The Scented Rooftops
Sound and longing in the deserts of Rajasthan
Delhi to Jaisalmer
18th February, 2004
Every day in India begins and ends in music.
As the sun rises over the Thar desert to greet the sandstone cities of Rajasthan, the sounds have already begun. The muzzein calls the faithful
to give praise to Allah in a low, haunting song; the hindu temple bells ring out, a powerful, insistent chorus, waking the Lord Shiva to bless and protect the day. Everywhere, people pray. Everywhere, the hundred religions cry out and mingle with the howls of stray dogs and the rush of commerce as another Indian day begins.
Beyond the Hand Sanitiser
Our Intrepid trip had begun. The Intrepid Travel idea is to retain all the independence and adventure of backpacking, but taking care of time-wasting irritations such as room bookings and transport. As both these in India consist of six screaming taxi touts fighting for your bag at once in order to take you for the wrong hotel and charge you quadruple for the privilege, I highly recommend the Intrepid solution.
Our group of ten were the usual mixed bag of nuts, ten different souls on the way to or from somewhere else but brought together for three weeks by the shared uncertainty of where to go in India, what to do in case we arrived, and whether it was safe to eat the yogurt with or without banana, or at all.
We started a book on who would get the explosive diahorrea. To win you someone had to see you actually rise from your seat.
The tour leader who would do all our bookings, hire all our rickshaws, demonstrate how to eat the yogurts and answer questions such as "How do you ask for sugar?" (Ans: Can I have some sugar, please) was a firm-minded young woman called Jenny. Jenny was beautiful, cheerful and kind, and able to fight ten times her weight in taxi touts. We all followed her around like love-sick puppies. When she would eat a banana lassi, a samosa from a road side stall or a fresh squeezed fruit juice, we would line up behind her, take a deep breath, and follow suit.
I won the bet.
The Havelis of Nawalgarh
So, after a seven hour sleeper train, we rolled into our first desert towns, Nawalgarh and Manadawa.
Delhi was already a forgotten world. The sun rose soft and golden over a crisp, cool morning as the old spice route towns slowly came alive. Women in the bright red saris washed clothes while men sat in the market, boiling pots of chai, or deep-frying spicy samosas. In the vegetable market, farmers sat patiently on the road surrounded by neat piles of fruit, onions or carrots. Everyone was cheerful; everyone was gentle in their manners; no voice was ever raised in anger.
Everyone was excited to see us. All the adults paused in their work to smile and wave,
all the children ran after us, excited and laughing. No matter how many white people they ever, saw,
nothing, but nothing, could be more exciting than seeing another. We look so funny! We act all wrong! We scractch our bottoms
with the wrong hand!
They all knew the same English phrases:
"What your country??!" (No matter what you say, they always then exclaim, "Australia! Very good cricket!!", India having recntly beaten them.)
Finally, "Pen, please!!" A person's worth appeared to be measured in terms of pens. It's a very literary society.
We visited the old havelis - highly decorated old merchant houses painted with scenes capturing the life
of far away places - Mughal armies on the march, fat Europeans with no trousers sipping tea,
fanciful flying machines the artists had never seen.
Rooftops of Rajasthan
The Intrepid idea of transport is to allow us to travel as the locals do, not within the insulated cocoon of a
private coach, but in public buses, jeeps, rickshaws, mixing ourselves into Indian life as much as we could.
But the Intrepid idea of accommodation was a palace. Having visited
the merchant havelis of Nawalgarh, each an opulent reminders of a vanished age, we discovered that we were to spend two nights staying in one.
Our refurbished haveli in Mandawawas like scene from the arabian nights, every wall covered with bright colours,
wood brassier in the courtyard and a rooftop restaurant to savour our Indian food and watch the sun setting on our
first night in Rajasthan.
So in Mandawa, in Bikaner, in Jaisalmer: another morning roughing it on a local bus, another night in a palace.
Clean, cool air blew through golden cupolas, disturbing fragant curtains; quiet voiced waiters served meals by on rooftops, cities glowed golden at our feet by night. Often fireworks, often wedding processions, serious yet happy lines of electric lights, men, women dancing, the groom on a decorated horse.
I Sing, The Camel Farts
We moved slowly through the desert. Cool, dry air under a bright sun. Flocks of sheep herded beneath the kedgeree tree, the sole support of all life in the Thar. Every so often a flash of colour as women clad in burning orange wandered past with bundles of dried dung, perfect fuel on their heads.
Between my legs, the camel grumbled again, took a few more steps and, once more, broke wind.
When a male camel is in heat, he becomes restive, slobbery, and complains continually. I felt an immediate kinship with him.
The two of us moved together towards the campsite at our leisure, communing as adults. Lovelorn and flatulent, we were as one.
sets quickly in the desert. The night comes fast, the stars carpetting the darkness
like a thousand neighbouring campfires.
We sang to the stars and told stories that night over our own dinner fire. This became a full and frank exchange of cultural
identities and then a deadly competition as we decadent western tourists fought it out with our camel guides to come up with
They sang an ancient Hindi working song on the importance of wood.
We sange three verses of "House of the Rising Sun".
They sang a love song in thirty three verses.
Janice and Jordan led us through the first verses from the three Simon and Garfunkel tunes we all knew.
They sang a medley of hits from Bollywood movies.
We sang the first verses from the three country and western classics we all knew.
It was looking bad for us.
They called in their oldest member who knew songs with ninety verses while I held them
off with "The Fields of Athenry". Then, on a sudden inspiration, we suddenly embarked on the Beatles Greatest Hits, which everyone
in the whole world knows. Everyone joined in. Honour was satisfied.
As we lay under the stars stray dogs came to fight over scraps. I pulled my blanket over my head and dreamt
The camel grouched at me again the next day. Two old timers, we set off into the dawn together.
The Golden Fortress
Jaisalmer castle rises stark and alone on a crag in in the western desert, an ancient bastion of rajput defiance.
The narrow streets wind full of tiny shops and markets as they have done for a thousand years.
The cows mooch, the children run wild, the shopkeepers eye you shrewdly before making their bids. The sultry scent of India hums in the yellow dust that hangs over the plain. We gathered on the battlements where Rajput women once cremated themselves alive rather than risk defilement. We
took off our shoes and settled on the sofas of the tower to watch the sunset. We talked and laughed, looking down towards our palace-hotel.
We were here. We could not believe that we deserved to be here. But we were here.
The Longing Sound
Every day in India begins and ends in music. The sun sinks over the far yellow haze above the sands of
Rajasthan as the muzzein calls to the faithful from his minaret, a low, haunting wail.
The muslim chant flows in counter-point to the bells of the hindu temples,
discordant, harmonic, longing bells, that carry far over the city and draw
me to them. The people have invoked their gods to give thanks.
God has been good to us this day
God be good to us, tomorrow