A Travellerspoint blog

Out to Africa - in search of the Greatest Show on Earth

Just one-and-a-half more sleeps...

Back in the autumn last year, a friend (thanks Jen) suggested I might be willing to hold a talk for Avon Wildlife Trust about some of my wildlife related travels. I agreed to talk about “African Safaris” as I do have quite some experience (and a number of photos) of the subject matter. The problem was, once the “safari thought” had been introduced into my brain, it matured into a strong desire to travel to Africa to shoot some more animals. Hence this trip was booked. We get back home with just a week to spare before the talk - not much pressure then!

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Having been on numerous safaris in the past, it has always been my dream to see the migration crossing the Mara River, and I therefore contacted our trusted ground handler in Tanzania (Calabash African Adventures) asking them to set up a “Migration Safari” for us. I am fully aware that seeing a river crossing is far from guaranteed, as they are often elusive, rapid experiences, but just seeing the sheer number of animals that are likely to be in this area will be worth the trip.

The annual wildebeest migration is renowned to be one of the world's most spectacular wildlife events and is often called “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

The migration doesn't just happen in one place at one time, with the animals walking from A to B, and it is also not a continuously forward motion. They go forward, backwards, and to the sides, they mill around, they split up, they join forces again, they walk in a line, the spread out, or they hang around together. You can never predict with certainty where they will be; the best you can do is choose a likely location and timing based on past experience. And then hope for the best!

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I am hoping to be able to update this blog while we are away, and will be taking my mobile internet with me; however, I am sceptical about the mobile phone coverage in the bush. And we really ARE going to be in the wild for a few days, staying in a luxury mobile camp in the far north west of Serengeti; so if you don't see any updates, do not fret. They will eventually be published even if you have to wait until we get home.

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Safari here we come!

Posted by Grete Howard 07.09.2014 06:24 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Bikaner - Jaipur

Starting the long journey home

semi-overcast
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As I wandered around the hotel grounds this morning taking photos, I was approached by one of the workers who offered to show me the “Tiger Room” (for some baksheesh of course). The Laxmi Niwas Palace is a quirky, paradoxical place, with long empty corridors (which apparently stretch for 22 kilometres in total, right through the Lalgarh Palace next door which Laxmi Niwas is part of); a bare stone staircase complete with resident bat which looks like it should be in a old castle horror movie; Rajasthan's first elevator installed in 1904 (which incidentally was right outside our (second) room, and looked so antiquated I wouldn't even set foot in it, let alone ride it!); opulent bedrooms with modern plumbing (!), a fairly plain and uninspiring restaurant and a Tiger Room. Doesn't every self respecting home have a tiger room?

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Trophy Rooms
There are not just tigers in these two rooms (one which is the current bar of the hotel) but all sorts of hunting trophies. Only identical-looking animals, their faces, and where applicable, horns, in symmetry with each other were seen as worthy of the taxidermist. In many cases, it took years and even decades before the right likeness was discovered and shot.

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The royal hunting party never shot game indiscriminately. Allegedly. It was a civilised hobbyists’ hunt with a very pointed quest. A shot wasn’t fired until a hunter found the physical identikit that he and often she, (Bikaner’s queens and princesses tended to be the more excellent shots) desired.

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It was kinda lonely in the love-chair without David - who was busy paying the bill at this stage.

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Just one more sightseeing visit.....

Vaishno Devi Temple
This gaudy and somewhat Disneyesque temple just outside Bikaner is said to be a representation of the famous Vaisho Devi Temple in Kashmir which draws huge numbers of pilgrims every year (it's the second most visited shrine in India). A concrete mountain symbolises the steep hill where the original 700 year old cave shrine is found.

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You enter the temple through the mouth of a tiger

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Inside the compound – which is more akin to a theme park rather than a temple - are various bizarre, sometimes grotesque and always fantastical looking deities.
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Time to hit that long road back to Jaipur – 330 kilometres. The road is not particularly exciting, at least not the bits I see each time I wake up from my slumber. A few huge trucks, an overfilled bus, a camel cart or two and some women carrying wood catch my eye along the way.

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We stopped for lunch and a comfort break at one of the many roadside restaurants. Somehow I missed the signs over the entrance to the bathroom area, and ended up in the gents (there were nothing to indicate gender on the actual doors themselves, just over the archway in the restaurant) and I was very pleasantly surprised to find there was a Western style sit down toilet! Not so in the ladies apparently, so my mistake was a good one!

Bhanwar ordered us four portions of delicious paneer pakoras with a tasty dip, two lassies and two chai, plus a large bottle of water; and the bill came to 285 Rupees, which is around £2.85 at today's exchange rate. I can live with that.

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Then it is back to Jaipur and the Umaid Bawan Hotel.

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It's like coming home, being greeted like long lost friends and the staff being terribly apologetic that the room we had last time is already taken, but we can have Room 101. OK then.

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It is not as glamorous or as big as our last room, but being right next to the reception will be useful for leaving at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning. The room is nice and cool and the bed unbelievably comfortable – shame we are only spending half a night here.

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In the last room we had a peculiar walk-in wet room in addition to the regular bathroom; in this one we have a fabulous corner bath!

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We take a quick shower and change and meet back up with Bhanwar and Jo and go off to see Sabu and Reena in their home.

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The tailor turns up as arranged with all my new tops. I'd left him with one of my favourite blouses and asked him to make me some more; this time in subtle colours for our upcoming safari. He did us proud and at a third of the price the originals cost back home.

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I feel very honoured to be part of Reena's very first meal cooked in her married home. Reena and Sabu have been enjoying a couple of nights in a luxury hotel, so this is their first night in their new home.

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I did feel for Reena tonight, the pressure of not only cooking for your husband for the first time, but also for foreign visitors; but she did brilliantly!

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And so ends a very special trip to a very special country to see a very special couple getting married.

Congratulations Reena and Sabu and may your married life be long and happy!

Posted by Grete Howard 05.07.2014 06:04 Archived in India Comments (3)

A day in Bikaner

A hot day in a desert city

semi-overcast 46 °C
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I slept really well last night, it was rather nice to have a proper bed, in a cool room, with no sand-blasting and a private toilet nearby. Luxury! I have to say I pined for the cold shower of Dagri this morning though, as both the hot and the cold tap in the bathroom seemed to have hot water coming out of them.

Manoj picked us up this morning (along with Bwanwar of course) for a day of sightseeing in Bikaner. First stop the town's fort.

Junagarh Fort
Seven gates (two main gates) lead into the fort. The current main entry gate is called Suraj Pol (meaning the Sun gate), built in gold coloured or yellow sandstone, unlike the other gates and buildings built in red sandstone. It is the east facing gate permitting the rising Sun’s rays to fall on the gate, which is considered a good omen.

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The doors of this gate are strengthened with iron spikes and studs to prevent ramming by elephants during an attack.

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These days you don't ram your elephants against the gate to enter, you ring the bell and bow to the Ganesha shrine instead.

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Inside are found a number of temples and pavilions as well as 37 palaces which are made of red sandstone and marble .

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Each of the palaces is a work of art with carved windows, kiosks, hanging balconies and towers and are now living museums of the glorious past and grandeur. The palaces have a large number of rooms, as every king built his own separate set of rooms, not wanting to live in his predecessors’ rooms. These structures were considered as “at par with those of Louis’s France or of Imperial Russia”

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The ceiling was made from stone slabs from Jodhpur covered in wood which is said to help maintain the cooler temperatures inside.

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I loved this door made from 65 kilo of silver.

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Mahi Maratib was the main insignia of honour conferred on the Chief Rulers by the Muslim Emperor. These insignia showing the Hand of Fatima were carried behind the Emperor in every procession.

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Each room we came to seemed to be grander than the last - this was the Private Audience Room.

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The Badal Mahal – the Blue Room – dates from the 1880s.

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The Maharaja had a “power shower” – a slot with water gushing out and a knob which turned the jet of water. How cool is that?

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The ceiling was decorated to represent clouds and lightning.

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The Coronation Room was last used as recently as 1988 for the coronation of the last Maharaja.

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The staircase leading to the upper floors was deliberately kept steep and narrow, so that any would-be invaders would have to walk up in a single file and could not draw their sword on the stairs.

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Junagarh (“Old Fort”) is one of the few major forts in Rajasthan which is not built on a hilltop. The original fort was around a mile outside the town, but now the modern city of Bikaner has developed around the fort.

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Manoj explained the use of this curious contraption – on Krishna's birthday, an image of Krishna is placed on the seat and swung. I am not sure what significance this has, however.

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I love the privacy screen that allowed the Royal ladies to see without being seen.

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I wouldn't mind staying in the guest rooms here.

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Is this the current Royal Family?

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Or feuding warlords?

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One of the more curious items on display in the fort was this soup spoon with a shield to protect the Maharaja's moustache as he was eating.

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In recognition of the services rendered by the Bikaner State Forces led by Maharaja Ganga Singji during the first world war, the British presented him with several war souvenirs among which were the shot down parts of two DH-9 De Haveland planes. These war trophies were transported to Bikaner by ship along with the Bikaner State Force around 1920. One of the later Maharajas, Dr Karni Singji, was keen to get the planes restored, and with the help of local craftsmen one completed trophy was created from the decaying parts of the two planes in 1985. It is currently on display in he basement of the fort.

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As Jo had already visited the fort when she came to Bikaner last year, she took the opportunity to have a lazy morning. We went back to the hotel to pick her up and use the facilities. Having drunk another tree and a half of mango juice this morning, I thought it best.

For the sojourn into Bikaner Old Town, we squeezed into tuk tuks a couple of sizes too small, Jo and I in one and David and Manoj in the other.

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The buildings on either side of the road closed in and the narrow lanes were filling up with people, stalls and cows as we headed into the older part of town. No wonder we couldn't take the car! In many places the alleys were barely wide enough for the tuk tuk, and the drivers impressed me no end with their skill at manoeuvring the over the drains where two small blocks bridged the gap between one road and the next – bearing in mind that the wheels are offset – the tuk tuks are three wheelers! Very skilful driving, albeit a bumpy one!

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Jain Havelis
The city is said to boast of some of the most captivating havelis across the country. Haveli is the term used for a private mansion in India, usually one with historical and architectural significance. The word haveli is derived from Arabic haveli, meaning "an enclosed place." Many of the havelis of India were influenced by Islamic Persian, Central Asian and Indian architecture and usually contain a courtyard often with a fountain in the centre.

