India. Just saying the world itself conjures up images of a mystical place, full of smells, sights, and tastes that are foreign to the rest of the world. For a world traveler such as myself, it was a place that simply had to be visited. And, not surprisingly, my trip there in September 2009 ended up being one of the classic ones I still speak glowingly about to this day.
It all started with an invitation for me and Joel Oleson, a fellow Microsoft SharePoint speaker, to speak at several cities in Southern India. The speaking schedule allowed for a break of around six total days in between speaking locations as well. This was our chance to see some of what India had to offer! We jumped on the opportunity, and hatched a plan to travel across Northern India and Nepal, seeing as much as we could in the time we had. Joining us would be SharePoint MVP Neo (Majid) Favarshan from Iran, a good friend who unwittingly got himself involved in an insane journey halfway across the sub-continent.
We arranged for a car and a driver to take us around India. Not just any car, mind you, but a classic Indian car known as an Hindustan Motors Ambassador.
Along with our driver, Ashok Kumar, we set off on a 2500km journey from Delhi across India and Nepal that had us swimming in the sacred Ganges river, flying over Mount Everest, walking barefoot through temples filled with rats, and sampling some unbelievable cuisine. For the sake of brevity, I’ve broken our trip up into three blog posts, this first post deals solely with Rajasthan, the first major destination of our trip and the largest state in India.
After a short flight from Chennai where we spoke, we met up with our driver and took an all night drive on some horribly potholed roads until we arrived in the city of Bikaner. Our top destination here? The famous Karni Mata Temple, also colloquially known as the “Rat Temple.”
There are many places in the world that can be described as ‘unique.’ But few that are as fundamentally unique as this place is. Within this temple, rats are treated as sacred and given protection, fed, and housed. Yes, those type of rats…the kind that typically invoke a panicked call to an exterminator in much of the rest of the world.
And when I say rats…I mean many many rats. Hoards of rats…everywhere. In the walls, on the floor, in the railings. Everywhere. Did I mention you have to enter barefoot as well? This is not a temple for the squeamish.
Within the temple, we were fortunate to meet and speak with a Hindu devotee who had journeyed there on foot from his home village 200 km away to pray. He was the one that told us about the white rat in the temple, a sighting of which is especially fortunate and meaningful to them.
Despite the initial revulsion you may experience when seeing these rats everywhere, it’s almost therapeutic to spend time observing the rats in this place and seeing how, when venerated, the rats themselves are kind and gentle. The devotees even go so far as to build a net above the temple to protect them from predator birds. Subsequently, the rats were exceedingly friendly here, and would laze around, relaxing and eating the copious amount of food and milk that is prepared for them daily.
In general, animals across India were pretty laid back and at ease around humans, a fact that our driver pointed out has a lot to do with the fact that most people in India are vegetarians, so the animals had little to fear. This was a good point I hadn’t though about before, but noticed on multiple instances as we journeyed across the country.
No road trip is complete without at least one car breakdown. Extra points if your car breaks down in the middle of the largest desert in India, known as the Thar Desert or the Great Indian Desert.
Breakdown? No problem, Joel, Neo and I took it all in stride. Indeed, getting the car fixed was the most interesting part. Since what broke was the radiator fan belt, we simply needed to make sure the engine didn’t overheat. So Ashok drove up to around 100 km/hr, shut the engine off, then coasted until we dropped back down to a crawl. He then repeated the same trick over and over until we arrived at the next village.
While the car was being fixed by the village mechanic, Joel and I decided to walk around and check things out. Suffice it to say, we shocked quite a few people that day, who I’m guessing were not used to two very large, Nordic-looking guys walking through their village. We happened upon a group of children playing cricket in the street and, after their initial shock wore off, convinced them to let us join them in a game.
Two Americans playing cricket is a funny sight by itself…and the universal language of laughter was enough to let us know that the children disapproved of our ‘over-the-shoulder, American baseball approach to hitting the ball. In any case, we made the most of our down time and had one of the more memorable experiences on the trip itself with these kids.
Next on the agenda? Jodhpur, the “Blue City” of Rajasthan. Jodhpur is centrally located in Rajasthan, and is littered with temples, palaces, and forts. We decided to focus on one fort in particular, the Mehrangarh Fort.
