Friday, May 01, 2009

A meandering soul

Recently, I traveled to Rajasthan on a wedding where I was part of the few special guests invited for the same. We traveled by the Ranakpur Express to Rani in Jodhpur. The journey was a good 15 hours, starting at 3pm we reached the next day at 6am.

The entire train had the baarat spread over many compartments including ours. Although invitees, they took care of us royally, when we were hungry food came, tea was served promptly and dinner was packed in foil boxes and was served hot. Watching the stations go by is my favorite hobby, reading names, linking them to history or any historical fact is one weird habit that helps me to keep awake and interested in the journey that is to come ahead.

In fact, truth be told, I am not much of wedding goer and yet the nuances, the planning, the customs and smallest details that have to be taken care of is very fascinating for me. I enjoy studying them, the way people react, their expressions during the entire process, the way they are dressed, what is being said and done, how many people get served well, who are ignored – sorry have quite a bit of an eye for these details.

After getting of at Rani, we were all loaded into jeeps, and vans and taken to my uncle’s friend’s ancestral home in Khimal. Through the road that has been privately built by Kishore Khemvat, the road is shaded with green neem trees on both sides for the entire journey. Rani is also famous for the best girl’s public school here called Marudhar Mahila Vidya Sangh – a hostel cum school.

Khimal is equidistance between Jodhpur and Udaipur. As is the case with many villages and small towns here in Rajasthan, they lie empty for the entire year except during festivals and marriage ceremonies. Empty beautiful homes stand quietly waiting for their owners to come and occupy them, I felt sad, I loved these homes, with umpteen parrots calling out in unison hanging from the balconies, wires, and water and food stands placed outside. The jeeps quietly swished on the road covered in sand and rolled to stop close to the homes that were decorated with torans, streamers and wedding tents. Hot tea waited for all those who alighted from the vehicles, as we sipped at the hot tea in the cold morning, everything felt calm and beautiful. My love for Rajasthan increased three fold that day.

We waited our turn to be greeted in the traditional manner, there were women dressed in tradition ghagra choli, singing and greeting the wedding guests and visitors to their home. As we entered they sand even more loudly and the eldest bahu applied the tilak on our forehead and fed us gud-jaggery and ghee-clarified butter, the shagun for wedding guests that all guests will bring good luck to the home and the couple to be married.

We stepped in and sat enjoying the small ceremonies taking place, the dholi-drummer walked in and started drumming, for the dulha-groom had been traveling with us – this was his ancestral home. We would be traveling to the girl’s village Kishanpur, some kilometers away from Khimal but a part of Rani.

After the shagun, we all went to the rooms provided for us, showered, changed and were immediately invited for breakfast. Me, as usual till the jeep could arrive chose to stroll out and visit the ancient temples located close by. Here were some rare old temples. One belonged to Dedadevi (I think) that was closed but also around 200 years old with the swambhu image covered with cloth from behind and a lion sitting on its paws outside with an eternal jyoti-lamp burning in the coutyard; there was a Hanuman temple close by and a very very old Krishna temple. In the open courtyard was another small hanuman temple under a tree.

The Krishna temple seemed over 800 years old. It had a huge fort like doorway with place to sit close to the entrance, the entrance was barred with a stone barrier just two feet high with a small stepping stone provided and one had to climb atop it to get into the temple premise. Inside was a courtyard with small rooms to each side but their roof had caved in – these rooms were used by pilgrims during festivals and straight ahead was the temple. The main temple was a small square room with space enough to walk around it and a huge brass bell hanging to one side. The temple, the only one of its kind, had huge tulsi trees on both sides of the center temple, and is said to have been planted by the last ruler of Khimal aided by the Mehtas of the region.

Close by is a beautiful stepped well also built by the Mehtas, the business family according to many and according to others these were the last of the Chauhans rulers who changed their profession to survive and they took on the name of Mehtas and have built their samadhi here. There are three chhattris here for four generation of Mehtas.

This entire region Rani, Khimal, Pali, had once been under the domain of the Chauhan rulers. The well is huge with water below, it is still a very cool place and regarded as the abode of the Mataji, whose temple is located close. Climb the limestone flight of stairs and the flat upper side deceives the visitor for then you climb down a flight of stairs and come up to a door cut in the limestone walls. Beautifully made, simple and yet elegant. Few design works at the edges will remind you of the elaborate work done on the vavs in Gujarat. The well is quite deep and yet holds water, which is filled with coconuts and flowers at the moment and the water, is not drinkable. I found some beautiful peacock feathers just lying around and picked them as souvenirs for myself.

