MARC LECUREUIL: Rajasthan
Photographer Marc Lecureuil shares his personal diary from his remarkable trip through India with the Relief Riders.
Departure from LA. After an exhausting trip, I land in New Delhi early in the morning of October 1st. I am picked up from the airport and taken to the Imperial hotel by the elegant and soft-spoken, Vikken. Faded prints and paintings of Maharajas ornate the walls of the Palace and recall the glory of a not so distant past. I roam the hotel’s corridors. The refined allure of the personnel with their impeccable/seamless red outfits remind me of the colonial era.
The Relief Riders’ group meet early in the morning to leave for Dunlod, an ancient military fort; and later we will visit Maharaja Kanwar Raghuvendra Singh Dunlod’s old house. The town of Dunlod is 250 years old; the fort was built in 1750. This will be our first stop on this Rajasthan journey.
After a 6-hour bus ride, we finally arrive.
The beats of Banwari echo in the courtyard of Dunlod. As I watch the blind man playing the local drum, his lifeless eyes seem to be staring beyond the fort’s walls. Two horsemen frame the stairs leading to the main building. The Indian war-horses that the group will be riding on for the next two weeks are a Marwari breed. Alex, the founder of Relief Riders appears with majesty and comes to greet us.
There is a magical atmosphere in Dunlod. Its faded walls have a saffron color. The old tapestry and refined furniture glow in the radiance of this late afternoon. The depth of this moment/image sinks in me. I realize that this will be a poetic journey.
Soon after, we see the horses and go for our first ride in the fields close to the fort. At this time of the day, the light is made gold. We ride until darkness. After our return, we have dinner on the rooftop with the refined owner of the place, Harnath Singh.
I am awakened at sunrise by the hypnotic and incessant melody of Dunlod’s muezzin. “Allah O’Akbar” resonates across the sleeping town. In the morning, the group meets to organize the distribution of goats to the poorest families in the area. This is a joyful moment.
At the end of the day, I go on to explore the town with Bin, our local guide. The beauty of some of the village buildings fascinates me. Despite their legendary shyness, most of the women let me take their portraits. Their multicolored saris shimmer in the soft light. We have dinner in the courtyard of the wing anciently dedicated to women. Bin offers me to have a tea at his house. I meet his family; he tells me that there are about 20 children including his and his brother’s children. In India, often, large families live together.
The children are very curious and excited by my presence. Bianca, one of Bin’s little daughters has a mischievous smile. Her hazelnut-colored eyes are following my every move. She is an absolute beauty.
We leave early in the morning for the first camp of this trip; we go across areas. Peasants are working in the field in the striking heat. We come across dozens of children on their way to school. They wear white or blue outfits, depending on their schools’ status; public vs. private. Intrigued by our presence, they follow us for a moment at a small distance and carry on cheerfully.
The group of riders stop in the late morning looking for an open shade where horses and men can rest and escape the heavy heat of the afternoon.
We finally find a field with a couple of tall trees that will be our home for the next couple of hours. As I wake up from a short nap, I notice a house not far from us. As I approach the building, an old man calls me. Curious about my camera, he asks me to take his portrait. Soon after, he invites me to take a look at his home. Behind the door, three women in saris stand still, staring at me. Scrutinizing me. They have a defying and dignified expression. Their father invites me to take their portrait; it’s a beautiful moment.
We arrive later in the day to Khirod. About 10 sand colored tents/yurts have been set up. This comfort is a really nice surprise. I finally catch up with sleep, with the efficient help of a couple rum and sodas.
Awakened at sunrise; I contemplate the tents shinning in those early hours. The group rides to the tent of Khirod. There we meet Dr. VK Gupta, the surgeon who will perform the eye surgeries. It’s a very simple procedure, a few minutes of surgery will be enough for Dr. Gupta to cut and take out the membrane blocking the patient’s sight. It’s very touching to be able to help people recover their vision. Most of these people are extremely poor and come from all over the region.
The group starts organizing the logistics as to most efficiently serve the patients and support the surgeon. A colorful crowd awaits us; about 500 people, they are all hoping to get treatment, but only the pre-surgery quick test will reveal who can or cannot have surgery. The excitement is palpable and soon chaos will follow. After three harassing hours, the team gets a moment of rest. We lunch in silence.
As we leave the facility, the surgeon starts performing the procedure. He will end his day at 2:00 AM. We savor the last hours; it’s much cooler now.
We leave the camp of Khirod today for the monastery of Lohargal. During the three hours of riding through the rural areas of Rajasthan, the contrast between surrounding poverty and the numerous smiles we come across are poignant.
