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.

Night Train to Jodhpur

We survive the overnight train ride with minimal hassle. Tired, kya? (are you tired?) Yes, but will get over it. I feel a glint of a short story brewing here…’Night Train to Jodhpur’… overtired, overstimulated brain working overtime and I can’t wait for whatever comes next.

December 23, Jodhpur: We were lucky to only be about an hour late arriving. Tis the nature of travel – maybe everything – in India. And nobody complains. It just is. So the train adventure was enjoyed to the maximum; bumps, stops, starts, a few cockroackes and dueling loudmouths at 3am make the story more interesting. Western toilets, maybe stinkier than the Indian ones. Chai wallah delivers a brilliant wake-up cup (and fills the travel mug upon request!!), ringing in the day on a perfectly acceptable note. The ride to the Haveli is through water-logged side streets, but the tuk tuks magically sprout rudders and sail us through the muck (no, actually, we get splashed and it is what it is).

I almost expect to see royal carriages in the car park and Maharajas or their attendants lounging in this old royal residence-cum-hotel… The Krishna Prakash Heritage Haveli is a renovated mansion of old, with the decor and architecture beckoning me back to a time and place long, long ago. The hotel sits in the shadow of the large-looming Merhangarh Fort, a palace to the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

View of Merhangarh Fort from KP Heritage Haveli

Merhangarh Fort…In this land of princely kingdoms, Maharajas and Maharanis, you can feel their presence in the air. Maybe it’s because I’m reading a novel set in and around one of these palaces. Maybe it’s because the 70-100′ high walls are imposing and awe-inspiring; the views breathtaking; and the intricate detail in every room and on every surface either a spectacular testament to a Royal’s ego or a manifestation of their impeccable attention to every last detail. Either way, the views of the Blue City from the top were jaw-dropping.

And to (Sadar Bazaar) market we go… there is the story of the fabric seller who weaves his own tales of fame and high fashion and fortune. The spice merchant who carries on her father’s legacy in the spice business. The samosa maker who should win the nobel prize for street food. Same goes for the lassi walla.

So we travel on into the proverbial pink/blue Jodhpur sunset…air resonating with the distant sounds of the adhan, the call to prayer, tuk tuk beeps, cats, drums and train horns. Genuine thali for dinner (need to check if free refills are included in thali back home!), and I have said at least 3 times today, “I can’t believe I’m really in India.”

Street Walking in Delhi

December 22: Street Walking in Old Delhi

This day starts with a walk in the streets of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Chaos wakes up early, as street sleepers and tuk tuks, taxis, cycle rickshaws, cows, dogs and all others who share the roads begin their frenzy. “Chai omelet chai omelet” yell the markets’ breakfast wallahs. Misplaced punctuation makes a traveller curious.

Sobering is the number of kids on the street in the cities here. In a population of 1 billion, there are a million kids living on the streets in India. A million runaways, cast-offs, lost, forgotten, displaced and simply abandoned or not-forgotten children who could be potential game-changers for the next generation. We connect with a NGO called Salaam Baalak Trust, working to help these boys and girls get off the streets and rise to their dharma. According to their website, Salaam Baalak Trust translates literally to “salute the child,” and they do this by providing a safe haven for such a slim fraction of these kids.

So after a walk in the gnarly, dirty, busy, noisy, somewhat smelly but not as bad as I expected streets, we met some of the new arrivals at the Salaam Baalak Trust boys’ shelter in Paharganj. Here, they dance, they sing, they learn, they look for their families…many of whom don’t want them back. My heart nearly exploded when a very small boy, maybe 7 or 8, took my hands in his little warm mitts, stared directly into my eyes and asked me, “what are your dreams?” He wants to be a footballer.

I keep coming back to the tuk tuks because they are literally everywhere! And so, this day, I survive my first-ever tuk tuk ride… I have determined that a tuk tuk ride through the streets of Delhi is as good an adrenaline rush as a roller coaster. This one had a big Om on the back window. Regardless of the implied security (doors, what doors?), we nearly lost our lives… 6 times minimum.

Even with millions of homeless in India, it is said that one cannot go hungry. If there is a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) nearby, regardless of caste or heritage you are invited in for a free meal. As seva, we hand-rolled chapati alongside the automatic chapati machine issuing forth dozens to our single-digit creations. Being part of the well-oiled machine that feeds thousands each day felt like the right thing to do.

Here, it seems everything is either for sale, negotiable or remedied with rupees. Case in point, muslim custom dictates that women should cover up in a mosque and that photos are not allowed. In Jama Masjid, one can pay a camera fee to bring in a camera (I am soon to find out that this is common at most tourist attractions – I’ve never seen that before!) and one can opt to a) walk past the guy asking you to cover up with a borrowed robe or b) use said borrowed robe to cover up and pay $10 rupees for the privilege. I was shuttled towards the guy by the queue, so had little choice in the matter.

The day continues with another couple of tuk tuk rides: from Connaught Place to India Gate, a blur of fog, color, hawkers, visitors (99.9% Desi – Indian) and preparations for an upcoming event…then back to our hotel to get ready for the next leg of the adventure: an overnight train to Jodhpur. I feel like I’m on the Amazing Race, and they’ve forgiven my not quite first class map-reading skills.

India, Day 1

I want to caveat this first… I am not a “tour” person. I like to travel, immerse myself in a culture,  meet local people, see the world through their eyes. India was so massive and daunting to me that for my first go at this place, I felt I needed a guide, and therefore a tour. I signed up for a tour through the most local-friendly company I could find, G Adventures, and embarked on their 15-day Rajasthan Adventure, adding a few days on my own at the end to explore in my own way. Rajasthan is where most of India’s history began, so it felt a fitting place to start…

December 21, 2014: Organized – no, synchronized – chaos.

Arrived in Delhi today… First impressions: smog, traffic, friendly faces, cows, cycle rickshaws, tuk tuks, scooters…all vying for a lane. What lanes? Horns, chaos and I’m in fucking India in the back of a taxi from the airport and breathing it in along with the smog, fog, sounds, smells… this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg and it is hitting me in all my senses and from all directions.

Trucks, dressed up to party – tassles hanging and bling blinging. There’s one tall skinny guy standing motionless, like an iceberg or a human minaret, selling roses in the middle of this crazy racing traffic. And the children…there they are on the side of the road, in the dust, prepping his bouquets.

As we drive into Karol Bagh I recognize the overpass, and then the giant Hanuman statue, I’d seen in my Google searches. I feel like I am in the right place, because really where else on the planet could a 108′ Hanuman statue coexist with this chaos?

It’s so much noisier than I ever considered. The road signs are in Hinglish. There’s a alien-yet-familiar smoke-fog in the air. The myriad horns beep greetings and warnings in an alarmingly loud, yet rhythmic, cacophony. This is the score for Delhi’s ‘Synchronised Chaos Symphony #2’ (in Q minor).

My first shower in 2 days feels wonderful. And I think this: Delhi takes no prisoners and shows up 100%.