One winter weekend in Bharatpur

I have never taken any interest in birds, thinking of it as too much effort for too little reward (yeah go ahead, sue me). The first time I started to notice them was during the trip to Corbett this January, when I stayed with the enthusiastic naturalist Imran Khan at his home The Ranger’s Lodge. Imran accompanied us on every safari and pointed out every single animal and bird – and Corbett was so rich in birdlife that I was hooked.

A few weeks later, the husband and I headed to Bharatpur – also known as Keoladeo Ghana bird sanctuary – towards the end of winter. It was also the end of the migratory birds season, but there was enough and more activity on that front to keep us happy, especially since it was our first time at a birder’s paradise.

We were staying at The Birder’s Inn and the minute we stepped out, we were approached by a cyclerickshaw-wala. Although there were a dozen waiting outside the hotel, it was his turn and there was no pushing and shoving. At Bharatpur, only the very serious birders hire guides; for the rest, the rickshaw-walas double up as guides, since they have been going into the forest for decades.

Some of the more adventurous – and fit (read foreigners) – travellers do the rounds on cycles, which in a way allows them the flexibility to go into the smaller mud tracks and marshy lanes.

cycle

As we entered the sanctuary, the sun was just coming up and we were all excited by our first sight of peacocks silhouetted against the golden light of dawn.

sunrise

That is when I realised how addictive birding can be – we ended up spending the entire day at the sanctuary, just to zip in and out of Birder’s Inn for lunch.

These are a few images from my first proper outing as a birder, accompanied by a gruff, but informative rickshaw-guide. Feast your eyes on this rose-ringed parakeet couple, a largish spotted owlet (I think), green bee-eaters (in the process of eating bees), plump magpie robin, that gorgeous purple sunbird and a magnificent flying peacock.

parrots

owl

bee-eater

robin

sunbird

peacock

And now, an image I am particularly proud of – the flameback woodpecker. I caught this beautiful bird from a great distance, and at a second’s notice before it flew away.

woodpecker

The stars were the winter birds – and there were dozens and dozens of them – painted storks, ibis, ruddy shelducks, snakebirds, northern shovelers and many more. One of the highlights was this pair of saras cranes – the world’s tallest flying birds – flapping its wings and performing an elegant dance of sorts for a long time.

saras

Now that I have got a small taste of the birding life, I hope for more of it soon…

A morning at Ranakpur

Ranakpur

A couple of years ago, I was in Udaipur during winter, staying with an extremely warm and friendly family at their homestay. My host was perplexed when I wanted to see the Ranakpur temple, and suggested other “sightseeing” options around the area, and if I must see temples, then why not these and those Hindu temples? But I had seen photographs, and was sure Ranakpur was what I wanted to see.

I started early one morning, hoping to come back before the day got too hot. The town of Ranakpur is 95 km far from Udaipur, a couple of hours by car. The temple façade itself is beautiful, and I was not expecting to see the grand and imposing structure that I saw. I read later that the Ranakpur temple is the best of the Jain temples in Rajasthan (and the country, I guess), even grander than the Dilwara temples at Mt. Abu, although not as famous. That is good in a way, I suppose, since it keeps the loud weekend vacationing crowds away.

Now, guidebooks say that the temple opens at 7 AM, but I knew only after reaching there that entry for non-Jains was only after 12 noon, after the morning’s pooja and ceremonies were over. I had, thus, over three hours to kill, and spent some time wandering around the complex. There are a couple of other small shrines inside the complex that you can visit; if I remember right, Parsavanath, Surya, and some form of Amba. I also chatted with the locals who had come for prayers, as always trying to take candid portraits, making them giggle and blush.

Finally, at noon, I walked inside. The temple interior was stunning. The carvings were lush and intricate, covering every inch of the temple, built in the 15th century with cream-coloured marble that has a slightly golden glow. In the hour or so that I spent inside, I felt like the pillars were changing colour constantly, depending on the amount of light falling on them.

As I stood looking around in awe, a priest saw me and offered to take me around. It seemed like every statue, every pillar, every corner of this temple has its own story, and I found it difficult to keep track of them all. The temple is said to have 24 pillared halls, and a total of over 1,400 pillars supporting the roof. Then, there are the countless statues, each of them facing another statue.

