Jaisalmer: A Desert Trading Route Revisited

This post is very much out of sequence (as will be my next one) because they involve places that Sam and I visited in Rajasthan about 6 weeks ago.  Somehow they just never got finished.

Jaisalmer was the place in Rajasthan that Sam was most anxious to visit. It is a small town in the far west of India, in the Great Thar Desert near Pakistan. Located on the trading route between India and Central Asia, it had grown wealthy from camel caravans until transport via ocean shipping and trains in the 19th century made it a dusty forgotten backwater town. Partition of Pakistan and India in 1947 cut the last of the town’s trading role and pushed it into further decline.

The town was “discovered” by tourists about 50 years ago. They were drawn by the massive fort built in the 12th century that still dominates the town, and also by the havelis, magnificent sandstone houses of long gone merchants that have intricately carved exteriors.Jaisalmer Fort at Night
Jaisalmer Haveli

A community of about 3,000 people still lives inside the fort and I decided to spring for a hotel that is actually part of the fort wall. It has only 6 rooms, each overlooking the outermost of four massive gates (shown below) that protect the fort’s single entryway.
Jaisalmer Fort GateThe view from our room’s terrace of the fort, the surrounding town and distant desert. Jaisalmer Hotel Patio Video

Rohet Gahr Peacock
Because Jaisalmer is close to the Pakistani border there is a substantial military presence in the area. The roads into and out of town are lined with army installations, with many clusters of tanks scattered around within sight of the roads. Fighter jets from nearby airbases fly overhead throughout the day and night.

Also, perhaps to provide the military with reliable electricity (while the rest of the country’s population suffers frequent outages) there are massive windfarms spread across the desert landscape. It’s definitely an otherworldly experience to stand in the empty desert among crumbling 500-year-old tombs with nothing else in sight except wind turbines that stretch to the horizon.

The road across the desert between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur proved to be a mini obstacle course as we encountered cows, water buffalo, camels, goats, sheep and peacocks wandering the landscape and ambling across the road with not a glance for passing vehicles. Other than the peacocks, most ignored the blaring horns of the buses and lorries, and almost all vehicles slowed or stopped while the road was blocked. We saw two incidents of why I can only say “almost all.” The first was a buffalo on the roadside that didn’t survive its encounter with a bus.  Having already lost its life on the road, it was in process of losing its hide on the roadside so a farmer could put the leather to good use. The other was a family of three camels, including a baby, lying across the road in front of a lorry whose front end and windshield were also smashed beyond resurrection. The rarity of these fatal encounters surprised us since our own car seemed at peril of colliding with crossing animals dozens of time each day.

Jaisalmer is also the site of a Brody family tradition that Max Brody started more than 20 years.  There is a restaurant called 8 July that consists of a row of tables on a narrow second story balcony overlooking the fort’s main square.  It is a great people-watching place to while away the afternoon drinking mango lassis and eating apple pie. They don’t really go with each other, and the apple pie is not particularly good. But it’s a long-standing tradition that all visiting Brodys must honor.
8 July

The Perfect Room for a Law Firm Partners’ Meeting

Jodhpur, one of Rajasthan’s larger cities, is home to the Umaid Bhawan, perhaps the largest private residence in the world.

Umaid Bhawan The Maharajah of Jodhpur started building the palace as a home for his family in 1929. He already had a nice home but he created this one to provide employment during hard times caused by a long-lasting drought and famine. It kept more than 3,000 construction workers on the payroll for 15 years. The palace is still the Maharajah’s residence today (actually the grandson of the Maharajah who built it), but portions of it now include a Taj hotel and a museum about the Maharajah and the palace. Mere mortals can gain admittance only to the museum these days.

The museum has a photograph of the Maharajah’s bathroom. The room is as large as the footprint of our Provincetown home (around 40’ x 40’), with walls, floor and tub made of polished black onyx. It’s hard to imagine using those over-the-top surroundings as a “library” for a leisurely read of a good book or magazine.

The museum also describes the construction of the palace. Apparently, some of the stone blocks used in the construction were too large to be set in place with precision using the available equipment. The solution was to place a block of ice on top of the previously set stone block and then to place the new stone block on top of the block of ice. As the ice melted, the new stone could be maneuvered into perfect position on top of the lower stone. Imagine the “eureka” moment when that idea was born.

