18 March, 2011

Indian Odyssey, Xmas 2010 (Part 3 of 4)

In Part 1 and Part 2  of "Indian Odyssey", our two Weary Explorers conquered central and north-east India. In the next exciting episode, they tackle various impregnable forts dotted around the desert state of Rajasthan in the far north-west of India. First, though, they discovered a delightful secret hidden away in remote Mount Abu...

Mount Abu   Rajasthan's only hill-station.
 We stayed at the residence of one of the local maharajahs - the pink/yellow mahal on the hill in the photo. It seems these days like almost everyone claims to be a maharajah, a maharajah's brother-in-law, etc, especially since the British offered them an annuity in lieu of continuing their 'royal' status after Independence in 1947...
Legend has it that some Hindu god made this lake by scraping it out with his fingernails.
The lake is awfully green, and there's a simple reason for that, but hardly appropriate
 for genteel conversation on this wholesome family website. But it's to do with shit.

Our balcony at the palace-cum-hotel.
Fine, OK, but the beds were hard and the heater wholly inadequate...

What a winner. Mt Abu can boast what I consider to be the highest quality (if physically smaller) Jain temple we saw on our entire trip, the Dilwara temple, built between 11th and 13th centuries. The marble is truly white and clean, and the carving is unbelievably detailed and fine. Marble roses have near-transparent petals. Fingernails show tiny cuticles. But sadly, no photos are allowed - it is a "living" temple and flash would disturb worship. But, um, here are a couple I didn't take:
Designed, I think, to give the other-worldly impression that the the
roof domes float on air and that the stone isn't heavy at all.

This is an upwards shot of a marble ceiling panel. The countersunk section 
measures about 3 feet square, and, unbelievably, is all a SINGLE PIECE of
marble. This 3D panel, as well as the amazing central rose panel (out of sight
 at the apex of the dome in the previous photo) had to be carved in situ by
the sculptor lying on his back. The usual system of carving-then-positioning
wouldn't work (the carving here was too fine and the elephant would likely
have wrecked it during the final  heavy lift). This depth of carving was
achieved by scraping and filing rather than chipping.

Otherwise, Mt Abu doesn't have a lot to offer except relative peace and quiet, and walks around Fingernail Lake. Here are few snaps taken around town, beginning with porters who enthusiastically offer to push/pull you (plus your luggage) in their trendy air-conditioned taxi-wheelbarrow:

 Hobbitts be here inside this boulder

Udaipur   City of palaces, tourists, and a fake lake.
I'll begin with an aerial shot which I nicked from a brochure - it gives a fair idea of the artificial lake for which the heart of Udaipur is known. Competing for space along its banks are various palaces built shoulder-to-shoulder by generations of Maharajahs:

...and now come for a stroll into the internal courtyard:

Imagine how this looked when it still had all its coloured glass inserts.

A swinging chair for the Maharani's idle hours on Farcebook

Where are the Wallies?

A kerosene fan in the Udaipur Palace Museum :-)
Of course I was inspired to go one better, and immediately invented the kerosene laptop.

Speaking of inventiveness, this horsiphant (elephorse?) successfully confused
enemy elephants. Elephants instinctively protect their young.
The trunk probably also suppressed any urge on the part of the horse
 to indulge in impulse grazing during the heat of battle.

One Maharajah's vast collection of vintage Rolls-Royces.
Yep, his other car is probably a Honda Jazz.

 ...and in the street outside the palaces, the Rolls-Royce of the Desert (4WD)

 In Udaipur's Botanical Gardens ("Women Only"; made originally for the Maharani) we were treated to an exuberant folk dance. I suspect, however, there were men involved:

Chittorgarh Fort  (a short-ish drive from Udaipur)

This fort was substantially destroyed by the Moghul emperors. They didn't actually want to occupy it, but destroyed it as an act of power to break the defeated Hindu enemy's spirit. Chittorgarh is but a shattered shadow of its former self. One photo should suffice:

The "Tower of Victory", naturally, was defaced as well:

Of more interest was a sandstone Jain temple, although not as finely carved - or as white - as the one back at Mt Abu. Although defaced, this was still being used as a "living" temple. India abounds with contradictions.

On the way back there were more tribal nomads on the road. Gaily-caparisoned camel trains of nomadic gypsies ply four-lane highways, an incongruous confluence of ancient and modern. The camels drip tassels of rainbow colours and sequins. Rajasthani colour serves as a cheery counterpoint to the uniform prickly drabness of the desert, but also can denote caste, occupation or social status:

The women generally do the gathering and carrying of firewood.

Out here in the north-western desert, people are gnarled, brown and tough but kind and accepting. Women sari-clad mostly in brilliant day-glo pinks, oranges, reds and yellows, glitter head-to-toe with silver sequins and studded brass nose-rings with small bells, carrying strapped bundles of firewood or shiny water-pots on their heads. Faces often modestly veiled with transparent flimsy material. Men, dustily barefoot or sandalled, wear bulbous brightly coloured turbans and once-white linen dhotis, gathered between knobbly knees.

 Ranakpur Jain Temple
...was by far the largest Jain temple we saw. Fifteenth century. Every one of its 1,444 white(ish) marble columns is carved uniquely, and its area of 48,000 sq ft and 24 domes meant, of course, that I got thoroughly disoriented and lost inside. I suffered 'supermarket syndrome'.  Marie's head, however, contains a built-in GPS, so I got out OK, thank Shiva...
 Where's Wally?

