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october 15, 2003 -> India: Week 1

* Please read "India Unembellished" first. It provides the backdrop for these observations.

With only three weeks left for India, we had decided to focus on Rajastanh - the land of kings - a large state in northwest India. Celebrated for its redoubtable forts, bejeweled women in bright saris, and unique Rajput architecture, Rajastanh is "the Jewel of India," according to the tourist propaganda. We did a long loop taking in the most famous cities, and then finished with a quick visit to the Taj Majal.

Udaipur: The City of Lakes

The monsoon season had just ended, but Udaipur's lakes were shallow and choked with water hyacinth. An oily film clung to the lake shore, and bits of rubbish floated everywhere. Still, the view across the water towards the floating palace was undeniably romantic. The palace occupied a low island in the middle of the lake, its builders having extended the walls to the water, completely concealing the land. At night, the palace was lit by pastel lights that sat just below the waterline, illuminating the walls with waves of color.

We didn't feel like shelling out hundreds of dollars to stay in the floating palace, but we managed to find a remarkable deal on a heritage hotel that was part of the City Palace. While there, we enjoyed many amazing meals - usually in complete solitude. Though it was only a few days before the official start of tourist season (October 1), many places we stayed at were blissfully empty.

The City Palace was a fading beauty - high, sturdy walls surmounted by numerous Mughal cupolas. But peeling paint, and the gashes of fallen plaster gave it a sad look. Pigeons and swallows had covered many areas in ugly streams of guano. Inside the walls were arched entryways, landscaped courtyards with elephant statues, and an oval pool surrounded by trees.

Just outside the City Palace walls was the India of the tourists. Serpentine alleys, aggressive touts, rooftop cafes with nightly showings of "Octopussy" (the James Bond movie shot partly in Udaipur), backpacker hostels, Internet cafes, and shop after shop selling largely the same thing. We wandered down to the 'ghats' - wide, stone steps leading down to the water - where men were bathing, and women were slapping their clothes clean and gabbing. In the middle of a small inlet, kids were jumping off an old 'floating' building into the lake.

Commanding a sharp ridge outside the city, the Monsoon Palace looked impregnable from afar. Up close, the elements and a legion of swallows had caused dramatic decay; it was now more roost than royal retreat. From the palace walls, we looked out over the largely unpeopled Aravalli mountains. Inside the palace was a display of the wildlife purported to be found in the region, though I wondered how many of the species were still extant.

Kumblgarh: The Fort in the Mountains

From Udaipur, we hired a car to take us to Kumblgarh, a huge fort set in the Aravalli mountains. This would be the first, and only time, we would experience rural India. It was amazing: quiet, bucolic, cool, dry - everything that India usually is not. We stayed at a wonderful (and empty) heritage resort just a ten-minute walk from the fort. In the evening, a troop of monkeys would return from feeding in the surrounding jungle to sleep in a huge tree inside the hotel grounds.

Kumblgarh fort is massive, with a burly wall that curves around the mountains and is (if you believe the tourist brochures) apparently the 2nd-longest wall after the Great Wall. We took a walk along the wall and laughed as we listened to a group of Bollywood filmmakers talking loudly in the shaded patio of an old temple below us. "Well, I think that is fine, but symbolically it doesn't work," the woman said. They had a tape player, and were listening to the film's soundtrack; male voices chant}ng "Kumblgarh, Kumblgarh" to the rhythm of a bass drum.

Jodhpur: The Blue City

We took our first bus journey from Udaipur to Jodhpur and it was everything we feared and more. Our 'deluxe' bus looked about thirty years old. The driver was suicidal, and to make matters worse, it was raining for half the distance. We passed when there was no room, relying on oncoming traffic to slow down. Few Indians own cars, so the only vehicles on the road are overstuffed goods lorries and big, belching Tata buses. We decided that the train would be a better option.

Jodhpur's sobriquet derives from the cobalt wash that Brahmin (priestly caste) families use to paint their homes. Once limited to only the Brahmin section of the city (a sort of caste mark), the tradition has spread to the rest of city - no doubt encouraged by the local tourist authority. Save the Brahmin area, which remains inveterately blue, perhaps only ten percent of the homes are blue. But from the ramparts of Mehrangarh fort, high above the city, the blue and white homes blend into a uniform chalky blue.

Mehrangarh fort was the home of the Rathores, a Rajput clan that dominated an area known as Marwar - the land of death. This was a fort that served its purpose well; under attack numerous times, cannon fire had scarred its brawny gates, but the fort had never been taken. On the upper levels were courtyards faced by walls studded with ornate alcoves with thin, crescent-shaped eaves - a hallmark of Rajput architecture. In place of windows were carved wooden or stone screens known as 'jalis.' In accordance with 'purdah' - the keeping of women in utter seclusion, away from prurient male eyes - the screens allowed the women of the court to see out without fear of being seen.

The Jodhpur train station is the dirtiest, ugliest, most abject place I have ever seen. Homeless people, wrapped in blankets, covered the platforms and the cement just outside the station. They squatted and shat beside the tracks, they did not have the few rupees necessary to use the station's lavatories. Drafts of fresh air briefly dispelled the stinging smell of urine. The rats were bold, they nibbled at crumbs just a few paces away; starveling dogs skulked in the shadows. At five in the morning, waiting for the train to Jaisalmer, I felt a mingling of revulsion and pity.