Rajasthan has been romanticized through the centuries as the land of kings and warriors, forts and palaces, daredevil Rajputs sporting brilliantly coloured turbans, the place where more fairs and festivals are celebrated than there are days in the year.
But it is also a harsh, hostile and merciless land where the hot winds blow, where creeping sands, shifting sand dunes, devastating droughts have repeatedly altered the destiny of its people.
How does one travel through such a collage of contradictory images? Journeys through Rajasthan shows you Rajasthan through the eyes and imaginative universe of some of India’s most talented writers and feted travelers including poets, journalists, novelists, explorers, historians, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, a foodie, a naturalist, a bird lover and a princess. Their stories, each located in a different part of Rajasthan, are informative, sensitive, humorous, even dark, and at times deeply moving.
Journeys through Rajasthan is an invaluable companion for both the wandering traveler and the armchair one interested in the imaginings, memories, dreams and discoveries that emerged from the skilled pens of those who chose to look beyond familiar picture- postcard images of a fabled land.
Amirta Kumar hails from Todgarh in the remote highlands of Rajasthan, a village named after James Tod, her forefathers playing host in the early 19th century to the historian as he penned his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. Her wanderings through Rajasthan were the inspiration behind her novel Damage, published by Harper Collins in 2009. She has also co-edited Lest we Forget, a book of essays on the Gujarat riots, published by the television company World Report in 2002. She has been vice-president and senior editor Osian’s Literary Agency, managing editor Encyclopaedia Britannica, associate editor Penguin India, and editor-in-chief Roli Books. She has also been a copywriter with an advertising agency, research-writer for the Department of Culture, editor of a design magazine, and an editor with The Times of India.
Aman nath is a historian by education. He has co-authored thirteen illustrated books on art, history, architecture, corporate biography and photography, two of which have won national awards. These are also used as the official gifts of the President and the Prime Minister of India. He is involved in the restoration of India’s unlisted architectural ruins, now run as the Neemrana ‘non-hotel’ Hotels, which have won awards from UNESCO, the Indian travel trade industry, and National Awards. Involved in contemporary art, he was the curator of India Today’s gallery. As an inveterate traveler after walking 400 km to Mount Kailash and sub-Antartica -he has contributed to several travel magazines.
Rajasthan, Rajputana, land of kings, bards, minstrels and enchanting folklore, a kaleidoscope of colour my birthplace, my home and the seat of my ancestors. A land like no other, which conjures up all that the mind of an avid traveler can dream of and even more. The land whose history stretches back to the Indus Valley Civilization (archaeological sites at Kalibangan in Northern Rajasthan) and the lost river Saraswati, Mt. Abu, the seat of sages in the ancient Aravalli ranges, and Brahma’s sacred lake of Pushkar. Even while straddling its magnificent past, Rajasthan embraces the present with effortless grace — momentous developments like India’s first nuclear test at Pokhran, economic reforms, modernization of agriculture, and the IT revolution.
There is a couplet in Rajasthani — KOS KOS PAE PANI BADALE CHAR KOS PAE BANI, meaning every mile the taste and depth of water changes and every four miles the dialects, signifying the diversity of Rajasthan. From the vast sandy stretches of the Thar desert to the tiger reserves and bird sanctuaries, from the eternal haunting beauty of its temples, forts and palaces to the earthen charm of its villages, Rajasthan encapsulates the magic of this rich cultural diversity and extraordinary spirit of its people, reflected in all aspects of their life and in the unhurried pace of organic growth and development. Above all, it was the special relationship between the erstwhile rulers of Rajasthan and the thirty-six communities of priests, merchants, agriculturalists, craftsmen and tribals that shaped this unique evolution of the modern state of Rajasthan.
The idea of this anthology is brilliant and timely. Amidst the profusion of coffee table books on Rajasthan, it fills an important vacuum by bringing together eminent writers from diverse backgrounds and varied views to share their personal experiences. Their stories are authentic, real, spontaneous, and a part of the story of Rajasthan — including the traditional and the modern, urban and rural, wealthy and impoverished — has evolved naturally out of their narrative. ‘The addition of ancient accounts makes the reading more comprehensive and pleasurable. Indeed, it would be impossible to encompass Rajasthan within any single anthology but this volume is to be seen as an intimate set of revelations that a reader can easily relate to and would, I hope, inspire him to experience this unique land for himself.
Rajasthan is quite clearly a land of extremes where the jewels roll as much as the sands blow Through its short, freezing winters and long blazing summers, it may have remained isolated and almost been forgotten. But its rather strategic location on the trade mutes as also its proximity to the long-standing capital cities of Delhi under several different names (the 13t1 being New Delhi) ensured that Rajasthan was both frequently traversed and aggressed through history, just as it was kept under close watch from the imperial capitals. Could this balance of opposites then have been the reason to make Rajasthan among the most populated of the desert regions of the world that girdle the globe?
