Jodhpur – the city that is a fort

11 May

In many ways, the city of Jodhpur is the imposing fort of Jodhpur. At least for a tourist. Look slightly lost in any of the narrow streets of the Old Town and a finger is quickly pointed to “fort”. Next to signs of “hygienic food for tourists only”, hotels and restaurants proudly boast even larger ads of “hill view”. And everywhere you look, the fort that seems to emerge from the rocky hill below looms over the blue-painted Old Town.

Making our way to the fort on Friday morning, we quickly realised why the fort is also called the Citadel of the sun. It was nine thirty and the temperature had already climbed close to the 43C it would reach that day.

Within minutes, children however made their way towards us. The first shouted a cheerful “hello” as they walked past, though a pushy few stayed with us for the next ten minutes. Running around us as we slowly walked up narrow streets with chained goats in doorways, some adopted the more confrontational “Hello, one rupees!” with tiny arms outstretched. But, like many before them, the persistence vanished as we started the steepest part of the climb to the fort.

 

Though 500 years old, the fort has never been taken by force. As the audio guide later eloquently phrased it: “No elephant has ever succeeded in battering down its gates. No invading army has ever breached down its walls”. But a few battle scars remain.

In the early 19th century, the fort was under siege for six months. The king had passed away, and according to custom, his fiance, the princess of Udaipur, should then marry the royal successor. But the girl´s father wanted it differently and promised her to the Maharaja of Jaipur (where we are going in a few days). Dishonoured, the coming king ambushed the caravan with wedding gifts making its way to Jaipur. And the battle was on. Jaipur forces surrounded the fort for six months, leaving the residents inside desperate for water and supplies….

Yep, I know. I was also hoping for more there. A nice build up for a great climax. But nope, the audio guide then went “But in all its 500 years it has never given in, not this time either”.

Anyways. The audio guide moved on for a reason – to mingle the present and the past. While on top of the fort, with a view on the length of the bastions lined with canons, the narrator spoke about legends of cannon ball blasts that inspired Aldous Huxley to write from the bastions of the Jodhpur fort, one hears as the Gods must hear from Olympus”.

But then, the word was given to the crown prince. In strong British accent, the voice of a twentysomething man crackled in the audio guide:

“I can remember it as a little child, and the most imposing part of it has to have been the ramparts, when you see the whole sheer city in front of you, and you are sort of towering over this sort of a little empire. To me, the world was Jodhpur”.

India´s aristocratic dynasties may have given up their kingdoms when India liberated itself from Britain, but their titles retain prestige. Today, the crown prince´s world sits a few kilometres from the fort in a 340-room palace. Though, the palace is no longer just a place for kings. The building is now also part hotel, part museum. Like in Jaisalmer, rich Indians and tourists can go and live literally like kings for a night.

Among all the courtyards, pomposity and splendour of the fort, it was nevertheless the story of London tabloids and the visit to the women´s quarters, that I remember the best from the hours inside the fort.

On display next to the elephant hawelahs (seats) were a line of palanquines, means of transport for the royal ladies. While the (holy) king would be depicted with halos on paintings, the royal women would be tucked away in veiled carriages to protect them from “the hostile stares of the men”.

The most interesting story sat inside the most plain-looking carrier, “the one that looks like a neat basket by the exit” as the narrator phrased it. When the present king's grand mother went to England in 1925 this particular basket was used to transport her to and from a specially curtained Rolls Royce. London tabloids quickly caught the scent of the queen and eventually managed to photograph her ankle as she stepped out of the carriage one day. Outraged, the royal entourage bought up every copy of the paper before it found its way back to India.

The strict purda system of the times meant that women were not only to be veiled, but be completely out of sight. Overlooking splendid courtyards and extravagantly decorated rooms for dancing, reciting of poetry and music were thus small balconies, fitted with tight grids. Peeking through the narrow slits at the courtyard far below, I heard the narrator, always the spin doctor, inform me that the women would here “amuse themselves with views on courtyards on two sides”.

Descending flights of stairs, ducking under the ladder of turban-clad construction workers and avoiding a few pickpockets, I emerged in an elegant, though small white courtyard. This was Zenana, the women´s quarters. Its entrance was once guarded by “the most trusted servants.” Though, apparently not trusted too much, because the majority of the guards were eunuchs.

Sitting down on a small bench at the far end of the courtyard, the narrator asked me to “visualise the hustle and bustle of the courtyard, with queens and princesses, male servants and concubines”. I would have done that, if the small office on the far end had not been even more interesting. Previously, when I had passed this small room, the heavily built man behind the desk with a globe on top had handed me a leaflet. He would be happy to read the palms of tourists it said, though a review from Rough Guide copy-pasted on page two reminded girls that his work would not be accurate if you were wearing nail polish. While the queen mother entered the audio guide and shared a few minutes of disappointingly little information, I looked bemused at a French girl with palms stretched out and stifled laughter.

As the queen mother bid farewell, the narrator came back in my ear: “Like everywhere else, life for women in Rajasthan palaces has changed.” Almost as to underscore his point, a group of thirtysomething Indian men that had been eying me for the past few minutes approached as I put down the audioguide. “One photo of you?”

 

Jodhpur – the city

When the temperature fell to the high thirties in the afternoon, we ventured out of the hotel again to explore the city. Within minutes though, my boyfriend wished we had spent more time in Jaisalmer instead.

Making a turn for the clock tower instead of uphill to the fort, the city of Jodhpur unfortunately lost much of its charm. We found ourselves dodging honking mopeds while also trying to stay clear of trash and cow dung. The iconic blue paint of the old city was flaking off crumbling walls. The street we walked on was nothing but grey slabs of concrete and potholes lined with rubble and dust.

But there were also birds. And carved window frames and pastel houses with flower pots on balconies. But I only spotted all of that when I forced myself to look beyond the grime, and dust and the many “one rupees!” When we minutes later passed two miserably looking backpackers zigzagging through the litter and the honks, I also began to miss Jaisalmer.

At the clock tower, we found a cow sleeping on top of a heap of plastic next to a sign indicating “Market, money changer”. And, the plain word 'market' is a more fitting name for this square than the more exiting-sounding 'bazaar'. The stands with mangos, water melons and plastic sandals may have looked interesting on their own, but on filthy streets heavy with garbage they were less than inviting. The appeal was further reduced by the grey cement walls that lined the market.

But again, I tried. The rows of women in colourful saris – minty-green, purple, orange, gold – strolling up and down the market were quite a sight. But as I stood there transfixed on the saris, a small boy tugged my shirt. “One rupee!” he demanded. And with that, I found myself back in a dirty and dusty market place with children practising their first begging tricks and young men coming too close for my liking. There were no other tourists to be seen. “You're getting a lot of stares”, my boyfriend remarked, as if I had not already noticed. He added with a grin: “What was that comment about the girl in jeans, hmm?”

There were simply filth and noise and I felt dusty and exhausted. I shook my head at my boyfriend who understood. It was time to beat a retreat from India today.

Coming back to our hotel, the car park had filled up. On the roof top restaurant, every chair was angled for the best view possible of the now illuminated medieval fort and the children playing kites. The same view I had last night, and hopefully also the same superb feelings I had then about Jodhpur. But, accompanied by Islamic chanting in the background, I, on the other hand, made my way to our air-conditioned room.

 

 

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