Monday, March 21, 2011

India Trip Report (Part 3 of 3)

I travelled to India recently, and for the benefit of family members, I'm posting my trip report here on the blog. Because the report is looooong, I'll split it up over three postings.

Last Monday's installment covers days 1 - 3 of the trip, last Wednesday's post covers days 4 - 7, and today's post will cover days 8 - 15.

My husband does not like his name appearing on my blog, so I've referred to him as "El Husbando" here. My family members can mentally swap in his real name :-)

Passage to India; February-March, 2011

Day 8 - Feb. 26, 2011 - Driving to Jaisalmer, No Tours

Random Moments of Wow:
  • Acacia trees are sacred, so no one cuts them down, but you do see them pruned back. Apparently, people cut all the branches off twice a year and then dry them. The leaves are used as food for livestock and the branches are burned as firewood.
  • It turns out the Indians call goat meat "mutton" and sheep meat "lamb". This means JJ ate goat by accident! (But it was quite tasty and tender, and not too different than sheep mutton.)
  • We saw a huge crow! It was the size of seagulls in Stanley Park, i.e. almost as big as your head.
  • In a rest stop, we saw a wall that had broken glass glued to the top of it. El Husbando says people often do that as a cheap form of barbed wire. It's actually quite pretty in the sunshine.
  • On the road, we passed a location where, once per year, there's a pilgrimage. About 100,000 people gather 10 km from a Hindu temple, take their shoes off, and walk barefoot to the temple. They leave the shoes behind as a mark that they were there, and so when you drive past, you see the ditches full of shoes. (Someone must gather most of them up and remove them, because we didn't see 100,000 pairs of shoes there, but there's still plenty of sandals lying about.)
  • Where we stopped for lunch was very close to the Indian (underground) nuclear test site. Yusef didn't tell us that until afterward!
  • At different points, we had to slow down for a herd of camels, a herd of sheep, and a herd of goats.
  • This stretch of road was within 35 km of the Pakistan border. We passed a convoy carrying over a dozen tanks.
  • We also passed a wind farm (with those huge, white modern windmills) and a date palm plantation that still only had very young plants.

What we learned:
  • Jaisalmer became a ghost town after sea routes replaced the camel caravan routes. In 1971, its strategic significance increased due to conflicts with Pakistan and the town was repopulated.
  • Jaisalmer Fort, which is an impressive structure built on the top of a mesa, has about 2,000 people living in it. The town is located below the fort.

There was no tour this evening, as we would spend the entire next day in Jaisalmer.

Day 9 - Feb. 27, 2011 - Tour of Jaisalmer Fort, Camel Rides

First, we stopped at an artificial lake that was built by a wealthy dancer/prostitute. People didn't approve of her second profession and so kept destroying the lake's walls to let the water out. To counter that, she built temples all around the edges of the lake so no one would dare damage the structure anymore. It was a very pretty area with a few temple structures built right out in the water itself.

The fort is dramatic, sitting up on the cliffs, and while you walk in along utilitarian roads, the palaces of course gets very ornate and impressive. We got a great view of the city from up on the fort's walls, and the group as a whole indulged in some retail therapy in the city. It was a nice change from touring palaces and monuments, as we could just walk through the streets and enjoy both pretty and ordinary buildings, as well as see people simply living their lives. We saw some kids playing cricket on a tiny little porch, which confirms Yusef's claim that anywhere there's a bit of open space in India, you will find people playing cricket.

That evening, we went on camel rides! These were great in that we actually got to stay on the camels for about half an hour. There are vendors who follow you, and when we got to the sand dunes, there were kids dressed up in the clothes and makeup of dancers, hoping to get tips in exchange for photographs. The sand was very silky, and JJ had to pour quite an amazing volume of it out of her shoes later.

We discovered that evening that the tour company often doesn't pay for the guide or the driver to stay at the same luxury accommodations that the guests do. We felt so bad for Yusef, going off to a cheaper hotel without us that evening, but we felt even worse for Ram, the driver, who had to sleep on the bus!

