Rajasthan, the Land of Kings

In late November and early December 2004, I traveled to India with my wife and then 6-year-old son to tour the state of Rajasthan. While not strictly focused on shooting, this trip did provide some opportunities for photography. Rajasthan (literally “land of rajas” or kings) is located in the dry northwest region of India near the Pakistan border. It has a long and storied history filled with chivalry, conquest and passion. For more than 1,000 years this desert land has seen kingdoms and empires flourish and fall, from Mughals to Marwars, and prior to independence it was closely allied with British influence in the region. Rajasthan is a place of color and adventure; even today, there are cautionary tales for travelers.

Note: for a better look at some of the images from this trip, see my gallery In the Land of Kings

We were fortunate to be able to experience this amazing country as guests of our good friend Abhay Maskara and his family. Our insight into the people we met and the places we visited was greatly enhanced by their enthusiasm in sharing their country with us.

Arrival in New Delhi

We began our trip in New Delhi after a long flight through Amsterdam. Our trip was to be a guided tour of the state of Rajasthan, the “Land of Kings,” and Delhi was both our departure and return point.

New Delhi is the bustling capital of India and surrounds the “old city” of Delhi, one of the most densely populated locations on the planet. When traveling through old Delhi (and many other places in India) you get a sense barely controlled chaos which is quite impossible to describe.

We spent some time visiting sites in New Delhi, including the famed India Gate, a war memorial, and Rashtrapati Bhawan, the presidential residence and former palace of the viceroy. The palace, like many buildings in New Delhi, was designed by the English architect Lutyens and has a distinctly European influence.

Indian culture places strong emphasis on family, and the weekend we were in New Delhi was one the most propitious times of the year for young couples to be married. Over 17,000 weddings were celebrated in New Delhi in just a 3-day period!

Polo Trophy 2004

A highlight of our stay in New Delhi was a VIP invitation to attend the “Nawab of Bhopal and Pataudi” Polo Trophy 2004 match at the New Delhi polo grounds. As my wife is an English-seat equestrian, this was a special opportunity for us. I of course promptly left our box and joined the local photojournalists covering the match from the sidelines. (Fortunately, nobody asked me for credentials.) Although forms of polo have been played for over two thousand years in various parts of Central Asia, the modern sport owes its roots to India and its “discovery” by the British, where by 1870 it had spread throughout British India and from there on to the West.

My long lenses having been lost, shooting action with a short lens posed some creative challenges. I decided to shoot pan-blurs, which provided some worthwhile images with a different take on the match.

Sanskriti Foundation

While in New Delhi we enjoyed a very pleasant private tour of the Sanskriti Pratishthan, (or foundation). The Sanskriti Foundation is an Indian cultural organization founded in 1978 by Mr. O.P. Jain, a prominent figure in the India cultural scene, and Abhay’s wife Gareema’s uncle. The word Sanskriti means ‘the process of cultivating’, and the foundation’s goal is to “cultivate an environment for the preservation and promotion of artistic and cultural resources.” The Foundation operates two museums as well as an artist-in-residence program. A highlight was to see the many beautiful terracotta and “everyday” artifacts preserved and explained here.

The Pink City

From New Delhi we boarded a private coach and departed for Jaipur, the state capital of Rajasthan. The journey gave us a taste of the twisty, windy roads that traverse the region.

Travel by road in India is an interesting experience. The first thing you notice is the great hodge-podge of traffic that seems to share the roads all at once: foot traffic, bicycles, wagons, camels, horses, cows, autorickshaws, cars, buses, trucks. The second thing you notice is that there are no apparent rules: no lanes of traffic, horns blaring constantly, etc. It turns out all is not what it seems: every driver seems to know precisely what to expect of other drivers, and the horns blow not in anger, but as a polite way of alerting a driver in front that you are passing! (Trucks and buses are often seen with “Horn Please” signs on the back.)

Along the way to Jaipur, we stopped at the beautiful Neemrana Fort Palace for lunch (above). This restored and converted fort, originally built in 1464, is now a 5-star “heritage hotel.” There are many lesser forts and places of historical significance in India for which there are no public funds to maintain. This practice at least ensures that some of these marvelous properties are preserved and restored.

