Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur 30 April 2007
22.04.2007 - 30.04.2007 25 °C
I used to be a jet-setter. Well, it was difficult to avoid setting a jet or two during thirty years in the travel industry wasn't it?! Now, in the autumn of my years and working in higher education, I’ve done it again - two foreign countries speaking incomprehensible languages in just a fortnight - Wales and India!
My week in Wales was at Aberglasney with Pat. We returned home on Saturday 21 April and I flew to Delhi the next day.
Readers of my blog from India last year will know that Pat has an aversion to all things curried, so I travelled alone again. Those readers will also know that, after my holiday in January 2006 with young friend Pintu, I expected to see him again only at his wedding, whenever that might happen to be. My return to India this year was, indeed, for a wedding - but it wasn’t his!
I was honoured to have been invited to the marriage of Pintu's cousin Rameshverpal (known to his family and friends as Vinku), the eldest son of my dear friend Khuman (Thakur Khuman Singh Rathore to give him his formal title). A 'Thakur', incidentally, is a Rajput chieftain and feudal lord, so this was to be a very important marriage - one I simply could not miss.
It was to be a traditional Rajput wedding - an arranged marriage, a suitable bride having been chosen by Vinku's parents. The bride and groom had met before, but officially only at their engagement ceremony many months earlier. Pintu was to be best man, which entailed caring for Vinku night and day, ensuring he was wearing the correct costume for each day's celebration, guarding the heirloom jewellery he would wear, and collecting and accounting for the many gifts of money he would receive. Unfortunately, Pintu's duties throughout the week would prevent us from spending more than a brief time together.
Yes, it was a long way for me to go for a wedding - but, wow, what a great experience! It was one I will always remember.
My journeys to and from India went more or less like clockwork. The National Express coaches from the University in Hatfield direct to London Heathrow Airport and vice versa were quicker, more convenient, and less expensive than taking the car. I had checked-in on-line for my Virgin Atlantic flights to and from Delhi, so just had to drop my bags at their desk before going through security into the departure lounge. My journeys from Delhi to Jaipur and onwards to Gundoj and Udaipur in Rajasthan were by car (with a driver - self-drive is a definite no-no on these roads!), but I flew back from Jaipur to Delhi to save time. The venue for the bridegroom's celebrations before and after the marriage ceremony was Khuman's fort in the village of Gundoj, with meals at his recently-opened restaurant complex five minutes' away. The formal marriage ceremony took place in the bride's home town of Udaipur.
The only small hiccup to my journeys was my arrival back at London, which was delayed by about ten minutes due to having to abort our landing at Heathrow just seconds from touchdown because the aircraft ahead of us was still on the runway. Scary!
My stops in Jaipur were simply to break the long journeys. I was heading for Gundoj, near Pali, about 500 kilometres (310 miles) south of Delhi. This would not be a great distance in the UK but, hey, this is India. Jaipur was about halfway. The traffic hadn’t changed - sounding of horns, overtaking anywhere at any time, lane swapping on the motorway, cows chewing the cud on the central reservation - everything was just the same as always. That remarkable roundabout in Jaipur at the intersection of four highways (no traffic control whatsoever, with cars, buses, bullock carts, motorbikes, bicycles and people all converging on it) was just as crazy as ever. Close your eyes and pray. It was great to be back!
On the way out I chose to spend my first night (Monday) at the Trident Hilton in Jaipur, conveniently situated just north of the city. I picked up a bargain on their website and had a large room facing the Jal Mahal (Water Palace), which was in a lake without water following last year’s poor monsoon. The hotel room was comfortable, with complimentary mineral water and slippers and, unusually for India, tea- and coffee-making facilities (although I discovered that the kettle didn’t work). The service throughout the hotel was extraordinary and the food, although over-priced and with an odd multi-cultural menu, was okay. When I checked-out on Tuesday morning, I mentioned the non-functioning kettle. It hadn’t been a problem but, within minutes, the hotel’s General Manager introduced himself and apologised profusely. I was impressed.
