Visit to Rajasthan 1 - Trip from Delhi to Jaipur
Visit to Rajasthan -- July 1997
Part 1: Trip from Delhi to Jaipur
"The Smell of the Earth"
On July 17th I landed in New Delhi to begin the fifth phase of exploring India's aromatic traditions. Each trip to this point has been filled with numerous interesting discoveries and I knew in my heart that this would be no exception. By previous arrangement, I was to be picked up at the airport by the man who has been my guide, friend and fragrance mentor, Mr. Ramakant Harlalka of Bombay, and our journey was to take us to the state of Rajasthan to explore that region and see what we could discover about the areas aromatic plants and the uses to which they have been put throughout the ages. We were also interested in locating a miniature painting artist for which Rajasthan is famous as we want to enlist his or her aid in creating images that will capture the spirit of the many forms in which fragrant plants have been used to enrich the life of India's people.
After clearing customs I emerged into the furnace blast heat of the pre-monsoon season of North India. Rains had been moving across most of the country but had not yet fallen in New Delhi and into Rajasthan so it was a bit on the hot side but I was so pleased to be beginning another aromatic expedition that I did not pay much heed to the weather. After a few minutes Ramakant appeared with the car that had been hired to take us on our journey and we immediately proceeded to Jaipur, a six hour ride from the airport. Within a very short time we left the city limits and passed into the countryside.
The road to Jaipur was incredibly smooth, a nice change from some of the previous roads we had traveled on in rural India. Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi are part of the Golden Triangle which forms one of the most popular tourist destinations to India, so apparently government officials have seen the wisdom of keeping the roads in good repair. As we moved deeper into the countryside one could feel how the earth was calling for the rain to come and fill the land with life and vitality. The farmers had been plowing their fields so that when the first life giving rains came, the rain could easily penetrate into the soil. This is a very exciting time of year as the farming community waits with great anxiety for the coming of the monsoon. Great improvements have been made in India with regards to water supplies from irrigation canals and tube wells but still, much of the country depends on natural rainfall for growing the many crops that provide the necessities of life.
One of the really intoxicating smells that one experiences when the first rains come is that of the parched earth when it receives the first drops of water. This aroma is dear to the Indian people and in some past time the perfumers of Kannauj discovered that they could duplicate this smell by a special hydro-distillation process. In this process, earth is collected from special locations, especially dried up ponds or wells and is made into small earthen vessels which are then half baked and dried. These vessels are then cracked into large pieces and loaded into a copper still into which water has not yet been charged. The still is then hooked up to the receiver via a bamboo pipe. Only at the last minute is the water poured into the still via a small whole in the top as the most valuable aromatic molecules of the clay vessels are released as soon as they come in contact with water. These valuable molecules are then captured by the sandalwood contained in the receiver. Gentle heat is applied to the still for about 2 hours to fully exhaust any aromatic principles contained in the clay. The receivers are then allowed to cool and the water is separated from the oil by manual syphoning. This process is repeated 20 times so that the sandalwood oil becomes saturated with the fragrance of the earth. This is called as Mitti Attar. Perfumers of Kannauj have found that the odor of Mitti Attar varies according to the place from the earth was excavated. This fragrance is highly valued for the aesthetic pleasure it gives of recalling the smell of the falling of the first monsoon rains. One of its most interesting traditional uses is it gives relief to the various aches and pains which pregnant women suffer. The aroma seems to soothe and calm the body during this critical time. It is thought that since its aroma is the essence of the earth it calms the child in the womb as it is about to take birth on the physical plane.
One of the explanations that has been propounded for this aroma is that the earth contains many bacteria which only become fully active when in the presence of water. As soon as the rain hits the parched earth they are activated and the aroma arises from this intense activity. It is as if they are, in their own way giving thanks to the blessing of the rain in the form of the exquisite aroma they give off.
Even though the weather was hot people were moving through the land engaged in the various tasks which make up the rhythm and flow of their simple and beautiful life styles. It is difficult for most of us with all the modern technology at our fingertips to grasp how the seemingly mundane lives of these farming people could be interesting and fulfilling but a little deeper look into the subject will show one that to really live in harmony with the land requires knowledge and wisdom of the highest sort. Almost every necessity of life is obtained directly from the environment and the gentleness with which they live on the land is to be admired. Relationships with family and the community is close and the respect for all non-human forms of life is profound. Throughout the year their are numerous festivals and religious occasions in which the people join together to celebrate the richness and beauty of life based on their direct experience of it and they could do this at little cost and with genuine deep feeling. I think we can learn much from their simplicity, honesty and hard work ethic.
