9th March 2020
It was too good a day to risk opening the i-pad. Having checked the night before, I had learned that the Coronavirus death toll in Italy had risen to 366 and the government planned to lock down an estimated 25% of the population in the northern Italy. In response to family visits being banned there were riots in Salerno, Frosinone and Modena prisons where one inmate had been killed.
We were off to Jodhpur for two nights to be there for the Holi Festival and even better, we planned to link upon with our good friend Divendra. Two reasons to celebrate and there was nothing we could do about Coronavirus.
On the way out of town we stopped off at Gadi Sagar, a reservoir constructed in a natural depression in 1367 that provided water for Jaisalmer until it was superseded by the Indira Gandhi canal. Now it is a bit of a honeypot for locals and tourists and the birds love it.
The 14thC gateway (Tilon-ki-Pol) that leads to the quay where one can hire pedalos or shikara (Kasmiri-type gondolas), was built by Tila, a favourite concubine of a maharaja. The maharaja refused permission for it to be built as he would have had to pass underneath it (her) which was below his dignity, but not having got where she did by being stupid, when he was out of town she had it built anyway and then had a temple to Krishna built on top so that when he found out he couldn’t have it demolished.
The reservoir has many temples, shrines and ghats around its edge and some in the water. Before the crowds arrived it was a charming, peaceful place.
As I reluctantly said good-bye to Jaisalmer – it is far off the beaten track and as a septuagenarian I cannot rely on returning – and climbed into the bus, I noticed the first evidence of India acknowledging the existence of Covid-19. We were off to do some intensive mingling in Jodhpur. It would be out with the viral sanitiser (bacterial sanitiser doesn’t do much to a virus) and wipes and washed hands at every opportunity. If we caught C-19 at least we’d do so having fun in the company of friends
We stopped for lunch at a recently built luxury spa retreat. We walked past the empty reception area and the large souvenir shop. Lawns, lushly green thanks to an automated irrigation system, were protected by high walls; clear water filled a pristine blue swimming pool; gravel paths, lined with shrubs and flowers, led from one area to another. Two pigeons, who had been living in the ladies lavatory block long enough to leave their marks, crashed out through the door as soon as it was opened by those needing to enter.
A single, long table had been laid in the very spacious, fully glazed, dining room overlooking the lawns. Other than the pigeons, three waiters and the shopkeeper, we were the only beings there. I got the impression that as soon as we climbed back on the bus the swimming pool filtration would be switched off; the stuffed felt camels and the painted wooden elephants would be sheeted over in plastic and the place would be shuttered up until after the monsoon. We wondered what the waiters would do for income with such a truncated tourist season.
Some way before we reached Jodhpur, Narenndra asked whether we would mind if they stopped the bus to let Dasrath off-load some medicines and provisions for his village nearby. At the next cross roads Monu pulled over by a water tower, some huts and a bus shelter. A collection of men and teenage boys were idling. Some sat on propped motorbikes. A man wearing a yellow turban and a little boy, who ran to Dasrath as soon as he saw him, had obviously been waiting for us. He was Dasrath’s youngest brother; the man in the yellow turban their father. As boxes were extricated from the underbelly of the bus, we joined the family reunion. Some of the younger teenagers, attracted by a packet of Werther’s, sauntered over.
“Five for you and five for you and five for you and you look too old to be given sweets!”
Dasrath’s brother cupped his hands and the remainder of the packet poured into them. Two fell to the ground and I popped them into his breast pocket. He grinned from ear to ear. When prompted by Dasrath he faultlessly counted to 10 in English. Narenndra explained that he is doing very well at school – no surprise that he is as sparkly as his eyes. We watched father and son head off down the minor road on the motorbike. The boxes were carefully balanced and the little boy still clutched his double handful.
It was so joyful to meet Divendra by the Clock Tower and I’m not sure that the other people, packed into the nearby Shahi Samosa restaurant, knew what to make of the commotion as we all spilled in to add to the scrum. Divendra asked a family in a corner to bunk up so there would be room for another 9 people – all Caucasian, all ‘of a certain age’ and all laughing. Not your average Silver Threads Tour.
Sally will go miles off-piste to see a step well and Divendra had pulled another blinder and had booked us into the hotel overlooking the Toorji step well. Built in 1740 by the wife of Maharaja Abhaya Singh, it had recently been uncovered and restored, and unlike many step wells, had fish instead of Coca-Cola cans swimming in clear waters.
Holi is a Hindu festival that dates back to the 4thC but is universally celebrated by all in India regardless of religion or caste. It lasts for a night and the following day. It celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of Spring (harvest), colour, love, and forgiveness. It starts with Holika Dahan on the evening of the New Moon day in the old Hindu calendar month Phalguna.
Holika was a demoness burned to death with the help of the god Vishnu, so commemorative bonfires are built in public spaces. A few hundred yards from the step well is a little square, more of a triangle, and a pile of logs, twigs and dried cowpats were piled in a pyramid round an upright branch. Once satisfactorily arranged, the pile was embellished by a trio of men who created a collar of coloured powder round its base. Once satisfied with their artwork one of them removed his shoes, so not to disturb the powder, and tried, without much success, to position a nominal replica of Holica on the top twig of the branch.
At dusk people started crowding into the square and the fire was lit. Once it took hold there was much singing and shouting; synchronised raising of staves; clapping and beating of drums. Yellow powder was thrown from the roof of a neighbouring shop. People balanced on the top stairs of doorways to get a better view. The colours of Holi 2020 were having their first airing.
We left this triumph of Good over Evil in full swing and jumped into tuk-tuks to take us to Khaas Bagh, built in the early 20thC and now the ultra chic heritage hotel and restaurant. Divendra is the master of managing divers experiences and although it would be an exaggeration to say that he had taken us from downtown Jodhpur to up-town (as it turns out very near the Central Prison), I did feel under-dressed. We were ushered across cushioned lawns to linen-draped, candlelit tables and ate under the stars, the while looked after by bevvies of attentive waiters. The soft murmur of other diners’ voices mixed with tasteful canned music.
We were about to beat it back to the step well when Shane, the manager appeared seemingly remote controlled to be at our sides as our chairs were pushed back, and offered to show us round the royal automobile collection. Each vehicle has its own stall and faces the onlooker – just like the Royal Mews. Phaeton, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Pontiac and lots of Jeeps but disappointingly a dirth of Rollers. There was one car let out of its stall to stand invitingly under the entrance arch. It had been adapted to afford dining space for four – with the front seats facing backwards and a table in the middle. Even if one isn’t a petrol-head the collection is impressive and all were so highly polished that they reflected every candle.
It felt a bit inappropriate to leave in tuk-tuks.