Jodhpur is either lush and verdant and green, or is part of the harsh, blinding desert. It all depends on your perspective. If you are coming from, say, Udaipur, then Jodhpur is shockingly bleak and harsh, and its pink-tinged sandstone fort looks like an outcrop of the stony desert. If, on the other hand you have arrived from the blindingly yellow sands of Jaisalmer, then Jodhpur’s sandstone seems like the colour of old rose and the dusty keekar bushes appear like lush forests from another planet.
I have arrived in Jodhpur from both places and been instantly co-opted to Rajasthan’s famously colour-coded cities. Jaipur is the Pink City, Jaisalmer the Golden City, Udaipur the dazzling White City and Jodhpur – well, here’s the snag. Because of the colour of its sandstone, it was a natural pink city, but that honour has been appropriated by state capital Jaipur, so an alternative colour had to be found. Houses belonging to the Brahmin community have traditionally been painted with a light blue wash, partly as a mark of identification and partly to deflect the rays of the sun and keep out mosquitoes. Hence, Jodhpur has come to be known as the Blue City.
“There are five things to see in Jodhpur,” said Mahesh Karan Singh of Pal, “and they can all be seen from my haveli.” Pal Haveli does indeed have an ideal location. In the shadow of the Mehrangarh Fort, it is part of the walled city with its myriad walks. It overlooks the only tank in Jodhpur, Gulab Sagar, on one side, the landmark Ghantaghar on the other, the distinctive outline of Jaswant Thada – a marble cenotaph – is not far, and in the distance shimmers the Umaid Bhavan Palace in the desert haze. If you are either a complete sybarite, or are allergic to sightseeing, try ascending the astonishingly high steps of the haveli, right up to the uppermost terrace, nurse a glass of something chilled and survey the sights. You would have seen all of Jodhpur and if you timed your arrival appropriately, would have been served the best meal in almost any heritage hotel in Rajasthan.
Pal Haveli – itself a landmark for being the only yellow building in the Blue City – is the only Rajput haveli actually inside the walled city. According to young Mahesh, all the other Rajput families sold their properties, to move out into the less crowded environs of the newer parts of Jodhpur. Indeed, the heritage hotel I stayed at, Polo Heritage was an Art Deco building of the 1930s, set in spacious lawns. Quiet with well-proportioned rooms, it was a private house to which not much had been done to turn it into a heritage hotel. If it didn’t have the ethnic ripeness of an old city haveli, at least it assured you a peaceful night’s sleep, away from all-night bhajans of old city temples.
Pal Haveli’s versions of Lal Maas and Safed Maas were delectable: melt-in-the-mouth, with the distinctive flavours of the spices coming through. It reminded me of the meal I had at a Rajput friend’s home in Delhi, where Lal Maas was poured over a couple of rotis on my plate. There too, the fragrance and intensity of the spices added quite another dimension to the dish. My friend told me that she always insists on obtaining cumin and coriander seeds from Western Rajasthan, because any spice grown in the desert has intensity. Mahesh and his father, Thakur Bhawani Singh actually grow coriander at their agricultural land at Pal, but owing to severe drought conditions at the time of the last sowing season, coriander had to be left out.
Let me say it loud and clear. Jodhpur is a shopper’s nightmare. Jaipur has loads of puppets, fashionable silver jewellery and block-printed fabrics to tempt the shopper. Over time, locals have used handicrafts to make contemporary lifestyle products. At Badi Chaupad, the famous square, village women come to buy long veils in blazing colours, importers from overseas check on how their consignments of cut and polished semi-precious stones are getting along, Jaipur’s residents do their wedding shopping and goggle-eyed tourists haggle for mirror-work bolster covers.
Udaipur too has its rows of painting and pichwai shops cum ateliers. Just wandering around in them, discussing schools of Rajasthani miniatures with the artists and browsing through paintings of court scenes is an interesting way of spending a day. Even in far smaller Jaisalmer, the fort has enterprising handicrafts dealers who make sure they keep a funky assortment of embroideries from not-too-far-off Barmer, enameled door-knobs and camel leather water-bottle holders.
Forget anything like that happening in Jodhpur. Shopping is a far more cheerless affair where taxi drivers have a vested interest in taking customers to large showrooms lined unimaginatively with wooden figures in boring rows. I peeked into a couple of them, but after being shown artificial silk bedspreads in what they fondly imagined to be monochromatic colourways, a certain listlessness struck me, so off I went to the fort.
I’m not even going to think of which is Rajasthan’s finest fort. Udaipur’s fort looks pretty in a picture postcard sort of way from any angle in town; Jaisalmer’s golden yellow fort dominates the (golden yellow) landscape for miles, without the softening effect of so much as a bush, shrub or even a rock. Jaipur’s trio of Amer, Jaigarh and Nahargarh look like a fairy-tale landscape. However, there is something ineffably poetic about Mehrangarh. Maybe it is the roseate hue of the stone out of which it is made; maybe it is the way it appears to grow like a rock flower out of the hill atop which it is. Or perhaps, it has something to do with the whimsically soft architecture and feminine fluted curves that hide a core of masculine steel.
You can wander around the fort and lose yourself for several hours. One part has been maintained like a tasteful museum, with palanquins, weaponry and paintings from the Marwar school of miniatures. Other areas in the fort are wind-swept terraces, intimate courtyards or even secluded gardens.
Fortified with the knowledge that Marwar did have its own wealth of handicrafts – the swords and scabbards at the museum had sophisticated inlay work on them – I scoured the city in search of something, even just a single handicraft that could be an echo of all I saw at the fort. The new part of the city just did not have the tapestry of colour of Rajasthan’s other cities. The walled city, particularly in the area around Ghanta Ghar, the distinctive clock tower, did have a market – for plastic bangles and kitchen implements. There were no block printed fabrics, no URMUL rugs (though the NGO operates very close to Jodhpur), no camel straps in off-white and dark brown, no silver jewellery, no Marwar miniatures and no swords with or without inlay work.
However, I did come back loaded. With photographs.