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Rats in the temple, camels in the lab - Bikaner

INDIA | Sunday, 9 August 2009 | Views [2293]


Many guesthouses in India have telephones but seem rarely to deem it appropriate to answer them. Thus I arrived in Bikaner train station undecided as to where to go because nowhere would pick up the phone. As I was giving the hotel one more chance a guy aproached with a card for a guesthouse. Why not, I said to myself and went with him. After a few seconds walking he said something about having to meet someone else – could I wait at a a tea stand. Sure ... why not I fancied a cold drink anyway. A few minutes later a rickshaw came along and I got in. I was taken through hectic jam at the gate into the old town and through the typical pothole ridden alleys to the house. A neighbour eyed me up while pissing into the gutter. It had all the hallmarks of a house, rather than a guesthouse. An old lady gestured to wait, which I did, for about five minutes during which I decided that it had probably not been the best decision to come here. Finally I was shown the room. It was blatantly someone's bedroom but that fact had been ineffectively concealed. There was still a half full glass of something and what looked like a bowl of pet food on the floor beneath the badly made bed. I thanked the man but declined. Apart from all that he was charging double what I had paid for an ensuite room in Jaisalmer.

The rickshaw wallah took me to the Harasar Havelli hotel on the other side of town near the fort. It was a bit more expensive but clean and looked like sensible people would actually stay there. I had dinner at the rooftop restaurant. But it was eerily empty. Only as I was leaving did a couple come in. It seemed strange for a big hotel.

I had a busy day planned. After an early breakfast I took a packed Jodphur bound bus from Llalgarh bus stand to Deshnoke, a small town 30km to the south of Bikaner. It's famous for its temple, Karni Mata Mandir.

Here mice and rats are fed sweets and milk and revered in the belief that they are reincarnated saints. As I entered I had had a vision of a river of rats coming towards me, pied piper of hamelyn style, but in reality they mostly scurry around the edges, as rats do. A lot of them were either asleep, bloated on the vast amounts of milk they drink, or dead.

Cute was not a word that came to mind.

They do get everywhere though and languish around in a quite chilling way.

It's supposed to be good luck if you see a white rat or one crosses over your foot but I was quite contented to remain unlucky. Especially seeing as I was barefoot. The biulding itself was quite attractive with huge silver gates but 40 minutes or so was plenty.

After lunch in the hotel I had another trip planned, to the Indian national camel research centre on the outskirts of town.

I hired a rickshaw for the trip and we passed through the town which is very attractive by Indian standards with its old fort and open parks.

A man with a beard that put my own to shame showed me around the fascinating centre and was a wealth of useless camel information such as the gestation period (13 months) and the amount of hair that is shaven off one camel in a year (1kg).

They perform genetic research and breed camels suited for their roles. I hadn't known that different camels excel at different things: the dark gugarati ones are good for milk, the light Jaisalmeris are good at running and the army prefer these.

The local Bikaner ones are good at towing carts I had seen a lot of produce on camel carts throughout the day.

We saw the baby ones and the studs which are used for natural and artificial insemination. The moody teenagers who were being broken in were good fun. After a stop at the dairy for a delicious pistachio camel milk iceream I sat down in the shade to eat it. The heat was blistering, it must have been touching 40° C.

Towards twighlight the main working gang of about 200 camels majestically sauntered in from a thirsty day's toil in the desert. It was equally impressive seeing one man control so many beasts and witnessing so many creatures farting and belching in unison. I like camels much more than I thought I would.

That night's dinner was a complete contrast to the previous night's. The whole roof was jammed with groups, large and small and there was a queue of people to get seated. I was put with a guy who was also on his own, Raimundo an articulate, friendly Angolan born Portuguese guy who ran a club in Lisbon. His English was thankfully far superior to my Portuguese and we had a good chat. It proved somewhat challenging to order though and it was close to 11pm when my food came along. By this stage a little tabla band had started up. The high pitched singing reminded me of the gypsies in the Thar desert. Then one got up and started dancing, having great success getting most of the women from the large Spanish group beside us to join in. Raimundo gave a great show himself.

One thing that Raimundo and I had noticed was that India was not a particularly easy place to meet fellow travellers. He usually took his annual month long holiday diving in Indonesia and I think he was revising the decision. He had hired a driver to take him around Rajasthan – a very different approach from mine. Once again though it was a short encounter - he was off in the morning to Jaisalmer and I had decided to push on to Amritsar the next day.

The train wasn't leaving until the afternoon so I had some more time in Bikaner in the morning. I strolled down to the fort and into the busy streets beyond.

A young local struck up a conversation and asked if I wanted to be shown around. He assured me he didnt want money, just to practice his English so I agreed. We went into the old town and walked through the narrow trading alleys. As always they were split into sections with each shop selling identical stuff side by side.

I declined a visit to the Jain temple in favour of going to the spice market. It felt a little but like a scam completely losing my sense of direction as we went through smaller and smaller lanes but eventually we came to the spice street.

I love the atmosphere in these streets, its very orientalism and stares – from and at the unusual outsider. Men carefully weighing out sugar crystals while others chew pan and spit.

I enjoyed the walk but my companion seemed to no longer want to practice his English so I spent most of he journey walking behind him. He finally took me to a little local craft shop so I bought a few postcards to acknowledge his services. Then he asked me for money, the little shit. I didn't give him any.

Tags: camel, rat, temple


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