Where I've Been

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Part 6: Village Tour around Jodhpur

The “village tour” is a popular tourist attraction in many places throughout the world. The idea being that the tour operator helps you escape from the modernity, rush, and grime of the city and takes you “off the beaten path” to small villages where the locals really live as they have for centuries. I had been on a few in various parts of the world previously and was a bit wary of them, but I thought I’d give this one a try.

On the way, we witnessed our only elephant spotting in India. The head and front were all painted but we only had time to grab our cameras and take a picture of the hindquarters as we passed.

Our first stop was the site of the Khejarli massacre where 278 years ago the local maharaja started cutting down trees for a new palace in a neighborhood of Bishnoi people. Bishnois are a separate religious sect characterized by their reverence for nature. To a westerner, the Bishnoi appear to be Hindu, though their religion is significant because of its origins as a dissenter to the Hindu faith. In any event, the Bishnoi decided to start the tree hugger movement by literally hugging trees and getting their head cut off by the Maharaja’s soldiers.

A nearby village housed a community of potters. We were able to squat beside them and be instructed on how to spin the wheel, form clay and set the pots out to dry. The village looks like a Civil War memorial battlefield with its drying pots resembling piles of cannonballs.

UNICEF works on a myriad of projects for children the world over. In this village, they’ve organized a small school.

It seems one of the items of instruction at this school is the knowledge that all foreigners possess pens in bountiful and free flowing quantities. Thus, we received a never ending stream of requests. I was also unaware that elementary photography was taught, alongside the alphabet and names of animals, at the UNICEF school. As proof, here are pictures taken by children after they grabbed our cameras.

And yes, those are my glasses on his face.
Another stop to a small house where an elderly lady was taking care of a cosmeticked baby (that means the baby had makeup on him for some reason).

Each village is composed of a single ethnic/religious group. The diversity of beliefs between groups was quite interesting. The potters village was Muslim, we then visited an Untouchables village, then a Bishnoi village.
Here we are in the Untouchable village.

I asked my friend Jaideep about the caste system while in Bombay. He laughed: “C’mon man, all that Untouchable stuff was gone after Gandhi; nobody cares about that anymore.” Most likely true in Bombay. Positively and completely untrue in the villages of Rajasthan. The lowest caste in Hindu tradition, the Untouchables, or Dalits, have definite restrictions. After visiting the Untouchables we went to the home of this slightly higher caste family for lunch.

When an Untouchable approaches the home, he is not permitted to pass beyond the gate, the homeowners may not touch him, and if the Untouchable eats with them, he must use a separate set of dishes which must then be washed with sand.
Interestingly enough, when we stopped for lunch, we were led to a room and asked to wait and eat our meal there, as our entrance to the kitchen area would make it ceremonially unclean. The status of a Westerner, as one outside the caste system, tends to vary depending with whom you’re speaking. Some say Westerners have no restrictions and are free to interact with any caste, some simply tolerate us, and some find us polluting.

In the Untouchable village, we witnessed some traditional weaving.

In a communal courtyard, villagers dry out cakes of lentils which is eaten as an accompaniment to meals.

Can an Untouchable rise out of their position and become a doctor, engineer, teacher, etc? Absolutely, but to do so they must almost certainly leave their village. In their community, they are constantly under the stigma of who they are and are not permitted to rise above. Moving to a larger city can shed that label, though their surname will betray them if anybody cares. However, it’s often a matter of getting there as Untouchables are almost certainly poor. What is most disheartening however is asking these typse of questions to rural Untouchables. Most simply convey a lack of desire to do anything of that nature, claiming that this is just who they are. It’s a thought repulsive to me as an American, where our culture encourages anybody from any background to rise to the fullness of their potential through ingenuity and hard work.

Over lunch, I spoke with the tour operator and owner, Deepak. I had to commend him for the best village tour I’ve ever taken. Most of these tours tend to whore out the culture of those you would like to see. Take for instance the Karen and Akha tribe tour near Chiang Mai, Thailand where women elongate their neck and limbs with iron coils. The cultural reasons that once prompted these people to follow this practice have now vanished. Now young girls’ lives are hijacked and the aspiration of their next 50 years becomes sitting with a forced smile inside a hut while westerners come and gawk at the sideshow, exclaiming what a “beautiful culture” these people have. This is an extreme example, but the oddity of the culture of some indigenous people has the effect of turning them into beggars as the rich Westerner comes trouncing through. They have little more to do than sit and wait for the next tour to show up as their original diligence and industry vanish.

Deepak ensures that, in exchange for allowing us to visit these people, he provides them with medical treatment and school supplies and does as little as possible otherwise to disrupt their lifestyle. I would highly recommend that if you’re going to Jodhpur, check out Bishnoivillagesafari.com and contact Deepak directly instead of booking through a hotel, which takes a commission. In case you’re wondering, I do not receive any compensation for my endorsement.

To round out our trip, we visited Roop Raj the durrymaker in his village of Salawas. Roop Raj resembles many of the other villagers we saw along our way but when he starts to speak you know he means business, literally. He has gone from being a local weaver to hobnobbing with international clientele and being splashed around on CNN, BBC, and newspapers throughout Asia and Europe. I like people to mistake my house for their local Pier 1 Imports showroom so naturally I picked up one of his fabulous durries. Here is Roop Raj smilingly modeling a durry crafted by his own hand in his village.

Lastly, we visited a traditional opium ceremony. Opium is illegal in India but the locals have special rights preserved for them to continue with their traditional practices much like peyote with American Indians or marijuana with Willie Nelson.

When I return, you’ll be treated to a tour through the fantasyland of Jaisalmer!


Lon said...

So How was the opium?

The Steph said...

I wish I could express my jealousy completely, but instead I will ask on simple question: Will you take me with you next time????

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