25 Feb-8 Mar 2004
I have been putting off writing about my travels because there is so much to tell and I knew it would take quite some time. I decided to break it down so it didn’t feel so daunting. I will write about the first part of the trip here—Rajasthan. ---Just a sidenote-my digital camera stopped working in the middle of the trip so some of the photos here are scans of regular photos (also because some of the photos are from my Mitali’s bunch). The shop that does it doesn’t do such a great job so I hope they come out okay on the website)
As I mentioned, I went with my roommates, Lizzy and Mitali, up north to visit the “Land of Princes.” Rajasthan is in the northwest of India and borders Pakistan. Each city seems to have been the seat of power at one point or another of one of the different kingdoms. Maharajas of the Marwars, the Mewars (do they have to have names that are so similar?) and the like ruled this land and made it famous for its romantic history filled with battles, beauties, jewels and jauhar (mass suicide as a form of “death before dishonor”). All of the intrigue occurring in the midst of forts, palaces and the dry lands of the region (including the Thar Desert). Rajasthan is also one of the most colorful areas in India with hot pink turbans (who said real men don’t wear pink?), bright red tie-dyed dupattas and a rainbow of colorful sarees adorning the people with chiseled faces, bejeweled bodies and beautiful smiles. It is also a treasure chest of crafts galore including puppets, silver enamel painted jewelry, bangles, antique wooden decorated boxes and the famous Indian miniature painting. We managed to see all of the above --and then some.
First we went to Udaipur, which is famous for its beautiful Lake Palace (now a Taj Hotel). It is also known for the James Bond film, “Octopussy,” which was filmed there. Every other restaurant (which cater to backpackers) has a showing of the film each night. I didn’t get to catch it though, so I will have to re-watch some other time.
It is also known for Indian miniatures, which abound from every corner. Miniatures are those very detailed paintings that are often thought of from the Mughal times in India, but there are actually many different schools. They originated as illustrations of texts so the very, very old ones are found on long, very narrow scrolls. I am not that familiar with the styles or their history so can’t really give any more detail. I do know that you can find many with Hindu themes as well, including love scenes with Krishna and Radha. The maharajas had court artists who painted court scenes, hunting scenes, religious scenes and portraits. I even got one artist to paint a Ganesh (my favorite god—although I am also loving Durga these days) on my fingernail. Here he is painting:
Here is the masterpiece:
On the first day we were there, after going to the City Palace, shopping a little, getting calling cards made (what?! Why we had to do that there when we could have had them done for the past 3 months in Bangalore is a mystery. We were making fun of ourselves immensely for that. My only excuse is that the place where we were staying, besides being a hotel and a studio for the owner (a painter of miniatures), made silk-bound journals using old sarees for the covers and hand made paper for the contents. We used this paper for our cards.), and going to a folk art museum, we took a late afternoon boat ride to a palace on one of the islands on the lake (not the Lake Palace, but another one). As we got on the boat we noticed this woman with cool shoes and a cool shawl boarding another boat. I got a look at her face and was stunned because she was so beautiful. I turned to this guide sitting behind me and said, “Isn’t she beautiful?” He replied that she was Raveena Tundar. What luck! We had been told that we were a few days late for a famous wedding that occurred in Udaipur. Raveena Tundar is an actress in India and she was the bride. She must have stayed some extra days to relax and we coincidently were going out on the lake at the same time as her. A star sighting—very exciting. Here are some photos from that trip to that island.
The city palace at night
As mentioned, the Lake Palace is a famous locale in Udaipur. Here is a photo of it from our room.
We went there on our last night in Udaipur for the fancy all-you-can-eat buffet. It was pricey, but a hell of a lot cheaper then staying there, and we figured we would splurge. Well, I am sure that the people working there thought we hadn’t eaten for a week and were not planning to eat for a week after that. Let’s just say that we got our money’s worth. Hahaha. Here is a photo of us, but it was supposed show all of the plates we had (including the extra bowl of olives, ice cream, bread, grated cheese, whipped cream, sauce—okay, okay, I am slightly exaggerating) asked for.
