I’m traveling in India by private car and driver with Gabriel, an acquaintance who is fast becoming a friend. The trip was Gabriel’s idea and we signed up for a popular itinerary that starts in Delhi, then heads west to Mandawa, Bikaner and the dessert city of Jaisalmer before heading east to Jodphur, south to Udaipur, then north to Jaipur and Pushkar, and finally on to Agra to seee the Taj Mahal. We will cover approximately 2,300 kms and barely scratch the surface of this vast land containing 28 states and more than 1,600 languages.
It’s a wild and wooly trip over occaisionally rough roads through the mostly dessert province of Rajasthan (notice the small grass hut in the middle distance). Between Delhi and Bikaner are small towns and villages every 30 or 40 kms and try as I might I have not yet been able to take a picture that captures the mayhem and cachophony.
Cars, camels, trucks, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, donkeys, wild dogs, pedestrians, everyone using the street at his or her discretion while trying not to get killed. The analogy that comes to mind over and over again is the wild west. The only thing keeping the streets from utter anarchy is a vague pledge to stay on the left side of the road although cows, being holy animals in India, have free reign to cross and travel at their whim. And so they do.
Muslim and even devout Hindu women in this part of the country cover their entire heads and faces. James Brown might have been singing about India when he crooned, “this is a man’s world.”
At one point I saw four youths walking along a country road, two boys swinging their arms without so much as a parcel and two girls carrying heavy loads of twigs on their heads. I’ve seen variations on the scene all along the way. A man’s world indeed.
Our most interesting stop so far on this leg of the journey was at the Karni Mata temple, also known as rat temple, in the tiny town of Deshnoke. This is the one and only place where rats are viewed as sacred and are fed and protected. The animals scurry everywhere under foot when not dining on spreads of food and trays of milk set out for them. The temple does not smell as sweet as some. As our driver noted, at home any one of the faithful would kill a rat as soon as look at it but here they are special guests.
In one section of the temple holy men prepare fires that the faithful sweep their hands in and over presumably to derive a blessing from Karni Mata who was a female sage worshipped as the reincarnation of the goddess Durga.
After passing their hands through the fire many devotees wipe saffron paste from the alter and press it to their foreheads as a tikka, a symbol of having performed their devotions. I could not resist taking one to mark my own third eye chakra, unflattering photo aside.