Star Date: November 2008
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
Ram Ram Saa!
"Within you is one of the most beautiful oases you will ever find, the wellspring of your strength... Seek the oasis within your heart, mind and soul. If you cannot find your oasis, you are living in a desert. Walk out of the desert, into the openness of your mind. Fill your chalice from within so when you meet others who are thirsty on the road of life, you have something to share."
(Ron Rathbun, The Way Is Within)
The sun beats down on the relentless desert, stretching endlessly in every direction. A sea of sand without water. Life in the desert is harsh and unforgiving. Occasionally we come across an oasis. Two elements are combined, water and earth, and life is born once again. The tribes who survive out here are resilient and weathered. Mainly nomads or desert gypsies, moving in search of better conditions. The Great Thar Desert is home to the Rajputs, ancient warrior clans who claim to have descended from the sun, the moon and fire. Controlling this area for over 1000 years these fiercely proud and independent tribes spent much of their energy consumed by squabbling amongst the different clans, leading eventually to their conquest by the Mughal empire. Divide and conquer. These great warriors were known for their fearless sense of honor and would fight to the death against all odds. Rather than surrender, chivalry demanded 'jauhar' or a ritual mass suicide. Watching their descendants eke out a living under such extreme desert conditions it is obvious that these proud people are survivors; at one with this severe landscape.
The rainbow pales in comparison to the vibrant colors seen in the dune, sand and sun state of Rajasthan. In an effort to brighten up the often drab desert landscape, Rajasthani's have painted, woven, and accentuated every feature, as an artist would a blank canvas. Wild designs of old are embroidered in a riot of colors and mirrors are fused into the fabric, reminiscent of the sparkling star filled nights.
As we detoured from the tourist routes through southern Punjab and the deserts beyond we passed through villages where the stares told us we were the first foreigners to visit. Look at a map - pick out a town, jump on a public bus and sooner or later you arrive. But where? Bathinda. Visiting their old fort at night and joining in with the Sikh devotees as they prayed in their 'Gurdwara', we were told of nearby Sri Damdba Sahib, one of the 5 great Sikh holy temples. Only 30 minutes away we were dropped off at a remote bus stand and pointed in the right direction. We sat in a small room with some of the temple's leaders and were adopted by one fellow who took us on a fabulous tour of the marble complex. Starting with the main temple we were proudly shown the armor of one of the 15th century Sikh Gurus which was hung next to the alter; significant because he was beheaded in battle but kept on fighting. He put new meaning to Never Give Up! Later we went underground to the former prayer cave of another ancient Guru, now completely lighted, ventilated, and enclosed in cement. Unable to refuse their generous offer for lunch we were treated to chapattis, dahl, and a divinely blissful rice pudding laced with cardamom and raisins. Where do they get these luscious flavors?
Camels, desert, sand from horizon to horizon. Situated directly on the ancient caravan routes which linked central Asia with northern India, Bikaner, founded in 1488, was a flourishing trade center in the medieval ages. The harsh desert surrounds this rich city and Junagarh Fort, built in the 1580's by Raja Singh, one of Mughal Emperor Akbar's generals, remains unconquered to this day. Having a massive impregnable wall nearly 1 km long with 37 bastions, it was surrounded by a moat protecting the fort. A moat in the middle of this desert. Definitely an oasis. Curiously the massive wooden doors, as with many of the Rajasthani forts have spikes jutting out, to ward off attacks of elephants and their riders. Once inside it is easy to see why protection was paramount. Strolling through Junaggargh Fort or nearby Lalgarh and Laxmi Niwas Palaces one is easily transported back to the days of Mughal Emperors, Rajas, and their elusive, secretive women, wrapped in bright silk and dripping with jewels. Like opening a box bursting with treasures, palace after palace, with names like the Flower, Moon or Wind Palace display richly painted walls and exquisite art work. Enticing courtyards offer shade from the intense desert sun while lattice-work windows provided the only glimpses of the outside world for the many wives or courtesans of the palace. The last Raja only had one wife, (still living in Lalgarh Palace) but his predecessors boasted of up to 365 wives, one for each day of the year. Little girls were able to move about freely with their mothers but once married into a family havali of the groom or the Raja's palace they were to remain there in the women's quarters. Peeping through the elaborately carved lattice windows these 'captive' women would watch the outside world without breaking 'purdah' or seclusion. The many layers or levels of flooring in this elaborate architecture provided nooks and crannies for privacy. The custom, still practiced today, of providing a dish of fresh water on the roof top terraces gave the women their only contact with outside nature as squirrels and birds visited regularly to have a drink. Enjoying dinner under the shimmering stars in the courtyard of the classy Lami Niwas Palace transported us back to the court of the Rajas. Light tasty vegetables and saffron rice were served as a troupe of desert gypsies playing flutes and drums, exploded into the courtyard. In a swirl of colors they danced with fire, suspended heavy vessels of water on their heads, balanced on narrow sticks and even stomped on broken glass in time to the entrancing, melodic sounds. A belated 53rd birthday, my 5th on the road; an Arabian Night to remember.