On the return journey, I stayed (Sunday night) at the Hari Mahal Palace, one of the nearest habitable hotels to the airport in the south of the city of Jaipur. It was a restored heritage palace with high ceilings and large rooms. For the price, one could expect more than the plastic clock on the mantelpiece. There was broadband internet connection, but the printer next to the computer wasn’t connected and promises that someone would come to fix it came to nothing. Oh, and the railway line sounded like it was running past the door - the frequent booming horns from trains disturbing mealtime music and puppet shows, and sleep! I won’t be back.
That’s enough of my travels to and fro’ - let me tell you about the wedding itself.
Well, the first thing you must know about Indian weddings is that they are definitely not a twenty-minute affair, as they sometimes can be in the UK. Every day of this wedding brought a new ceremony, a new crowd of people, new costumes, a new venue - for five whole days. I guess these events might have been mirrored by the bride, but I can’t be sure because we didn’t see her until we travelled to Udaipur, six or seven hours away by road, on the Thursday. The temperature during the day soared to over 40C (104F), so most events took place at night, by which time it had dropped to only(!) 30C (86F) - which explains why hot buffet meals were regularly eaten at around midnight, after many litres of water and cold beer. Despite eating well, I lost 4 kilos (9 lbs) in weight that week.
The precise sequence of events has become a bit of a blur, so I’ll let my photographs give you a flavour of these. What pictures cannot convey, however, is noise - the drums, the clanging of stick on metal pan, the bagpipes, harmoniums, singing, excited crowds, the huge, hand-launched rockets… They can only suggest some of the colour, the myriad of beautiful saris worn by equally beautiful women, the variety of styles and materials used for the men’s turbans, the awnings and lights at the venues, and the formal costumes of the bride, the groom and all the guests.
The incessant boom of big drum and clang of stick on metal pan preceded every event
The colourful gathering of people from the village welcomes the bridegroom
Above all, what my pictures will never be able to convey is the warmth of the welcome I received. As the only European, and therefore the only one who had travelled some 7,000 kilometres (4,500 miles) to be there, I was something of a curiosity and I was never alone in a sea of people at every ceremony or reception. For me, it was a truly great honour and a privilege to have been invited to such a prestigious wedding. I had not appreciated, until I received my own very royal welcome on the Tuesday, with drums, a special turban, flowers, and much rejoicing, that Khuman and his family were similarly honoured by my presence.
During the five days of celebrations, I must have seen a thousand people and met five hundred of them, mostly from the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and mostly relatives of Khuman and his wife Sailesh. They nearly all had the family name of Singh - which was fortunate because I couldn't even begin to remember all their first names!
I became a magnet too for the younger generation, keen to learn about life outside of India and to practice their English with an Englishman, sometimes for the very first time in their lives, even though they may have learned the language in school and spoke Indian-English very well. Indian-English, by the way, is similar to English-English - the expression “I am coming now only” (meaning “I’ve just arrived”), stands out in my memory!
Fun for the children too. Jolly, daughter of Jagdish - one of Pintu's aunts
Gifts of clothes and jewellery were exchanged in a colourful ceremony in the fort.
I was extremely grateful to Pintu for ensuring that Shibu - Khuman’s younger son, and Harsh - one of Vinku’s friends, kept an eye on me whenever his best-man duties prevented him from doing so himself. They made sure I was properly introduced to people, that I was comfortably seated, and supplied with food and chilled drinks at all the events. Some much younger guests, particularly Bablu from Gujarat and the brothers Jai and Harsh from northern Rajasthan, acted as my personal assistants, caring for my hat and heavy camera bag. I remarked last year that the young of India give their parents and elders such a great deal of respect, and this year was certainly no different. Inquisitive, yes. Mischievous, sometimes. Polite and respectful, always. Thanks guys.
