You can’t miss Osian for this city of many temples is highlighted by a towering complex of giant wind turbines set in the desert just out of town. On this day they were motionless and without sound. Osian is now an industrial town manufacturing items as diverse as tools and machinery dies, gas tanks and truck seats. Historically, however, Osian is famous for a cluster of Brahmanical and Jain temples that date from the 8th and 11th Centuries. It was also the major religious centre of the Kingdom of Marwar during the Gujara Pratihara Dynasty, also called the Pratihara Empire, an imperial dynasty that ruled much of northern India from the 6-11th Centuries. The main temples in Osian include the Sachiya Mata temple, dedicated to the mother goddess Sachiya, and the Jain temple dedicated to the sage Lord Mahavira; the entrance fee to the latter being Rs10. The Mahavira temple was built in 783 CE by the Pratihara king Vatsa Raja and remains a major Jain pilgrimage site.
It is too easy to get ‘lost’ in the streets of Osian, as I had found myself getting similarly distracted and consumed elsewhere during this journey through India. Monuments abound, but it is the detail of the streets, like ethereal fairy rings, that ensnares you; a beautiful blue and mauve painted house of modest dimensions, its pale blue iron grid gate centrally ornamented with the by now commonplace swastika motifs, a pointed-nosed shrew that darts from out a vendor’s display of vegetables, a narrow street awash with puddles of water emanating from a damaged hand pump, an otherwise unpretentious alley eerily overshadowed by ancient red brick terrace houses, ubiquitous weathered wooden doors still graced with years of life, grey cows with nothing better to do than occupy space within a diminutive market square, and a gathering of middle-aged European tourists; some disposed to idle loitering and others in apparent search of things they will soon discard.
And, as is too easy and frequently my custom, on this day my social standing plummets swiftly, within the space of twelve hours, from feted pseudo-raj to that of cultural oddity. For later, sitting with two young Indian men around the warmth of a small fire provided by a couple of burning rubber foot sandals, products of China I suspect, and safely upwind from the billowing black plumes of poisonous smoke, I was starting to feel ‘seriously twisted’, as one late colleague at the Australian Museum had once thoughtfully dubbed me. That, in mistaking my moment of fire-side comfort for an ecstatic state of ‘saccidananda’, of ‘being’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘bliss’ all wrapped into one neat marketable package of inner contentedness, I might have slipped irretrievably into this foreign world. I had found too easy an inner peace in its simplicity, false and thinly veneered as I knew my appraising of it was. My apparent social status, to all those who saw me crouched up against the warmth of the little fire, had sure gone way down since last night at the ‘5-star’ rated camel camp; the black coloured twirling skirt of a dancing gypsy girl now swapped for the black swirling smoke of burning cheap rubber. I’m having trouble teasing a metaphor out of it but one thing or another was hot, and the burning sandals were certainly costing me less than the woman. In the eyes of ‘Middle Australia’ I might have been ‘slumming’ it, but on this increasingly cool morning, at least my hands were warm.
Retrieved by my driver, and stirred by the onset of light rain, we drive towards Jaisalmer; the turn around and most westerly finishing point of the road trip. The city is surrounded by the Thar Desert, a region more than 200,000 km2 in area. The Thar Desert lies mostly in the Indian state of Rajasthan, extending from the Aravalli Ranges in the east to the Indus River in neighbouring Pakistan. It is variably considered to be 4,000 to 10,000 years old. In the ‘Ramayana’ epic the Thar is described as Lavanasagara, and is mentioned when Rama goes to attack the realm of Lanka with his accompanying army of monkey Vanaras. The otherwise sandy expanses of the Thar are interspersed by hillocks and gravel plains, and is rich in diversity of reptiles and large animals such as Blackbuck, Antilope cervicapra, Indian Gazelle, Gazella bennettii, Indian Wild Ass, Equus hemionus khur, and Caracal or Syahgosh, Caracal caracal, a medium sized cat that ranges over western and southern Asia, and throughout many parts of Africa. The natural vegetation of the Thar Desert is classed as ‘Northern Desert Thorn Forest’, this vegetation type occurring in small scattered clumps.
The Thar is one of the most heavily populated desert areas in the world, and although agriculture is pursued crops are seasonally vulnerable to failure. This region of Rajasthan is the biggest wool-producing area in India, but owing to the restraints imposed by seasonal rainfall conditions agricultural production is mainly for crops that are harvested in September and October, and include leguminous pulses, maize, sesame, groundnuts, and Bajra millet. In recent decades the development of canals and tube wells has influenced a change in crop pattern such that some districts in Rajasthan now produce mustard, wheat, cumin seed, as well as certain cash crops. Since the 1980’s the Thar Desert of Rajasthan has experienced a significant increase in human and livestock population, such as camels, buffalo, sheep, goats and oxen, and as a consequence overgrazing is a factor affecting climatic conditions.
But I am now in a region and on a highway that is fast approaching the Indian-Pakistan border, and since partition in 1947 the two countries have rarely been the best of friends. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which resulted in the excision of East Pakistan and the subsequent independence of the country we now call Bangladesh, the Pakistan Air Force launched pre-emptive air attacks on Indian air bases at Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and eight other Indian military facilities. Understandably, India massively retaliated, and Pakistan lost the war.
