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.