The groom wearing the first of several smart costumes and neck jewellery
As head of his village, Thakur Khuman Singh officiated at this ceremony
Khuman’s generous hospitality extended to providing me with air-conditioned accommodation at nearby hotels, mostly owned by RTDC (Rajasthan Tourist Development Corporation). On one occasion, I had a guest room at the home of one of his friends, a wealthy neighbourhood farmer, where I was treated as a VIP and joined my host for breakfast on my last day in Gundoj seated on the mother of all settees - it was U-shaped and could have easily accommodated thirty people! What a pleasure it was to meet such a kind man - and I had to force his very attentive caretaker/waiter to accept a small tip.
It's customary to remove your shoes. These were someone else's!
Most of Khuman and Sailesh's families were accommodated within the (non-air-conditioned) fort at Gundoj; it's a huge house on several floors with countless rooms, courtyards and rooftops, the whole surrounded by high walls and with an elephant-sized front door. It had recently been painted white and an extension to one floor constructed to provide a self-contained home for Vinku and his wife. Colourful awnings had been erected over the courtyards to provide daytime shade, with extra cooling supplied by an array of electric, floor-standing fans. Some of the ceremonies took place in and around the fort and it was where we all congregated. I operated on Western Time, always arriving punctually at the appointed hour as I had been trained to - only then discovering that everyone else worked on Indian Time - i.e. add a couple of hours to whatever time you're told to be there! Another reason why dinner was eaten at midnight.
In Gundoj, we ate at Khuman's new restaurant complex, the Ranbanka Restaurent (sic), located on a large piece of land which he owned alongside the nearby National Highway 14, part of the major road artery joining Bombay and Delhi. This was under construction when I came last year and had been finished to a high standard, with a huge indoor dining hall, kitchens and toilets, and a vast outdoor area of lawns and shrubs. Men and women usually had separate celebrations. Here, the women dined, danced and sang indoors while the men drank, ate and listened to music outdoors. Everyone had a wonderful time. The food was good, snacks and drinks were brought to the tables in a seemingly-endless stream, and tasty meat and vegetarian dishes were served from a frequently-replenished buffet.
The turbans worn for ceremonial occasions were made from miles of bright material. A man was employed to make them as many of the wearers were unable to do it themselves. Pintu's father, Ranveer, is at front left. At rear left is the father of the young brothers Jai and Harsh. Centre right is the Deputy Inspector General of the Rajasthan police.
Vinku graciously accepted dozens of gifts, while Pintu (rear left) looked on.
Farmers from the village. Note their distinctive turbans.
Vinku, in his car awaiting departure from Gundoj for Udaipur, seemed apprehensive. He had only met his bride officially on one previous occasion, some months before.
Female members of the family gather to see the bridegroom leave the fort
A similar formula was followed at Thursday evening's marriage ceremony in Udaipur, except that was at an outdoor wedding venue where at least two weddings were in progress at the same time, in separate but adjoining areas. Another bagpipe band headed the parade, failing to compete at one stage with a van, which headed up another wedding parade, blaring recorded music at top volume through enormous trumpet-like speakers mounted on its roof. The groom, in resplendent costume and glittering jewels, rode a white horse draped in ornamental livery. All the guests processed in front and behind. At the venue, the men were seated in one area, the women in another - the latter close to a decorated raised platform at which the ceremony took place.
The white in the left foreground is one of the silver-handled fly-whisks constantly waved by servants flanking the bridegroom (presumably to keep him cool as there weren't any flies!).
Wearing a beautiful brocade gown and riding a decorated thoroughbred horse, Vinku rode through the village. A band with bagpipes marched in front, drums and cymbals followed, and huge rockets were fired into the sky.
The groom in ceremonial costume
In Udaipur, guests (including the Deputy Inspector General of Rajasthan's Police at front right) pay their respects to the bridegroom's father, Thakur Khuman Singh
Another headdress, another bagpipe band, another thoroughbred horse, another ride through the crowds - this time outside the marriage venue in Udaipur.
The bridegroom welcomed at Udaipur
A particularly honoured guest was His Highness Gaj Singhji II, Maharajah of Jodhpur - owner of the largest private residence in the world (at which Liz Hurley's wedding had taken place just a few months ago). He graciously received me and we chatted for a minute or two - only to have to repeat the exercise ten minutes later at the request of the numerous photographers gathered around him.