We decided that Mitali has to get married there so that we can come back to India for sure and get to stay at the Lake Palace. Hehehe. The only problem is that they can really only accommodate an event of 100 people-- just not going to happen for an Indian wedding. Shoot! I haven’t given up hope for Mitali yet though. I said she can have one of the sixty events leading up to the wedding there (by the way, did I tell you that Mitali is not engaged? Doesn’t even have a beau—this is all just fantasy). We got a tour from the guy who runs the hotel. Guess what? He is another Guju (that is Gujarati—someone from Gujarat, one of the states in India (In fact, where Gandhi is from)), like Mitali. So, in keeping with our daydream, we decided she should just marry him. Hahaha. We couldn’t help it; the place is just so beautiful and romantic. I highly suggest it for any couple looking for somewhere to stay.
So, after our tour from Mitali’s future husband, we headed back to our hotel for the night. The problem was that it was late. You have to take a boat to the Lake Palace and back. It docks you by the City Palace. Most of the City Palace is a museum now (which we saw on our first day—a photo or two to follow), but part of it is still the residence of the current maharaja. He no longer holds the power he once did, but still the title, respect, and, at least a portion of, the wealth. Once we got off the boat we were informed that there were no autos around the docking point, but if we walked down the road to the gate of the palace grounds there might be one. After doing as told, we came across the watchmen who told us there weren’t any there either. However, we could walk the other way, through the gardens of the palace to the other gate and then walk to our hotel (it really wasn’t too far so we didn’t think this whole thing was a big deal). Well, after a minute or two of strolling through the garden area, the watchmen comes running to us because he realized that the gate he directed us to would be closed. So, he took us to another gate, which was in the area of the palace that is the private home of the maharaja. So, here we are, 3 tourists, at about 1 in the morning, with no one else around (except for the watchmen) with the whole palace grounds (and the private ones at that) to ourselves. How random! You would never have been able to get near a place like that in the US or Europe. Hahaha. We then got directed to the huge main gate of the whole palace grounds. This is one of those 40 foot tall wooden doors that is about 1 ½ feet thick with spikes on one side that were used at one time to keep elephants, mounted by armies, from breaking into the fortified palace. It seems closed, locked, shackled and as if nothing is penetrating that puppy, when all of a sudden a small, 3 by 2 foot panel, which is like a doggie door, but raised off of the ground, opens. How hilarious!!! I am not sure if you are getting this picture, but we had to climb through this door to get out of the palace grounds and on to the street. It was incredibly surreal. The whole thing was quite a little adventure—very Rajasthani style!
Here are some photos of Udaipur and the City Palace
Those journals I mentioned--sold everywhere!
Me kissing the most famous Bollywood actor, Shah Rukh Khan (plastered on the inside of an autorickshaw)
Another night in Udaipur we went to a haveli, an old mansion type thing where extended family’s lived, to see some “traditional” dancing, music and puppeteering. There was this one crazy lady who danced around with 10 pots on her head and walked on glass and swords. Here you can see her walking on glass, but she only has 3 pots on her head so far.
Udaipur is a good place to base yourself for some day trips in the area. We went to another town a few hours away called Chittaugarh. This place is famous for its fort, which served as the capital of the Mewars before being shifted to Udaipur. The Rajputs were known for their chivalry, code of honor and their resistance against the Mughals before the Mughal Ruler Akbar strategically brought them into the fold by marrying a Hindu princess (among other things). Three mass suicides (jauhars) were committed here by the Rajput women who would rather throw themselves onto the pyres than surrender to the enemy. The Rajput men then rode on their horses into battle and certain death. When visiting these places you hear tale after tale of loyalty and sacrifice. One famous one is about how a Mughal ruler wanted to see a beautiful Rajput queen. The king devised a plan where the Mughal could see her reflection in a mirror from across the lake. The Mughal then kidnapped the king and demanded the queen come live with him. She then devised a plan where she agreed, but brought with her thousands of warriors dressed as maidservants who then threw off their guises once reaching the Mughals. The king was rescued, but the large number of casualties led to the eventual Rajput defeat. Some photos of the place:
Another day trip we took was to go to a sacred temple in Nathdwara dedicated to Krishna (also called Nath), the 8th (I think) incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver. Krishna is blue and often seen playing a bansuri (flute). As I mentioned before, he is associated with Radha in love scene after love scene and was known for being sort of a playboy. At this temple, the Sri Nathji temple, there is a constant influx of pilgrims, particularly Gujaratis. There is worship 8 times a day when the image of Sri Nathji is woken, dressed, washed, fed and put to bed. We made it there for the last, and most elaborate aarti—prayer session.