The multicolored saris of the women working the fields are magnificent and brighten the dryness of the earth. Dr Vinoy (Alex’s right-hand man), one of the smiling pillars of our enterprise, and I are conversing about Indian spirituality. I am fascinated by the depth and complexity of this culture and its mystic. The monastery is a halt for pilgrims coming to Lohargal.
There are about 25 temples in the vicinity; the edifices stand at the foot of a mountain. A tiny, lone temple glows at the top of the mountain. The only way up is a five-hour steep hike. I wonder how/what life is for the monk living in this place. We organize a photo session at the end of the day with Alex and the group riding in the desert. On our way back, three of us (Robert, Bin and I) stop by one of the oldest monuments that can be found in India. As I walk down the steps of this three-story deep well, I feel a very particular energy reverberating through the pillars holding the structure. It’s a bit chilling but also filled with harmony. It’s now twilight. Deep below, the inaccessible bottom of the well, resembles a black hole. I sense its strong magnetism. I take a few more pictures and decide to get back to light.
This morning we visit a school where well-mannered children in their blue uniforms welcome us with dances and songs in the dirt of their schoolyard.
Later that day we get back to meet the people that had surgery the day before. It’s a very moving moment for the group. Sal’s eyes are tearful as we face an “ubuesque” scene of about 100 people. All of them have bandages covering their healing eye: only one eye could be operated on because of timing, the healing process, and money, of course. It’s quite amazing to think that all those people couldn’t see at all yesterday. Wendy tells me about the joy that radiates from all the people that she greets. Soon her emotions are over; I have no more tears left in my body.
We move on to a second school to distribute school supplies. Once again, songs and dances welcome us, and this school is worse than the one we just visited.
We decide to visit the temple in the village of Lohargal. The place is picturesque and its people overwhelm me. Pilgrims strike the sacred bell on the balcony overlooking the jheel. After walking up the stairs, I look upon a biblical scene: a guru is offering his blessings to a family. Crawling giant bees and wasps guard the sacred altar nearby. It’s necessary to step among them in order to get by to see one of Hindu’s most revered places. I see the silhouette of thousands of bats guarding the entrance of the small grotto.
We come back to the monastery at the end of the day, exhausted, but peaceful.
We depart Lohargal for the longest ride of the trip. We arrive about eight hours later. I photograph riders as they come out of the camp and through the street of the town. Smiles greet us everywhere.
We arrive at the end of the day in the camp of Kochor. We are surrounded: a dry lake and a low mountain underlining the horizon. As the sunset sets behind them, we pass by a house. A group of men are conversing in front of the entrance. A silhouette of a yogi holding a lotus pose is on the rooftop, contemplating the red ball disappearing behind the mountain. The sky and the building are engulfed in a deep orange flare. It’s a moment of great beauty. Rushing to get to camp before total darkness, I don’t take any photographs… I will regret it bitterly. I will carry this feeling for the rest of the trip. I, again, came to the conclusion that you have to experience the moment in order to recognize and capture its essence later.
The tents in Kochor look like Mongolian yurts, we spend the evening with the group chatting and enjoying the well sorted bar.
We leave for the town of Kochor to distribute school supplies. I am again submerged by emotion at the sight of these well-mannered kids sitting side by side in their white uniforms. The same ritual of joyful dances and chants greets us. In a corner, Alex, surrounded by children, rehearses a familiar 2006 World Cup tune with them. The children sing along “Zidane il a marqué…Zidane il a marqué” for our great pleasure.
We distribute supplies today to 500 kids. There will be another distribution later on this afternoon to a smaller and poorer school. The teacher has the beautiful piercing green eyes of people of Kashmir.
On our way back, we come across a herd of sheep and their shepherd. They are walking toward us; the sun behind them gives the sight a mystical atmosphere. As he passes me, the shepherd asks me to stop taking photographs: ”Your machine is stealing my soul,” he says. I comply with a smile.
At twilight, Chris plays a cricket game with the support crew. As we relax around a bonfire, a troupe of dancers and musicians emerges from darkness. The dancers are wearing traditional gypsy outfits ornate with colorful, rich fabrics and silver coins. They swirl and sway to the beats of the tables. A flamethrower illuminates the night with his incandescent curls. The scene is hypnotic and magical. We are in the birthplace of the gypsy culture.
As we enter the town of Kochor mid-morning that day, we know little about the day ahead of us. Near the center of town, Relief Riders has organized a camp where multiple doctoral services will be provided freely to the local population. Alex looks at me, a little worried. Only a few people are gathered in the shade provided by large hanging fabrics in front of the building where the patients will be able to benefit from various services, such as gynecology, dentistry, eye exam, free prescriptions… the group starts organizing the camp, its logistics, as the doctors start their consultation.
