Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Golden Sunset

It is Christmas day today, but Rajasthan does not have the habit of celebrating it. During breakfast, I still saw friends from America and Britain wishing each other "Merry Christmas". I am not a Christian, so I did not join in.

Today's tour guide is a local leader who is the tourism ambassador for the area. We were honoured that he was receiving us. He is extremely familiar with the culture and history of the area, and proficient in Italian, French, English and many Indian dialects. Forty years of age this year, he is born in the year of the Goat (1967). Being a determined and persistent person by nature, he gave many valuable opinions on which camera angles to take. His knowledge and service was first class.

There were four places of interest to visit today. One is a man-made lake built in the 14th century. It is an ancient reservoir that resolved potable water supply issues for the area for a few centuries. Of course, it is dispensable now. The guide told us that this area had ever been water-deprived for a decade until a big flood filled up the lake in 2005.

One of the doorways leading to the lake was built by the painstaking effort of a prostitute. As the caste system was quite obvious then, prostitutes had no status. Often worried that the doorway would be removed, a temple was built over the doorway and it is still here today. The ancients refused to walk through the doorway as they felt it was akin to going under a prostitute’s crotch. Now, the crowds throng through it.

The second place of interest was an ancient fort. The fort appeared to only have one access point, which belied the fact that there were many underground tunnels that led to other areas. The Mongolian troops had attempted to seize the city several times by trapping the denizens within but all the attempts failed. In the end, the Mongols had no choice but to conquer the faraway lands of Turkey and Afghanistan.

The place used to be a spice-trading route in the past, and also served as the main route of travel to Middle East, sharing its fame with the Silk Road. Later on, the spices and silk trade switched to using sea routes and this route slowly faded into the background, until it transformed into today's tourism spot.

The ancient fort has quite a few temples and is segregated into business and housing districts. It is said that around 2 to 3 thousand families had housed within the area. The ancient fort is built on a hill, with the higher areas developed into a hotel district as the beauty of the area beckons. There are three doorways to the ancient fort, each one of them meandering in such a way that you could not see one from another. This also serves as a form of defence. There are many paintings, cloth, antiques and many other types of art works, but you must bargain your way through.

The third and fourth spots were all mansions of past affluent people. The first was the residence of the ex-Rajasthan prime minister, which was built by two brothers who were professional masons. The design looks symmetrical until you look at them closely. It took 4 years to complete and their descendants reside within to this day. The front of the mansion serves as a tourist centre while the back serves as living quarters.

Another attraction was a five-storey apartment that took thirty years to complete. Currently, this grand house is under the partial possession of the family that owns it while the other part is taken over by the government and used as a cultural exhibition centre. The centre is of significant historical value and is definitely worth visiting.

The last attraction is the mausoleum of the old royalty. Sikhism requires that its believers are cremated after death and their ashes scattered into the sea or rivers. It is the same for the king. The mausoleum is but a memorial. This attraction has always been a crematorium and a location for watching the sunset. It only opens at 4pm. We arrived at 1plus, so it was fortunate that the driver had his way of getting us in so that we could take pictures and walk around.

I did not see the sunset yesterday, and I pined to relive the experience of riding a camel, so I spent a thousand plus rupees to see Rajasthan’s bewitching sunset.

Some things have to be experienced for ourselves. Watching the sunset in the desert is like sending off your beloved kin in a sea of sand. On the way back we saw large armies of soldiers. I had a sense of déjà vu that something major was about to happen.

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