Staying on the topic of dairy (from my last post), this is the September 26 entry in my forthcoming book, Swallowing Time, Drinking History. An Almanac of the World’s Most Important Beverage.
“I’d rather see you drink a glass of wine than a glass of milk. So many people drink Coca-Cola and all these soft drinks with sugar. Some of these drinks have 8 or 9 teaspoons of sugar in them What’s the good of living if you can’t have the things that give a little enjoyment?”
– Jack LaLanne (26 September 1914 – 23 January 2011). The first American fitness and exercise expert
India is not known for its vineyards, although there is a primary grape-growing region, Nashik, a couple hundred kilometers northeast of Mumbai (Bombay). While there are about 50,586 hectares (125,000 acres) under cultivation, only one percent produce wine. There are references in the Vedic Scriptures that indicate wine-making in India is at least 5000 yeas old. I must confess, I have not tried any of the wines as Indian cuisine, in my mind and palate, does not seem to lend itself to a pairing.
What I do love after, or before, a meal – or, to be honest, anytime of the day or night, is lassi.
Lassi is a traditional Indian ‘drink’ that comes in two varieties, salted lassi and sweet lassi. Both are made of some, or all, of these ingredients: yoghurt, milk, water, and spices for the salted, or sugar for the sweet. Additionally, there may be rose water, cumin, a sprinkle of ground almonds or pistachios and mango or other fruit flavorings depending on the sort ordered. As it is served cold it is a splendid treat on a hot day. In some places it is served thick enough to eat with a spoon, in others it is more liquid and simply drunk as a beverage. I think the best is mango lassi, using fresh mangoes. I will go out on a limb and make a declarative sentence, challenging any and all comers, that the best place to get lassi is at the original Lassiwala’s (Since 1944) near the Panch Batti Mod on MI Road in India’s ‘Pink City,’ Jaipur. They filter their water so there is no danger of getting a traveller’s day of familiarity with the hotel toilet after sipping, or gulping, their specialty. In fact, it is the only thing they sell.
As one might expect, imitators have sprung up to try and sift off Lassiwala’s customers. Many of these are on the same street just a few doors away but none favorably compare. Accept no imitations! Look for the best and when you see their number, Shop 312, next to the alley and across from Niros Restaurant, duck in. (In fact, resident Indians must feel the same way; there will be lines of people awaiting their serving at Lassiwala and not a single customer at the other establishments. I haven’t had the stomach to try any of them.)
Lassiwala opens at 7:30 a.m. and serves until they run out – which can be as early as 1:00 p.m. so get there early. The shop is small, just a hole-in-the-wall, so you stand and eat on the sidewalk, fending off the occasional forlorn woman begging for a coin. The lassi is served in two sizes, small , 40 rupees and large, 60 rupees, in porous clay ‘glasses’ that you discard in the trash bin in the alley. (60 rupees is about 95 US cents at the current exchange.)
Who knew that the world of camelids, an even-toed ungulate (Artiodactyla), was so fascinating? The answer, of course, is probably a third of the world’s population what with India, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa leading the way. In 1856 thirty-four were landed in Texas at the direction of U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to become the United States Camel Corps (a draft animal!) They were to be used to settle, and subdue, the West, an experiment put paid by lobbying military mule suppliers and that bugaboo, the American Civil War. (Jeff Davis, in case you forgot, changed his allegiance.) Even with a small population these camels and their descendants (plus some privately introduced commercial stock) managed to hang on until the 20th century. Living in my state of New Mexico a young, then unknown, Douglas MacArthur heard about a wild camel wandering near Fort Selden in 1885.
Imported as work animals into central Australia in the 19th century the now-feral dromedaries in the Land Down-Under reached a population of one million. Between 2009 and 2013 an extermination program reduced that number to 300,000. These stocks are the only wild dromedaries on the planet.
The framing of the question in my opening sentence means we also have to include the southern hemisphere of the New World. Llamas, vicuñas, guanacos and alpacas are kith and kin to the standard camel most of us know – or think we know. Scientists have also created a cama, a camel-lama hybrid, using camel semen injected into a llama! They have no hump and are bigger than a llama and smaller than a camel. There was no practical purpose to this experiment, as such, more than to test if the Old World and New World denizens are, in fact, the same species.