Jaipur is known as the “The Pink City,” after the color of the buildings of the old city which must by law be painted in a deep saffron pink color. This tradition dates back to 1876, when the entire city was painted in honor of a visit by the Prince of Wales.

While in Jaipur we visited the sprawling City Palace which blends Rajput and Mughal architecture, the Jantar Mantar Observatory, a fascinating monument to astronomy built in 1827 by Raja Sawai Jai Singh II, and the superbly situated Amber Fort, originally built in the 11th century. Amber was the site of the original kingdom before the city of Jaipur was founded. At Amber Fort, tourists can book elephant rides up the long winding path, through 7 gates, to the heart of the fort.

The Pushkar Fair

It is said that “Rajasthanis can celebrate nine festivals in a week,” a tribute to the fervor and passion that local people allocate to festive occasions.

In Rajasthan, no festival is more colorful than the Pushkar Fair, a huge camel trading bazaar held in the desert each fall. During the weeks of the fair, camels, horses and bullocks are bought and sold in the hundreds, and dozens of merchants are on hand to sell camel decorations, saddlery, leather goods and handicrafts. There is a carnival for the kids, and street performers add to the festive air. The camels are even shaved and decorated with colorful designs, to heighten their appeal to the prospective buyer.

But as a photographer, the thing that attracted me most while in Pushkar was the people. These men and women of central Asia have been raising camels and trading them here for hundreds of years, and this history seems to be written into the lines on their faces and in the simple clothing they wear. There is a quiet dignity in many of the older men, who show only a mild interest in a passing photojournalist from the West.

One charming aspect of our visit to Pushkar was the crowd of small boys who inevitably seemed to gather around my son Sterling to have their photo taken–though not by me! Sterling was carrying his own small digital camera, and this was a source of great fascination to the other children his age.

Serendipitously, while photographing the camel fair I encountered Art Wolfe, fellow Seattle resident and noted outdoor photographer with whom I traveled to Africa in 2003. This time, it turns out we were shooting in India completely independently but ended up in Pushkar on the very same day. Karma!

The Palace and the Temple

From Pushkar we pushed on to Jodhpur, the second largest city in Rajasthan and home to the elegant Umaid Bhawan Palace, a remarkable edifice of red sandstone built in the 1920s as a public works project to benefit the unemployed people of the kingdom. It is still the residence of the current Raja, though part of palace has been converted to a lovely heritage hotel and museum.

Jodhpur is also home to the amazing Mehrangarh Fort which seems to grow from the very rock of a cliff some 400 feet off the plain. Mehrangarh is well worth visiting; not only can you tour the fort and the museum there, but you can book an al fresco dining experience with tables perched under the stars on the fort’s ramparts.

Jodhpur was the largest of the “Princely States” of Rajasthan during the British colonial period, and in the early 20th century surprisingly became an early center of aviation due to the avid interest of the Maharaja. English-seat equestrians also know this city as the home of “jodhpurs,” or riding breeches as we know them today. This distinctive garment was invented by Sir Pratap Singh, former Regent of Jodhpur and a great Rajput warrior who (it was said) virtually lived in the saddle.

From Jodhpur we drove to Udaipur but stopped first at the breathtaking Adinatha Temple deep in the forest at Ranakpur. The largest and most complex Jain temple in India, Adinatha has been called a “veritable hymn in stone and marble.”

Of Tigers and Mausoleums

The final leg of our journey brought us through the “lake city” of Udaipur where we spent a pleasant night. Along the way we stopped and met some local village children who showed us the irrigation well on their farm, still operated by a team of oxen. From Udaipur we drove to the stunning Devi Garh Fort Palace, now a restored heritage hotel, where we enjoyed a serene respite (right) from the bone-jarring roads and bustling city life. Nestled in the village of Delwara amid the Aravali hills, the 18th century Devi Garh commands one the three main passes into the valley of Udaipur.

