It was well after sunset when I met Habib. I was standing outside Umaid Bhawan Palace, high up on Chittar Hill, drenched, hoping to get a ride down to the streets of Jodhpur. It had been raining since afternoon and almost all of Jodhpur seemed to be indoors, celebrating the fury of nature. There were hardly any tourists but for a few foreigners.
Standing in the parking lot, I looked down from Chittar Hill as the colours of twilight embraced the town. No auto driver was willing to take us down and it was still raining. Finally, Habib agreed after negotiating a small sum for the two-minute downhill ride. He was in a hurry to drop us as he had been hired for the day by a couple foreigners who were still at the museum in the palace.
As we got off the auto near the gate, he thrust a card in my hand and said, “Look me up on TripAdvisor Madam. I am very safe for single women.” And even before I could react, he was off in a whirlwind, up the hill to ferry his clients.
Later in the night as the rains showered over Jodhpur, curiosity got the better of me and I did look Habib up on TripAdvisor. And that is when I realized that all of Rajasthan had discovered the Internet, and how! From a local eatery to an art school to a vendor at a spice shop, everyone had tourists vouching for them on TripAdvisor. I decided to sign up Habib as my guide.
He landed promptly at our haveli the next day just as the sun peeped cheekily from the dark clouds. The sky cleared slowly as we drove through the city. Lanes and bylanes crisscrossed our path as I got my first glimpse of the old city where the walls of a few homes were splashed with blue paint. Habib stopped in a lane and pointed down. Through the trees, I saw a montage of homes huddled together. It seemed as if a child had liberally coloured the walls of these homes with a blue crayon. The rains had given them a new sparkling look.
We moved on and then I saw it – the formidable Mehrangarh that loomed largely in the distant horizon. I could not take my eyes of this ubiquitous monument. It stood on the cliff, rising above the city, at a height of 400 feet. Built in the 15th century by the 15th king of the Rathore clan, Rao Jodha, Mehrangarh literally symbolised the birth of Jodhpur, which became the capital of the dynasty after Mandore. It was Jodhpur’s pride and the 600-year-old fort was dedicated to the sun god who seemed to return the favour by caressing it with his rays. The dark clouds were banished and the fort lit up justifying its title, the Citadel of the Sun.
As many forts of India, the lore around the fort was as fascinating as its history. A lone hermit who was uprooted from his abode when the fort was built cursed it. A soldier was apparently buried here alive as a sacrifice to please the gods. Another soldier sacrificed his life, trying to protect it from his enemies. The formidable fortress seemed to have attracted the attention of Hollywood. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises shows protagonist Bruce Wayne aka Batman languishing in a prison and rising from the underground chambers with the massive fortress in the background. Loads of tourists rushed to the spot where the shot was filmed.
I, for one, walked around a bit aimlessly after seeing all the various galleries and the period rooms inside the museum. The collections included royal palanquins, cradles, howdahs or ornate elephant seats, royal furniture, musical instruments, paintings, weapons and costumes, including turbans. The treasures of the museum were encased in the Daulat Khana, while the Sileh Khana showcased weapons. Akbar’s sword dangled here along with the Khanda of Rao Jodha. I wondered how they ever fought with such heavy weapons, each sword weighing a few kilos. The palace took me inside some of the most ornate period rooms – Moti Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, Phool Mahal, among others.
Finally, I headed out towards the Chamunda Mataji temple where barely a handful of tourists entered, while most of them were lost in the view from the top. The city lay below cramped, stroked by a large paintbrush soaked in shades of blue, like a midget standing awestruck at the citadel built by the giants as Kipling had described it. Clouds of grey gathered as the sun vanished. The folk singers began an ode to the sky as I sat in a café and lost myself in their music.