Six of us carry on from Sri Lanka to Rajasthan, a state in north-western India. Bev & Larry, Sharon & Ray, Craig & I fly from Colombo to Udaipur, the white temple city on Lake Pichola. Sonny, a handsome twenty-something Sikh fellow, is our driver for the next two weeks; we are travelling in the comfort of a 10 passenger van.
Craig & I spent time in Udaipur in 1985 and have convinced the others that it is a magical place. And indeed it is! White limestone temples and palaces, two lakes, and a ring of mountains surrounding the city are all a big part of the appeal.
Jut as appealing is the vibrancy, bordering on chaos, on the streets. We are back in the land of candy coloured saris. Cows roam freely. Shops are chock full of handicrafts and art.
Our hotel, the Raghuvantra http://www.raghuvantra.com, faces the lake and borders the old city. The 360 degree views from our roof-top restaurant are mesmerizing. In the mornings we watch the masses of people and animals come and go through the Brahmpole Gate, one of seven gates in the protective wall surrounding the old city.
Many of the hotels are located in havelis, centuries old mansions of noble families. One has been turned into a museum. We spend a few hours there with a great guide who tells us more than we can possibly remember. Inside the Haveli Museum is a marionette display; we get a demonstration from the puppeteer.
It is said that India is a rich country with many poor people and that is very evident here in Udaipur, where the gap between the rich and the poor is more apparent than in the south. On the streets and in the markets we see impossibly thin old men pulling overloaded carts. Old women, equally skinny, with heavy bundles on their heads. Girls who look no more than 13 or 14 with tiny babies. Older girls, possibly late teens or early twenties, with several small children. It’s eye opening, to say the least.
A boat tour on the lake takes us past opulent hotels that were once homes of the wealthy. We stop at one where I use the ladies’ room. A eunuch attends to my needs by opening the door, and, when I am finished in the stall, turning on the water tap, handing me a towel and then going into the stall to clean it.
The City Palace, now a museum, is the former palace of the royal family. We gape at the myriad towers, cupolas, balconies, carved pillars, mirrored rooms, and elaborately decorated splendour.
At the Jagdish temple we donate a few rupees to a soup kitchen that feeds needly locals. Inside the temple we witness a ritual of chanting and dancing that is meant as an homage to Brahma. It’s impossible to not get caught up in the frenzy and I leave feeling spiritually uplifted. Magical!
Sitting in an open courtyard in the Haveli Museum one evening, we are treated to a colourful display of traditional dancing and puppeteering, accompanied by Indian folk musicians. More magic.
A day trip to the Ranakpur Jain temple gets us out into the countryside. The drive is almost as interesting as the temple. First we see a camel piled high with hay. On the national highway! Then we stop to check out a couple of bullocks turning a water wheel. It’s the only way to irrigate the crops and grow anything in this extremely dry season. Then there are monkeys on the road. One particularly aggressive male jumps on the hood of the van. A crew of sari-clad women work by the road. Back in the city we see an elephant at an intersection.
The temple itself is impressive. Carved from milky white marble, it contains 29 halls supported by a forest of 1,444 intricately carved – yes, more carving – pillars, no two alike.
We leave wondering how anyone in the 16th – 19th centuries had time to do anything but carve?! How did the population grow to 1.4 billion? How was there time to make babies with so much carving going on?