around it, joined by Devendra’s cousin with her husband, general manager of a local hotel. Course after course arrived, accompanied by whisky supplied by Lajpal. We’d stopped to buy a bottle on the way at an ‘English Wine Shop’ – the shop wasn’t English and didn’t sell wine, English or otherwise, just beer and alcohol; it’s the strange name by which government-controlled liquor shops are known hereabouts.

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At the end of our ninth (or was it the tenth?) course of tasty vegetarian and 'non-veg' (i.e. meat) dishes, a huge sponge cake arrived. It was covered in cream, decorated with all sorts of sliced fresh fruit, topped with a brightly burning firework and adorned with a hand-iced plaque saying: ‘HAPPY ARRIVAL. KEEP SIMALING’. It was a very kind thought and kept us ‘simaling’ for quite a while after the delicious cake had been consumed.

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Next morning, Lajpal and I took an hour’s pre-breakfast walk around parts of the resort I hadn’t seen before. At 7.30a.m., it was cool and very quiet. Bird calls were almost all we could hear. Very few people were on the streets; those who were swept the dust from one place to another with swishing brooms or cleared yesterday's litter into little piles and set light to it, the pungent smoke swirling skywards and scenting the air all around. I was surprised to find a regiment of Gurkha Rifles here and an enormous Air Force Station too – probably something to do with signals or communications; this is certainly no place for an aircraft runway.

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Then, it was back down to Abu Road, bidding farewell to Khuman, who I hope to see again in Jaipur for the Holi festival, if he’s able to get away. We dropped Rajshri and Dhruvi at their apartment, before continuing to Jawai in search of the leopards for which that area is becoming known.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:49 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan sadri mt_abu Comments (1)

It's a long way to Tip a Rary

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Udaipur - 19 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

The title of this blog arises from something I once heard on a BBC radio programme. The name of the programme escapes me, but it came to mind while waiting for my flight to Mumbai. In that programme, celebrities were secretly given a phrase or saying and had to concoct a long and elaborate story for the rest of the panel to guess what it was before the tale was finished.

The story in this case went something along the lines of:

A man found a tiny bird, the like of which he'd never seen before. It was clearly sick, so he took it home and nursed it back to health. He searched everywhere to find out what sort of bird it was, but it seemed so rare that he couldn't find it mentioned anywhere. So, he named it a Rary.

The little bird made no noise, but it ate an enormous amount of food. Soon, it was the size of a very large (but silent) dog. The man tried to set it free, but it didn't want to go - and it was now too big to fly. When it had reached the size of a small car, the exasperated man rented a lorry and drove the bird to the high sea cliffs at Beachy Head.

He reversed the lorry up to the edge - at which point the bird looked despondently at the man and, for the first time in its life, sang out: "It's a long way to tip a Rary..."

In the Plaza Lounge at Heathrow's Terminal 4, while waiting for my call to the departure gate, I noticed a sign above the copious dinner buffet with a quote from JRR Tolkien that said: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

I was certainly valuing the free food and wine, while background music cheerfully played a miscellany of First World War songs, including - you’ve guessed it - 'It's a long way to Tipperary'.* Hence the story... Apologies!

*

So, here I am in Udaipur. It is a long way to go (more than 5,000 miles from London via Mumbai to be precise) and it’s also a long way from ‘the sweetest girl I know’ (my wife, Pat, who isn’t a fan of India). However, it’s definitely not a tip - it's a beautiful city, set on lakes with one of the world's top hotels on an island in the middle. There's a magnificent royal City Palace too, fascinating temples and so many shops it would take a lifetime to see them all. I’ve been here several times before, most recently with the Grey Haired Nomads in 2013 and on the way to a very special occasion in 2012 . It hasn’t changed a bit.

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Inevitably, I’ve done most of the tourist sights, so this time I decided to take a dawn walk to see what there was to see on the lake-shore opposite my hotel, the Jaiwana Haveli. On previous occasions, when I’ve stayed here and at another haveli close by, I have always admired the view of the shoreline opposite, but never had time to venture closer to it.

So, this morning, before the sun rose above the palace, I wandered down to Lake Pichola, discovering a footbridge tucked away down a deserted side street, which took me to that opposite bank. Along the way, I met a few early-risers, who greeted me with a cheery ‘Namaste’, saw flocks of pigeons being fed beside Gangaur Ghat (a religious bathing place), women washing clothes, and children in school uniform waiting for their transport. I met only one other tourist, a young American woman enjoying the view from the footbridge.

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On the far bank, passing a tiny temple and watching the sun's rays glowing on neighbouring buildings , I reached a ghat where men were cleaning their teeth and themselves in the cool waters of Lake Pichola. Others promenaded around a small garden as part of their morning fitness regime, jokingly inviting me to join them.

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I enjoyed fabulous views of the sun rising behind the City Palace and the gleaming white Lake Palace Hotel with the verdant hills amid the early morning mist beyond.

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Returning to the hotel, I enjoyed breakfast outdoors in the rooftop restaurant with a similar but more expansive panorama. Oh, I could never tire of that view.

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Then, just a few hours later, I was joined by my dear friend Lajpal, who’d driven here to collect me for our week together. After a snack lunch on the hotel’s rooftop, we took a stroll beside the lake and had a cup of ginger and cardamom masala chai in the warm afternoon sunshine – I needed the Vitamin D after a dreary winter at home.

This evening, we had dinner at a friend’s restaurant, The Vintage Lounge, a few miles away with a terrific night-time view over Lake Fateh Sagar and the illuminated buildings around it. It's wedding season here in India, so there were some big fireworks in the inky black sky too. I was particularly pleased to be joined by Lajpal's cousin, Chottu. We hadn't seen each other for five years.

