Jewel in the Crown - Aurangabhad & Udaipur, India

Greetings once again from India. Now that we have been here awhile, we are finally adjusting to the cryptic jigsaw puzzle that is India, where the pieces just refuse to fit. Where the unexpected approaches and wants to sit next to you. The disorienting unpredictability can only be tamed by surrendering a sense of structure and just going with the flow.

When we finally left Bombay, we took our first ride on the legendary Indian railway, a comprehensive spiderweb throughout the country, where the terms first and second class are relative and third is something you don't want to mention. Just reserving a ticket is a bureaurocratic nightmare lasting over an hour, and that's only after figuring out which of the thousands of trains is going your way. For tickets, you can get 1st AC, 1st Sleeper, 2nd Sleeper, 2nd seat, RAC, Wait-list, Tourist quota tickets or just get on without a ticket and hope for the best. We got 2nd class sleeper. How bad could it be?  

Well think cattle car. Think open compartments with twice the number of people for the allotted seats, open windows with bars over them, and people sleeping everywhere. And then there is the incessant cry of CHAI, CHAI, CHAI and the guys coming through with barrels of tea. Actually, that was the impressive feat, the food service. These railway guys actually manage to serve two meals a day to you at your seat/bit of floor without you moving an inch. Then there are the local vendors who board at every stop, crawl over people in the aisles, serving up quite good snacks like samosa, chapatis, curries, namkeens and chat. Or you can just deboard and check out the smorgasboard of railway snacks in the depot. And so goes the train, actually a pretty efficient and extremely cheap way to travel around the country, and the Indians do. They travel with a vengence, and bring everyone of their extended family and relatives and huge picnic meals aboard the trains.

Our first stop after Bombay is the town of Aurangabad, home to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. The Buddhist Caves of Ajanta date from 200 BC to 650 AD and are famous for the amazing cave frescoes depicting the life of the Buddha. The caves were used as a solitary monestary by Buddhists monks until they were lost to the world for a thousand years and only rediscovered in 1819. One interesting feature was the Victorian graffiti littering the walls, an unfortunate result of early tourism. The site itself is in a remarkable crescent shaped valley with the caves carved into the sheer walls that drop into a forested ravine.

Ellora, on the other hand, is renowned for its Buddhist, Hindu and Jain(a mix of the two) temple sculptures. Each religion continued to build temples on top and next to the previous religion making for an interesting mix. The carved temples were built completely from stone carved away from the rocky hills, and extremely intricate, detailing the entire stories of the Hindu epics like the Mahabharat.



We stayed in Aurangabhad, a nice central loation for visiting both sites. I would recommend the Maharashtra Tourism Board Tour, if only for the direct transportation to both places. Our bus was filled with Indian tourists and Ajanta was a good two hours away. The Same Tourist Board Tour of Ellora took in some local wonders. There is a Shiva Lingum temple there that is one of fourteen across India and a very holy place of pilgrimage.



In the town of Aurangabhad was a beautifully preserved fortress. We walked through a nearly deserted site, and our only company was a few local women who cleaned the temple shrine as a meritous act of good karma. 





From Auranagabhad, to move on, we boarded a bus to Jagoan, a nearby, convenient trailhead for us to catch the bus north to Rajasthan. We arrived, just in time to experience the first of our many woes with the Indian election process. The town was under curfew and everything was closing, as we scrambled to find some food and a place to stay. The next morning, we left on the 24 hour train to Udaipur. We made one stop en route in Ahmedabhad, the heart of Gujurat. There, on the advice of a fellow passenger and local, we took in a Gujarati thali, a slightly sweet and always spicy range of dishes served in the traditional thali style, all you care to eat!

On to Rajasthan, the Indian desert wonderland, home of the Rajputs, warrior clans that have controlled the area for a thousand years according to a code of chivalry and honor that rivaled the medieval knights. Rajput warriors fight til the end, and when no hope was left, they declared jauhar. This grim ritual had the women and children committing suicide on a pyre, while the men rode out to certain death. Rajasthan is a land of forts, fairytale castles, and camels.

