05.12.2014 - 22.12.2014 18 °C
Yes, yes, still in India, and it's not the last post on this vast country. We are nearing the end of a year here, yet there is still so much to see.
Dhrangadhra's got the feel of a frontier town. A dusty main street, lined with peddlers selling the usual; fruits, vegetables, plastic, metal and rubber objects, clothing, chai and pan (the chew and spit stuff whose indelible red stains are splattered on walls and pavement throughout the country). I still flinch every time someone spits or smiles at me with crimson teeth. Our auto-rickshaw stops at several "hotels" before we settle on the "best" option. It's 8 euros for the night; no sink in the bathroom, but cable TV and a James Bond film about to start.We're up and out at dawn to visit, I'm not making this up, the Wild Ass Sanctuary.
The arid plains of this western-most part of India are home to the last wild asses of Asia. They are actually beautiful chestnut-colored creatures resembling sturdy horses.
Wide cracks in the ground attest to the dry season, but as my heels sink, I immediately understand that this visible layer is deceiving; even dangerous.
In the distance, thousands of Pink Flamingos on their winter reproduction junket, stand knee-deep on pink stilts in the shallows. We try to approach without disturbing, but they sense our presence from afar and retreat with a rumbling flutter.
Ahmedabad, Amdavad, Ahmadabad, Ahemdavad. All spellings are correct for the main city in the state of Gujarat, famous for several things, not the least being Gandhi's headquarters for over 20 years, and stepping-stone in Nagendra Modi's ascension to Prime Minister - the latter scoring bonus points for organizing Obama's recent (2nd) visit to India. The city seems cleaner than average which I'm convinced is due to the fact that most of the streets are paved with finished sidewalks. There isn't that corridor of dirt along the side of the road that gets whipped up with a breeze or turns to mud when wet.
We check-in to the Ambassador Hotel (35 euros), and as per our routine, make a quick survey to assure that there are towels, soap, remotes, clean sheets, etc. There's usually something missing, and it's best to get everything upfront and settled. The staff in many hotels, usually very kind and eager, have either no training or the most unusual sense of service - they knock but never wait before entering, bring you single sheets for a double bed... You have to bolt the door to avoid surprise visits. In India, privacy and personal space exist only in a foreigner's language. And in many hotels, if you're not at breakfast by 9:30, you get a phone call.
The auto-rickshaw we've hired for the day, proves to be a challenge as the driver hardly speaks English and we have to fight with him to follow our agenda. The Sidi Saiyyad's Mosque is clear: Ladies are not allowed "under ANY circumstances", but everyone is welcome to admire the sculpted columns and Hindu and Jain architectural elements of the Jama Masjid mosque which is rather quiet at this time in-between prayers.
In contrast, the congregation at the Swaminarayan Temple is eager for us to join the women singing their hearts out.
Life in India is happening in the streets at all hours and sometimes in the oddest places. In an empty lot near the center of town, nowhere near a mine, a small group of men and women are busy loading/unloading coal into trucks.
Down the road, some men are dyeing yards of thread on the sidewalk as traffic hurries by.
Most extraordinary is the 15th century Dada-Hari-Vav step-well, a succession of platforms of intricately sculpted stone columns, connected by steep steps descending into pools of "fresh" water. Like an M.C. Escher drawing, it is a masterpiece of design and function
The city has quite a large Jain community whose temples are made of thick, blinding-white marble and filled with gold and silver ornaments. We're up early for the Jain Heritage walk, organized by the cultural center located in the Diwanji Ni Haveli. Led by an historian, we wind our way through the labyrinth of streets in the old city stopping to visit 25 of the 140 Jain temples.
Along the way, we stop to admire the beauty and ingenuity of traditional Havelis (private mansions) made of Burmese teak. Every aspect is designed for coolness in the summer and managing the monsoon season. Homes face east or west, with windows north and south to create a cross breeze. All roofs are slanted with gutters (channels) to collect water. An ingenious underground system of lime and stone, concealed from the sun to avoid the growth of bacteria, filters water through copper pipes removing impurities. Ahmedabad is the only city where rainwater has been harvested by tradition.
About 100 kms north of Ahmedabad near the town of Modhera, and a bit out of the way when you rely on public transport, is the magnificent Sun Temple. Built in the 11th century, the temple was designed so that the rising sun illuminates the effigy of Surya, the sun god.
