Many years ago on a cold winter’s night, I boarded a long distance train from the New Delhi Railway station. My destination was the iconic Jodhpur in the gorgeous western Indian state of Rajasthan and I planned to explore the region by train. Going local was what I had in mind and I booked myself into rural Rajasthan homestays throughout the entire trip. It was my first experience of solo traveling in India and I looked forward to experiencing the much-famed beauty of my own country. Funnily, my Indian adventure started on a chaotic, hectic note and I got lost while shuttling between the Ajmeri Gate and Daryaganj sides of the massive New Delhi Railway Station. To say, that it was huge would be an understatement and at a single moment, the train station held more people than an average Indian village. It was a melee of activities and students, families, tourists, thieves, pickpockets, hustlers, perverts, scamsters, touts, railway officials, dogs, and porters in bright red shirts rushed around at a frenetic pace. Partly clean and partly strewn with litter, it was a commercial hell hole and I strictly averted my eyes from the disgustingly dirty train tracks. Electric engines puffed and shrieked pulling clean and dirty, people plastered carriages and commuters with bags, babies, and suitcases constantly jumping in and out of them.
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Night train to rural Rajasthan
The more expensive air-conditioned carriages remained closed to the clawing public who stared, spat, blew their noses, bought newspapers, snacks, and tea from the vendors on the platforms. Indian Railways has one of the most extensive railway networks in the world and it transports the majority of the people of the second largest population in the world. Needless to say, the train stations of the cities in India are exciting spectacles and the train journeys are great experiences too. Cheap, reliable, and moderately comfortable, they offer a pocket-friendly way to see this huge country and for most foreign visitors, an experience of stepping out of their comfort zone. The super cheap sleeper class carriages guarantee greasy berth beds, occasional thefts (and bed bugs), filthy toilets, and experiencing the fast fading true Indian hospitality at its best. Since it was my first solo rural Rajasthan travel experience, I played safe and booked myself a seat in a cozy corner of an air-conditioned carriage. From there, it was great fun to watch the other passengers discreetly and I loved the way the co-travelers bonded like a family network. They gossiped, chatted, argued over politics and sports, minded children, shared food, and at night, made their beds from the Railway provided bedrolls to fall asleep fast.
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The breaking of dawn at Jodhpur railway station
Slowly thundering snores filled the carriage in orderly synchronization and I found sleep difficult. The excitement of discovering my Indian roots kept my mind running in a whirl and I was very eager to start my rural Rajasthan experience. Jodhpur arrived early the next morning and I woke up just in time to watch a beautiful sunrise from the dirty train window. The train station at the “Blue City” was still sleeping when we arrived and a hushed calmness prevailed. Porters, tea sellers, the homeless, and the autorickshaw drivers huddled in front of small bonfires and mangy street dogs curled close to them. Veiled ladies in heavy woolens swept the roads briskly, their reed brooms sending clouds of dust into the dim dawn air. An acrid smelling haze of garbage, burning plastic, and woodsmoke hung over the train station as I bargained with an auto-rickshaw driver for a ride to my rural Rajasthan homestay. In retrospect, I wonder if it was the smartest thing to do since it was my first solo travel in India, and I had no clue of the location of the village. Moreover, it was freezing cold as well and the day had not yet broken completely when we sped out of the city limits towards my destination.
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Salawas, my host village in rural Rajasthan
As luck would have it, the auto-rickshaw rattled over a broken highway for more than 20 kilometers, when finally the small village of Salawas arrived. A weavers‘ community village, Salawas was filled with bobbing coiled turbans and dazzling veils even at seven in the morning and neon colours stood out in the semi-arid landscape. Rajasthanis are famous for their penchant of bold colours and they sport them in veils, petticoat skirts, and massive swirling turbans. At first sight, Salawas was just a little Indian village with a tiny square, narrow uneven dirt lanes, mud houses coated with dung cakes, and plenty of cows, goats, and children running around. I received a gracious welcome from my host, Chotaram Prajapat and was ushered inside the house, which was the patriarchal ancestral property of the owner. The host‘s father was a smiling taciturn man with a massive swirling mustache and he introduced me to the rest of the members who assembled at a corner of the courtyard. There was his wife, their two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. A couple of buffaloes stood in a clean open animal shed and a huge, gnarling neem tree grew massive grew in the center.
