Early this year, we hightailed it through the Indian state of Gujarat in a car. A 2500 kilometre long journey packed into a tight 4 days. They say the best journeys are the ones that are planned the least. This mad drive into Gujarat was exactly that. One crappy car and four drivers can do a lot more than one might assume.
Gir and Gujarat
Our biker friend, Pankaj Goyal, was getting married deep inside Gujarat and we had to be there to bid our boy goodbye. We drove endlessly and under the cover of darkness in mid January. Swapping driving and navigation responsibilities at every rest stop, we saw the sunrise. While we were still on the road and now only about 50 kilometers from our destination, our minds started wandering.
500 miles from home, it was imperative that we make the most of our journey. But, time was short. We met our friend and his lovely fiance, stayed and shot the wedding (our first wedding shoot evaar!) and then darted out into the vastness that is Gujarat.
The Gir national park and wildlife sanctuary is very popular amongst tourists and hardcore photographers. To be true, all our wildlife gear was sitting pretty back at base! Our photography, cameras and lenses were optimized to shoot a wedding, not the wild!
Thus began our trip to Gir, the final stronghold of the Asiatic Lion.
This was the first time any of us were visiting this part of the country. Yet again, we started our drive in the night. Gujarat, in India, is synonymous with ‘development’ or so we thought. We drove into the interiors and were taken by surprise, the roads in this part of the country were abysmal. To make matters slightly more challenging, the gates into Gir National Park did not open till 8am.
We snoozed in our car till a shabbily dressed, half asleep forest guard let us in. At 8 am and on the outer boundary, things got worse. As one drives into the sanctuary, roads virtually disappear. This was bad news for our overloaded car. Our speed was less than an average of 25 km/h.
Nothing but nature
They say everything happens for a reason and after 2 hours the slow, irritating and bumpy early morning drive bore fruit.
We saw her, as she walked protectively behind her two cubs. Protective but not concerned, we were on her turf. The four of us suddenly froze, as if in a daze. She was aware of our presence, we shut off the engine of our car. Just for a second, she turned to look at us.
I see you
That was the moment when the photographer in us took over. Before she could look away, we had our shot. That little moment felt much longer when we were in it. In her gaze, she sized our vehicle up. We were no threat.
Just as soon as we had clicked a couple of photos, she turned and walked away. As if she knew she had given us what we wanted, our first sighting. Before even entering the safari zone, where people go weeks without a single sighting, we had met the Lioness.
Luck and a Lioness
It was clear, luck was on our side.
We reached our campsite cum hotel a little after noon. All four of us were eager to try our luck at catching a glimpse of another Lion. We just had to go on safari. A completely modified SUV, optimized for carrying up to 6 people arrived to take us around the forest.
Our group of four was allotted one of the longest safari routes through the main forest. Our driver and spotter (Forest department registered) were adept at telling us about every aspect of the flora and fauna here. Albeit in a routine and practiced manner.
Dust, grime and a whole lot of fun!
One hour into the safari and having seen just a few hundred deer and buffaloes our spotter got news of a Lion sighting over the radio. We reached the spot with about 25 other jeeps already waiting at a distance.
A safari at Gir is rather amusing. There are unsaid practices here which make sure the paying tourists get their shots.
Sightings at Gir are actually enabled by people called ‘Trekkers/trackers’. These Trackers are local villagers hired by the forest department to patrol a designated piece of land. Their job is to relay the presence of Lions in their sector to the higher ups.
There were a lot of tourists at this sanctuary, the kind who come for the heck of it and not for the value forests of such nature hold. There were mammoth lens toting photographers too, who maybe didn’t care about the way they got their shot, as long as they got it.
And then there was us. Four confused guys, on a safari in India for the first time. We didn’t have our lenses but our conscience was alive. Sort of.
Here’s the truth about Gir. Everybody wants a sighting but not everybody gets one. It is sort of possible to ‘arrange’ for one to get a proper sighting. If a Lion has been sighted, drivers and forest guides act as if their vehicle has broken down. Then, once everyone else has left the spot, one ‘pays’ the tracker and gets the shot one wants. The moment guides/drivers learn that you’re interested in taking pictures, the offers come up.