Catching a bus to our next destination is no small matter. But stand on the side of the road long enough and something always happens. An overloaded jeep makes just enough room and we're off.
We arrive in Patan with a specific hotel in mind. As usual, touts, eager to take you to the places who will pay commission, tell us the hotel no longer exists. As usual, we insist on our choice. For the first time, the hotel has actually closed! However, we are not here for the hotel, but rather to visit the beautiful 11th century, Rani-ki-Vav step-well.
If there were frequent flyer miles for buses, we'd be platinum members by now. We've got the system for getting good seats worked out. First, always take the bus from its starting point if possible, and second, be willing to elbow your way on if the seats are not reserved. It can be a nasty few minutes, and chivalry is another one of those foreign words, but once you've claimed your seat, it's smiles all around. The advantage of the bus, unlike the train, is that you don't have to plan far in advance.
In 1971, when the Privy Purse (an allowance given to royal families of the princely states to compensate their loss of ruling rights (and income) at India's independence in1947) was revoked, in order to maintain their estates, many families converted portions of their properties into hotels. It is entirely possible to visit India and spend every night of your trip in a palace or mansion especially in Rajasthan.
The Udai Bilas Palace, part home to the royal family, part luxury hotel, sits on the lake in Dungarpur. The interior courtyard is a masterpiece of carved stone and marble. The Maharaja also has an impressive collection of vintage cars.
Perched on a hill across town, in desperate need of repair, and sadly, not likely to get it, is the 13th century Juna Mahal. The palace is a vertical labyrinth of steps, narrow corridors and small empty rooms offering outstanding views. We are alone and just as we start to wonder if we've seen everything, the guardian appears on cue to lead us through locked doors into rooms with intricate mirror work, colored glass and wall paintings of vibrant color. Behind one pair of double doors is the entire Kama Sutra painted on 4 walls, in pristine condition.
People often ask what is our favorite place in India. Tough choice, but Udaipur, the city that sits on Lake Pichola is definitely a contender.
From the smallest hotel to the grandest palace, all have rooftop terraces overlooking the Lake Palace, an 18th century royal summer residence cum luxury hotel and one of the backdrops for the legendary Bond film Octopussy, that floats in the center of the lake. For die-hard fans, the film is screened in a number of bars and restaurants EVERY night.
The Jagat Niwas Hotel, 2 converted havelis (mansions) is a lovely mid-range option with a multi-level rooftop restaurant beautifully lit with mini white lights and candles at night. Our 'Heritage' room has a cosy bay window facing the lake.
The palaces of Udaipur are filled with an astounding display of riches. The City Palace is the largest in Rajasthan.
We have the privilege of a private tour of the Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel and the Fateh Prakash Palace which occupy one end of the City Palace grounds. The contrast with life in the streets is almost disturbing, but we've been in India for so long now, we are (somewhat) immune to the sounds and smells that accost you at every turn. Still, Udaipur remains a one of the prettiest spots in India.
Local buses are built for small people and it's a struggle to both fit on the double seat, not-to-mention the calloused knees we're developing from the bump and grind against the seat-back in front. But the discomfort is quickly forgotten as we step down in front of the 15th century Ranakpur (Jain) Temple. An immense marvel of sculpted white marble, its 80 domes are held up by thousands of columns.
A shared jeep taxi drops us at the gate of the Ghanerao Royal Castle, the 400 year old home of the royal family. The palace is in ruins, but the Ghanerao family occupies a portion, and 17 rooms have been renovated to accommodate guests. Call it medieval chic. Lousy plumbing, uneven floors and bad lighting, yet our room is charming. We are the only guests amplifying the surreal atmosphere. Although it's more Best Marigold Hotel (minus Dev Patel's passionate manager) it has a certain allure and a bit more soul than some of the other converted palaces we've seen. A short exchange with an unassuming man near the reception is our only encounter aside from the staff. Later we learn, he's the Maharaja.
The freshly-painted yellow palace of Deogarh, with its manicured lane leading to the entrance encompasses the passion of its owner to promote his family's legacy. It's so pretty that we decide to have lunch. By the end of the meal, we are spending the night. Our room, once the king's bathroom, is covered with original wall paintings, a large sitting area and a modern bathroom with a delicate mosaic floor. The royal family is extremely accessible and most hospitable. As we discuss our plans, the Raja, who refuses to be called by his official title, insists that we visit his cousins in a town called Shahpura. As we leave, he asks us if we'd like to attend a royal wedding and we agree to keep in touch. More on this in the next post.