From there we ventured on to a highlight of our trip, the famed Ranthambhor National Park, one of the key locations included in India’s Project Tiger conservation project. Ranthambhor is the former private game reserve of the maharajas of Jaipur, who once brought their personal guests here for tiger shoots. The park is eerily beautiful, dominated by the ruined battlements of Ranthambhor Fort which looms over forest like a sleeping giant.

Though we were able to stay for only one night and a half day, we did get in a (bracing!) morning game drive during and a brief (and remarkably close) encounter with one of the park’s wild tigers. We learned later that we were the only vehicle to manage a tiger sighting that morning.

While in Ranthambhor we spent some time visiting the striking Ranthambhor Fort. Originally built in AD 944, it is one of the oldest forts in Rajasthan, and owes its defense in part to the surrounding jungle. It is said that the Mughal emperor Akbar, unable to capture the fort after a 37-day artillery barrage, finally did so by surprise after disguising himself as an ordinary macebearer and entering the fort surreptitiously along with one of his generals.

On to Agra

From Ranthambhor we continued to the city of Agra in the nearby state of Uttar Pradesh, home of the world-famous Taj Mahal, regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. The Taj Mahal, a mausoleum, was built between 1632 and 1653 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his late wife, Arjumand Banu Bagam, also known as Mumtaz Mahal (Persian for “Elect of the Palace”). It is a symbol of India and could easily make a modern list of the seven wonders of the world.

After a very long drive, we arrived in Agra late in the day and just made it into the monument with 5 minutes to spare. The light was hazy and overcast, not ideal for photographs, so I shot reflections of the building and visitors in the surrounding pools. However, a hint of sunset afterglow is barely visible on the white marble walls of the monument in one of the classic views of the Taj Mahal (below).

Wrapping Up

Finally, I wanted to share a story and a few more images of the trip, to give you a sense of what it was like “behind the scenes.” While our overall experience in India was wonderful, we did have one unexpected mishap as we arrived in New Delhi: my cameras were stolen.

Coming from a photojournalism background, I generally consider myself to be fairly street smart. Normally when I travel, I look after my gear in ways that minimize risk and attention. However, on this trip I was traveling with my wife and 6-year-old son, and my attention was divided just long enough to learn a tough lesson.

I originally packed a Lowepro bag with roughly $13,000 worth of Canon digital gear, including two 20D bodies, five lenses (including the excellent Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 EX DC, a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, and a Canon 400mm DO IS which I brought specifically to photograph tigers at Ranthambhor National Park), flash, and accessories.\

We arrived in New Delhi at close to midnight, after having been in airplanes and airports for close to 22 hours. When we entered baggage claim, I placed my backpack with two other bags on a luggage cart, which changed hands between my wife, myself, and our prearranged driver and guide two or three times while at the airport. All our bags were placed (at least I thought) in our waiting van. It was not until we arrived in our room at the Imperial Hotel and our bags were delivered that I noticed that my backpack had (you guessed it) “gone missing.”

How, you ask, could I have let such a valuable kit out of my direct possession? Well, chalk it up to jet lag and the distractions of looking after a child. Lesson learned. The good news is that this occurred before I had made any pictures, so only material possessions were lost.

Our friend Abhay Maskara and his family naturally felt awful for us. They went out of their way to help us deal with this loss, including escorting me to the police station to file a police report. Abhay also took me to a camera shop in New Delhi, where I purchased the best model they had on hand as a replacement: the excellent Nikon D70 and DX Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED kit lens. I spent the next 2 weeks working with this single camera and lens (and on a few occasions one or two Nikon prime lenses of Abhay’s that I was able to borrow).

In a way, this may have been a blessing: juggling a large kit would likely have proven difficult, and I was able to pass more as a tourist and therefore approach people with less intimidation. Also, limiting yourself to one camera and lens forces you to work a bit harder to visualize your shots, which is a good discipline.

As for the Nikon, it performed really well. While at the San Bernardino Sun many years ago I shot for a time with Nikon F3 cameras, and I still own a few Nikon manual focus lenses. Working with the D70 was like going back in time for me. I was also pleasantly surprised at the quality of the Nikon 18-70mm lens. It was sharp at every aperture, even wide open, and had very nice background blur for a slower zoom.