The official end of feudalism may well have been sounded in 1950 when nineteen gun-salute states, two chieftainships (Kushalgarh and Lava) and one suba or province (Ajmer) merged to form this state. Names like Raiwara, Rajwara and Raesthan were considered before it eventually came to be called Rajasthan! But the hierarchical aftertaste of feudalism continued for decades and can still be savoured in the language of 7iukum’ and ‘kazoo? or in the gestures of ‘khamagani’ uttered bent at the waist with open hands gathered from the outside in a more formal namaskar.
Rajasthan is also a historical example of why it is better to be ruled by one’s own people, even when great differences of lifestyle may define this relationship, than by aliens. The Rajasthani people still offer a reverential devotion to their new political rulers and administrators unlike in the states where the British had governed. The latter may have been better governed, but naturally grew to be hotbeds of sedition and contention, with its people becoming more aggressive and agitational. This natural sense of courtesy in Rajasthan now serves the tourist industry especially in the old world context of its heritage hotels.
Rajasthan, this ancient land of Aryavrata, is linked to the macro vision of the cosmic creator, Brahma for the Hindus consider his home to be in Pushkar. The oldest spiritual text, The Rigveda enumerates:
In the valleys of hills on the confluence of rivers,
The wisdom of the Brahman [the ‘absolute’] was born.
The sacred lake at Pushkar is considered by Hindus to be among the holiest waters along with the much less accessible Manasarovar situated at 4,560 metres en route to Mount Kailash in Tibet, where Shiva supposedly resides. But what are the criteria which have earned Pushkar the epithets of tirthaguru (guru of pilgrim sites) and tirtharaj (king of pilgrim places)?
According to the Puranas, the eighteen compilations of Brahmanical mythological lore, there are four categories of pilgrimages for Hindus. In a hierarchy of descending order, these are: daiva-asura-tirthas, created by the gods, mainly by the male deities of the trinity — Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; asura-tirthas, associated with the destruction of demons by the trinity; arsha rkas, related with the austerities, penances and sacrifices of rcc’wned seers and sages; and manusha-tirt has, holy places created men — preferably the rulers of the solar and lunar dynasties.
Rated on these criteria, Pushkar stands unique and highest triong pilgrimages because it qualifies on all four grounds. First, was chosen by Brahma while both Vishnu and Shiva attended the sacrificial fire rite that he held for its creation. Second, the demond Vajranabha, who performed penance in the Meru valley propitiate Brahma, was destroyed here by Pradyumna, the son of krishna. Shiva also took the form of a goat to kill the demon Vashkali here. Third, the sages Agastya, Bhartrihari, Kanva/ K.asbyapa, Jamadagni, Vamadeva, Vishvamitra, Kapila, Markandeya, pulastya and even Yama, the lord of death, are believed to have line penance in caves here. Fourth, the Pratiharas of Mandor, the Kachhwahas of Amber/Jaipur, the Hadas of Kotah and Bundi, the Rathors of Marwar/Jodhpur, the Sisodias of Mewar/Udaipur and the Marathas of Gwalior have all had a hand in building and repairing temples and ghats at Pushkar.
As a pristine oasis in the Thar desert, Pushkar must always have appealed to the weary traveller or warrior, and once the legendary Sarasvati river flowed here. ‘The sanctity and necessity f flowing water can hardly be overemphasized because the Ganga basin figures most prominently in all the tirtha lists of the epics and holy scriptures:
Pushkaradhipati tirthani gangadhayasariasthata
(Pushkar occupies the highest place among the pilgrim sites as does the sacred Ganga among rivers)
However, one lull in the popularity of Pushkar is recorded in history. After the destruction and conquest of Ajmer at the end of the 12th century by Muhammad of Ghori, people lived in fear and insecurity. Conspicuous patronage, building activity and worship at Pushkar was revived and thrived only in the 18th century. After 1947 and particularly after the privy purses were abolished royal patronage has waned, and now the priests rely more on the largesse of common pilgrims.
A rocky diagonal dramatically slashes the sandy canvas of Rajasthan like a dry brushstroke. Prom Delhi in the north-east this diagonal descends south-west to the Gulf of Cambay. These are the Aravallis which came to exist as an enormously thick series of argillaceous rocks at the close of the Archean era. Geological terms which may sound reptilian to lay readers, do describe well the crocodile crests of the great synlinorium which occupy the central part.
When the sediments deposited by the pre-historic seas underwent upheavals, the sedimentary rocks stood up, slanted or vertical, in composite banded gneisses, slates, conglomerates and basal quartzites which were peneplaned and denuded in later ages. To the west and south-west of Rajasthan, these are often engulfed in sandy alluvium making the picture postcard clichés of dunes in desert sand.
Geologists believe that some fourteen million years ago Rajasthan itself emerged from the cosmic flood or the Tethys Sea, named after the Greek sea deity wife of Oceanus. Seventeen kilometres east of jaisalmer, one hundred and eighty million year-old petrified trees can still be seen, lust as fossils continue to appear in Osian.
But it is the geological wealth of Rajasthan which makes it the Italy of India. Rota, Jaisalmer, Aandhi, Makrana are all name of places as well as the brand names of stones that are ,mined there.
