Monday May 10 [First day in India] We arrived in Bombay from Kenya and continued on to Madras. Upon arrival we headed into the center via commuter train. The train rambled from station to station with blind beggars getting on at regular intervals. The suburbs (or slums rather) turned into the center with people and refuse everywhere. We looked for rooms for about 45 mins., sweat running off our bodies [May is pre-monsoon and the hottest time of the year in India]. Finally we phoned a guesthouse recommended in LP [Lonely Planet] located a bit further out. They had rooms available so we took a tuk-tuk out there. Careening around busses in the small vehicle was an adventure in itself. When I saw the Broadlands Hotel I knew we had finally taken a turn for the better – friendly staff, beautiful colors several courtyards and 3 levels of rooms. We chose one on the 2nd floor and I sighed when they opened the dbl. doors overlooking a big field with a large mosque at the end. The complex once housed the lesser wives of a shiek and as we looked around at sunset it was wonderful to be in such serene surroundings. They even employ boys to run out and get food and drink for you, do the laundry, etc. They cater to your every need. We enjoyed a huge bottle of cold beer on the rooftop while Drei delivered vegetable samosas and egg fried rice wrapped in a palm leaf. We were in heaven.
Thur. June 3 After a night train from Bombay to Ahmedabad (Gujarat), we continued on by train to Abu Road in Rajasthan. The 5-hour journey was pleasantly shared with an Indian family that filled our compartment to bursting. We napped in the berths above and the family very generously shared their lunch with us. It was nice tasting some home specialties and they were actually very kind. At Abu Road we endured the typical information run-around at the bus station. It was the usual mad rush for the vehicle when the bus pulled up. We managed seats and soon were underway in a bus full of Rajashani peasants. Little girls used our packs as seats. Women sang us ½ way to Udaipur and turbaned men stood guard, toothless and smiling. The road looked worse for wear as it wound up the mtn. Bridges were being rebuilt by hand. It’s still amazing even though we’ve seen it enough – women hammering boulders into gravel and carrying the pebbles on their heads to the construction site. Here they still work in their colorful Rajasthani clothing and best jewelry from head to toe in the sweltering heat. As we reached the summit it cooled down a lot and was quite comfortable walking to the guest house. We showered and went right off to the Delwara Jain temples before their 6PM closing. After chasing off a few pesky teenagers we were the only ones touring the site. Two of the temples were fabulous in their intricate sculptural work. It was exciting viewing something hat we’d planned 2 years ago. The sculptural work is really unsurpassed. How someone can carve something so small and delicate out of marble is awesome. We returned to the touristy village. Crafts galore and more tempted us. While purchasing bangles we heard music and pursued its source. A 4-piece ensemble played while women took turns dancing within the crowd of other women celebrating an upcoming wedding. An old man appeared and explained things for us. Then, of course, he invited us to his shop. We followed the group of celebrating women. Four women symbolically placed 2 urns on the couple’s heads who led the still-dancing procession. We wanted to shop anyway so we returned to the man’s shop. It turned out to be a tailor’s stall with a smooth salesman. We ended up ordering 3 sari tops I’d wanted made and 2 pairs of reversible pants. Reid succumbed as well, ordering 2 dress shirts, 2 pairs slacks, and 3 pieces of silk for gifts. As it had gotten late we went to the Veena restaurant and had a nice Thali meal. Then back to the hotel for one of the best sleeps we’ve had all trip.
Sat June 5 We’d booked a private bus company so it was much more comfortable seating. Riding by the window on the Cliffside I often couldn’t bear to watch as the corners came up quickly. We were down to the flat lands in a short time. When we left the Mt Abu road I thought this must be a back road. It was a one lane, paved road but partially overgrown by roadside shrubbery. How two buses or a truck managed to pass was surprising to me. Needless to say, the shoulder was used as often as the road. The 4 ½ hour journey was interesting crossing the dryer plains. Low stone fences ran up and around hillsides, marking out small farms. There was just enough greenery to remind one of Mykonos. The occasional grazing camel and colorfully dressed women and white-dressed men with florescent-colored turbans dispelled that connection. We had a break at a junction where soft drinks and snacks were available, small children sold dates, sacred cows wandered in awkward places and women hid shyly behind their saris. As we approached Udaipur we saw more women with chiffony, see-through and neon-colored half saris. Evening darkness was upon us as we arrived in Udaipur. We hired a rickshaw to look for lodgings. We settled on the Lalghat Guesthouse with its cool lavender blue walls and friendly faces. Looking out over Lake Pichola at the floodlit Lake Palace Hotel and Jag Mandir island I knew we had to stay here. This is truly one of the most beautiful, most romantic settings we’ve encountered. It is no wonder so many travelers list Udaipur as their favorite destination. I walked up to the Mahal Café near the Jagdish Temple for take out so Reid could rest – not feeling very well. We made our dining room in a small arched niche overlooking the lake. The view is magical.
