31 August 2007

Bundi: Goblins and uneasy dreams

Inside the Taragarh fortSunday 25 February 2007
The honey man squats on the path with his scales in his hand. He puts the mostly empty jar on one pan, a few freshly collected rocks on the other, and tries several combinations of rocks until the pans balance. Then he spoons honey into the jar, adds an aged metal weight to the rocks and spoons a little more honey into the jar until the pans balance again. Using what's at hand to tare the jar—simple, efficient, and effective.


I sat in the pleasant shade under a tree at the Lake View restaurant. Earlier I'd been out on the sun-baked patio where I'd had a glass of lemon-honey-ginger and a barely edible veg rice—soggy and an evil khaki colour; full of bitter okra and flaccid cabbage. The gentle shade under the tree compensated a little for the foul food, and I tried to enjoy it. After all, I wouldn't be back.

But, if the Lake View's food resembled the view of the lake—a roughly similar bilious colour, the smell of decayGoats; Bundi, a mucilaginous consistency, and a substantial garnish of refuse, Bundi made amends with the best lassis in India. Thick and creamy, a blend of yoghurt, saffron, honey, pistachios, cardamom and sultanas, the Sathi lassis were the best food I had in Bundi.

I slept for about an hour in the afternoon then walked to the Taragarh fort and palace, where I explained I didn't want to visit the palace, just the fort. The man at the ticket office waved me on through.

The guide book describes it as “a 20-minute difficult climb”. A gross exaggeration, and the rewards were well worth the small exertion. Great views, of course, but more important for me was the solitude. During the entire time I spent there—the better part of a couple of hours—I saw no more than half a dozen people, all distant and unobtrusive. Old cannons lay around, rusting quietly, one pointing out over the city, another abandoned in a shelter splattered with graffiti scrawled and scratched in Hindi. Most of the stonework still stood as it must have when the fort was occupied, but here and there the structures had collapsed or been broken down. Dry, hard, thorny trees infested much of the enclosed area. Everything felt abandoned, on the verge of being forgotten.

As the light began to dim after sunset, I tried to find my way out. This was when I realised the complexity of the system of concentric battlements. I walked past several stepwells—eerie, deep structures, the water thick and green. A frog called from one, the sound echoing from the walls and water; in the dusk I saw the surface of the water pocked by the rings of hatching insects. Mosquitoes, probably. Shelters under the battlements filled up with night, their arched entranceways framing darkness, the home of uneasy dreams[1]. Goblin country. One might half expect to glimpse a small band to scuttle from the shadows and run, snarling and spitting, with a clink of mail and weapons, across the dusty ground to disappear along a path between the thorn bushes. Out of imagination, into the dark.

I climbed the battlements and looked out, trying to get my bearings. The telecoms tower marking the entrance to which cars can drive was only a short distance away but might as well have been in the Pohangina Valley. By now the light had faded substantially, and although the half moon would have enabled me to walk, even well after dark, I didn't relish the idea of stumbling around among the thorns and ruins, perhaps losing an eye to an inch-long spine or ending up floating, face down and stunned, at the bottom of a well. I decided to retrace my steps and return the way I'd entered, Rhesus; Bundiconfident that even if they'd locked the gates I'd be able to escape through one of the broken sections of wall I'd seen when I'd climbed to the fort earlier in the evening.

By the time I'd begun to negotiate the final section before entering the palace grounds, the last hint of daylight had almost vanished. I picked my way down the rough and rocky track by moonlight and intuition. A large troop of langurs lined the path, as if preparing to descend on the town; some sat on the walls, some in the trees—and some sat on the path. I kept walking steadily, hoping that by avoiding abrupt changes of pace or sudden movements I wouldn't startle them. They sat there, some ignoring me, others looking in my direction as if they could locate the sound of my approach but were unable to see what caused it. I walked through the troop. Some of the monkeys sat within arm's reach; I had to detour around one to avoid stepping on his long tail. In the twilight they could easily have been Kipling's goblins.

I left the langur troop behind and immediately encountered a large gang of rhesus monkeys. Again, the curious, apparently unconcerned behaviour. I picked my way carefully and steadily past. A small juvenile looked up at me, unafraid—if I'd lost my senses I could have reached down and patted it. I didn't. I kept walking. Behind me, one of the macaques spat; Rhesus juvenilehalf hiss, half expletive. Given their otherwise complete disregard for me, I guessed it was abusing another rhesus.

The gates had remained open and I walked back down the cobbled ramp into the town. I bought a bottle of water, and the man counted the coins and handed back the one rupee I'd inadvertently overpaid him.

In a moment of contrariness, I ordered a veg fried rice for dinner, thinking surely it couldn't be as bad as the version I'd had at the Lake View. The Parihar's was definitely better, lacking the okra and with chunks of potato, but it still had that peculiar Bundi character to it—slightly like the pervasive smell of the town itself; a smell like old vegetable scraps or boiled cabbage. The fried rice might, with imagination, have been identified as fried, but actually resembled risotto. I surprised myself by eating it all, but that might have been because I ate it without noticing what I was eating; I was enjoying the conversation with S, a woman from Perth in Scotland, who was waiting for her rickshaw to take her to the bus at 10 p.m. She was heading for Mt Abu, via Udaipur. Less than 24 hours ago I'd travelled by bus along that road between Bundi to Udaipur, and I didn't envy her. The ride had been rough, possibly the roughest since Uttaranchal, possibly as bad in places as all but the worst of the final section of the track to Kileswar. I don't believe I'm exaggerating much. I also realised I'd had only a couple of brief naps since doing that journey in the other direction. I said goodbye and good luck to her and returned to my room, where I slept comfortably all night.

Monday 26 February 2007
No one can give me the same information about a simple thing like getting a bus from Bundi to Sawai Madhopur. As far as I can gather, the best option is to go to Kota, then to Sawai Madhopur, but I'm unable to remember whether it's by train to Kota then bus to Sawai Madhopur or vice versa. The latter, I think[2]. A bus directly from Bundi to Sawai Madhopur takes about four hours, the Kota Bundioption just half that. Both seem to require early starts, but given how hot it is during the middle of the day, travelling in the morning seems like a good idea.

I explored the town—a little of it—in the morning, buying a couple of chiku, topping up the phone, photographing a couple of goats lying on the steps below a doorway, chatting with a man near the goats. At the Sathi I sat and enjoyed another lassi and a conversation with a man from Quebec. He looked to be in his 30s and said he was in Bundi for the fourth time, going on to Jaisalmer. He worked in Mumbai, spent about half the year in Tokyo and the other half in Montreal, and travelled extensively for his work. I asked him what he did.
“Photography,” he said.
Laurent now works freelance, having quit his agency. He asked about my work.
“Semi-retired,” I said, not sure how true it was. “Earning a small income from editing, and doing a lot of writing and photographing.”
He smiled when he heard that.
“I'll give you my card,” he said, and produced a simple, stylish card, explaining as he did so that his website wasn't yet functional. A pity, as I'd like to see more of his work—the photo forming one side of the card reminded me strongly of Bruce Connew's earlier work[3]. A strong composition; black-and-white with a good range of tones.
“It's in Nepal. That's me,” he said, pointing to the person swinging from a bamboo bar, framed against a dark sky.

Nepal. I wondered what I'd find there, how it would affect me.


Towards evening I visited the palace to explore, to find out what inhabited the uneasy dreams of men. Kipling's guess—that it was goblins—seemed close to the truth. Palace; BundiAgain, that air of abandonment, of humans as intruders, of a place around one of time's corners, made it easy to imagine goblins lived there, hiding away from the light in tunnels behind walls, in barricaded rooms, in secret attics. Waiting for the footfalls of humans to fade, the key to turn in the lock.

The surviving murals are fragile, so flash is prohibited; that constraint coupled with strong contrast between sunlight and shade made photography difficult. Not impossible, though, and I enjoyed it—the attempt to capture not so much what I saw, but what I felt. How do you photograph a goblin? Perhaps by photographing its environment.

I struck up a conversation with a German couple, slightly older than me; the only others wandering about the half-ruined grounds at the late hour. They'd visited India several times before, but this was their first time in Rajasthan. While they were enjoying it and finding people generally welcoming and friendly—hardly surprising, given their personalities—finding somewhere satisfactory to eat in Bundi had proved difficult. I wasn't surprised; with the exception of breakfasts at the Parihar and the Sathi lassis, the food had been at best mediocre. Anna wanted to try the restaurant at the Diamond Hotel, so we met again at 6:30 and walked there. The only other diners were the mice darting across the floor. Justus's dal fry and rice looked good and apparently tasted so; Anna's kashmiri pulao looked better than the pea-dominated semi-risotto I'd had for lunch; my dum aloo, Bus station, Bundiwhen it finally appeared (one of the waiters had seemingly mistaken my order for scrap paper), arrived swimming in oil. I ate the aloo (potato) and a few spoonfuls of greasy sauce. The chapatis were good though—almost like naan.

We exchanged email addresses. Justus examined mine. He said nothing, then finally spoke.
“Your grandfather came from Ireland,” he said.
It took me a few seconds to realise he was making a serious statement.
“Somewhere South of Dublin.”
Strictly, my grandfather had been a New Zealander, from Oxford, but he'd identified strongly with his Irish heritage. I asked Justus how he knew.
“This means something,” he said, laughing and indicating the contrasting stripe dyed at an angle across his short hair. I noticed Anna had one also, although the colours were reversed—hers a lighter stripe on her dark hair.

Maybe it does mean something, although Justus didn't elaborate. But for me, just enjoying their company carried enough meaning, and if there was a little magic, it seemed appropriate in a town overlooked by the work of goblins.

1. “...such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams—the work of goblins rather than of men.” Rudyard Kipling, writing of the palace at Bundi. From Sea to Sea and other sketches: Letters of Travel; ch. XVII.
2. It was indeed the latter. From Bundi, catch a bus to Kota and take the train to Sawai Madhopur from there.
3. Unfortunately, Bruce Connew's website doesn't do justice to his work; the photos are too small and seem to have lost much of their tonal range during their transfer to the web. However, you can still get some idea of the quality of his work here, here, and here, for example.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The abandoned temple in the Taragarh fort.
2. Street scene, Bundi.
3. Rhesus macaque, Macaca mulata. This one was just outside my window at the Parihar; you don't leave doors or windows open.
4. Juvenile rhesus.
5. Bundi from the fort.
6. Inside the palace.
7. The bus station at Bundi. That's an auto rickshaw, also called a tuktuk.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor


Duncan said...

It's a wonder you got home in one piece by the sound of that tucker Pete. Glad I can experience India through your eyes instead of having to go there and dice with rice. ;-)

pohanginapete said...

Duncan, the rice wasn't nice, but at least I had the choice of eating it (or not). In India and Africa (and elsewhere), far too many people don't have that choice.

And, at least I could have lived off my "reserves" for a while!

burning silo said...

That's a wonderful photo of the tree trunk at the fort. Those monkeys both look like they're up to some mischief. Sounds as though procuring food must have been a bit of an adventure. I could probably manage to down just about any kind of rice. However, I'd be in a jam if I found myself in some place where all that was available were dishes cooked with meat.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Bev. Actually, you'd be all right in India — anyone who insists on eating meat there is likely to get bored very quickly with the limited choice. I only travelled in a small part of India, but everywhere I went, vegetarian dishes far outnumbered those with meat.

Mongolia, on the other hand... carnivory's a definite asset there. It might even be a borderline requirement for entry to the country ;-P

Anonymous said...

What magic in words and pictures - the essence of dreams and nightmares!
(Is the juvenile rhesus about to sink its little teeth into a high-voltage cable? Maybe Pixie Kebab will be on the Lake View menu? Could rhesus be classified as Pixie, rather than Goblin?)

pohanginapete said...

RR, I'm not sure whether the cable was high voltage or part of a water reticulation system. Either way, if it ever did manage to gnaw through, it'd be less than popular...

Pixie... yes, it fits very well. And I'm sure it would have been more palatable than much of the food there ;-P