Outskirts of Agra: More Time Travel and Amber That Shines Like Gold

There were two stops this day. The first was somewhere between Jaipur and Agra. Abhaneri was a 30-minute pit stop that time travelled our little tour bus back 1000 years. The village itself looked like a step back to medieval times if not earlier. There are no paved roads in these villages, and the dust that settles everywhere creates an ancient aura to this seemingly cow dung-caked town.

The Chand Baori (step well) is a carved marvel, flanked by squawking parakeets and the occasional monkey. Even 2 weeks into my trip to India, it still astounds me that even common utilities like this well were so intricately-carved, with decoration and images of every Hindu deity imaginable; prayers going out for health, wealth, water and prosperity. This is a farming community after all; the deities still revered even though Muslim factions decimated the temple and the images of the gods here centuries ago.

Onwards, towards Agra, to the city of Amber (Amer).

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I’m learning as I visit the palaces and fortresses throughout Rajasthan, the Rajput royal families lived in quite grand fashion. So the Amber Fort did not disappoint. Smaller than Kumbhalgarh, yet larger than the Red Fort that was on the itinerary for Agra, this castle-cum-palace-cum-fortress boasted double moats (for crocodiles, then hungry tigers, should an intruder get through…) Amer Fort, as it is called, has 4 courtyards…each slightly higher into the clouds, and from each a view of the pink city below. More terra cotta than pink, the view is a step back in time almost 1000 years. Semi-ruins sit beside newer mud and clay and more cow dung structures, and life is carried out as if it were still 1433. Here, I really do think the pictures do the site justice.

New Year’s in Jaipur: Now is What Matters

Jaipur, in the waning light of 2014. Jaipur is an old walled-in city within a new, bustling metropolis. The charm and the chaos of the ancient Old City market, with its touts and hawkers and fabric/bangle/pocketbook/toy/knick-knack/clothing/shoe/tea/spice/pan stalls is an assault to the senses. You can smell the old city’s streets, hear the horns and bells and calls of the sellers….”meeess, meeess…buy theeess…” You can almost taste the roadside snacks and the grit of the commotion. The colors are explosive, almost fireworks and magic against the dark streets and gray skies. You can feel the frenetic energy vibrating throughout your body. Our contingent of international travellers haggles furiously and we’re pleased with the deals we’ve struck. Kurtis for the night’s festivities. Bags of presents for friends and family back home. We have learned to say no to the hawkers and dismiss the beggars without feeling the shame or heartbreak for not helping those in need.

Reminders of the days of purdah are in every city. The Great Façade that is Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal is essentially a tall viewing stand for the women of the city so they could watch festivals and goings-on in the street without being seen. Stories high, this structure looks like a dainty sandstone fortress rising from the chock-a-block street below. As with many of these centuries-old buildings here, it doesn’t even look real.

The new year’s festivities begin at a local family’s home, where the woman of the house gives cooking demonstrations and serves a magnificent feast for the travel-weary troops. From this and watching the chai wallahs, I’ve learned how to make authentic chai…the real masala tea that contains hand-mashed ginger and cardamom, boiled milk and spices and tea powder and sugar. Pure Indian love poured from a steaming pot. This is one certainty: I will miss this when I return to my western reality. Chai and hand-rolled chapatis, garlicky naan and homemade paneer… I know I’ve passed the Indian spice test when I embrace the mouth-tingling feeling the hand-crushed red chilis add to a masala curry.

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A Bollywood-ish New Year’s Eve party. We wore bindis and kurtas and Rajasthan-made shoes. We danced to Bollywood hits, drank local beer and laughed. One of my most carefree and light new year’s eves in ages, with balloons and party horns and those clicker things…. the music was loud and it somehow overpowered the horns and tuk tuks and general Jaipur din emanating from the street below. We were a kingfisher-infused motley crew, representing most of the 7 continents. New Year’s has no ethnicity.

