Guilded temples

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Sunday, April 8, 2007

From Jodhpur we road to Pushkar, one of hinduisms holiest towns and infamous hippie haunt. A few days there failed to reveal why India's doped up visitors are so enamoured with the place. Admittedly I'm not convinced by the idea of India as a uniquely 'spiritual' part of the world, or indeed the idea of 'spirituality' as it's usually sold. Pushkar's lake is small and perfectly formed and its setting in the hills is very beautiful, but none of the 400 or more temples around it are particularly striking buildings and the ghats, which should at the very least be serene, are defiled by karma touts making their daily bread by offering to 'show you how to do puja' in exchange for huge 'donations'.

At Pushkar Peter and I parted company, as he was heading directly to Delhi, while I wanted to make a detour to see the Taj Mahal. I left late in the morning for a quick 13km spin to the next town, Ajmer. Ajmer is visited by very few of those who visit Pushkar, although nearly everyone passes through it because it's a larger town and a transport hub. There isn't a lot to see- a sufi shrine and a jain temple, but both far outshone anything in Pushkar. The shrine was more a site of pilgrimmage than tourism, so I didn't stay long. Wandering around a shrine while people are worshipping feels to me like wandering around a cathedral during a mass. I did see the two giant couldrens which used to be occasionally sponsored by wealthy patrons, who would pay for them to be filled with food, which would be served out to the poor. According to the guidebook, (although this is the kind of thing I'd make up if a guidebook researcher asked me the history of a giant couldren) the food was served out by people inside the pots, 'wearing protective clothing'! Scuba gear?

The Jain temple was properly extraordinary. From outside it was just a large, red sandstone temple, but inside was depicted, in gold sculptures occupying a room the size of a sportshall, the principal legend of the Jain religion and the structure of their mythical cosmology. This involved flying boats in the shape of swans, the disc of the universe with concentric rings showing the 14?oceans and 10ish worlds (exact figures not available at this time, cosmological details not guaranteed), with the olympus-stylee mountain in the centre where the gods live. The models were both intricate and enormous, with fine details on grand palaces, processions of hundreds of figures including human/animal hybrids, elephants with multiple trunks, people with multiple limbs, everything Terry Pratchett thought he made up, and all in gold, or possibly covered in gold leaf, I'm not an expert, but very very shiny.

My next stop on the way to Agra was Jaipur, Rajasthan's administrative capital which I'd been advised by everyone I met to avoid on grounds of traffic, pollution and absence of tourist appeal. It wasn't the most beautiful of cities, there's no denying, but nor did it seem to deserve quite the level of hostility it attracted. Known as 'the pink city', as pink is the colour of welcome or hospitality, and the whole town was painted to mark an auspicious visit back in the day when people could do that kind of thing. (Rajastan also boasts a 'golden city' which wasn't on the way).

Jaipur's best tourist attraction was the observatory of Jai Singh (mebbe. one of that crew anyway). I was expecting something resembling a science lab, perhaps strewn with cast-iron contraptions, rudimentary sextants and early telescopes. What I found was an open field of giant brick structures, each built for a specific purpose. Among them were a series of identical sundialesq structures all of which gave exactly the same information, but at different times of year. Possibly the worlds largest sundial was the main attraction, casting a long enough shadow that you could just about discern it's movement.

The hassle in Jaipur was at a tolerable level, but took a form that I hadn't encountered anywhere else. Three times while walking the streets I was accosted by a stranger asking
-can you stop for a minute?
me- Sorry, I'm in a hurry
-Why don't you want to talk to me?
me- Because you're a stranger accosting me in a strange town on a dark street, where you were loitering for the purpose. I'm confident I'm unlikely to be enriched by a prolonged encounter (or words to that effect)
- (mock-offended becoming aggressive) Why don't you want to talk to Indians? Why did you come to India?

I rejected "because it's on my way to Australia", which would prolong the conversation, and the more confrontational and mocking "Oh yes! I'd forgotten! I came to India to talk to you! 7000km I've cycled, just to reach this stretch of mud between my hotel and the lassi stall and hear about your brothers 'goodpricegemshop'". In the end I settled for vague mumbling while walking away.
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