Not more than two weeks before we left for India in February I was amused to hear that 12 contestants at the beauty contest at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rimah, Saudi Arabia had been ignominiously tossed from the competition. Owners were discovered to be cheats; their crime heinous beyond all understanding: they had been injecting their charges’ lips and eyelids with botox – yes, that’s right, the same chemical women use to enhance their looks for us menfolk, enhancing lips to bee-stung proportions and plumping up spaces to render goddess-like anatomies. Confused? Oh… did I forget to mention I am writing here of camel contestants, not the fairer sex of our own species. (I wonder if I can slightly enlarge my old camel hair overcoat with a judicious application of botox?)
If you have ever been up close and personal (OK, maybe not that personal) with a camel you will see they have lovely eyes topped with hooded, come-hither lids rimmed with long lashes. I well remember this one female in Kenya… but I digress.
In my unfolding camelid geography above I did not mean to slight the largest of the species, Camelus Ferus, the wild Bactrian, but these magnificent beasts are not found in India, the focus of this essay to which I am slowly humping. Alas, wild Bactrians are scarce on the ground in their native habitat, too. The last time I was in Mongolia’s Gobi desert I was told there were only 400 wild ones remaining.
Additionally, there is the two-humped domesticated Bactrian (C. bactrianus with a population of two million). It is it’s own species making a total of three living species under the genus Camelus. Aside from slight, invisible genetic differences with this domesticated variety, wild Bactrians are able to drink very saline winter slushies from semi-frozen Gobi salt-pans. From this they seem to suffer no ill effect and it is something their more numerous domesticated cousins cannot do. Bactrians are also one of the few animals able to eat snow to provide their water needs when liquid fresh water or salt slushies are not available. They accomplish this feat using advanced physics – the principal of latent heat, the hidden energy supplied or extracted to change the state of a substance without changing its temperature. This means heat is taken from the camel to melt the snow into water they can then utilize. It is an energy-intensive process so they eat only a little snow at a time.
With your elementary camel knowledge now in order we may proceed to the story at hand: our visit to India’s National Research Centre on Camel, Bikaner. It is a slightly awkward name, true, but it is what is on the campus signs and letterhead so I defer to the Centre’s self-identification (tho the amply represented OCD in me desperately wanted to attack the signs and paint “the” between “on” and “Camel”. My failure to muster up the courage to do so is something that will haunt the rest of my days, no matter I had no ready coloring agent left behind my ears from the Holi Festival. A writer and traveler’s life is not an easy one, fraught as it is by encounters with lapses in grammar that can tear one’s heart out. Every time I read the signs I was sure I detected a disturbance in The Force.)
Be that as it may, at NRCC, the soothing acronym for the Centre, one will learn tons about our friend, C dromedarius, the Ship of the Desert. I would bet dollars-to-donuts that most of you did not know there are four kinds of camels in Rajasthan. They roughly correspond to our more familiar Percheron or Clydesdale horse, a Ferrari, the Holstein cow and, for the sake of a one-on-one comparison, the bovine we call a Jersey. The corresponding camels are the Bikaneri, Jaisalmeri, Kachchhi and Mewari. And, by the by, there are two ‘hs’ in the third type; I am disappointed you would think I could make such an error. Perhaps we cannot be pen pals after all.
As we walked the camel world, absorbing minutiae such as a dry and thirsty camel may slurp down its 200 litres (53 gallons) in three minutes, an enormous male was indicated, standing in his outdoor stall. His legs were hobbled. Our guide said he was a particularly ornery and nasty bad boy. A big bastard he proved to be when I walked closer to take his portrait and he pivoted away facing west leaving me with only an eastern view. Several times I jockeyed for a better angle without getting too close but he deftly rotated away, giving me the stink eye as he continued to ruin a perfectly good shot. I believe I profaned god in a moment of pique.
Not being privy to the dromedary tongue, I could be wrong but I think he uttered something about Camelid Union, Local 666, suggesting he refuse to pose for the western infidel seeking to monetize his good studly looks for monetary gain that will not be shared.
As one of the Centre’s remits is the selective breeding of a number of the 314 camels currently in its care, we were fortunate to be visiting during the rut. Camels, if you must know, are the only ungulates that mate in a sitting position and the female does not ovulate until semen is present in the vagina, a sort of cart-before-the-horse-scenario. Modesty prevents me from writing more. That, plus the fact that breeding is a man-controlled affair and, darn it all, we did not actually get to view any couplings, tho you would certainly be amazed at the size and length of the extremity the young and hip would probably call a male camel’s junk.
