Last days of the Raj – 04/04/2010

Kuchaman Fort

Dawn broke on yet another amazing day in India. We awoke in our opulent room at the very top of Kuchaman Fort and opened the small wooden shutters to reveal the world below. A world of smells and noises rising up the steep rocky crags adorning the hill on top of which we were perched. The heat wafted in through the windows as if standing behind a coach exhaust in a crowded bus station. The candle which had been our saviour throughout the blackouts of the night previously had now whittled its way down to nothing more than a small waxy stub.

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We rose, shook the cobwebs out of our bodies then showered and made our way down the winding steeply cobbled path to breakfast. Today would find us making our way down from our lofty heights to the dusty town below where the sands of the desert did their best to invade and encroach on all things man-made.

After an unhealthy breakfast that the local flies probably enjoyed much more than ourselves we lethargically made our way down to the shimmering town far below us. The more intelligent amongst our team plumped for the much faster Jeep trip down (however frightening) as this was still infinitely more favourable than the unintelligent option of walking down the steep twisting potholed elephant path in the rapidly soaring and by now intense heat of the new waking day.

Paul and I slowly laboured down the steep track alone, sweaty and flustered, we constantly dove out-of-the-way of a steady procession of jeeps which whisked past us relaying people to the bottom, and the not inconsiderable cool shade of the gatehouse way below. Fifteen minutes later than the rest, and sweating ever more profusely Paul and I arrived in time, just in time in fact to carry on walking into the town (without any respite).

The town signs need some explaining though!

Kuchaman has a population of 50,566 when last recorded, rather an exact figure showing the Indian love of numbers and admin accuracy. It is a famous town of the Nagaur District within Rajasthan. It’s also situated on the Jaipur – Nagaur trade route. It’s 145 kilometers from Jaipur and 101 kilometers from Ajmer respectively. The main business of the town appeared to be salt processing as well as all the usual kinds of trade that you find in any given third world town or city.

street sellers in the maze of streets in Kuchaman

An old man in the market selling his wares

We wandered around the narrow streets and alleyways of Kuchaman dodging from side to side to avoid the usual bullocks and pigs that lined the route. We were met with nothing but smiling faces from the people whose lives we were so rudely intruding upon. Snotty street kids followed us closely all desperately wanting to see their photos on the LED screens of our cameras once their photos had been taken. Old women waved feverishly from their doorsteps while our ensemble passed on by and we peered ever more curiously into their most intimate of places, namely (their homes).

Local kids that followed us around the streets.

The city includes a few Havelis in the Shekhawati style unique to this area, the region has been recognised as the “open art gallery of Rajasthan” having the largest concentration of frescos in the world. These beautiful but now unfortunately run down buildings were dotted throughout the town.

The warren of alleyways that make up Kuchaman market.

With an air of inevitability we found ourselves oscillating towards the market area in the centre of town. Here we walked first hand amongst the hustle and bustle of everyday rural Indian life. Although we were obviously the only westerners for miles around we were neither hassled nor stared upon, and were left to go about our business the same as anyone else. All of life could be seen within this relatively small area of town crammed into the small maze of streets and alleyways that did their best to confuse the traveller from afar.

After an all too brief period of time to soak it all in we all congregated back at the main thoroughfare (the bus and Tut-Tut station). In the very next instance we piled into the awaiting tut-tuts and sped off in clouds of thick suffocating dust out of the village and out towards the barren salt flats that surround in the outlying countryside.

The ride was the usual fare served up by a Tut-Tut ride i.e: several near scrapes with death, some amazing death-defying manoeuvering, and plenty of time spent at speed on the wrong side of the road dodging oncoming traffic.

various mode of transport in Kuchaman

They say that any Tut-Tut ride that you can walk away from is a good one!

After several two-wheeled corners had been taken at great speed we eventually arrived at our final destination, the salt plains of Kuchaman.

As soon as we were stationary the heat intensified dramatically and very British sun hats became the order of the day. To add to our embarrassment we then bore witness to the amazing sight of two young girls slaving away under the hot sun, shovelling tons of salt onto blankets which were then tied up and placed upon their heads, and then carried to the other side of the salt fields and dumped into another pile, which again was presumably shovelled up and moved to somewhere else. The grace and fortitude shown by these young ladies in such extreme and harsh conditions put our closeted western jobs into full perspective, we watched in equal parts of both wonder and shame.

Two girls working on the desolate burning salt plains.

After some time marvelling at these young ladies and the tasks they performed so stoically we walked back to the gang of Tut-Tuts awaiting us, and then took the equally bumpy and death-defying ride back into town.

Hot and beginning to wilt in the intense sunshine that now bore down upon us we retreated to the cooler climes of the hilltop fort with as much pace as could be summoned with the realisation close at hand that English bodies are definitely not made for such hot and tropical climes.

The sensible jeep option was taken back up the ever-present elephant path and a cold beer was picked up on the way past the restaurant to our waiting rooms. In the afternoon we sat on the rooftops of our aforementioned bedrooms and reflected on the many sights and sounds and smells and chaos we had seen during our brief foray below and explored the usual ever-present topic of the day – the heat!

After a brief respite we were treated to a special tour of the usually inaccessible royal chambers of the fort. Kuchaman fort houses the famous Sheesh Mahal (Glass Palace), which is a sight to behold, words on a screen cannot ever do it justice. In the courtyard of the Mahal a chess board is carved into the floor on which the kings of a bye-gone age once played chess, the pieces being beautiful women from the surrounding harems. Doors were opened and padlocks unlocked whereupon eventually we wound up at the most prized of all rooms, (the harem anti-chamber), a small room adorned with hand painted fresco’s of the Kama Sutra. By now being ever so hot and – not a little flustered – and with our private tour finished we crept back to the confines of our appointed rooms to dwell over the sights we had just witnessed.

One of the many Kama Sutra fresco's from the intimate harem at Kuchaman fort.

Personally I spent the remainder of the day exploring the nether regions of this massive and exciting crumbling fort perched precariously1000 feet up on a barren hilltop above the parched desert below. With camera in hand I clambered over rooftops and ventured down cool shady passageways not knowing where I would eventually emerge, looking for that ever elusive defining shot of an Indian Palace/Fort of Rajasthan.

Dinner that evening was served at 8pm on one of the forts many vast verandas, and for the first time it dawned on us that tomorrow would be the start of our long and arduous journey back to England. A journey – that at the time we did not know – would entail yet more shocks and experiences and all that India could throw at us condensed into one long and tiring day before it would let us leave for England.

With the thought of the long journey in mind we went to our rooms incredibly early and incredibly tried to get some much needed sleep in our small old and crumbling candlelit abode’s high in the nether regions of this once magnificent fort.

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