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Published: March 20th 2008
The massive crumbling city walls a minute's rickshaw ride from the train station foretold of a once-mighty city called Mewar
. Maharaja Udai Singh II, expanded Mewar and renamed it Udaipur. As the rickshaw weaved between a steady flow of traffic we sensed a building excitement for this, as far as the eyes could see, was Rajasthan, a state like no other in India. Come on now, say it: 'Rajasthan'
. Let the 'R'
roll off your tongue and feel the vibration of thousands of raging Rajput warriors, the gold standard of bravery and chivalry; feel the earth shake with the thunder of rampaging war elephants; visit forts and palaces so grand, detailed and decorated that it seems impossible that they were constructed with 16th century technology.
Lake Pichola divided the city into two main sections. Our hotel, Dream Heaven Guest House, sat almost on water's edge on the Hanuman Ghat side, the quieter of the two sides. Our window opened to a partial view on picturesque Pichola, the spire of a temple and a family of monkeys. From the roof-garden of the hotel we overlooked Udaipur in the light of an early morning.
Off to the right and smack in
the middle of the lake sat the blindingly-white Lake Palace Hotel. Scenes from Roger Moore's 'Octopussy'
were shot here and also at the nearby Shiv Nivas and Monsoon Palaces. On the other side of the lake dhobi-wallahs (all women) were hard at work with thick, heavy 'bats' walloping muck and grime out of articles of clothing. On a hill above the women and all of the town, a huge, ostentatious palace glistened in the sunlight. The contrast was stunning. Crossing a narrow bridge spanning the lake, we stepped out into Lal Ghat, the busier side of town. 'Town', the center anyway, was a narrow street winding its way upward (or downward, depending on where you are headed) thru a maze of souvenir shops, restaurants, budget accommodation, travel and tour agencies and about a thousand internet cafes. Sounds of chanting and bell-ringing lured us (and too many other tourists) up the stairs and into the hall of Jagdish Temple. Inside, worshippers prayed, chanted and lit candles before a shiny black-stone image of Vishnu. The temple itself was a piece of work. Intricate carvings adorned the tall towers. It seemed improbable that ROCK
could be so shaped and fashioned.
way up the road was the entrance to the palace. Rajasthan's largest, the 30-meter high walls and 244-meter long façade of the City Palace, easily dwarfed everything. Entire rooms were decked out with glass and mirrors, mosaics of peacocks and rich tapestry. Rajasthan's maharajas weren't shy about spending their (or their state's) money. That a privileged few could live unbelievably decadent lifestyles surrounded by the best of every possible luxury only emphasized the never-ending contrasts of India.
Away from scores of tourists, iconic buildings, lavish temples and lake palaces, we walked between hundreds of locals savouring the spices of Mandi Market and watching Indian life continue away from the tourist drag.
It was wedding season in Udaipur. Processions of hundreds would squeeze down the narrow streets with bands of musicians, dancers and even horses. We followed one for a bit and then ducked thru an alley to evade the crush. Back in town we stared up as two massive elephants lumbered thru the streets dwarfing cars, bicycles and rickshaws. The elephant drivers tried convincing us to take a ride but low overhead electrical lines, the 500 Rupee fee and a general discomfort of being so close to an
Ummm, who's getting married here??
animal so big, caused us to politely refuse. While photographing the elephants we heard "one photo please"
and turned around to find a cute little girl with big eyes. We took her picture and soon we were mobbed by the neighbourhood children each one screaming "one photo please, one photo please". The little girl led us to the water side where a wedding party was seated. What a wondrous sight it was: the dazzling mix of colors in the saris of the women. She found her mother and turned to Vibert and said "one photo please". He complied. We were immediately mobbed and escorted to the groom who sat cross-legged next to his shrouded wife. "You welcome to my wedding", he said. We congratulated him and his bride. We couldn't see her expression beneath the dark veil. Her hands were almost completely covered with decorative henna
. "You come to my house tonight. We eat, drink and dance", he insisted. We couldn't say 'no'. Soon the wedding photographer was snapping our picture. Shanna was plunked down next to the groom who, good-naturedly, put his hat on her head. Snap. Another photo.
"One photo please". This time, the little girl was
holding a coconut. Snap.
