The lanes of history are strewn with short-lived successes, legends whose names are long forgotten and expired egos. If we can look at our lives in decades or even better, in centuries – we can see that the only legacy that remains are humanity’s contributions to science and culture. When we walk the streets of Florence, we admire the buildings made by Medicis; across Europe, we walk through cathedrals made over the centuries; in Hampi, we admire the architecture commissioned by Krishnadeva Raya; In Agra, we ensure a visit to the exquisite beauty of the Taj Mahal – all made many centuries ago. I love the opportunity to see how otherwise immovable landscapes and buildings have the power to move us and let us store powerful memories that could influence our actions for many years to come.
During the Diwali break in October, I grabbed the opportunity to travel along with my son, across Rajasthan with INK Fellow Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, witnessing how he is contributing to the cultural landscape of India. Manvendra was a model, who was inspired by the landscape of Jaisalmer and gave up his fast and fashionable past to become a hotelier. This was a journey to experience the history that he is recreating.
Arnav and I flew from Delhi to Jaipur and then drove to Bikaner. Narendra Bhavan, the home of his Highness Narendra Singhji, the last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner, is in the process of being opened to public. It is more of a boutique hotel with the décor and details fit to make it feel like a princely home.
All this was a prelude to what I was looking forward to experiencing – Hotel Suryagarh in Jaisalmer. I was curious to see what was it about the place that made this up and coming fashion icon to give it all up and become so obsessed with history and a passion for preserving it. We drove into Jaisalmer as the sun was setting and it was quite magical to see the hotel surface in the midst of the desert. We walked into the hotel past the large courtyard, reception, open lawns, up the stairs and went to the back of the hotel where a small group of rooms have been built imbibing old architecture. Here awaited the unexpected surprise of meeting with INKsters Joi Barua and Nikhil Velpanur!
We all hung out together, had dinner where another surprise awaited us. On the terrace of Joi’s villa, there were four short towers, each set up with a bed. So, Arnav, Joi, Nikhil and I slept under the stars that night.
To see the stars as I fell asleep took me back to the summer times when we all used to sleep on our terrace.
I was the first one to wake up the next morning and I decided to go for a walk exploring the grounds of Suryagarh. I found myself walking toward another large building that was behind the hotel, which turned out to be the building where 300 plus staff stayed. This was built in a similar way to the hotel, blending in, giving ample room for employees to stay as well as let their children play. It was built in two blocks with each having their own inner court yard and apartments of multiple sizes distributed based on the family size. This is the first time I witnessed something where the staff was staying in a building that looked exactly like the hotel, and not in some forgotten basement. No wonder the turnover is low and the staff so courteous. In the next two days, I experienced Jaisalmer through its landscape as well as its people.
He is rumoured to be the inspiration for Ajay Devgan’s character in Gangajal. He is an IPS officer who was one of the toughest ones posted in Bihar, taking down gangsters. He and his family have been through death threats, near misses and Amit Lodha is the proud leader of Border Security Force in Jaisalmer. I did a FB Live with him in his office and the pride with which he talks about his team is unmistakable. He recently published a blog that asked if we were worthy of all the sacrifices that the young soldiers are doing for our safely. Spending the time with him made me think more about the young men and women, who are spending many lonely nights at far away posts protecting the borders while we take our security forgranted. He showed us a film about the varying weather conditions across borders of India – bone chilling cold, sever heat, muddy ground that constantly shifts under ones feet so much so that the border gets moved constantly. The guards are not allowed to talk to one another lest they are distracted, they spend 8 hour shifts alone staring into the space around them watching for the slightest of distraction, then they get to sleep in the most basic surroundings only to be up in time for doing another guard duty. Months of loneliness, minimum comfort and yet, no complaints. At Jaisalmer, we saw some of the BSF women. We walked a few feet away from the fence that divides India and Pakistan and watched the night lights turn on. One of the officers told us that if we flew to Pakistan from India, you could see the string of lights from the air. Next time, someone takes that flight and sees the lights, do think of the multiple sentry posts across the border where a lone young person is looking out for our safety. We all were silent, each in our own thoughts as we stood at the base of the sentry post watching the border. It somehow was the most fitting way to celebrate Diwali, to pay homage to those who make sure that our lights are on.
Joi Barua was spending a couple of weeks in the desert chronicling the music from Rajasthan. Manvendra provides home to over dozen musicians in the hotel so that they can sing in the evenings and also have a stable life.
Else, they would be wanderers (the gypsy culture started from Rajasthan) going from hotel to hotel, place to place trying to fend for themselves. Manvendra wants to do more to bring recognition to these singers. So, Joi is recording their music and mixing it with his music so that the tunes could become more catchy and popular. It was wonderful to witness the progress of this project. While we were there, Joi created four songs where he mixed the strong voices of the singers to his compositions.
Continued in next post “My trip to Jaipur and Jaisalmer Part II” –