Dad prides himself in asking questions. It’s been a fact of university open days, parents evenings and now tour guides. We have started mocking him for his more off the wall question, a particular favourite being ‘Can anyone own a cow?’
As always there was plenty to watch out of the window, including a combine harvester getting its tyre changed in the middle of the highway. The places seemed to get more and more rural and when we stopped for a toilet break at an abandoned hotel, questions were being asked about our next stop.
In the Shekawati region we pulled up in dusty Churu, meandered through the markets and pulled up outside a dusty gate. Passing through the gate we were welcomed by the entire staff of a grand renovated 1920’s party palace. We were welcomed, adorned with flowers and bindys and taken through the large lawn (real grass!) to the imposing house. The hotel spilled outside with tables all over the veranda, and after a cooling cloth and drink we were shown proudly how the building would have looked, it’s 50 years of dereliction and its recent renovation. It was beautifully painted, each room with regally high ceilings and a huge balcony, stain glass windows and mosaicked walls.
The town was once on the major trading routes for Gujarati ports but a change of caravan routes 50 years ago has left the town quiet. The large havelis of the merchants, ornate and beautiful, have been abandoned, caretaker families living simply inside while the owners have long forgotten them for the bright lights of Delhi or Calcutta. It was untouristy and as such people were fascinated by us in a different way. No one asked for anything or hassled to buy but smiled or even followed our group. We walked amongst many of the houses, entering the courtyards of some. The paintings depicted scenes of trade, the King of Bikaner featured heavily with his comic moustache, and also the British royals in motor cars. Churu also had its very own wind palace with 1100 windows, again unloved despite its grandeur.
Cows and donkeys roamed the street. We were rerouted around a large 5 metre deep hole where men were casually fixing the towns drainage, and we saw a small green stray dog, still dyed from the paints of Holi festival. Monkeys, he told us, had been relocated from the town after causing too much mischief at the vegetable market.
When we emerged out to the market the town was in full swing, shops trading, music playing. We got in a Tuk Tuk to go and see a bangle maker. 6 of us hanging out of the back, guide and driver up front, the little Tuk Tuk powered on dropping us at an open fronted house where we sat on the floor with a family. Over the fire the young girl Samya, only 15, sat with her grandmother melting the perspex, printing it with our chose colours and moulding it into a worm shape. She then fitted it on to a metal circle and shaped it, perfecting it and cooling it for a beautiful bangle for us. The artist, her grandfather, returned from the mosque to show us even more intricate designs, whilst a building crowd formed outside.
Despite the fact it was now dark, our guide wanted to show us more of his town and proudly took us around the market square, into a most embellished Jain mosque, a branch of Hinduism, and to the towns community centre which doubled as a museum. The small room of exhibitions was eclectic. There was old account books of 250 years, pottery discovered from a nearby desert civilisation of 3000 years, a stuffed tigers head, and a clipping from a visiting president in 1962. It was as if he wanted to show us everything exciting that had ever happened in this now sleepy town.