Indian men hold hands here. It is for camaraderie and connection and maybe just that nice feeling of holding hands, as there are few women around and also this is a conservative part of the country where public displays of affection are still frowned upon. They also, unlike the States, dance together (Bollywood style)… they all know the moves and if they don’t, well, they make them up. It makes for a wildly entertaining spectacle. Women (en masse) are invited up to dance with the men – much like a summer camp social – and guarded by their male friends, cousins, brothers and (in our case) tour guides. This a horny and male-dominated culture, with Kama Sutra roots. Combine that with a conservative state of mind and there is bound to be trouble. Rapes, violence against women…the dark side of this always-smiling, dancing and singing mass of bodies.

India is loud and in your face. So maybe an even more unique experience than Times Square was this semi-Bollywood celebration of New Year’s Eve. This is India. So just before, or maybe a minute after midnight, as we westerners were checking our phones for the precisely correct time to start the countdown to midnight(ish), the lights and sound went out. The din evaporated. And in that 2 or 4 or 42 seconds that the lights and music were dark, with the smell of bonfires in the air, I realised that instead of counting down a year that was, or to a year that was to be, that a big reset button was pressed.

The night continued on, but it felt like we were in that limbo time between the realities of yesterday and the possibilities of tomorrow. There was no talk of resolutions or unachievable expectations for envisioned tomorrows…there was just that feeling in the air of weightless possibility and a celebration of that which is now… This is India. Regardless of the noise and the chaos and the cows and dogs and monkeys and tuk tuks and trash and bumpy roads and funny little Indian men singing Justin Bieber songs at midnight, there is now and there is light. And as ridiculous and absurd and amazing as this place is, there is this pervasive feeling that Now is what matters.

Pushkar: Holy City By The Lake

Pushkar is this quirky little city, and it is revered as one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in India. Pushkar Lake is said to have formed from a lotus flower dropped by Lord Brahma. He built temples to his two wives, Savitri and Gayitri, in Pushkar. Savitri temple is the highest because she is his ‘true’ wife, and should be worshiped first and foremost over Gayitri. Read a snapshot of the story here. Pilgrims flock to the lake to bathe in its holy waters, to be blessed by Brahmin priests, to picnic on the ghat steps and renew.

2014-12-28 16.33.28It seems an oddly contradictory city, which sweetly grows on you the more time you spend here. There are fake sadhus and gurus who will take your money. These pseudo-holy men wait by the lake or in the throngs at the market and befriend, then extort, an innocent would-be pilgrim who is just there to find peace. Yet there are pilgrim’s (read: tourist’s) rules to abide when just walking in the streets. No public displays of affection. Women must be covered. No shoes within 30 feet of Pushkar Lake. No drinking. No drugs. All veg, all the time.

The market streets of Pushkar are like a flea market on a Sunday afternoon. With cows. And camels. And dogs. And chai wallahs. And monkeys. There are hawkers of every color in the rainbow, selling every possible trinket imaginable: Rajasthani swords and puppets. Bangles and tinkling anklets. Holy texts and scarves and spices and camel jewelry (and people jewelry) and prayer beads. There are tourists and pilgrims and wandering cows by the dozen in this sacred city. Women in the market sell bunches of grass to feed the cows as a karmic offering. One wonders whether the offering becomes less sacred when it’s a commodity.

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The chanting in the background prevails at all hours of the day and thus provides an ancillary soundtrack to this city. There is the buzzing frenzy of the market, yet by the lake it is a veritable oasis within a city altogether. The buzz fades and the vibrations of myriad oms resonate deeply. It is mesmerizing, enchanting. The monkeys are as reverent as the pilgrims, making their offerings to their deities (or perhaps reaping the pilgrims’ spoils) and bathing in the lake’s holy waters alongside the pilgrims. Marble tiles lead to the terraced landings of each of the 52 ghats (the marble steps that lead down to Pushkar Lake), each ghat carrying its own spiritual significance, character and style. I was transfixed by the light at different times of day as it hit the lake. Here, lake-watching beats people-watching, as observing the comings and goings of devotees is a soothing meditation in itself. I partake in a morning blessing ritual by the lake, honouring ancestors and willing wishes to come true. Orange good luck threads tied to my wrist serve as fraying soft cotton reminders of the light on the lake and the Sanskrit blessings bestowed by the Brahmin priest.

