Jonathan: Bundi Forts, Jaipur Foot & Clubbing

February 15, 2011

Well, I have yet again done what I promissed myself I wouldn’t do, waited until after a particularly inspiring out-trip to write my next post. My goal with this blog is not to write an epic of “and then I saw this palace, and then I saw that fort and it was really cool.” And thus, while I will start with my most recent trip to Bundi, I will also write about Jaipur and the infinite contradictions it seems to hold. But first, Bundi. A town, at around 100,000 people, it is just far enough off the beaten path that it is still audibly quiet, its economy still relies on fields other than tourism, and its citizens are generally friendly enough to give directions but feel no need to bother otherwise (even the shopkeepers). It does, however, have enough of a tourist infrastructure to hold an assortment of hostels, restaurants and bottled water vendors. In short, paradise. Located in the hills of arid southern Rajasthan, Bundi is best known for its magnificent palace that overlooks the city. Built for the ruling family of the area, it holds amazing and beautiful wall paintings depicting Hindu gods and scenes from royal life, including such diverse scenes as soldiers in battle and relaxed opium smoking. Built to overlook the city, it is a maze of rooms that provides tremendous views of the city and the desert. Because it still remains less popular than other sites in India, it is largely open to the public, and we were able to explore its many decadent rooms, and climb some rather foreboding and dangerous staircases.

It is amazing what one can get away with when there are no fences or barbed wire to slow down the adventurous spirit. Little did we know, however, that the adventure was just to begin. Later that day, after a quick tour of the thriving vegetable market and general bazaar, where we witnessed older women making bangles by hand, we trekked back up, past the palace, to the fort. We had been told it was ‘ramshackle,’ and that we had to bring a large stick to ward off monkeys. While ramshackle sounded enticing, the monkey situation was more foreboding. Upon entering the fort complex, it became clear that we had come across something more spectacular than we had ever imagined. The entire complex was gigantic, perhaps the size of a small city neighborhood. It was filled with gigantic palaces and temples which were completely open to the public, with no guards or fences to keep tourists out. Trees, grass, monkeys, and birds had claimed the entire area, and it felt as if we were explorers of a different era coming across a long forgotten archeological dig. The entire evening we saw just four other people (although our second visit, below, would yield even fewer sightings). Taking the first interesting looking staircase in the small entrance complex (just four rooms with windows overlooking the main path to the fort, presumably the first layer of protective defense), we suddenly came to a ticket of bramble with paths leading in every direction. Choosing one, we sojourned through the grasses and rocks until coming across a tremendous pagoda style temple. At least four stories tall, it sat utterly alone with just the major armament building of the fort overlooking it. Climbing two sets of stairs, we reached the main platform which had amazing views in all directions of the city, the desert, and the rest of the complex. We had come to watch the sun set, and it was now dipping low. Climbing down, we went to a nearby battle station, climbed onto the roof, and enjoyed delicious guava and a game of cards. With the sun about to set, and a 6:30pm closing time, we started to head back at 6:05pm. It became clear within 10 minutes that we were lost, and thus began the frantic search for the fort exit. Completely alone in the complex, the sun disappeared behind the mountains and darkness set it. As our panic heightened, we walked in circles desperately trying to find a familiar landmark of building. Slowly, the monkeys began to descend, eyeing us and at times walking towards us threateningly. Fifty minutes later, at 6:55, we finally found the exit, and a lighthearted guard assessed us with a late fine: one pinch on the cheek and teasing comments for the rest of the 15 minute walk down. We were, needless to say, perfectly happy with the result, and felt supremely lucky that they had not closed the gate and gone home.

The next day, we awoke early and headed back to the fort, determined to finish our exploration. For the next five hours of our visit, we did not see a single other tourist, and had the entire complex all to ourselves. Monkeys were everywhere, yet much less aggressive than the night before, and we simply coexisted within the amazing scenery. This time we explored in the other direction, and found two tremendous step wells. Built to provide water for the entire fort complex, the wells were tremendously large, perhaps as large as the foundation for a small house, and went down two or three stories. We too explored empty palaces with scores of rooms and even more tremendous views. Both eerie and exhilarating, we were utterly alone in a complex which had once housed hundreds at the least (more likely, judging by the number and size of the wells, thousands). The most breathtaking moment, however, came when we climbed atop the highest point, a battle station that now mainly housed electrical equipment. From there we had views in every direction, with only the faintest sounds of the constant horn honking. As a testament to its remoteness, in the middle of the terrace was a partial grate, completely exposed, that went down well beyond lights reach with just thin slabs of marble for stairs. When I tossed a pebble down, it took many seconds before I heard it hit ground. I was beside myself with awe at the situation. I lack words to describe it all. This is all I will write of Bundi, for I too want to write about my life here in Jaipur, and interesting things I am learning.

Typically on Friday we take a class field trip to a local site. This week we visited an NGO called Jaipur Foot who distributes prosthetic feet and knees to amputees and braces to polio patients. It’s main products, the Jaipur Foot and Knee are internationally renowned for their very low cost, just Rs. 750 (about 16.50 USD), simplicity (the Jaipur Knee uses just five parts), quality, and cultural acceptability (they are manufactured for ease of use for a population that utilizes squat toilets, sits cross legged, and primarily wears sandals). The NGO itself provides all prosthetics for free to anyone regardless of income, will pay for transportation back to ones city or village, and may even provide vocational training or startup financing for a small business if needed. Perhaps most interesting about the organization is an analysis of who receives services. The majority of those accessing Jaipur Foot’s prosthetics are men, and they have mainly experienced amputation after road or railway accidents. This raises two very interesting points. In the United States, one of the leading causes of death amongst men, particularly young men, is accident or injury. While I am unaware of the rates in India, it provides an interesting initial launching point for inquiry. Second, amputation due to injury are relatively rare in the United States, however they are relatively prevalent in India. This is, I can interpolate, can be traced to a lack of the necessary technologies or that the severity of accidents are tremendous. In sum, one can look at the issue holistically: men are noticeably more prevalent in public life particularly in spaces such as public transportation, roadways, and industry. As such, it is not surprising that they represent the majority of amputations. Regardless, however, the Jaipur Foot and Knee have changed the lives of thousands in the developing world.

This third, and final, story depicts a very different side of the developing world, one that only serves to highlight India’s contradictions. For Valentines Day we all decided to let loose a little bit and go out for a fun evening together at a local cafe. The cafe/night club immediately transported us far out of Jaipur and instead resembled the trendiest night spots of New York, Chicago, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and Toronto. Everyone wore the latest fashions, the smartest colognes, and the hippest hairstyles. And yet it was still distinctly Indian; there were few women, even though it was Valentines Day. Soon the music started, and all the top hits from the US played. We soon took over the dance floor and had a great time. For the first time in over a month we suddenly existed within a space we felt entirely comfortable and knowledgeable in: that of western youth culture. In many ways, we defined the space — our dancing styles, our music, our clothing. While it was great fun and I felt invigorated and relaxed afterwards, it left many important questions regarding globalization, the west, and the effects of ‘trendiness.’ What does it mean that we defined the space, made the party, and drove the ‘vibe?’ What does it mean that we were so relaxed and free? What does it mean that we let our gaurd down? And finally, what does it indicate about the role of the west in shaping the India of tomorrow? Namaste and fear milengue!

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