Along the highway we pass several Indian Army firing ranges, and though I see no heavy battle tanks there are numerous trucks and sometimes artillery and light armoured fighting vehicles, each and all painted in mottled green camouflage paint. With its manpower loosely numbered at 1,129,000 regular soldiers and 960,000 reservists, plus about 160 support helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the Indian Army dwarfs that of Australia’s. They have an air force to match, and an increasingly ‘blue water’ ocean-going navy capability that aims to project its presence as far as South Africa and Western Australia. Not for the last time I remind myself that it is fortunate we are friends! Although the eyes of the Indian Army have traditionally looked to the north and the west, it is increasingly tasked with the role of fighting insurgents and terrorists within India’s national borders.
In recent years the Thar Desert has ‘hosted’ regular Indian military exercises as part of the Army’s efforts to shore up its battle preparedness on the western front with Pakistan. The Indian Army is a wholly voluntary service and though there is provision in the Indian Constitution for conscription, unlike Australia, it has never been implemented. It is currently the largest voluntary standing army in the world, and presently comprises 63 armoured regiments and an Army Aviation Corps mainly operating helicopters to assist troop transport and ground force support. India produces its own indigenously designed and built main battle tank, the ‘Arjun’, named after Arjuna of the Bhagavad-Gita, and Mahabharata epic. A product of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation the Arjun is armed with a 120 mm main rifled gun. Delays in its development prompted India to order vast numbers of T-90 tanks from Russia to fill requirements expected of the Arjun. The Army can now field about 4,000 main battle tanks comprising the indigenous Arjun, the jointly Russian-Indian developed T-90 Bhishma and T-72 Ajeya, and the older Soviet T-55. In addition there are several thousand lighter armed infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers, some of which are derived from Russian sources and others that are of indigenous manufacture. India’s ‘Futuristic Infantry Soldier As a System’, or F-INSAS, is the Army’s principal modernisation program to be completed by 2020, the first phase having been completed in 2012. Under this program infantry soldiers are to be equipped with modular weapons systems that are multi-functional. India intends to modernize all of its 465 infantry and paramilitary battalions by 2020 to the F-INSAS program.
Aware that India flies jet fighters of Russian design, in one of my many moments of idle flippancy, I let it be known to all on board the tour vehicle that I would be pleased to see a Sukhoi jet fighter; one of my many little dalliances and foibles in the world of contemporary military history and warfare ordnance made casually known to my companions during the road trip. I never did grow up from the boyhood preoccupation with the modelling of scale aircraft, and besides, a knowledge of what the military forces of other regional countries are flying about in comes in handy when your own politicians try to convince the voting public that Australia’s purchase of small numbers of dated American aircraft, or planes that haven’t flown off a drafting board yet, is going to maintain our regional air superiority. Given the state of equipment and force size we can probably get away with bullying most people in the south-western Pacific Ocean, but anyone else? Well, it’s best to be good and obliging neighbours; give out lots of foreign aid, hold plenty of joint anti-piracy naval exercises, host lots of goodwill exchanges with regional powers, never upset super powers, not even nascent ones; that sort of thing.
I arrive in Jaisalmer with time to wander back streets in search of merchants dealing in traditional tribal wares, and then visit the royal cenotaphs on the outskirts of the city. The cenotaphs are part of the Bada Bagh ‘Big Garden’ complex first commissioned by Maharawal Jait Singh II in the early 16th Century, though the gardens are now neglected. The oldest cenotaph, or chhatri in Hindi, is that of Jait Singh who reigned from 1470 to 1506 CE, this corresponding with the Late Renaissance period back in Europe. The tradition ended in 1947, the 20th Century cenotaph of Maharaja Jawahar Singh remaining unfinished. Near the cenotaph complex are enormous wind turbines but I find them as unobtrusive as those at Osian, their presence soon overlooked. I am confronted by a group of young boys eager to sell me postcards, but I am now well-practised at the art of a polite “ne”. They soon tire of failed attempts at a sale, and so swarm elsewhere in the hope of patronage from tourists descending from a newly arrived air-conditioned tour bus. Looking on, those disembarking tourists appear as fond of their money as I am.
I sit for some time on the stepped stonework of a partly collapsed cenotaph structure, old masonry blocks heaped like useless rubble in one corner. The ‘postcard boys’ harangue another group of hoped-for buyers, but avoid me. I am able to enjoy the last of the sunlight falling from view beyond the city. But all things must end, and at the final moments of sunset I am directed to the car and then driven to a restaurant located below the Jaisalmer fortress wall. My driver and the restaurant owner seem very friendly, the driver disappearing to the kitchen whilst I eat. Nice food, staff obliging, several back-packers in attendance, air temperature comfortable, and a pleasant view of flashing electric blue lights on a building otherwise off somewhere in the dark.
Later we drive to the hotel, but on this occasion the vehicle has an alarming desire to repeatedly veer into the same lane as oncoming traffic; and the oncoming traffic is in the right lane. We are not. Our car has a tendency to weave into the correct lane in the last seconds of opportunity, a habit it seems disinclined to kick. You’d think the recurring presence of glaring car headlights would be sufficient indication that something was wrong, that this just might be my, our, last night in India; alive. But enough said. Dismissing several vehicle-induced near-death experiences, and fortune smiling, I eventually arrive intact at another example of palatial development. Thank you Lord Ganesha.
This particular hotel is fourteen kilometres outside the city, surrounded by desert. Round about there is not another building of any size or description to be seen. Musicians and a dancing girl are positioned on the broad hotel concourse to greet my arrival. The girl dances, the men beat away enthusiastically at drums. They all look a little like those at the camel camp, but I hurry by at such a pace I neglect to inspect more closely. Only the shocked expression on the girl’s face remains to me.
By rights I should be dead. I just want to sleep.