Tender words we spoke
to one another
in the secret vaults of heaven.
One day like rain,
they will fall to earth
and grow green
all over the world.
Wassim advised us to wake up at dawn. The dusty land of Bikaner would soon take over and inundate us with heat. Each hour passed will feel longer than the previous one, while the sun will gradually bring to light hidden paths. Minute by minute, time will adopt a slower pace and locals will enjoy the coolness of their homes or the shades of Khejri trees.
The early wakeup call was difficult to accept for Sasha. The day before, she had agreed to it, but leaving the comfort of her pillows had been quite hard. I jumped out of bed, rushed into the shower and in the adjacent room to prepare Chris for our early start. Half asleep, he barely opened his eyes as I helped him slip into his cotton shirt and blue jeans. “Let’s get some jalebis!” I said, appealing to his fondness for sweets. Excited by this very idea, he helped me quickly drag his mother out of bed. And there we were, in the back of a cart driven by an old but vigorous horse. Sitting in the front, next to the bearded coachman, Wassim pointed at the awakening city.
We easily blended in our surroundings, invigorated by a light morning breeze and the enthusiasm of our guide. However, we were in the middle of the Thar Desert, close to the Pakistani border, in a far away territory that only few tourists visited. If we had encountered many familiar faces in Jaisalmer, Bikaner was miraculously protected, a haven of authenticity. Loosely tied to our cart, Chris was clinging to a vertical iron bar with one hand, and waving to passers-by with the other. A young man, very adventurous on his bike, followed us waving back at him, avoiding obstacles with agility. He eventually nearly crashed into a herd of cows.
The havelis here had little in common with those from the Shekhawati region. Since the 17th century, rich merchants had built these grandiose traditional mansions to display their wealth and social status. We had learned to identify them by their polychromatic frescoes, although in Bikaner they had put on heavy red sandstone. Indigo shutters brought touches of light to their architectural austerity. In time, electronic wires had taken over the havelis, scarring the landscape with interwoven black lines. The hullabaloo of the honking horns called a man still wearing his white nightshirt to his watchtower, high on the rooftop terrace of a shuttered haveli.
In the streets, daily routines were about to start. A group of men had gathered on a porch in the shadows, playing cards and drinking chai as they shared the morning gossips. Craftsmen had not returned to their workshops yet, but clothes were expecting them, soaking wet after a night spent dyeing in large and heavy bowls. Sasha and I had lost track of time, but it was soon clear that the weekend had started as – for once – we caught sight of no school uniform. Children were visibly enjoying their absolute freedom while mostly dedicating themselves to delightful activities.
A girl, in matching orange pants and tunic, was sitting on a wood platform, while eyeing a piece of newspaper greedily. The grey sheet enclosed a bright orange morning treat, piping hot from a bath of ghee. She paused for a minute and contemplated her treasure with craving. Then, she cut small pieces with her right hand, bite after bite, in order to prolong the pleasure of these breakfast sweets. My gaze met Chris’s who suddenly jumped exclaiming: “Jalebis! Jalebis!” We walked to the nearby stall and ordered a few for ourselves. Sasha looked at us reprobatively as we quickly devoured our food. More of a savoury and health-concerned person herself, she could not be tempted by such a sweet and heavy breakfast.
As we walked past a Jain temple, we stumbled upon a sandy playground. In this kingdom of kids, swings and seesaws rocked in all directions. Parents looked proudly at their offspring, who solicited them for encouragements. We drew our excited boy away from the playground, swearing to come back after the visit of the massive Junagarh Fort. Only grandiloquent descriptions of the arms or cars we would discover there won him over.
Founded in 1488 by Bika, the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s son, the imposing fortifications of Bikaner once offered a safe caravanserai for merchants, in the middle of the Thar Desert. Twenty-four maharajas have since ensured the prosperity of the city and maintenance of the Junagarh Fort, once a royal residence and still in private hands. The well-preserved fort offers a succession of mahal, palaces, with the richest adornments: marble from Carrara, blue tiles from Holland and traditional paintings and wood-carved works from the Bikaner region.
In the main courtyard, we looked up at a mural depicting transportation advancements: from the stagecoach pulled by horses at the bottom, the massive vessel carrying hundreds aboard in the middle, to the steam locomotive on top, embodying the modernity of the industrial revolution. In the center of this courtyard, water majestically surrounded a white marble throne, isolating the maharaja from simple citizens during public audiences.
The poetic legend of the Badal Mahal, the palace of the clouds, soon captivated our wandering minds. Decorated with indigo clouds, golden sparks and driving rain, it displays a unique system envisioned by a nostalgic sovereign. The marvel of engineering gives the illusion of rain pouring from the wall. Once upon a time, in an extremely dry era, the youngest child of the maharaja came to his wise father to solve a mystery. “Baba baba,” he repeated insistently, “what does ‘rain’ mean?” The father was speechless for long hours.
Had rain been so scarce in the past decades that his youngest child, the prince of Bikaner, had even lost the meaning of the word? The unsettled maharaja sent for his closest ministers and advisers to present them with an extraordinary challenge.
They would create rain for a child.