Should you find yourself in Jodhpur, one of Rajasthan’s most stunning cities, it is but natural to want to rush off to explore all its tantalizingly magnificent sites. But hey, hold on. Want to get a pulse of the real Jodhpur as well, the one lived by the locals, sans any tourists? You will need to look elsewhere—in its stepwells and temples. That’s where local life pulsates in all its glory.
And that’s what this post is about.
But first a little bit about the Ravana Rajputs, a term you are most likely to come across if you hang around deep and long enough in the city. Why? Because Jodhpur has a sizable population of them.
So, who are the Ravana Rajputs?
For the uninitiated, Rajputs belong to the Kshatriya caste in the Hindu caste system, and caste is still very much in practice and a way of life in Rajasthan. There are different stepwells, dress codes, neighbourhoods, cremation grounds, and even dharamshalas at religious sites for each of the castes.
It is so deeply entrenched, it is not even questioned or opposed even though the caste system was abolished by the Indian constitution in 1950.
When Rajput rulers ruled their kingdoms in Rajputana in Medieval India, harems and concubines were a way of life. Most of these women were non-Rajputs. Where there were harems, there was bound to be sex, and where there was sex, there were offspring. The illegitimate children of these ladies, and their descendants, came to be known as Ravana Rajputs.
A separate caste in itself, Rajputs [of legitimate relationships five hundred years ago] do a background check even today to ensure no cross-marriages take place with Ravana Rajputs, even by mistake.
Rakshasa Ravana as Jodhpur’s son-in-law
On a completely different note, and in no way related to the Ravana Rajputs is another tradition.
Ravana, the Rakshasa [demon] and King of Lanka, and the primary adversary in the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana is also Jodhpur’s son-in-law. Whilst the whole country burns effigies of Ravana during the Dussehra festival, to proclaim the victory of good over evil, something completely different happens in Jodhpur. Here the Brahmin priests carry out rituals as per Hindu traditions for their ancestors, namely, Ravana.
The reason being 9 kilometres north of Jodhpur is the historical city of Mandore. Ravana’s wife Mandodari was from here.
Gulab Sagar, a wealthy concubine’s gift to Jodhpur
It is often argued that before the arrival of the British in India, caste, class, and creed were way more fluid in the subcontinent. The story of Gulab Rai gives some credibility to this theory.
Gulab Rai started off as a female slave in Maharaja Vijay Singh’s [1752 – 93] court in Jodhpur. The year was 1766. She was beautiful, smart, and talented. Before long, the King was head over heels in love with her and had made her a Paswan, highest in the ranks of the concubine, to be always by his side.
She rose in wealth and political powers, using her influence for social good. Spanned by a bridge, Jodhpur’s largest lake, Gulab Sagar, was her gift to the city. At one end of the lake is an arched gateway which leads to a Shiva temple and a small pool, then used by the royal ladies for bathing and worship.
Gulab Rai’s story, however, had a sad ending. To ensure her offspring would make no claims to the throne, her son was killed by rivals. Jealous of her powers, she was murdered in 1792. Heartbroken, Vijay Singh died the following year. All that remains is her lake, and a temple. But more of the latter, later in the post.
Mahila Bagh Jhalra, an Irishman’s ‘clean-up’ mission
Adjacent to the sprawling Gulab Sagar with Mehrangarh Fort in the distance is the smaller, more compact Mahila Bagh Jhalra which holds the spill-over waters of Gulab Sagar.
When I went, it was filthy. But for a brief period, some years ago, it shone in all its splendour because of a 70-year-old Irishman by the name of Caron Pierre. He would spend five to seven hours every day cleaning the muck. Which he succeeded at. Albeit without much help from the locals, who often mocked his efforts instead.
He hasn’t been around for a long time and the stepwell is dirty again. Mr. Pierre, in the event that you ever read this post, I want to tell you that Mahila Bagh Jhalra misses you dearly and loves you for making her shine, even if it was fleetingly.
Tapi Baori, Jodhpur’s secret stepwell
If you haven’t seen Tapi Baori, then you haven’t seen Jodhpur. That’s the general local opinion. It takes some determination to find the stepwell. Despite being right in the heart of the old city, the crumbling multi-level rose-red sandstone baori is completely hidden from the casual eye and is poignantly lovely.
Until tap water was introduced, Tapi Baori provided Jodhpur’s residents free clean drinking water for some 350 years. It was built by Natho Ji Vyas, Prime Minister of Maharaja Jaswant Singh l, founder of Jodhpur. Its impressive measurements at 360 feet deep, 40 feet wide, and 250 feet long make for a huge, silent refuge.
Toorji Ka Jhalra, Jodhpur’s public swimming pool
Just a few hundred metres away from Jodhpur’s Clock Tower is the stunning Toorji Ka Jhalra. Continuing a tradition in which royal women built public water works, the stepwell is the handiwork of Maharaja Abhay Singh’s consort in the 1740s.
The 200-feet-deep sandstone edifice is decorated with jharokas and medallions and exquisite carvings of deities including Saraswati and Ganapati.