The routine of doing nothing at my rural Rajasthan homestay
It shaded most of the courtyard around which charming mud huts/guest rooms stood in a row. The main family house was a simple two-storeyed affair and the guest huts were charmingly rustic with thatched roofs and wall paintings. I chose one, checked in and immediately fell in love with the interiors. Fitted with a modern bathroom and hot shower facility, the bed consisted of a traditional wooden charpoy (cot) with thick, warm blankets and the earthen floor was swept spotlessly clean. I took a quick shower, lazed on the bed for some time and finally came out to sun myself in the courtyard. Chotaram’s father came out in the sun too and soon started the elaborate process of tying a massive turban. Turbans and mustaches are regional specialties and I watched in awe as the host rapidly wrapped up a length of a bright tie and dye fabric around his head. The lunch was served soon in the courtyard and it was a simple meal of wood fire oven baked chappatis (bread) slathered with ghee (clarified butter), dal, spicy mixed vegetable curry, and fresh curd. The meal went down fast and brought in such a state of luxurious sleepiness that I took a siesta in a charpoy in the sun.
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From dawn to dusk at rural Rajasthan
The state of slow traveling and idleness were somethings I had not gifted myself for many years and they became part of the ritual that I would follow for the rest of my leisure travel days. In fact, during my entire Rajasthan trip, I stuck to my routine of slowing down, eating vegetarian, and taking leisurely siestas. The routine not only rejuvenated my soul, but I also felt more rested and better slept than I had for a very long time. I let time take its own sweet pace and with whatever was left on my hands, I explored my base on foot or learned about its handicrafts. True to this pattern, my first Salawas evening was spent watching Chotaram weave carpets from camel wool on big wooden looms. It was right after my siesta, and at that time a brilliant sunset was drenching rural Rajasthan in a deep rose gold shade. I cupped a big mug of steaming milky tea and gave into the rustic sights and sounds. The village seemed to stretch languorously, unwind, and relax with every minute of the deepening dusk. Farm hands started getting ready for the end of day‘s work, animals waited patiently in their stalls for evening fodder, and women lit small earthen lamps at the base of the holy basil plants.
Sleeping under a roof of stars
Wood fired ovens smoked heavily as freshly baked chappatis got rolled out fast and the night sky glittered with hundreds of stars. Salawas, like hundreds of traditional Indian villages, went to bed early and soon a hushed silence fell over the whole place. Only the rustling of the wind through the neem tree could be heard occasionally and sometimes the village guard dogs would bark warily. The silence, the tranquility, and the calm were impossible to imagine in the life in Indian metros and their stark difference made them seem like two totally different planets. In the late evening after a simple dinner, I dragged a blanket for some star watching from the open terrace. A charcoal fire threw heat into the cold night air as huge galaxies unfurled against an inky black sky. Breath came out in puffs and the air smelled of night jasmine. Somewhere in the distance, a murmur of drumming and strains of folk music could be heard and contentment settled over me like love. Although slightly embarrassing to start so late, it felt wonderful to reconnect with my own roots and India had never felt more mine.
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A brief guide to my rural Rajasthan sojourn
Enjoy a hassle-free train ride
India is best explored by train. The train journeys here are not just a great way to see the diverse country, but to also experience the joy of Indian hospitality. http://www.indianrail.gov.in/ is the official Indian railway website. It is not easily navigable and registration is required to book tickets online on that site. Travelers can also book through third-party travel portals like Yatra, MakeMyTrip etc. Indian railway has a separate Tatkal scheme which can be used 24 hours before the date of travel and this is for last minute reservations. There are special Tatkal offices in all stations and many major train stations have a separate counter for foreign tourists where you can buy yourselves tickets under the foreign tourist quota, by showing your passport. A platform ticket is required to access major railway stations (if not having a valid travel ticket) and luggage storage facilities nowadays require bags to be locked and security stamped.
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