I wanted to look up, I really did. I wanted to nod to the people walking by or check out the town shops. But I was playing hopscotch with the cow patties. The holy cow patties. The dry crumbly ones, of course. But especially the wet squishy ones.
That’s just the way it is in Jojowar, a tiny Rajasthani farm town. If you’re from California, think Tulare or Hanford in the Central Valley. It’s where business gets done and grain gets milled. It’s where villagers and farmers buy shoes, sell vegetables and rent videos.
What in the world were we doing in Jojowar when Rajasthan has so many legendary cities?
My husband David and I were exploring Rajasthan’s rural heart with photographers David Robbins and Abhishek Hajela on their 2018 photo tour of Rajasthan. One of the trip’s many attractions was the opportunity to visit some of India’s remote rural villages. As Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted: To know India, one needs to understand its villages. At minimum, one needs to experience village life. We were lucky. Delhiite Abhi had visited these villages several times before, and he paved the way for us to encounter a way of life that may not last another generation.
On the road
But first, we had to get there. Between Rajasthan’s fabled cities the tan, bleached earth reminded me of Southern California. The craggy Aravalli Hills, which hide more than a maharaja’s worth of minerals and gems, accounting for much of the region’s wealth, rise in folds from flat, parched farmland. From time to time we passed amazing, only-in-India roadside attractions.
At a lunch stop near Jodhpur, we learned just how dry Rajasthan is. Outside the restaurant a promotional Coke bottle sat peeling in the sun like a careless tourist.
Inside, the owner told us about his well. “Every year I double how deep I drill to find water,” he said. For farmers, water for their crops and animals is more precious—and more rare—than Rajasthan’s famous jewels.
Back on the road, we were immersed in a rolling history lesson. The traditional—camels, bullock carts, sacred cows and water buffalos—competed with the modern as trucks, busses and cars hurried past. It was exhilarating and exhausting.
Tired and bedraggled, our group of photo-tourists straggled up to the entrance of Rawla Jojawar, an 18th-century garrison fort, transformed like so many secondary royal properties into a boutique hotel. Suddenly a cascade of rose petals rained down on us from the balcony as we grabbed our cameras and iPhones to capture a moment of Rajasthani welcome.
Despite our personal rose parade, Jojowar was far from the romantic Rajasthan of travel brochures. It was a gritty, dusty farm town. Cows, motorbikes and autorickshaws jostled for space in the market square with women in bright saris, men in colorful turbans and clusters of barefoot children. In town I really did need to walk carefully to avoid those cow patties and exposed drainage channels.
Since this was a photo tour, we had assignments: Go into town, meet people and take pictures before the midday heat becomes oppressive. I wandered into shops, nodding to the owners and pointing to my camera to gain permission.
I met a woman selling shoes, eggs, tote bags, bangles and tires all in one shop. While posing for her portrait she proudly let me know, gesturing with her fingers and waving her arm around the storefront, that her family owns three more locations.
Across from the bus depot I found perfect light and a neighborhood squabble at the town mill where farmers bring grain to be ground into flour. Down the street I encountered moms and toddlers, men and students hanging out, and tailors at their sewing machines. Everyone was friendly.
Pausing to figure out my next location, I spotted a construction site with a jumble of bricks flowing out into the street. In the midst of the debris a regal-looking woman in a traditional long black and magenta skirt with a matching translucent scarf covering her face walked back and forth, elegantly balancing a brass bowl on her head. What was she doing?
I finally figured it out. The mystery lady in the magenta veil was carrying mortar to the men laying bricks for a new wall. This was the real Rajasthan. There was work to be done. No time for princess myths here.
Into the heart of India
After lunch and a welcome respite from the heat, we piled into a vintage turquoise Chevy pickup, operated by the driver for our host, Rao Maharaj Singh, the owner of Rawla Jojawar. Like many descendants of Rajasthan’s titled families, Rao Singh collects vintage cars.
It was late afternoon. The sun was getting low. We drove past the shops and people we met in the morning. The asphalt gave way to dirt, and buildings were replaced by scrubby brush.
The turquoise Chevy was our very own way-back machine, transporting us to a Rabari tribal village. We shared the dirt road with turbaned goatherds with formidable white mustaches, who carried biblical staffs to nudge their flop-eared flocks home to their pens.