His Highness Gaj Singhji II (on the right), Maharajah of Jodhpur, was an honoured guest.
The marriage ceremony itself was a solemn affair with two pandits (priests who organised all the religious parts of the marriage) reading scripts from little books while the groom and his veiled bride sat cross-legged and silent opposite. The other wedding in progress on the other side of a fabric wall behind them meantime moved onto the Indian equivalent of deafening, heavy-rock music!
The bride and groom at the solemn marriage ceremony, which lasted several hours.
Guests were not required to participate in the ceremony, which lasted for several hours and included a number of rituals. Indeed, very few ventured near the ceremony and instead retired to another outdoor area where copious quantities of drink and food were being served. I saw and photographed parts of the ceremony, most of which, at least to my eyes, seemed very similar. Afterwards, the groom went from table to table in the men's dining area, receiving gifts of money from some and congratulations from everyone.
After the formal ceremony, the bride and groom relax, accompanied by the best man.
The bride and groom receive their guests on the day after the formal marriage ceremony
Still veiled, Sheetal shyly poses for photographs.
The groom and his best man
We see the bride at last - and she is very beautiful.
The next morning, we all returned to a hotel near the marriage venue for a short ceremony and some formal photographs before the bride bid farewell to her family. With voluminous sobbing, Sheetal was accompanied to her husband's car for the long journey to her new home in Gundoj.
Sobbing and veiled (in yet another costume), the bride leaves her family for the journey to her husband's family's home.
Late that night, drums, cymbals and much rejoicing awaited our return at the fort. There, a game of sorts, involving seven metal plates placed on marked circles and moved around by the groom's sword had to be gathered up and made into a pile by the bride - not just once, but seven times, presumably until she did it properly! This was followed by prayers at one of the shrines in the fort, then dinner - at after one o'clock in the morning, if my memory serves me correctly.
The bride and groom are welcomed on arrival at their new home in the fort at Gundoj.
My three assistants. Left to right: Jai, Bablu and Harsh
On Saturday morning (Indian Time - i.e. lunchtime!), Vinku and Sheetal journeyed out to several temples in the surrounding area. I went with them to pay our respects to one of Khuman's ancestors who had died during a battle with a neighbouring clan. Mortally wounded by a sword cut to his throat, he continued to fight bravely until falling at the site of the monument, which also served as a small shrine. Of course, shoes must not be worn at such holy places - the sun was at its peak and I spent ten minutes hopping from foot to foot while watching a fascinating ceremony involving drum and cymbal, sweet-smelling, smoky incense, and bottles of alcohol poured over the monumental stone. A well-earned afternoon rest followed before the final event in the cool of the evening, a huge reception at the Ranbanka Restaurent. More drinks, more food, more friends made, some e-mail addresses exchanged, lots of farewells...
Back at the fort, Vinku and Pintu were able to shed their formal costumes.
The happy couple
After breakfast at the farmer's home on my final morning, I returned to the fort where, to my surprise, there was a farewell gathering in my honour with much ceremony and generous gifts for me and for Pat. I was sad to leave.
When leaving, I was honoured with a farewell gathering at which I was given some wonderful gifts - each of them a treasured memory.
Pintu insisted on accompanying me on the six-hour journey back to Jaipur, where he is currently living while preparing for his next set of competition exams. He was so tired after his exhausting week that he slept for much the car journey and, after dinner at the hotel, he was soon fast asleep again. He was recalled to attend an unexpected ceremony in Gundoj and, after waving farewell to me at the airport early on Monday morning, he caught a bus back. It transpired that he then returned to Jaipur by bus on Tuesday! This young man has such a sense of duty and responsibility.
So, this hurried, busy, wonderful excursion into a previously unknown world of Rajput marriage came to an end. Some parts of it will forever remain a mystery to me. I do, however, have vivid memories of all the colour and noise and of the incredible hospitality and kindness I received. Vinku and Sheetal make a very attractive couple - and they will doubtless make some beautiful grandchildren for Khuman and Sailesh in the years ahead.