By the time we came out, our jeep was waiting for us to take us to take us for brunch, which included tea, farsan, khaman, upma and mithai. The initial wedding ceremonies were underway- a small havan was being performed by the boy’s father’s brother and wife. They were dressed in traditional marriage clothes with shehra (flowers bedecking the man’s forehead) and goonghat (sari covering the face of the woman). After the havan the boy was brought out and the haldi ceremony was performed.

This is one interesting ceremony when the boy is given a chance to decamp from the wedding to take up sanyas or to get married happily. He is dressed in all white and is offering prayers till they stop and all apply haldi too him. All the aove is diligently clicked by the official photographer, he does not take a chance and choses not to miss any individual or person at the ceremony, for it could lead to heated arguments later. By the time they finish he has packed a small potla with clothes and food on a stick and is ready to run. As the application of the haldi ceremony gets over, he gets up quietly to make a run for it and everyone goads him, challenging him till he picks up the potla on a stick and runs to the nearest temple. Usually the dulha’s uncle brings him back, all ready for the wedding, dressed in the finest sherwani and bejeweled pagdi. They would also apply mehndi to the groom after a little while. The major ceremony for the day was over.

He is brought back home an hour later; the search party usually leaves following him after 30 minutes, with all pomp and ceremony. It had been a fun filled afternoon. We then went for lunch which included Rajsthani fare – dal, bati and churma, papad, puri, rice, bhindi, chutney, all made in ghee. The groom joined us for lunch.

I avoid wedding foods and yet this time around – all the four days I was here I never suffered from heartburn which I often get in Mumbai even after a small and light meal. According to the hosts it is due to the clean water and clean air that one finds it easy to digest food. But to allay our fears we walked back to our rooms located outside the Jain temple upashray-resthouse across the dry river bed. It was fun, we walked half kilometer on the riverbed imaging what it would be like when it was full and filled with water, how deep and cool it must be. It was a lasting impression, the dry river left in my mind. Dinner was equally good and had different dishes, on all the four days and the three meals the menu was never repeated even once, except for tea and coffee.

Everyday was a fantastic experience in having Rajsthani cuisine, no food item was repeated – khakra with ghee, moong dal sheera …yummm!, bajri roti and lassoon chutney, dal and hard bread made from various grains which is crushed and eaten as a meal, wow, they certainly have very creative food stuff here. Yes I can well imagine with few varieties available, making use of what was available locally the women created beautiful and mouth licking food for their children and their husbands.

We slept peacefully that night, having the habit of getting up early and doing surya namaskar is something I can never give up. I was up t daybreak and took in the cold morning, the quiet surroundings, beautiful temples and green trees and bushes all around. It was a quiet morning, which is a rare sight for mumbaiites. It is to be felt and seen for something like this to be known.

I stayed outside in the balcony taking in the atmosphere, watching the suns rays hit the ground, and brighten up everything around. Yes, I loved it here, and I could live here forever, few people around, fewer problems around, I could give up everyone and everything to be here in this land.

I could well imagine why the Rajputs loved their land so fiercely. It is a different world altogether, beautiful and harsh, fierce and yet kind. Unrelenting, it can kill just as easily as well as save him. They have loved it and defended it and yet the glory remains shut from outside world, few come to their ancestral homes now. They have moved on to big cities and more money. Many have forgotten the charm and beauty of this place.

The glory of Rajasthan can be seen and felt in the smallest details – the doorway of a home, or the temple built besides it or the heart warming ceremonies during and after a wedding. During the time we had to ourselves we visited the famous Ranakpur temple (that’s another story) and the Sai Baba temple in Khimal and also shopped for traditional Rajasthani jutis, we bought close to a dozen of them.

The next day was equally exiting for everyone knew that was the wedding day and the scheduled wedding time – 2am after midnight!!! We would take the baarat out only after four in afternoon and take along the wedding dress of the bride too. The fun part there were to be two weddings that night – both sisters were getting married on the same day and same time to two distant cousins.

Oh! Man that would be a sight, a wedding in the middle of the night, never heard of it but the mahurat was for that time and they were going to follow it to the T. We dressed casually for the journey which was around 45 minutes to village Kishanpur. We traveled through small towns and through the hills. We halted at a school that was taken over by the baraati’s for the evening and the night.

We waited for the milni to take place; the women o the bride’s household would come to greet the women of the groom’s family. But the interesting part, there was going to no normal garland exchange etc., but they would lambast each other with bad words, choicest words and brickbats before hugging each other. A tradition from ancient times, the women screamed on top of their lungs, singing, laughing and pulling each others legs. They went back home just as abruptly as they had come. Now the men of the family would take the baraat – the groom into the village of the girl. Only the men, the women would go there later to witness the events. They also took the wedding dresses of the brides and the jewelry that they would wear for the main wedding ceremony.