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The Jain havelis belonged to the rich and the wealthy merchants of Rajasthan who earned their living in far off lands for more than half the year and returned to their beautiful homes for rejuvenating and relaxing. It is said that these buildings are a reflection of their great appreciation for beauty, art and culture. The detailed carvings of the havelis justify the persona of each craftsman and are incomparable to any other construction in the world. The oldest haveli in Bikaner is said to date back to around 400 years.

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Interesting doors - one is way too large and the other is somewhat on the small side.

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Bhanwar Niwas
One of the havelis has been converted into a luxury hotel called Bhanwar Niwas (named after our lovely driver maybe?), and with Manoj's connections we were given a guided tour of the place. If I ever come back to Bikaner, I want to stay here!

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The rooms were exquisitely decorated, with period furniture, but it was certainly not just a show house – we were positively encouraged to try out the seats for photos.

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We were even taken to see a couple of the bedrooms – how is this for sumptuousness?

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Further into the depth of the old city, we negotiated the narrow lanes through the bazaar.

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Bhandasar Jain temple
Out of the 27 beautiful Jain temples in Bikaner, Bhandasar is considered to be the prettiest and it is also the highest.

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Unlike some Jain temples we have visited in the past, the Bhandasar in Bikaner was fairly relaxed about who could enter. Often they insist you leave any items of leather, food or drink at the gate and will refuse entry to menstruating women. The most pious devotees would even make sure that they wore freshly laundered clothes which they have not worn while eating or visiting the toilet. The only stipulation here was that you remove your shoes.

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The temple was built by a rich businessman called Bhanda Shah in 1540, and he dedicated the temple to the 6th lord of Jainism. The many elegant marble pillars (typical north-Indian style Jain temple architecture, called derasar) are carved beautifully with Demi god posture.

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In the shikar-bandhi style of temple architecture, there is also always a main deity (known as mulnayak) in each derasar.

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The custodian of the temple, who is the 31st generation of Brahmin priests, gave us a thorough tour, and spoke enough English for at least some of what he said to make sense.

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As with Hindu and Buddhist places of worship, you always walk around a Jain temple clockwise.

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The temple was built using more than 40 barrels of ghee instead of mortar and the foundation contains dry coconuts. The priest was explaining how the brown patches on the marble floor is ghee seeping through. If you run your fingers over it, you can feel the greasy texture.

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Also typical for this style of temple architecture – called shikar-bandh – is the domed roof. Here seen from the inside.

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The interior of the temple is exquisite and comprises of rich mirror works with every inch of available space decorated in bright colours.

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One of the benefits of visiting in the low season is that there really aren't any other tourists. We saw an Argentinian woman and her daughter at the hotel this morning, but that is the only other western visitor we have seen in Bikaner. So we had the temple entirely to ourselves.

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The entire temple building is divided into three floors and is made of red sandstone and white marble. From the roof there is a great view over Bikaner.

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Back in the tuk tuks and heading for the bazaars.

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Bikaner Bazaar
Small stores selling anything from fruit and vegetables, to clothing, shoes, household goods, spices, brass ornaments and everything in between, spill out onto the already narrow back streets of Bikaner.

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Except knockers. We were after a door knocker featuring a Ganesha elephant head similar to this one we saw in the Karni Mata temple in Deshnok, but we had no luck in finding one. Lots of bells, but no knockers.

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Vying for space with the goods and shoppers, are camel carts, cows and motorbikes.

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Manoj wanted to show us the Camel Breeding Farm this afternoon, but I'm afraid the thought of a lazy dip in the swimming pool won over. Just one last visit to the loo before I put my swimsuit on and I'll be ready. We'd heard strange squeaking sounds from the toilet ever since we arrived but didn't take a great deal of notice of it. I had only just sat down on the toilet when I heard an almighty crash and felt the world collapse under my bum.

Ceramic fatigue strikes again! I suppose over the years the ceramic had developed a weakness at the pressure point where it joined the wall, and my heavier-than-average bum on it was just the final straw. The toilet was on its side on the floor, water was gushing everywhere from the cistern and I was poised in a most peculiar and extremely uncomfortable position half crouched, half leaning on the wall, not daring to let go in case I landed on broken china. My desperate screams had David rushing to scene to rescue me and switch the water off before it completely flooded the entire upper floor. Thank goodness the runs I'd been suffering from for the last couple of days had finally subsided (those magical antibiotics we bought in Jaipur at the start of the holiday worked wonders)!!!!!

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After changing our room (!), we finally made it to the swimming pool, and it was certainly worth waiting for.

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I arrived in India with a large cold sore that certainly didn't get any better as the days went on. I guess the sand blasting when sleeping outside in Dagri didn't help, and neither did the heat or lack of sanitary conditions. It seemed every time I eat something or smile too widely I crack the scab open again and it bleeds (I guess you could say that if I smiled my face would crack). If I keep my mouth closed for too long (which David would say is unheard of!), the puss forms a crust and effectively glues my mouth shut! And of course as soon as I open it, the sore starts to puss and bleed again. All it took in the swimming pool was for David to splash it with a little water, and me to laugh a little too much, and off it went again.

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We later discovered a little surprise Jo had purchased while in the market this afternoon: a couple of blobs of bhang.

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Bhang has been used as an intoxicant for centuries in the Indian sub-continent, and is preparation from the leaves and flowers (buds) of the female cannabis plant, usually consumed as a beverage (as in bhang lassi), or as a cookie. This lot, however was a mud-like consistency and it was suggested we added it to some Coca Cola. It certainly made the evening go with a bhang!

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We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the beautifully lit hotel grounds, having a very nice meal and laughing a lot.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04.07.2014 08:33 Archived in India Comments (0)

Dagri - Nagaur - Deshnok - Bikaner

Now it's time for a "proper holiday".

semi-overcast 39 °C
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I woke up with the rising sun and spotted a small herd of goats eyeing the sleeping westerners curiously. I thought it would make a very humorous photo with the caption: “The kids are watching us again”, so I very carefully got out of the bed so as not to scare the animals, and crept into the tent to grab my camera. I was just poised to push the button when I heard a “Shoo” from the other cot and the goats scurried in all directions. Thanks David.

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In order to justify the cost of the flight to India - after all, it's a lot of money and a long way to travel “just” to go to a wedding - we wanted to add some “us” time too, a “proper holiday” after the wedding. I had a look at maps and websites, and came up with some ideas for sightseeing – and a touch of luxury – after the adventures in rural Rajasthan, so we headed towards Bikaner for a couple of nights. Jo decided to join us, so after saying our goodbyes we left fairly early in the morning.

It was a reasonably good road, dotted with the usual goats and camels; Jo got quite excited at seeing her first Nilgai on the outskirts of one of the villages.

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Nagaur
First stop, Nagaur. Actually, that's not strictly true; first stop was the next village to buy some Mango Slice. Naturally.

Nagaur City dates back to the 4th century AD when it was at the centre of Muslim invasions from Central Asia. It was a bigger city than I imagined.

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As we entered town Bhanwar tried finding a store that sold Mango Slice (I shall look like a mango by the time we get home) and some snacks.

Although he had driven through Nagaur several times, Bhanwar had never actually been inside the fort itself, and we ended up driving around for a bit, and even asking a couple of people, before we found the entrance. I was very surprised that we were actually able to drive inside the Middle Gate, to a “car park” in the shade of a tree. As part of the entrance tickets, we were assigned a guide, who explained everything we saw. My stomach was not good this morning, but I really wanted to see the fort as I doubt we'd ever come this way again.

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Nagaur Fort

Known locally as Ahhichatragarh (The Fort of the Hooded Cobra), the fort was one of the first Muslim strongholds in northern India built in the early 1100s over the mound of of a fourth century mud fort. It was repeatedly altered over subsequent centuries - most of the surviving structures in the central complex date from the 17th and 18th centuries. The fort underwent major award-winning renovations starting in 2007 and is now looking really quite spick and span. It is enormous – I would have loved to have seen it from the air, such as this photograph here shows. It is more than just fortifications, , it is a large complex housing palaces, pleasure pavilions, gardens, courtyards, temples, a mosque and an elaborate water system.

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Shah Jahan Mosque
The five-domed mosque was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his wife) during the time when Nagaur was under Mughal control. In a decrepit state; the mosque is no Taj Mahal but an important historical monument nonetheless. It represents the time when the Mughals enjoyed uninterrupted power in Nagaur.

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Hadi Rani Mahal
The palace is named after a well known local queen and was the dwelling place of the wives of the rulers of Nagaur.

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Notice the lattice screens on the windows of the upper floors – installed so that the women could see out without being seen.

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I loved the wooden elephants at the entrance – I can only imagine how magnificent this would have been in its heyday, gaudily painted and with water spraying out of its spout. It was used to carry the young princes and princesses during parades.

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The paintings on the second floor are rather curious in that they are all of women, except one lone man!

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We wandered in and out of various different palaces within the grounds - I was particularly taken with the Central Courtyard - in the wet season the swimming pools are full of water and they hold festivals where there are lights dotted around the edge of the pool and in niches along the walls.

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Some of the palaces are very nicely restored, while other still have work to be done on them. In 2002, The fort was given an Award of Excellence by UNESCO for their restoration work.

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We saw a couple of workers painting one of the walls (In yellow, the symbol of royalty), but other than that we saw no other people al the time we were there, worker or other tourists. Despite the tourism department apparently vigorously promoting the Nagaur as a centre for the crafts, hoping that will lead to the re-generation of the economy and a greater awareness of the cultural heritage of this region, I have to say it was really quite difficult to find information about the fort while I was researching the trip on line before coming here.

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Abha Mahal
The palace was built to commemorate the recapture of Nagaur by the Mughals in the mid-16th century. Here you can see the Maharaja's throne:

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The Maharaja has 16 wives and he built each a separate balcony overlooking his throne room.

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There were certainly some amazing paintings and frescoes in this palace, although I am not sure the comparison with the Cistine Chapel in Rome is quite fair to Michaelangelo....

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One of the many fascinating aspects of the palace was the water cooling channels, featuring cascading water down the walls, gravity fed from huge tanks on the roof, and underfloor cooling passages. This place must have been really impressive in its heyday.

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Rings in the ceiling would have suspended swing beds over the cooling fountains.

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An oasis such as this in the middle of a dry desert, would have been the height of luxury in those days. An elaborate hammam (like the more famous Turkish baths) was included in this set up too of course.

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Not only water was used to help keep the inside of the palace cool during the hot summer month, the Mughals also used the Persian style wind tower system. The wind tower is essentially a tall, capped “chimney” with one face open at the top. This open side faces the prevailing wind, thus "catching" it, and brings it down the tower into the heart of the building to maintain air flow, thus cooling the building interior. It does not necessarily cool the air itself, but rather relies on the rate of airflow to provide a cooling effect. Ancient AC!