Another remarkable structure in Jodhpur is the fort that looms more than 400 feet over the city. It was built over a 100-year period starting in 1459. The ramparts are up to 120 feet high and 70 feet wide, and enclose a vast area containing many palaces and other buildings. Here are photos of one of the ramparts and a couple of the palace rooms and galleries. When Sam saw the throne room shown in the first interior photo he suggested that my law firm get such a room for partner meetings. Jodhpur Fort Exterior
Jodhpur Fort Room
Jodhpur Fort Gallery
Jodhpur Fort Ceiing

Our Guy Ganesh

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Meet Ganesh the lovable Hindu god who, among other things, removes obstacles and ensures success.

When our son Max returned from India with a small statue of Ganesh for his son, Elijah became so enchanted with the deity that he began to take on the persona. He actually began calling his mother Pavrati, which is the name of Ganesh’s maternal unit. He is also taking full advantage of Genesh’s ability to remove obstacles and give success. The ante was upped when Eli decided to make his own Ganesh costume, which we, his proud grandparents, think is totally brilliant:

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Max asked if we could bring home another small statue or a tee shirt or book about Ganesh for Eli’s arsenal. We got a little carried away (the birthright of grandparents) and found an adorable Ganesh tote:

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We haven’t found a tee shirt yet, but scored big time in the marvelous market in Mapusa (pronounced Mopsa) where we found a musical Ganesh nightlight that sings jaunty tunes to wake you up:


And helps you meditate your way to sleep.


I hope Eli likes it as much as we hope he might. Otherwise I’m claiming it for my bedside table.

Some images from the Mapusa market, which is where we went to ship home all the stuff the airlines will surely charge us for overweight.

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Friendly and eye catching locals:

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Some remnants of the Portuguese influence here:

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And a photo of another laid back Goan:

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Chitrakoot

David: Chitrakoot is a small Hindu pilgrimage town where the god Rama lived for a number of years in self-imposed semi-exile. Lonely Planet says all the trains stop there at stupid o’clock in the morning. When I asked our Hyderabad travel person if wi-fi would be available at our hotel, she said that if we really wanted to go there, we would get hot water at our hotel only if we wanted to buy it by the bucket.

We arrived in town a little after 9 pm and checked into the government Tourist Bungalow, which Lonely Planet says is the best place in town. But the Tourist Bungalow had never heard of us. It turns out that Lonely Planet and our agent were referring to the Tourist Bungalow run by Utter Pradesh state. By mistake, the agent had booked us into a place around the corner, the Tourist Bungalow run by Madhya Pradesh state. Only in India.

We were fortunate. The Madhya Pradesh operation was fine, and the super deluxe room ($28 per night for a double, breakfast included) came with all the hot water we could use.

Chitrakoot turned out to be a great place, in part because it is definitely off the Western tourist itinerary. We didn’t see a single Western person in all of our time there. Everyone in town was either a local, a Hindu making a pilgrimage, or an Indian tourist. There was a downside, however, when we asked our driver where we could eat. “There are no restaurants here for you. You must eat at hotel.” The same hotel where the Corn Flakes at breakfast tasted like they were part of Kellogg’s first production run.

There was a big poster map in the Bungalow lobby that showed the location of 6 sites in the general area. We told our driver to pick 3 of them. One was a temple to Rama outside the town. The main feature of the temple is an imposing 20-foot tall statue of the monkey god Hanuman, a devotee of Rama and a very buff guy. The statue depicts Hanuman ripping open his chest and heart to expose an image of Rama in his heart. I can’t imagine a more compelling rendition of “I Give My Heart to Thee.”

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Varanasi: The Ultimate Tourist Test

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“Driving is much like a video game,” my driver told me me as he careened around craters, bounced over ruts, dodging dogs, cows, bicycles, tuktuks and pedicabs on the dusty road from the airport to the hotel. Everyone in charge of a conveyance wants to get there first. The guy with the loudest horn and the most chutzpah wins.