Well, I would have about given my right arm for a camera, or, better yet, a video camera to capture this scene. First you have to wait outside of the temple entrance. There is a hierarchy of waiting points, essentially depending on how much money you paid someone to get better positioning. We got to the second tier by paying a “guide,” but then begged our way into the top tier spot and pretty much climbed over all the others in our level who didn’t manage to make it up the ladder. This is something that is really so different about how things work in India versus the US. In the US there is a strong belief in waiting your turn in line. If you were someplace where a lot of people were waiting for something, first of all, there would be a line. Second of all, if anyone attempted to cut that line, everyone would balk and comment and tell the guy to “wait your turn in line.” Not so in India. Besides the fact that there rarely are lines, it is sort of like—work it if you can, and, if you can, all the better for you. Nobody said anything to us or gave us a dirty look because we were cutting them, no siree, no one even flinched.
So, back to the temple--basically, there are hundreds of people waiting to get into this rather small space, with an even smaller opening from which to view the idol. The have traveled for hours or even days to get to see it for just a few moments--and they ain’t going to let that time go to waste. You know how there is usually a certain image of an old lady? You know, usually one is called “little, old lady” because she is supposed to be sweet and kind and gentle? Well, these ladies might have been little, but they sure weren’t sweet and kind and DEFINITELY not gentle. They were pushing and shoving, clawing and climbing to get their peek. The women and the men are separated, with the women having the space closer to the idol. We got to go in first and then there was a rapid rush of people. It was madness. I have to tell you that it was much more interesting to me to look back and see the sea of bodies peering, stretching, jumping to see the idol. It was unbelievable. Lizzy, Mitali and I were laughing at the craziness, not in a disrespectful way, but more in awe at the intensity of the situation. Like I said, I wish I had had a camera.
Here are some of the trinkets of Sri Nathji they sell in the town for people to keep on their personal shrines at home
We also got to see these temple ruins in Nagda (there was a French tour group and the guide said something about us being Americans in French. Lizzy and I were laughing and replied in French that they should not say anything bad about us because we would understood what they said) and another temple complex with hundreds of small temples within it at Elkinji. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos to share.
On our way to Jodhpur, the next major city in Rajasthan on our tour, we stopped in Ranekpur, the sight of a famous Jain temple. The Jains are similar to Hindus in that they share respect for nature and non-violence. They are a bit more strict in their regard for life as the very religious wear medical masks to keep from inhaling any insects and they don’t eat onions or garlic, presumably to avoid killing worms and insects in the ground (but I am not sure if that is the real reason). Their temples are ornately carved structures and, though I am not sure if this is always the case, are white. The temple here is the largest of its kind in India and is famous for being amazingly beautiful and it is incredibly peaceful as well.