The climb to the top of the Savitri temple revealed a meh-worthy sunrise through the hazy morning sky, though the chai served by the temple attendant at the top was worth the early wake-up call. Monkeys posed for photos in the breaking morning light. It was lovely.

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A trip to the desert is not complete without the ultimate tourist act: a camel ride. So into the desert we ride, culminating with dinner, gypsy dancing and a magic show in an open corral in the middle of the desert. Dressed in gypsy clothes, we ate and laughed and danced into the cool desert night.

Travelling Back in Time: Jojawar

December 27, 2014: What a sweet little village. A shrunken version of the city chaos, plus the smells of what one might expect living with camels and cows and dogs and pigs and a dearth of what the West considers clean. The chai is pure heaven, brewed magnificently by a man so content to serve his foreign guests. I want to take him home with me and show the baristas how it’s really done… and I am almost embarrassed to pay the mere 10 Rupees for the cup. The smile on his face as he serves is magic. It conveys the spirit of every chai wallah and passer-by I have encountered here. As if they don’t realize what homage and honor and something like awe that I feel in visiting their homeland.

Here, the Havelis are called rawlas – and ours was lovely. I suppose the world is enraptured with old American cars. Greeting us at the rawla was an immense courtyard, high white stone walls accented with pink roof tiles and awnings, juxtaposed against bright spring-green grass and a deep cobalt sky. The antique Ford sits in the car park as a statue in a museum; a symbol of wealth and culture and worldliness that lies behind the gate, keeping out the real world that lies just a few metres beyond the dusty entry where the cows graze for food, dogs copulate and pigs mill about.

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The natural world’s colors are mirrored in everything, in this land of duality. Austere and generous souls. Holy and capitalist. Poor, yet content with the world as it is. Women in rainbow-colored glittering saris work the fields, flanked by cows and egrets. I am travelling within a proverbial postcard that one could only believe is real by experiencing it first-hand. This place does not look real to me, and it feels wholly surreal even after so may days of immersion.

If nothing else, the British left India with a brilliant railway system that criss-crosses this enormous land and connects the large cities to these timeless villages. To travel India by rail (or at least part time) is to experience another side of the culture and perhaps even a rite of passage for a traveller here. The sight-seeing train ride between two spectacularly rural stations gave a panoramic view of the Araveli hills via breathtaking passes, pitch-black tunnels – the high-pitched shrill of local children’s excited shrieking voices echoing in the dark will stay with me each time I ride a train through a tunnel – and sweeping views of the countryside, its desert-scruff meeting the smoky haze of the pale blue sky. This old train makes me somehow nostalgic for simpler times as the sound of the wheels on old tracks creates this meditative soundtrack to the landscape rolling by my window.

Falling in Love…AKA I (heart) Udaipur

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The haveli mansions of the Rajput families stand out from the stone and stucco buildings with their intricate latticework and gates, painted facades and romantic windows. If I wasn’t already, I think I fell in love with India in Udaipur. Times Square meets The Flintstones. Venice meets Bollywood. Palaces and henna and food and kingfishers (the beer; the birds we save for a later date)…oh, my!

This was a funny day… it started with bleating. A goat tried to get into the lobby of the hotel. He was thwarted of course, but the hooves and the bleating and the hotel manager’s yelling trying to get him out… And so I woke up laughing. Today we toured the fabulous palace on the lake. Meandered through the old town and appreciated its happy chaos. I bought a Rajasthani miniature painting, had a Ganesha painted on my fingernail by a miniature master and had my hand hennaed. Today was a good day.