We were gifted with another sighting. A slumbering male Lion, snoozing in the afternoon shade, lying on a carpet of dry grass.
The Lion was lying flat on the ground. Looking at us photographers the tracker walked to a bush and shook the branches, which alerted the King. It looked up to see what the commotion was about. We all got our shot.
It is at this point that I realized the sorry state of the wild here. Yes this was a forest and yes the Lions were free to roam the boundaries of Gir, but there was something missing. That thrill of the chase, the chance of getting lost. And the sheer convenience of looking at these Lions had made this a very mediocre wildlife experience.
The only issue we had to deal with was dust. Which, had we been prepared, would not have caused us any discomfort.
My land exists but my wild is lost.
Gir is simply not what it is cracked up to be.
We had our share of fun. Buttered paranthas in the biting cold, under the stars and around the bonfire, licking pickles of unimaginable potency with me carefully keeping my distance from the sweet Gujarati Daal.
We had to be heading home, people among us had work to get done. But the disease of travel is such that it never leaves you cured. We took the long route out, stopping over at Somnath to check out what the temple holds.
Somnath, the forbidden temple.
It was a lackluster trip once we left the wedding but as any good road trip is incomplete without its share of mishaps, ours was yet to give us the final challenge.
On our way back, doing three digit speeds, we lost our brakes. Yes. The game was still on!
At a remote dhaba, we waited for 5 hours as a mechanic charged us a bomb and got us new brake pads. Then, we drove for a thousand kilometers and reached home. Safe.
This land holds secrets, too many to count on ten fingers. Gujarat.
Part 3 of Rooh – E – Rajasthan.
To read part 2 – Click here.
To read part 1 – Click here.
I turned off National Highway 114 and entered Jodhpur at what felt like the peak hour of traffic here. It was now noon. My dash from Jaisalmer had turned into an easy riding session most of the way. Jodhpur looked like a greeting card of commotion which was unfolding just as the bike and I rolled in. I learnt early that in this town, dust had the right of way and so did the oddly shaped black and yellow rickshaws. In a way this was a rude reminder of my dispatch from the calm caress of Jaisalmer. I caught myself thinking “I got a bad feelin’ ’bout this” (the way Will Smith would say it). The mid day heat was harsh, coupled with the dwindling dare of my motorcycle’s smooth run, I was crossing my fingers about Jodhpur.
I had to shake off all apprehensions as I rode towards my new RTDC (Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation) home. The wheels of the bike crawled through the traffic as I finally broke free onto one of Jodhpur’s broad roads which led to the High court. Just as the city breeze started playing with the beads of sweat forming on my forehead, I reached my hotel for this city. RTDC’s Hotel Ghoomar was now my home for the next few days.
This RTDC Hotel was brilliantly located, right in the middle of Jodhpur. The receptionist, a Mister Kishore Kumar, had one heck of a sense of humor. I was welcomed with an open heart I have to say. Mr Kumar had quite an interest in photography too and that’s where we hit it off. After settling myself, Kishore ji and I spent quite a while discussing where in Jodhpur may one find good photo opportunities. The hotel itself, was decent enough. Thankfully, the RTDC has quite a few tariff categories, suited to almost any pocket.
Hotel Ghoomar and the rickshaws of Jodhpur.
Jodhpur was to be a long stopover, I knew people here. One of my Army friend’s family was stationed here. An uncle of mine was also in Jodhpur. Plus, most important, the Marauder was to get its all-important servicing done. She had come a long way since we first left on that chilled early morning from Pune. Dinner was to be had with uncle and the evening was spent looking at pictures I had clicked on my journey so far. This of course, was my first whiff of home food after Barmer. For some strange reason though, I felt, Jodhpur had an unsettling vibe to it. Unlike Barmer, Jaisalmer and even Mount Abu with their oozing positivity, Jodhpur was more a place where life as we know existed. It was a normal city, in a desperate rush to get ahead of its own self, trying to conquer time.
