For a Few Rupees More ; Ancient Meets Modern in Rajasthan Where, in a Crumbling Landscape, the Old Palaces Have Become Hotels, Reinventing Their Elegant Past for the Tourists. but Can History Compete with the Modern Luxury of the International Invaders, Asks JOHN WALSH (Right)
Walsh, John, The Independent (London, England)
"You see the dancing peacocks?" asked my guide. "Symbol of prosperity. India's national bird, you know." His ruby-and-diamond earrings winked in the sunlight. "And you see the trellis pattern over this gate? Symbol of welcome. And you see figure of Ganesh? Symbol of good luck."
"What about the back-to-front swastika?" I asked. "What's that a symbol of?"
"Is Hindu symbol for peace," said my guide, vaguely. "Very holy thing."
We moved on, swiftly. No breath of contention may disturb the haze of welcome that hangs over the entrance to the 12th-century Jaisalmer Fort in the extreme western reaches of Rajasthan. Even though the welcome is a little desperate, and the local prosperity alarmingly dependent on a nosediving tourist economy.
We moved on, through the magnificent Sun Gate. "You see how the road doubles back?" said the man with the Shirley Bassey bijoux. We moved past a gaggle of carnival barkers selling multicoloured Rajasthani bedspreads. "Now we are going through Wind Gate," said the guide. "You see sharp bend? Why you think this is?"
"I've no idea," I said.
"Is because of drunken elephants."
"When fort was under siege, invaders used to feed elephants whisky, so they would batter their heads against gates and knock them down. But when elephants come face to face with these sharp turns, they cannot manage them."
"Let me get this straight," I said, "The fort was saved from ruin because the original architect had the sense to put in some hairpin bends, to bewilder alcohol-crazed mammoths?"
"Exactly," said the guide.
You can never be absolutely certain that you're hearing the truth in Rajasthan. It's a Baron Munchausen land of epic stories, vast riches, earth-shaking battles, off-the-scale luxury, elephantine vainglory. And its relationship with modern tou-rism is as many- faceted as the lingam of Shiva, a kind of divine black phallus whose several faces are washed with milk, yoghurt, ghee, honey and sugar (and the resulting mixture scooped up from the guttering and drunk with relish by believers) in a bewildering Hindu ceremony.
They're frightful show-offs, the Rajasthanis, but they've a lot to be conceited about. Their state used to be Rajputana, or "Land of the Rajputs", who are one of the old castes of Indian society. Rajan means a king and putra a son, and every modern Rajput imagines himself descended from ancient royalty. His ancestors ran the state for a thousand years, until they were ousted by the Mughal emperors.
When the Raj took over, the Rajasthani rulers made a deal with the British; they kept their independent states, each with its ruling maharaja, maharani, or maharawal, and their luxurious lifestyle. The colonising Brits were effectively indulging a ludicrously outdated feudal structure of aristocrats and peas- ants, harem-world luxury and yelping poverty. It could not last. When India won its independence in 1947, the maharajas were allowed to retain their titles and land, and be paid a modest civil-list income, but Mrs Gandhi put an end to all that in the 1970s. With no income, meaningless titles and a disastrous scaling- down of property ownership, the bejewelled elite hit hard times. Some were even reduced to throwing the doors of their palaces open as hotels.
The old Rajput vainglory hangs over every city in the state, lording it over the heat and dust in the streets, oblivious to the five-year drought that continues to blight small villages across the state. The Rajasthan palaces are wondrous to behold, whether they're 17th century (like the City Palace, Udaipur) or nearly new (like the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, completed in 1944); so are the havelis, or rich men's houses, with their filigree balconies and Delft tiles. But less than half a mile away, all is ruin: Third World poverty, mud and corrugated metal shacks. …