Udaipur - an oral feast

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November 30th 2007
Published: January 7th 2008
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I decided to visit this southern Rajasthani city, aptly known as “the Venice of the East”, en route from Mumbai and Delhi, when I first heard of its picturesque-ness: its lakeside setting, surrounding mountains and panoply of palaces, which include the Lake Palace made famous in “Octopussy”. After two weeks relaxing in Goa, this was a return to Serious Travelling, back on my own, and I loved it. Travelling alone has its disadvantages, but, for me, these are largely superseded by its advantages. Not only is my time is absolutely my own - allowing me what a friend calls “no compromise tourism” - but I feel that I can soak up my surroundings to a much greater extent.

A large part of this comes from the way that I can - and must - interact with local people. A Western woman on her own is conspicuous, even if deliberately somewhat scruffily dressed in baggy T-shirt and trousers. As a tourist, I am, of course, subject to the usual “Taxi, madam?”, “You want rickshaw?”, “Hello! Hello! Look please!”. As a woman, I may be seen as a better potential source of handouts to children and beggar women, but also, by men, as something to be protected and looked after, albeit a financial advantage from doing so is often anticipated. And, as a Westerner, I am a source of curiosity: “Where you from?” , “Your first time in India?”. (As I could say that this was, in fact, my fifth time in India, the reaction was warm; clearly this was an unusual response.) With a companion, of course, you still get this kind of attention, but, alone, you cannot hide behind someone else or the conversation the two of you were already having. If you accept the approach, it is on your terms, and this can be enormously energising. This realisation had brought Malawi to life for me last April, and allowed me to enjoy my meanderings around Mumbai; similarly, in Udaipur, and I met a wide variety of people, even though I was there for little more than 48 hours.

There was Pinku, the artist who so wanted to assure me that he himself had painted the fabulous silk miniatures he was selling that he painted a peacock on my thumbnail.

Ganesh, a skinny, barefoot ten-year-old begging near the washing ghats, caught my attention because of his name, the elephant-headed god being my favourite of the Hindu pantheon. He asked for food, so I took him and a friend back up the street to find something sustaining. But this wasn’t what the kids were after, and they ran off after they realised I wasn’t simply going to buy them chocolate.

Round the corner, I found Muhesh who designs clothes for Next, H&M and Monsoon, and who urged me to come back to his shop later simply because he wanted to have a conversation in English. This was something I came across several times in Udaipur and seemed to be a perfectly genuine request, with no attendant sales spiel or obvious alternative motive. In common with a number of other people I met here, he had been to London or had friends there, and he reeled off a list of London place-names so quickly when he heard that was where I was from, it wasn’t until I discerned “Putney” that I realised what he was doing; up until that point, I wasn’t even sure what language he was speaking.

The first artist to accost me in the street said he was off to Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre the next week to display his art works; would I like to come and see them?

I ran into a particularly persistent sales person a couple of times and, the second time, gave in to his demand that I come to “his” shop, although I emphasised that I wouldn’t be buying anything and that I wouldn’t stay long as I’d been walking round the city all day. As it turned out, he was only pulling in the punters for a friend, it wasn’t his shop at all. But the friend was not the usual kind of shop owner, but a quiet and sad-faced Kashmiri selling crafts from his homeland. His family had fled Kashmir a decade before, and he could not see any realistic way that the situation could be resolved sufficient to allow them to return.

The internet was advertised outside shops at every turn, but a closer inspection of each premises would reveal this purported “internet café” to comprise a PC or two in a tiny back room. In Mumbai, full use is made of all available space and I had found myself in an upstairs room with an improbable number of terminals packed onto the tables lining its walls, the problem being then how to fit their human users into this confined space. By these standards, Mahindra runs an unusual internet place in Udaipur. Accessed up a non-descript, anonymous stairway in the Lal Ghat area it is a vast room with four PCs hiding in a far corner and a fish tank dominating the entrance… and a proprietor who wanted to share his business problems with me. I was also invited to share a drink or a meal with him - as I was with a number of the people I encountered - but, as usual, I demurred, claiming, not incorrectly, a lack of time. This is one of my huge regrets about being a somewhat cautious solo woman traveller: I cannot afford to take up an offer like this, fascinating though it is likely to be, at least not until I hone my instincts for that particular country’s people, and maybe not even then.