Our next destination was, Jodhpur, the former capital of the state of Marwar (Land of Death), but now known as the “Blue City,” so called because all of the buildings are painted a beautiful shade of blue (the paint is mixed with silver agate (or some other mineral) to keep termites away). The main attraction here is the Meherangarh Fort. With its brand new, state-of-the-art audio tour, one can spend hours learning about life during the time when battles were fought for land, power and honor. There is one spot where there are the handprints of the 20 odd widows of Maharaja Man Singh who all committed sati (sacrificial suicide when a widow throws herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) when he died, though it was already illegal. We got to see Indian miniatures painted by the court artists; tents, swords, guns, knives, and armor used during battle; howdahs (the seat placed on an elephant for riding on it) and carriages; jewelry, and all other adornments (if you ever go, you simply must listen to the description of the women’s box which held her toiletries and rituals she performed, which made her “ready for love”—it is really hilarious), and rooms decorated with stained glass, mirrors, paintings, and carvings. One of the other special aspects is the latticed balcony windows, which the women in particular, used for looking out into the courtyard. Purdah, or the practice of keeping women covered or out of sight, was practiced. These types of windows were constructed such that the women could look out, but no one could look in and see them.
Here is the Blue City from the Fort
Here are some photos of the fort:
At night from our hotel
One of the funniest things (besides the description of the women preparing themselves for the men, mentioned above) was an interaction we had with some of the turbaned guards (by the way, I am a big fan of the turban!). During the audio tour they told about the use of opium and such, but little did I know how some behaviors have continued to this day. Two of the guards seemed particularly happy. They were chatting with us and then pulled out a film container. They showed us what was the cause of their joy—yep, you guessed it—opium. They told us it made them feel strong and smiled. We were dying laughing from our shock. And here is a photo of the two with me:
Though we didn’t do much else in Jodhpur, we did manage to shop a bit (of course). I just love this photo. It truly captures us in the thick of it—sitting on piles of dupattas.
We were supposed to take an overnight train to Jaisalmer, but I had a horrible headache (I am getting old and guess I can’t take the heat like I used to), so we took a bus the following day. Here is where I would like to add how I managed to change every single, solitary train ticket that I made during the trip. Granted, that often happens when you make them in advance (most I made in Bangalore), but even this one we changed and we had just bought it that very day! Hahaha. Just goes with the territory, but funny nonetheless.
Jaisalmer is the “Golden City” because all of the buildings and the fort are made of sandstone. It is particularly lovely when the light of the setting sun shines on the fort and casts a distinctive golden hue over everything. The main purpose for our going all the way west (less than 100 kilometers from the border with Pakistan) to this fort town was to take a camel safari into the Thar Desert. During our inquiries we got to meet the former Mr. Rajasthan himself. Back in the day, he won a contest proclaiming THE man of Rajasthan for four consecutive years. He was then seen on cigarette ads and the like. He was the Marlboro man of India. And here you have him—both past and present:
We then went to watch the sun setting over Jaisalmer. This place used to be a crematorium for Brahmans (lovely), but it made for some good shots.
And then we headed out the next morning on our camel safari. We first drove for an hour in a jeep to a camp to have breakfast and then mounted our camels. We set out on our trek through the desert.
The desert is not what you would imagine. The rolling dunes that leap from the images in your mind are not that prominent in the Thar Desert. For most of the first day I was waiting, watching, looking out for those dunes. Instead, it was flat and dry and filled with ragged shrubbery. There were 5 of us (Lizzy, Mitali and I and then an American couple) and three guides. One of the guides, Ali, was the main guide who could speak English. He was truly hilarious and we loved him. He was a philosopher at heart and had many wise words. One of our favorites, which he would reiterate time and again-“Life is life.” It was the answer to everything. Also, there was “Life is like the wind.” He had more, but I can’t remember them all now. He could speak about 7 or so languages, including English, some French and some German, but could not read or write (well, maybe only a very little). He made our meals, our chai, told stories, was our resident comedian, cared for the camels, knew the way through the desert and just your all around jack-of-all trades. We were so lucky we had him. And here he is:
We each had a camel—mine’s name was something long that started with Kali. So, I nicknamed him Cali. So sad, but Cali was missing half of his nose (well really the flesh over one side) because he had been shot!! He had been apparently used to smuggle things over the border to Pakistan and was shot by the border patrol. How sad! He had nothing to do with it. I felt so badly for him. But, he seemed to be okay, so I guess that is good. Besides our camels and a constant canine companion, Tiger, we got to see many sheep (white with black heads) and goats (black), which were adorable. The local people who live in the desert are mostly herders. When we were making lunch a whole bunch of men came over to just chill and hang out. Some came over for any extra food we had, but mostly they came just to “timepass.” This is a magnificent phrase used in India. It is basically “killing time”—did I ever mention this before b/c it is sounding familiar? Some photos:
Like I said, who said real men don't wear pink
The cool thing about going straight through the desert is that you get into the rhythm—the rhythm of sort of nothing. You would think in a way that you might get bored, but really I guess it is hypnotic in a way. Here are some more of us on the camels and walking through the desert
We finally did reach some dunes (as had been promised). Obviously, I made sure to capture them on film!