Here you can see the wind tower on the roof and the chimney outlet inside the building.

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The outside walls were beautifully adorned with paintings too, although not yet restored to their former glory like the inside.

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By this stage I am feeling yet again extremely dehydrated – it seems to be the theme of this trip. I also have bad stomach cramps, but the dehydration means I do not have any desire, nor need, to visit the toilet. Bhanwar goes off to buy Mango Slice for us again. He really is such a sweetie. Always polite, always caring, always very sweet, and I love the way he says “My pleasure” when you thank him for something he's done.

Deepak Mahal
This palace contains Persian-style floral designs and several niches in the inner walls to hold lamps. I can imagine that must look magical at night – all those oil lamps glowing and flickering.

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The lighting of a lamp is a significant ritual in Indian traditions connected with all important ceremonies as well as in all daily rituals, including prayers, the beginning of a day, and signalling the onset of dusk. Architecture has responded in a wide array of expressions starting with a small niche in a wall adjacent to a door, to elaborate embellishments of multiple niches, exquisitely articulated.

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Sheesh Mahal
Restoration work was being carried out on this palace, meaning we were not allowed to go inside. I would love to have seen it inside with all the mirrors on the walls glistening and reflecting the light.

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Also known as Akbari Mahal, this was emperor Ahbar's residence. One of the earliest buildings of the central area, it's a small palace following the tradition of an ornate king's chamber, resplendent with mirror work murals reflecting thousands of images of the king and the oil lamps.

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By now I'd had enough. I was hot, I was tired, I was dehydrated, I was in pain. Words were exchanged between the guide and Bhanwar, who rushed off. The next thing we knew was that the guide had gone off to get the keys for the back gate, and Bhanwar had driven right up into the palace to pick us up. Talk about service!

In the UK we read from time to time about people crossing the railway line even after the barriers are down. Here in India it happens all the time. And I mean ALL THE TIME. In the first picture you can see pedestrians dodging under the barrier, and in the second a motorbike crossing. Admittedly the trains don't run as fast in India as they do back home, and the barriers are closed a very long time before the train comes; but this is just an accident waiting to happen.

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Deshnok
The main reason for choosing to travel this way after the wedding was Deshnok. Or, more to the point, the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok. This unique place has been on my wish list for some considerable time, but as it is a bit out of the way from most other tourist attractions in Rajasthan, I hadn't yet got here. So now seemed like a great opportunity.

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We had arranged for a guide to meet us here from Bikaner – a friend of Jo's – and together we made our way from the car park to the temple. You have to take your shoes off before you even enter the temple compound, and you may have covers for your feet if you would like.

There are coir mat walkways right from the place where you deposit your shoes, trailing all across the square, into the temple and even around the temple complex. I sussed out why when I stepped on the red hot marble outside it!

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Karni Mata Temple
Karni Mata or Karniji, was a female Hindu sage who is said to have lived from 1387-1538 (she is believed to have been 151 years old when she died). She was revered during her lifetime and is worshipped as the incarnation of the goddess Durga, the goddess of power and victory , by her followers. The deity, who is an official deity of Bikaner and Jodhpur, had the famous temple in Deshnok created in her honour following her mysterious disappearance from her home.

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The Mughal style temple was completed in its current form in the early 20th century and further enhanced by a jeweller from Hyderabad in 1999. The silver gates to the temple and the marble carvings were also donated by him.

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However, it is not the intricate carvings, the historical importance, nor the temple's religious significance that drew us here, it's the rats. Yes, rats!

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This is not the place to be if you suffer from musophobia – the fear of mice or rats – as the temple is famous for its 20,000 black rats, which are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple.

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These holy rats are called kabbas, and many people travel great distances to pay their respects. The temple draws visitors from across the country for blessings, as well as curious tourists (like us) from around the world, hoping to have rats run across their bare feet for good luck.

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Everywhere you look there are rats. They are eating, sleeping scurrying or just well, being rats. Under foot there is rat poo and rat food, and you have to be careful not to step on the rats.

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If one of the rats is killed, it must be replaced with one made of solid gold. Eating food that has been nibbled on by the rats is considered to be a supreme blessing. I decided against trying it, for obvious reasons although it is said that during the century of this temple's existence, there has never been an outbreak of plague or other rat-borne illness among the humans who have visited—which may be a miracle in itself.

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Suddenly there was a flurry of excitement, someone had seen a white rat way down below the water tanks. Amongst the 20,000 odd black rats in the temple, there are a few rare white rats, which are considered to be especially holy. They are believed to be the manifestations of Karni Mata herself and her four sons. Spotting one of the white rats is considered a special blessing and some devotees put in extensive efforts to bring them out, offering 'prasad', a kind of sweet holy food. We were all crouching down to the floor to try and get a glimpse of the white rat – looks like our luck is in now then....

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Despite the vast number of rats in this temple, it is said that babies have never been seen - any given day, they all are of same size, shape, weight and height.

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Non-Hindu are not permitted to enter the inner sanctum – they even got quite upset about Jo standing on the door step to take photos.

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So instead we walked around the outside of the actual shrine – clockwise of course – and one old man got very friendly and wanted to give me a hug. He was practising his two English words (and a few other words that may or may not have been an attempt at English) and I was very flattered by his sincere friendliness towards foreign visitors until I felt a firm grip around my boob. Thanks for nothing mate! Give me the small furry rats any time over this human variety.

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Once we'd had our fill of rats (I could have stayed forever photographing the little furry things; I thought they were seriously cute!), we made our way to Bikaner for our overnight stop. A luxury hotel with a comfortable bed, a proper bathroom, AC and the use of a swimming pool beckoned. And what a hotel it was!

Laxmi Niwas Palace
The Laxmi Niwas was the residential palace of the king of the former Bikaner state, Mahārāja Ganga Singh and was built between 1898 and 1902.

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The drive leading up to the palace from the main road was around one kilometre long, and the first glimpse of the palace was breathtaking. Once inside the building, the focus point is a centre courtyard, reputed to be y the world’s most elaborate porterre-cocherre. Carved from forty-six tonnes of sandstone, this ornate entranceway rises through to four levels.

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The bedroom (we had been upgraded to a large suite) was enormous, with a four poster bed, dressing room, bathroom and a separate (huge) toilet.

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The bed, however, didn't seem very safe to me. It was comfortable enough, but once you sat on it, away from the edge, it bowed dangerously under my weight. Checking under the mattress, I noticed it was only supported by thin 5mm hardboard stretched across the frame. Feeling very apprehensive about the strength of this, I knew I would have problems sleeping as I would be too concerned about moving any distance in from the edge. Checking around the room, we discovered a couple of little pouffes that were just the right height to fit underneath and support the bed. I expect the staff wondered where the stools had got to once we checked out of the room.

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We were all very excited about the prospect of ordering food from a menu this evening, and eating with a knife and fork for the first time for a week (even longer for Jo). After a very nice dinner we retired to our wonderfully air conditioned room for a beautiful sleep.

Posted by Grete Howard 03.07.2014 12:10 Archived in India Comments (0)

Sikar - Dagri. The bride and groom come home

The last full day of wedding celebrations.

sunny 44 °C
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I slept all the way back from Sikar this morning, and apparently we narrowly missed a very nasty accident. Naryan's son, who was in one of the later cars, was telling us that a truck had hit a motorcycle and there was blood everywhere. The cyclist was dead and the truck driver had run off. At 14, Naryan's son was pretty shaken up and rather traumatised by it all, which I can fully understand having myself witnessed a fatal accident at that age.

It's good to be back “home”, but yet again someone has been in to the tent and taken our cots. We go on a bed-hunt and find the cots not far away and bring them back into our little home-from-home ready for tonight. With today being the last day of the festivities, there shouldn't be so many people sleeping here tonight, so maybe, just maybe we can keep our beds this evening.

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The main wedding gazebo where the reception took place had been taken down while we were in Sikar, with just the awning over the cooking area left. Not long after we got back, there was an almighty bang as one of these cloths “escaped” and blew up to touch the electricity cable, causing an explosion and tripping out the power! Luckily no-one was hurt, but it sent people and animals scampering in all directions. The electrics were later restored and all was well, but it sure spooked a few people.

It looks so large and "naked" without the huge red tents!

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Homecoming ceremony - Grihapravesa
The arrival of the wedding car created much excitement with lots of people suddenly springing into action to greet the new couple in a ritual known as Grihapravesa (home coming/entry).

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A (very grubby) red carpet was brought out for the bride to step onto as she exited the car.

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By now Reena had her face covered with a red veil, so when she appeared she looked just like a bundle of cloth.

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Along with Sabu's mum – who was looking very glamorous in a stunning red and green lehenga – the newly married couple made their way towards the house.

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With her short stature, bowed head, veil covering her face, and an almost slumped posture, Reena cut a humble and submissive figure.

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Reena and Sabu were still tied together with the traditional scarf as part of the wedding ceremony and although theirs is a modern love marriage and the scarf is purely symbolic; I could not get the resemblance to a master walking his dog out of my mind. I found this scene rather oppressive and sad.

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It also struck me how overwhelming this must be for Reena – all these people she doesn't know, a new place, a new home and a different way of life (although this is not to be their residence after the marriage, they are going to be living at Sabu's house in Jaipur), all the rituals, the expectations, doing the correct thing. All this while not having slept for 24 hours. Poor girl.

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At the door, they were invariable greeted and blessed with a red mark on the forehead.

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The same leather strap as I saw – and didn't understand the significance of - yesterday came out again, and Sabu's mum held it taut along with her veil across his chest, first one way, then the other.

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A red and yellow thread was held up against Sabu's turban.

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And later the same is repeated with Reena.

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The crowds throng to see Reena and Sabu stepping over the threshold.

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Dwar-Rokai – entering the home

Another important ceremony out of the many Indian Post Wedding Ceremonies, is performed when the newly wed couple enters the groom's home. Someone stops the couple at the entrance of the house and they can enter only after giving some gifts.

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Toppling a pot of rice – Alta
The groom's mother has placed a vessel filled with rice at the entrance of the home.

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The bride has to spill the rice by touching it with her right foot to signify wealth and that she accepts her new responsibilities.

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Following this, the couple enters the house, taking the first step with the right leg.

The right foot is considered sacred and auspicious and the act in itself symbolizes the abundance and prosperity the bride is getting to the home she is entering. Once inside, the bride steps into a tray filled with vermilion, leaving a trail of red footprints as she walks across the floor. This symbolises the Gooddess Lakskhmi, in the form of the bride, has entered the home and is bringing with her wealth, health and good luck.

