The last 2 Christmases, I have been fortunate enough to spend at Devshree in Rajasthan. On one of these occasions we ventured down to the farm for a typical lunch cooked by the villages, the way and they cook for themselves. Okay, we had a fully set table under the trees and then cushioned charpois to laze on once replete, but the cooking was authentic. Here I introduce my first encounter with dal bati which is dal (no prizes for guessing) served with bati, yes, you don’t need a degree in rocket science to follow this one. But it was the bati part of the experience which remained etched in my memory and this is because of the way it was cooked.
Take several dried cow pats, make them into a fire. Whilst burning, make dough balls from flour and water, a little salt if available and then, once the cow pats are reduced to ash, insert dough balls into the ash, cover and leave to cook. Some time later, remove the dough balls, give them a quick dust off and hey presto (or the Rajasthani equivalent) you have bati to eat with your dal. I watched the process with some fascination, and maybe a little bit of childish squeamishness, as one would. I scratched my head a little, only hesitated briefly when asked to try it, pondered a little more and then came out with my incredibly profound reading of the situation, “So basically it’s just cow shit bread.” I’m not sure anyone thought to rush me off to Mensa as a late developing child prodigy, but Bhavna without batting an eyelid, looked at me and agreed, “Yes, I guess that sums it up quite well,” and we have, forever since, called it just that.
Now we skip forward a couple of years and some weeks ago saw me traveling through Rajasthan with a couple of friends on their first visit to the region. They had blindly put their trust in me to arrange their trip and had persuaded me to travel with them, thus, in their eyes, ensuring my best ideas and favourite destinations would come to the fore. Oh dear, my poor deluded friends. You see, if I travel these days, which we all know I do frequently, it is to discover pastures new. To my absolute and utter delight, their dates coincided with a Fair I had heard about 9 years ago but have never managed to visit. My plan was hatched, my powers of persuasion were put to the fore, they trusted me blindly. I rubbed my hands with glee. I was finally going to make it. Never mind that this would hopefully be (as I perceived and hoped) Rajasthan at its least touristy and most raw; I would look after them, they would cope, they had after all expressed their desire to discover the real India and not a glossed over and glamourised version. Who was I to refuse? (Note my accompanying evil grin)
I am not going to reveal the name of the fair, I have in my last 20 years discovered many fabulous destinations in India, only then to see the hoards descend and the destinations degenerate into the mayhem that mass tourism brings with it. The ethos and eco systems become trampled on, uncared for and destroyed, it breaks my heart what tourism actually does to a destination when greed and little planning takes over, but safe to say, it’s not Pushkar, because I refuse to go there for exactly all those reasons.
Anyhow, I digress, back to the story. After a long journey on a dreadful road, we arrived at the site of the fair. I felt a grin spread across my face, it was apparent from the word go that this was everything I hope it would be. Genuine, authentic, untouched by tourism. My friends caught onto my mood, we clambered out of the car and threw ourselves into the melee. There were horses on one side and camels on the other, as far as the eye could see. Groups of Raikas dressed in white with brilliant red turbans were huddled together close to their livestock, some snoozing some smoking chillums, some gazing at us with an idle inquisitiveness. We were the only white people there and therefore were a curiosity to these nomads who live as far removed from civilisation and the trappings of the modern world as it is possible to do. We were 3 women amongst hundreds of men and yet we felt perfectly safe.
We sauntered around, hesitantly at first, there were after all a lot of camels to negotiate, and I believe them to be bad tempered, then gradually with more confidence, taking photos and striking up conversations with the herders and traders. My friends were loving every second of it, I guess they are my friends for a reason and I was able to impart my limited knowledge to them about what was going on, some from my pre-existing limited knowledge and some from using my dreadful Hindi, with the nomads. They were surprised, then delighted and welcomed us into their fold. There was the traveling knife sharpener wala, the man who recorded the sales, the nomads, mostly illiterate, signing with thumb prints, the only shops were doing what shops used to do, providing essentials; flour, salt, tea, sugar, wood and renting blankets by the night. It was like stepping back in time, several hundred years. There were no hotels or stalls selling plastic tat, no camping stoves or swanky accommodation, in fact, there was no electricity or running water. This was Rajasthan, raw and unplugged, as natural as it gets, the eco tourism every eco warrior longs to return to, or actually, maybe not.
It was having started a chat with a guy making chai, that I started to notice the details, not just the extravaganza as a whole. He had gathered three rough rocks, had a metal pot balanced on top of them and underneath, the fire was made from camel droppings and twigs. You may be able to see where this is going. I asked them if it was camel milk chai, not my most ground-breaking of intelligent interview questions but they let me get away with it, mainly down to the fact I had asked in Hindi, it made them very forgiving. The milk had come fresh from the camel, the fire was made from camel dung, I was delighted to see that they were carrying red label tea, it is the best for chai after all. They invited me to join them and thus it was that I sampled my first camel milk chai. My friends took the more sensible approach and looked on cautiously. Chai drunk, I thanked them and moved on, before they pressed their chillums onto me.
It was then that I noticed large piles of ashes adjacent to every group of traders and nearby were pans containing red, watery dal. I became ridiculously excited and grabbed my friends. You see, seeing dal bati being cooked on a farm, albeit as authentically as it could be, didn’t quite bring home the realisation that actually this method of cooking was a necessity, not something for a tourist to look at and giggle about. This was survival, plain and simple. We were in the countryside in the middle of nowhere Rajasthan, these guys had to eat, they had to rely on the available resources, what was a readily available fuel? Yes, you guessed it, poop!
I was stupidly excited by my revelation, like I said, none of this experience highlights any degree of intelligence, but in our modern day lives, we are so far removed from the basics. I was in my element. It was time to share my excitement and Indian knowledge with the girls. I found a large pile of smoking ashes, a group of friendly nomads, a bubbling pan of daal and proceeded to instruct my friends into the delicacy that is camel rather than cow shit bread. The nomads were delighted by my knowledge and my friends’ curiosity and invited us to join them.
It was a case of, in for a penny, in for a pound. We accepted their hospitality and joined them for a traditional camel herders lunch. They dug the bread balls out of the ashes, placed them on a metal plate, added some dal and handed it over. My friends, having discretely, or so they thought, wiped off the poop ashes, loved it. They then pointed to the horse camp, “So there it is the same, but it will he horse shit bread, no?” We decided to talk our way into sampling that too, just to see if it tasted any different. To the untrained palate, I can report that it didn’t.
I figured we had then come to the end of the poop experience, we’d had chai cooked over it and bread cooked in it, but there was one more discovery to make.
Once you have eaten, you have to wash your pots right? How do you do that when there is no water for miles around? Well, you scrub them clean of course, but what with? The ashes from the fire. Yup, you clean your pots by scrubbing them with poop too. Ahh, my INDIA!
Philippa is founder of http://www.indianexperiences.com and author of Escape to India.
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