From the ramparts of the medieval Mehrangarh fort, it is an expansive view all the way to the border of the Thar desert that shimmers yonder. Rows after rows of blue-tinted houses spread out from the base of the hillock on which this impregnable fort was built, and anyone looking out over the flat roofs can understand why this western Rajasthan city of Jodhpur has earned itself the sobriquet ‘Blue City’. The maze of blue is Brahmapuri, the area of the Brahmins. They have lived here for centuries, and had enjoyed special status in the court administration of the Rajput kings that had ruled the princely state of Marwar since the 15th century till the abolition of Privy Purse in post-independence India.
I have based myself for a few days in a blue house whose owner has converted a wing of his ancestral home into a homestay. As I spiral through the winding lanes of Brahmapuri, marveling at the cycles and scooters deftly negotiating the warren of narrow, cobbled streets, I find the blue city even more mesmerizing from close quarters. The shades change subtly throughout the day, from a deep, intense indigo to a fading hue of aquamarine that almost looks fragile. The ubiquitous blueness seems to be a symbol of human resilience against the parched, sandy-brown Thar Desert that surrounds the town.
Surendra Joshi, the septuagenarian owner of the guesthouse tells me why the blue city is blue. “It’s simply because the colour blue reflects back most of the heat” (Jodhpur is one of the hottest towns in India). “There’s a geographical explanation for it too – there is an abundance of copper, indigo and limestone in the area, which is kneaded together with earth for the handcrafted mix to create that blue tint.” Surendra also explains why this district was built with impossibly narrow lanes that are barely two metres wide. The houses, aligned east-west on both sides, cast strong shadows to leave the streets relatively cool even in the scorching Rajasthan summer. The old Marwari gentleman points to the dainty stone carvings of the ornate windows and speaks on. “These are more utilitarian than ornamental. The carvings increase the surface area of the stone so that more heat is reflected to the exterior and less heat is absorbed into the rooms.”
Mukesh Lodha lives next door to my guesthouse. The family of the sprightly old man has lived in the same house for 22 generations and his ancestors had helped the Jodhpur royals in their administration. He invites me in for a mid-morning cuppa of strong milk tea seasoned with spices. The azure interiors of the 450-year old haveli are so atmospheric that one Korean film studio decided to film the entirety of a thriller flick on these premises. For Mukesh, blue also holds significance as it is the color of Shiva, the Hindu god. Most of the Brahmapuri residents are Shaivites (followers of Shiva) with quite a few Shiva temples tucked into the folds of the labyrinthine lanes.
“Even a few years back, we used to have horse-carriages roaming these lanes,” says Surendra. “And donkeys were used for transportation of essential commodities.” We are seated for breakfast on the terrace of his guesthouse. A few tables are neatly laid out in the sunlit space. From here, a closer look into the whorls of the blue city makes it clear that changes are afoot not only in modes of transportation. The signature blue tone is punctuated with yellow textures, because there is a slow shift from traditional sapphire-tinged homes to stolid Jodhpuri stone structures.
The yearly maintenance and upkeep of traditional houses has become prohibitively expensive and people are resorting to a cost effective alternative of stone structures which are less environment friendly. “The Jodhpuri stone structures sport a very solid look, but do not agree with the tradition. Neither are they good for the sweltering Rajasthani summer,” Surendra shakes his head. “We still do not need air-conditioning in my blue home.”
It is my last day in the city and I decide to retrace the uphill route that I have taken every morning through the blue quarters to the Mehrangarh fort. It is a Sunday and the narrow lanes have come alive with two wheelers, commuters and shoppers. The soft morning light illuminates the painted blue exteriors of the ancient houses with a magical glow. It is a familiar district by now and I once again spot the young lady covered in her vibrant attire, scurrying in a dash of yellow. The motley group of elderly ladies, busy with their mid-morning chat session on the stony outcrop of a blue house, wave cheerfully at me. Raju, the young boy who had helped me find my guest house three days ago, flashes his shy smile as he cycles towards his school.
Let the magic be, I think to myself. As long as it lasts.
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