Hiding away in the 'oasis' of our water cooled room we ventured out only morning or late afternoon, avoiding the unrelenting autumn desert sun. Off to explore the walled Old City we asked our friendly front desk clerk and the hotel owner for directions to some of the fascinating large stately houses or havelis (in Arabic). We certainly asked the right people because the owner had just published a book on the ancient art work of these treasures of Bikaner and knew all the owners. The desk clerk and his brother's family both lived in havelis and before we knew it we were sitting in the courtyard of Judhi and Nidhi's haveli enjoying apples and missi puri, tasty fresh flat bread, lovingly made by Mom and Auntie. Life in a mysterious haveli with their alluring secretive fronts, in the old cities of the towns of Rajasthan, is unique.
What an experience to be able to explore the maze of different floors and terraces graced with art work, paintings and antiques of their home, plus those of surrounding neighbors in Banthi Chowk. The cousin, Vijay, continued our walking tour, ending up at the Hotel Bhanwar Niwas where we met the great grandson of an original court artist busily painting in a side room. Joseph invited Vijay to our hotel for a day of exploring the extensive library on his computer and shared many e-texts with him. We were pleasantly surprised to be invited to his home for dinner the following night. What a feast! Lila Devi had cooked all day and we ate for over 3 hours, with 10 courses including, in order: fruit, kachoris (stuffed vegetable and herbs), pulses (grain snacks), 8 kinds of khakras (Rajasthan flatbreads), bhujias, potatoes, 6 kinds of chutneys, 5 different vegetable dishes, rice, dahl, and a platter of home made sweets from lemon, ginger, cardamom, pomegratin, mango or coconut. Whew! After dinner we took photos, they proudly showed us the family jewelry and in a flurry of saris and laughter dressed me up in the daughter's wedding outfit, heavy with elaborate beading. We rolled home luxuriating in the warmth and hospitality of these welcoming families.
The key to the exotic flavors of these Indian foods are the fresh spices. The ancient Romans bartered slaves for them. They enthralled Alexander the Great. Cleopatra seduced Caesar with them. The Arabs risked their lives trading them. Columbus discovered America while searching for them. The Dutch and English empires fought for India for them. And eventually the British conquered and ruled India for almost 200 years, making a booming business of them.
Not gold, pearls, diamonds, slaves or even land; they were spices that made India the richest nation in the ancient world. Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem 1000BC and gave him gifts of gold, gems and spices. The Romans claimed that the streets of Rome were strewn with saffron, celebrating Nero's entrance to the city. Spices have been forefront in some of the greatest adventures in history.
Just strolling through the markets here it is soon apparent that spices are still important in India, as in Thailand where fresh herbs also define every dish. Mountains of fresh or dried spices line the stalls everywhere. Ginger, garlic, pepper, red chili, caraway, fennel, fenugreek, turmeric, mace, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and even vanilla create a riot to our senses. Every Indian kitchen wouldn't be caught without a fresh supply of these 'gems', and the flavors of globally sought after Indian cuisine vary according to the region in India where they are grown. Ayurvedic medicine encourages chili for good blood flow. If you know someone having a stroke or heart attack have fresh cayenne pepper on hand and immediately mix 1 tablespoon in warm water making the person drink it down. That simple thing alone has saved the lives of thousands of people in documented cases. This versatile spice also stops bleeding. Ginger prevents dyspepsia (indigestion), garlic reduces cholesterol, hypertension and prevents malaria. Pepper serves as an antihistamine. Turmeric, the bright yellow powder, is considered the most important spice in India, serving from a coloring (watch your teeth), an antiseptic and reducer of joint pain inside & out. It is even a cosmetic. The day before a traditional Indian wedding the bride and groom cover themselves in the yellow paste to purify their bodies.
Today India is still the leader in the global spice market. Approximately 2.75 million tons, valued at $4.2 billion U. S. is produced a year. Used in every Indian kitchen daily, (I have cooked in scores of them) nutmeg, cardamom and the ultimate, saffron are used only for special occasions and in moderation. Saffron, produced mainly in Kashmir, prized for it's delicate flavor, requires the stigmata of 1500 crocus sativa flowers to make one gram, hence it's exorbitant price. ($1000 a lb.) Luckily only a few strands flavor a dish of saffron rice.
It used to be that every Indian housewife would grow or purchase the spices, dry them, and mix up their favorite combinations. Equally important in a mixture are chili, black mustard seeds (rai), cumin (jeera), turmeric (haldi), fenugreek (methi), ginger (adrak), and garlic (lahsan). Now it is easier to simply buy a premixed masala garam (hot mixture of 5 or more spices) in the market or supermarket worldwide. Masala Chai is green tea with a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, and pepper. Try coconut milk and skip the sugar for a sumptuous healthy finish to the vegetable curry you just created. You don't have to ride camels out to the deserts of Rajasthan to try new flavors. Get Wild! Add some spice to your life. Never use the word boring or 'same old' to describe your cooking again!
