Arriving in Bikaner, we were truly in the midst of the desert. It was hot. And sandy. And dusty. And there were lots of flies. The desert itself wasn’t actually just sand dunes, it was threaded with sections of grassy savannah and trees. The greenery was not there all year round however, only the few months during and after the monsoon- apparently in high summer Bikaner temperatures can reach up to 45 degrees Celsius.
We went to visit an unusual temple about 20km from Bikaner, officially called Karni Mata Temple, but unofficially known as the Rat Temple. The reason being that it is full of rats! Maybe not Indiana Jones style I’m A Celebrity swarming around your feet 3 foot deep style rats, but every crack in the wall had a tail or 2 sticking out of it, and every corner had 5 or 6 furry friends sat around, eating, drinking, or squabbling unnecessarily. The rats are believed to be the ancestors of the village people, and so are highly respected and revered. Devotees leave out generous offerings of food, sweets and huge bowls of milk for the rats to indulge themselves in. It was like a little ratty heaven. The floor was almost saturated with droppings (and you can’t wear your shoes in the temple of course) and the smell was unbelievable. If you ever go there, my advise would be to take a scarf that you can wear over your head and cover your face when it gets too much.
If one of the rats runs over your feet it’s meant to be good luck. Rich almost drop kicked one that did a poorly timed leap over his foot as he was going up some steps, and another couple of rats decided to chase each other around his ankle a couple of times, so maybe he gets double luck? We looked out for the rumoured white rat, the reincarnation of the goddess of the temple herself- if you see her, you are granted a wish. You must be careful not to step on the rats though, lest you kill one by accident, then you have to donate a solid silver rat statue to the goddess. The inside of the main shrine is coated in silver, apparently melted down from just such offerings.
Being in the desert and all, my heart was set on us doing a camel ride, much to Rich’s horror (he has a fear healthy respect of all 4 legged transportators after an unfortunately incident with a donkey in his youth). Our guesthouse owner, zoologist, wildlife expert, and all round great guy, Jitu Solanki, organised us a 2 hour camel safari that took us out beyond the villages and into the desert dunes. It was an amazing experience- I quickly became quite fond of the camels and their beautiful long dark eyelashes and cool and calm faces. Known as ships of the desert, they were so tall! Although it was very bumpy and after a short while became pretty uncomfortable (especially for Rich I think), but nonetheless we both enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. At one point we even had a little gallop, and did a proper clamber up the steep side of a dune. The desert was so quiet, just the sounds of wildlife around us, and the steady rhythmic clinking and creaking of the camel saddles, and the footsteps of our camel guides. We arrived in the desert camp just as the sun was setting behind the distant hills. After a quick chai, the camels and their herders headed back home, and we had an amazing dinner of dhal and chapatti under the stars. Out in the black dark of the desert, we saw torches flashing, farmers, we were told, who would stay in awake all night guarding their crops from cows, camels and antelope grazing. Once we had had our fill of star gazing and curries, we skidded off in a jeep back along the sandy tracks, heading back to the guesthouse for a sound sleep.
We couldn’t stay with Jitu without going with him on a wildlife tour. His passion for conservation and knowledge of the animals and plants in the desert was outstanding. Armed with binoculars as well as a great zoom on his camera, we set off to a local nature reserve. Jitu taught us about the Ayurvedic properties and uses of the trees and plants, and knew the name of every bird we saw. He was a truly fantastic guide, with a keen eye and a skill for finding the animals. He often works with professionals and professors, on wildlife documentaries as well as for National Geographic. But becoming a tour guide was never his intention. His real passion lies in forestry.
Jitu explained to us that, despite his high level of education and impressive CV (he holds a PhD and regularly co-authors puplications), he was unable to get the job he wanted due to his caste. In India, especially the more rural you go (and Rajasthan is also known for being the most conserveative of the Indian states), you are defined by your caste, which depends on your families status. Higher castes can work as teachers and priests, the most respected jobs, and the lower you go the more difficult it becomes and the less options you have. Although you can become wealthy or poor, you can never change your caste (reflected by your surname) and inter-caste marriages are a big no-no. It is difficult to imagine being unable to pursue the career that you want to, simply because of the family name you are born under. But, as Jitu explained, who would want to do the worst jobs if there was no caste system and everyone could choose? Particularly in traditional rural India, the caste system still has huge influence. Below the caste system exists the Dalit’s, commonly known as the ‘Untouchables’. When people in India who don’t know each other meet, they put their hands in prayer and say Namaste- there is no shaking of hands. This is because you might not know what the caste of the other person is and you do not want to become tainted by touching the skin of a lower caste. I suppose there are some levels of hygiene to it as well. The Untouchables are required to do the most unpleasant and lowest paid jobs, employed as street cleaners or leather tanners .There has been huge amounts of discrimination and hate crime (although caste-crime is against the law, the laws are not always enforced in India), with shocking figures such as 2 Dalit women are raped daily, and gang raping is common, and every hour an Untouchable man is beaten up to the extent of hospitalisation. And these are just the reported crimes. In terms of every day discrimination, Untouchables are seen by some Indians as being sub-human.
Jitu, although not Untouchable himself, hires one Untouchable man named Gautham, who was his childhood friend. We met Gautham, in fact he was the guy who drove us to the rat temple and also met us in the jeep from the camels – friendly and highly knowledgeable, with a generous laugh, and fantastic English- Gautham has a degree in civil engineering, which his dream career (by law now a certain number of places at universities in India are reserved for Untouchable people – not that being educated helps them get a job…). But Gautham has to be content as a driver and guide, working for Jitu. In giving Gautham work, Jitu puts himself in a difficult situation- I feel that Jitu could quite easily justify that, as he is not of a high cast himself, he can’t afford to risk his reputation further by associating with Gautham. Jitu told us how his mother and father (who he still lives with, as is the norm for Indian families) also highly disapproved of Gautham at the beginning. It is dirty, they would tell him, having an Untouchable even come into your house, let alone eat with him or spend time with your family. But Jitu stuck by him, and over time he convinced his parents to change their opinion too. Thank goodness for people like Jitu. I don’t think he realises just what a true hero he is.
