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

A Rare Flower

Why do we have the perspective that we have? What makes us think that that’s the correct one? What if we have been approaching everything the wrong way around?

To me, this new perspective seems reasonably pleasing. Let us now flip it around to check which one is more desirable.

Sapna Dhandh Sharma

The Messiah Must Reside In Such Quietude

Sarkhej Roza, Makarba, Gujarat.

It was an early start. Ahmedabad has changed to an unrecognisable extent. I drove from there through S.G. Highway to Makarba one July morning in 2018 as per the directions given by Bubbles in a cutely sincere manner – two lefts,  then right,  then straight for 2 kms,  then three rights, and so on. It must have been the combination of her accuracy and my ability to grasp that I reached the masjid with sheer ease. The light from the golden torch was making its way to the earth before bribing its way into the roza’s courtyard.

Bhavna Ramrakhiani – Convenor of Ahmedabad Community Foundation

Bhavna stood there to greet me. Oh, what a beautiful face she had. Those eyes!! She instantly came across as a warm person willing to share her knowledge of the place. She spoke a welcome mix of educated English and raw Hindi. We entered the monument, removed our shoes, covered our heads.

Morning scene
Man reading the morning papers

A typical morning scene. Touchingly serene. A few men, unperturbed by my presence, read the morning papers. I felt at home. I kept taking photographs as Bhavna’s soft voice kept singing in my ears. We Indians are spoilt. Our history dates so far back that we casually declare a six centuries old structure as recent. We even neglect it. 

Morning arrivals
Sarkhej Roza

This was Sarkhej Roza, once the home of sufi saint, Ganj Baksh. To one side stood a stone pavilion in a sad state of disrepair and to the other, a courtyard with a masjid and quietly guarded tombs. Several mausoleums, an old well, hundreds of wide steps leading down to a dried tank and the infinite expanse. One part of the mosque, with its tall pillars reminded me of the Acropolis of Athens. It was too much for me to take in on a short morning tour. 

Stone pavilion in state of disrepair
Pillars of the mosque
Path to the mosque

Once in a while a person will walk the white-painted path, that led to the masjid, to speak in private to the supreme being. This path was also taken by the Sun to kiss the cheek of the messiah who must most definitely reside in such quietude.

Prayers
Connecting with the messiah
Girl playing
Well-wheel spoke shaped like a bird
Spoke on the wheel of the well resembling a bird

A small girl jumped and skipped on the steps oblivious to all. A spoke of the well-wheel pulley made to resemble an exotic visitor to the Sabarmati River. A cormorant or a spoonbill perhaps. The little bookshop opened early. A few men sat selling to no customers at all. Bhavna enjoyed a nice chat with them. A silvery bearded man in immaculate white clothes and matching taqiyah takes over the shop. “Maybe he’ll sell only one book today,” I thought. I buy one. But he will remain all day no matter what. Dedication. Service. We all can learn.

Men in the book shop, Sarkhej Roza, Gujarat.
The Old Man with silvery beard and immaculate clothes. Sarkhej Roza, Gujarat.

The cleaner, with her younger grandson in her arms, complained about her useless son-in-law. From Bhavna’s story to this – it felt like I had changed the radio station. 

The cleaner with her younger grandson and running commentary

Her elder grandson played near the main gate. His angelic face captivated me so much that I took several photos of him. He kept changing poses. A young man sat on the chair. 
Maybe, that was the accused.

The elder grandson
Angelic face
The accused. Maybe. Maybe not.

My gaze locked on a woman sitting outside the room that housed the tombs. She was not present there. She appeared to be talking to someone. But there was no one. She then laughed, and continued to laugh. Her ankles were swollen. She was a regular I was told. She walked out as aimlessly as she had walked in.

She spoke to the spirits
Woman selling balloons

Outside the mosque, another lady sold balloons. “She’s my friend,” announced Bhavna. Where did these people buy such delightful smiles from when they could not even afford a decent meal? How can they afford such precious attributes?

On my drive back to Ahmedabad, and before I hit the highway, I saw the lady who spoke to the spirits. She was on her way to… nowhere.

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.