There are a few stay options in the area, including an RTDC resort. It is, however, better to stay in a hotel in Udaipur or Kumbalgarh, since there is nothing else to do in Ranakpur. The temple has a bhojanshala (dining hall), which serves very simple but delicious food that, if I remember right, is free or comes at a nominal cost.

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The Girl Next Door asked me for a guest post on her lovely blog and I wrote this for her. She also made a nice collage of the pics I had sent her for the post. I like her thoughts on life and books and the cities she lives in and has lived in. Go read her blog if you haven’t yet…

The story of Anokhi Museum

The pink sandstone haveli with its elegant arches and windows is easy to miss. Many of the locals have not even heard of the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing, found down a narrow dusty lane at Amber, eight miles outside of Jaipur, where women walk in colourful saris and children suspend their noisy games to wave at you.

The museum was set up a decade ago to preserve the craft of hand block printing. This method of printing patterns onto cloth is used across India, but the tradition is strongest in Rajasthan where communities of hand textile printers once flourished. But the more efficient and more economical machine-printing process is damaging their livelihood and threatening to extinguish an important craft.

The haveli

Entrance

Inside, the cool museum is a welcome relief from the desert heat. Large boards in the open courtyard explain the lengthy process of hand block printing. Once the designs are finalised—often floral, paisley or geometric—they are carved by hand onto wooden blocks (which have been soaked in oil overnight and cleaned). These blocks are then used to print the pattern onto fabrics using natural vegetable dyes (like indigo, pomegranate rind and turmeric) in vibrant blues, reds and greens. The boards also describe life in the areas of Sanganer and Bagru, near Jaipur, where the craftsmen come from. These towns, like others in Rajasthan, are hot and dusty for most of the year. Locals rely on hand block printing and what little agriculture the soil permits for their livelihood.

More than a hundred garments and blocks are on permanent display in side alcoves and galleries across two floors. There are ethnic designs and patterns (such as the tunic-like kurtas) and also Western clothes in traditional prints, like knee-length dresses in shades of red and russet. On the roof-top terrace, a few craftsmen sit with their tools, ready to demonstrate their work to interested visitors. The UNESCO award-winning museum does not get many, so the spacious galleries can be wandered through at leisure.

Display1

Display2

Display3

Turban

The museum is a cultural endeavour of the Anokhi clothing brand, which sells hand-block print garments in a handful of outlets across India. The company was set up in 1970 by Faith Singh, a British woman who married an Indian man and moved to Jaipur. She worked with local craftsmen and created contemporary designs with fabrics decorated in their prints. The bright and colourful clothing was popular at the tail-end of the swinging sixties. And it remains popular several decades later, both in India and abroad.

Ms Singh and her husband bought the dilapidated 17th-century mansion, which once belonged to a family of palanquin bearers for the royals, in 1989. “It would have been the easiest and most lucrative thing for them to convert it into a hotel,” says Pramod Kumar who was part of the team who later built the museum. But the family did not want to monopolise meagre water resources, and decided a museum dedicated to the hand block printing craft would be more beneficial. There is a section that details the sensitive restoration of the building with “before” and “after” photos.

Rachel Bracken-Singh, Ms Singh’s daughter-in-law, was instrumental in creating the museum in 2002. “Faith had meticulously maintained archives since 1969 and we spent months going through them to see what would go into the museum,” says Mr Kumar. The result is a “commitment to the preservation of craft techniques and traditional patterns”, says Ms Bracken-Singh.

Before and after

Centre courtyard

Faith's memories

But it has a modern approach too. The team is always looking for new craftsmen and techniques to develop new garments in the main workshop on the outskirts of Jaipur. They have worked with a British designer to re-interpret William Morris’s prints, made costumes inspired by the Russian theatre, and worked their patterns into contemporary fashion—all of which are showcased in temporary exhibitions. Mr Kumar claims that “Anokhi is one of the reasons hand block printing is still in existence in India.” The museum may support their business interests but it does an important job of preserving a local craft too.

Making the blocks

Block printing

Wooden blocks

Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing, Chanwar Palkiwalon ki Haveli, Kheri Gate, Amber, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

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Published in Prospero, the Books, Arts and Culture blog of The Economist on November 8, 2012 as Colours of the Rainbow

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