The Yonder Blue: An Ancient and Cultural Fort in Rajasthan

At the foothill of the majestic Mehrangarh Fort at Jodhpur in Rajasthan, described by Rudyard Kipling as “a mesmerising, formidable feat of construction”, there is a 500-year-old settlement where most of the houses are painted blue. In the olden days, a blue paint signified a Brahmin house. This place has seen 22 generations but little has changed except for better electricity connection, telephone lines and improved drainage system. My photo essay aims to document daily life of the shy and unassuming people living in Blue City where narrow alleys are flanked with centuries old ground-plus-one stonemade structures.

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Ambling away with my camera has been a habit that turned into a way of life when I took to photo journalism. So my friends were not surprised when I wandered out of the Meherangarh Fort, considered the most majestic fort in India, and saunteered towards its rampart. However, they too were struck by what met the eyes: At the foothill of the 125m hill was a breathtaking spread of houses, all painted blue!

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The magnificent fort of Meherangarh was founded by Rao Jodha in 1459 though the extant parts date from 1638-78. Visiting the fort in 1899 Rudyard Kipling described it as "a mesmerising, formidable feat of construction". A museum inside the fort houses exquisite miniatures, an impressive collection of palanquins, cradles, musical instruments, furnitures, costumes. The ramparts that are 36m high and 21m wide provide a view of the well-preserved cannons - and a breathtaking view of the blue city called Brahmapuri.

Intrigued by the uniform colour of the ancient quarters that gave Jodhpur the sobriquet of Blue City, I ventured on a journey through the winding lanes of the city on a hillock. The open gates let you into a labyrinth of very narrow lanes flanked on both sides by ground-plus-one structures. The lanes, winding up or down, end in a blind alley if not in a temple. A network of inclines and steps cut into the hillock, these lanes are the lifeline of the settlement. They are wide enough for two-wheelers to whiz past you but don't be surprised to see men riding donkeys, carrying wares that might range from rice to milk.

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"Before documenting their lifestyle, I must know why this is a Blue City," I tell myself. But I soon realise, the houses and the inmates are organic to each other. Here, a boy balefully looks out of a window in the stony wall. There, a girl in plaits leans over a parapet to chat with an aunt. The stone structures protect the people from scorching heat, sandstorms, wintry winds... The arched windows, though few, are in consonance with the doors and gateways. Some houses have extremely well-carved jaali and intricate bracket work on the facade. Most noticeable, though, is that all of these, from the walls and windows to graffitti and clothings, favour a coating of blue.

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The colour blue soothes the sun-weary eyes of the desert people. But blue isn't the only colour Jodhpur revels in. Ochre is all you see against the blue walls as a housewife washes clothes. A flame coloured vertical figure walks down the winding lane. A matron in white ambles down the street to knock on the green doors of her neighbours. Colour is all you see, for all the women cover their heads with one end of their sari. Yellow, green, orange, magenta, purple - if the skirts and veils are colourful, so are the lofty turbans covering the men's head. These hues are part of life in Blue City but - need I add? - the predominant tint is blue, in shades that go from azure to turquoise, indigo to marine, sky to peacock.

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Talk to the guides, or to inhabitants, and you get multiple versions of two stories explaining the phenomenon. One says that Blue is the colour of Brahmins: Families of the priestly class who assisted in the state's administration were settled in these quarters by the rulers who worshipped Ek Ling Shiva. Hence the name Brahmapuri, this story maintains. The other story cites prosaic termites as the reason: This army was more difficult to vanquish than the invaders from afar, and was causing widespread structural damage in Jodhpur. To contain the menace, the houses were painted by adding chemicals such as copper sulphate to standard whitewash.

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Years, decades, centuries have gone by since the stonemade structures came up. No less than 22 generations have lived and loved in Brahmapuri. The passage of time has played no havoc. A north-south lane is still the spine of Brahmapuri, sloping steeply towards the fort and ending in the twin lakes of Roop Sagar and Padam Sagar. The lakes that keep the city cool remains its main source of water, which was originally supplied on the principle of difference in water pressure! To that natural intelligence, people have added technological advances: Electricity in every home ensures that a whirring fan dispels the dry heat. Telephones have entered the high-ceilinged houses and mobiles the lives of the people who mostly hold government jobs.

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Given the irregular topography of Brahmapuri, it took years to have in place a fully functional sewerage. Despite these changes, the Rajput values of valour and hospitality lives on. The shy and unassuming inhabitants let me walk into the dimlit interiors of their homes, with no reservation about my camera. They invite me to partake of their rotis as of their songs to the beat of a dhol. The ladies themselves cook the frugal meals and serve it fresh every day and night. Their simplicity speaks equally through the absence of heavy furniture: Shelves on the wall double as altar and dressing tables; clothings hang from a chord drawn across the room.

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Camels? I come across none. Cats, yes, and goats. And bulls and cows and buffaloes roam the lanes. Surprisingly, dogs are a rare sight here, as are young men and women. The streetside deities - Ganesha, Devi Durga, Hanuman, Shiva - are bathed in milk and smeared with vermilion. Milk, I realise, is a staple in the life of vegetarian households: lassi is a coolant, so it’s part of every meal and also offered to visitors. Milk is sold door to door, then, even by women when men are away for a fancy living.

Well, that’s another reality that strikes you: Young men are missing from the scene. Are they in distant metros engulfed in grey smog? If they are, surely amid the city blues, their hearts beat for the Blue City!

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(All photos and words courtesy of Sudipto Das)




>> Gallery of the series "The Yonder Blue".

>> Photographer Sudipto Das.


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