The Mehrangarh fort occupies a strategic position on a hilltop overlooking the Blue City, named after the color of the painted house in the vicinity of the fort.
The fort itself is most definitely a tourist attraction, though it principally caters to local Indian tourists rather than foreign tourists. In fact, aside from the Taj Mahal, which we would visit later, most of the sights we saw on our trip were devoid of foreign tourists, a physical trait I like to see in the tourist locations I visit.
Inside the fort is a series of palaces as well as an extensive museum stocked with all types of armaments, historical artifacts, and trappings of royal life. The museum guides will even demonstrate how to put on a turban if you are so inclined.
The view from the top of the Mehrangarh Fort is mind-blowing, and on a clear day you can see for miles. One thing I noted was the military radar installations on the horizon, which calls to mind how close this city is to the border of Pakistan.
One additional detail which isn’t covered in the tour guides is the fact that Mehrangarh Fort is a common resting spot for bats, which you can find sleeping during the day in various spots throughout the complex. Given what I mentioned earlier about the tendency for Indians not to bother animals, they seemed quite peaceful here, perched right above the heads of tourists. That said, I can they have probably given some unsuspecting soul a bit of a fright.
Mehrangarh Fort has an actual battle history, and the imprints of cannonballs can be found on the gates of the fort itself. Because of its strategic location and high, thick walls, however, the fort was never once taken in battle in the 500 years it has been around.
If you get a chance, be sure to climb to the highest balcony in the Palace within the fort. It is there, perched on the top of this massive cliff, that I found one of those rare spots in the world that bring on a sense of peace and happiness that is rare to find.
I can count on one hand the number of places in the world that had this effect on me.
Following our visit to Jodhpur, we journeyed once again to the capital city of Rajasthan, the Pink City of Jaipur. Japiur, like Jodhpur, is bursting at the seams with palaces, forts, and temples, including the famous Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Breeze,) designed with honeycomb windows that would allow the royal ladies of the palace to be able to look outside without being seen.
The Hawa Mahal is an extremely elaborate building located within the walls of the center of Jaipur itself. The pink color of the Palace, as well as the color of other buildings in the city are what gives Jaipur the nickname “The Pink City.”
Just getting across the street to try to take a picture of the Hawa Mahal from the other side can be an experience that can only be compared to a game of ‘Frogger.’ Of course, many streets in India are like this…your best shot is to just wait for a hole in traffic and then walk through at a calm and even pace. The vehicles will flow around you, just as they do in Egypt, Vietnam, and some of the other locations I’ve been that have these same traffic ‘issues.’
The old city section of Jaipur is completely encircled by a city wall three meters thick and six meters tall. You enter into the city center via one of seven gates. Each gate is more elaborate than the next, and they are mindful about preserving them.
Just outside of the main part of the city is the palace named Jal Mahal (Water Palace,) built within a man-made lake that was created as a reservoir for the people of the city.
Just up the hill from the Jal Mahal lie the Nahargarh Fort and the Amer Fort (Amber Fort), the former of which affords the best views of Jaipur (I’m told) and the latter of which we managed to briefly glimpse on the way out of the city.
Before leaving Jaipur, we stopped by a temple we had heard of that was famous for its monkeys. This temple is located on an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site known as Galtaji, and is often referred to as the Monkey temple (Galwar Bagh.)
The temple complex is built on a natural water springs and Hindu devotees came here to bathe in its waters, which are nearly as sacred as those of the Ganges River, a place we would visit later.
The rhesus macaque monkeys that inhabit this place are everywhere, and spill out of the surrounding mountains when it is feeding time.
You can even buy some monkey food at the entrance to the temple if you are interested in feeding them, though do be cautious, as these monkeys will happily rip apart your paper bag of food right out of your hands if you are not cautious.
One other interesting note about Rajasthan. In general, the traditional dress for women here includes some of the most striking colors I’ve ever seen, with strong pinks, yellows, purples, and blues, often times covering the entire body like a burqa. This form of dress was unique to this area of India, at least as far as I could tell.
The state of Rajasthan is unique and exotic, and the people there are friendly and curious to see foreigners. This is one area of India that I most definitely need to visit again, as we barely scratched the surface in terms of places to see and experience.
Our journey continued on from here to Agra and the Taj Mahal and the holy city of Varanasi for a swim in the sacred Ganges river. But that’s all in the next blog post my friends.