 Kumbhalgarh ('garh' = fort)
Surly and sulking on a forbidding ridge, Kumbhalgarh Fort is smaller than Chittorgarh had been, but it holds its head proud and mightily high. Unlike Chittorgarh, it was never properly conquered by the Moghuls.

Kumbhalgarh Fort, seen first from the approach road:

Kumbhalgarh's first gate: (yep, that's a child leading the cattle)

Trudge your way steeply up up up through an impregnable series of massive stone gateways, some bristling with sharpened metal anti-elephant spikes. Such gates were usually positioned just after a sharp corner so that a charging elephant couldn't get up any speed:

Up, up, ever up the flights of polished marble stairwells to the fluted domes on the highest ramparts. From up here you can look down on that approach road and any foolish invaders:

Outside the fort, the decimated remains of a buffalo carcass unnervingly remind one that Leopards Be Here. That night, out of reach of leopards, Marie recovers her nerve by whooping it up a bit with a rollicking Rajasthani maiden...
...and later I relax with the Indian Sunday Times and discover a gratuitously doctored gory photo on the front page:

Wow, that's more sensationalist even than the most populist Thai newspapers!
Apart from the badly photoshopped blood, notice the report of the local temperature.

It's certainly getting more parched round these parts. Wan slanting sunlight on a clear and chilly January morning. Dry bracken, an occasional scribbly grey-green tree, hunched against the cold. Lethargic cattle, grazing among scattered rubbish, claim their patch of sun. Brownly barren and jagged hills, eroding for aeons, punctuate an otherwise level or undulating sandscape. Some patches of low-crouching frothy acacias, curiously green. Dry stone wall fences meander aimlessly into the beige distance. As we drive through the dusty village and up the hill to the hotel, we enter an unexpected and different world: a converted former palace offering everything possible in luxury:

At Deogarh Palace, recently converted to a hotel by the 15th generation Ranak (king), we were housed in a 3-room apartment which was built in 1670. Originally a royal reception room (the "Kawandwara"), our bedroom walls were painted with fading 340 year-old originals of Lord Krishna, elephant battles etc. We could scarcely believe it - this was literally the most intimate possible encounter between Tourism and Culture:
For the sake of preserving the colours, I switched off the camera's flash.

Come on a walk-thru tour of the apartment:

Deogarh's dance show:

Steep descent along a ridge during a train joyride

Give biscuit = friend forever.
 Black-faced Macaques will snatch cameras if they look vaguely edible.

Flat sparse desert around the village of Rohet, where we stayed at Rohetgarh Palace, yet another former royal abode. Ostentatiously over-restored place, clearly reliant on sweetheart deals with tour companies... otherwise how would they attract enough visitors way out here?

The jeep "safari" took us to see some antelope grazing in fields of mustard oil crops, then to a Bishnoi vegetarian village (Hindu) with its mud/cowpoo thatched huts:

Posing for a living? Gold is where you find it.

The Bishnoi are vegetarian and actively protect the local wildlife. When the Indian filmstar Salman Khan shot a blackbuck antelope in their tribal territory, they got, like, real cranky. They made sure he got convicted, but even so continued to pursue him - almost like a fatwa (except they're Hindu). During a much publicised marathon in Jaipur, they harrassed the guy as he ran:
Click any photo if you wish to enlarge it. Afterwards, click your 'Back' button

We were treated to an opium "Welcome Ceremony" in a Brahmin village - clearly a tourist whitewash to disguise the lucrative backroom trade ("Orpium nod do hyor grrowing, Sirrh". Grrow nearr Udaipurrh"). We could have a drink of mild opium if we wanted, offered to us direct from the host's cupped right hand. Bit like coffee - apparently:

Marie tests an opium karrel. The blue wall indicates the house of a Brahmin caste, ie,
 they probably command enough clout to have done a cosy deal with the palace.

Whatever she had, I want some.
There is a legal opium growing license for 20 acres (for medicinal opium),
but they covertly grow 25, so there are some handy 'left-overs' which they
have probably agreed to share. Everyone (except tourists) understands that.

Back at the palace, a post-dinner magic show was compelling - but (ironically) served to reaffirm that there isn't really a huge amount to do at Rohet that isn't illegal or fattening.
Manvar Camp

Sands to the horizon in all directions - a Bedouin-style tent encampment, a five-star fairy-tale dream. We've stepped into the film-set of 'Arabian Nights'. Maharajahs, we! Elegantly turbaned chai-wallah brings a tray of hot masala tea in fine bone china cups... Both of us astride Kalu the Camel, lurching over sandhills towards the sunset... Silver service dinner of goat-meat and Tandoori Roti in the dining tent... Traditional musicians and dancers lit by log-fires... Wine and spiced paneer under a crisp diamond-sprinkled half-moon sky... Heated tent on our return... and hot-water bottles! Reality never gets this good. It's all romantic illusion, of course, but when they do it as sublimely as this, gee, all is forgiven:

Kalu [left] apprehensively awaits us

 Sorry about the horizon.  
It's awkward to manage a camera with one hand while bouncing atop a camel.

Kalu was jiggered after carrying two westerners, and was soon lulled
 to sleep by a musician who just happened to be busking nearby...

Thus ends Part 3. Now click here to view Part 4 (the final episode)

In Part 4 you will visit
Johdpur, Mehrangarh Fort, Jaipur, the Amber Fort, and Mandawar,
then see the Literature Festivals at both Jaipur and Galle.

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