Day 10 - Feb. 28, 2011 - Driving to Jodhpur, Tour in Jodhpur

Random Moments of Wow:
  • The 1,000 rupee note (the largest monetary bill India has) was only introduced in 2007. 1,000 rupees is about $20 Cdn.
  • We stopped at the side of the road and Ram paid a woman some money for feed, which he then fed to the woman's cows. This is supposed to bring luck.
  • 40% of India's chartered accountants come from Jodhpur. Yusef described it as an accountant factory.
  • On the way to the fort in Jodhpur, we drove (far away from, but) past the palace where the actress Liz Hurley was married. The king who built that palace originally wanted to give money to the poor people in the region, but when they refused, saying they weren't beggars, he employed them instead to build the palace.
  • The fort we visited has cannon damage, and when you're entering, you can see the holes in the walls and the gate from it.
  • On the way to the fort, we had to slow down considerably to get through a wedding party, and it was hilarious because the kids--who were already excited about the wedding--got super-excited to have us as their captive audience. They started waving and bouncing up and down, and they were thrilled when we took their photos, then turned the cameras around to show them the image on the LCD.
  • Jodhpur is a very pretty, well-maintained city with lots of flowers. An important minister comes from there, so much money has funnelled into the city in recent years.

What we learned:
  • Construction on the fort was started in 1459, but they had trouble with the walls falling down. When they learned that a Sufi saint had been buried in the region, they went looking for his grave and eventually discovered they had been trying to build a wall right over top of it. They rebuilt the wall with a space left over the saint's grave, and the wall never fell down again.
  • Near the gate, there's a plaque with red hands carved on it. Each handprint was placed there by one of the wives of the king and later carved into a relief, but there's a sinister significance to this plaque.
    • At the time, when a man died, his wife would take opium and climb onto his funeral pyre to burn with him. This was called sati, and it was usually voluntary. The handprints were left by the queens who burned with their dead king.
    • The Indian government has taken steps to stamp this practice out. The women who performed sati were considered goddesses, and temples were erected to them. The government has closed all these temples so no one can pray in them anymore.
    • Also, the last case of sati took place in a remote village in 1992. The government arrested the entire village and put them in jail! The logic was that something like this is cultural, and so everyone in the village was culpable for not stopping the woman.

This fort is called Mehrangarh, where "mehran" means "saint" or "guru", and "garh" means "fort". I'm afraid all my descriptions must be sounding the same by now, but again, it was utterly beautiful. The fort is built on top of cliffs, but it's much more ornate than Jaisalmer Fort was, and has building after building with complex carved stone screen as the walls. The royal family still owns the site and uses it for ceremonies. (And whoo boy, the crown prince is cute. No longer single, though.)

There were some museum-like displays there, such as a hookah pipe and the bags that were used to filter water over opium. There were also grass curtains that water trickled through, providing extra cooling to the room. Probably the most interesting object, however, was a small, functional pistol that could be worn as a bracelet!

Looking out over the city, there was a large cluster of houses with blue-painted roofs. Only Brahmins are permitted to do that, and it makes for a very pretty view.

Day 11 - Mar. 1, 2011 - Driving to Ranakpur, Tour of Jain Temple

Random Moments of Wow:
  • In this region, the men wear great big turbans, almost ball-shaped, on their heads. It's for protection against the sun, since the hot fabric isn't resting directly against your scalp.
  • We passed a shrine to a man who had been killed on the highway on his motorcycle. He died far from home, his body was transported back, and then his motorcycle showed up also and no one knew how it got there. This was interpreted to be a miracle, and so the shrine was constructed and the motorcycle stands just behind it.
  • The big trucks in India always have a string of black pompoms attached to outer rear-view mirrors. The colour black is supposed to ward off all evil. A few of the ladies in our group bought themselves strings of pompoms off a boy selling them by the side of the road and attached them to our bus.
  • We passed an area full of eucalyptus gum trees from Australia. They're very nice (and smell great!), but are considered too thirsty a plant for India.
  • A banyan tree is a type of ficus tree, so it's related to fig trees. It's also called the "tree of life" in India because it never really dies; it just keeps putting up new shoots.
  • MONKEYS!! And by that, I mean a lot of monkeys. At the Jain temple in Ranakpur, there was both a group of Langur monkeys, which have whitish bodies and black faces, and some smaller, golden Rhesus monkeys. You had to watch out for the latter type, as they will snatch things and run away, or bite if you try to scare them off. We saw some of them climb into a jeep, grab something with beads and satin ribbons on it, and then run under a (stationary) tour bus to attempt to eat whatever it was.

