“It’s the absurdity that one finds there,” he responded. “We lead such orderly lives here that the thrill of the absurd is lost. In India, you find that with every waking moment.”
A silent participant in this conversation, I pondered over my recent trip to India, and all the absurd situations that were realities there—for instance, my standoff in Jaisalmer with a normally docile cow thirsty for blood.
I arrived in Jaisalmer at the crack of dawn, accompanied by Frankie and Apple who I had met in Jaipur, and a busload of colorfully garbed Rajasthani locals. Frankie, a Belgian-German painter from Spain, had come on a spiritual quest—to learn yoga and to understand a culture that prompted his father’s annual journeys to India. He was well over six feet tall, had long hair that he pulled back in a “Hare Krishna” ponytail, and an unkempt beard that he claimed was easier to manage than shaving in the desert. There was a certain gentleness and fluidity about him that belied his massive physicality. Apple was a Thai girl of Chinese descent, almost as tall as Frankie, with long, lean limbs. A wanderer, she picked up careers along the way. Her last job was as a music video editor in New York. Along with careers, Apple also picked up languages; aside from Thai and Mandarin, she also spoke English and a smattering of French, German, and Spanish. She planned on spending the year exploring the world, finding herself and her dreams, and of course, picking up more languages.
Upon arriving in Jaisalmer, my companions and I were left completely breathless, watching dawn, the ultimate alchemist, transform the dark shadows into a sun-kissed city constructed from golden sandstone. We rented a room in a quaint hotel that was once a merchant’s haveli (mansion). Characteristic to the place, the haveli contained a network of narrow, secret passageways and staircases that connected rooms, and unexpectedly opened up into courtyards and balconies.
We sat on one such balcony, observing the waking world around us. First up were the animals—the crowing roosters, the chirping birds, the cows, and the dogs. Next were the womenfolk, who started the chulha (oven) long before the men needed their revitalizing chai. These bedecked and vibrant figures painted their beige barren landscape into rich hues of reds, greens, and yellows with the swish of their voluminous skirts. Their clunky tribal jewelry composed a rhythmic beat that matched their steps as they walked. It was only after the household was in order, did the proud turbaned Rajput men arise to twirl their moustaches and conquer the world. I had once mused aloud about how Indian women stirred long before their male counterparts.
“The villagers don’t have any bathrooms,” Rajesh, my guide in Shekhawati, explained. “They have to go in the fields. Since Indian women are very shy and modest, they want to complete everything before the rest of the world wakes up.”
Geographically, Jaisalmer is the western-most city in the state of Rajasthan, and demographically, a traveler’s hangout. Situated in the most unforgiving and arid land of the Thar Desert, its inhabitants have learned to survive in the face of adversity. This means not only being hospitable to travelers, their bread and butter, but also exuding a certain aggressiveness and tenacity that is evident in their history.
Legend has it that Jaisalmer was first mentioned by Lord Krishna who prophesized that a Yadav descendent would establish a prominent kingdom atop the Trikuta Hill. In 1156 C.E. Rawal Jaisal, a Bhatti Rajput feudal chief, established his new capital at Jaisalmer and thus, fulfilled this prophecy. Local folklore adds that Rawal Jaisal, after a mind-altering dream, consulted the hermit Eesul to find the perfect location for his new kingdom. In his quest to discover this utopia, Eesul happened upon a fight between a goat and a lion atop the hill. The latter, hungry in the desert, attempted to get its paws on a morsel of lamb flesh. The mother goat fiercely attacked the lion. Unlike other fairy tales, the lion emerged victorious, but not before suffering grievous wounds. The wise hermit, thoroughly impressed, announced that they had arrived—a place where the meek goat takes on the mighty lion is a place powerful enough to overcome any obstacle. And thus, was found the golden city of Jaisalmer in the middle of the waterless Thar Desert.
Rawal Jaisal and his descendents were desert marauders who raided neighboring kingdoms, making many enemies in the process, and fighting numerous battles. Their ferociousness and valor during sieges have been the subjects of traditional ballads. The city also amassed great wealth from the forced tariffs the Bhatti Rajputs imposed on camel caravans laden with precious silks and spices traveling between India and Central Asia. Eventually, sea trade displaced Jaisalmer’s importance in the Silk Road.
