An Afternoon in Amer

The Gullies
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Apart from the great many tourists flocking to the grand fortress of Amer, where the maximum activity is noticed, the town of Amer remains unchanged since at least my childhood days. I cannot imagine it being any different a century ago, or even two or three centuries ago for that matter. The 17th century muralled walls of the many temples, the Panna Meena Kund, the bazaars, and the shops tucked into the small pockets of the fort’s base, remain untouched and neglected. As a result, many sandstone structures have fallen into a state of grave disrepair. But, the raw beauty prevails.

Murals and Swastikas on the outside of a temple wall.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

I hail from Rajasthan, and the areas around Aravalli Mountains (the oldest range of fold mountains in India) have been frequented by me since I was a child. I grew up knowing the region, its people, language and the customs. The women’s attires were always ‘very’ colourful, with one neon-orange found aplenty, the men wore the same multi-coloured turbans as they did now, and the kids played with marble balls on sandy tracks even then.

The sultry afternoons were, and still are, lazy, and many folks kept cows, buffaloes and goats for milk. Langurs guard the gullies, and keep a count of the kids returning from school with their huge backpacks.

Langurs watch the kids returning from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

A few women carried hay on their heads for the cattle, while some hung-out to sing desert lyrics, or gossip. The men played card games and smoked bidis and chewed tobacco or paan.

Men play card games, women hang-out to gossip, and kids return from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Once in a while an object comes into sight that makes the time we are in apparent. My camera being the biggest reminder, of course.

It takes them a while to acclimatise to my presence . These people do not like their privacy being invaded. It is very difficult to photograph women facing the camera with their veil completely lifted. I speak their language, and yet…

Woman in a red sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.
Woman in a neon-orange sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
An old mansion falling apart.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Many grand old mansions that belonged to the aristocrats are now in a crumbling and uninhabitable state. The families and their grandeur have long gone and, despite a shortage of good living space for people, these mansions are allowed to wither away.

But the Khejri tree indiscriminately thrives in every quarter.

Khejri Tree – State tree of Rajasthan.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

I take my time. I am in no rush. I carry my heavy camera in the sweltering afternoon, walking miles, striking conversations with those I walk past, ensuring they realise I am one of them, that I just wear different clothes.

I long to return.

Cocktail in New York. Pheras in Paris.

My family and myself were in a car driving through the lesser known streets of Jaipur. There were shops alongside residential areas — greengrocers, motorcycle repairers, barbers, stationers, street vendors, metalsmiths and stonemasons. Building smaller replicas of famous statues and other landmarks seemed to be the side business of the metalsmiths and stonemasons combined, as I saw quite a few statues scattered, part finished, part unsculpted.

Libertas, that attracted millions of visitors daily in the West, had almost zero admirers on that street. She stood on a shoddy unpaved muddy sidewalk in 48°C (118.4°F).

We were instantly amused, but also bemused. What was that statue doing there? There was clearly a demand for these. In the habit of always carrying my camera, I got off the car to take a couple of photographs. The men on the site found my actions as hilarious as I found theirs.

I asked where the statue was going. “It’s for a wedding.” It saddened me to learn that these men on meagre wages were building these enormous figures for an evening party. “What pleasure exactly could be derived from these cheap replicas that cost many times more than those workers’ combined monthly wages?” I wondered. “Were they trying to fake the location through these?” “Were the business families uploading the party videos on YouTube, captioned, ‘Cocktail in New York’?”

What next? A demolition party? Where do these statues go? Submerged into the waters like Kali and Ganesha? But this is the desert state – so, no sea. Recycled? Maybe! There might just be a second-hand market for these for smaller budget weddings. Who knows!

I never found out.

Later that evening, just when my camera packed up (probably due to the heat), I saw an Eiffel Tower in the middle of a garden in an affluent residential area. The bungalow was getting ready for a wedding (one can tell of the nature of the event from the extent of the embellishments). That was definitely a wedding.

I bet there is a YouTube video of the pheras in Paris.

In my next trip, I would like to know of the fate of these non-permanent structures.

Cowistan and the Holy Matter

If you own a cow in India, you own the world, full stop. You can plonk yourself in any(one’s) territory without the fear of being objected to. Not only will the animal receive treats and tilaks but you, as the owner, will receive chay in exchange for bringing it in daily in order to put the green waste to good use. You wait, gloating at the fools. You wait until your brothers* start joining with their cattle. Residents are happy that they have cows, not dogs. It saves them the temple journeys. They can carry out the prayers right there, feed their ‘dead’ in their courtyard without wasting money on the brahmins with big appetite for their food and rupya.

*Brothers are the other men of your community.

Selling milk is the occupation of your entire community. The sight of you and your flock gathered outside other people’s properties will slowly seem normal. It will be gradual to be noticed, until it is too late. Then, it really is too late. Now you want your cowistan right there. And you get it.

Even before your homes are built, the cowpats are drying everywhere. They bring extra income after milk. Neighbourhood is now dependent on you. They will be lost without the convenience of fresh milk, manure, fuel, building material, green disposal facility, and the ‘temple’. A symbiotic relationship is now formed.

An aunt of mine lived next to a gaushala in Khar West, Bombay. Gaushala is a concept very different to cowistan‘s. It is a charitable institution for cows. There will be volunteers, and the charity will depend on donations. Aplenty donations in the country where cow is revered. In some cases, people will actually ‘donate’ a cow, which will mean donating the amount that can buy a healthy adult cow, always a female. No one wants to donate a bull. It has no milk, so not so holy.

I got accustomed to the rural smell in her urban apartment. Loved it, in fact. After being there for decades, it closed down to make way for a huge hospital building with state-of-the-art facilities. Many lives will be saved, but many hearts are broken, including mine. I miss the cows and their smell. Gaushala cows are not as bright as cowistan cows. They don’t know how to claim the real estate.

I have lovingly handled cow dung – during my aunt’s chulha building and then when making cow dung rings for the Holika Dahan. It did enter my nails, even dried up in them, and I most definitely consumed the holy matter with my regular dal roti. It’s edible, so no worries. No one warned me against it. Not that anyone encouraged either, but there was never any cautionary lesson prior to the job.

Coming back to your cowistan… Wow, you now have several pucca homes with Enfield motorcycles – the Indian Harley Davidson. You still wear a dhoti, still sell milk, but you do it in style, on your heavy-duty bike. You even herd your cows sitting on your bike. You are the Indian cowboy – horsepower without a horse.

Your women are strong and sexy. Right in the middle of a busy road, they walk swaying excessively like they own it. Claiming gene.

Residents start to gradually sell their properties. You are the buyer majority of the time. You’ve acquired wealth by selling milk, plus minimal overheads. Your homes are in affluent neighbourhood. You are already a millionaire. The earlier residents’ properties are going cheap. No one except you will touch a property in a “milking” neighbourhood. You and your people are set. The cows are here to stay for good. Your sons can relocate to a new cowistan.

I love milk and the smell of the manure. I am not selling my property. Tough.