While we were out on safari, Jitu pointed out to us small mounds of plastic, all over the grassland, like little nests. In a million years, I could never have guessed what they were. Each mound of plastic, Jitu told us, represented the undigested stomach contents of a dead cow. He continued, one of the jobs of the Untouchable people is to gather up any dead cows in the city, load them onto trucks, and then dump them out in the countryside where they can be left biodegrade naturally, as well as be eaten by the dogs and the vultures. He took us to the current dumping ground (perhaps non-surprisingly it is also a great site for studying vultures in the wild). It was pretty grim. The stench of rotting meat was unbelievable and flies rose up in clouds from half eaten carcasses, with dogs and vultures picking over them. Jitu showed us the trucks going past, loaded with bodies. The men working in them would use their bare hands to move the dead bodies, and were only paid pittance for their work. It was truly harrowing to see, but I am glad that Jitu showed us- I think not many tour guides would.
The problem with the plastic is another matter. Again, Jitu explained. Coming from a relatively clean country like England, it is sometimes shocking for us to see the levels of rubbish strewn in Indian streets. But when you grow up with rubbish as the norm, you simply stop seeing it. When it comes to the cows, people see the cows in the street eating chapattis through plastic bags- some people even purposefully give the cows chapattis IN plastic bags. This is not because they want to harm the cow- it it because they genuinely believe that the cow will not be harmed by the plastic. Maybe they see some plastic in the cow’s poo, and they say look, it has passed through without a problem. They see a cow eating it, and then say look, the cow is choosing to eat it, maybe it even likes the taste. What they don’t realise perhaps is just how much plastic the cows are consuming- each pile we saw, leftover from the rotting corpses, was enough to fill a 5 litre bucket. And there were hundreds of these piles, all over the savannah. Maybe they honestly don’t realise that eating plastic is harmful, even fatal, for some cows. Maybe it is a case of choosing what they see, or maybe it is genuine ignorance. In which case, the solution seems quite simple- education.
However, the other problem in terms of rubbish in India, and one a little more tricky to solve, is that there simply isn’t the infrastructure in place to deal with the disposal of so much plastic. Most Indians will clean their homes, and leave the rubbish (maybe in bags, maybe not) out in the street. Then maybe the Untouchables will collect that rubbish and take it out of the city. But where does it go from there? Moving the rubbish from place to place, it only accumulates in larger and larger piles. Sometimes (but not often) the environment agencies will step in to dispose of it properly, sometimes the officials will demand the locals clear it (especially if it ends up in a touristy area), or sometimes someone will set a large pile on fire (really not ideal, burning all that plastic). But more often than not it is simply left to be strewn around, and so the cycle continues. Of course, landfill although the obvious route, is also not the answer, but at least then it can be contained and controlled. It is just so difficult.
Jitu had one more place he wanted to show us. We went to visit one of the villages of the Bishnoi people. The Bishnoi are known for their love of nature, and live by 29 principles; such as do not eat meat, do not harm animals, do not farm excessively etc.(I don’t know them all but maybe you could look it up). The Bishnoi’s made their name in India when they went to extraordinary lengths to protect a specific type of tree, who they believe to be holy. 365 Bishnoi people are said to have lain down their lives to prevent the trees being felled (I don’t know why it is the same number as days in a year…). Nowadays, the tree is still sacred, and all over Rajasthan you can see some odd landscaping where the Bishnoi’s will farm around a tree rather than cut it down.
Now the specific Bishnoi home we were visiting belonged to a widow. And widows in India are seen as bad luck. The stories of Indian women committing Sati by throwing themselves onto the funeral pyres to burn with their dead husbands? Maybe it sounds like a romantic act of strength, honour and love- but as Jitu told us about how widows are treated in India, it sounded more and more like an act of suicide because they would rather be dead than continue to live as a widow. Today, committing Sati is against the law, but that doesn’t always stop it from happening. Widows in Indian culture are believed to be such bad luck that the entire family is disgraced, and they are often driven out of the villages they live in, even stoned.
The mud house that we visited, although still in the village, had all of it’s windows filled in, not allowing any fresh air to flow, despite it being in the scorching heat of the desert.This is because it is considered bad luck to see a widows face first thing in the morning. Jitu told us how the other villagers would try to convince him not to take people to see her. Traditionally, and actually for many women in rural India still today, their place is in the family home, and it is the man’s job to bring home some money. As a widow of course you have no husband to make your family money, and you are absolutely not allowed to remarry. You can still work on the farm, but again as a widow you are disadvantaged- as nobody wants to see you in the morning you are forced to stay in your home until later on in the day, when the desert’s heat is at its worst. It is hard to imagine just how lonely it must feel, not only to lose your husband and partner (even if it was an arranged marriage against your choice in the first place), to lose any income you had, but also to be seen as bringing disgrace and bad luck to your entire family, and completely rejected and cast out by your community. The house we visited belonged to a woman who became a widow at the age of 17.
Now an old woman, living with her son and step daughter, Jitu chose to take us to her specifically as it was a small way for her and her family to make some money. We saw her home, a traditional Bishnoi house made of dried cowpat and mud, with a thatched roof, and of course drink chai.
A heartfelt goodbye to Jitu (“next time bring children”), it was time to head off to Nawalgarth…