The colors of Jaisalmer

Just a snap that I thought was pretty, with ladies dying the long fabric that the men of Rajasthan wrap into large turbans:

I’ve seen sights like this all over Rajasthan, and what I always find amazing is that neither the streets nor the ladies clothes are covered with red dye, so they must carry out this work with an abundance of talent.

9? How can she possibly have 9?

I recently posted a blog about the Indian goddess Durga (one of the must-know Hindu gods for anyone planning a trip to India) and this the photo I showed:

I didn’t think anything of it. But my father flipped out!  Just after seeing it he broke out in a cold sweat – he could not sleep, he could not eat.

For you see, my father is walking weapon, a deadly combination of IT professor and retired Marine Corps “master sniper” who keeps his ultra-long-distance sniping skills very much current indeed. (Aside: he would take me as a small 9-year-old boy to the shooting range, where trained me to hit ping-pong balls and glass marbles at 1’500 meters using a Winchester M1 Garand antique Sniper rifle using metal sights.  At 10 years old he helped me make my first Ghillie suit.) It’s those awesome sniper eyes that caused him to flip out.

“She has NINE arms!” he exploded to me on the phone, “NINE of them! That’s can’t be!  Eight, ok.  Ten – maybe – twelve, if she was a very, very powerful goddess. But the Durga you showed has NINE!”

“Relax, Pops” – actually I never call him pops, but I thought it was a good time to start, “I will look into it and get back to you.

So I rolled up my sleeves and went to work. I surfed and I Googled and I Binged and I “Wolfram Alpha’d” – no references to nine-arm Gods. So I reached out to my network: I have a large network of very devout Hindu scholars as friends. One of my best friends and religious scholar in general, Jim (his real name is Prabir) answered me in Facebook: I think the number of hands have metaphorical purpose. Indicative of some Divine person who has all the skills as denoted by hands. It also symbolizes the effort it takes to destroy evil in this world even temporarily. My response: go stuff a sock in it (or something to that effect), you don’t have a clue! He agreed – he didn’t know.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Durga can appear in any one of nine different forms (Skondamata, Kusumanda, Shailaputri, Kaalratri, Brahmacharini, Maha Gauri, Katyayani, Chandraghanta, and Siddhidatri), and she can have between 8 and 18 arms. But . . . no 9 arm avatar of Durga is known.

According to my friend Jim: Most likely just an artist’s goof.




One tough lady and a lot of well fed rats

The Hindu religions have hundreds if not thousands of gods – but don’t let that deter you. If you have good knowledge of just a small handful of the most famous you’ll have a much more enjoyable and culturally enriching experience in India.

This is one of these must-know gods,  the warrior goddess known as Durga:

Fortunately she is one of the good gods, so evil spirits are well advised to keep clear of all these terrible weapons she is holding.

But she’s not the tough lady I’m talking about.

Interestingly, about the same time as Christopher Columbus realized he missed his goal of India and wound up in the New World instead, there was a famous woman living in the deserts of northeast India named Karni Mata. Something of an ascetic, she founded a number of temples, including this famous temple in the village of Deshnok:

This is what the temple looks like from inside, and in the shot below you can see from the rats drinking from a bowl of milk in the center why it’s known as the Temple of Rats.

Here’s a closeup that I took around breakfast time:

And here’s a shot of the kitchen:

The truly faithful will sit on the ground and eat together with the rats out of the same bowl – and there were plenty of them doing that when I visited – but out of respect I didn’t take any snaps.

By the way, as shown in the snap above and as with all holy places in India, no shoes allowed: so when you go into the temple your feet may be clean, but when you come out they will be covered with rat feces so thick you‘ll need a butter knife just to scrape it off.


Jodhpur – the mystery has been cleared up!

In a recent blog post I talked about the “Mystery of Jodhpur“. Jodhpur is known as the Blue City because many of the buildings are painted blue. While for some people the mystery is why this is done – for me the real mystery is how this is achieved: who coordinates the work, approves the paint, and issues penalties if someone chooses a different color.