Kishanpur was a Chauhan thikana and the thakur was a Chauhan too. A strict ruler, the groom could not enter the village until the mahurat time and would sit in the village chaupal – office, under the tree until then. On enquiring I was informed an incident in the past had led to this rule so that no bad luck could befall this village.

The thakurs would see everything but we never caught a glimpse of either him or the ladies of the house. According to the groom’s sister, her in-laws lived here, were very strict rulers and nothing new could happen without their consent or knowledge – weddings, building a new home, traveling outside, leaving the village etc.

I was completely intrigued; I saw the palace in the middle of the night and their family mataji temple close by where no one except their family prayed. I felt as if I had walked back in time and the only thing missing were armed guards on the doorway dressed traditionally, torch lamp lighted streets ands horses neighing in the stable and the soft steps of people going home quietly in the night.

The house – palace was square by the looks of it but was completely fortified. High walls all around so no one could look in, small windows so that people from within could look out but would not be detected. It looked huge with many rooms, and a central courtyard, with the main room close by holding the portraits of their ancestors.

The doorway was so huge that if opened completely an elephant could walk through, built with wood in the old fort gates style, it had studs all over o stop an elephant barging the door open, and a smaller chor darwaza-door, which is opened by the gatekeeper when required.

The groom’s sister on seeing me very much interested promised me that if I make a plan to come again she will try and get more information on the thakurs and try for an appointment with the lady of the house. Oh, yes I would love that. And made a plan to return soon, but the plan fell through as I did not have the time to go back, but someday I will go back.

We were given a small bungalow to ourselves to change and rest till mahurat time. But me I was all hyper and could not sleep, my imagination was moving in leaps and bounds and my cousin suddenly felt a creepy sensation and thought she saw a pair of red eyes glaring at her from the empty bungalow balcony. She got up and started to cry and although tired now we called our host to take us back to the school. We changed our clothes and left the bungalow.

We waited at the school till it was close to the baraat time, we walked ahead and reached the groom’s sister’s home and sat on the huge verandah. The baraat was lighted up, the women and danced and then came the star of the show – the dancing horses. They set up a small stage on which the horses would dance, with the grooms sitting and holding on tight to maintain their balance. The horses danced and their anklets tinkled to the music for around 30 minutes by this time one groom looked completely stiff and the other scared out of his wits. At the end of the ceremony the milni ceremony took place where the bride and grooms family meet and pour over each other haldi or yellow dye to signify the good shagun.

We went back in and waited for our host would call us when the wedding began. Till that time, there was chaos in the bride’s home, lots of people, small place, etc.

The weddings in Rajasthan always take place within the home. A small havan is place in the area designated usually each home has a huge ventilation system built through all the floors so that during weddings the smoke can easily pass out – but they say that this signifies that the house is not single, it is married (marriages have taken place or will take place there), and is considered lucky.

The chaur-were wooden bed posts that was set up close to the havan kund on which sat the bride and the groom to be married. I have to yet find out what it signifies. By the time the wedding mahurat arrived they had been sitting there for over two hours and had leg cramps and could barely move when it came to the pheras. The bride had to be held and helped to move around the kund. They also take four pheras with the priest reciting the mantras.

Immediately after the wedding we took a jeep and went back to Khimal as we had to reach Ahmedabad the next day. We did not see the baraat leave with the bride the next day afternoon nor how the bride was greeted at her in laws place, you can catch a glimpse of this a little in the movie Jodha Akbar. I have a hobby I usually read up extensively about the place and ceremonies I am going to and end up knowing much more than those involved.

Well, that was the wedding, but Kishanpur left a mark in my mind I will never forget, and someday I will go back. On reaching Khimal, we hurriedly changed and packed our belongings got in the car again and went to Falna, where my uncle had some business to tend to. We rested that night in his friend’s place and the next morning at seven we caught a cab to Udaipur. (The journey between Falna and Udaipur is another story altogether.) We did not have enough time to sightsee as my cousin fell sick and had to be taken to a doctor and we also had to catch a bus to Ahmedabad.

The entire journey I sat alone next to a window wide awake watching the places to by. My uncle and cousin slept through the entire journey. Tired and yet not tired, I felt cramped and uneasy in the crowded bus. People got on and were dropped along the entire route. The route that was touted to be just five hours took us over 12 and we reached Ahmedabad at nine pm. From there we would catch an onward bus for where we wanted to reach – our destination.

On reaching home, we slept like logs. But this trip left a fantastic memory for me.

Yes, I am going back someday but purely to visit all the places again.

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