2015-01-26 20.39.33Rajasthan in general, and Udaipur specifically, is famous for its miniature paintings. These artisans use meticulous skill to paint in minuscule detail on every square inch (centimeter) of the canvas, be it silk or antique paper, resulting in micro-masterworks accented in gold or silver, using cow urine and vegetable dyes as paint colouring. Their brushes are hand-made from squirrel fur (apparently, one must distract the squirrel with a nut or sweet in order to snip its tail hairs…this is a process in itself!). These paintings tell the stories of Mewar (Udaipur) royal families, of hunts and of love. Three symbols depict Rajasthan: the horse (for power), the elephant (for luck) and the camel (for love). Legend has it that if you can love (the smell of) a camel, you can love anyone! These spirits run deep in this area and you see paintings of these icons everywhere.

In this place where the moon lays on its back to ask for a belly rub, the sun sets on a palace and the city by the lake draws you in and grabs you by the heart chakra.

Dinner was the best food yet, eaten sitting on a balcony overlooking the lake; we stayed to drink Kingfisher beers and laughed for what seemed like hours. A tuk tuk is always an adventure. Riding with 3 new friends with a head full of beer is the best kind. The back roads of Old Town Udaipur are narrow. There are cows, motor bikes, more tuk tuks, dogs, goats and cars… Driving: the dodging and weaving, slowing and gunning it, is an artform here. Also the backing up and maneuvering around said road obstacles in order to get to our destination. Happy chaos.

Though (maybe because?) I have become more acclimated to this foreign land and more accustomed to the numbers – of people, cows, horns, dogs, all the stuff…the rhythms of each city and village we visit become more evident – the rhythms of everyday life thunder within, like absorbing the pulse or the heartbeat of this overwhelming yet enrapturing place. The absurdities of everyday life become tolerable. Even here where the absurd seems much more evident to the outsider, it becomes an important part of the pulse, like comic relief and even a necessity akin to the air we need to breathe. India is a place where you must pay attention. You must be present. You must allow. Chaos is going to happen whether you participate or not, whether you fight it or not. So amidst the the debris and noise and chaos, there is this pervasive sense of humility and OK-ness. This, I suppose, can be interpreted as peace. Like the lotus which thrives amidst and maybe even in spite of the debris on the surface, its roots reach down to find that grounded place to take hold.

*Note: I should address the swastika here. You see swastikas everywhere on entrances to buildings, temples, homes and havelis. In Sanskrit, the word svastika is a symbol of good fortune, luck, strength and is used as a talisman of good luck and well-being. That the Nazis maligned the sentiment is light years beyond an understatement.

The Hidden Fortress at Kumbhalgarh

December 25, 2014: Christmas day at Kumbhalgarh Fort.

Kumbalgarh. First, the facts: this hidden fortress sits at an amazing 1100 metres, and is built of stone and marble. It is jaw-dropping and there are not enough words to describe the largess juxtaposed with its intricacy (every surface is hand-carved) and relative invisibility (you do not see the fort until you are at the gate). The surrounding wall is the 2nd largest to the Great Wall of China. There were 7000 cannons in its day and 8 galloping horses could run side by side across the width on parts of the wall. Immense and humbling is an understatement. Lonely Planet tells me that it is possible to walk the entire wall, and that there are 360 temples within its bounds – some dating back to the 2nd century BC. This place is old and breathtaking. I don’t think the pictures will ever do it justice.

These fortresses were the strongholds of the kingdom as well as regional castles. Hence, within the walls lie smaller palaces, residences and temples as well as the main palace with its multi-level courtyards, intricately-carved and stunningly-decorated living spaces, purdah palaces (women’s chambers, dining halls and more courtyards), kitchens, sleeping chambers, entertaining halls, king’s quarters and those special chambers optimally configured, blessed and decorated for the creation of next-generation Rajput kings.DSCF1992

From the top of the fort you can see the rolling Aravalli Hills unfold, revealing temples and humble abodes that still appear to be working homesteads all these centuries later. This is the spectacularly simple beauty of Rajasthan, a 1000+ year old state that functions in the 21st century as if the greater universe does not exist. Or is it that when you enter the gate of Kumbhalgarh, you are time-travelled to the land of princely kingdoms and the outer world indeed ceases to be?

