I’ve been back from India for about 6 months now, but the bits and pieces I picked up there remain. The smiles, the centeredness, the amazing ability to shoulder great life burdens that we in the west need a fleet of doctors and comfort food to ease.
I wrote an article for Elephant Journal recently, about the concept of impermanence and some thoughts on being OK with the present…
While the jet lag is long gone, a lasting impression has lingered. I left a small piece of myself in Rajasthan, and some larger piece of its magic came home with me, alongside the trinkets and experiences that remind me of my travels…. Read more here.
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.
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.
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.
Rajasthan 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.
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.
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.
Hotel Mahendra Prakash room #9
For the record, this woman danced with a total of 10 pots on her head!
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.