The bustle of the city woke me up the next morning. I sat in bed sipping on tea, looking at the curtain on the window play games with the sun’s light. Unlike other mornings, today there was no riding or photography to be done. The day would be dedicated to spending quality time with my motorcycle. This was a rest day. First, I made numerous phone calls trying to scout for an authorised mechanic here and found one. Then came the task of actually reaching the workshop in this new city. Now this is the part I love, deliberately getting lost in a city I know nothing about. Lanes, by lanes, small roads and big roads. Stopping every kilometer to ask people directions for the place I want to go to and then from being hopelessly lost to reaching my destination. This was my way of breaking the ice with Jodhpur. The hungry me stopped at one of the sweet shops and hogged on some local samosa/kachauri variants. In Jodhpur, it’s easier to find a ‘halwai’ or sweetmaker than trying to find a restaurant to eat food.
Breaking the ice.
Ismail bhai, an authorised Royal Enfield mechanic on Chowpasni road, gave my motorcycle a once over. According to him nothing was wrong with the engine but I knew better. There was a piston slap which was more than audible. Having said that, I didn’t want him poking his spanner in places he didn’t seem to know much about. So the bike just got some routine maintenance done. The breaks got cleaned and adjusted, the air filter was cleaned and the chain was oiled and adjusted. At such garages, which are dedicated to the Enfield, more often than not, one finds other motorcycle owners with a passion for the ride. Conversations with other bullet owners here were about our bikes and where I was coming from and where I was planning to go. Suggestions, route directions and warnings were all part of our banter. When I told people about what I was doing, most people would respond with a puzzled gaze. The ‘What is this guy up to?’ kind of a look. I find that amusing and it always brings a smile to my face.
To know that some people out there actually think something like this can’t even be done and for me to be doing it, that’s a gift I cherish dearly.
About three hours later, I scouted for a place to have lunch. Strangely, the crowded streets around Chowpasni road weren’t home to any interesting eat outs, apart from your odd ‘halwaai’ of course. So I went back to my hotel and had a very simple Dal and Chawal.
The afternoons in Jodhpur are hot, even in November. The tourist inside me was aching to go out and check out the sights but I wanted to take it slow. When on such trips, it is often easy for someone to try and get ahead of one’s self in the excitement. Which in turn leaves you tired and unmotivated when it matters the most, a bit like a marathon. You have to pace yourself all the time. Self motivation is key to surviving the length of such a trip. More than half the trip stood in front of my motorcycle and me, I kept telling myself to persevere.
Tea time again, sitting in the garden, I looked up at the sky. A strange haze of cloudy fume had cast itself over the evening, like a message written in cloud, telling me to stay in and not tire myself out. It was time for a reality check. I was worried about my motorcycle, as she hadn’t got the service I felt she needed. She talks to me, this motorcycle. Each other is all we have on such endeavours. I would spend at least ten minutes every day making sure everything was in order with her. I like to believe that she understands me. Because boy, when she talks, I have to listen. Just by the beat of the engine I understand what her mood is like. How the engine sounds tells me whether or not she is feeling up to it. At this point, I knew she was not in great nick. Right from Barmer, there was a faint change in the way the engine sounded. The metallic clang had increased ever so slightly as we covered more distances over the desert state. I did not know if she could stand by me throughout the trip.
Haze over Jodhpur.
All that thought didn’t mean a change in plan was in order, no.
Day three in Jodhpur and it was time to see what this city had in store for its tourist. The Mehrangarh Fort was one of the most imposing forts I had seen till date. It is difficult to spot from within the city as the buildings crowd the view but once you are on the hill road heading to the fort, the view is awe inducing. It almost catches you off guard, the Mehrangarh is that huge.
The Mehrangarh Fort, overlooking the city.
Thanks to my uncle, the fort authorities had been informed about my arrival. The moment I reached the entrance I was ushered through the crowd and given a complimentary pass to the interiors of this mega matrix of pathways, history and well, blatant robbery of a tourist’s time. Not for a moment will I say that the fort does not match up to what it promises. No, the place is brilliant and the history is more than intriguing but it is the way such places are managed and run in India these days. It felt like a dirty quest for money was the driving force behind allowing the common man access inside these walls. There was even a Rupee 20 charge to use the elevator. The security personnel at this fort, behaved as if they were doing a favour to the guest/tourist who dared to venture inside after paying for her/his ticket.