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Next a series of trays of different sizes were placed on the floor in front of the bride who had to pick each one up in turn as she made her way across the room, with Sabu pointing his sword into each and every one of them.

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Each of the containers were decorated with a swastika and contained a coin and maybe some nuts or other foods. Here in India the swastika is a Hindu symbol of peace and its use far precedes Hitler!

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When she has gathered up all the plates, she hands them to her mother-in-law.

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Sabu's mum produces a ring, but in the confusion that followed, I never discovered who was given the ring. It was so hard to see what was going on and it was a photographer's nightmare: crowded, dark and cramped, with people pushing and shoving to get a better view.

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The professional photographer saw I was struggling, and very kindly grabbed my camera to take some shots from his (better) vantage point.

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I have to say that Sabu was always very good at looking after me in that respect, making sure I was in the right place at the right time to take photos (as far as he could of course); and now he beckoned me into the prayer room to be inside to capture them entering.

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I have no idea about the significance of anything that went on inside the shrine on this occasion, so I will just share some photos.

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I also have no idea why Sabu is wearing two watches....

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Blessing by the elders - Ashirvada
The next ritual involves seeking blessings from parents, and elderly relatives by touching their feet. In return the relatives bestow the couple with money.

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When it came to the turn of Sabu's brother Ganpat, not only money changed hands, but also jewellery.

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Then of course it was our turn. I was worried about getting up from those low stools but two chairs magically appeared, out of nowhere. Sabu's comment that he was “Leaving the most generous until last” put some pressure on us in terms of the monetary gift. You hide the money while the bride and groom touch your feet, then show it for all to see – and photograph. As you get up, you touch the head or shoulders of the couple to reciprocate the blessing and respect.

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The ceremony finishes with Reena and Sabu going outside to ask for a blessing from Sabu's dad. Once a proud and powerful man, it is very sad to see him now, just skin and bones. When I first saw him a few days ago, we both cried.

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The women inside. See the huge metal chest on the right? That went with us to Sikar, full of the trousseau and other stuff for the wedding.

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With the last of the homecoming ceremonies over, many of the guests that had stayed for the duration began to leave on foot, and in cars and buses.

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We go back to the tent to try and catch up on some much needed sleep. We both feel absolutely exhausted, and I really feel for the wedding couple – Reena in particular with all the heavy wedding dress on. She was really suffering towards the end of that last ceremony, I could see she could barely keep her eyes open. I hope she is also able to get some rest.

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We grabbed a couple of cots and placed them in the shade under the tree behind the tent, but discovered the area was Poop Central. The tree was full of parakeets, myna birds (including a nest) and crows, and after several direct hits we ended up moving inside the tent. Seeing what the roof of the tent looked like, I think we made a wise decision....

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I woke up to find I had the runs. Great! I make my trek from the tent to the main building, trying not to trip over the goats or scare the buffalo; picking up a bucket on the way and filling it from the well for flushing the toilet.

For our pre-dinner drinks we were joined by Jo and a spotted owlet in the tree above. That is, the owl was in the tree, not Jo.

After dark we went up to join the remaining guests (there are now probably only about 50 people still here) in the main area for some dinner and a last night with the family. By sheer coincident, both Jo and I had brought with us glow stick, and the little children (and the bigger ones!) loved them!

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This is our last night sleeping out under the stars, and it is much quieter tonight. But this is also the hottest evening so far at 42 °C with no breeze whatsoever. Much as it was unpleasant the last few nights with the fine sand the wind brought with it, at least it did cool the temperatures some at night. But not this evening. It was like trying to sleep in a sauna. I have never liked saunas and I still don't.

I was just dozing off when I need the toilet. I still have the runs.

Again I was just drifting off to sleep when the jungle babblers in the tree above us started. They are not known as “the seven sisters” for nothing: one starts "babbling" and six more reply. What a racket! Time and time again they repeated this scenario, going on for what seemed like hours.

Eventually, after removing some clothes (People sleep fully clothed here, so being part-naked was very risqué, but with so few people staying we were hoping that no-one would join us this evening) I finally managed to drift off to sleep.

Posted by Grete Howard 02.07.2014 11:25 Archived in India Comments (2)

Dagri - the wedding ceremony in Sikar

Today's the Day! And a very long day it is too!

semi-overcast 43 °C
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I slept much better last night, probably as a result of sheer exhaustion. Looking around this morning, there seems to be people everywhere. It was estimated that around 1000 people attended yesterday's celebrations at some stage during the day, and somewhere between 150 and 200 stayed over last night. People just grabbed a space as and where they could find: on the roof (not an inch of space was left between mats up there last night, and people were sleeping two or more per mat), on cots dotted around the grounds (lots of extra cots and mats had been hired for the occasion), on top of tables, on the ground sheet in the marquee, and in the house or on the porch of course. Everywhere there was space in other words.

There's nothing like having an audience when you wake up.

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Even Sabu came and joined us in the tent this morning; showing off his katar (ceremonial dagger) that he has to wear until after the wedding.

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Until today I thought mehendi (henna painting) was just for the girls, but Sabu has beautiful decorated hands too!

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I have no idea how many people were invited in total, but there were boxes and boxes of invitation cards on the farm when we arrived, with people taking huge stacks with them in the car and coming back empty handed. I felt extremely honoured that we were actually mentioned on the invitation itself – the only thing we did understand on it! The invitations were very fancy, about 5mm thick in a classy gold envelope. Inside, a padded and embossed folder holds two cards, one of which has our names on it.

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A leisurely morning, followed by a light lunch, and it's time to get ready for the big day.

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First of all there was another haldi (turmeric) ceremony inside the small room which doubles up as a shrine. This time Sabu was joined by his young nephew as they were being smeared with turmeric paste seven times for luck, prosperity and to protect from evil spirits.

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With temperatures of over 40 °C outside, the small inside rooms get very hot indeed, especially when crammed full of people wanting to see what is going on.

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Someone's been busy this morning decorating Sabu's car for the journey to Sikar (the bride's city) today for the main wedding ceremony.

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Time to prepare the groom for his long journey. Again we were inside, this time in the slightly bigger TV room, although it was so packed with people trying to get in on the action, it seemed even smaller and even hotter than before.

All the time Sabu was being blessed by someone waving money over his head.

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If I am hot, then Sabu must be boiling in his long, heavy embroidered silk sherwani (coat).

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Of course, Sabu and his trusty mobile phone are rarely far apart!

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Next the tilak (mark on the forehead) is applied.

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Now Sabu is wearing another, much larger and grander katar (ceremonial dagger) to go with his wedding outfit, and he is placed on a small pedestal.

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He then steps off the pedestal and on to money. There are so many rituals involved with an Indian wedding, most of which I don't know the significance of. I mostly just go with the flow.

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Next, several people hand Sabu something (gifts maybe?), along with some money, but again I didn't not manage to catch the meaning of the ritual.

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Then a flower garland is placed around Sabu's neck.

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A tray with coconuts and money is offered to the groom.

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More money is being offered the groom.

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Who then touch his garland.

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Back in to the small prayer room.

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Then it is outside under the red canopy for another puja.

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This ritual involved more money (of course), as well as a coconut shell with something inside being waved over Sabu's head.

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Sabu still can't leave that mobile phone alone.

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Then the horse appeared. It is traditional for the groom to ride to the bride's house on a horse, in a procession called baarat. Of course, it would not be possible for Sabu to ride the 150-plus kilometres from Dagri to Sikar, but he is starting off from the farm on a horse.

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But first the horse had to be blessed of course.

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As well as his master.

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Sabu is helped onto the horse. He is not a rider, but has been practising for a few days here on the farm apparently.

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Boba Dena
This is one of the more unusual rituals I have come across on this trip – traditionally, as the marriage party prepares to leave for the bride’s place, the mother of the groom comes forward and publicly suckles the bridegroom in a ceremony called boba dena. This symbolises his final departure from his mum's house to that of his bride. It is fairly tastefully done, and if you'd blinked you would have missed it. In fact, my camera did miss it. Probably just as well.

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Groom's Procession – baraat.
During the baraat, the groom rides in on a horse, accompanied by his someone close to him (in Sabu's case, his young nephew). In the front of the procession is a truck with a huge music system, blaring out traditional Indian wedding tunes; behind that the guests dance as we make our way from the farm to the village along the sandy tracks. The horse with the groom follows, both decked out in their finery and there is much noise, pomp and circumstance. I reckon there must have been at least 200 of us in the procession.

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Later, another young nephew joins Sabu on the horse.

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The entrance to the farm had been beautifully decorated with a huge red arch for yesterday's party, but unfortunately it was too low for the truck and horse to pass through, so it had to be quickly disassembled before the procession could continue.

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As the lads were trying to manhandle the arch out of the way, the strong wind caught it, and the whole thing crashed to the ground, much to the amusement of the kids. No harm down, and the baarat continued towards the village.

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It really was very hot out today, and just walking is exhausting, let alone dancing in the street! I soon finish my water bottle and as I go, I feel more and more over-heated, fatigued, dehydrated and light-headed. As Sabu's honorary mother, I am requested to walk alongside the horse, rather than dance in front of it, so at least that saves me some energy!

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It is only around two kilometres from the farm to the village, but in today's heat it seemed like 20!

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I have to say, looking back on it afterwards, this was one of my favourite parts of the wedding – it felt so surreal, so dreamlike, so extraordinary to be there; like being part of a Bollywood movie!

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As we arrived into the village of Dagri, people either watched from the side lines or joined in with the procession and dancing.

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Again money was waved in the air over the groom (or close to, he was a little bit too high while on the horse for people to actually reach above him). I am still unsure about where that money goes, as a lot of people tried to grab it, with the officious security guard “fighting” them for it. The same thing happened back at the farm last night during the dancing.

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By the time we'd reached the village, the sun had come out, increasing the heat tenfold. I was a like a wet rag, not coping at all well with the heat. I was severely dehydrated, feeling very dizzy, light headed and close to passing out. I no longer cared about anything other than sitting down somewhere cool and having a drink. In that order. I was totally unaware of the surroundings, and when the procession turned round and appeared to be heading back to the farm, I'd had enough. I collapsed in a heap at the side of the road and refused to walk another step. A great deal of fuss was made (although I was somewhat oblivious to everything that was going on around me), the wedding car (which had been following the procession) was summonsed for me to sit in and PC thankfully took my camera (yet again) to photograph the rest of the baarat.

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While I was in the air conditioned wedding car trying to recover, Sabu and some of his baarati (members of his procession) went in to the small village temple to perform a puja.