The best part about the camel safari (as anyone will tell you) is sleeping under the stars. It is truly enchanting. It is so remarkable that you don’t even want to sleep. While we were sitting on the dunes and looking up at the constellations I thought about that song by Neil Diamond (I know-random). I can’t remember the name, but he lists all these famous people across the ages and then says that the one thing they share is looking at the same sun and the same moon (and wept when it was done…for being done too soon…for being done too soon). How incredible to think about time and place like that?
The next day we went to another camp after traveling all morning. At lunchtime I realized I was getting sick and was not too happy during the jeep ride back to Jaisalmer. We even had to stop on the way. Boo!
By the way, the people who were on our trip have a website and were supposed to put pictures on it of the trip. Here is the address: https://www.00ff00.com/photographs.html
After taking an overnight train from Jaisalmer back to Jodhpur, we hired a car to drive us to Pushkar for the afternoon and then on to Jaipur. Pushkar is a town that has three lakes in the middle of the desert. The lakes were supposedly formed when Brahma, the Creator, dropped his lotus flower to earth to kill a demon. He then gathered 900,000 gods—the entire Hindu pantheon (according to my guidebook) for a huge meeting. Because of this, and because its water is believed to cleanse the soul of impurities during a certain time of year, it is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus. It is also notable because it has the only temple to Brahma, the Creator, in India (In fact, I think there is only one other Brahma temple in one of the neighboring countries). And finally it is famous for the Camel Festival that takes place here in November every year (see Meg’s site) when thousands come to sell and buy livestock and have turban tying contests and the like. Unfortunately, I never made it to that.
It is really a strange place though because it is also a major destination on the backpacker circuit. So, basically you walk down the street to find signs in Hebrew catering to the huge Israeli contingent, imported chocolate bars in every side stall, and booth after booth selling loose, hippy-esque pants and shirts (the official gear of the backpacker). The pilgrims weren’t there b/c it wasn’t the right time of year, but we imagined that the vendors change over their wares pretty quickly when the backpacker season converts over to the pilgrim season.
Performers (father and daughter)
Jaipur for Holi
Part of the whole reason for our trip was to head north for Holi. It is a spring festival where people throw colored powder and water on each other and run around like crazy. I guess it is sort of paintball times a million. It is celebrated more in the north of India so we thought it would be best to be in the right place for the festival.
It wound up that several other Fulbrighters and friends were going to Jaipur for Holi. We originally were going to go to Delhi, but changed our plans because we thought that Jaipur would be more festive with more people we knew. Our first day there was an elephant festival at a stadium. We weren’t sure if the events were originally for Indians, but then became infested by tourists (and therefore catered to tourists) or if they were originally planned for tourists. There was an elephant parade, and elephant decoration contents, dancing, singing, elephant polo (that is a first) and an elephant tug-o-war. Really, the pictures speak for themselves:
Who can resist a baby elephant? The last time I saw one was 2 years ago on Easter at the National Zoo in DC
We then went to the City Palace to watch a bonfire that was used to light torches that were, in turn, used to light smaller bonfires across the city. We even got to see the Maharaja.
The next day we “played Holi,” which is when you throw the powder on each other. Again, the pictures speak for themselves.
After under 2 weeks in Rajasthan, we headed into Delhi. And that, my friends, will have to wait until my next posting (don’t worry—I am going to try and do it in the next few days).