Most tourists go to Jodhpur, in the northwest Indian state of Rajasthan, to visit its historical palaces, forts and temples, and to shop for exquisite Indian textiles. We did all that and then some. A special highlight was our 45-minute “village safari” – a very unusual kind of safari indeed.
The villages of Ghuda and Singhasni are about 20km south of Jodhpur and it was in this rural paradise that our cultural adventure took place. We set off on our drive at around 3pm, allowing time for the midday heat to die down.
In the rural area beyond Jodhpur, we encountered a group of women and children walking along the road. The children signalled for us to stop and we couldn’t resist. Armed with candy and our cameras, we got off the jeep. I thought the women might be apprehensive about allowing their children to talk to strangers, let alone take candy from us. But they smiled and joined in the excitement.
For me, this is the best part of travelling: meeting local people and realising that a smile can break all language and social barriers. The laughing children surrounded us, trying to outdo each other to get in front of the camera lens. This brief encounter with strangers is one of my fondest memories of our 14-day trip to India.
Shortly after this lovely interaction, we arrived at Ghuda, a village inhabited by Bishnois. Bishnoism is not only a caste and a religion but a way of life. Its followers are nature worshipers who follow 29 “rules”, each one relating in some way to the protection of the environment and the promotion of personal hygiene.
To my delight, we were invited into one of the Bishnoi homes. Champa, a gorgeous Indian woman with kind eyes and a warm smile, welcomed us into her house where she lives with her father and two children.
Inside, we learned that the walls and floors of the house were made of cow dung, and the roof put together with strategically arranged twigs and straw – nevertheless, everything looked strong and sturdy. The walls were decorated with colourful, naive paintings of peacocks and flowers, painted with natural pigments. Doors and windows were absent; and with the exception of two cots, there was no furniture.
After we’d been shown around and told a bit about the Bishnoi way of life, Champa emerged from one of the rooms with a full sari ensemble in hand – bindi, bracelets and anklets included. We were about to witness an opium tea ceremony and I had to be dressed appropriately for the occasion! Meanwhile, my boyfriend was being transformed with a turban that Champa’s father had rolled up for him.
The father began the opium ritual by using two stones to crush the substance into dust. He put it into what looked like a homemade filter, added some water and out came the final product: a dark and strong-smelling liquid that he proceeded to drink – but not before offering some to the gods.
After the tea ceremony was over, it was time to say goodbye. We later found out that with enough notice Champa would have been happy to make a late lunch for us. Next time!
At a glance, and by Western standards, it may seem as though the Bishnois lack a lot of essential items. In truth, like all good environmentalists they are able to sustain themselves with “gifts from the earth” such as grains, oil, and dairy products and wool from the cows and sheep they keep.
After Ghuda, we made our way to a second village, Singhasni, where we visited a potter’s house; this time our hosts were Muslims. We were greeted by smiling faces and were treated to a demonstration of the potter’s skills. It was 41 degrees, but the heat and the sun could not distract us from what we were seeing. We were mesmerised by how effortlessly his hands moulded a blob of wet clay to create something special out of nothing. Such craftsmanship can only be achieved by a decades of practice.
I could not leave empty-handed and, after a long selection process, I bought an elephant figurine as a souvenir. The visit ended with a family picture – with me included – followed by a group bow and a universally understood hand-wave. As we drove away I wondered how many $5 elephant figurines the potter has to sell each month to support his wife and seven children.
This village safari, and the opportunity to witness a culture and its traditions as closely as we did, is high on my list of unforgettable travel experiences.
* Getting there: fly Singapore to Delhi and catch a connecting flight to Jodhpur.
* We stayed at the Umaid Bhawan Palace. For a more earthy experience, visitors may want to check out Bishnoi Village Camp and Resortt.
* Half-day and full-day tours cost S$18 and $26 respectively. They can be arranged through your hotel or you can visit www.bishnoivillagesafari.com for more details.
* Weather-wise, the best months to visit are between September and March.