Well, thanks to Vineet, my friend and engineer from Tata Consulting Services, now visiting us in Switzerland to help with a data center migration, the mystery has been cleared up.  Because, Vineet is from Jodhpur, and he knows the rules quite well!

Here was the snap I showed of the fort:

And here is the snap I showed looking down on the Blue City, from the fort:

Vineet has told me the blue was never really a paint but in most cases a stain.  And he says that, as of today, there is no longer any rules or regulations that the buildings be painted blue.  This means, over time, the Blue City will surely disappear – but according to Vineet, this is likely to take a long, long time.


Punjabi Pizza

I get a lot of questions from Westerners about the influence of Western food brands, like Pizza Hut, in India.

As you can imagine, in any cultural battle, India usually wins – and the western fast food chains all have food tailored to Indian tastes and cultural norms.

For a while, Pizza Hut had a delicious, spicy, chicked-topped pizza called their “Punjabi Pizza,” and you could see advertisements like this one:

It turns out, if you don’t know much about India, you can learn a lot from a pizza!

Here is a typical pizza menu – nothing unusual if you are familiar with India, but containing a few secrets if you’ve never been there:

First, you’ll see the different colors used to label the dishes.  GREEN is the universal color in India for a vegetarian dish, and RED is the universal color for a non-veg dish.

Second, you’lll often see a little green or red box containing a green or red dot – same meaning as above.

Finally, you’ll often be surprised because many food terms have different equivalents in Indian English.  Above you’ll see the word “capsicum” – which is nothing other than a Bell pepper.  Considering that India has around a BILLION people, and the U.S. has much less . . . I wonder how long it will be before they turn the tables and stop calling it Indian English, but rather just English?

Finally, I took this snap back in 2008 in Krakow, Poland, and it still confuses me today.

Back in 2008 there was hardly a sizeable Indian community in Europe much less Poland – was this really an advertisement for an Indian pizza? Maybe someone who can read Polish can let me know!

Gateway to the Taj Mahal

In an earlier snap I showed the incredible Taj Mahal.  But the doorway you have to walk through in order to see it is equally if not more magnificent:

Here again, the secret to getting great snaps is to visit during the off season. This was the middle of summer, and the temperatures were blisteringly hot.

If you look closely enough at the little portal at the center bottom, you can see the Taj Mahal way off across the courtyard.

And just because it is so incredible to look at, here is another shot of the Taj, this time from a slightly different angle.

Sunset over Pakistan

Here are my feet in the Great Thar Desert of India, enjoying the cool breeze and the warm sand as the sun sets.

I am about 15 km from Pakistan.  This is as far as my driver would take me. There were a few villages closer to Pakistan, but all he would tell me in his limited English is that “they are not safe.”


Jodpur, the bi-directional mystery

These are Jodpurs:

I don’t know if they are originally from Jodpur or not – and I also don’t know the fine subtleties between these and “Hammer-Pants” – although believe it or not, M.C. Hammer and I lived in the same town for a while. And, he once treated my brother and his friends to ice cream.

But getting back to Jodpur, which is the topic of this blog, this is looking UP at the great Mehrangarth Fort, in Jodpur:

And this is the city of Jodpur, looking DOWN from the great Mehrangarth Fort:

Jodpur is called the Blue City, because the dwellings are painted blue.

Most tourists quickly come to know there is a mystery: nobody knows why the dwellings are painted blue. Some historians think this was for religious reasons associated with certain castes; other historians believe it might have had to do with protection against termites.

For me, the real mystery is a different one altogether: you’ll find the dwellings are not completely blue, but just the sides facing the fort!  I’ve never learned who supplies the paint.  I’ve never learned what happens if a resident refuses to paint their fort-facing facade blue.  I’ve never learned who inspects the dwellings to make sure they are painted. And I’ve never learned who pays for the paint.

