The Day I Met The Gurjars

Over the years, and even before I declared myself a photographer, I photographed several towns, districts, tribes, people and their homes running along and across the Aravalli mountains. I’ve been driven along the fold mountains ever since I was born, either to reach our ancestral home, or that of our relatives, and now my parents’ and brother’s. In recent years, my brother, Deepak, has driven me around hundreds of miles, through villages and tribal areas that made for a fascinating experience. Because of his extensive travel experience and knowledge of the areas and communities, he’s fully familiar with the places I will find interesting, as a photographer. His good connections in the land have proven useful too, to get access to no-go zones. People who would normally not entertain you, happily welcome you, because there is a common language and understanding once we have had a chance to connect.

This day was one such experience. We drove far from Jaipur and reached a town habited by the Gurjars (aka Gujjars). There was a tense environment upon approach. Gurjars have been, until recently, a lot in the news because of rioting, killings, disruption. They are a feared tribe of the North. Their men are tall, physically strong, fierce and rough in approach, proud but with a patriarchal mindset. They are known for charging before speaking. They own swords and carry knives hidden in their clothing. That’s what I’m told. Basically speaking, you cannot afford to be a gurjar’s enemy in those regions. I sort of worried thinking what might happen. They had rioted on the highway only a few days before we went there.

So, here we were, myself and Deepak, entering this village. We got off at the square where many heavy-built men with sun-kissed ruggedness and long moustaches were seated on their Enfields and Hero Hondas, or on a raised chabutara. Two of them got up with their sticks to enquire the purpose of our visit. Deepak got out of the car to speak to them. After a few minutes, he returned and asked me to step out of the car and enter the village. “No holds barred. You have a free rein,” he says. That I can do what I like, enter any home I like, speak to any man, woman, child, elderly, take photos of their homes, people and cattle. This came as a blessing for me.

They did, though, kept asking in various ways if I was a journalist. It took me three hours to convince them fully that I was one of them, a Rajasthani, and not there to cause any trouble. That the photographs were for personal use, not commissioned by any publication, that what they share with me will remain with me. No one will find out. I had no qualms about sharing my details with them, just to put their minds at rest. I spent the day chatting with and photographing the tough guys as Deepak patiently waited at the square with the even tougher ones. One sweet young fellow in green, with green eyes too, invited me to his cycle shop. If he’d ever walked on London or LA streets, people would have mistaken him for Kirk Douglas. By god, that resemblance was uncanny.

The toughest nut to crack was the head of the Gurjars. The old man, who Deepak addressed as tau. They had met a few times before, as Deepak had passed through the town a number of times, but never had he sought permission to allow a stranger (me) into their lives. It was the first. Once cracked, tau took me to a few homes himself. Nobody could turn him away. That’s the kind of authority he wielded among the village folk. Deepak waved at me and said, “Now that he’s happy with you, you are set.” I was actually set. That’s when I got to mingle with the toughest lot. The stories they shared will remain with me forever. They got their women to offer us tea and snacks. They preferred I didn’t share photos of their women, but allowed me to photograph them. I appreciate and respect their trust in me.

It was the most gratifying journey, thanks to Deepak who made it all possible for me. Thanks to the Gurjars who welcomed me in their homes and lives, shared stories that changed my perception of them. People might continue to fear them, but they promised me that I can visit anytime I like, give any one of them a call, and they will be there to welcome me.

….. Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

Langurs of Amer

It’s rare not to find a langur army in and around Jaipur fortresses, palaces, lakes and Aravalli foothills.

This photo was taken on a hot summer day. A hot summer day in the desert state is not the kind of heat most people are accustomed to elsewhere. Those who are not accustomed to such temperatures should not venture out here during daytime.

A school bell (the old school bell, literally) had just rung and the school kids carrying huge backpacks poured out in their hundreds, but quickly dispersed. Many, forming small groups, went towards the hillock, climbed the snaky rugged path before disappearing into a distance. I had no idea where their homes were, but I could only guess they must be behind that mound. When seen carefully in the photo, one can see some kids walking in a distance on the hillock.

Although, I’ve studied in India, and am used to the concept of carrying huge school satchel bags (as we didn’t have backpacks in those days, only traditional satchel bags), but I’m increasingly noticing the weight Indian kids carry to school and back daily. Why do such small kids need so many books everyday? Well, I kind of understand as we needed them too, but I can’t help but feel sorry for the kids.

The nice thing for these kids was the company of langurs on their way. A daily ritual for them, but they seemed to still enjoy as much as I did. I stood there for some time to observe how they took turns to run past the monkeys. Black-faced langurs are not known to be dangerous. They are only disruptive, especially when they enter homes. They can open your fridge, grab what they want, eat, drop, make a mess, eat your plants in the garden, break things before they exit.

But these kids still exercised caution. The kids who managed to cross first will wait for the rest of the group members to join. The funniest thing I noticed was how the ones who made it to the other side would shout and cheer the remaining ones, “Come on, you’re brave, langur won’t do anything. Hanumanji hain! (he’s only Lord Hanuman – meaning “Gods don’t harm”). Such words of encouragement. Emboldened, they all make it past the monkeys.

They will do the same thing all over again tomorrow. The monkeys will again wait to grunt at the kids. To scare them. It must be a kind of game they all play together. I think they understand each other well. Thinking this, I exit too, without leaving a mess though.

…. Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

Who resides over Lord Vishnu when, allegorically, no one can?

Lord Vishnu

This stone statue was in a small 500-year old temple in Amer. I first thought that the three seated on top formed the trimurti, the Hindu trinity.  Upon close inspection I realised that the main standing statue is of Lord Vishnu, who happens to be one of the three supreme gods of the trimurti. And those seated above Vishnu cannot be identified as the trimurti. They are dressed more like sages than like Gods, who are figures of ostentation, except for Lord Shiva, who appears handsomely powerful even when seated half-naked. And his hair is beautifully top-knotted with Ganga flowing out of his curly hair-locks. He would never sit docile like a sage. And then, these are three.

So, who are they? Could one of them be Narad muni? But he originates from Vishnu’s navel. Let’s say the connecting piece fell off during the move. What about the other two figures then?

Or are they not even part of the main statue? Two separate stone carvings placed together, like in most places where ancient temples and palaces are in a state of disrepair and neglect, and stones weathering at different rates.

Could this explain the difference in colour of these two pieces?

Whatever maybe the case, it’s a beautiful piece that’s survived half a millennium, and probably would last another half.

… Sapna Dhandh-Sharma