The crowning glory of Rajasthan is Jaisalmer, a chapter right out of the Arabian Nights. Rising out of the wild Great Thar Desert, Jaisalmer Fort, looms above the small town like a giant golden sand castle. From the first glowing rays of sunrise to the final golden hues of sunset this showpiece transcends time and transports you back to the days of Maharajas. Built in 1156, the fort sits high atop 240 ft. Trikuta Hill. Nearly 25% of the town's population still hide within it's high walls, protected by 99 enormous bastions. Wandering the warren of narrow lanes leads to many interesting ornate havelis, the Maharaja's Palace and several Jain temples from the 12th to 16th centuries. Round rocks rolled down on enemies are still prominently displayed on the ledge of the wall, along with the later used canons facing the 4 directions. The maze of streets within the fort remain as they were centuries past, with families busily going about their business and an occasional guesthouse, shop or restaurant hiding in a back alley haveli. Camels rule the congested streets in Jaisalmer and it is not uncommon to see a jam in traffic as a motorcycle, cow, camel and auto rickshaw all try to get where they are going.
Riding off into the sunset on a camel caravan. Sound romantic? When in the Great Thar Desert at least one camel ride is in order. Just make sure that you know how uncomfortable bouncing along on these ill tempered characters can be. After riding in the relative comfort of the 2 humped bactrian camels of the Gobi Desert of China we soon remembered how 'one humpers' have you sitting at an angle - as if ready to slide off 8 ft to the ground below. Combine this with impatient camel drivers, who are sometimes as surly as their beasts of burden, and you have a trip to remember. In fact we invented a new adrenaline rush, extreme camel riding! Before we knew what hit us we were galloping along, passing everyone and everything in sight. Yehaaaaa! Wild and fun for a short time we had to threaten the drivers with loss of life if they didn't slow down. Anxious to get back to make a second run before sunset we were turfed off on top of a small dune and watched the red sun disappear amid dancing desert gypsies. Sunset at Sam is far too busy and a much better option would have been to enjoy a 24 hour camel safari, sleeping and eating under the stars with only a small group in the caravan. Wanting to have more time to enjoy the star filled desert night we soon found ourselves by the side of the dark road gazing at the heavens, our jeep out of gas. You have to watch what you wish for. And there were billions and billions of brilliant stars on which to make that wish.
And so it goes.........................................Next month Gujarat, and the nomadic gypsies in the Great Thar Desert. Until then lets fill ourselves daily from our inner oasis, so "when we meet others who are thirsty on the road of life, we have something to share". Have a wonderful Holiday Season, spreading your love, peace, and happiness to those close to you and all around the world. We are glad you stopped by. Thanks for keeping in touch and for sharing the link to our site with your friends! Emails from you and the newcomers have made our trips to the internet cafes more fun. Take care!
Love, Light &
$1.00US = 48 Indian Rupees
Just write this on a piece of
paper and go to the public bus stand. Less than an hour away,
you WILL get
have an adventure along the way!
Laxmi Nivas Palace Heritage Hotel: Next to Lallgarh Palace on Dr. Karni Singhi Rd, phone #151-2202777, (phone ahead for reservations) DO NOT MISS for dinner! Go about 5:30 to enjoy a walk in the gardens and a look around the rooftop views. Part of the actual palace it is loaded with memorabilia, including lattice windows for peeking though, a big game trophy room, etc. At 7:30 enjoy dinner, with music and Rajasthani dancing, in the courtyard under the stars (not in the dining room). Spectacular. Classy place, so dress up a bit and be prepared to pay 150r per vegetable curry. Neighboring Lallgarh Palace is interesting to walk around but the food/dance aren't as good. The museum is mostly pictures - a repeat if you've been to the fort.
Hotel Bhanwar Niwas, Ranpuria
St. - in the old city is another example of the rich history of Bikaner.
(3000-8000r ($200 ) a night) Each room is unique and decorated
in furnishings from the era. Worth a look around. The
manager gave us an informative 1 hour tour.
Thar Safari at the end of our
alley, Gandhi Chowk, offered good prices for a private desert
experience. 1-2 hr camel ride, sunset in the dunes, fresh
dinner in the desert, watch the stars and head home (600r) or for
200 more spend the night on a cot under the stars.
We choose to book a sunset camel ride in Sam with the Tourist Office. 150r for transport and 50-100r for the 1 hour camel ride to the Very Busy dunes crawling with tourists. Wished we had chosen the above option. Take a short ride on a camel before committing to longer safaris. A 24 hour overnight would be the perfect option, but buyer beware. Not all safaris are the same.
The Saffron Restaurant has a good view of the lighted fort at night and the vegetable dishes are tasty.
An Arabian Night. Spectacular Jaisalmer Fort on a full moon.
A meeting of the Rajastani Raj, circa 1912. Spot the Raj with 365 wives.