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A packet of crisps was produced for me (it later appeared they had a huge supply of these) and the salty snack (along with the cooler air in the car) soon made me feel well enough to apply some lipstick and put some flowers in my hair ready for the next part of the celebrations.

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The procession was NOT returning to the farm as I had initially feared (I think it was just the thought of another 2km walk with the psychological effect of this that finally sent me over the edge), we were in fact piling into cars and local style buses for the journey to Sikar. They had all been following behind the procession, and now we were travelling in a cavalcade of motor vehicles – some 15 cars and a handful buses and trucks with a couple of hundred or more people.

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First stop was to get some cold drinks – Jo had introduced me to a fresh mango juice called Mango Slice on this trip, and now I was hooked. The cold liquid soon rehydrated me and we made our way in a lively convoy towards Sikar.

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Many stops were made, for various reasons such as making sure everyone was together, comfort stops, picnic stops and getting stuff from one car to another. At one stage Sabu rang me to ask if I had some “red peppers”. Red peppers? What on earth did he want red peppers for? I asked again, and I could have sworn he repeated “red peppers” Several more attempts were made to communicate, but to no avail, all I kept hearing was “red peppers”. I handed the phone to Rishi, and he “translated” for me: “Red tissues”. OK, I am no wiser now. Eventually we somehow managed to ascertain that Sabu was after some WET TISSUES! Fortunately I'd brought a large packet of baby wipes with me in the camera bag, so these were promptly handed over to PC at one of the many stops.

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Auspicious Date
Along the way we saw many other wedding palaces and groom's processions. There is a very good reason for that: Today was chosen for the wedding ceremony to be held, not in a random way, or for the convenience of guests and wedding party as is the norm in the West, but by its auspicious qualities. Calculating the best day to get married is very involved and time consuming and is carried out by an astrologer analysing the bride and groom's life periods using their complex 36-point birth charts and the location of the wedding to find a window of opportunity when both their charts are in perfect harmony with the forces of Time. This involves drawing up charts for each day of the year, and then fine tuning the time slot using the Panchangam, the Hindu astrological calendar to harmonise with the astrological energies for both parties in order to maximise the good effects of the marriage outcome. Anyway, today is the day!

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By the time we got to Sikar, it was dark. From the car park we walked down a gravelly lane and you could hear the party before you saw it. Not only were fire crackers being let off making it seem like we were taking a casual stroll through Beirut, a live band was playing music to welcome the guests outside the Wedding Palace too. Nice touch.

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A long corridor led into the palace, which had two main parts and a few other smaller rooms. The VIP area was indoors with fans and AC units, covered comfortable chairs and a stage. There was a hush about the place and a formal atmosphere.

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The other part was open to the elements, with a grass floor, trailing lights and a party vibe with people eating, drinking and mingling.

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Food was available from uniformed waiters, some of whom spoke passable English.

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Fresh fruit juices were being brought round: mango, pineapple with cumin and a hint of chilli, and an unidentifiable concoction that smelt like drains and tasted little better.

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An army of chefs were on hand to ensure the 2000 or so expected guests did not go hungry.

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We spent a lot of time in the VIP section (it was cooler and had more comfortable seats), relaxing, eating, drinking and chatting to the children. A lot more English was spoken here than at the farm, with the kids being particularly keen to practice their English.
“Hello”
“What's your name?”
“What's your country?”
“You friend Sabu?”
“How many kilo you weigh?”
“How much your camera cost?”
“You take my photo.”
There are some questions that are not taboo in the same way in India as it is back home, weight, costs and salary being the more common ones.

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My cold sore is still growing, and constantly bleeding and pussing. I have managed to partly conceal it using an “invisible” cold sore plaster, which I applied lipstick on top of. I have even put on mascara and eye shadow for the occasion.

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Palla Dastoor
After what seems like an eternity of nothing happening, suddenly there is a hive of activity. Chairs have appeared on the stage, and the groom's representatives are bringing out the jewellery, shoes and wedding dress for the bride.

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It's the tradition that the groom pays for the bride's trousseau and Sabu has spent an absolutely fortune on gold jewellery and a wedding dress to die for! Reena is going to look absolutely stunning!

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Have you seen these killer heels? Just as well the bride does not have to walk through the village in a baarat procession like the groom does! While Sabu's family are all very tall, Reena is really quite short, so the heels will help in the photos later.

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The groom arrived with much pomp and circumstance, to another ritual involving the bride's family, sacred threads, touching the forehead and the exchange of gifts.

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Sabu is constantly being wiped down with the wet tissues (also known as “red peppers”) by PC – he must be really feeling the heat in that outfit!

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The jewellery and wedding dress were taken away and was followed by a lot of blessing with tilak (red marks on the forehead).

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Trying to keep PC happy with his constant cries of “Me camera”, as well as being able to do my own photography; I lend him my spare camera body (the Canon EOS 6D) fitted with a wide angle lens. Now we are both happy.

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By this time I am beginning to feel rather dehydrated again, and they've run out of filtered water, I have a few more glasses of pineapple juice with cumin, but it is beginning to taste more and more odd as the night goes on. It is now over 12 hours since I last peed (despite drinking several litres of fluid during that time), a very clear indication that I am seriously dried out!

Having been called outside with some urgency, I discovered that Sabu is having another baarat (groom's procession) on horseback through the streets of Sikar too.

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At the front of the procession is a live band, followed by Sabu on a white horse.

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Bringing up the rear is a PA system with a singer, and a donkey cart carrying the generator providing electricity for not just the sound system, but also a string of huge lamps being carried on each side of the procession. One of the young lads operating the generator took a bit of a shine to me, but I must admit I have heard better chat-up lines: “Hello, I think you're beautiful, will you sleep with me?”

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Mingled in with this procession are the baarati – the guests dancing in the street. We did join them for a spot of dancing this time.

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The road from the Wedding Palace was a narrow, sandy lane, and our procession was causing absolute chaos with cars and motorbikes trying to pass.

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This was definitely a grand affair, with firecrackers (which scared the horse every time one went off – I was sure Sabu was going to end up on the floor at one stage) and some pretty good fireworks.

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Of course, this being India, there were no safety measures whatsoever – the pyrotechnics were being let off in the middle of the street, with no warning – a couple of time I almost walked straight into it!

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Welcoming the Bridegroom - Vara satkaarah
The procession arrives at the entrance and Sabu rides into the Wedding Palace where he is handed a branch that he holds aloft with his sword.

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As he gets off the horse and enters the main hall, a party popper is let off, with much smoke and colourful confetti.

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He is greeted by a female member of the bride's family, carrying twigs on a jar on her head.

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A tilak is placed on his forehead.

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The rest of the bride's family are there to greet the groom and his procession.

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By the time we get inside, a “love seat” has appeared on the stage and Sabu sits down.

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The colourful procession featuring the bride and her entourage enters the room with rose petals scattered in front of Rena as she walks.

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With those shoes, she would have to be walking so carefully anyway, and the dress itself weighs 15kg with all the gold and embroidery, so there will be no rushing around for her tonight that's for sure!

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Reena arrives at the stage and Sabu reaches out for her hand, gently pulling her up to be by his side.

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Exchange of flower garlands - Jaimala
The bride and groom exchange floral garlands to wear around their necks to symbolise their acceptance of each other and a pledge to respect one another as partners as well as their mutual approval to proceed with the ceremony. It is considered that, whoever puts the garland first on their partner, will have an upper hand in the marriage. That'll be Reena then (struggling to reach over the top of Sabu's turban with its feather sticking up)! You go girl!

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There was this irritating little child - I have no idea who he belonged to - who was such a diva and wanted to be in every single photo, refusing to leave the stage. Even when the official photographer physically lifted him out of the frame, he was back there like a shot!

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Flower petals are sprinkled over the couple to protect them from evil.

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Next followed the official photographs – like most other weddings, the bride and groom were pictured with every combination of family and friends possible.

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Touching the feet of the elders as a sign of respect.

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Once the photo-shoot was over, Reena and Sabu headed for one of the smaller rooms in the Wedding Palace where Sabu's dad was. Despite his paralysis, dad had managed to come all the way to Sikar, and it was so good to see him being able to at least take part in a small section of the celebrations.

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With the formal photos out of the way, the bride and groom could relax a little and have a meal. They need to get their strength back anyway, for the next part of the ceremony, the vows and associated rituals. Most guests had departed by now, and there was only around a dozen or so of us around the dining table.

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By this stage it was past midnight, and I was severely dehydrated, with a pain in my stomach, but I didn't want to risk drinking the unfiltered water. After Jo's description of the toilets at the Wedding Palace, I was glad to say I still had no desire to pee. When Naryan returned from the railway station (the only place that was open at this time of night) with cold Mango Slice and Water, I felt I had died and gone to heaven!

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Bride and groom feed each other - Anna praashan
The next ritual has the couple feed each other from a single plate which is supposed to increase the love manifold between the two and to express their mutual love and affection. They are still not actually legally married, that ceremony is yet to come.

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Of course, everybody else then had to have a go at feeding them too. This is one of the reasons why Indian weddings take so long!

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The next thing that happened was that a bowl of water with rose petals in it was brought to the table and the bride and groom both dipped their hands in it together.

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Look at the jewellery on Reena's hand and wrist! If the wedding dressed weighed 15kg, then the bling must have been at least as heavy!

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The Altar – Mandap
A specially constructed four poster 'pavilion' is traditionally used as al 'altar' for Hindu wedding ceremonies. This was set inside one of the smaller rooms off the main hallway in the Wedding Palace.

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A small raised platform forms the centre of the mandap; this is to be used later for the ceremonial fire. Other paraphernalia related to the various rituals are scattered around.

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This part of the ceremony is normally just witnessed by the very closest family and friends, and I feel extremely honoured to be here. In addition to the bride, groom, priest, photographer and staff, there are around a dozen or so people present. One thing that really struck me with every part of the Indian wedding, was how it is not as formal as the western equivalent – people are more relaxed, phone calls are taken and made, guests milling around randomly (which I found really annoying from a photography point of view) and chatting to each other, the couple and the priest seemed to be perfectly acceptable.

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First the shoes come off.

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The couple then take a seat on the floor inside the mandap where the ceremony will take place. I had been warned that this part of the wedding could in fact take in excess of two hours. And it did.