Today, we're driving north to Lajpal’s home in Sadri, where his wife and daughter are staying with his parents, and where we’ll spend the night. If time permits, we’ll stop off en route to see a hotel owned by another of his cousins amid lush gardens in the Aravali hills near the ancient fort of Kumbalgarh. Lack of internet connection for the next few days will mean a delay in publishing my next blog, but be prepared for news of my adopted Indian family, leopards and excavations of ancient cities.

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*Colleagues from my previous life will know this better as ‘It’s a Long Way to Taormina – same tune, different words. I often wonder what happened to Stan Way!

Accommodation:

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I stayed, for the second time, at Jaiwana Haveli in Lal Ghat, within easy walking distance of the City Palace, Jagdish Temple and a landing stage for boat tours on the lake. I heartily recommend it.

It's not only well-situated, but it's well run by a friendly family and provides excellent accommodation at reasonable rates. It offers good facilities, including a rooftop restaurant and a coffee shop on the ground floor. Food and service are very good indeed.

The WiFi is sometimes good in the public areas, but is not provided in the rooms.

Those with walking difficulties are advised to ask for a room on a lower floor as it's an old building - it's been very well restored, but it does have many stairs and there are no lifts. As a previous guest, I was given one of the best rooms at the top of an adjoining building. The views were fabulous but, to reach the restaurant (which I could see from my window) I had to walk down five flights of stairs, across a courtyard, then walk another five flights of stairs up another building - and vice versa to return to my room afterwards! A zip wire from my room to the restaurant would have been useful!

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:14 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan Comments (1)

Not again?

Asia » India » Rajasthan - 17 February to 16 March 2017

sunny 30 °C

Not India again?

Rajasthan, again?

Don't you have anywhere else to go?

Well, yes, I do. Like most inveterate travellers, I have a bucket list - but, alas, not enough years to visit every country on it before I kick it (the bucket that is, not the list)! So, while I hope to put a line through at least some places on that list in the future, I'll stick with a familiar one in the meantime.

I've mentioned before that, in a past life, I'd been fortunate to visit quite a few places around the globe - and even more fortunate that most of those visits were made at someone else's expense, including several trips to India! I enjoyed all of them. However, there are some that I enjoyed more than others and India happens to be at the very top of that list. So, India it will be - again!

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The Rajputs of Rajasthan in miniature. I think I recognise some of these in real life!

India's not like home. It wouldn't be so much fun if it was just like clean and tidy Blighty, would it? It's overcrowded and poverty is obvious. It struggles with things like rubbish disposal, sewage and hygiene. Animals wander at will. Bureaucracy drives you mad. Traffic is a nightmare and road conditions are awful.

Put all its apparent deficiencies to one side, or at least learn to tolerate them as I do, and you'll have a more positive view of what is a truly fascinating, wonderful, vibrant country. Its culture is richer and more varied than any other I've visited. Its people are happy, proud and generous. Its traditions, religions, myths and legends are bewildering. Its architecture is stunning. Its food is terrific. It's a place where you can eat, sleep and be merry for relatively little money. Colour, noise and smells are all around you from the moment you step off your sanitised aircraft. There's a photograph waiting around every corner. There's nowhere else quite like it. It's magic, and I love it.

And why Rajasthan? There are so many reasons to visit this, India's largest state. It has all the above with historic cities in abundance, palaces, desert, wildlife and traditions that remain firmly fixed in days gone by, despite improvements in living standards and literacy and a growing Western influence. It's where I have many friends, both new and old, with whom I look forward to spending time. It's where I've been to nearly all the tourist sights in most of the villages, towns and cities included on this year's itinerary, but I haven't previously explored as far off the beaten track as I'll be doing this time.

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The spice(s) of life

So, what do the next four weeks actually hold?

First stop will be Udaipur - a short breather in this city of lakes will include a dawn walk to ghats (religious bathing places) on the far side of Lake Pichola.

A week with my dear friend Lajpal, including a few days with his lovely wife Rajshri and their delightful daughter Dhruvi, follows. We'll spend a night with his parents, Gajendra and Ranveer, at his house in Sadri, another with his uncle Khuman at his cousin Shibu's hotel in Mount Abu, and two nights trying to find elusive leopards at Jawai, where Lajpal and a business partner have a plot of land.

Then, it's off on my own, first to Jodhpur, where I'll spend a day with the Bishnoi tribe, known for strict conservation of trees and wildlife and for their pottery and weaving skills. I'll stop off at Khichan, where I spent a few hours watching thousands of Demoiselle Cranes last year, and where, this year, I've arranged to meet one of the top men in the organisation which funded a feeding station to attract and protect them during their migration; I'll also visit some of the town's ancient havelis (wealthy merchants' mansions), which I missed last time.

The following week will be spent at Jaisalmer seeking out groups of musicians and others in a previously undocumented artists' colony. I'll also journey into the Thar Desert to find (hopefully) the endangered Great Indian Bustard, and I'll spend time meeting residents of the city's wonderful golden fort on the hill.

Finally, an overnight train journey will take me eastwards to the state capital of Jaipur for a week's stay, meeting up with Facebook friends with whom I shared insufficient time last year and, most importantly, spending two or three days with members of Lajpal and Rajshri's families. While there, I plan to invest in some new glasses (using my NHS optician's prescription of course). I'll also celebrate the colourful festival of Holi, for which I've packed old clothes - the coloured powders that everyone throws at everyone else is bound to get everywhere!

This promises to be a month of many new discoveries.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:13 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur udaipur jodhpur rajasthan jaisalmer khichan sadri jawai mt_abu Comments (1)

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