After typing five different titles, I have settled for this one. It was an entirely inexplicable travel experience and I have no idea how to go about narrating it. I was on a slow trip roaming around Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and beyond, and was keen on visiting Khichan as well. This little town in Rajasthan had for long been said to be a must see.
It is here in Khichan where an entire army of demoiselle cranes descends from November to March. They come from as far away as Mongolia & Siberia.
I was contacted by a luxury resort for a hurried 2 day trip and had chosen to say no in preference of my own style of lazy travel. They offered to fly me from Jaipur to Jodhpur; alas; I wanted to train travel instead. Buses were my choice of transport over a chauffeured car. Don’t you like reading about my experiences where I lose my way to find myself?
How else would I have found ‘India’s coolest chai café?
Coming back to the travel. How often does this happen? When you go to a place to experience one thing and come back after having a totally unrelated delight? Therefore, my best idea of travel is to always be on the road without a concrete plan, and keep things fluid.
After reaching Phalodi Junction at around 1 in the afternoon, I had walked out directly to a dhaba right in front of the station. There was ghee in a container, plus the owner seemed to be a jolly, rotund fellow. And then an autowallah had recommended that I have my lunch there before moving to Khichan. Although this particular dhaba charged a hefty 100 Rupees for the thali, it was well worth it for the excellent quality and phulkas (laden with ghee) straight from the chulha. And some good old chaas to top it all. Ah, I could have slept alright but Khichan was nearby and I must go.
Upon random conversations, it was known that Phalodi and Khichan had a prized collection of havelis too and all that someone needed to do was go and find them. Thats the charm of non-touristy towns, there are no guides to accost you – but rather you have to take the onus of exploring places on your own. I like it this way.
I walked like a drunk man in search of a shared auto (the buttermilk had got the better of me) but somehow managed to find one that would drop me to Khichan for 10 Rupees. It was a topsy turvy ride and the red colour of buildings in Phalodi was quite pleasing to the eyes. Apparently there are mines in Pokhran from where this red stone is procured.
The Doors of Khichan
The auto wallah dropped me near the market from where the lake was a short walk away. There were a few kids who asked me if I have come to see ‘Kurja’, apparently the locals had a name for the demoiselle crane – ‘Kurja.’ There are a few steps just before the lake where the demoiselle cranes are gathered by thousands. A ticket guy comes around and asks for 15 Rupees.
I go, stand and observe and click these birds for a short time. The kids tell me there are other water bodies around where there are more ‘Kurja.’ I ask the ticket guy about the havelis. As a local, he is very excited someone cares about the havelis and offers to drop me there.
While on the motorbike, I wonder if the havelis are even worth going. I come from Shekhawati and have seen havelis – left, right and centre but the lure of the red stones keeps me going. I gasp ‘wow, wow’ when we cross the first haveli. I think this must be the one, but no… we keep going. One, two, three, four… and then I have lost count. There is an entire lane of Havelis, I try hard to keep my emotions of amazement and surprise, in check.
I haven’t spotted a human being in this lane yet. I ask him to drop me to the place from where the havelis begin. He thinks I will come back to the lake in 30 minutes, my bag is kept there. I already know I am going to spend a lot of time aimlessly perusing the havelis.
Apparently all the Havelis of Khichan were built in the early 20th Century and are owned by Jain families who migrated to faraway lands around the time of Independence. According to locals, the Jains settled here because the rulers of this region were non Rajputs who let them live a peaceful vegetarian life.
Also, Phalodi & Khichan were located on the old trade route across the desert from Jaisalmer to Afghanistan, that was a lucrative chance of making money. I lazily daydream of the golden days of yore, what must these havelis be like, when people lived in them. The sound of laughter and life would fill these timeless jewels with joy. It is around 3:30 in the afternoon and the thought of my backpack brings me back to reality.
Some of the Jains moved to as far away as Chennai & Bombay and are pretty well known there too. There is also a yearly community gathering in December of Jains who own these Havelis to check on the condition of the structures and meet socially. Joint ownership results in a complex situation, these heritage structures have multiple owners thereby causing issues in their buying and selling. The most well known Havelis among these Jain families were Golecha & Tatia.
Various versions of why these havelis were abandoned (Based on conversations with locals) :
The Jain Families were attacked by Rajputs causing them to run away.
The closure of the traditional trade route (After 1947) across the Thar desert to Afghanistan meant the Jain traders were out of business.
Travel, yet again had managed to throw all pre-conceived notions out of the window. There are places that are just waiting to be discovered. As they say, ‘The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.’ In the quick fix solution of city life, the urban traveller looks up at the internet and researches. While I am no expert at telling people what to see and what not to see, I think magic really happens when we let go of our plans and go where the flow takes us. Check : Portraits that speak, from Turtuk
When I finally went back from this timeless lane filled with heritage, it was evening and time to see more demoiselle cranes. The kids provided the icing on the cake by taking me to the various ponds for a quick dekko and some photographs. The ‘Kurja’ were flying to the chugga ghar in a strange sort of formation and making a continuous shrill sound ‘krrr krrr.’
It was majestic to see them in flight.
I love my freedom on the road, not bound by an itinerary or a to-do list. Hence, I try my best to only collaborate and work with companies who feel the same.
Life is not a to-do list. Life is small instances of magic waiting to happen. Go away from the beaten track. The road has stories to tell, we just have to listen!
To do full justice to the Heritage Havelis and the demoiselle cranes, I will try and make another post.
Have you had an entirely different experience from what you were suggested at a place? Please tell me, I’m itching to know!