A strange rule prevented me from putting up a tripod anywhere inside the fort’s premises. This anti-tripod rule will chase you through many monuments in India. When questioned, the authorities told me that it is to prevent professional photography and videography but then again, you can tot a camera or a handy-cam all you want. They say one needs special permission to be able to put up a tripod and shoot, also, money needs to be paid to the fort management if you wish to shoot with a tripod. Wow! What a lovely explanation for such a nonsensical rule. Apart from the outright fleecing going on these days at such so called tourism savvy monuments, these regulations are made by people who have no real idea of the on ground situation or even knowledge of photography. Most professionals can shoot as well or better without a tripod or ‘stand’ as these people call it.
View from the courtyard.
This fort was mighty beautiful, from inside and out. As one reaches the main courtyard, one can see the blue city stretching out in front of the fort. When touring the insides, I noticed that sunlight had a special relationship with this monument’s architecture. At almost every arched entrance that you walk through, fresh rays of sunlight will rain down on you. Some of the Darbans or doormen may even pose for your camera if you ask them.
Romancing the Sun.
Inside, the brilliance in gold work will leave one gasping as you come to terms with the sheer scale of art and craft which is a part of every single royal expanse here. From regular rooms to August darbars, inside the palaces, stories keep one engaged all through. More than just a visual delight, the Mehrangarh with its history and tourism centric ethos gives the thinking traveller a run for his or her money. Quite literally.
Another interest inducing sight are the cannons which are kept on top of the broad fort walls. The importance of which is undermined by the tourist himself as you will see people climbing on top of the cannons or sitting on them.
A Mehrangarh cannon.
The most intriguing story here goes back to the time the construction of the Mehrangarh fort began. The hill on which it was built was known as the hill of birds. A hermit known as the lord of the birds used to stay on this hill and when he was forced to move because of the construction of the fort, he cursed the kingdom. His curse prevented the kingdom from ever having adequate water. To this day they say that the areas in and around Jodhpur suffer from drought once every four to five years. The stories also say that Jodha the ruler tried to appease the hermits’ curse by burying a man alive in the foundations of the fort. (The man) Rajiya’s family was looked after by the kingdom of Rathores.
Built on the hill of birds.
I must also mention that most of the fort is actually cordoned off for general public, entry is prohibited. Why? I have no idea. So much contrast between the past and the present allied to the less than ordinary experience of the fort interiors had left a sad impression of this place on my mind. Even though I was given free entry and treated with residual decency, what was actually happening here was for everyone to see. Money rules the roost here, take my word for it. After eating a kathi roll at the Mehrangarh café (the fort run restaurant) and paying 170 INR for it, I left.
Kathi roll and the Cafe’ Mehran.
Next on my monuments list was the Jaswant Thada. A building situated very close to the Mehrangarh fort and one of much aesthetic and historical importance. A mausoleum, the Jaswant Thada is a beautiful sight. The word mausoleum usually brings up visions of negativity and of life ending circumstances but this building induced quite the opposite sensation. Take off your shoes and walk on the grass here. Clutch the fence and look at the city of Jodhpur stretching out in front of your eyes right up till the horizon. Turn around to see the pale marble monument standing in the middle of the gardens with a spirit as crisp as the kings of yore.
The Jaswant Thada.
If that’s not enough, lend your ears to Bansiram. An old fellow of tradition. Let him welcome you with his voice, singing to you what he likes and what your ears would like to hear. Mark my words, this man has a voice which can challenge even the most honed vocals. Sitting in the courtyard of the mausoleum, Bansiram makes a living off of tips and adulation from passing tourists.
The Jaswant Thada was built by a certain Sardar Singh in the memory of Raja Jaswant Singh the second. One climbs the only flight of stairs and the aura of the building takes hold. The marble used to build this monument exudes a warm caress as the sun’s light falls on it. Those contortions which formed in my brain after the visit to the fort had now been levelled by the peace here at the Jaswant Thada.
Peace at the Jaswant Thada.
One last time, I skimmed the surface of the greens with my palm and moved on to the next palace of call.
Umaid Bhavan Palace. It is the residence of the royal family of Jodhpur and also a hotel managed by the Taj Hotels group. If you’re staying at the palace hotel, well, congratulations. If not, then you may not like this place very much. More than a sight to see, this place or palace is a cordoned off monument for the public. From 9am to 5pm every day, regulars can enter through one of the side entrances and walk to the museum. On your walk, you will get a side view of the palace.