Welcome to Varanasi – people are literally dying to come here. Actually, they come here to die. Their bodies, wrapped in red and gold funeral cloth, accompanied by the sound of chimes and drums, are carried by litter through the narrow cobbled alleys down to the ghats (the broad steps leading down to the Ganges River) where they are set upon funeral pyres and burned. Their ashes are swept into the river. This is how one achieves Nirvana and escapes the cycle of rebirth.

You’re either going to love this city or you’ll want to get out of town the moment after you arrive. Varanasi is where the pedal meets the metal, where (as our son Jonathan said), “The shit gets real.” It’s the supreme test of a first world tourist’s ability to go with the flow in a people and bovine-packed third world city. Cows, goats, dogs wander freely, grazing on the piles of garbage that cover the streets. As Monday follows Sunday, it’s garbage in and, after a trip through some wandering animal’s digestive system, garbage out, whereever the animal wishes.
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We planned our trip for the dry season and, almost as soon as we arrived, the rains began. “Most unusual weather,” our pedicab driver responded as we nervously listened to the full throated thunder followed immediately by bolts of lightening that lit up the foggy sky. Rain that started as fat splats became pelting sheets that turned the lanes into flowing streams of merde de vache (somehow this sounds better in French) and rendered the cobblestones as slick as stewed okra. An unending procession of humanity and livestock – merchants, locals, pilgrims, school children, beggars, tourists, men staggering under the weight of sacks of this and that on their backs, ‘pallbearers’ carrying bodies down to the burning ghats, cows, bulls, goats, dogs – played hopscotch across bottomless puddles of thick red mud consisting of you-don’t-want-to-know, egged on by the incessant, demanding horns of men on motorbikes pushing through the throngs.

The boys stayed in a guest house on one of the ghats in a quiet section of the old city. Their room afforded a stunning up close view of the Ganges.

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From the adjacent balcony we could watch boys flying kites, monkeys swinging from treetops to roof tops. We watched cows lumbering up and down narrow stairs to the river. Who knew that cows could climb stairs? The more heavily touristed areas and burning ghats were up river a bit, but the smoke and fog, the crazily crowded boats full of pilgrims, the sound of bells and the cries of street side hawkers bore witness to the fact that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

We spent hours walking along the ghats. Everywhere we turned there was something either astonishing, incredible, and/or unbelievable. Even the simply unusual sights took on a new dimension as we were both jet lagged and stunned by the fact that a few days ago it was bitterly cold and now it was summer. Granted, Taipei wasn’t bitterly cold but Jonathan, who’d never been to India, was stultified by the scene. I could sense how hard it would be to translate this place into words. So I took lots of pictures. Here’s an example of graffiti Varanasi-style, followed by sari-drying and wandering cows:

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Max and Jon availed themselves of the spa services:

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We walked past piles of wood stacked and ready for the funeral pyres.
Peaked into doorways of homes lining the narrow alleys:

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Before David and Sam headed off to Rajasthan, we treated ourselves to a farewell dinner at the Taj.

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Feeling the need to take a break from the muddy streets, Max, Jon and I hired a driver to take us to Sarnath’s museum and nearby temples. Ten km. from Varanasi, Sarnath is the site where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon “Maha- Dharma-Chakra Pravartan” (in Buddhist terminology, ‘turned the wheel of the law’) after his enlightenment. Sarnath is one of the richest cities in Buddhist antiquities ranging in date from the times of Ashoka down to the 12th century. Ashoka built here the Dharmarajika Stupa and near it erected a pillar surmounted by the magnificent capital of four adorned lions that today forms the national emblem of India. Among other structures at Sarnath are the ruins of the brick temple representing the Mula-Gandha Kuti, ruins of stupas and monasteries. Among the more imposing ones is the Dhamekh Stupa, adorned with delicate floral carvings in the lower part, the Chaukhandi Stupa and Mahabodhi Society’s Mulgandha Kuti Vihar Temple. Sarnath has also yielded an extremely rich collection of Buddhist sculptures comprising of numerous Buddha and Bodhisatva images which can be seen at Archaeological Museum, Sarnath.

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We attained a bit of enlightenment and saw the sun for a few moments in an otherwise stormy day.
Then the three of us headed back to Delhi and caught our respective planes – Max back to Western Mass. where Joanna and Eli were anxiously awaiting his arrival; Jonathan, lugging a huge parcel of gifts, back to Taipei; and me, bound for Ahmedabad to start my adventures in Gujarat. It was, as always, hard to say goodbye to the boys and see this phase of the trip end. Knowing that we would all be together soon at Sam’s wedding (!!) made for a slightly easier farewell.