I always love mysteries like this, because they give me a good motivation to come back and clear them up!


Jaisalmer Cow

You can’t take a bad picture of a good cow!

This cow looks a bit self-content, and that’s probably because she lives in Jaisalmer. As of 2017, Jaisalmer tops my list of the most incredible place I’ve ever visited.  It is a very rural village deep within the Great Thar Desert of India – nothing modern about it, and in fact only about 60,000 inhabitants. But this was a key stop along the Silk Road out of China and to the sea, and you can still see this today: every single stone building in the entire village is as complicated and brilliantly designed as the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain.  It’s a world heritage site – and if you ever get the chance to visit, do not pass it up!

Fancy trucks

Just as in Europe or the U.S., truck drivers who are owners/operators usually like to decorate their trucks.  Perhaps the Indians take it to the next level, as this snap from a truck stop in Rajasthan shows:

In this snap, the owner is on the left.

True story: The first snap I took was of the empty truck – no people.  Then two guys (on the right) jumped into scene and wanted to be photographed.  Then the owner came along, tried to smash his two younger “lakeys” with a big stick he was carrying, made it clear to me that HE was the owner . . . and he had me take a photo with him on the left, and his “hired hands” on the right.

Moral of the story for me: first ask – and be careful of truck drivers carrying sticks.

(PS. In case you are interested, I priced out Indian trucks like this one. At current conversion rates, trucks like this one can start at about $15K – but a Kenworth in the U.S. can easily cost ten times this amount. Believe it or not, if I did the arithmetic correctly, and adjusted for local currency, Indian truck drivers can earn “more or less” the same as their American counterparts.)

Let sleeping camels lie

I took this picture of a sleeping camel in  Rajasthan, India:

What is really interesting, and what I never really thought deeply about until I saw this picture, are the various patches of calloused skin, particularly the one in the center between the front two legs. When camels stand up or sit down, it is this part of their bodies that presses against the ground.

I’ve seen camel roadkill, and it is much, much worse.

Generations on Mount Abu

While travelling through Rajasthan I was able to watch the sunset from Mount Abu. I am not sure why, but watching the sunset from Mount Abu is famous, and lots of people come here to do it.  I was there in high summer (temperatures over 40 C, although much cooler on the hill station), and all the haze you can see below is due to wildfires raging all over Rajasthan.



But what I really like is a photo that a family asked me to take of them. It was unplanned and unstaged and unscripted – and it was a bit unusual because they never asked me to send the picture to them, just to take it –  but it makes a very nice “generations” picture:


Indian Tales 1: Shopping in Dehli with an Auto Wallah


During my first trip to Dehli, in the middle of the hot summer, an auto rickshaw driver was surprisingly honest with me: he asked if he could drive me to a store for tourists, because he would receive a 100 Rs “commission” from the owners for each tourist he delivered there. It was the “off season,” he said, and he needed the extra money for his family.

I have NEVER seen such honesty and openness from an auto wallah before!

So I made a deal with him: he would drive me to as many of these tourists stores as he could: I’d shop for a few minutes then buy nothing and leave, he’d collect 100 Rs from each store we visited — and at the end of the day, we would split the proceeds 50%/50%.

After a few hours we hit nearly 15 different stores, my voice was hoarse from 15 repetitions of the question “Do you have any little paper maché elephants made in Kashmir?” and his pockets were full of money!  Because I didn’t need the money but wanted the fun, I then told him he could keep it all, because he was so honest and open.

He was really happy with this, and we spent another 2 hours in which he took me on the best auto tour of Dehli anyone is ever likely to get, even stopping to drink tea with his other auto wallah friends near this great big stone arch-thing.

Motto: The people who want to take advantage of you can often turn out to be very nice people – and sometimes you can have a lot of fun by turning the tables and taking advantage of the system itself!