When we got to Ranakpur, we toured a Jain temple that is 500 years old. The temple was situated in Ranakpur, which is small, isolated, and serenely lush in vegetation, to aid meditation. The temple is simple on the outside and decorated on the inside to represent how one should strive for inner beauty first. This also helps discourage the interest of thieves.

The inside of the temple is white marble and contains 1044 carved pillars, every one of which is unique. The temple has many spots where it is open to the sky, so it's quite bright within. It was really an amazing place, and there was plenty to take photos of, but we weren't allowed to take photos of the niches where the statues of the gods were located. This is too bad because the niches were dark, with black statues that had gold on the whites of their eyes. This meant that when you looked in, you saw two seemingly-glowing eyes staring back at you from the darkness.

That evening, we opened the hotel window and just listened to the birdsong pouring in.

Day 12 - Mar. 2, 2011 - Driving to Udaipur

Random Moments of Wow:
  • Driving through the mountains, we took a tiny winding road and saw some wonderful small villages. There were:
    • Ox-powered wells ("Persian wells")
    • Mango trees and chickpea fields
    • Little, elegant white cranes walking around green wheat fields
    • A tree full of sleeping flying fox bats
    • Fences on the sides of the road that held back the frequent rockslides
  • When we got onto the main highway closer to Udaipur, we saw three cows complacently lying in the middle of a lane.
  • We also saw a lot of factories near Udaipur with huge (car-sized) blocks of marble sitting in their yards. The area is famous for its green marble.
  • Udaipur is called the lake city because there are many lakes in the area (in among mountains.) On an island in the middle of one of these lakes, we saw an observatory.
  • The lobby of our hotel had all these brilliant coloured-glass mosaics set into the white plaster of the walls. They were beautiful!
  • At the top of one of the mountains, you can see the "monsoon palace" of a former king. He would go up there during the monsoons and pretty much live in a cloud for the whole season.
  • In the centre of Pichola lake, near where our hotel was located, is the famous Lake Hotel, which is situated on its own island. The James Bond movie Octopussy was shot there.

That evening, we took a stroll into the old city to a gate where we could look at the Lake Hotel. Udaipur has a lot of backpackers because you can get a room in someone's house for 500 rupees ($10 Cdn) a night, and foreigners are no big deal to the locals there.

Day 13 - Mar 3, 2011 - Tours of Udaipur

What we learned from Yusef:
  • The City Palace is owned by the world's longest living dynasty. This royal family dates back to 734 A.D. (which is roughly 1,300 years.)
  • The dynasty has had some rough times because they refused to accept the Moghul emperors and were thus uprooted from their original capital. In ~1550 A.D., Udai Singh asked a Hindu saint what he could do, and the saint said if he made a palace in the location where Udaipur is now, he would get his kingdom back.
    • Udai did this, although he had to make peace with the Moghuls to do so.
    • His son Protap Singh never accepted this, and fought the Moghuls, first with traditional warfare and then with guerrilla tactics. He died in battle and is considered a great hero.
    • A third revered king of Udaipur was Bupal Singh, who was paralysed but still considered one of the best and most progressive rulers in the city's history. After Independence, he was the first king to choose to become part of the new India.

The City Palace was a little more run-down than some of the places we visited, but it had some amazing decorations. The glass mosaics we saw at the hotel weren't anything compared to the intricacy of the ones at the palace. There was a king's bedroom whose walls and ceiling were decorated all in mirrored glass, and the floor was mirrored too. This was said to be so no one could sneak up on him, but perhaps he was just vain! We saw a lot of blue-painted white tiles too, and some very impressive peacock mosaics.

Mirrored king's bedroom

There was also a large gold image of the sun (with a moustachioed face) at one side of a courtyard, and a mirrored shrine at the other. The king was supposed to fast until he could pray to the sun every day, so on cloudy days, he would face the shrine and pray to the reflected fake sun in the mirror.

At the upper level of the palace, there is a fountain in a courtyard that is surrounded by mature trees. This was possible because the palace is built on a hill, and the courtyard--even though it's on the highest floor--is located at the very tip of the hill. From that height, we were able to look down at the enclosure where they used to hold elephant fights.