The man from whom I bought my bottled water several times a day had the interesting habit of handing out toffees in lieu of small change. (For reference, the exchange rate was one rupee for one toffee, and they were very nice toffees!)

But Goms was the most curious of the lot. He appeared in a sweet shop when I was buying my daily treat - a couple of Indian sweets which were presented to me in a little newspaper “poke” (gloriously reminiscent of the way we used to buy fish and chips before the EU intervened) - clearly the owner. We got talking about the usual - where I was from, how long I’d been in India, where I was going, etc. - and he showed me his jewellery shop next door. I trotted out the usual line about travelling, lack of luggage capacity and needing to make the money last, as the excuse for my not purchasing anything and he accepted this. Then he stopped suddenly, and looked at my face. “You have beautiful eyes,” he said. I was lost for words; this was a complete non-sequitur. He took my hands and closed his own eyes. Opening them again a few long seconds later, he began to tell me about myself. Then, at his invitation, I sat down, cross-legged, opposite him, and he began to read my chatra, my aura, alternately staring hard at me and pressing his fingers against the base of my thumbs, with his eyes closed, as if to sense what could be read there. I didn’t know quite what to make of all this. He wasn’t asking for money and appeared trustworthy, but I was conscious that all my valuables were with me: was this some kind of hypnosis? Was I about to be robbed? His eyes were an unexpected blue, piercingly blue, and seemed to drill right through me. I concentrated hard on keeping my wits about me, and only half listened to what he was saying. As it turned out, I was doing him an injustice. He was a kindly man, if disconcertingly direct, and even more disconcertingly accurate in what he said he could read in me. I declined his offer of further analysis and retreated feeling as if a cold wind had breathed, fleetingly, on my soul.

Of course, the most obvious appeal of Udaipur is its palaces and their setting. For the most part, I’ll let the scenery speak for itself through the photographs, and I’ve attached even more than usual for this purpose. Suffice to say that this is a truly fabulous city. My first sight of Lake Pichola from the roof of the aptly-named Lake View Guest House (in Udaipur, every hotel and restaurant tries to sell itself with words such as “roof-top” and “lake views”, but this guest house really did live up to its name) in the sunlit haze of the early morning had a dream-like quality to it, no doubt enhanced by my having had to get up in the middle of the night to get the early flight from Mumbai. As I wandered around the narrow - narrower and even narrower - streets of Lal Ghat that first afternoon, I was enchanted to find that each new turn gave me a different view, and my camera was about to demand overtime. Even away from the Lake, the mishmash of buildings and the life of the streets was fascinating. At one point, I glanced down to switch on my camera and adjust its setting to photograph a street scene, and looked up to find that an elephant had shambled into view. “Only in India!”, I thought, and I felt a huge surge of affection for this country where elephants could appear and be treated as a normal part of life. This was only confirmed half an hour later, when, as I was sheltering in the air-conditioning of a glass-fronted kiosk housing an ATM, extracting another wodge of fifty-rupee notes and talking to my mother, a second elephant appeared, idly meandering up the street, stopping to whack a branch against the road in a disconsolate fashion. Like the first, this one was decorated with intricate chalk designs on her face, but her mahout had gone further: huge flowers decorated her back legs, stretching up and over each leathery-skinned hip.

Of course, views were mandatory at mealtimes as well. I dined with a backdrop of the floodlit Jagdish Temple, and supped my midday lassi on the Lake-fronting courtyard of a converted haveli, listening to the shouts of the dhobi-wallahs beating the proverbial out of the city’s laundry. Only on my second evening did I foreswear the views, and exchange them for the unexpected oasis of green that is the garden of the curiously named Whistling Teal Restaurant, better known for its comfortable lounge surroundings for partaking in one or other of its large collection of hookahs.