The palace side view.
The museum showcases the history of the palace and its various owners. Photographs of the kings and princes in their prime are put up on all the walls. Plus, you can see all what you can’t see. What I mean is, you can see pictures and sketches of the layout of the palace, places where a tourist can’t go. Sad.
They have some lovely old world cars on display though. Which, let’s be honest, adds little to the experience of Rajasthan.
What the peaceful mausoleum had given, the palace took away. I was not liking Jodhpur, really. Day one to day three, not one moment here had inspired me. Not one instant had passed where I said to myself ‘this is it’. It was almost evening as I came out of the palace premises and started heading back to the area where my hotel was, uninterested in everything. I was trying to think of a way to turn the situation around. I wanted to try and put a finger on the pulse of Jodhpur, for what it really is. Instead of turning towards the hotel, I was taken to the clock tower or ghanta ghar. At this time, early in the evening, the place was choc a block with people, auto rickshaws and vehicles. It was the older part of Jodhpur.
Ghanta Ghar (Clock tower)
I walked around a bit and ventured into narrow lanes behind the main market. I saw what I call the band district. Shop after shop of local brass bands that play at not so big fat Indian weddings and during baraats lined one side of the lane. The other side was a brick wall punctuated with the bands’ colourful carriages. This was a little refreshing. Honest.
From here, I went back out into the city and gave the Mandore Gardens a span of my attention. These gardens are home to beautiful old temples which stand amidst filthy and unclean environs. The stench here is close to chronic. These gardens lie in neglect, sure, but the ancient temples overpower that repulsive feeling one gets in the gut at such a place. It’s almost as if the charm of the architecture and the history is more influential here than at the Mehrangarh fort. I spent quite a while taking pictures here. I didn’t know much about the temples or even the importance of Mandore as a place but as I now read up, it is obvious that Mandore is as important as Jodhpur itself. The ancient city of Mandore has been the capital of many kingdoms in its hay day. The stories here rekindle intrigue.
Gardens in neglect, Mandore.
For me though, it was time to call it a day or so I thought. On the way back, this time my driver and I spotted a jeep full of goats being taken somewhere. We decided to follow them, just out of curiosity. Guess where we landed up? To an auction of goats! As this was the eve of Bakr id, there was a goat auction being conducted somewhere deep inside the maze of old city lanes. There were 100s of goats being put up for auction. The trading of livestock was part of an ongoing tradition here. As I inquired, the most expensive goat had sold for a hundred and fifty thousand rupees (Whoa!).
An auction with a difference!
However tumultuous, this rather interesting day had finally come to an end.
I was to spend the next day socializing and preparing for the upcoming ride to Ajmer and Pushkar. But before I started packing there was a photograph to be taken. Starting with tea at 5am in the morning, I shot out of my room a little before 6 to try and shoot the sun rising over the Palace. I had a particular shot in my head and I wanted to get it as today was my last day in Jodhpur. I rode swiftly through the cold morning wind towards the fort; this route was now imprinted in my head. I reached the fort with dawn cracking over the blue mosaic of Jodhpur. I was in the Mehrangarh fort parking lot, since this point had a magnificent view of the city. I was hoping against hope to find the sun rising just behind the Umaid Bhavan Palace in the distance. I got ready with my gear with the sun still a while away from rising over the horizon.
Perched up top above this puzzling city I looked at how each morning in Jodhpur must be. The sounds of the morning were the same as anywhere else. Squeaking doors, occasional grunts of a diesel engine in the distance, a train blowing its trumpet as it left the railway station and of course the tens of birds which call the fort walls their home. This seemed like the peaceful side of the Jodhpur coin. Well, relatively.
Good morning Jodhpur!
The build up to the sunrise was happening. There were more people out on the streets in their walking shoes now, the sky had turned an orange-ish yellow shade and the horizon was lit up for the suns arrival. The sun came and rose like it does every day but sadly not from behind the palace, an arm’s length to the left of the palace actually. I was disappointed but also amused at myself. It was naive of me to think that the sun will rise from wherever I want it to rise. I should have put more thought into this photograph, oh well.
