Two thoughts ran through my mind as we moved closer to the elephant platform in Amer, just outside the Rajasthan capital of Jaipur: 1) Wow, these elephants are HUGE!; and 2) Am I crazy to let my children do this?
Maternal instincts finally kicking in, I looked frantically at Rory, Robin and Rachel (ages 16, 14 and 8) who were atop their own elephant ahead of Brian and I. We were part of a slow, giant human-elephant procession making its way up a steep stone path to a famous fort perched on a hill.
What am I doing allowing them to ride these humongous pachyderms? I questioned myself silently. It was obviously too late for such hand-wringing, so I tried to steady my trembling. I could, at least, take a picture of our beloved three children before the mad elephant attack began.
I apologize; my brain really does think that way. The funny thing was, I’ve always loved elephants. They look so wise and placid on nature shows, and they display such human behavior in rearing their young.
But in India, the newspapers have carried stories of elephant attacks just since we’ve been here in the last six months. And, I’d never actually climbed on top of one before. Up close, they are gigantic.
Behind me in the elephant seat, hubby Brian provided a running commentary about how fun this was and could I believe we were actually doing this and isn’t this cool? I heard my own voice answer him through a constricted throat. “Yep, yep, sure is fun….You don’t suppose that elephant will suddenly go berserk and grab one of our children with its trunk, do you?”
To get myself into a more positive frame of mind, I began asking the mahout some questions. He was sitting right behind the elephant’s massive head, on its neck. How old is this elephant? Is it male or female? Does it have a name? What do you feed them? Are they quite tame?
The man’s English was pretty good. He told me the elephant’s name was Rani, she was 45-years-old and gentle. He said three other elephants making the trek up to the fort were her babies.
I felt my body ease a bit. A mother, and about my age, too! (OK, younger.) She couldn’t be that bad.
“Which ones are her babies?” I asked. He pointed one out ahead of us. Somehow, just knowing that Rani was an old mom calmed me down.
I kept asking him questions and found out that they limit each elephant’s treks up to the fort to three times per day, and they stop completely in the afternoon when it’s hot. In the mornings, when it’s relatively cool, they take the elephants to Maota Lake, below the fort, where the pachyderms bathe, drink and swim. Then they lead them there again at the end of the day for another session in the lake.
A little more tension drained away. They treat the elephants well, I thought. Should make for happy elephants. I held my phone, steady this time, and snapped a few more photos.
Then I found myself talking to Rani directly. “Oh, Rani, you’re such a sweet girl. Where are your babies?” Rani kept climbing, her ears flapping back and forth. The mahout told me to sit back as I was leaning too far forward.
Before I knew it, we were at the main gate of the fort, known as the Sun Gate. The mahout led us into a large courtyard called Jaleb Chowk. All the elephants slowly moved in and lined up against tall platforms to let off their passengers. For some strange reason the mahout, who carried a stick, began hitting Rani on the head with it! I saw others doing the same thing.
As we got off, I asked our mahout if I could pet Rani. He answered with the signature form of non-verbal communication in India—the ear-to-shoulder shake of the head.
I reached up toward the top of Rani’s great noggin. Her gray, wrinkly skin felt tough and thick. Coarse black hairs poked my hand. She turned slightly toward me and I saw long eyelashes. I pet her as long as the mahout would let me, then he took off, Rani swaying gently side to side back toward the Sun Gate.
So began our first morning in Jaipur, the capital of the princely state of Rajasthan in northwest India. Rajasthan borders Pakistan and contains is the desolate Thar Desert, a couple of tiger preserves, Mount Abu and numerous palaces and forts from the royal days of old.
From the 8th to 12th centuries AD, Rajasthan was ruled by royal families called the Rajputs, or Maharajas. Muslim invaders came in during what’s known as the medieval period, with the great Mughal emperor Akbar taking over and controlling a large part of the area. Eventually the Mughal rule went into decline, providing a ripe opportunity for the British to seize control in the 1800s.
My attention now on the fort and not elephants, I was struck at how well-preserved the entire complex is today. This is likely why it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in India. We saw more white people, more Europeans and westerners, than we have since living here. Most of them were speaking German, French and other languages but there was English too.
One lady, queuing for a photo outside the private palace’s main entrance known as the Ganesh Pol, stumbled into Rory and almost fell off the high platform had it not been for Rory’s quick action in grabbing her.
Our guide told us Raja Man Singh I built the palace and fort in 1592, with major additions built onto it by Sawai Jai Singh. The fort protects a complex of palaces, including one known as the Sheesh Mahal, or Mirror Palace, in which millions of tiny mirrors encrust the walls and ceilings.
Another palace, known as the Sukh Niwas, was the spot where the royals would spend their time during the height of summer. It featured an ancient A/C system with shallow water streams running right through the structure, including waterfalls that would cascade down the walls to cool things off.
The views from Amber Fort (also called Amer Fort) were most impressive, with a long wall around the old city of Amer to keep invaders out. “That would be really cool to hike that wall,” Brian commented.
Later that evening we visited the Jal Mahal, or lake palace, not too far away. This was another summer palace the royal families also used to escape the heat. They built it in the middle of a valley, then built a dam and created the artificial lake around it.
We timed the visit perfectly, with the sun setting and golden light hitting the landscape dramatically. While the usual trash that’s so common in India lined the lakeside, it did appear to have some fish living in it. A number of birds also flew about.
Jaipur also is famous for its blue stone pottery. Always the shopper, I dragged my family to a pottery shop that night after sunset. I bought some tiles for a future bathroom project as well as a gorgeous hand-painted plate with India’s state bird, the peacock. The kids bought some things for themselves and friends, while Brian impatiently tried to get us out the door.
That night, at a rooftop bar of our restaurant, we had some drinks and watched the chaos of fireworks blasting off throughout the city during the Diwali celebrations. Earlier in the day, a group of revelers set off so many fireworks on the sidewalk outside our hotel that a hunk of cardboard from one came flying by and hit my shin, causing me to jump back. “Shrapnel!” I said. “I’ve been hit by shrapnel!”
We’ve done our share of fireworks on occasions like the Fourth of July in Juneau or New Year’s Eve in Fairbanks, but Alaskans have nothing on Indians when it comes to loud pyrotechnics. Here, people set them off for nearly any and every celebratory occasion—birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, religious festivals, you name it. But during Diwali especially, fireworks and firecrackers go off all throughout the night. I’m actually surprised we were able to sleep on our trip.
On the roof top, a young man came over and generously gave us a couple of bottle rockets (maybe he thought we’d never seen fireworks before). Like locals, we set them off right from our table.
Unfortunately, a spark burned Rachel’s little hand and another melted a hole in Brian’s lightweight REI hiking pants.
Ah, well. Call them unexpected souvenirs that money can’t buy–and all part of the experience that is India!