The palace has many tiny corridors and low doors. This isn't because people were smaller back then, but to force invading soldiers to move in single file through the palace and to bow their heads when they entered a room, which made them easier to decapitate.

We saw a display of a horse wearing a fake elephant's trunk on its nose. The kings in Udaipur didn't have as many elephants as their adversaries did, and apparently by attaching a false trunk to their horses, they could fool the enemy's elephants into thinking the horses were baby elephants, and thus keep them from attacking the horses.

After the City Palace, we went on a boat ride around the Lake Hotel and then to a second island with a nice complex where you could be served tea. We skipped the tea, strolled around, then headed back because the boat ride was actually the most enjoyable part. Swallows flew right through the open sides of the boat twice while we were out on the water.

That evening was the last night of the tour, so we walked through the old city again to a really good restaurant on the lakeside where we could see the City Palace and the Lake Hotel. It was lovely, but we were sad to say goodbye to everyone--especially Yusef, who had been so great!

Day 14 - Mar. 4, 2011 - Flying to Mumbai

Mumbai is very humid compared to the Rajastan area, but that's hardly surprising. On the way in from the airport, our transport guide called the hotel and learned our room wasn't ready yet, so he took us to see a laundry farm that took up several city blocks, Victoria Station (for municipal trains), which is huge and very British-looking, and some government buildings, which were likewise very British-y.

Our hotel's location proved to be ideal! We were just down the street from the famous Gateway to India arch and the Taj Hotel (which again oozes with British-ness.) We walked down to the Gateway, which is 26 m (85 ft.) high, and El Husbando indulged in a treat he's only gotten in India: a green coconut's juice drunk straight from the shell. The vendors machete the ‘nut open in front of you, stick in a straw, and away you go. Since the coconuts only cost 25 rupees each (50 cents Cdn), El Husbando slurped away at least five of these during the 2.5 days we were in Mumbai. JJ, on the other hand, decided she didn't like the drink very much.

That evening, we saw bats as big as crows sailing around. The big ones really do sail, rather than fluttering like the smaller ones.

Day 15 - Mar. 5, 2011 - Elephanta Island

We walked back to the Gateway that morning and bought tickets for the boat to Elephanta Island. The ride takes about an hour, and it's really lovely out on the water, although the humidity haze blurs out most of the view. Close to the island, we passed another island that had a very long railroad stretching across the sea to the big container ships anchored in deep water.

Elephanta itself was a bit of a disappointment in that there wasn't much to see. What was there was very cool, however. You walk into a series of caves, and the walls have all been carved into large statues of Buddha or Hindu gods. The caves closest to the dock are the most impressive, and we saw about six caves in total. There are other things to see on the island, but they involved a lot of walking, and the heat and humidity sapped our enthusiasm. El Husbando did buy some really good guavas from a vendor on the way back to the dock, however.

Day 15 - Mar. 6, 2011 - Prince of Wales Museum

We needed to make sure we had enough cash to pay our hotel bill, since it's sometimes difficult in India to get the hotels to accept traveller's cheques or even a credit card. We thus found ourselves waiting for a bank to open at 10 AM. Only one person is allowed at the ATM at a time, so the bank has chairs outside for those waiting to sit upon. Because we were there early, the fellows who pick up the night deposits were also there, and El Husbando spent about ten minutes sitting beside a fellow with a shotgun propped up in front of him!

After getting our wad of rupees, we walked to the Prince of Wales Museum, which doesn't look quite as British-y as its name implies. It has several Islamic-style domes on it, for example, and beautifully carved pillars in the foyer.

This museum's emphasis is more on history than art, so there was a natural history section with stuffed animals as well as various rooms containing statuary, paintings, glassware, and ornate household goods such as make-up or jewellery chests carved from wood or ivory. There were two large rooms on the top floor with art collections donated by members of the Tata family. This won't be obvious to a lot of Canadians, but the Tata corporations are a HUGELY successful set of businesses. There are 114 Tata companies in all, and two of them are Fortune 500 companies.

And that was our trip! We had the room in Mumbai for another night, but we were flying out at 3 AM and so left just before midnight. It was sad to leave India, but great to be home again. You never realize how handy it is to drink straight out of the tap until you can't do it anymore!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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