Sam Brody launches India’s latest satellite

It all started so innocuously.  Sam landed in Delhi and caught up with Jonathan, Max and me (David) in Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh.  It’s a very nice city. That’s not intended to be damning with faint praise.  It really is a very nice city. Much calmer and more orderly, and cleaner, than most other cities we have visited. Maybe that’s another way of saying it doesn’t have the same vibrancy and intensity that makes us keep coming back to India.

Anyway, the four of us were walking along the river from one area of interest to another.  The walk was long and I was wearing lousy shoes that made my feet and legs ache, so we headed over to a grassy knoll to rest for a while.  It was all very innocuous.

But then we discovered a sandlot cricket game underway on the backside of the knoll, and a couple of the kids strolled over to join us as we watched the game.  I don’t remember whether it was one of us, or one of the kids, who invited Sam to try his luck at bat.  He laughed at the suggestion and I thought I glimpsed a bit of the “deer in the headlights” look.  But the crowd liked the idea and Sam had to surrender to his fans’ demands.  The rest is history, recorded in the attached link. The reaction of the bowler (cricket language that means the pitcher) at the end of the video says it all.

Holga Prints

Breaking news: we are going back to India this winter. More about that in the next post. Meanwhile, I have started to process the pictures I took in Burma, Laos and India using my Holga camera. Click here for information about Holgas: what’s a Holga?. I’ve just finished a marvelous week-long class at The Massachusetts College of Art called the Art of the Big Print where I used their $25,000 Imocon scanner to transfer the negatives into digital high resolution digital files, and then printed the scans on a very fancy Epson printer. This is high end equipment to which I would never ordinarily have had access. The class, offered through the continuing education department taught by Amber Tourlentes, is so terrific that this is actually the third time I’ve taken it (I guess one could say I’m a slow learner – and this is also true – but there is a lot to learn and one week isn’t nearly enough). Amber is a wonderfully knowledgable, generous and patient teacher. She knows more about digital printing and processing than anyone I’ve ever met. I plan on taking the class next year as well.
These photos, while not developed using an “alternative” process like cyanotype or Palladium printing are still considered alternative process images because of the camera I used.
In more breaking news I’ve been accepted into a two week residency at Goa-CAP the Center for Alternative Processing in the Indian state of Goa. David and I will head there after our time in Hyderabad next January. David will teach ESL while I make art and have an exhibition. Goa is situated on the Arabian Sea – not a bad place to be in January.
The first picture was taken in a tiny village outside Luang Prabang in Laos. The next is in the city of Kochi in the south Indian state of Kerela, the holy cow (!) was in a terrible town called Bharatpur, and the last two are in Amritsar at the Golden Temple.

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Homeward Bound: Chandigarh – Mumbai – London – Boston and our friend Ellen Grossman

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Dear friends and faithful readers,

We are are in Mumbai for night, waiting for our early morning flight nome and I am thinking about stuff. I foresee only a couple more posts after this one – notably our drive yesterday from Shimla to Chandigarh – as we are on our way back home. I need to sort through the thousands of images both on media cards and on almost 30 rolls of 120 film waiting to be developed, Then I’ll know whether or not I was able to capture 12 images that I can be proud of. Or was it 10, or 8?

So often on this trip we were reminded how incredibly lucky we are to be able to realize this dream of extended, slow travel, taking almost four months together to explore places in both Southeast Asia and India (and of course Taiwan as well).

The most heartbreaking reminder to follow your dream, not just dream about following your dream, arrived via email last night when we received word that our friend Ellen Grossman had died. Seeing the words ‘died’ and ‘Ellen’ in the same sentence was totally inconceivable to us. Then the flood of emails began to arrive from people on the Cape and in Boston confirming the news that Ellen had died on Sunday night.

We saw Ellen and Rick in Provincetown in early October. She looked as vibrant and energetic and, of course beautiful, as always. Over dinner the four of us talked about our upcoming trip – especially about what kind of photo equipment I should bring along. Seeing her that evening lighting up the room in her inimitable way, it’s impossible to imagine that she would receive a diagnosis of cancer shortly thereafter and then die only 4 months later, leaving Rick, their children and extended family and friends totally devastated.