Alex’s little worry is short lived, as a couple of hours later we are all frantic. The crowd keeps growing bigger by the minute it seems. Focused, we continue dispensing help to the patients and doctors in the camp, now on the brink of chaos. Lois, Kirsty and Doc Vinoy fill the prescriptions. Wendy and Sal are registering patients. Chris, helped by local boy scouts, stands at the door of the building, dispatching patients to the appropriate services. Robert handles communication between all services. I alternatively take photographs and help Chris. As I take a quick pause, I am surprised to find three relaxed gentlemen enjoying tea in the garden hidden behind the camp. “Local politicians,” someone mentions. They will spend the day on their quiet island.
As for the group, everyone stays at their respective workstation throughout the day barely finding time to eat, assailed by a constant flow of poor people in need. We see and treat about 850 patients that day, breaking the Red Cross record of patients serviced in a day. Exhausted and fulfilled, we leave the camp accompanied by the greetings of all the people that helped us and that we come across.
Everyone is resting this morning. We leave for Danta in the early afternoon. The ride will take us five hours. We arrive in the little town at 7:00 PM. The streets are dark and busy with frantic activity. It’s a weird feeling after spending a few days in the lone desert landscapes of Kochor. I feel as if I just arrived in the middle of Times Square on horseback. Danta is similar to Dunlod without the military past. Soon the songs of Dada, our host and Bin’s, echo through the walls of the town. The old Indian love songs often describe old love and ancient wars.
We start the day with distribution of goats in the small village. We then proceed to distribute more school supplies to a small local school chosen by our host. Completely exhausted, I find refuge in the jeep for a quick nap. My mind rambles in the shade of the oxygen tree. My day ends there, I have no strength left.
Awakened at the end of the day, I wander in the village streets with my camera. Silhouettes cut the night, faint light lights up the local small shops. Intrigued by my presence and by the camera, a group of Muslim kids start following me around, trying to communicate. They are very excited and curious about, of all things, my camera and me. Soon, as the group gets larger, I can’t move around. I decide to retreat to Dada’s house. My large and joyful escort accompanies me to the entrance and then disappears in the night.
We ride through the streets of Danta on our way to Pachar. I am amazed to see the horses so docile in the town’s already busy streets. We get to Pachar in the late morning. The high temperatures make us look forward to finding shade. It’s a magnificent building, much smaller than Dunlod or Danta. It’s extremely charming with its pastel drawings. We dance that night to the tune of a local band. It’s a beautiful and relaxing evening for everyone.
The next day, we leave for Jaipur where we will spend the night before getting on our way to New Delhi. The bus ride to New Delhi is a quintessential experience because of the chaos of Indian traffic. Arriving late to the airport, the group separates quickly to catch their planes. It’s probably best, as long good byes would have been harder…
I have two more weeks to go and that thought fills me with happiness.
OUTRO: The reconciliation of differences
I have always been intimidated by India; maybe it’s the sheer size of the world’s largest democracy, maybe it’s the heterogeneity of its population. Maybe it’s the religious and very conservative nature of its society. Maybe it’s the well-documented, horrendous poverty of the country, or the medieval nature of its cast system with its sub-human untouchables.
For the same reasons, it is also a culture/civilization that I have always been most intrigued by. I was hoping for this opportunity, which allowed me to explore various facets of this society.
Growing up in France, I was never in touch with Indian culture. This journey, which has attracted occidentals since the days of Hannibal, was an apnee dive with hardly any points of reference, with regards to architecture, authors, fashion… and traffic. The first part of my trip in the rural areas of Rajasthan was very intimate in the sense that we had a strong connection with the people that we came across and the situations we faced.
This journey in India as a whole lifted my spirit, as it was very comforting to see a society where people from different ethnicities, with different religious beliefs, are able to live together in relative harmony.
It was very uplifting to see people from different communities interacting, mingling, curious and aware of each other. The Indian people I came across during this journey were all very proud of the cosmopolitanism of their society. It was fascinating to experience such cultural density. I was touched to witness in the same week Aid El Fitr, the end of Ramadan in Kerala and the celebration of Diwalli in Orissa. It was inspiring to see the respect showed to their neighbors. In Kerala, I visited a mosque, a synagogue, a church and countless Hindu temples.
The sight of all these muslin families celebrating Aid El Fitr, the end of Ramadan, converging to the waters of Fort Cochin was an unforgettable moment as it deepened my hope that understanding and respect of the others’ culture will prevail.
“L’Inde est magnetique.”
Images by Marc Lecureuil.