As part of an urban regeneration project, it is surrounded with trendy cafes, shops, and hotels. One would, thus, expect it to be filled with tourists. But it is not. As the sun rises and starts to scorch the city, both local children and adults alike find their way to its cool clean waters for a much-needed swim.
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From stepwells to temples. In case it has started to seem from this post that it is only Jodhpur’s stepwells which are steeped in stories and part of everyday Jodhpur life, its temples beg to differ. The latter take the traveller a notch deeper into community life. Read on … 🙂
Shri Gangshyam Ji Mandir, built specially for a Queen’s idol of Krishna
Though the edifice of Shri Gangshyam Ji Mandir was repaired in 1986, the temple itself goes back to 1761 when one of Maharaja Vijay Singh’s queens from Sirohi insisted on bringing an idol of Krishna along with her as part of her dowry. Shri Gangshyam Ji Mandir was specially built to house the effigy. All her life, without fail, the queen would make the journey from the Mehrangarh Fort to the temple in her palanquin to pray. Don’t miss the stunning murals on the walls and ceilings, all part of the original structure.
Following a medieval tradition, the temple is the site of Holi celebrations every year in which devotees are drenched in gulal and water in the presence of the gods. Makes for great photo opportunities, and yes, the participants are happy to be photographed.
Kunj Bihari Mandir, Gulab Rai’s statement of power and love
Close to Jodhpur’s Clock Tower Market is the crowded temple square lined on all four sides by temples interspersed with stalls selling colourful garlands, fragrant incense sticks, and busy sweetmeat shops. One particular temple deserves special mention here: the 18th Century Kunj Bihari Mandir dedicated to Krishna.
Gulab Rai, Maharaja Vijay Singh’s favourite concubine, commissioned the temple. Guarded by an imposing marble toran and topped with a towering shikhara, it appears at first glance to be a copy of Shri Gangshyam Ji Mandir.
If ever there was a doubt about the powers a concubine could weld, the Kunj Bihari Mandir puts it to rest. A mural high up on the wall in the mandapa or main hall depicts her and the Maharaja, as a legitimate couple, expressing their devotion to the Krishna Vallabha cult.
Achal Nath Shivalaya, Jodhpur city’s oldest Shiva temple
One last temple that requires inclusion in this post is the double shivling Achal Nath Shivalaya in the temple square. In a society which comprises predominantly of Krishna followers, temples to Shiva are far and few in Jodhpur.
Which is where Achal Nath Shivalaya comes in. Built by Nanak Devi, Rao Ganga Rathore’s queen in 1531, it is also Jodhpur’s oldest Shiva temple. Despite being plastered over in recent years with ceramic tiles—an aesthetic sacrilege that has not made any dent to its sanctity—devotees flock to it with much fervour, their murmured chants accompanied with ringing bells and incense smoke.
Like all Hindu temples, Achal Nath Shivalaya includes shrines to other Hindu deities as well. Of particular significance is the Shrine of Baba Ramdev to its right, Rajasthan’s most popular indigenous deity.
Baba Ramdev aka Ramdeo Pir, Rajasthan’s ruler turned deity
Travelling through Rajasthan, a local deity you are bound to come across time and again is Baba Ramdev. Although worshipped in pockets in other Indian states, he is omnipresent in Rajasthan. In fact, were you to show ignorance or think it is the 21st Century yoga guru who is being referred to instead, be prepared to be scoffed.
Seated on a horseback, bearded, bejewelled, and dressed as a king, he was a 14th Century ruler [1352 – 85] said to have had miraculous powers. He spent his life uplifting the poor and downtrodden and is still the favoured deity for the impoverished. There are temples dedicated to him throughout Rajasthan.
Baba Ramdev is also one of those few Indian deities who has managed to cross creed and borders. For the Hindus he is Baba Ramdev, for the Muslims he is Ramdeo Pir. He is worshipped in Rajasthan in India and in Sindh in Pakistan.
At age 33 he took samadhi, a state in which the soul leaves the body in full awareness. He lies buried in Ramdevra near Jaisalmer along with five Muslim Pirs from Mecca and his close Hindu disciples. Seven hundred years on, his birth anniversary is celebrated with a public holiday in Rajasthan and a two-month festival at his burial site.
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With this, I come to the end of my post. A humble attempt to get to the pulse of the city, often overlooked by tourists. For travel is more than just the sites. ❤
- Staying there: I stayed at the ultra arty-funky The Arch Boutique Homestay in the heart of the old city through Booking.com.
- Getting to Jodhpur: I used Rajputana Cabs for an intercity drop from Jaisalmer.
- Getting around in Jodhpur: I used a tuk-tuk or walked.
- How many days?: I stayed for 5 days.
- I explored Jodhpur’s stepwells and temples with the Stepwells and Temples of Jodhpur Walking Tour run by Virasat Experiences.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan from 17 October to 20 November, 2021. To read more posts in my Rajasthan series, click here.]