Shahpura Bagh is a late 19th century estate run by an endearing family. The family lives in one house and guests occupy the beautifully appointed spacious rooms of a second. The swimming pool is right out of a Hollywood classic and while it's too cold to swim, the elegant daybeds are just right for lunch.
About 20 minutes away is the 17th century Dikola fort which also belongs to the family. We are driven over to watch the sun set. So taken with the view, we hardly notice the activity behind us: a spread of food and drink has been prepared just for us.
Meals are taken in the main house and before dinner, we gather with the family for a drink. This night we are the only guests. There are a few big dogs, 70's classics play in the background and as I swirl my wine in a crystal glass, I think how lucky we are. The rates at this hotel are way over our means, but the family offers us a super discount and the next day, the Maharaja invites us to spend a second night!
After 2 nights of sheer luxury, we get back on a government bus and rattle on over to Bundi. While much of the 17th century palace is dilapidated and closed off, the walls and ceilings of the portion open to the public are covered with frescos in turquoise and gold. There are some of the finest examples of the Bundi school of painting. It should be noted that for the untrained eye, distinguishing the many schools of Indian miniature paintings is a daunting task even when faced with examples of every school under one roof.
From Bundi, it takes an overnight bus to Jodhpur right into an 8 hour train ride to get to Jaisalmer, the most western city in Rajasthan, at the edge of the Thar Desert. Of course, there are flights or express trains if you plan in advance, but we've got time and then there's the budget.
The most striking feature of Rajasthan in general, and Jaisalmer in particular, is the colorful clothing. Perhaps a reaction to the rather desolate landscape, women are draped in vibrant, reds (married), yellows, pinks and oranges. Men wear colorful turbans which denote social status and profession, and like the schools of Indian painting, are replete with subtleties.
The imposing (12th century) Jaisalmer Fort once stood alone in the desert. Now, the city butts right up against the ramparts. An arduous, stone road zigzags through several massive gates leading to the main square and the entrance to the Maharaja's palace. Each successive king added to the 7-story palace and rooms are filled with mirrors, paintings, sculptures and furniture. Every window and terrace offers a splendid view and all these stairs certainly kept people fit.
Both inside and around the fort, the narrow winding streets are filled with old havelis with intricately carved stone balconies that look like lace. Patwa-ki-Haveli is perhaps the prettiest one in town.
As we've been moving north the temps have started to dip. It's getting really cold now which is so hard to believe after months and months of sweltering heat. Particularly harsh are the overnight bus rides where there is no heat and sometimes no blankets. We buy a wool shawl to keep us warm which also comes in handy in rickshaws which are completely exposed. Night buses often arrive at destination in the wee hours which is brutal. On one such ride, we step off the bus (4AM) and stumble over to a tea stall filled with men standing around a roaring fire. It's a good 15 minutes before we defrost. We dive under the covers of the Desert Winds hotel in Bikaner fully clothed in our coldest moment yet (15 °C/60 °F in the room).
As the sun soars to mid sky, we forget we were ever cold and enter the gorgeous, well-preserved 16th century, Junagarh Fort. As with all forts, the road leading to the entrance has a sharp turn and the thick wood doors have long pieces of pointed iron attached at about 2 meters height, both to deter charging elephants... Over the centuries, kings added their own personal touches and rooms are decorated with sandalwood, ivory, mirrors, colored glass and objects from all over the world. Frescos and paintings in vibrant reds, blues and gold and bas relief sculptures adorn the walls.
Visiting the Temple of Karni Mata, also known as the Rat temple in Deshnok is not my idea. The legend is that a distraught father unable to resuscitate his drowned son declared that everyone in his family would be reincarnated as rats. As with all Hindu temples, shoes must be removed. I venture inside the gates and see a few hundred rats scurrying about. People here think that if a rat touches your feet, you will have good fortune. If you're lucky enough to see one of the rare white rats your spiritual life will be blessed. I don't stick around for either.
And here we are again, praying, I mean waiting, for the next bus...