We began our descent into the western desert of Rajasthan around 7:30 AM on Wednesday. We had to cross 320 Km of sand and scrub before we would arrive at Bikaner, and our driver informed us that the drive would be very boring. On the contrary, we found the drive to be peaceful as the urban and agricultural way of life faded into the vast expanse of pastoral desert.
You see very few humans out in the desert, and their number becomes increasingly fewer the further west you go. Occasionally a bright pink or purple sari will appear in the distance, giving credit to my theory that the brightly colored costumes of the women was at some point a way to attract men to a nomadic camp. There are grass huts spotting the landscape as well, with herds of goats, sheep, cows, and camels grazing here and there. Cary and I both agreed that this seemed like the most peaceful way to live in India; as far away from the urban centers and wheat fields as possible.
Our first stop during trip was at the infamous Karni Mata, or Temple of Rats in Deshnok. As the story goes, a woman by the name of Karni Mata begged Yama to bring back to life the dead son of one of her story tellers. Yama couldn’t perform this miracle, but he suggested that another could. Mata’s wish was granted on one condition: every member of the family would be reincarnated as a rat. As a result, the family treated all rats as potential kin, and built a temple to honor and house them. Karni Mata as a result is full of rats. There are probably thousands within the marble walls and courtyard of the building, all running freely.
After dropping off your shoes at a little stand, and removing all leather items, you pass through the gates of the courtyard where dozens of rats are scurrying around. Huge pans of milk are left out for the rats to drink, along with other scraps of fruit and sweets. We followed the advice given to us by previous visitors: shuffle, don’t step. Wear socks. Keep your hands in your pockets (Cary kept hers on the camera).
Inside the temple the number of rats drastically increases and you get a better sense for how many are actually living here. It is said that if a rat scrambles across your feet, then you are blessed. The rats blessed the hell out of me and decided that Cary wasn’t worth the effort. In the back of the temple there is a shrine where you may give an offering and have a dot thumb printed onto our forehead, this time orange instead of red. Cary and I weren’t allowed within the shrine, but we could watch from outside and see the offerings of sweets being made. The last part of the ritual involves drinking milk drawn from the same pan as the rats drink from. Mashtan came inside with us, but skipped most of the ritual. I don’t blame him. Cary’s fascination with rats appeased, we continued on towards Bikaner when a strange thing happened.
It began to rain.
According to the locals, this is exceedingly rare. Mashtan said the rain was very good luck. Mashtan is from the Himalaya’s and hates the Rajasthani heat, so I can imagine a cooling rain in the desert is about as lucky as it gets. It must be all those rat blessings I got. It sprinkled a bit, then backed off, so we continued our trip to try and catch a couple more sights in Bikaner.
We arrived at Bandasar, a Jain temple built more than 500 years ago. According to the local priest it is actually the first Jain temple in India, and the mortar was made with ghee, or clarified butter. 40,000 Kg of it in fact. Legend has it that on very hot days the ghee will seep from floor and walls. Everything in the temple was intricately painted, every column, every ceiling, every wall. In the center of the main building is a large shrine. If you’re lucky, someone will be one staff that can unlock the doors to the stairs leading to the top, where you can view two more shrines, as well as get a fantastic view of Bikaner from it’s highest point.
When we left the temple we had plans to see a few more sights, but the wind had picked up, and the weather was taking a turn for the worst. The desert sand was carried into town by the swirling winds, and dust devils were forming in the streets.
We made our way back to the car, squinting to keep the dust out, and decided we better check in to the hotel. On our way it began to rain again. A lot. By the time we arrived at our hotel we were in a full on thunderstorm. Despite the infrequency of the rain, the locals didn’t seem concerned. In fact most remained outside to enjoy it, as the day had previously been a scorcher. By the time we left for dinner the storm had subsided, but there were standing puddles everywhere; when it rains in the desert, water has no place to go.
We had dinner, our only meal of the day in fact, at a place called Suraj. We didn’t know it when we picked it, but it turned out to be an all vegetarian joint, and when we arrived they were apparently planning for most of Bikaner to join them for dinner. We took one of the few remaining tables that wasn’t set up for the very large party they were setting up for.
More about food in India. If you’re on a strict diet of some kind, you can forget it. You’re fighting a losing battle if you try to ask for something with "no wheat", or "no eggs". Carbohydrates make up at least 70% of their diet, and if you think you’re going to get away from a meal with trying the rice, pappad, or naan, you are sorely mistaken. Dal or lentils are served with nearly every meal. They will put it on your damn plate if you don’t do it yourself. I would suggest you not worry about whatever strict diet you’re on until you get home, its too frustrating to try and work around the way you eat, just work with them.
A little more about eating "clean" in India. Before I got here I was given a list of foods to avoid, which I tried to follow. I got a little sick anyway. After fighting that losing battle, I gave up and started eating whatever the hell I wanted including milk, yogurt, cheese and kulfi. I had a lassi masala this morning which would definitely be a no-no. It tasted great, and I actually feel better (though not 100%). I ate some of the best butter I’ve ever had this morning. You don’t have any idea what goes on in an American kitchen, and you don’t want to know. In India, you really don’t want to know. I believe most people will do fine avoiding the fresh fruits and vegetables, and of course the water. On the other hand, Cary has been very careful out here, and has not gotten sick in any way, so maybe her approach is best.
Suraj was a little scary. The tablecloths looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in since the town was built, and the furniture looked ancient. I have commented before about how everything seemed old in Delhi, and I’m sure if we asked the vintage of the furniture was they’d tell us 3 years. The staff spoke no English, so we pointed to what we wanted on the crumpled menu and hoped for the best. Then a roach crawled across the wall behind us. You really really don’t want to know what goes on in an Indian kitchen. We both agreed that if we were going to get sick anywhere, it was going to be here. This was probably our most authentic experience to date, so we toughed it out. It ended up being quite good, and was probably our cheapest meal so far at a whopping 300Rs, around $6.00.
We retired to our hotel, the old residence of Maharaja Ganga Singh, and hoped for the best. In the morning we would be venturing even further into the Thar desert towards Jaisalmer and the Pakistani border.