Sun June 6 We had our breakfast in our upstairs portico niche. We sat under the stone canopy of arches and watched the bathing activity at the ghats below. These sections of stairs leading down to the lake are the centerpiece of daily activity. The dhobi wallas were beating clothes clean. The whacking echoed off the walls amidst sounds of children splashing and swimming. After breakfast we walked through the labyrinth of lanes along the shore hillside up to the city palace. This series of royal structures sprawls above the lake in three major buildings dating from the 15th to 19th centuries. The royal family still inhabits one portion and one segment has been converted into a hotel. We toured the older segments of faded glory with our usual flock of curious Indian tourists. The palace is somewhat worse for wear but still impressive with its mosaic works, fancy arches, and sweeping lake views. After a quick afternoon nap we headed up to the Monsoon Palace by rickshaw. We climbed the serpentine road up the 7 km. to the palace. At the top we enjoyed the panoramic view of the lake and city below as the sun sank in the west. Stunning!
Tues June 8 After a light breakfast we packed up and headed to the boat launch for the trip over to the Lake Palace Hotel for our ultimate splurge. After checking in we were taken to our room. Welcome drinks arrived and we toasted our elegant surroundings. The air conditioning was heavenly. The television was flicked on to MTV Asia. I soaked in our backyard view of the lake and the Monsoon Palace on the hill above from the small sitting room. We just relaxed and went through the goodies and literature left for us. Bathrobes were hanging in the closet and the bathroom was stocked with necessities and luxuries. Eventually we ventured out of our comfortable accommodations and toured the hotel. Magazines lay all over the bar, the gift shop was full of fun books and had a miniature artist at work. I previewed every nook and cranny for future photo work then decided non lunch at the coffee shop. Tucked away in a turreted corner we were nearly level with the water and a city view filled the floor-to-ceiling windows. The food was delicious and the whole staff was ours since there were very few guests. The pool beckoned us next and we donned our robes to walk down. Tucked in the southern corner, one enters by a narrow marble passageway. A huge mango tree takes up the corner and the small pool is the center piece. The turrets and stone canopies shading us made exquisite photographic material so I hopped around snapping shots. We read and relaxed until early evening came for too fast. We showered and got down to the boat launch for the evening lake cruise. The guide gave us information as the boat cruised by the city palace allowing a lovely perspective. We then visited Jag Mandir island. The light was perfect, the setting ideal, and the time spent was too short. The towering buildings over the main square afforded some beautiful views from its turrets and below through the elephant pavilion back at the city. We returned to the hotel and ordered room service for dinner. Afterward we headed to the bar for the evening’s entertainment. In the courtyard a puppet show was already underway. We caught the last 15 minutes which was just enough. Very colorful and entertaining. The night air was fragrant with orchids and gardenias. A waiter in full livery brought us beer in silver flagons and we stayed with a small group of guests to watch the dance performance. It was well done and very intimate sitting under the stars. The exotic architecture above, musicians sitting under the trellised plants behind and the puppeteers turned dancers whirling in front of us, balancing as many as 7 glasses of water on their heads while one performed finger cymbal acrobatics. The crowed dispersed with shows finale so we had the whole bar to ourselves. Sitting in our regal chairs we tipped another silver mug of beer and toasted before the island lit in the distance.
