December 24, 2014: On this Christmas Eve it is work to put aside thoughts of my dad, whose birthday is tomorrow… I immerse myself in Indian culture, partake in a traditional Bisnoi opium ritual (watered down for the tourists, I’m sure) and spend the morning viewing hand-crafted wares in this off-the-beaten-track Rajasthani village. There was the man making hand-thrown pottery on a stone potter’s wheel that could easily have been the one his great-great-great-great grandfather used all those generations ago. The weaver and his beautiful rugs. The journey through these villages is like stepping into a time machine and going back 500 or more years.
En route to the Jain temple, we stop for a short visit to the “biker temple.” Story has it that a man called Om Banna, was killed when his motorbike hit a tree. As the story goes, the motorbike that was being held at the police station disappeared periodically, despite being locked away, and was found at the crash site. There is folklore of good deeds and good fortune bestowed by a man called Om. On the side of the highway, somewhere between Jodhpur and Ranakpur, there is a temple honouring this Om. And amidst the incense and chanting and drumming and fanfare of Om believers and hawkers selling truck decorations, there is a young couple being blessed by the guru before their wedding. And in the back of this very rustic temple stands the Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike, encased in a glass box.
Jain temples have a distinct look, like an ice cream sundae or hand-sewn lace or marzipan or…what? They just don’t look real. This is the Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Trust Jain Temple in Ranakpur. The intricacy of the carvings is mesmerising. The volume of marble used is astounding. In hindsight I think the craftsmanship here rivals that of even the Taj Mahal itself. At every corner, there are new marble wonders: pillars, elephants, lattice work, gargoyles, dizzying ceilings. I walk through the temple in awe of the hands that made this come to life.
What’s off-putting about not being home at Christmastime is even more wobbly when in a country that doesn’t practice the holiday. “Merry Christmas” is a greeting here, like “hello foreigner,” said with that enormous bright-white smile. I find it endearing and somehow more genuine than the context the holiday has taken in the west. There is this other phenomenon of Indian kids wanting to have their pictures taken with us. If you sit or stand in one place for just a minute or two, you will undoubtedly have one pre-teen or 5 (or their entire family) lining up to pose with you. And so you smile and wonder what happens with these pictures… do they have a contest for who has the most pictures with foreigners? Are they hoping that one of these foreigners turns out to be a celebrity back home? Regardless, it is harmless sport and we indulge.
The temple is closing soon and we continue the journey up into the hills, past scrub desert jungle and trees full of monkey eyes watching our little bus. We land at this jungle oasis, Aranyawas, up in these hills somewhere near Ranakpur. This must be a beautiful place in the summertime – it reminds me of camp in some ways: bonfires and a large mess hall. We celebrate Christmas Eve with dinner and secret santa and fireworks by the campfire. It is freezing. Even if there were hot water, there’s no heat (grateful for blankets!). It is so cold in the beautiful stone cottage that there’s the distinct possibility of turning into a block of ice upon turning off the shower. I will wake up smelling like a samosa.