72 Hours in Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s Middle Child
Rajasthan – more tolerable than Gujarat, architecturally sound, hotter than Rihanna for the most part of the year, and occasionally an oasis of disappointment.
The first two weeks of December saw Delhi face its coldest winter in 22 years, a grossly inconvenient setting for someone with an immunity system weaker than the Iranian Rial. To resolve this discomfort coupled with an urge to begin the year out on the road, I followed a process of elimination across the country and settled on Jodhpur.
There is one category of travellers who hop onto a tour bus that takes them around all the attractions of a city, with lunch and evening tea included in their robust package. And then there are the penny pinchers. They’ll happily walk for endless miles with an aim to explore the streets by foot, an exhausting effort that camouflages attempts to save on transport cost with great precision. I fall in the second category. So when I walked for 20 minutes in a relentless 40-degree heat up to the Mehrangarh Fort, I anticipated great dividends. Scenes in The Dark Knight Rises had shown the fort rather beautifully, and I expected no less. There are two entrances to the fort, one with parking space, hawkers and a sunset point, and another that you need to stumble upon. I chanced upon the latter and walked up wide, hairpin-like steep slopes flanked by majestic cream-hued walls. There was no one else in sight, a treat one can seldom enjoy in India. I was soon going to be disabused of the notion that the fort was all mine that afternoon.
When the right to breathe freely and raise your arms without hitting someone in the eye is taken away from you, you know comfort has been compromised. And it’s certainly not a very welcoming setting in a museum with one-way paths. Don’t make the mistake of coming to the fort on a Sunday, or you’ll be forced to fast-read descriptions before a group of four push you aside because it’s their turn. The photos you’ll click will all be blurry because it’s impossible to capture a frame without being manhandled by the crowd. There was a time when there weren’t enough people to occupy the palace. Sadly, that time certainly feels like a myth on the weekends. Elsewhere, there are two cafes, a restaurant, and a couple of other beverage pop-ups within the fort. There’s even a CCD stall for crying out loud. Convenient, but ridiculous.
Visit the fort on a midweek morning to really admire the architecture and the vision of Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur. He initiated the construction in the 15th century, and his successors added to the edifice for the next 500 years, with Maharaja Ajit Singh adding the final touches in the 17th century. The gigantic walls go as high as 36 m and are 21 m wide, with peepholes and incisions intended for the convenience of archers and canons. Within the fort are impressive rooms and expansive corridors. Every inch of the interior is awash with a grand design. There’s a mini Sheesh Mahal as well. Jharokhas, chhatris, and courtyards with beautiful arched walls dot the palace. The museum offers great insight into erstwhile culture, traditions and lifestyle. It has a room each for palanquins, turbans, swords, and carpets. Fort officials are all dressed in white overalls and red turbans, making it easier for you to picture yourself in a setting where days of the week didn’t matter and warfare was all one could think of.
Out on the streets, the fort makes erratic appearances that must’ve made the subjects believe that Big Brother was indeed watching them. Its imposing God-like presence over the city was admirable, and it wowed me each time it peeped through cracks between houses or through a window. Okay, enough about the fort now.
The city can be split into 2—the walled city and the umm…unwalled city. The former is the Jodhpur of yore, where the royals and their subjects coexisted within the safe confines of its walls. Desi GoT, to be precise. It’s also where most of the hostels, budget hotels and cafes now stand. There are a few havelis turned into luxurious hotels, but the fancy new-age hotels are all outside the walled city. This means that it’s just low-budget backpackers who occupy the shoddy guest houses within the walled city and everybody else scoots back to their hotels, allowing the narrow streets to retain their authentic charm post 8.00 pm. The perfect window to admire the area is between 10.00 pm and 8.00 am. Aimlessly walking towards a randomly chosen point on Google Maps is the best way to enjoy the streets of the walled city. The famous blue houses of the city show up erratically, and the landscape never gets repetitive or boring. Open-air sewers flooded with water of unimaginable shades impose their presence every inch of the way, and I have no intention of burning any more brain cells describing them any further.
There’s a stepwell somewhere in the middle and it’s a lovely spot to hide from the unforgiving sun and chuckle at tourists taking selfies with a wall. To explore the markets of the city, Sardar Market is a good place to start. There wasn’t much that caught my attention, but watching people go about their business, shopping for daily essentials and haggle over bedsheets was an enjoyable activity.
As much as I loved the culture, architecture and heritage of the city, it’s the food where it all went south. Rajasthan is decently well known for its cuisine, lal mass, dal batti et al. But there looms a gastronomic disaster all through the walled city that someone needs to fix. Local diners are few and far between. Cafes that you’d avoid on most days back home are that you’ll find. They sell solely on the basis of their rooftop view, something you can enjoy from the comfort of your accommodation. And there’s no shortage of small shops selling sugar disguised as tea and an abundance of deep-fried snacks it’s best to steer clear of. The walled city is a compact ecosystem where eating out isn’t really a thing. It’s a well-orchestrated shitshow for anyone with an appetite. All the good places to eat are beyond the wall, some outstanding and others, pure vegetarian.
Jodhpur then does a turnaround with the design marvel, Jaswant Thada. A slow walk up leads to this cenotaph built by Sardar Singh in the memory of his pops, Jaswant Singh the second. It’s a standalone edifice, with endless forest area on three sides and a lovely view of the cityscape on the fourth. The only thing that takes away from its familial show of respect is a modern-age cafe right at the entrance. Sardar Singh would’ve never been okay with this.
Peek through the Mehrangarh Fort’s holed walls and you’ll see a palace far in the distance. Umaid Bhawan Palace is one of the largest private residences in the world (it has two swimming pools). The architecture, estate, museum and interiors make for a quick visit. Stay any longer and you may be forced into booking one of the rooms, which range between INR 50,000 and 5,00,000.
I rushed from Jodhpur sooner than I had anticipated. The plan had been to enter 2020 in Jodhpur, but where the food was underwhelming and it was extremely hot for the most part of the day, I chose to run away to the more inviting Udaipur. Would I go back to Jodhpur? Yes. A walk through the walled city’s streets before sunrise, a visit to the Mehrangarh Fort on a Wednesday morning, and a luxurious engagement amidst Umaid Bhawan’s opulence – life will never have meaning if I don’t do justice to these demands.