Assam, north-east India, famous for its tea and for the World Heritage Kaziranga National Park.
Next stop Bhutan.
Frank Sinatra visited Australia and was greeted at the airport by the press. A reporter asked him what he thought of it so far. Under the circumstances his answer was extremely diplomatic, “You have very nice roof tops”.
Until about half an hour ago my impressions of the subcontinent was it now has very nice airports. They give the impression that middle class India (and Sri Lanka) is thriving. Cosmopolitan architecture, cosmopolitan brands, perhaps a little less bureaucracy. This is my fourth visit to this part of the world, it’s changing.
But when you get out of the airport India is still India. Traffic chaos, hooters hooting, cars going too fast and too close. Cows grazing along the roadside as well the odd goat and flock of ducks, dogs, some on leads. Messages on the back of trucks, which on my last visit were always “Horn please” this time are more diverse “Dip your lights” and “Wait for side”. Bamboo scaffolding, hazy atmosphere, busy people.
The French are quite smug about how Gallic France is. France is nowhere near as Gallic as India is unself-consciously, chaotically, noisily, delightfully and occasionally frustratingly Indian. It’s good to be back.
One for the road. Cheers.
The road leads firstly to Assam. Australia and India were once neighbours in good old Gondwana. The subcontinent went off on its own about 100 million years ago. About 40 million years ago it bumped into Asia pretty much on a line that Assam stands on. The leading edge of the Indian plate went under the Asian plate. The process pushed up the Himalayas and it is still continuing making it an earthquake prone part of the world.
If you look at modern India on the map you can see it’s roughly diamond shape. Two sides are open to the sea. The upper left side is the long border with Pakistan. At the top of the diamond is Himachal Pradesh and above that Jammu and Kashmir, the borders up there are drawn with dotted lines. Coming down the top right side the border with Nepal is drawn as a solid line. Jump from the south-east corner of Nepal to the north-west corner of Bangladesh, follow the border to the Bay of Bengal and you’ve enclosed almost all of India.
Herniating through the gap between Nepal and Bangladesh is the state of Assam as it was in 1950, it has been subdivided somewhat since then by the creation of new states. China is off to the north-east and Myanmar to the south-east. That branch of the Silk Road that led to the Bay of Bengal ran right through it. No surprise then that it’s the part of India most subject to outside influence, it’s quite a mixing pot (which accounts for the subdivision – not all the ingredients in the pot are comfortable with each other).
The mighty Brahmaputra River arises in the north-east, flows south-west then south through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal.
The population of Assam is more than 31 million people, about two-thirds are Hindu, a quarter are Muslim. Christianity and indigenous religions make up the balance. Assamese is the principal but not only language spoken in the state. Most live in the countryside and most are engaged in agriculture, rice being the principal crop.
I’ll be visiting a couple of national parks.
Internet access will be irregular. When I get the chance I’ll post a bulletin but the blow by blow will have to wait until the end of the trip. It will be a long one because after Assam I will be heading to Bhutan and then …
Garh means fort, we have already visited Mehrangarh in Jodhpur.
If you google Mehrengarh you will find “Mehrengarh Fort” several times in the first page, like the HIV virus and Gondwanaland, this is a tautology and if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million times “Do not repeat yourself.”
But I digress, Mihir Garh is the Fort of the Sun. It stands in the Thar desert in Rajasthan, an outpost of utter luxury, so carefully constructed that it seems to belong there, more than that it almost seems to have grown there. Its form is inspired by the traditional village architecture, the building and the furniture were all completed by local craftsmen. No two guest rooms are the same.
In the stable here there are some fine Marwari horses.Legend has it …
… that in the 12th century AD, a group of people that would later be known as the Rathores, were exiled from their homeland. Sheoji, the man who would be the father of the Rathores, rode out proudly with a group of faithful pilgrims to find a new home. Their will was of iron, and their horses were strong and fast. Together, they would settle in a region called the Marwar, in Rajasthan, to start a new life.
The horses that bore them were integral to their survival and represented the pride and strength of the people. Over many years, they grew into the regal Marwari breed, and their beauty and power was known to all, represented by their distinctive inwardly pointed ears. When a Marwari horse moved through the city streets, the commoners would bow deeply before it. Yet while their heads faced the ground, their eyes would strain upward to get a glimpse of the almost mythical creature. For hundreds of years, this legendary horse would reign as the symbol of Marwari aristocracy.
They carried the feuding warlords into battle, in an area where there were plenty of warlords and no shortage of battles. They are fine looking animals.
I spent my last two nights in Rajasthan at the Mihir Garh.
