In a very amusing Indian accent, the audio guide narrated to me story of early Indian astronomy. It began with an orientation for the tour and then proceeded in a conversational tone. The setting was such that it is a young girl asking questions about the monuments, and an elderly man answering them. A daughter and a father, I thought. Might be a teacher with a pet student. A father nourishing a daughter who aspires to be an astronaut or a teacher delighted with a curious student both are the healthiest of situations that could be chosen. I was impressed.
I was at Janthar Manthar, an astronomical observatory built by Raja Sawai Jai Singh in the 18th century. It is a reasonably large complex with quite a number of sun dials and other structures used to locate celestial objects. In the audio guide, the elderly man was delighted to hear the various questions posed by the young girl. He explained how sun dials worked, how azimuth of different stars were determined, how the entire night sky could be mapped by interposing a pair of hemispheres, how the staircases that ended nowhere were pointing to the different Zodiac constellations or the north star, as with the biggest of the staircases. She caught on very quick. The audio guide ended with a twenty minutes introduction to astronomy in ancient India.
A melodious Sanskrit hymn, which I could not understand, was played. And then the narrator quoted from the Vedas “Sarve dishanam Sooryaya Sooryaya Sooryaya” which was translated as how ancients realized that the stars were like the Sun and how numerous they were. Standing in the blazing Sun of Rajasthan, I wanted to quote the same albeit in a different context. It best described one’s affair with the Sun in Rajasthan.
Birla Institute of Technology and Science(BITS) Pilani’s oldest campus is located at Pilani, Rajasthan. Pilani, a small village, is a few kilo meters from nowhere. But it is the birth place of Shri GD Birla and hence it accommodates one of the earliest private owned national institutes in the country. We were there for a workshop on theoretical high energy physics sponsored by the SERB. On our first day, we were welcomed by the director of the institute who was beaming when he told us that one could not go out of BITS Pilani, since there was nothing outside.
He was more or less right. However, outside is a very big distance, area and volume. Most of us knew that it would be lame to visit Rajasthan and only see BITS Pilani. Our new friend Bala declared that he wouldn’t stay on the campus on a single weekend.
Mr B searched on the google maps for places to visit nearby and came up with the first suggestion, Churi. Churi was about 80 kms from Pilani. It had a fort and a few other interesting looking walls as per the google image search. We all liked the images that we saw. It was decided that at least five of us, would hire a cab and visit Churi on the first weekend of the workshop. We went around telling people that we would be visiting Churi. As for planning for the trip, we had succumbed to inertia.
A couple of days before travel, one of us(Arghya – Mr A) called up the driver who had picked us up from Delhi. A nominal rate of Rs 1500 was fixed and the driver then asked us where did we want to go in Churi. Mr A asked him how long would it take to visit interesting places in Churi. To our surprise, we were told that there wasn’t any place worth visiting in Churi. So much for us telling everyone that we were visting Churi!
In desperation, we asked him if there was any other place nearby that was worth visiting. He suggested that we could visit Mandawa which was nearby Churi and then possibly visit Fatehpur which was also nearby. We trusted the local’s wisdom more than google images and decided to visit Mandawa. However, we did not confirm him the tour details as we weren’t sure how many more would join us.
Finally, the night before our visit, it hit us that we should be booking the cab. However, on calling the driver, it turned out that there were a number of marriages happening on the next day, and hence all the cars were booked. Mr A didn’t give up. He pleaded to our driver that we did not know anyone else in the place, and we were free to roam only on Sundays. Somehow, with this craftsman like sugar coating, the driver’s heart seemed to melt. He called us back in a while that we could get a Swift Dzire, which could accommodate five of us. Thus, not out of meticulous planning and perfection, but after multiple instances of stupidity and several strokes of luck, we were setting out from BITS Pilani.
We were to leave at 8.30 am on Sunday and being the PhD students we are all of us woke up at around 8.30. We managed to finish breakfast fast enough and started for Mandawa. If we had gotten the worst car with a rude driver, we would deserve it. But our driver was an elderly gentleman, who would be one of the nicest people I have ever met. His face showed not just his age but also his maturity. We found out during the travel, that locals seemed to respond to his requests with utmost sincerity.
We reached Mandawa in about one and a half hour. On the way, we rode through what should be the narrowest road in India. It was a two way road with width of one four wheeler. As we entered this narrow road, we saw a car coming straight at us. It occurred to us that if we both followed the tarred road, we could have a nice head on collision. However, both our cab and the other car placed half their wheels on the mud part outside the road, and managed to smoothly escape each other. The road appeared to me as absurd as any incident in a Kafka’s novel. One could call it corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of planning etc but what lied in front of our eyes was certainly pure absurdity.
Mandawa is a small town or a large village, one could not say. It was a nagar panchayat. On arriving at the place, our driver parked the car in the center of the town and told us we could roam around the place. As soon as we got out, we found an old building besides the road, with beautiful paintings on its walls and intricate designs on its doors. It was not big enough to be a haveli, but perhaps it used to be one. After wondering why it wasn’t kept in a better condition, we went ahead to explore the town.
