What not to do in Rajasthan

Rajasthan: In the land of the butterfly colors

In India the colors shimmer, the gods and people who believe in them live. In the desert kingdom of Rajasthan, women wear silver as an investment and men know 18 different wrapping techniques for their turbans

Silver as a safe investment

We sit on a mattress and Master Soni shows us what wealth looks like. To do this, the man with the thin mustache puts a plastic bucket on his head. Silver rings, silver bracelets, silver cups roll out. Heavy, massive goods. A young assistant skillfully distributes the pieces on the faded cloth that covers the futon. It measures two by two meters, fills almost the entire room and serves as the sales counter for Master Soni, a man who always smiles and speaks a melodic Indian singsong-English. He greeted us with a what-should-I-do-gesture.

He is very sorry, he explains, that he cannot offer us any opium. That is a good old custom, but it has been forbidden for almost 20 years. It's a shame, Soni sighs. We assure that we can live with it and agree on Masala Chai, the spicy tea mixed with milk. The drink that smells of cardamom and cinnamon steams in our glasses, and Master Soni pours buckets two, three, four and five on the mattress: chains wind around tiaras, rings roll over brooches, lapis lazuli and rubies shimmer. He has jewelry of all kinds and styles, Indian, Persian, Afghan, Chinese. The smallest ring in the range fits the little finger of a newborn baby, the largest ring can cover the arm of a sheikh wife from wrist to shoulder. A joint at elbow height is of course built in. Master Soni is a silversmith.

15 employees cast, hammer, forge, drive and polish for him. But it is also a wholesaler and regional savings bank. "We buy and sell silver by weight," he says. No matter how beautifully a piece is shaped: the price is based on what the scale shows with the two brass plates. Which will of course still be negotiated, just not over a cup of opium tea. Master Soni's business is crisis-proof because in the desert, in the far west of Rajasthan, wealth creation is a very tangible thing. "The people in the villages invest their money in silver," he says, "it has always been like that. They buy silver jewelry, their wives wear it."

A bank account is something abstract, nobody wants to rely on it. Silver was and is the currency that everyone in Jaisalmer accepts. "People trust silver. In the past you could also pay with opium, of course."

The precious metal is actually ubiquitous. It flashes out from under the women's saris, under the semi-transparent veils and shawls. Even babies wear chains around their necks or ankles. Girls jingling rings and bangles. Again and again we look into faces with a piece of jewelry between the nose and ear, a silver plate with stones and pendants, attached to the nostrils and earlobes. The market woman behind her mountains of onions and greens is pierced on the nose; the girls who look after a couple of goats wear ivory and silver hoops around their wrists.

Even the workers on the road construction site, who receive perhaps 150 rupees a day, do not do without ear clips and rings in their eyebrows when they toil. We have read somewhere that Indians have the gift of transforming everyday life into beauty and making beauty everyday. Especially in Rajasthan. Because Rajasthanis love not only jewelry, but also strong, clear, bright colors - they dress like butterflies or flowers; as if they wanted to compensate for the endless gray-brown of the desert with the signal colors of their saris and long shirts, cloaks and harem pants. Or the yellow-gold-ocher from Jaisalmer. The old citadel city is built of sandstone on a rock ridge. The color yellow is their trademark. When the sun is low, it shines almost golden, otherwise it shimmers ocher.

Jaisalmer is located in the Thar Desert and has been an important caravanserai on the southern Silk Road for centuries. But that is a long time ago. For 60 years the border with Pakistan, about 80 kilometers to the west, has been cut off by the highway. And those who want to export their goods in Delhi no longer send camel caravans through Rajasthan towards Persia and the Mediterranean, but ship containers in Mumbai or Calcutta. Jaisalmer is no longer a stage town as it was in the times when the Maharajah got rich through customs and taxes. It has become the end of the line, moved to the edge of Rajasthan and India. That was almost certain to save him.

Jaisalmer: Tourism is the salvation

Jitendra Rathore, who runs a hotel in front of the city, is convinced of this. It is a spacious resort with lots of greenery, a pool, patios and old balconies, which Jitendra Rathore salvaged from demolished houses and reinstalled in his hotel as decoration. "Jaisalmer," he says firmly, "would be dead today if the tourists hadn't breathed life into him again."

We are sitting in the bar of his hotel - an amazing place that could also fit in as a lounge in Berlin or London: puristic, illuminated by colored light through colorful glass blocks, with seating groups to hang out. Refined by a collection of antique vessels, up to 400 years old bronze pots, ceramic vases, glass bowls, which any antiquarian hotelier should envy. Jitendra Rathore takes a sip of whiskey and strokes her full beard. "Full" is expressed neutrally. It's one of those Indian chin hair art pieces that are actually Rajasthani chin hair art pieces. "I am a Rajpute from the warrior caste," he explains, "one of our virtues is hospitality, which is probably why I became a hotelier. And one of our distinguishing features is the beard. You know, nowhere in the world is the beard so important like in Rajasthan. " Beards are as diverse as languages, art and colors: "More than 200 dialects are spoken in Rajasthan. Every 100 kilometers you will find a different architecture, a different design. And in the country we know 18 ways to wrap a turban, depending on the caste and region. "

And what about the tourism that saved Jaisalmer again? "It's easy," he smiles. There are many disadvantages to getting to the edge of a country. But also a big advantage: nothing changes anymore. What you have is preserved. This is how it went in Jaisalmer and actually in the whole of Rajasthan, and it is no wonder that this particular state has been hugely embraced by tourism. With all its old towns and fortresses, palaces and castles, temples and bazaars. And the owners of all the splendor, mostly the old maharajas, needed the money to maintain and manage it all.

However, until you get there, for example in Jaisalmer, you drive for a while. Via Indian highways, which are not just traffic routes, but socio- and biotopes. Where expensive limousines whiz past donkey carts and monstrous trucks past construction workers, barefoot and with wicker baskets on their heads, hauling sand, cement and rubble. The construction crews are often made up of women - they have to work for even less money than their men. They do it in their saris, with their jewelry, and they move under the baskets on their heads like on the catwalk of a fashion show.

The street is a building site, garbage dump and restaurant, market and workshop as well as, and of course, the promenade of the cows. The flat land undulates slightly, with sand hills and dunes that bear only sparse green. The villages look like a piece of Africa: round mud huts with thatched roofs, fences made of woven branches, walls made of red-brown sandstone. So if you roll along the wide country roads, you can see well in advance what is in store for you. For example, a large truck, a small truck, a tractor that overtakes a handcart. Or a herd of semi-wild camels. A troop of cattle, peacefully ruminating, in the middle of the asphalt strip. Flocks of goats and sheep, black pigs, their trunks deep in the ditch, children playing and old people walking indifferently, coughing and rattling ancient mopeds - all of them stand out clearly from a distance and you can approach them cautiously and drive past them slowly.

As long as you have foreign, i.e. sensitive passengers in your car. However, if you come as an Indian trucker, you set your horn to continuous sound and stay on the gas. But all the camels and construction workers and moped drivers know that - and they also see early enough what is in store for them.

Old towns with maze of streets

The breaks are no less exciting than the journeys. Rajasthan once consisted of 22 sovereign principalities, or should we say: kingdoms. Each with its own maharajah and maharani, with its own capital and everything that was attached to a ruling court. Politically, that's long gone, but it still has an impact. It means that you hit a former capital every few hours. With palaces for the maharajah and his main wives and concubines, for dozens or even hundreds of legitimate, semi-legitimate and not so legitimate princes and princesses. With stables and workshops, markets and bazaars - with all the logistics that a king needs, no matter how small his empire.

Many palaces are now called "Heritage Hotels" and you can stay in them. What does living mean: You have to be prepared to be led into an octagonal room with an octagonal bed and there are so many pillows on it that you immediately think: Hopefully the evening room service will come on time, which will shake it all up and put it away before going to bed - it would take you half the night to do it yourself. Or the corridor to the room leads past a "dining hall" with dozens of stuffed tiger and jaguar heads on the high walls and, as the porter announces, with more chandeliers than in the throne room of the tsars in Saint Petersburg.

At the foot of the palaces there is always a pretty old town, and that means: a labyrinth of alleys and alleys. They usually don't lead anywhere, you inevitably end up back on the main bazaar alley. But it takes time to find that out. On the way you realize that cows like to block even the narrowest streets and that many Indians are incredibly talkative and curious. They want to be photographed all the time, and if that's right, preferably with the stranger.

When the legs get tired, a vehicle appears out of nowhere that they call a "tree-wheeler", which has nothing to do with trees, but means a motorized tricycle. One wheel in front, two in the back. In front the driver, in the back a maximum of two passengers - unless the passengers are Indians, in which case an extended family will fit in.

Once you sit in the vehicle, which is also called a tuk-tuk in all of Asia, everything whizzes by in fast motion, including shops, people and cows. And tuk-tuk drivers also know how to honk their horns like their truck colleagues from the country road.

Once we drive through the Jodhpur bazaar in a three wheeler. It goes towards evening, the light is soft and full, but in front the sky turns reddish-purple. Which looks kind of poisonous and threatening. The tuk-tuk driver turns to us and says: "Sandstorm."

The sandstorm comes from the desert and hits the city like a tsunami. Just now everything was glowing in warm colors, seconds later the storm is howling through the alley, grains of sand penetrate the eyes and nose - and then the light actually goes out. "Total blackout, sir," says the driver. Power failure.

We stop and wait for the storm in the entrance of a guesthouse. The howling soon subsides, but it remains pitch black. Little by little, islands of light flicker on - shopkeepers who have started a generator or are using gas lamps. But nobody gets hectic, there are no loud shouts, no sirens howl - the city's pulse continues to beat steadily and calmly.

In a small square, a group of elderly men crouch in the dark. One of them speaks to us and introduces himself as a medical doctor. There is nothing he can do at the moment, he says, and his patients will come back later. How often does that happen, such a blackout, we want to know from him. "Oh, sometimes happens." Ah yes. Once a year? Or twice? He asks his neighbor as if he can't remember. They chat, look over at us, and then the doctor decides that he should calm down the strangers a bit.

He says, "Light come back, people come back, you come back. No problem, sir."