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Antarpat
A cloth was secured to the side of Reena's head that faced the groom; which I think was meant to represent the antarpat - an auspicious cloth separating the bride and groom as a symbol of their separate existence prior to the marriage. I cannot be sure of this, however, it is mostly guesswork. I had done a lot of research into what happens at Indian weddings prior to leaving the UK in order to make sense of each and every stage of the ceremony. Although it did help some, there were still so many details that went straight over my head. I apologise if I have any facts wrong or have misinterpreted anything.

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As well as the bride and groom, inside the mandap was Reena's aunt and uncle and the priest. A couple of facilitators helped with the ceremony. One aspect of Indian weddings that is very unusual to us is that mothers are not present. I cannot imagine a mother in the UK not wanting to see her son or daughter getting wed!

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This is where I would love to say it all got very exciting and riveting, but the truth is, it dragged on and on and on. And on. And then some. It was hot (despite the fan in the corner of the room), it was late (or rather early morning), I was dehydrated and I didn't understand what was going on. Some of the guests went upstairs to sleep but I was determined to sit it out! I kept nodding off and David would nudge me when something appeared to be happening. I was impressed that David managed to stay awake all through the proceedings; I am out of practice with partying all night - these days to me an “all-nighter” means not having to get out of bed and pee.

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I will try and explain some of the rituals that I did notice and that may be significant, as I saw them.

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Lighting of the Sacred Fire – Havan or Vivah homa
The couple light the fire and invokes Agni, the god of Fire who symbolises light, power and knowledge, to witness their commitment to each other. Crushed sandalwood, herbs, sugar rice and oil are offered to the ceremonial fire. The words "Id na mama" meaning "it is not for me" are repeated after the offerings. This teaches the virtue of selflessness required to run a family.

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It seems that every part of every ritual involves handing over some money. Mostly the ten rupee note is involved which is about 10p in English money. There must have been a mountain of these notes at the Wedding Palace!

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Holding hand ritual - Panigrahana
The groom holds the bride's hand while reciting a vedic mantra. This is the ceremony of vows. The groom accepts the bride as his lawfully wedded wife by taking her right hand in his left hand saying "I hold your hand in the spirit of Dharma, we are both husband and wife".

Unlike in a Christian wedding, the bride and groom marry each other and the priest only facilitates the marriage by reciting mantras or holy hymns, but doesn’t have the authority to declare them married.

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Offering puffed rice to the fire - Laja homa
Offering of puffed rice as oblations to the sacred fire by the bride are made while keeping the palms of her hands over those of her life-long partner.

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Tying of the Nuptial Knot - Gath Bandhan
The scarves placed around the bride and groom are tied together symbolising their eternal bond. This signifies their pledge before God to love each other and remain faithful. The marriage knot represents nourishment, strength, prosperity, happiness, progeny, long life and harmony, and understanding.

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Stepping on a stone - Shilarohan
Shilarohan is climbing over a stone by the bride which symbolises her willingness and strength to overcome difficulties in pursuit of her duties.

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Walk around the fire - Mangalphera
The couple walk four circles (pheras) around the fire in a clockwise direction representing four goals in life: Dharma, religious and moral duties; Artha, prosperity; Kama, earthly pleasures; Moksha, spiritual salvation and liberation. The bride leads the Pheras the first three times, signifying her determination to stand first beside her husband in all happiness and sorrow. The fourth time the groom leads and is reminded of his responsibilities.

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Forehead mark - Sindoor
Finally, the groom will apply a red powder to the centre of the bride’s forehead as a symbol of a desire for a long and happy marriage as well as long life for her husband. It is an elongated mark and placed in a straight line in the parting of the hair, directly in the middle. It is applied for the first time to a woman during the marriage ceremony when the bridegroom himself adorns her with it.

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The story behind the sindoor goes back to a goddess whose husband had died. She was unable to accept his death and instead decided to follow him into the afterlife to bring him back with her to this life. During this effort, she was branded with a red flame in her hair. The sindoor is therefore applied daily to the hair of a married woman to represent her willingness to defend her marriage.

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More jewellery is brought out.

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Which Sabu carefully places over Reena's head and around her neck, struggling a little to get it over her headdress.

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This is now (thankfully) the end of the marriage ceremony, and Sabu and Reena are husband and wife. Many congratulations!

Now please can we go home? It is 03:30 and we've been celebrating all day and night. If I am exhausted, how must the bride and groom feel? I know they are younger than me and more used to the heat, but they had the added stress of the marriage ceremonies and the weight of the clothing.

Farewell to the bride – Vidaai
Just one more thing to do before we can leave for Dagri: we need to visit Reena's family home and perform one last puja.

Reena's place is a comfortable middle class house not far from the Wedding Palace. After the puja, we are offered a cool drink while we wait for Reena to adjust her clothing and gather up a few things for her journey, not just to Dagri, but to her new life. I spot a nice, clean western style toilet, and realise that it is 17 hours since I last peed. I think you can most certainly say that I am well and truly dehydrated! We say our goodbyes and make our way back to the Wedding Palace, where we have to wake the drivers who have been sleeping upstairs before we can start on the three-hour journey back to the farm. It is 05:15 before we actually leave, and it has been one heck of a long day!

Posted by Grete Howard 01.07.2014 07:37 Archived in India Comments (0)

Dagri - the Wedding Reception

Party time!

sunny 42 °C
View A Big Fat Indian Wedding on Grete Howard's travel map.

I slept last night, although I would not describe it as a good sleep. I thought I'd try out the new shower this morning and although there was no hot water, the cold liquid was very refreshing and it felt good to wash away all the grime and grit that had collected on my face overnight from the sand-laden wind. I really struggled to open my eyes this morning as they seemed to be glued shut closed with the sand, and as soon as I opened my mouth, the blister on my lip started to puss and bleed.

About three years ago I answered a question on Trip Advisor by a Canadian woman called Jo about Icon India Tours (our friend Sabu's tour company). After her trip we hooked up on Facebook via Sabu and have been in contact ever since, becoming really quite good friends. Today I finally got to meet her! It was as if we'd known each other all our lives and we hit it off immediately!

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Today was to be the day of the groom's wedding party, and we were asked to be part of the receiving line as guests started to arrive. The five of us – David and I, Jo from Canada, and Lynn Carol and George from the US all sat on chairs in a line under the canopy.

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Many years ago I bought a sari in Sri Lanka, and that was what I decided to wear for today's festivities. Red seemed to be a good colour, as the red tent marquee coloured everything red anyway.

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Just across from where we were sitting was the official gift registry. In India it is customary to give money as a gift (always with the odd number 1 on the end – 101 Rupees being the most popular) and each guest had his or her gift registered in a book, with their name and amount of donation.

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There was a constant supply of food and drink – the fresh pineapple juice was particularly welcome in the heat.

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At one stage a huge slab of ice was brought out - I have no idea where that came from - to keep the watermelon cool. It didn't last very long in 40 °C!

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Look at the number of plates on this table - can you even imagine the amount of washing up that went on? At least with everyone eating with their hands, there is no cutlery to wash up!

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There was also a constant supply of guests – coming on foot from the village or by car / bike or bus (open back truck with standing room only) from other places nearby.

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As the day progressed, it was getting hotter and hotter under the red tent cover. There were fans and AC units, but they appeared not to be working or even plugged in. I was getting more and more dehydrated, despite the fruit juice and lots of filtered water. It was suggested I move to the other “tent” as there was a fan there that actually worked. A couple of chaps were evicted from their chairs and the fan turned to face me. I also used a neck cooler a good friend sent me, one of those things you soak in cold water (someone even found me some ice to really cool the water down for me) and the crystals inside expand and cool your neck down for a while. It worked some, but I still felt very over-heated and increasingly unwell.

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A headache was creeping in, which was temporarily relieved by some pain killers and a wonderful head massage by Sharu.

A small commotion distracted me from my self-pity, and indicated that something was about to happen.

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A few cars / buses of new visitors were arriving, this time Sabu's mother's family.

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Headed by Sabu's mum, carrying a tray of offerings and puja paraphernalia, the welcoming committee was sent down to greet the new guests, with the women singing cheerfully as they went.

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Even Sabu joined in, looking dapper in his dark suit.

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A welcoming ritual was performed for each and every guest, starting with a small stool for the honoured visitors to stand on.

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First a red mark is placed on the forehead...

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… then a small sweet is fed to the visitor

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A red thread is tied around the visitor's wrist

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Finally, in return, the guest must bestow a gift to the host, in the form of placing some money on the tray.

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The traditional Rajasthani greeting – or at least in this part of Rajasthan – is “ram ram”, which was heard everywhere for the next half an hour or so as everyone mingled with everyone else.

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As he did when we were in Jaipur for Holi in March, PC would grab my camera from around my neck and wander off taking photos. I was actually quite grateful as it took the pressure off me for a while – I was still feeling quite unwell with dehydration.

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Sabu and Reena's wedding was planned for much earlier this spring, when the weather wouldn't have been so hot; but a devastating accident meant having to reschedule the event: Sabu's dad fell off the farmhouse roof and received terrible injuries, leaving him paralysed. Now a mere shadow of his former self, it was lovely to see him somehow being able to take part in some of the festivities.

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Back in the marquee another ceremony is just about to start, kicking off with more tilak marks. This ceremony is all about the gifts, but not from friends and family to Sabu and Reena, it's the gifts bestowed on the guests by the groom's family. Packets and packets of scarves and cloths are being handed over, as well as lots of other goodies. To us in the west, this seems rather unusual, but I suppose it is not that different to the “wedding favours” you usually find back home.

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Of course, everything is carefully noted in the book.

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At the end of the ceremony, everyone in the crowd were blessed with a Tilak.

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This was followed by a spot of singing and dancing by some of the women.

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Whenever there is a dance, someone will always wave a bank note over the heads of the dancers as a blessing.

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With the overhead canopy casting a red light on everything underneath it, the ceremony was a photographer's nightmare. Sabu had hired a professional photographer as well as a videographer, but he still wanted me to be the semi-official photographer at the wedding.

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Back to the reception party and I am getting almost delirious, apparently talking gibberish (I am told I was discussing my “nipples” when I really meant “neck”. I have no recollection of this). I tried to drink as much as I could, but I founf it hard to fit in rehydrating and photographing. Time to take a small break maybe?

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We decided to go back to our own tent for a nap before this evening's festivities, and a bit of privacy. It was not to be. It seemed like half the party just followed us to the tent, plonked themselves down on chairs or the beds and just looked. Stared. Gawked. So much for your own personal space – the concept does not exist in this country!

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We were asked to join the drivers for a drink this evening before the dancing program began. Although none of Sabu's family drink alcohol, he had set aside an area for those of his guests who wished to partake. - I found it rather amusing that it was almost exclusively the drivers who work for him who were drinking.