Our first stop is Udaipur, made famous in the James Bond flick Octopussy, which incidentally shows at all the budget restaurants as a means of attracting customers. After watching it again, we realized it is not one of the better 007's, but there was something magical about watching the movie on a rooftop restaurant and looking at all the same scenery surrounding you. In the movie, there are frequent shots of the fort on the hill overlooking Udaipur. 


The fort itself, however stylized in the movie, was in fact deserted and on the edge of ruin. It had been taken over by the local army barracks and now, the only inhabitants were a few bored Indian Army officers engaged in a game of cards. They paid us no attention. 

When the army was gone, the couple of the house kept watch.



The most famous site is the chi-chi Lake Palace Hotel built in the midst of the large Pichola Lake. The Palace appears to float above the water. Built as an extreme indulgence by one of the mahajaras of Udaipur, he first constructed the Palace and then put a lake around it. Then off on the shore itself, rises the spectacular City Palace, another indulgence of mirrored halls, jeweled architecture and Rajasthani painting. The complex is stunning at night, reflected in the lake. 

The other striking thing about Udaipur is the amazing number of our bovine friends that roam the streets. Here, cows have the right of way, and an auto-rickshaw would rather plow into you than hit a cow and risk bad karma in his next life. At night, the streets are eerily empty save for the herds of cows bunking down for the nights in doorways and alleys. Although we keep asking, nobody seems to know where the cows go to die.

Here in Udaipur, we made the acquaintance of Rajesh, an young, most curious fellow. He was about 15 and spoke quite good English. We met him right outside his school as he was exiting, and he decided to follow us, practicing his English. Thoroughly pestered, we kept trying to throw him off, but he kept at it, until we gave in and surrendered. He turned out to be quite a nice guy. We went to his home and met his family. Turns out his father is a photographer, and his father also a photographer, but not just any one, the Royal Mahajara's very own. He was long gone, but his work lived on. I expressed an interest in it, and Rajesh's father immediately pulled out a dusty box from under a bed and opened it to reveal a treasure trove of old-time glass negatives and amazing black and white photographic prints of royal court life. We lingered over hyper-clear photos of the last Maharaja of Udaipur, esconsed in his Palace high on the hill. The same rooms we had visited earlier in the day, were now coming alive beneath our fingertips. Shy women in saris and veils danced for his camera, peacock feather fans blurred as they swayed back and forth, head up by pitch black servants. The Maharaja himself was a freak of nature, an incestuous abomination, sired of blood lines so completely crossed. I could not believe that these photos sat hidden away in this unlikely home when they deserved to be at a museum. We spent the remainder of our time with Rajesh and his family. His mother henna painted my hands, and Rajesh took us on a private tour of the town, showing us all the sights from a local perspective.

Rajesh and family with us in their home which doubled as his father's studio.

Our final experience in Udaipur was taking in a Bollywood Hindi movie called Taal which literally means 'the beat of passion!' with Rajesh. Its funny how you can watch a three hour movie and understand exactly what's going on without understanding a word of the dialogue. Well, this movie had it all. They sang, they danced, they fought, they kissed and made up. The classic tale of forbidden love between a rich boy and a poor girl, but then the girl makes it big (by singing and dancing of course) and they live happily ever after. And there was even a scene that seemed suspiciously similar to a Coke commercial complete with the AAAAAAAH! We highly recommend it as escapist over-the-top cheesy fantasy, and I just loved the costumes. As we said before, movies are big business here in India. The place was mobbed. Every seat was taken. As in other countries outside the US, we had assigned tickets, but here's where it got strange. The doors opened and people flooded into the auditorium, clamoring to find their seats. Well they start the movie as soon as the doors open, not when the people are seated. Then, when everyone is seated and watching the movie, the ticket taker begins to make his rounds, THROUGH EVERY AISLE, collecting the tickets, and shining his flashlight in your face if you don't hand it over quick enough. Definately worse than any late-comer, he crawls over every person, and if there is not enough room for him, he rudely jerks the seat of the person in front, forward to make room. Most interesting!

Over and out

ann and doug

index | back | next