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Rajasthan, Part 1 (November 2007) - By Sam Oppenheim

"Look, I really don't want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you're alive, you've got to flap your arms and legs, you've got to jump around a lot, you've got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death." - Mel Brooks


After attending a Sikh wedding in Punjab, I returned to Delhi to meet the first friends to ever visit me in India. Christina, who I have known since 1999, and her friend Katie were both living abroad in Europe. They scheduled a ten-day vacation coinciding with my first forays into Rajasthan.

Rajasthan, a state bordering Pakistan and famous for tourism, was an obvious destination I had oddly procrastinated visiting. Its eminence in tourism is such that many people fallaciously equate Rajasthan alone with all of India. Its people, culture, food, architecture, and climate are used to promote tourism and these images are what most people picture when they think of India.

I prefer to travel a little off the beaten path, and it was with some trepidation that I noticed our air-conditioned train compartment was chock full of pale foreigners speaking a plethora of languages and overloaded with more cameras than the paparazzi. I was nonetheless excited about finally seeing the famous Rajput palaces, forts, colorful clothing, and the Pushkar Mela - a huge festival showcasing the livestock, arts, and culture of Rajasthan.

We were also lucky enough to be the guests of a royal family and planned our visit to coincide with the Diwali holiday. Diwali is a festival of lights celebrating family and symbolically warding off the coming dark, cold nights of winter.


Jaipur welcomed us with municipal events for this holiday season. On our first night we saw huge groups of circle-dancers on a closed-off avenue, and got permission to sit on a roof for viewing. Another night we attended a private party at a decorated royal palace, now a hotel, with a plentiful bar and savory buffet diner. On Diwali eve itself we set off fireworks with locals and walked the decorated streets that were closed to vehicles and full of Indians celebrating.

During the day we toured the local highlights beginning with the nearly mandatory elephant ride up to the Amber Fort, then the City Palace, museums, and the old "Pink City" section of Jaipur.

The deeper we went into Rajasthan, the more we enjoyed its Indian-ness. I guided my friends around explaining the significance of rituals such as the puja in a temple and the red tilak dot placed on the forehead. Incidentally, it is similar to the ash on Ash Wednesday, signifying completion of daily prayers. The girls giggled at cows and took the mandatory "Look I'm in India" photos. This helped me to enjoy India's novelty all over again through fresh eyes.

The highlights of Pushkar were getting "Puja'd" by priests at the holy lake and trying a Bhang Lassi -a marijuana-yoghurt-milkshake preparation that is a psychedelic trip.


Jodhpur, famous for its "Blue city" and enormous ancient fort dominating the skyline, was awesome. We wandered through backstreets purposely getting "lost", and in the evening toured the commanding castle above. Looming over the city, the fortress casts its shadows across the whole landscape at dusk, and the small blue houses look like square fungi clinging to its edges and spreading below. Inside the fort is a royal palace. There we took the requisite guided tour of magnificent treasures and stunning architecture. We marveled at intricately carved stone screens which let in the breeze but not the direct sunlight, dashing decorated rooflines, and harmonious masonry in reds, yellows, and whites. The architecture of desert kingdoms is fantastic.

After sunset we splurged on the most expensive meal thus far at the terrace restaurant. Atop this fortress we had a candlelight dinner under the stars with live music and red wine. Not my usual backpacker's India. Because it was Diwali season we were also showered with occasional fireworks. Perhaps it was the wine and heavy food, but seated on the rampart with cannons alongside us and booming echoes below, when I closed my eyes I imagined Christina and Katie were veiled ladies of the Haarem and I was defending them from the British attack.

Our second day we left the city and visited the hinterland. In Osiya I showed the girls a Jain temple and a step well reaching deep into the desert floor. Then I directed our driver to go 10 miles out of town and stop at a random farm.

The villagers said we were the first foreigners ever to visit them. They made us tea, showed us their houses and granaries, took photos with us, and then let us play with their baby goats. What a scene we made! They spoke a local dialect to our driver who told it to me in Hindi and I translated for Chris & Katie. Before leaving we gave them candy, post-it notes, and European chewing gum. It was good wholesome fun and a cultural exchange for all of us. The only downside was when that they were distracted by us and didn't notice their cow getting into a pile of freshly threshed grain. She had to be chased off with beads of golden grain stuck to her guilty wet black nose.

I took the girls back to Delhi via Agra and the Taj Mahal. In Delhi, before they left India, we checked out the Qutab Minar ruins and danced with the Hare Krishnas at the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple. I then returned alone to Rajasthan to see the rest of the state.

"If you have just one or two spiritual friends with whom you can share your highest aspirations, you should consider yourself richly blessed" - Kriyananda