Wandering round the City Museum and the restored old Bagore-Ki-Haveli was an education. I learnt that bathing in a maharajah’s palace in the nineteenth century could turn you into a human curry: “the lady would be seated… and bathed after applying a pithi (a paste of tumeric, gram flour and fresh cream)”. For entertainment, “Snakes & Ladders” was one of the games played which “not only improved their skill of ruling and war-planning but also enhanced the player’s power to think”. In the sixteenth century, the armies of the state of Mewar (of which Udaipur was the capital) put fake trunks on their horses so that their enemies’ usual mode of transport, real elephants, would think the horses to be young elephants and therefore not attack them. My artist friend, Pinku, selling his miniatures at the restored haveli, told me the elephant is a symbol of good luck, the horse of power, and the camel of love; the latter being on the basis, he told me, that, if you can love a camel, you can love everybody.

I only had a couple of days here - intoxicating in their intensity and just about sufficient for the main sights, but not quite long enough (am I ever anywhere for I consider to be “long enough”?) - before I had to leave for Delhi. But Udaipur had one more surprise in store for me: a colourful Rajasthani wedding procession, complete with bemused-looking groom on the back of a gloriously decorated white horse. (This is an auspicious time of year to get married, and rumour has it that, during one day this season, there were 10,000 weddings in Delhi.) If the colours of Rajasthan are stunning when seen on women working in the fields, they are even more dazzling the concentration of a wedding procession.

In common with all my internal Indian flights, the Delhi flight was running late due to “congestion” at Delhi airport. This, in turn, created human congestion at Udaipur’s tiny airport where even one planeload would cause a crowd, but it gave me the chance to note the delightful no-fault passive widely used in such circumstances in India: “Inconvenience caused is deeply regretted”. Once the flight is ready, I was then entertained to hear, passengers “are kindly asked to proceed immediately, without further delay”, as if sufficient urgency is not generated by the first phrase alone.

While on the subject of language in India and before I finish this blog, let me share with you one Indian newspaper headline. I’d noticed that the headline-writers here love abbreviating people’s names. Reducing the Pakistan president to “Mush” is one thing, but that’s nothing compared to what is done to Buddhadub Bhattacharjee, West Bengal’s chief minister. I wonder what the Dalai Lama would make of “Buddha briefs PM on industrial policy”?

You’ll note that this blog is dated some time in the past. Yes, I have been unashamedly dilatory in writing up my last Indian blog, and gloriously guilty of enjoying the company of friends and family over the extended festive season, rather than focussing on what I now consider to be my “day job” of Travelling. So, in passing, thank you to the Jalans, Niti and Kavita in Delhi; to the Leggetts, Jessops and Phil in New South Wales; and to Lisa and James in Melbourne - all for showing me such wonderfully warm and generous hospitality.) However, I’m now on the road again (well, technically, as I type this, in the air, but that’s semantics) and off to explore a little more of South-East Asia - Kuala Lumpur, Cambodia and Laos, to be specific - for three weeks before backtracking to Australia where I’ll spend a couple of days exchanging shorts and T-shirts for thermals and enough layers to allow me do a passable imitation of the Michelin Man… and then catch a plane to Invercargill, South Island, New Zealand, where I’ll board the Marina Svetlaeva for Antarctica…

Additional photos below
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8th January 2008

Brilliant as ever , Elizabeth.Keep it coming.Stay safe and enjoy life's adventures and any eles that pass your way!xx
22nd January 2008

Elizabeth, I have just caught up to date with all of your blogs. I started reading from the beginning a couple of weeks ago. I think your writing style is excellent, I love your sense of humour, keen observations, your optimism, and of course your subject matter! My favourite of which are the elephants and the chetas of Namibia. In my opinion, there are never too many photos particularly of bugs and animals. Please keep blogging and thank you for sharing. Cheers, Mimi
7th September 2010

So excited now!
How pleased I was to stumble across your blog whilst looking for stuff about Udaipur. My wife and I9both in our 60's) will soon be in Udaipur after a few days in Mumbai. We will be in and around Udaipur for about 18 days. Just wanted to immerse ourselves in the place, people and culture. We will also be there during Diwali. We are so excited now especially after reading your blog and seeing the pics!! We will also op into the Lake View GH. Many thanks indeed!

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