Wed June 9 Room service breakfast was unsurpassed [still at Lake Palace Hotel]. Reid enjoyed the room while I took one last round of the hotel’s cozy spots, sitting in one turret to write awhile, seeing something else to photograph, moving to another niche. On our way to the pool for a morning swim and employee gladly allowed us to peek into two sumptuous suites. They were really fun to see. After a last Lake Palace lunch we took the boat back to the shore to catch our bus to Ranakpur. I believe I’ve never had such a pleasurable hotel experience. We learned our bus had broken down and would not be replaces so we splurged for a hired car. We passed through rolling hills dotted with greenery climbing to a leafy forested gorge to Ranakpur – a celebrated pilgrimage for Jains. The secluded center is unlike other shrines in India. There are no thronging crowds nor busy bazaars selling souvenirs. The tranquil, desolate character of the place is in keeping with the austere ideals of the Jains. These surroundings contain no hint of the treasure that lies there - the Adishvara Temple, renowned for its architectural and sculptural beauty. Intricately carved from white marble, this complex contains 29 halls and a forest of pillars (1444 our guidebook says) – no two alike. This was our discovery as the sun huddled low on the hilltop. We got some great exterior shots and were on our way when a young priest called to us. He invited us to come for the evening “candle and light” ceremony. We returned and our host, Serma, ushered us into the temple. Brief but resonating, the ceremony took place to the thumping of a large drum, ringing bells, and loudly crashing cymbals. You could feel it down to your toes – vibrating. The temple was lit only by candles and the atmosphere was heightened by burning incense and chanting. It was a truly transcendent moment. Reid says it is one of the most significant he’s ever experienced. Something about the combination of incense, drumming, bells, and chanting really touches the divine within. Before retiring we accepted Serma’s offer to give us a morning tour of the temple and returned to our guesthouse.
Thurs June 10 After breakfast we returned to the temple complex. Sitting in the shade of one of the smaller temples we enjoyed a cool breeze while watching monkeys frolic and vibrant green parrots flitting by. Serma met us on the stairs and toured us completely through the complex including his special niche for morning meditation. Sitting cross-legged on the ground he demonstrated his mantra and gave us a blessing. His chanting once again touched us like the previous night’s ceremony. Later Serma helped arrange a car for us to get out to Kumbhalgarh fort since no bus was available. 1 ½ hours later the first of the seven gates stood before us. Outside of a handful of villagers within the walls we were alone in the fortress. We climbed slowly up to the palace on the highest point. We woke a sleeping man to unlock the gates to the inner chambers, revealing the discreet quarters for the concealed maharinis. Elephant borders decorated the wall in this female chamber. Elsewhere, saturated walls of blue, pink, and golden called out with the opening of every door and the rooftop howled with a strong warm wind and afforded a far-reaching view of the valleys below. On our descent, gazing back up at the cream-colored walls with bold, thick, black stripes was impressive. We set out to walk the ramparts. They were truly impressive, stretching out along the undulating landscape as far as the eye can see. It reminded us of images we’d seen of the Great Wall of China. We did not see a single other tourist the entire day.
Fri June 11 Another 5-hour bus ride brought us to the mighty fortress city of Jodhpur. As we approached the city Mehangarh Fort could be seen through the dusty haze. After attending to logistical business we took a rickshaw up to the fort. The tiny streets of the old city were chaotic but amazingly colorful – primarily blue with green trim. In fact, Jodhpur is known as the “Blue City”. In this case the houses were painted blue as a contrast to those of the Brahmins. The impressive fort sprawls across the top of a 125-meter high hill and houses a whole series of courtyards and palaces. A costumed guide took us along with a group of Israelis through all the splendor. The chambers were decorated incredibly; the views and architecture were stunning. The ornamentation (paintings, armory, silver objects, elephant howdahs, musical instruments) made an interesting tour yet I much preferred the windy isolation and solitary enchantment of Kumbhalgarh. In one direction you see the lovely see of blue that is the old city. In the other, you see the Jasmant Thanda, a stunning white marble memorial, up on the hill.
Sun June 13 We awoke early to be picked up for our desert camel trek. Our turbaned guide, Kehta, arrived to take us to the edge of town where our “steeds” awaited us. Raju, my scraggly camel for the next few hours kneeled down for me to mount. Settled comfortably in the quilted saddles, we headed out with a third camel carrying our two guides. Dark clouds obscured the sun mercifully and gave the desert a dramatic glow where rays shot through in the distance. Women searched the barren ground for firewood, children waved hello, and the cenotaphs of Bada Bagh stood out mysteriously in the background. When we arrived at the oasis we were able to examine the monuments up close. Above a reservoir the royal cenotaphs stand with their beautifully carved ceilings and equestrian reliefs. This was another of those incredible moments, walking amongst the tombs without a soul to disturb the spell. We continued on into the desert about an hour to Amar Sagar, a small villager and oasis. A small complex of Jain temples of beautifully carved sandstone graces the village. Kehta picked us up in a jeep and drove us to Lodruva, the abandoned ruins of the former ancient capital of the region.