When the sun rises it is back to Mumbai and then home …
As far as I can determine, opium is illegal in India. Its use persists, especially in north-west India in certain ceremonies. When a marriage is arranged the father of the groom and the father of the bride may well drink an infusion from each other’s hand. The opportunity to welcome strangers to a village is also a suitable excuse to indulge.
Balls of dried opium, it looked like three for each participant, were mixed with water and sieved. The resulting liquid, amal, was then poured into the mixers hand and offered to his companion, who dipped a finger and flicked three droplets to the gods and then drank …
The brew is then offered to the strangers in welcome.
Before accepting you should perhaps read this cautionary tale. And remember, there are more opium addicts in India than alcoholics.
Queen Marie Antoinette saw a crane that had been brought to France from the steppes of Russia. Because of its delicate and maidenly appearance she called it La Grue Demoiselle.
The village of Khishan is about 6 km west of Phalodi, Rajasthan. From August on Demoiselle Cranes arrive here to spend the winter. Their numbers build up and peak between November and February. For some years now the people of Khichan have systematically fed the cranes which now assemble in spectacular numbers.
The western population that winters in Africa is in significant decline. The eastern population is secure. Those that winter in India have to negotiate the Himalayas. They are creatures of supreme elegance and are associated in folklore, poetry and song with womanly beauty and hazardous journeys.
I was present, at dawn, on the roof of a house that overlooks the feeding area and happy to share my telescope with some local people who were on their way home from a night of wedding celebration.
India is just bursting at the seams with life, with colour and movement, noise, history, architecture. The only thing a visitor won’t find is ordinariness.
Phalodi is just a small town in Rajasthan about 140 km from Jodhpur. A quick skim through Tripadvisor reveals that the main reason for tourists to come here is for somewhere to stay close to Kichan and the famous Demoiselle Cranes. Exactly what took me there. More of them later.
The town grew up on an important trading route and if you were a prosperous merchant two or three hundred years ago you built yourself a haveli. This was a private mansion built in a style heavily influenced by the Mughals. Behind a gate like this …
… there would typically be the main courtyard, often with a fountain, and beyond that a second smaller courtyard for the women. The mansion would surround the courtyards in such a way as to give privacy from the street and carefully segregate the sexes. A large haveli might have three or even more courtyards.
The best hotel in town started out as a private haveli. As its web site says …
Built in 1750, Lal Niwas is a splendid haveli boasting of intricate craftsmanship on red sandstone. The traditional balconies, terraces and doors add an authentic royal touch to it.
Fifteen glorious rooms await you. Not every reviewer found it glorious but I found it more than adequate. Two of the courtyards …
Phalodi has a population of about 45,000 if transplanted to Australia that would make it the fifth largest town in the state of Victoria, above Shepparton and below Bendigo. If you fired a cannon down the main street of either on a Sunday you would be lucky to hit a pedestrian. Don’t try that in Phalodi. There are no buildings in either town dating from 1750 which was twenty years prior to Captain James Cook’s encounter with the east coast of Australia.
India has a turbulent history. At a time of intrigue and assassination an ambitious man could make a name for himself or die young or both.
Rao Jodha was born in 1416. In 1427 his father secured the throne of Mandore and subsequently extended his influence by a strategic alliance that saw him administering an adjacent area. In 1438 the alliance was dissolved in the time-honoured way, assassination. The young Rao Jodha escaped and mounted a campaign to regain the throne he had expected to inherit. His attempts to retake Mandore were unsuccessful until one day, so the story goes, he stopped at a farmer’s house where he kept his identity to himself. He was given a bowl of stew, khichdi. He would have eaten this with his right hand. Unwisely he began in the middle and burnt his fingers. The farmer’s wife said “Stranger, you are making the same mistake as King Jodha, khichdi is hottest at the centre and coolest at the edge”.
Jodha saw the wisdom in this, turned his attention to the outlying forts which he took with ease. Once these were secure Mandore fell into his lap. A more secure capital had a lot to recommend it, so in 1459 Rao Jodha founded the city of Jodhpur and began to build a hilltop fort, Mehrangarh.
A combination of impregnability and luxury, Mehrangarh, enabled Rao Jodha to enjoy his kingdom until his natural death aged 73.
Our guide was very suitably clad …
Jodhpur is the second largest city in Rajasthan with a population of almost 1.3 million people. People make good use of their roof tops and also their basements.
Whenever I visit Jodhpur I stay in utter luxury at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, well I stayed there once … for one night. Up the red carpet to a trumpet fanfare, a shower of rose petals, under a canopy held aloft by a welcoming party of five to have a garland draped around my neck by a pretty young lady and anointed on the forehead with a red dot by another. It has probably sealed my fate come the revolution. But hey, it was worth it.
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