Sangeet Ceremony
Sangeet means music. As the name suggests, this function is an evening of musical entertainment and merriment hosted by the groom’s family. By nightfall, an area in front of the main farm building had been transformed into a disco, complete with huge sound systems and a dance-floor with flashing lights lit from below! Very high tech!

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The stage provided a platform for the youngsters to show off the dance moves – I thought Sabu's two sistes Sushila and Sharu were particularly good movers!

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There seems to be a lot more confidence amongst Indian dancers than British – many of the girls, boys, women, men and children were quite happy to be the only ones on stage providing a solo display to the crowd. I can't see that happening in the UK!

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Later, a couple of young lads – you I am assuming were hired professional dancers – came on to give a show which the audience found highly amusing. They were obviously telling a story with their dance and they were good movers.

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I was even persuaded to join in – but only when the dance floor was full. Not having any natural rhythm, there was no way I was going solo!

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One thing that really struck me this evening was that all of today's celebrations have been held without the bride present!

Some time after midnight we made our way back to our home from home, only to find someone had been into our tent and taken our beds! Bloody cheek! After a lot of kerfuffle, we managed to get a couple of cots (as the rope beds are known locally) and a mat each! Trying to sleep with a megawatt disco one side and a generator the other wasn't as hard as it sounds. The heat and partying had worn us both out, and we were soon in the land of slumber.

Posted by Grete Howard 30.06.2014 12:13 Archived in India Comments (0)

Jaipur - Dagri

Leaving luxury and AC behind and heading for an adventure

sunny 40 °C
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So, I wake up this morning to find my cold sore has really taken hold – David did ask if it had declared independence yet! Just what I want for a wedding! Not.

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Breakfast at the hotel was a part buffet part cooked-to-order but we stayed with the Indian food on offer, and very nice it was too: Poha, stuffed parantha, vada sambhar.

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As we had a little bit of time before the driver picked us up, we gave ourselves an unguided tour of the hotel. It may be quite small – only about 30 rooms or so I think – but the Umaid Bhawan is beautifully formed with lots of attention to detail. Every bit of wall, floor and ceiling is beautifully decorated, and there are lots of nooks and crannies everywhere, very quirky. Just the type of place we like.

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I wish we'd had time to use the pool, but we have a lot of ground to cover today. First stop the pharmacy to stock up on some antibiotics (which are easily and cheaply available across the counter here in India) and electrolytes to try and prevent dehydration in this severe heat.

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Unsure of the situation with filtered water at the farm, we stock up on water, juice and Diet Coke for the next few days in Dagri. The store does not stock Diet Coke, but by the time we have finished choosing everything else we want, they have sent a boy out to another store to buy some for us. Good man. We are now ready for our adventure in rural Rajasthan.

Sabu has also arranged for us to meet up with his trusted tailor – he made some shirts for me last time and I was so impressed I wanted him to make some more. I just gave him one of my shirts and he simply copied it. I want to do the same this time, but it is a Sunday, so the cloth store is shut. No problem, the tailor knows the owner and has arranged for him to come and open up especially for us. We choose some fabrics: I am after some clothes to wear on safari later in the year; most of my shirts are brightly coloured which would scare the animals, so I select seven different muted shades this time.

Before we can be on our way to Dagri, we stop at Sabu's place to pick up Jo's suitcase and some other stuff. We were greeted like long lost friends by his neighbours, who remembered us from our visit in March. As we pull up, a camel cart arrives – not sure where he is heading, but he stops and chats for a while.

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I have to admit that most of the journey from Jaipur to Dagri is pretty dull – desert, sand and the odd acacia tree; although we do see some typical Rajasthani road scenes along the way.

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Dagri
Dagri is a small rural village (or hamlet even) in Rajasthan, some 80km east of Nageur. It is so small you won't find it on any maps, although the nearest “big” town of Degana is. The total population of the village (according to the internet) is 1367. This is the family home of our friend Sabu, the bridegroom. We are staying with them until we go to the bride's village on 1st, to meet up with the bride and her family for the main part of the wedding celebrations.

Never having been to Sabu's farm before, Rishi was unsure of the way and had to stop and ask directions a couple of times. Even though we came in the opposite direction from the way we arrived five years ago, David still recognised the farm entrance. He never ceases to amaze me when it comes to directions!

On arrival at the farm, we received the customary greeting with red mark on the forehead studded with rice (known as bindi for women and tilak for men).

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Inside the house, some of the women were busy sorting lentils for tonight's dinner, while singing a happy song.

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After a while some lunch appeared – rotis with sabji (vegetables in a sauce) and a sweet.

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In the grounds of the farm, a large canopy had been set up, under which large scale cooking was taking place ready for the various parties over the next few days. Huge vats of gulab jamun and another delicious Indian sweet which I did not find out the name of, were being prepared in the stifling heat.

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A friendly – but very efficient – security guard with a big stick had been employed. He was to prove very useful over the next few days.

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A new toilet (squat) and shower block was being hurriedly constructed, ready for the 1000 or so guests expected at the party tomorrow night. Believe it or not, it did get finished (sort of) in time. This was to supplement the old ablutions block which had a traditional western style toilet (minus the seat) and a bucket shower.

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Elsewhere on the farm there was a hive of activity getting the place ready. Another huge canopy was being erected for guests to mingle, eat and sleep under, away from the glaring sun.

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On the roof, electric neon lights were installed.

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The goats and buffalo were much bemused by the whole goings on.

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Later the priest arrives and red string bracelets (known as "kalava" or "mauli") are blessed and tied around our wrists by one of the women. The bracelets promote healing, love, good fortune and strength to the wearer, and should be worn until it naturally fades or falls off. The thread has a supari, an iron ring, a shell and beads of mustard tied to it in a small cloth.

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In the coming pages, I will try my best to describe the wedding rituals as they happened, with information mostly gleaned from the internet, but also picked up on the days before and during the wedding itself. I cannot make any guarantees that this is an accurate description of the facts, legends and traditions, but it is a reflection of what we experienced and how we saw it.

A puja (prayer ritual) followed, the significance of which I unfortunately did not catch, but it involved a branch from a tree, sacred red thread, a leather strap and donation of money.

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Turmeric (Haldi – also known as Ubtan or Tel Baan) Ceremony
At the haldi ceremony, everyone (mainly the groom's female family members) gets to “paint” the groom with a turmeric paste during a ritual holy “bath” (the bride will no doubt have the same treatment by her friends and family in Sikar).

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Haldi means turmeric. The haldi paste is made from turmeric, mustard oil, vermilion, curd, sandalwood and rose water which is then applied to the skin using grass. The turmeric is said to improve your complexion and should be applied seven times on the body from bottom to top and then top to bottom, although Sabu was only symbolically adorned with haldi on his hands, shoulders, face and feet.

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With its antiseptic qualities, turmeric also acts as the protective shield for the wearer from cuts, bruises and any other seasonal ailments. The colour yellow is also considered auspicious, the bride/groom are supposed to wear yellow clothes while haldi is being applied to them. Traditionally, once the haldi ceremony takes place, the bride/groom is not allowed to step outside until the time of their wedding, but this what not practised here in Dagri.

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Henna (Mehendi) Ceremony
Although this ceremony is mainly for the bride, I was keen to get in on the action too, and was hoping Sabu's sisters and other female family members would be holding their own little mehendi affair, which of course they did.

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Traditionally Mehendi is said to be one of the sixteen adornments decorating a bride without which her beauty is said to be incomplete. According to popular belief the darker the colour of her mehendi, the more her husband will love her. The designs for the bride generally include the name of the bride and the groom hidden in the design, which is to be found by the groom before the wedding night can commence.

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Another belief is that the longer the mehendi stays, the more she is adored by her mother-in-law. After the wedding, the bride is not expected to perform any housework until her Mehendi has faded away.

The term refers to the material, the design, and the ceremony.

In addition to the aesthetic qualities of the design, the henna has immense medicinal and healing powers. Any wedding is undeniably a period of strain and tension and creates a lot of stress. Applying of mehendi on the hands and feet helps to keep the nerve-endings cool, which in turn reduces stress. Mehendi also acts as an antiseptic agent; thus, keeping the bride free from viral diseases, cuts and bruises around the wedding. Application of meehndi also improves blood circulation. Thus, the practice of applying mehendi was traditionally not just to beautify the bride, but also to keep her healthy and hearty.

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While us girls (and Sabu!) were busy getting beautified, David and a small gang of helpers were occupied with putting the tent up under an acacia tree on the farm land. The soft sand meant the tent pegs were difficult to secure, and as there is quite a strong wind here, that could prove a little hazardous. Anyway, we now have a home from home in Dagri.

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One of the many myna birds around the farm had somehow fallen into a large vat of food slops where Sabu's cousin PC rescued it and gave it a good scrub from the kindness of his heart.

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It looked rather bedraggled and I am sure the detergents PC misguidedly used did not do it much good. It was unable to fly and kept falling over, poor thing. Even though its feathers were drying quickly, we eventually put it on the roof of the cow-shed, to keep it away from marauding cats and young hands, hoping it would eventually fly away.

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Once the sun went down, the lights came on. Cooking continued for the big do and a dinner materialised.

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After dinner there was music and dancing into the wee hours. Unlike the UK, where it is mainly groups of girls dancing around their handbags; here in India, men are the main performers on the dance floor. Here Naryan and Bhanwar show off their dance moves.

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We stayed for a while – joined in even – then retired to our tent for the night. But first we had to secure it from the raging wind. As I said earlier, the ground was so soft, the wind was just pulling the pegs straight out, even with large rocks placed on top. In the end we had to secure the guy ropes to the beds to stop the tent blowing away.

The beds – or cots as they are known locally – consist of a basic wooden frame with string across for support, topped with a thin mat and a pillow if you are “lucky”.

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Sleeping inside the tent was way too hot, and sleeping outside was an “interesting” experience: being blasted from the wind laden with the fine sand. There were lots of noises in the night too, from birds, to buffalo to music and people.

Posted by Grete Howard 29.06.2014 11:58 Archived in India Comments (2)

Bristol - London - Delhi - Jaipur

Twenty four and a half hour journeys are not fun!

overcast 34 °C
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After a pretty good Italian meal at Heathrow, we were ready to settle down to sleep our way through the eight hour flight to Delhi, which we did, We then had another eight hour wait in Delhi airport – thank goodness for the new improved terminal (voted the second best airport in the world after Singapore Changi) – we even found some really comfortable lounging chairs to help us catch a few more zzzzzz.