For dinner we chose a rooftop restaurant with a good view of the golden walls of Jaisalmer fortress. At sunset we were treated to the golden illumination of the fort – just like all the tourist brochures. Magical!
Tues June 15 We entered the gates of old Jaipur, “the Pink City.” Burnt umber would be a better description of the deep orange/rust painted buildings here although a few are pinkish. The streets are wider than we’ve seen, but that just seems to allow more people and things to crowd into them. The famous Hawa Mahal (the Palace of Winds) spurts up in the middle of one of these grand avenues. We continued on to the city palace. The complex contains a series of courtyards, gardens, and majestic buildings. Built by Jai Singh, it is a combination of Mughal and Rajasthani architecture. In a covered patio sit 2 gigantic silver vessels in which the Maharaja would transport drinking water on his visits outside India. As a devout Hindu he could not drink unsacred water. We toured the various collections and armory before heading out to the observatory, or Jantar Mantar, built by Jai Singh in 1728. His passion for astronomy was famous and this was the largest of the five observatories he built. It is a curious but very impressive collection of modern looking structures, each with a specific astronomical purpose: measuring the stars attitudes, etc. The view from the top of the tallest was excellent – back across the palace complex to Hawa Mahal and out to the surrounding hills, dotted with forts.
Wed June 16 Today we explored the surrounding area. Our first stop was Amber Palace. Like the other tourists we opted to ride an elephant up the long ramp to the palace. Reid seemed especially to enjoy the ride. The fortress/palace of Amber was begun in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, commander of Akbar’s armies. Its pretty impressive, overlooking a lake below and featuring glittering mirrored ceilings and inlaid panals in the Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) and a labyrinth of old corridors and stairways to explore. A 15 minute walk up the hill leads to Jargarh Fort. There are expansive though bleak ramparts and the view is spectacular. Next on the fort circuit was Naharagarh – the Tiger Fort with another impressive view. We left this perch after a snack to wind back kown to the Jal Mahal, a neglected lake palace we’d seen on the way out. From a distance it has a marvelous forgotten aura, standing crumbling away on the now dried up lakebed, small trees sprouting from its rooftop. Upon closer inspection the spell fades and the perspective is lost. A stop at the royal cenotaphs at Gaitor rounded out our sightseeing day. We had another splurge dinner at the elegant Rambagh Palace Hotel. A beer in the Polo Bar made us feel like visiting British nobility in the 19th century.
Thurs June 17 Agra Fort was the first stop today. The fort’s massiveness immediately impressed. The massive 2.5 km long, 20meter thick walls surround several interesting buildings. Built by Akbar in 1565, it was his grandson Shah Jehan who had turned it into a pleasure palace. Wandering about the many audience halls and chambers was fun even after many other similar experiences. From the octagonal throne terrace you have a wonderful view across the Yamuna River to the Taj Mahal. When Shah Jehan was imprisoned here by his son, he was able to gaze across to the tomb of his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. We also peaked into the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) and Jehangir’s Palace with its more Hindu/Persian influenced architecture.
On to India’s most recognizable sight, the Taj Mahal. It has been described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love and the most beautifully proportioned building in the world. The Taj enclave is surrounded at a great distance by tall walls. One enters through a massive gate (and metal detector) and there it is, gleaming in golden in the sunset. It is stunning from a distance, reflected in a long, narrow pool before it. Four large but sleek minarets rise from each of the corners of the square platform it rests upon. It is breathtaking. Closer inspection reveals inlaid stones in beautiful, floral patterns known as pietra dura. The acoustics of the tomb chamber are superb as many visitors tested it out. We sat outside as the sun went behind clouds then popped out just before going down. I kept looking back as we left wondering if it was my last chance to gaze upon such majestic elegance.
Fri June 18 After breakfast we grabbed a bus to Fatehpur Sikri. Built by Akbar, it was the capital of the Mughal empire for 16 years before being suddenly abandoned due to a lack of a water supply. It stands today deserted yet perfectly preserved, an example of a Mughal city at the height of the empires’ splendor.