The city, nevertheless, continues to hold its medieval charm to this day. A labyrinth of cobbled lanes, lined with intricate honeycombed palaces, mansions, artisan workshops, and temples, runs throughout the city. Rajasthani women, in brightly colored ghaghra-cholis saunter down this maze of winding streets, their silver jewelry clinking merrily. Cows—white, brown, and black—with their horns painted pink, wander in and out of the alleys. The 12th-century fort, the only living fort, sits atop the sandy crag, shining in the setting sun like a golden jewel, a mirage merging fantasy with reality.
Though the city emanates the magic and essence of centuries past, it is difficult, however, to ignore its gentrification and Westernization. In the vibrant fort, around every corner stands a souvenir shop from which Rajasthani ghaghras (skirts) and mirrored, Kutchhi wall hangings beckon sun-dazzled tourists. Historic residences have been transformed into tourist lodgings. The fort’s narrow serpentine lanes boast of hidden cafes and eateries that serve international cuisine including eggs and bangers, muesli, and corn flakes, and all kinds of smoothies. It was at such a place, Café Tibet, where Frankie, Apple and I spent our morning, enjoying a hiatus from the harsh, brittle heat.
In the late afternoon, while the locals sensibly lingered indoors, the three of us wandered out. We visited the famous Salim Singh ki Haveli (Salim Singh’s mansion) and Patwon ki Haveli (Patwon’s mansion), exquisitely carved, lattice dwellings built to flaunt the wealth and significance of their owners. Salim Singh was the prime minister to Rawal Gaj Singh, and as such, had numerous foes that he kept out by building accident-prone uneven steps. However, after years of being uninhabited, the mansion has been taken over by other unwelcome guests, primarily bats and dogs. In Patwon ki Haveli, which is actually a conglomeration of five havelis built for five brothers, bats, hanging eerily from the ceiling, have overrun the dark stairways. Mickey, a young English archaeologist we met there, voiced our collective sentiment: “This is the closest I want to get to having an Indiana Jones experience.”
The golden city was unnervingly quiet that afternoon. India was losing against Australia in the World Cup Cricket finals. Doom was wafting through the air, but the legendary Indian optimism kept television ratings high. Stores and artisan workshops were abandoned. Children played on sandstone porches while parents sat glued to their television sets. And the three of us decided to explore. But we weren’t alone. Cows lined the medieval cobbled streets. Some sat together, chewing their cud and swishing their tails over their manure-covered rears, while others strolled around haughtily. This was the day cows would rule Jaisalmer, extracting toll from those who dared to venture out.
The fate of cows in India is somewhat paradoxical. From an early age calves are nurtured to become prolific milk producers. Considered sacred by Indian Hindus, their life is of import and respectability … until their milk dries up. Sometimes, unable to maintain their upkeep, people let the non-productive ones go feral.
As Ravi, our hotel manager put it succinctly, “if the cow is still giving milk, everyone fights over who owns her. She cannot walk down the street without people trying to claim her. Once she stops giving milk, everyone is trying to convince each other that she belongs to the other.” In hindsight, it is understandable how betrayed these domesticated beings must feel.
Frankie, Apple, and I, the three musketeers, were meandering aimlessly, when suddenly, Frankie uncharacteristically yelped and started running ahead of us. Apple and I, startled, glanced behind. And there she was, a furious cow who had sensed the Spanish matador in that gentle, peace-loving hippie. She made a beeline for him, her horns pointed aggressively as he zigzagged away from her, in fear for his life. Disgruntled, she turned on easier prey. I hurriedly scrambled onto a nearby porch, traumatizing the little children playing there. Apple, not too thrilled at being the lone quarry, followed suit, hurling her six feet of human mass on top of me, consequently starting a domino effect that ended with a screaming 2-year-old at the bottom of the pile. It was in those circumstances that the curious locals found us as they left the televised cricket match for a more immediate spectator sport.
The root of all trouble, the cow, now mollified at starting this chain reaction, merely walked away, swishing her tail like a Cheshire cat’s grin, while the three of us attempted to muster some semblance of dignity and grace amid the smirks and sniggers emerging from the neighborhood. Later, we would chuckle at how we succeeded in getting the locals away from their television sets that fateful afternoon. But we would always steer away from the cows. This was truly a land where the meek inherited the earth.
Rinoti Amin works at Narika, a Berkeley-based domestic violence agency. When not working, she travels in search of cultural adventures.