We did get to hear many examples of the male mating call, to which the females were all ears, each pointing toward the sounds of particular males. I managed to get a recording of this remarkable sound and will try to figure out how to edit and post it in the future. It is an incredibly deep rumble that carries a great distance. The closer I stood to a braying male the more physically palpable the rumble. I was reminded of the low decibel notes of whales with their oceanic song moving through the vastness of their seas. It is said that the notes of a male singing off the coast of Maine can be picked up on the other side of the Atlantic! What I find extraordinary, and did not know until looking up camelids a moment ago to find out if I was correct in naming all seven members of the species, is that aquatic cetacea such as whales evolved from artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates, leading modern taxonomists to sometimes combine these as Cetartiodactyla. My brain leap about the power of the male camel’s voicing does, therefore, have a relationship to that of the whales. “Fascinating, Jim… highly logical.”
A male camel, let’s call him Joe for the sake of anthropomorphizing, does this auditory magic through his dulla, an inflatable sac in his throat. He projects this sac from his mouth during rut, moving air to create the sound. I did wonder why one male’s tongue looked so strange, swollen and pink lolling out the side of his mouth! The actual camel tongue is a barbarous affair able to eat leaves off acacia trees protected by two-inch thorns. They happily chew threw it all.
(Then again, as I ruminate, I realize camels are always chewing because they have cuds they regurgitate from their four-chambered stomachs. Chewing a cud puts Camel Joe on my ritually clean list as a possible meal but this is negated by the fact that his feet, thank Yahweh, are not possessed of the all-important split, or cloven, hoof. Leviticus, for us, the Chosen, is nothing if not thorough: pigs, cloven but no cud; rabbits, cud but not cloven. And so it goes. When I went to college I left these laws and crossed over to the dark side. Muslims, notably, do eat camel meat and justify it by pointing to the New Testament saying Jesus and Paul made all foods edible.)
As a keeper placed an in-hand bridle or halter, on handsome stud Joe to lead him to water, every resident in the female pen about 200 feet away, even the yearlings lying in sternal recumbency, came to rapt attention, heads and eyes moving in locked unison. Befitting his star turn, Camel Joe seemed to add a little extra oomph to his strutting pace (not trotting – look it up!); his smokin’ chance on the runway of life. With all the testosterone in the air I did not notice if the keeper actually made Joe drink, thus barring me from coining an unforgettable phrase that some long-ago sage beat me to when it comes to horses.
If you visit NRCC most of the place is off-limits as it really is a research station. But there are a few obligatory rooms of tourist merchandise facing a walkway, all watched over by a few desultory vendors. There is also a little museum and, outside the main gate, next to the admissions window, a place to buy kulfi on a stick, a frozen dairy dessert more dense and creamier than our ice cream. Here, of course, it is made from camel milk. It is divine and the serving size is on the parsimonious side. At $.77 each why not buy two! I tend to avoid dairy products in less hygienic environments (read: the countryside of India) but the NRCC runs a clean food operation. Plus camel milk can be left out without refrigeration for 8 to 9 hours without spoiling.
(The King of Legend, not General Douglas Mac)
It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The kulfi must be perfect, all the whole-long year.
Although India ought to be on the list of world cultures that one visits in a lifetime of travel, it is probably not for all travelers. Well, let me modify that with a caveat. If one includes the category of luxury travel where one essentially floats through an environment in an air-conditioned, antiseptic bubble with your personal Jeeves at the beck and call… if that is your cup of Darjeeling them yes, Incredible India may be for you, too.
One of the Must-Do’s not on my India Bucket List, however, was the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan. It draws Indian pilgrims from far and wide with a smattering of tourists thrown in (I saw one, presumably non-Indian, European while I visited.) But there are about 25,000 kabbas resident here (give or take; I saw a dead one on my exploration.)
A Wikipedia entry, taken from the Lonely Planet travel guide, explains the place best:
“Legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s stepson (or the son of one of her storytellers), drowned in a pond… while he was attempting to drink from it. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.”
Yes, you read that correctly; a kabba is a rat. Specifically, it is a member of the species Rattus rattus, the lovable black rat, every child’s idea of the perfect pet and not to be confused with its more malleable cousin, Rattus norvegicus, the brown, better known as the Norway or Sewer, rat. Everyone on the planet knows this latter beastie because it is the staple of research laboratories, pet stores and is, alas, the most successful and common mammal on the planet – with the notable exception of humans. Only Antarctica has been spared (for now).
While I was looking up at the acre of wire mesh that covers the mostly open-air compound and thinking of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, a kabba, scurrying to a destination unknown to me, ran over my right foot. This is considered especially lucky, bestowing only good things upon one so blessed. To my credit I did not scream.