A board told us the directions to the local fort. On reaching the fort, we found out that it had turned out into a hotel. We were told that we could pay 200 Rs for breakfast and a sight seeing of the fort. As we had resolved not to have any tailor made experiences, we left it there and visited the temple besides the fort. It had colorful paintings on the walls depicting the story of Shri Krishna. It was here where we discovered for the first time a unique feature of Rajasthani buildings. While it was blazing Sun outside, inside the temple it was pleasantly cold. We found out, on walking through Mandawa that this was true wherever there was shade. It was only here that most of us had seen such a temperature difference between the Sun and the shade. Hence, most buildings were designed to let in ample Sun light without directly facing the Sun.
While still on the way to Mandawa, our driver had told us that we could see wells about 200-300 meters deep in these places. “200-300 feet” I had corrected him. However, as we were walking in the town, we saw a large complex which was perhaps used for bathing in the past and in the center was a well at least 300 meters deep, maybe a lot more. With difficulty, we could see where it ended. As we gaped at the structure, the very first scene of Alice in the wonderland was being played in my head.
Not just the fort, but a number of havelis had become commercial places, as time passed by. We found a few which still hosted its owners. In one of them we were told to pay a hundred rupees to see one room of the haveli. We didn’t. A few paces ahead, one haveli which was being renovated was open for us to see. The owner told us that we missed seeing Vidya Balan by only a couple of days, as she was there for an ad shoot. Needless to say, we all lamented.
It was one heritage walk in Madawa. Our experience was fulfilling and not tailor made. Thanks to our friend Amrutha(Ms A)’s observational powers, we found out plenty of interesting views that we would have otherwise missed. This combined with Mr B’s excellent intuition in navigation we traversed the town rather smoothly and without worries. We stopped at the main road for a chai and headed towards Fatehpur, with images of Mandawa still being played through our minds.
In less than an hour we were in Fatehpur, another small town with a similar number of havelis. We stopped at a haveli, which was beautiful with it’s marble walls but we were denied entry. The owners of the haveli were living somewhere outside and they had a person to look after the house. He was afraid to let any of us in, lest he lose his job. We let it be and set out to find other havelis. There was a haveli managed by a French culture center. We were told by a beautiful French lady to pay Rs 2000 per person. We moved ahead, content at having seen the outside.
By this point, I had gotten hungry and declared that the first thing we would do in Fatehpur was lunch and then we could visit whatever we wanted to. After my actively discouraging people who wanted to see some of the buildings that were on the way, everyone got the message. We traversed the length of Fatehpur, hoping to find a restaurant. We ended at the bus stand where we found a place which sells burgers, sandwiches etc. We ordered burgers whose taste exceeded our expectations. However, it was only consistent with out experience so far in Rajasthan. If you ask me to say one word on Rajasthan, I would say ‘delicious’. The land is blessed with the most excellent cooks.
During this lunch, we found out on Wikipedia, that there was the Sita Ram Kedia haveli nearby which allowed visitors at a reasonable cost. It was just a few paces away, we paid 20 Rs each as tickets and walked around the medium sized haveli. There wasn’t any other tourist there and the person in charge of the haveli spoke to us in the nicest way. On the roofs of the haveli, we took our only group photograph to mark the visit.
We returned from Fatehpur with content. We wanted now only to see a desert like region and head back to Pilani. In a cab with a Kannadiga, Two Malayalees one of who had grown up in Delhi, one Bengali and one Marathi, none of us remembered the Hindi word for desert. So much for Hindi contending to be our national language. We gave the driver a fifteen minute description of what a desert would look like. ‘Jaha pe khethi nahi hothi hai'(Where there is no farming), ‘Jaha pe paani nahi hootha'(Where there is no water), ‘Reth ka pahad hotha hai'(There would be hills on sand)… Our driver got the jest and on the way back took us to the only sand dune nearby. It was fulfilling to walk on a sand dune in Rajasthan, we took a few pictures and started back towards Pilani. When I narrated to do this incident to one of my friends, she pointed out that all we had to do is google translate the word ‘desert’ on our phones. We theoretical physicists have the tendency to complicate the simplest aspects of day to day life.
We stopped in between to have tea in an open chai place besides the highway. It looked almost filmsy. As the Sun started coloring the sky, we were all content of having seen Rajasthan in its originality. We were also grateful to have gone with a group of people who were not shopping crazy and not in for tailor made experiences.It seems Dhanya(Ms D), who was astoundingly quite during all this told Ms A that she loved the tour. It became established then that we all had a great time.
My exploration of Rajasthan didn’t end there as I had booked for a day’s visit to Jaipur on my way back from the workshop. “You’ll be looted there”, I was told. “No one would help you out”, “Janthar Manthar is not worth visiting as there is no proper information”, “Jaipur local busses are terrible” etc.. I was told. Also some useful information by people at the workshop who had visited Jaipur on the way to Pilani. This was to be a trip to be done alone so I was looking forward for it to be interesting. I have already told some bits of that tour in the beginning, I’ll save the rest for another post.
All the images are courtesy of P N Balasubramanian, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru