Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Pink City and the Bandh

Jaipur was my second stop in Rajasthan, and had even more wonderful forts and palaces and landscapes than Udaipur. The downside was really aggressive rickshaw drivers; you couldn't walk five steps without someone offering to drive you somewhere else. I had to reassure a woman just starting her trip in India that the hassles were particularly bad in Jaipur, and it would only get better.

In the morning, the walk for breakfast was much farther than I expected. (Guess why.) An all-India bandh, or strike, was going on that day too, so nearly every shop was closed. It was eerie! 40 minutes later I was back at my hotel for breakfast. Then I started out for the Old City. Jaipur is known as the Pink City, in a trinity with Udaipur, the White City, and Jaisalmer, (sadly not on my path) the Gold City.

Fortunately, the historical sites were open, so I stopped at Jantar Mantar. I don't know much about astronomy, but these enormous observatory structures were fascinating - and fun for photography!

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the City Palace, where Jaipur's royal family still lives. The best was Pitam Niwas Chowk, a courtyard with four entrances representing four seasons. I've included a detail from the peacock, or monsoon gate. Then the quest to find a restaurant in a closed city. On the way I met Elisa and Guillermo, a couple from Chile and Paraguay respectively. We found an open restaurant, where I had an amazing Rajasthani thali and practiced Hindi with our server, and we talked late into the night.

The next day I visited the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds, built so the royal women could watch city life while remaining in purdah. It has more than 900 windows, and the latticework allows for a nice breeze. The central part of the palace is designed to resemble a crown. Several hours of shopping later, I acquired a meenakari bangle and earrings, a couple of puppets, and some lac bangles.

The state bus schedule did not support leaving for Agra in the late afternoon, and I wanted to see Amber Fort. It was worth staying an extra night! The fort is set in the hills, so fort walls punctuated with towers wind up the rocky slopes in every direction! This courtyard is the zenana, the enclosure specifically built for the royal women, and surrounded by their apartments.

Much too close to closing time I hiked up the steep path to Jaigadh Fort above Amber Fort. There were even better views of the landscape here, and I could see all the way to the water palace. The fort also displayed what is apparently the largest wheel-mounted cannon in the world.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dancing and Painting in Udaipur

I've been starting to feel like a hardened traveller, but this trip renewed my delight in travelling through India, and Rajasthan (Canadian-English speakers should pronounce with a silent "h") played a big part. It's impossible to summarize India, and Rajasthan on its own is an immense task to capture. Rajasthan demonstrates some of the extremes. It also seems that the more beautiful the sight, the more difficult to capture on camera.

I started in Udaipur, known for its palaces. It is a major tourist town, but surprisingly low-hassle. (Completely opposite to Jaipur, my next stop.) Two palaces were built in the middle of the raja-made lake, although I didn't visit either (one is a high-end hotel now, so no riff-raff allowed). The monsoon arrived the night before I did, so the first morning I walked across the lake bed, and the next evening it was underwater. I understand that the lake hasn't been full in three years, though.

The Udaipur City Palace had fresco painting, the famous miniature painting, mirrored tile mosaics, and European tile work. Apparently the prince walked across the parking lot just as I arrived, but I only saw his back. I was fascinated by the part of the palace built around a hill, so there is a tree-filled garden on the top floor. You can see it on the right side of the palace photo.

After the palace I shopped for miniature painting reproductions, made popular during the Mughal empire. I also stumbled upon a wedding band, with the required white horse and... apparently bagpipes.

In the evening I saw incredible performances of Rajasthani classical dance, which included women dancing with pots of fire balanced on their heads, puppet dances, and finished with the most experienced dancer dancing with up to five pots balanced on her head. Because of the rains, we sat inside, and apparently she dances with twelve pots when the ceiling doesn't limit her! Of course the best dancers are not the thin young girls, but the solid older aunties.

The next day I visited the Bagore ki Haveli, a mansion on the bank of the lake. Most interesting were the puppet gallery, and the rooms reconstructed in the 18th century style.

In the afternoon I took a miniature painting lesson, and used my previous art training to impress everyone. Then the rains came again, so I chatted with a hotel owner while watching the water cascade down the steps outside. A great dinner at Sunrise restaurant, then moving on!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

From Backwaters to Palaces

Kollam (formerly Quillon) is a small town in Kerala. I blew my daily budget on an expensive place called Tamarind because no rooms were available -- off-season renovations again. Including traveling for a day, being foiled again by Lonely Planet's maps, and having my sandal break, I decided to take the rest of the day off to nurse my cold. Anyway, the place was really nice: air conditioning, room service, a really big bed, and a view of the lake.

The next morning I took the Kerala State Tourism backwaters tour. The backwaters are a series of lakes and canals linking communities and rural industry. The best part was the quiet; India is noisy! Our guide poled me and a man from New Zealand through the canals, pointing out sights and stopping regularly for chai, coconut water, and a closer look at the coir weaving, boat-making, prawn farming, fishing, and mussel farming industries.

We saw many fruits and spices growing, including pineapple, cashews, black pepper, chili pepper, ginger, tapioca, jackfruit, and nutmeg. We also saw snakes swimming twice.

Travelling when you can't breathe through your nose is a real chore, and arriving in a small town at one in the morning, after a 9.5 hour bus ride, is definitely not high on my travel list. But the room was decent, and I slept another half-day in Calicut before moving on. I was impressed with the roads in the state of Kerala, and the bus station washroom in Sultanbatheri was the nicest I have seen in India.

Mysore, in Karnataka, is known as the City of Palaces, and Mysore Palace, built during the Wodeyar dynasty, is the grandest one. Funniest moment: reading a quotation from an Englishwoman and travel writer, describing the palace as the ideal fantasy of an oriental palace. Actually, it is exactly that, because it was designed by an Englishman... is that life imitating art, or the other way around!

Madurai is also famous for its incense and essential oils industry, and I found myself buying 10 types of essential oils in the middle of the market. The market was filled with fruits (including a whole aisle of banana vendors), vegetables, spices, flowers, incense and oil, and general hardware. And people! Even nuns and hijra have to buy groceries sometimes.

Finally I visited the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, a museum highlighting tribal and rural cultural arts. Everything was fascinating, but I loved the fun terracotta roof tiles, with quirky beings sitting on them. Then, a 20-hour train ride back to Pune ended my journey to the south.