We extricated ourselves from the happy crowd as the procession started moving again but not before the groom made us promise (for the umpteenth time) to visit the wedding house later that night. Recognizing her need for appropriate wedding attire, Shanna bought a sari for 150 Rupees - a pretty thing with bright reds, yellows and greens. The kind of sari that, say, Bob Marley's back-up singers would have worn if Brother Bob had held a concert in India
. For the next hour and a half, she tried, in vain
, to wrap the sari in a presentable manner. At 8:45 pm she gave up and we went to the neighbours for assistance. The neighbours, The Sonis, were a family of painters. Every one of them - two brothers, their wives and children - could and did produce exquisite artworks using a tiny brush to add fine detail. Ganesh, the jolly elephant-headed deity, was a favorite. The ladies quickly ushered Shanna inside and when she emerged 10 minutes later, she had transformed into an Indian woman ready for a wedding. In the middle of her forehead was a bindi and around her wrists colorful bangles. The
Soni women seemed pleased at their handiwork.
When we took to the streets that night, heads turned. People, male and female, craned their necks for a glimpse at a fine Indian woman in a bright sari. An older gentleman shut off his motorcycle and offered to guide us thru the dark maze of back streets leading to the address written on the paper we had stuck in his face. Fifteen minutes later we saw the wedding house. It was covered with lights but the crowd was over in a nearby park. The little girl, who we affectionately dubbed 'One Photo Please', quickly latched on to Vibert. 'Eating the food, eating the food', she said repeatedly dragging him over to where large mats covered the dry, dusty ground. We sat cross-legged. The crowd ringed us. Gleaming enamel buckets appeared and before we could say 'Taj Mahal' piles of curries, rice and sweets filled our plates. Our fingers churned up the rice and curries and ferried them to our mouths only to have that scoop immediately replaced by an over-zealous server. And thus it went. We scoop up a mouthful and - whap
- a spoonful hit our plate. We reached
for a sweet and - whap
- another sweet took its place. Soon we thought we'd rupture our seams and took to protecting our plates from incoming food. And all the while 'One Photo Please', who didn't leave Vibert's side, continued her chant: 'Eating the food, eating the food'.
Hindi music was blaring when we got back to the house. Again we congratulated the bride and groom, participated in the photo shoot and soaked up the ambiance. And while Vibert did a basic 'screw-bulb' thing, Shanna was being schooled by two little girls in the fine art of spastic contortions of the hip, Indian style. Around midnight we bid farewell to the wedding party but two guys insisted on walking us all the way home. On the way, we met 'Uncle' - a nocturnal soda salesman - and although we protested saying how 'stuffed' we were, Uncle wouldn't let us go without a complimentary glass of soda. Struggling up the stairs of our guesthouse, we waved 'thank you' to our new brothers before calling it not only a 'day' but a 'wonderful day'.
It was almost midday of the next day when we finally surfaced. The Families Soni
offered us cups of chai and we returned their accessories (except the bindi which they gifted to Shanna). We purchased a few pieces of art that tickled our fancy. The afternoon was spent wandering beautiful and historic Udaipur, meeting people and capturing memories. At sundown, we positioned ourselves to catch the awesome spectacle of the sun's golden rays bathing the stunning architecture of Udaipur in a golden glow. And when it finally became dark, we drank in the sights of the illuminated palaces and a big, round moon rising over the city. Later in the evening, we sought out Natraj Restaurant, a favorite among locals. Natraj served 'all-you-can-eat' Rajasthani thalis for 50 Rupees
. Between us, we dismantled 15 chapati, heaps of rice and an assortment of curries, channa, sweets and papadam. Natraj Rocks!!
Full and almost running over for the second time in as many nights, we ambled thru the streets of Udaipur on our way home. Spotting 'Uncle' from a distance, we agreed that 'we not stopping eh'. 'Hi Uncle', we called out from the opposite side of the street. 'Hellooooo', the replied hurrying over to us with a smile as broad as Lake Pichola. 'You come for
soda'. We protested but in vain. Two cups of soda later, 'Uncle' piled us on to his motorcycle and mandated his son to drive us home. Struggling up the stairs of our guesthouse, we waved 'thank you' to our newest brother before calling it not only a 'day' but a 'wonderful day'
😊 The bride and groom, Family Prajapati
😊 Families Soni, for your kindness
😊 'Uncle' and his son
😊 Natraj Restaurant
And last, but by no means least:
😊 'One Photo Please'
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