I think the overhead wire mesh is to keep out the large numbers of Columbidae livia, rock doves, whose planetary feral populations have exploded. (I will go out on a limb right now and hazard that they are number three on the list of earth’s most cosmopolitan mammals.) You and I, and everyone else we know, simply call this bird a pigeon. It is a certainty that these rats-on-wings would dive in and settle down to eat the ample food stores spread around for the kabbas, for India, as elsewhere, is profoundly inundated with pigeons. The wire screen roof also keeps out India’s many birds of prey. It would be bad form to let any of the temple’s 25,ooo holy inhabitants end up as meals-that-squeals.
Naturally, there is a distinct odor to the complex, one that might charitably be called barnyardy. I suppose it is a combination of the mammal residents, the food spread around by visitors and the excrement left after the food is eaten. As if to get even for their exclusion, there is also an unfair amount of pigeon poop because the wire screening cannot, of course, keep it from dropping in to pay its respects to the unfairly favored King Rat.
As with all India’s sacred spaces, shoes are verboten! 99% of pilgrims leave theirs helter-skelter in the street-cum-public-square in front of the temple, tho there is an official concession for footwear storage just a few meters beyond. The attendants looked lonely so I used it. (No, that’s a lie: they were not lonely; so many people had looked Keenly at my sandals I was worried about some less-than-honest pilgrim waddling off in them so checked my sandals properly.) The shoe storage sits at one end of the row of kitschy concessions lining two sides of the square. All sell sweets, snacks and every tacky knick-knack known to rat-dom (don’t groan, I could have written ‘ratty’ instead of ‘tacky’.) The atmosphere would not be out of place as the Midway of a 1960s circus with touts trying to snare passers-by one and all. I, in thoughtful foresight, wore a pair of those little hospital socks with grippy pads on the soles as an ensemble with my sandals. Lord (Krishna) knows if I would have had the fortitude to cross the street and enter the temple with feet unclad by sox once I checked my Keens into official care.
On a highbrow note, there is excellent architecture to indulge in and a set of solid silver doors, even if the bulk of the temple is painted Pepto-Bismol pink. My one complaint is that the large marble lions outside really ought to have been over-sized King Rats. Attendees may cast this as a matter of little consequence; the lions are rarely visible because of the hordes of Indians who lounge over them executing self-portraits. The European visitor and myself were the only ones I saw actually taking pictures of the temple; everyone else simply used the temple and its parts as their selfie back-drop, as is the case at every other site in India. At least Karni Mata is on flat, solid ground. The railings at the battlements of forts and palaces have oftentimes been installed after someone forgets they are hundreds of meters in the air and leans back for a better facial photo extension. I am not making this up.
For you early birds Karna Mata opens at 4:00 am. It is dark then so for the squeamish maybe that would be the best time to go. As there is so much food about, and rats are easily distracted, there is ample tucker for one and all, including you, dear visitor. It is said that eating food nibbled on by the rats is a high honor. If you will, please let me know how that works out. Also let me know if you see one of the rare white rats. You guessed it: that is also an auspicious honor. In this particular quest I failed. I thought to dash out and cross the square to find a flute (probably available as one is always shown with Krishna in a playing posture) and I’m sure a pied suit could have been procured, as well. Then I came to my senses and ended this line of reverie. Who wants to end up as a fatality statistic after luring all the rats out of Karni Mata just to sight a white one?
Some of you reading this may take my tone amiss, as a bit of unenlightened, agnostic snark. Please do not interpret my remarks this way: for those who travel, if you do not go to India you will have missed a precious and wonderful chapter of the human novel!
Well, that about sums up this installment except to write that while there are many monkey temples in India, Karna Mata is unique, as far as I know. And I am satisfied to report: Been there! Done that!
(with apologies to Miss Freeman, my 8th grade English teacher, from whom I learned the proper setup of an octave and a sestet for the Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnet forms. First know the artistic rules and then feel free to break them.)
Welcome to Mother India
Wellspring of Religions galore
You’ve probably Tech-Talked to us
Way down in Bangalore
East meets West – We’ve all the Best
Paintings with Class; our Jewelry – a Blast
Music and Dance; Textiles that Prance
Stone sculptures of Schist; Ah… feelings of bliss.
But, as in any form of living thing, mi’ lad
Good lives not unalloyed with the bad
Meditate on this,
Hurriedly or at Ease:
Enter India if you Please
At some small personal Risk.
meandering & idle speculations on nothing & everything