Sunday, December 30, 2007

Udaipur: I was an Indian Princess

The car arrived at 9 in the morning and I hopped in, destination Udaipur. We began the long drive down the obstacle course known as the Indian Road. Through the city of Jodhpur we went, onto the highway and passing an endless sea of trucks. We turned onto a one lane road as we drove through rural India. The driver tried to communicate something to me in his very poor English, something along the line of ‘smaller road to Udaipur, other road take longer’. “Shortcut!” I exclaimed. “Yes, short cut!” the driver laughed. Apparently the road cut off some 60 km of driving, saving us about an hour.

We drove through the Aravali hills, passing the Jain Temples in Ranachpur, I noticed signs of giant cats and a goodly number of dhurris waving in the wind, their weavers hoping to call in customers. We stopped for lunch there in a very nice restaurant called Harmony, offering a Rajasthani buffet catering to tourist busses. The food was excellent and it was lovely to sit outside in the forest. A few hours later we were in Udaipur, asking every person along the way how to get to Hanuman Ghat, the area where the hotel I hoped to stay at was.

This is an interesting way to find directions in India but it works. The driver just keeps asking people and they tell him directions up to the next turn and then he asks the next person, and so on until we get there. One of the people he asked was a man sitting in a little shop doing miniature painting work, I was intrigued by the peaceful little shop.

We squeezed through a very narrow little street and finally came up on the hotel, The Amet Haveli, a 350 year old haveli that was on the lake shore. I got out and looked at the room; very beautiful. I don’t know if it was really worth the 3000rs price, but it had a window seat studded with cushions looking out over the lake, a 4 poster bed, and a beautiful tiled bathroom with an actual bathtub! A rare find in India. 3000 rupees is less than the price of a highway hotel in the states, so what the hell, why not? I was treating myself. I took the room. How was I to know that the bathtub would only be able to be filled two inches with water from the tiny hot water geyser? Ah well, the window seat totally made up for that.

I went for a walk, noting the architecture, feeling the familiarity of the place and ignoring a multitude of rickshaw drivers and store hawkers, by this time I was hardened to that old Indian song. I walked across the bridge to the other side of the lake and talked to some gypsy musicians, also courting my money. I bought a CD and they offered to pose for me so I snapped a shot. I walked back and noticed once again the man in the store doing miniature paintings and felt attracted to go and see what he was doing. Unlike the many other miniature painting stores which were adorned with annoying hawkers, this place was small and I was drawn in by the man’s concentration on his work. I sat with him for 3 hours and watched him mix paint, draw boarders and frames and I looked at his collection. We talked about meditation and concentration and how the world falls away when immersed in an activity. I admired his eyes which gave an intense and direct gaze when he spoke. I picked two paintings and paid a fair price for them and he invited me to his home to meet his family the next night. I didn’t end up going, though had I not been otherwise engaged the next evening, I might have.

I went back to the hotel and had a small bowl of soup and a drink at the restaurant by the lake, gazing out at the palace on the lake, and the palace on the opposite lake shore. A voice struck out across the water wailing a classical Indian stream of notes. Although the city of Udaipur is just as busy and insane as any other Indian city, the lake shore is like going back in time 300 years to some other India that is now only a distant memory, a melancholic longing.

The next day I got up early. I had my breakfast out on the lake and watched the bathers at the ghat while listening to the rhythm of the laundry wallahs giving their clothes a severe thrashing. I walked across the bridge and made my way up the crooked streets of the old city to the Grand Palace, former capital of the Mewar Kingdom. The palace was a marvel, room after room of splendor in architecture. This palace was restored not too long ago from what looked in pictures like an absolute mess. I took the audio tour and learned, among other things, of the princess Krishna. In the 18th century her father made a mistake by promising her to the princes of Jodhpur and Jaipur. They both came to claim her and set up their camps outside the city. The father, realizing that if he made a choice to give her to either man it would plunge the Mewar Kingdom into war, decided instead to have his daughter put to death. They poisoned her, but she didn’t die. They gave her another dose, and still she was not harmed. They could of declared this a divine sign, a miracle, but instead they made a draught of the most powerful poisons imaginable, and this sent her into a deep sleep, a sleep from which she never awakened.

I cried when I heard this story. I must have been Krishna in another life. No wonder men bug me. Well not all of them…but…I digress…

Winding my way back through the old city, I got caught in a traffic jam. It was a parade of Indian pilgrims who were carrying holy water in a pot collected from the sacred Ganges River. They were bringing the water to the lake at Udaipur because by merging the waters, the lake water becomes sacred.

I went back to the hotel and had lunch. While there I met a couple of Americans from the East Coast who were teaching at U Toronto. He was a non-whiny Woody Allen type from New York, and she, a tall Jennifer Connolly look-a-like from Philly. They were witty and interesting and I liked them right away. I invited them to go sightseeing with me for the afternoon. We got in my car and my driver took us around happily informing us when he was using ‘a shortcut’ to which he and I would smile knowingly at each other. We went up to the Monsoon Palace for a spectacular sunset, and then made our way back down the hill. They took me to dinner at a fantastic rooftop restaurant on top of the Udai Kothi Hotel. We drank Mojitos and had great conversation lasting long into the night. After the meal we traded contact info and went our separate ways. And so it goes with those one meets on their travels. More than most, I hope I see them again.

The next morning my driver and I set off back toward the Aravali Hills, stopping in Kumbulgarh, an amazing fort surrounded by a 36km wall, akin to The Great Wall of China. I climbed up to the the top of the fort, the view from which was like being on top of the world. The fort was surrounded by many Jain and Hindu temple ruins which I explored until I had blisters on my feet. Finally settling back into the car for the ride down the hill, watching men with the most interesting turbans, as we drove I noticed the men tied their turbans differently than I had seen in other parts of Rajasthan. It seemed they were dyed in different colors and used different tie and dye techniques with each town we drove through. Rural life there looked very much like I imagine it has for many centuries. Water was being pulled from streams by tying cows to a wheel that pulled the water up to irrigate. It seemed like such a peaceful life. As I was admiring with a kind of longing, the driver spoke, “Dangerous area,” he said, “Adivasi”. Referring to the generic name for tribal peoples. "Not safe."

I stayed at another fantastic hotel that night The Aryawani Resort. I had a huge room all in slate. There was a stunning balcony with a view looking down the valley where, if one were lucky, they might just see a jaguar or cougar. Tigers are no more in this area, though at one time there were many. This was the most peaceful place in all of India I am sure, far removed from the city and very remote. After checking in, we drove down to visit the amazing Jain Temples in Ranachpur, all carved from marble and giving the Taj Mahal a run for its money. Then back for drinks around the outside fire, more lovely conversation with some folks from England who were on a trekking by day and luxury hotel by night tour and their guide, a fabulous dinner and a sleep that was so quiet that it felt like it must surely have been in some other country, far far away from India.

Then, in the morning, back on the obstacle course highway we zoomed back to Jodhpur for a few short hours before to say goodbye to Nigama and Emil, to Govind and Mukta and little Ayush, to Mira Didi and all of the girls, and to India. It was Nigama’s birthday and Govind had bought her a cake, so we all sang happy birthday and ate cake and then piled into the car to take me to the train station and I railed off to Delhi. I checked into a cheap room in Delhi and rested for the day and then flew off to Bangkok in the wee hours of the morning.

Thank you Ganesh, for safekeeping me in your beloved India. I will never forget the way you held me close in your loving trunk.
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