5th March 2020
There are over 560 million internet users in India and we added 9 to that. At breakfast it was clear that we all had been catching up with world news since learning that Coronovirus had reached Mandawa. The WHO had revealed that 3,000 people had died; President Trump had banned all visitors from Europe, other than those from the UK and Eire. He had previously banned travel to or from Iran – well anything to get at Iran, of course he would…..oh – and world stock markets had tanked.
I don’t recall any of us being particularly worried as there was not much we could do about anything. We were staying in a delightful place with good friends. Fear of the virus had already curbed the number of tourists and it was very pleasant not having to share space with as many as usual. Our appetites for everything – liquids, solids and visual – were being more than satisfied; the nearest airport, whence we could transfer to Mumbai and home, was at Jaipur about 100 bumpy, dusty, miles away and it was better not to watch our share portfolios gurgling down the drain. We continued to enjoy.
To add to our feeling of good fortune we were introduced to Jean Pouvelle, the president of The Shekhawati Project, who just happened to be staying at Le Prince for the same two nights as us. He generously offered to show us round the haveli –
“…if it would interest you.”
Of course it would and did. He suggested that we started with the front elevation, but once there he asked whether we might like to see the kuan (well) at the end of the alley. When surrounded by the opulence of the havelis it is easy to forget that one is in the desert and that water is at a premium. Beside each kuan are either two or four tall towers to indicate to travellers from afar that there is water to be had. Four towers indicate a deeper well than two towers.
The system was simple. Two ropes attached at one end to a bucket of goat skin dropped to water level were fed through a stone carved with appropriate holes. The other ends of the ropes were attached to a couple of yoked oxen. The oxen were driven far enough from the well for the full bucket to be raised and tipped into a channel that fed troughs and irrigation channels. The oxen went back and pulled up another bucketful. Traditionally the mali (smallholders) controlled these wells. Predictably, the water to be fetched from step-wells (bowri), the deep wells approached by many tiers of steps down to water level, was hauled by women.
For the rest of the morning we followed in Monsieur Pouvelle’s gentle wake. He pointed out so many things we would never have noticed; he answered our questions patiently; he inspired. We peered; we craned our necks and we tried not to fall over backwards while looking at ceilings.
In the afternoon Narenndra offered us a trip to the Salasar Balaji Temple about 35miles away. It is dedicated to Lord Balaji, an avatar of Lord Hanuman. The legend is that in the middle of the 18thC a local farmer ploughed up an idol of Lord Hanuman. Then Lord Balaji appeared in a local head honcho’s dream telling him to take the idol to Salasar. The temple was built around it.
Salasar was a tiny village, and still only has about 100 houses, but what it lacks in population (circa 6,000) it has gained in coach parks and ways of supporting itself. It attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, especially at the two main religious festivals of the year, all of whom need somewhere to eat and sleep. It is managed by Brahmins and a trust – the Hanuman Sewa Samiti.
On the way to Salasar the black clouds, that had been rolling in from the south west, decided to empty. Monu switched the windscreen wipers to ‘fast’ but happily by the time we arrived the sky had cleared. Monu parked the bus, as directed by parking attendants, along side many others. We dodged the puddles and, taking a short cut, negotiated a small market. Narenndra persuaded a shop owner, opposite the temple, to let us leave our shoes there and we walked across the slush to the entrance of the temple. Apparently it is famous for its marble but it seemed more Roxy. Like Lourdes one must get more of a religious experience if one is a believer.
We were funnelled into yards of chrome tubed fencing. Richard asked me whether it reminded me of Banbury cattle market. We snaked round. We saw the piles of coconuts, tied with the red thread, that are believed to be auspicious. We saw the idols. We saw a lot of gold and silver. We willingly accepted the red and orange thread that was tied to our wrists (at the time of writing, over a month later, mine is still there and I am still healthy) and then I watched, with interest, as people kissed in obeisance, the silver panels that lined a passage from floor to ceiling. Transmission of the virus was not a concern.
That evening M. Pouvelle led us on a walk through some of Fatehpur. We visited an impressive chhartri with a garden of tired roses and sadly derelict stables, filled with decayed white goods and electrical components that were in the process of being cannibalised. There were two vast havelis that M. Pouvelle told us had very good frescoes but, as he predicted, we were not allowed in as they are still still ‘lived in’ – but obviously not. We were welcomed into one haveli by a very emaciated old man. He and his wife were charged with looking after it.Their worldly goods appeared to be a washing line strung between pillars, a couple of charpois and a small stove. Ladders leaned against walls implied restoration. I wondered about their lives. I suppose they had cover from the elements and were safe. At least they had the keys to the very impressive doors.
A cursory look at the i-Pad, before going to sleep relayed that President Trump had decided that the WHO death rate of 3.4%, for what was now called Covid-19, was ‘false’. “Now this is just my hunch.” he had said. The Palestinians had closed all mosques and churches on the West Bank of Bethlehem; Starbucks had stopped reusable cups; there were no more cases reported in India but someone had died in Berkshire.
Le Prince felt a good place to be.