Tuesday, 26 November 2019

JODHPUR-Old Blue City Walk - By Shameera Somani


Jodhpur the second largest city of Rajasthan is where time seems to have stopped still and one can go back to an erstwhile era where the locals live in old havelis, engage in art and craft that are centuries old and meet at the city’s chowks to discuss life’s goings-on and celebrate festivals. The best way to experience this is to go on an Old Blue City Walk. Jodhpur’s more famous siblings Jaipur and Udaipur, which enjoy greater tourist footfalls, have become modern, swanky, with great infrastructure over time. Jodhpur, by contrast, has a laid back, old-world charm about it and is less ‘touristy’ which was a pleasant surprise for us city folks.   

Having explored the Mehrangarh Fort, the cenotaphs of Jaswant Thada and Mandore and the Umaid Bhavan Palace we earmark our last day for the Old Blue City Walk. Our knowledgeable guide Narpat Singh from Rajasthan Routes Trails Pvt. Ltd. meets us on the dot at our hotel. Our walk begins from the Mehrangarh fort which provides a bird’s eye view of the blue city- an ocean of quadrilateral homes juxtaposed to the dusty desert. 

But why were the houses painted blue? Several reasons have been proposed from the blue colour helping to cool down the homes to it repelling mosquitoes, to it being a symbol of Brahmins who enjoyed higher status in the Indian caste system! As we descend the fort, we soon find ourselves in the Old Blue City which is a maze of indigo homes, winding lanes and chowks. Had it not been for our guide we would surely find ourselves lost as it is next to impossible to differentiate houses based on colour or structure which perhaps a local with discerning eyes would be apt at but for first-timers like us, it seems surreal. 

A home with an ornamental blue door and painted entrance complete with the symbol of Om, a swastika (not to be confused with the Nazi symbol), ‘kalash’ (coconut in a pot with mango leaves) has a silver handprint prominently displayed with a garland of marigold. Our guide explains that a woman from this family had committed Sati i.e. sacrificed her life on the funeral pyre of her husband, a practice that has since been abolished. To honour her sacrifice the family has embellished her handprint in silver. It is these narratives and stories which throw light on the practices and traditions of the past that are a highlight of the trip.

As we move ahead, we see doors of homes wide open as women go about with their daily routine of cooking, cleaning, washing and performing religious rituals of arti and pooja. They don’t mind as we try and enter the courtyards of their homes to get a photo or to better appreciate a detail. They smile or seem oblivious as this has now become a routine for them to have ‘guest tourists.’ 
Most of the havelis were built somewhere between the 15th and 16th century and were passed down from one generation to the other. As the family grew extensions were made with a floor added or a wall erected earmarking the distribution of property between two or more subsequent generations. The new generation is an educated lot who are slowly moving to larger cities for jobs leaving behind ageing parents in havelis. Some of these mansions are sold for a petty sum compared to the forgotten riches they hold of antique furniture, paintings, artefacts and curios. Each of the wooden carved doors would easily fetch a handsome amount in antique markets but the owners are either oblivious or at best just choose to lay their hands off it.  
Pigeonholes were an important inclusion while making havelis as they were believed to absorb negative vibes and thus protect the inmates! While something as minuscule as having pigeonholes was taken care of while constructing havelis one may wonder why these magnificent, opulent havelis have open sewers, gutters and lack basic drainage systems. Our guide clarifies that in earlier times manual scavenging or the manual removal of human excreta by human workers was the norm, so a proper drainage system was never planned and functional. Soon this practise was eliminated, and toilets were constructed as an extension or later addition to the havelis, but because they were never part of the original plan were haphazardly designed. 

We are now at a ‘chowk’ or the intersection of four roads which has a peepal tree surrounded by a raised platform and a tall tower with niches to hold diyas or lamps which are lit up during the Indian festivals like Diwali. It is these chowks that become important landmarks for addresses as it then becomes easier to navigate the old city. We notice the Jharokas or overhanging enclosed balconies with intricate jali or latticework from which women could get a sneak peek into the outside world from the privacy of their homes. 
But where could we get an aerial view of the blue city with the hill fort in the background? Soon we find ourselves at a local lady’s home. Our guide introduces us as ‘tourist guests’ and the lady smiles and welcomes us. She even offers to serve some masala chai/tea, but we politely decline as we are hungry for a sweeping view from the rooftop. We soon climb floors and reach the rooftop and our eyes feast on an unobstructed view of clusters of houses in ‘50 Shades of Blue’ with the contrasting golden-hued Mehrangarh Fort in the distance! We are beaming from ear to ear as if we have found an elixir to panoramic beauty and elegance. We don’t want to leave but must. My husband is so mesmerized by the view from the haveli that he aspires to buy one and open a hotel with a rooftop restaurant that has a fantastic view of the hill fort. This idea isn’t his brainchild as a lot of enterprising locals have done just that- converted havelis into hotels, cafes, shops and so on. 


We bid goodbye to the lady of the haveli and set out to explore more. On the way, we see a kiosk where mirchi badas and kachoris are being prepared. These are local delicacies which everyone must try. A little further our guide awkwardly points to a statue of ‘God of Sex’. Yes, you read that right! While it is still considered taboo to talk about sex in some sections of the Indian society this statue brazenly stands on the street in the old city. 
As we walk further, we see a goldsmith hunched over a stone carving a gold ornament. A few steps away we see a craftswoman sticking mirrors and multicoloured beads to make colourful ‘torans’. We walk further and find ourselves near a stepwell called Toorji Ka Jhalra which is not included in most local itineraries but is worth a look. It reminds me of the stepwells I have seen in Gujarat like Rani ki Vav and Adalaj ki Vav. Youngsters, including a couple in bridal finery, are posing to get Instagram and Facebook worthy pics that will hopefully fetch them numerous likes.

We are now near the Sardar Market gateway, on the corner of which is a famous omelette shop that sells different varieties of omelettes and has been featured on ‘Lonely Planet’ screams a hoarding. As we enter Sadar Market, the colourful bazaar is buzzing with locals, motorcyclists are zipping by and shopkeepers are howling to attract shoppers. At the nucleus is the ‘Ghantaghar’ or Clocktower which local guides describe as the ‘Big Ben of Rajasthan’. It was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh about 200 years ago. Sri Mishrilal’s outlet is close to the Clocktower and sells Makhaniya lassi with dollops of fresh butter, which is worthy of savouring. We explore some of the shops selling indigo block print outfits, handicrafts and leather items close by. 

Our Old Blue City Walk has come to an end. The old blue city with its glorious history woven in legends and stories, the astonishing architecture of its winding lanes, historical havelis, shops with craftsmen busy doing what they are best at and delicious cuisine has charmed its way into our hearts. 

If you are the traveller who likes to witness the goings-on of local life up close or heritage and culture aficionado or a photographer wanting to narrate a story through pictures or just the curious sort who enjoy witnessing the extraordinary brilliance in the mundane then the Old Blue City Walk is a must-do. 

Pictures courtesy : Rafiq Somani

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