We set out for the Amber Fort on a clear morning, everywhere beautiful vistas of rolling hills and tranquil waters, accompanied by Aparna’s intriguing tales of history. For those of you put off by tales of travelers who were miserably hot in India, that is not the India we enjoyed. The weather was a spectacular mix of blue skies and fresh air.
The approach to Amber Fort
I’m intrigued by elephants. I read books about them, I see movies about them, and I’ve ridden them whenever I’ve had the chance—up a river and into the jungle in Thailand and now up a hill and into a fort in India. But the truth about elephants is that they create strong odors. Come prepared, and the rest is great fun.
The loading area to ride an elephant up to Amber Fort
Incidentally, if you’re used to posting when riding a saddle horse, it seems natural to try to move in rhythm with any other animal you ride. But the little cubicle strapped on top of the elephant constructed for tourists to ride in didn’t allow that kind of movement. It was impossible, in fact, in that uncomfortable box, to adjust the body’s motions to the animal’s movements like the mahout did.
I know there are Internet sites that decry the brutal methods many mahouts use to tame and train an elephant for work. The idea behind them seems to be that animals should be left alone in the wild. This doesn’t seem like a useful solution to me.
As a parallel, I’ve seen some cowboys that were fairly brutal in breaking a horse to saddle. But I like the First Nations approach to taming a horse. At the right age, the horse is introduced to a rider in the middle of a creek or river where bucking around in the water quickly tires it. What I’m saying is that domesticating an animal may not have to involve brute force.
Ancient walls of Jaipur
Seen from the fort, the ancient walls of Jaipur crawl across the top of the hills like a spine.
I was grateful for Aparna’s expertise in architecture as she sorted out for us the fusion of Mughal and Hindu styles. She made the place come alive as to historical characters and their motivations, which resulted variously in success and tragedy.
Aparna’s love of the fort’s history made the very walls of the gorgeous Palace of Mirrors resound with tales of the past. The dates and the names and the politics were all at her beckoning, and so were the long-gone personalities with all their love of India—a love our guide reflected.
Women stood behind stone screens like this in order to view the men’s actions in the area below.
King Cobra and His Charmer
I happened on a snake charmer sitting in a cement courtyard at Amber Fort. He played his gourd flute as a king cobra swayed from the basket in front of him. Snakes cannot hear, so the movement of the cobra’s head back and forth follows the movement of the instrument above it.
I was unnerved by the charmer’s insistence on being paid for the privilege of being photographed because I didn’t want to get within striking distance of that snake. He insisted I would be safe as I approached the snake in order to hand over the rupees, although I didn’t feel safe.
I wasn’t at all prepared for the man to suddenly shove the lid down on the basket, forcing the snake inside. And I was totally alarmed by the snake’s hiss—like a bicycle tire suddenly flattening.
Why does the snake stay in bondage like that? Why doesn’t it attack the man? Were its fangs removed, as some hypothesize? Is its mouth sewn shut like others claim? (which means that the snake is starving and will soon die and is thus tamed?) But how could I hear that hiss, if its mouth weren’t open?
Which Reality Would You Choose?
Until I saw my photos later that night I didn’t internalize the significance of the ring of motorbikes around the periphery, the old man and the snake literally playing out their dance in an alien environment.
I could photoshop this picture. I could crop out all the evidence of 21st century material culture for this blog post, and give my readers the impression that the snake and its owner existed in a folk mystique from yesteryear. But the fact of the snake and the skinny old man surrounded by the artifacts from another generation, another culture, left me wondering what else the man could do for a living. Could he ever enter the modern world?
So, imagine you’re a tourist in India. Which reality would you choose?