The images are unforgettable; thick blue plaster, turquoise lattice work, red painted hand prints pressed onto walls, crimson cloth wound into turbans. Two decades after Steve McCurry captured the colours of Jodhpur, much of the blue in the Old City has drained away, replaced with prosaic yellows and pinks, or the fashionably restrained grey of unfinished stone. If you climb the winding lane up the hill to the Mehrangarh Fort, however, and look out over its monumental walls, the flat-roofed houses of the Old City still tumble like cornflowers amid rust and umber hills. No one knows why so many residents in Jodhpur took to painting their houses this particular shade. No one knows if they can be persuaded to do so again. But from here at least, with much of the concrete swell hidden from view, the moniker of Blue City is still well deserved.
The heat of Rajasthan might well be the reason this city first turned blue. Perhaps the city’s many canine inhabitants took to congregating to nap the afternoons away beneath blue-painted walls, noticing that the midday heat was a little less fierce and the dive bombing of the mosquitoes a little less ferocious. Even the wisdom of street dogs doesn’t go unheeded for long, and a cooling blue balm spread through the narrow alleys. Or was it because of the Brahmin, signalling their jealously guarded position at the top of the heap with a tide of blue? Their luck begins quite by chance with birth in a lofty station, and continues as long as others see them as dealers in good fortune. They dole it out with a whiff of incense, a timeworn ritual, and a discreet request for a healthy fee. If everyone and anyone could rub up against this luck, however, would it slowly lose its shine? A blue painted house became a sign for underdogs and untouchables to stay away, lest the luck of the whole city be jeopardised. Another explanation leads us into mythical history. In the aftermath of a celestial war, an uneasy alliance was formed. Gods and demons joined forces to churn the Ocean of Milk to obtain amrita, the nectar of immortality. Instead, they inadvertently let loose the deadliest poison in creation. In the growing mayhem, Brahma whispered in Shiva’s ear that he alone could halt the eventual annihilation of the entire universe. He paused in his dance and drank the venom down. A blue stain spread from lips to cheeks, from cheeks to neck. His wife Pārvatī gripped his throat in alarm, halting the poison in its tracks. In an act of gratitude to a great sacrifice, the citizens painted their houses in honour of Nīlakaṇṭha – the Blue Throated One.