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2011 Biking Rajasthan

Rajasthan highlights: 1 December 2011 through 14 January 2012

History

India’s history begins 50 million years ago when a large chunk of land broke away from its home in the southern hemisphere and meandered north until it collided with the Asian continent, creating the subcontinent of India and a ring of protective mountains. India continues to drift north, raising Mount Everest by 1cm each year.

The subcontinent, comprising modern day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, was named after the Indus River, which today flows mainly in Pakistan. The Indus River valley civilization flourished for 1000 years from around 2500BC. It traded with the great civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and to date its language has still not been deciphered.

Despite the half-circle of mountains that cap the subcontinent, India’s past is littered with immigrations, invasions and trade relations. The Mughal invaders of the mid-1500s, for example, brought architecture, art, war and Islam to primarily Hindu India. The British, in the guise of the East India Company, first “occupied” India around 1600 through trading posts and agreements with local rulers. In 1858 the East India Company was abolished and India placed under Crown rule. It was the British who united for the first time the whole of the subcontinent and mapped its borders.

At independence in 1947, predominantly Muslim Pakistan (in two sections separated by 1600km of Indian territory) split from predominantly Hindu India. Around 12 million people opted to move from one country to the other. During the two-way migration, incomprehensible violence and brutality cost an estimated two million refugees their lives. In 1971, east Pakistan fought a bloody war of independence which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.

Rajasthan

In the mid-1800s, when the British colonised India, approximately one third of its landmass was ruled by around 600 princes. The British opted to leave the bulk of these princely states to govern themselves – provided they “behaved”.

Rajasthani princes were called “Maharaja” or “great king”. They were a warrior class similar to the knights of Europe, and believed wholeheartedly in the concept of “death before dishonour”. During successive immigrations and invasions they managed often to maintain their independence, but were sometimes defeated, and sometimes incorporated into larger reigning powers. In between, they fought each other. It was under the British, who to a large extent ended internecine war, that the Maharajas grew really rich.

When India claimed her independence from Britain in 1947, the Maharajas were stripped of their independent powers and domains, but were paid a “privy purse” by the state and allowed to keep their titles and property, a right enshrined in the Constitution. When Indira Ghandi in the early-1970s changed the Constitution and abolished the privy purse, many maharajas went bankrupt, some entered politics or private business, others converted their palaces into luxury hotels. Some still perform ceremonial tasks, act as community leaders and arbitrators in clan disputes, and are viewed as royalty by ordinary people.

Rajasthan is one of 28 Indian states, and the largest by area. It lies west of Delhi and east of Pakistan, with whom it shares a border. It is cut in two by the Aravelli hills, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, which run from the southwest to the northeast. It is an arid state, the northwest lying partially in the Thar Desert. In the summer, temperatures sore to over 50 degrees; in the winter, we were more often cold than hot.

Charl and I had planned to cycle 2,000km; in the end we managed only 1,600km.

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