Sunrise over Jodhpur.
After shooting the morning colours for a short while, I went back to my hotel stopping briefly to have a cup of chai on a roadside cart. My final day in Jodhpur was upon me. Can’t say I was sad about it but there was one more thing left to do. Or should I say pilgrimage. You ask any passionate Enfield rider in India about a certain ‘Bullet Baba’ and I bet you a tenner he or she will narrate a short story about a not-so-ordinary temple close to Jodhpur. The Shrine of the ‘Bullet Baba’.
The Bullet Baba Temple.
Google it and you will find many a story about this particular temple of an Enfield a few kilometers before Pali on your way from Jodhpur. The temple is based on legend. Folklore in India is something that people swear by and if you’re ever here you will understand what I mean. It is said that in the summer of 1991 Mr Om, known locally as Om Banna (son of the local Thakur) was riding his 350cc Enfield bullet to Jodhpur. He was high on alcohol and hence lost control of his motorcycle, he ended up hitting a tree and breathed his last on the spot. Subsequently, his body was cremated and his motorcycle was taken to the local police station. The next day however, the motorcycle was seen at the accident spot.
The motorcycle and the fateful tree.
The police thought it was a prank of some sort and once again took the motorcycle back to the police station but sure enough the next day, it was back at the accident spot. As the local villagers got to know about these mysterious incidents, the legend of the ‘Bullet Baba’ was born. The locals enshrined the motorcycle on a plinth near the accident spot and now it is run as a full fledged temple of sorts. This motorcycle temple even has a priest who presides over the ceremonies. Drivers and villagers alike offer prayers and also hooch at this temple every single day.
It is also said that when any motorist has a breakdown on this stretch of the highway, Mr Om Banna comes to their rescue. Further they say, during the holy week of Navratri before the Hindu festival of Diwali, the motorcycle starts up on its own. Well, as they say, truth is definitely stranger than fiction. I don’t really believe in such stories if I’m honest but the sheer popularity of the Bullet Baba temple got to me. India and its stories are really amusing sometimes. With that I rode back to Jodhpur on my own 500 cc Bullet.
I spent the rest of the day tying loose ends, packing and just preparing. At the back of my mind though, I was concerned about the ill health of the motorcycle. Ajmer wasn’t all that close, it was 200 kilometers away. In the evening, I went to meet my Army friends. A refreshing evening it was with us all reminiscing about old times and talking about how far life has come. Good times.
Ajmer was the next biker destination! It was a city I knew little about. There was a little confusion in my mind because the Pushkar Fair was on and Pushkar was just 12 kilometers away from Ajmer. I wanted to see the Pushkar fair, yet I knew that I would have to choose between Ajmer and Pushkar. Deciding that I would leave the decision making for later, early next morning, I saddled up and left Jodhpur. Leaving Jodhpur was easy for me. The City had given me a cold shoulder, essentially. As I rode out, I wondered if I would ever come back.
Off to Ajmer!
Two hundred kilometers from Jodhpur lies Ajmer. I rode on the National Highway 112. I was now riding east, towards eastern Rajasthan. The sand was still present but the landscape had given way to proper shrubbery. I felt sad leaving the real desert behind. Now, the Marauder and I were heading towards the cities of Rajasthan. As I reached Ajmer, I had now completed the crossover from western Rajasthan to the eastern part. The afternoon heat was positively oppressive in Ajmer. The motorcycle was in a bad way, I could hear the piston slap loud and clear. I was worried that she would have to be transported back to Pune while I was in the middle of the trip. Having said that, I had made up my mind about one thing, I will not give up until she gives up on me.
If it so happened that I was riding from one place to another and she broke down, so be it. I would figure out a way to get us both to the nearest town and then put her on a truck. There was no way I would let my fear of a breakdown get in the way of our trip.
For more pictures from Jodhpur, Click here.
In this article:
Number of nights: Jodhpur – 5
Distance travelled: Jaisalmer – Jodhpur = 250 kms, Jodhpur – Bullet Baba Temple – Jodhpur = 130 kms. Total = 380 kms.
Motorcycle condition: Piston slap growing louder, engine showing signs of breaking down, occasional misfires.