The past and the future collided at the well. Veiled women carried earthen pots to collect water for the evening.
Their children, dressed like kids anywhere, dashed around and slurped from the spigot.
On a tarp by the side of her house, a woman with a pink veil and white bangles up to her shoulders shook bundles of what looked like wheat.
It was sesame. The dry leaves crackled as she beat the branches to collect the seeds, a regional cash crop. Indian sesame seeds are exported around the world. Her seeds may have ended up as sesame oil in Chinatown, in tahini in Jerusalem or on a bagel in New York. Even so, watching her work I felt as if time was standing still.
A minute later a ten-year-old girl with red leggings, a yellow dress and flashing eyes invited me to see her house. The tile floor was spotless. School backpacks filled a shelf in the wall. A small makeshift shrine sported pictures of deities riding tigers. I didn’t have words to ask her who was strong enough to ride the tigers, but I was certain that this tiger of a girl won’t retreat behind a pink veil or pump water from a well when she grows up.
Meanwhile a striking man in white pants and shirt, a shaggy salt-and-pepper beard and a deep red turban, invited David to watch him prepare a tincture of opium. He poured water through a mesh filter, much like David’s morning coffee routine. He offered the brew around, but the Americans, more concerned about the water than the drug, politely declined. Our driver, however, accepted!
Later, when we gathered near the turquoise Chevy to say good-bye, the opium host’s dilated eyes gleamed as he pulled out a red notebook and pink pen to collect our WhatsApp numbers. It was hard not to laugh.
Two days later we visited a village of the Bhil people, one of India’s oldest indigenous groups. Women in their version of Rajasthan’s long skirts and bright translucent scarves came in from the fields to greet us.
But the men and children were elsewhere—the men working in town and the children in school. So we walked down the road to the elementary school and discovered, with much giggling and pointing, that the boys had locked the girls inside. Some torments are universal.
Educating for the future
“Now wherever there is a village or a cluster of villages, there is a primary school within two miles,” explained Abhi, who also arranged for us to visit a secondary school a few miles further on.
One of our fellow guests became our organizer bunny, gathering enough money for us to make a meaningful contribution. He and Abhi bought a computer printer, grade-level workbooks and winter sweaters that we presented to the school in a sweet outdoor ceremony. The students, in brown and tan uniforms, practiced English with us and posed for group pictures.
One of the teachers told us that she had grown up in a similar village and that her classroom was a chalkboard hanging on a tree. In the rural schools we visited, with paintings of Gandhi and the education goddess Saraswati sharing the wall with maps of India and Rajasthan, we saw India’s future.
Later I asked Abhi why he included the remote villages in our itinerary. “When you go to the villages, the old men are doing the things their forefathers did—the same techniques of farming, eating the same food, dressing so beautifully. It’s their whole world, and they are proud of it. They are proud of their turbans, their housing, their way of living, their lifestyle. This is probably the last generation doing this,” he said.
“The new generation doesn’t want to do the same work as their parents. They don’t want to be shepherds or farmers. They don’t want to wear traditional clothes. They’re going to the cities, even if they make only half what they can make in the village.” As Abhi explained, visiting the villages at this transitional time was to experience history. Always the photographer, he added, “It’s a snapshot in time.”
It’s been three years and a raging pandemic since we were in rural Rajasthan. But Abhi visited again in October 2021. “The villages I visited had no problem, even during the peak time,” he messaged me. “The vaccine campaign is a big hit.”
An encore visit
After the photo tour, David and I remained in Rajasthan for a few more days to experience more of the region’s magical history. We stayed at the remote Ramathra Fort, located on a steep hill above another agricultural area, where we visited one last village.
As we walked down the dirt streets watching women preparing their homes for the festival of Diwali, one of the ladies invited me into her courtyard. She surveyed my outfit, looked at her clothesline and plucked off a long blue scarf which she tucked into my waistband, adjusted around my shoulders and placed over my head.
She looked at her handiwork and burst out laughing. Then, laughing some more, she hoisted an empty water jug on my head. As she dressed me up, I felt like Barbie. Without a word in common, we connected. I felt wonderfully welcome. The travel gods had offered me a wonderful gift and I was enchanted enough to accept.
I was sad to leave Rajasthan, with its paradox of old and new, urban and rural, traditional and modern. Every day we were there was a magical history tour.