I can’t help thinking that it was almost a year ago to the day that our mutual friend Judy Salzman died suddenly. Rick and Ellen took tender care of her husband Carl during this terrible time, supporting him emotionally and (knowing Ellen) culinarily, in their typical loving way. I can imagine that now those roles are reversed with Carl (battle-scared as he is) helping his friend Rick and his children through the same sad passage.

In one of the emails I received last night from Ellen and Rick’s daughter Erica, was this advice:

“Life is short don’t waste it on the unimportant stuff!! Hug your family, tell them you love them…and eat dessert first because you never know what the next minute will bring!” Ellen never wasted a minute on the unimportant stuff, and I distinctly remember when we sat down for dinner that night at Devon her asking to see the dessert menu before ordering an entrée. We’re on our way home to hug our family and hope there are some good desserts to eat. And then to plan the next adventure.

By the way those flowers are growing in someone’s garden on the road from Shimla to Chandigarh.

Stoned! The Chandigarh Rock Garden

We have forgiven American Airlines for not letting us add a long stop over in London to our around-the-world tickets. We had thoughts of going to Cyprus – not such a good place to be right now it turns out. Our only choices were to either spend the last month of our trip in India, or go home early. Luckily we chose ‘stay’ not ‘go’ which is how we found ourselves visiting hill stations in the north as well as having an extra day to spend in Chandigarh, an almost brand new modern city created right after Partition and designed by world famous architects such as Le Corbusier and Maxwell Fry. We visited the stunning High Court Building (sorry, no photos allowed) usually closed to visitors but fortunate David had a business card which identified him as an attorney. So we were allowed inside to stare opened mouthed at the soaring inner space made entirely of poured concrete. The building (designed by Le Corbusier) has stood the test of time and remains a stunning master piece of modern architecture.

Our very favorite visit, however was to the Rock Garden created by Nek Chand. It practically defies description. And the pictures I took (see below) hardly do it justice. Because I was totally enchanted with the small figures modeled from spare parts I spent time taking pictures of just a few of the 1,600 on view in the park.

Wikipedia says it better than I ever could:
The Rock Garden of Chandigarh is a Sculpture garden in Chandigarh, India, also known as Nek Chand’s Rock Garden after its founder Nek Chand, a government official who started the garden secretly in his spare time in 1957. Today it is spread over an area of forty-acres (160,000 m²), it is completely built of industrial & home waste and thrown-away items.

The garden is most famous for its sculptures made from recycled ceramic and completely built of industrial & home waste and thrown-away items.

Waterfall at Rock Garden, Chandigarh
It is situated near Sukhna Lake. It consists of man-made interlinked waterfalls and many other sculptures that have been made of scrap & other kinds of wastes (bottles, glasses, bangles, tiles, ceramic pots, sinks, electrical waste, etc.) which are placed in walled paths.
In his spare time, Chand began collecting materials from demolition sites around the city. He recycled these materials into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani, choosing a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake for his work. The gorge had been designated as a land conservancy, a forest buffer established in 1902 that nothing could be built on. Chand’s work was illegal, but he was able to hide it for eighteen years before it was discovered by the authorities in 1975. By this time, it had grown into a 12-acre (49,000 m2) complex of interlinked courtyards, each filled with hundreds of pottery-covered concrete sculptures of dancers, musicians, and animals.

His work was in serious danger of being demolished, but he was able to get public opinion on his side, and in 1976 the park was inaugurated as a public space. Nek Chand was given a salary, a title (“Sub-Divisional Engineer, Rock Garden”), and a workforce of 50 laborers so that he could concentrate full-time on his work. It even appeared on an Indian stamp in 1983.The Rock Garden is still made out of recycled materials; and with the government’s help, Chand was able to set up collection centers around the city for waste, especially rags and broken ceramics.

When Chand left the country on a lecture tour in 1996, the city withdrew its funding, and vandals attacked the park. The Rock Garden Society took over the administration and upkeep of this unique visionary environment.

The garden is visited by over five thousand people daily, with a total of more than twelve million visitors since its inception.

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