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The half hour flight from Delhi to Jaipur was unusual to say the least – for a start they were so lacksadaisy with the safety drills: lots of people playing with their mobiles, chair backs reclined and not wearing their seat belts as we took off. Secondly, we really did not expect anything to eat or drink on such a short duration, but we were given a carton of orange juice before we took off, a sandwich and a bottle of water during the flight. By the time they had cleared away the trash, we were landing.

As we were exiting the terminal we were joking about what the sign would say that the driver was holding up – my name often gets rather contrived – today I am “Miss Great”! But then I always knew that.

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The driver had a bit of trouble finding our hotel, but boy was it worth it: what a little hidden gem! Heritage style, with great attention to detail and we apparently have the best room in the house! It’s a huge suite with a living area, dining area and sleeping area and a fabulous bathroom. Sheer silk curtains separate the sleeping area from the rest, and there are a dozen or more decorative arches. Shame we are not spending longer here!

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One of the more unusual features of our room is the bathroom. It is huge, and from the standard type shower cubicle, a couple of steps lead up to another shower room, a little bit like a traditional hammam, all enclosed, all tiled in cool blue and green and with a couple of little seats. I have never had anything like it before in any of the 500+ rooms we have stayed in!

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You can see the steps on the right of the first picture, and the hammam part in the second.

A cooling breeze was very welcome as we enjoyed a beer and a Rajasthani thali in the rooftop restaurant.

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Posted by Grete Howard 27.06.2014 17:00 Archived in India Comments (1)

One more sleep......

We're off to India - for the tenth time - tomorrow.

So, we have been invited to our good friend Sabu's wedding in India and I am full of contrasting emotions and feelings about the trip, from anxiety to exhilaration.

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I am obviously super excited and delighted for Reena and Sabu and I feel extremely honoured that they have invited us to share this very special day with them.

However, I am seriously worried about the heat – I don't do well in temperatures above 37 °C, and the forecast is up to 46 °C during the day, dropping to a “cool” 30 °C (maybe) at night. That is way too hot for me, and I am concerned that I am going to be a floppy, wet rag most of the time.

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Add to that, the fact that (part of) the wedding is being held in Sabu's family's village in rural Rajasthan, with the nearest hotel some two hours' drive away, and we have an issue with accommodation. The sleeping arrangements are “loose” to say the least, with the idea being that people will bed down as and where they find space. Last time we stayed with Sabu's family, we slept on the farmhouse roof.

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It was a wonderfully fun experience for one night, but not something I would relish for a week (with a number of other wedding guests), with no privacy for sleeping or changing. I am getting too old for that sort of thing, or maybe just to fussy, missing my creature comforts after a very short while. With this in mind, we are taking our own tent to India this time. Although that will obviously not help with the heat (probably quite the opposite, as tents are notoriously hot inside), but at least it will give us some much needed privacy. Fortunately we have the baggage allowance, as Jet Airways permit you to take 2 bags at up to 23kg each. We have never flown with so much luggage, however, so it could be very interesting at the airports....

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Lastly, but not least, the photographer in me is of course over the moon at having the chance to photograph this very special occasion. We both feel very privileged to have the opportunity to experience an Indian wedding in India and being part of everything it involves.

Posted by Grete Howard 26.06.2014 12:26 Archived in England Comments (2)

Bharatpur - Delhi - Zurich - London - Bristol

Time to head for home

sunny 33 °C
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Trying not to sleep on the journey from Bharatpur to Delhi proved impossible. I wanted to be as tired as I could be for our overnight flight home, so tried my best to stay awake on the road, but wasn't successful. I amused myself by photographing various scenes along the road.

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Dung being collected, dried and stored for use in the kitchen for cooking.

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We passed an impressive looking Sikh Temple under construction.

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Sugar cane juicer – a very popular road side drink: just pure sugar in liquid form.

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About half way we stopped in a tourist restaurant for lunch, and had the recommended dish of aloo til: chunks of potato coated in sesame seeds and salt and deep fried. I asked for it spicy and it was mildly off-bland. Some spicy sauce helped give it a kick.

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You can tell we are on the main tourist route, with the car park hosting a traditional musician hoping for a tip.

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The good thing about being on a popular tourist route is the fact that the restaurants all have very decent facilities. This is the first time ever I have been to India (our ninth time) where I have not encountered a single squat toilet! I am grateful for small mercies. The downside of this is that in every wash room there is an attendant who – for baksheesh of course – will open the door for you, clean the toilet seat, give you a few sheets of toilet paper (or the whole roll if you are really lucky), turn on the tap and then hand you a paper towel. I suppose it creates employment......

Humayun's Tomb
As our flight wasn't until much later this evening, we had time for a little sightseeing in Delhi.
The magnificent tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun was commissioned by his wife Hamida Banu Begum in 1562 AD, and designed by a Persian architect who introduced the idea of garden-tombs to the Indian subcontinent; later they would be found in the Red Fort in Delhi and at the Taj Mahal in Agra. The tomb is thought to be the first substantial example of Mughal architecture in India and its design went on to establish some of the important norms for later Mughal mausolea: set in a geometrically arranged garden criss-crossed by numerous water channels symbolising paradise.

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Also in the complex there are several other graves, including that of Humayun's wife, and Dara Shikoh, the son of Shah Jahan (the man who made the most beautiful ever mausoleum to his wife – the Taj Mahal).

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Now it is time to say goodbye to India – for now. We are hoping to be back very shortly – watch this space!

Posted by Grete Howard 23.03.2014 13:09 Archived in India Comments (1)

Keoladeo Ghana National Park

Excellent bird watching

sunny 33 °C
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Keoladeo Ghana National Park
On our first trip to India, back in 1988, we visited this area, and passed quite close by this park on a group tour. We were offered the opportunity to travel through the reserve in a rickshaw, but unfortunately it was voted in favour of returning to the hotel and an afternoon by the pool by a majority of one – meaning that the rest of us had to follow suit. I always said I wanted to come back here and visit the park properly, which is why we are here now. We started early, arriving at the park gates as it opened at 06:30, just in time to catch the sunrise.

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After uhm-ing and ah-ing about whether or not to take a naturalist guide, we decided that for 150 Rupees and hour (ca £1.50), it was probably worth it. Boy are we glad we did, as Rakesh was really worth the money. Although the rickshaw drivers are very knowledgeable about the birds they see, they will only take you along the main road, whereas the guide take you hiking into the jungle in search of more different species as they know the various habitats.

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The wetlands are now a protected sanctuary under the protection of UNESCO. As well as being a bird watcher's paradise, the reserve protects Bharatpur from frequent floods - if only our government could do something similar for the Somerset Levels back home!. At the time of the Maharajas, this are was primarily used as a waterfowl hunting ground.

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As national parks go, it's not a particularly big reserve at 29km², but the park is a mosaic of wetlands, woodlands and dry grasslands. In addition to the numerous birds, the diverse habitat is also home to 379 species of flora, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes (!) 5 species of lizards and 7 species of turtles. We were lucky enough to spot a mongoose, which Prakesh assured us was a very rare sighting.

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We also saw monkeys, nilgai, chital and squirrels, as well as a couple of turtles.

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The Origin of the Name
The name "Keoladeo" comes from an ancient Hindu temple in the sanctuary which is devoted to Lord Shiva; while the Hindi term "Ghana" means dense, thick areas of forest cover.

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The original plan was to stay out for 2-3 hours, but we ended up taking almost five hours, so we totally missed breakfast at the hotel. We did managed to grab some lunch though, some delicious Malai Kofta.

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Back again to the park by 15:00.....

History
The man made and man managed park was created in the mid 17-hundreds when the then Maharaja constructed a dam at the confluence of two rivers, flooding the natural depression transforming it into a shallow wetland ecosystem which became a perfect habitat for an incredible variety of birds. Later the park was used as a hunting ground for the Maharajas of Bharatpur with annual duck shoots in honour of the British Viceroys. It is said that in one shoot alone in 1938, over 4,273 birds were killed by Lord Linlithgow, the then Governor-General of India. A plaque opposite the canteen lists British Viceroys and Indian Generals who came hunting to this park and the number of birds they killed. The last big shoot was held in 1964 but the Maharajah retained shooting rights until 1972.

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In 1976 the area was designated as a bird sanctuary and in 1982 it was established as a national park, with grazing being banned in the park, leading to violent clashes between local farmers and the government. Police opened fire and eight people were killed, apparently tensions still remain high in the area. The absence of grazing is now actually causing the park management problems as vegetation, mainly a perennial aquatic grass, blocks up the channels. In addition, nutrients deposited as dung by the livestock is believed to have supported a considerable numbers of insects. There are still some 700 feral cattle in the park however.

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In 1985 UNESCO added Keoladeo to their Heritage list although I had read that the park is in danger of being removed from the list due to severe drought and lack of maintenance. This was not our experience, however, as we saw quite a bit of work going on, creating new paths and even solar powered recharging points for battery operated vehicles which are due to be introduced to the park. At the moment, tourists are taken around the park by rickshaws.

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Birds
The park is one of the major wintering areas for large numbers of aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia. Some 379 species of birds, including the rare Siberian Crane, have been recorded in the park, making it one of the richest bird areas in the world (*the* best according to Sir Peter Scott, and who am I to argue with the great man!). This was the only habitat in the world for the Siberian Crane crane outside Siberia and one of the park's biggest draws for bird watchers – unfortunately the crane has not been seen in Keoladeo recently. There are a number of reasons for this: a) the water from the wetlands being diverted for use by the local farmers; b) hunting in Pakistan during the migration; c) the war in Afghanistan, d) water scarcity affecting the fragile ecosystem.

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After another four hours of bird watching this afternoon, we got back to the hotel just as the sun had gone down and the palace was bathed in a beautiful light.

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By the time we'd had a shower and changed, it was time for dinner, and no time to write the blog, so I apologise that this entry is a couple of days late. The waiter was really sweet and when I asked him for something spicy, he offered a chicken curry from the 'Specials' menu.

Me: “Can I have it spicy please?”
Waiter: “Medium spicy?”
Me: “No, very spicy”
Waiter: “Very spicy?”
Me: “Yes, Indian spicy, not tourist spicy”
Waiter (waiving his flat palm up and down in front of his mouth and breathing heavily): “This spicy?”
Me: “Great!”
Waiter: “Are you sure ma'am?”
Me: “Yes, Indian spicy!”
Waiter (reluctantly): “OK....”

The food came and yes, it was spicy, with my lip tingling as I ate, but I would only say it was a 7-8 on the Grete scale of spiciness. It was very nice all the same.

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Posted by Grete Howard 22.03.2014 11:29 Archived in India Comments (0)

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