India, age also means wisdom, but because of the fact of its location, history has also meant much bloodshed in Rajasthan. Being one of the most prosperous regions in the world till the :s century, India became the cynosure of the Islamic kingdoms. Despite not being those naturally rich regions, Rajasthan along with Sindh (now in Pakistan), thana (in Maharashtra), Broach Gujarat) and the Punjab suffered the constant blunt of this external aggression.
Digvijay Singh writes: ‘because in areas where their orders were accepted [Hyderabad, Rampur, Lucknow, Delhi etc] the Muslim rulers tried to convert as many Hindus as they could by sword, jiziya or religious persecution (by breaking Hindu temples and psychologically pushing the Hindus into believing that theirs was a weak god): Contrary to what the Udaipur historians have long said, Digvijay Singh goes on to assert emphatically: ‘Presence of Rajput generals in the Mughal army was a blessing in disguise for the Hindu population as the Mughal army when headed by a Rajput general could not engage in wanton destruction of Hindu temples as well as mass conversion of Hindus to Islam. ‘The perseverance of Hinduism in India by the Rajput sword against the entire might of the Islamic rulers is the most glorious achievement by a race in the annals of world history and everyone should know this fact.
This sentiment is also echoed by James Tod in Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: ‘What nation on earth could have maintained the semblance of civilization, the spirit or the customs of their forefathers, during so many centuries of overwhelming depression, but one of such singular character as the Rajpoot?
Rajasthan exhibits the sole example in the history of mankind, of a people withstanding every outrage barbarity could inflict, or human nature sustain, from a foe (Muslims) whose religion commands annihilation; and bent to the earth, yet rising buoyant from the pressure, and making calamity a whetstone to courage.
Not an iota of their religion or customs have they lost.
But history runs its own course. The Rajputs, Marathas and Sikhs had narrowed in on all sides when the Mughal Empire ran into decadence and decline. But who could have prophesied that from nowhere in the neighbourhood or even within India, but from the distant lands of Europe would come the maritime powers: the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, French and the Danes, and that India would be colonized? William Wilson Hunter writes in The Indian Empire, Its People, History and Products: ‘So far as can now be estimated, the advance of the English power at the beginning of the present century alone saved the Mughal Empire from passing to the Hindus:
Many Rajputs feel once-removed from the demographic political rule today. Living in the past, they are nostalgic about the obeisance history once gave them or more truly, one that they forced from their times when they held the reins. Though history knows only a forward march, books of history must do this retro-recording service so that the future knows the strengths of the foundations it stands on. It is to these Rajput heroes to whom this debt of cultural continuity in social and religious practice or indeed the gift of life itself -is owed.
In Jaipur’s Ram Niwas garden sits the now renovated Prince Albert Museum where lies one of the rarest carpets in the world depicting the char bagh theme where the gardens are interspaced with water channels. It is all too easily imagined that this is an Islamic contribution to Indian culture but P.R.J. Ford, a great specialist of floor coverings writes in Oriental Carpet Design: ‘One may call all Persian carpets “woven gardens’ the artistic precipitate ..‘f the nomad’s dream. But there is also an ancient tradition of weaving designs which directly imitate the special formal layout of the Persian garden. What is probably the most famous carpet m history had such a design. It was produced (in what technique not known — probably kilim or felt, rather than knotted) for the palace at Ctesiphon of Chosroes (Khosroes) I, one of the last Persian emperors before the Arab conquests of the seventh century AD. It is reported to have been some 27 m (90 ft) wide and five times as long, and its fabric was embellished with silk and thousands of pearls and jewels. Chosroes used it on the floor in winter to “remind him of the spring’: The Muslim conquerors lore the carpet to pieces as booty when Ctesiphon fell in 641; but the sacred aura of the garden was enshrined in the Koran, where the faithful are promised a Paradise containing “four gardens, beneath which waters flow’: Although the “spring of Chosroes” clearly proves that the idea contained in the garden carpet is older than Islam, the description of the celestial gardens in the Koran will certainly have been drawn upon by later artists working on the design.
It is not always easy to draw simple or quick conclusions in a land as historically aggressed and enriched as Rajasthan where 70% of the pilgrims who visit the Dargah at Ajmer are Hindus. Fortunately, they carry no historical memory of the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan in 1192 at the hands of Muhammad of Ghori and of all the destruction of temples and the humiliation that followed. Any place of worship for a Hindu is quite simply the house of god! In this lies a certain ongoing wisdom of continuity.
Those who have been even once to Rajasthan have their own love story to narrate. But they often tell it only to friends at dinner parties. Readers of this volume will certainly find a resonance in the travels of the sixteen writers who have experienced this historic land through the 19th 20th and 2l centuries.
But those who have never been to the fascinating state of Rajasthan, can take this book as the beginning of a love affair. Even the real in this state is so unreal: so many landscapes from the travels always remain in the memory as photogravures and etchings, and so many evenings of dance and music still performed in the forts and palaces become miniature paintings brought alive again.
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