I was introduced to a fruit today called the custard apple – it is like lychee meets artichoke and is delightful. These we hoard on the bus, then we travel onward to Udaipur: city by the lake. We check into the Hotel Mahendra Prakash, another haveli and I feel a sense of warmth and comfort in the tile inlay walls, the curtained window seat…this hotel has a wonderfully inviting lobby, garden-lounge and even a pool. There is a cultural show this Christmas evening featuring Rajasthani dancing and puppetry. From the description, I fear that this is the kind of tourist attraction I’ve been dreading, but I am so relieved that perhaps 97% of the audience is Desi (Indian!). It is a holiday week and who doesn’t like dancing and puppets? So we watch the cultural show at Udaipur’s Bagore Ki Haveli on the lake. I want to stay in this city forever.

WiFi and Skype are much appreciated this Christmas night, and thanks to the time difference I am able to wish family and friends spread across the globe a happy holiday in their respective time zones. Deeply grateful for the voices across the magical interweb, I go to sleep with a smile on my face and think I’ve made the right decision coming here.

Christmas Eve 7000 Miles from Home

December 24, 2014: On this Christmas Eve it is work to put aside thoughts of my dad, whose birthday is tomorrow… I immerse myself in Indian culture, partake in a traditional Bisnoi opium ritual (watered down for the tourists, I’m sure) and spend the morning viewing hand-crafted wares in this off-the-beaten-track Rajasthani village. There was the man making hand-thrown pottery on a stone potter’s wheel that could easily have been the one his great-great-great-great grandfather used all those generations ago. The weaver and his beautiful rugs. The journey through these villages is like stepping into a time machine and going back 500 or more years.

En route to the Jain temple, we stop for a short visit to the “biker temple.” Story has it that a man called Om Banna, was killed when his motorbike hit a tree. As the story goes, the motorbike that was being held at the police station disappeared periodically, despite being locked away, and was found at the crash site. There is folklore of good deeds and good fortune bestowed by a man called Om. On the side of the highway, somewhere between Jodhpur and Ranakpur, there is a temple honouring this Om. And amidst the incense and chanting and drumming and fanfare of Om believers and hawkers selling truck decorations, there is a young couple being blessed by the guru before their wedding. And in the back of this very rustic temple stands the Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike, encased in a glass box.

Jain temples have a distinct look, like an ice cream sundae or hand-sewn lace or marzipan or…what? They just don’t look real. This is the Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Trust Jain Temple in Ranakpur. The intricacy of the carvings is mesmerising. The volume of marble used is astounding. In hindsight I think the craftsmanship here rivals that of even the Taj Mahal itself. At every corner, there are new marble wonders: pillars, elephants, lattice work, gargoyles, dizzying ceilings. I walk through the temple in awe of the hands that made this come to life.

What’s off-putting about not being home at Christmastime is even more wobbly when in a country that doesn’t practice the holiday. “Merry Christmas” is a greeting here, like “hello foreigner,” said with that enormous bright-white smile. I find it endearing and somehow more genuine than the context the holiday has taken in the west. There is this other phenomenon of Indian kids wanting to have their pictures taken with us. If you sit or stand in one place for just a minute or two, you will undoubtedly have one pre-teen or 5 (or their entire family) lining up to pose with you. And so you smile and wonder what happens with these pictures… do they have a contest for who has the most pictures with foreigners? Are they hoping that one of these foreigners turns out to be a celebrity back home? Regardless, it is harmless sport and we indulge.

The temple is closing soon and we continue the journey up into the hills, past scrub desert jungle and trees full of monkey eyes watching our little bus. We land at this jungle oasis, Aranyawas, up in these hills somewhere near Ranakpur. This must be a beautiful place in the summertime – it reminds me of camp in some ways: bonfires and a large mess hall. We celebrate Christmas Eve with dinner and secret santa and fireworks by the campfire. It is freezing. Even if there were hot water, there’s no heat (grateful for blankets!). It is so cold in the beautiful stone cottage that there’s the distinct possibility of turning into a block of ice upon turning off the shower. I will wake up smelling like a samosa.