What is most amazing is to see how much agricultural activity is going on in these rather arid regions. The farmers of the state have been careful to cultivate one of their greatest natural resources, trees, and they are to be seen growing in great abundance throughout the length and breadth of the state as our tour through the countryside was to prove.. Fruit, grain and vegetable crops were being grown in variety and abundance and it was a total delight to see how the land was covered with healthy vegetation.
At one place we ventured off the main road to visit the ashram of a venerated Indian saint who has been instrumental in revitalizing the ancient spiritual practice of performing the "yagna". There are many dimensions to this practice which I have written about in previous journals. In this great religious ceremony many aromatic raw materials are burned in open fire pits of specific designs to purify the atmosphere, to promote good health, etc. Of course on a deeper level, these outer ceremonies are meant to teach people the need for purifying the heart and mind so that the spirit can establish a direct contact with the Hidden Source of Life. Almost each and every outer rite or ritual that was established in ancient India had a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual reason behind it and a human was only considered balanced and truly healthy when all four components were aligned. These rites and rituals were not meant to be an end in themselves but were developed to purify the five senses of touch, smell, sight, audition and taste so that they would have an inner orientation rather than and external one. Of these five senses the sense of smell was considered the best doorway into the conscious and subconscious mind and because of this the aromatic sciences developed to a very high degree. The sages noted that the way in which each of the organs of sense, i.e. eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, etc were placed on the body was highly significant and that the nose was at the very center of the head was a clear indication that the sense of smell played a vital role in connecting the attention with the spiritual realm.. That is why they developed a profound knowledge of aromatic plants and the many uses to which they could be put.
Those who earnestly wish to experience the real India can best do so in an undiluted form, by traveling off the main roads into the countryside where the people live little influenced by the modern world. This is what I call the "hidden India". It is not an easy world to enter without a guide because it is so different from anything with which we are familiar but it but it is the place where one draws close to the lives of the people and the values they hold. Once can, no doubt, learn a lot from visiting the museums, palaces, temples, forts, etc. but it is one step removed from the actual experience of the lives of the people. Just the slightest taste of this powerful life force is enough to initiate an entire transformation of ones thinking process.
At the ashram of Sri Narayan Das, we visited the temple and various building were people were engaged in their devotional practices. We were also allowed to visit the place in which the cows were kept. I really enjoyed this part of our stay. In this atmosphere the animals live without any fear of being slaughtered and their eyes are filled with a warmth and trust that is beautiful to behold. Their is a distinct odor which they give off which I can only describe as fresh and wholesome. It brought me back to the wonderful period of my life when I lived on a small farm in South India from 1971-1976. With regards to this type of odor it is worth mentioning that the Indian sages have often mentioned that each positive or negative quality has its own odor. That is to say that contentment, wisdom, love, compassion, etc. each have their own odors as do fear, anger, hatred, jealously, etc. I have in my readings come across these references time and again, but I have never found any one place in which this subject has been thoroughly discussed. It forms one more interesting avenue of exploration for the future.
As afternoon advanced into evening the air cooled making our journey even more enjoyable. We reached Jaipur about 8:00 and proceeded to our hotel. After bathing and washing off the dust of the journey we walked to a main shopping area near the hotel to have our dinner. Eating in a local Indian restaurant is a fine way to become acquainted with regional cuisine. Very seldom can you get the actual taste of the region by eating at a expensive hotel. A lot of those foods are generic or very rich whereas "street" food is tasty, nutritious, and authentic. Such eateries are definitely short on exotic atmosphere in terms of music, decorations etc. but long on serious eating. It is not advisable for a foreigner to drink the water served but now bottled water is readily available and every restaurant can get it. Such places are filled with lively activity as people come and go, waiters move about from table to table dishing up the scrumptious fare, smells from the kitchen waft out into the dining room etc. One finds a delightful aromatic nasal banquet in such places as numerous spices are combined in unique ways to lend subtle variations of taste to the numerous dishes served. In India ones nose gets educated from a wide range of sources. After enjoying our dinner we went to a roadside sweet stand and ordered a glass of warm fresh milk spiced with saffron and cardamom. Sitting on a bench right on the street I drank in the life around me. I must confess I love the simple rural life styles a lot better but the plight of many Indians is tied up with the city and even in these crowded localities one can learn a lot about the ingenuity, diversity, and vitality of the Indian people. A relaxing walk back to the hotel and further conversations about India's wealth of aromatic traditions concluded our day.