City Palace

Udaipur? Sure.

imageAfter two days of camels, sand and quiet, we headed back to royalty in Rajasthan’s second major city – Udaipur.

Founded in 1559 in a lake district, it’s less chaotic than Jaipur, and in my opinion, much prettier:

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The big attractions are the City Palace, built on the very edge of the main lake Pichola (pictured two above) as well as a second spot called Lake Palace which was built on the lake (in the far background below).image

I think the massive City Palace covered my needs quite well. However, the ruling king of the time was obviously more temperamental. He wanted a summer getaway, but one that wasn’t too far away. So, the Lake Palace was born: built right on top of the lake, giving his highness plenty of cool air during the hot summer, only 200 yards away from his “rest-of-the year” palace.

Nevermind that the King could have peeled off some layers of his endless wardrobe to save himself from the heat, and save building an entire building to do the job. But then, it’s safe to say when you have piles of money, modesty is an unnecessary investment.

This may be why film producers chose it as the right kind of spot to represent the palace of Bond’s girlfriend in the 1983 film – Octopussy (seen at the start here):

Plus the production crew also chose other spots in Udaipur as well, like the city streets for a tuk-tuk chase:

As a tourist, you can walk around pretty much any day of the week and find at least one guesthouse screening the film. Nevermind that on Rotten Tomatoes it was voted the third worst Bond film – even worse than Moonraker, which despite its awfulness had some redemptive qualities later on as source material for Austin Powers. Octopussy – the stunt of flying a small plane through a warehouse at the start of the film is pretty amazing, but aside from that? Her tattoo?

Anyhow, back to Udaipur.

The Lake Palace’s grand reputation is also why it’s hard to visit. Since its royal heyday it’s been converted into a five star hotel fit for oligarchs or celebrities who, thanks to their undying wealth, never have to consult a price list. I say this, because I tried. And there’s no whiff of any mention of money on their site – only an indication on other blogs saying this: $$$$$$$. (translation: you’re not on our guest list).

Given the cold hard facts, Rose and I, and the rest of the public whose monthly car payments are undoubtedly less than the cost of breakfast at the Lake Palace, decided to attend the City Palace, which had been converted into a museum, and was only $$ to get in.

We toured around and similar to Jaipur’s City Palace, there were some peacock designs:

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But unlike Jaipur’s palace, this one seemed a lot more ornate, with swinging chairs for royalty to ponder what massive building they should build next as another tribute to themselves:

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to outdoor floors where I imagine the royals enjoyed watching their assistants take afternoon strolls for them:

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While they lounged back, in these plush seats in the background, considering if it was possible to have someone add real gold to their eyelashes:

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It had stained glass as well, that reminded of the neon lights in a Star Wars film:

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And, two steps later, royals could look out over their subjects with the more paranoid wondering if there was an assassin out to get them, while the more confident thinking it was time to host another festival to find more court jesters.

We spent a lot of time there, because there was a lot of “there” to see. Including a big sun shield, made of swords:

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Afterwards we strolled around by the lakefront:

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Udaipur has a footbridge that connects two sides of the city – which, with the Lake Palace resting in the lake itself, has inspired some people to call the city: “Venice of the East”.

We also asked someone to take our photo, which was slightly more successful than the last time at the Taj Mahal, in that everything was in frame. The difference was: he thought it would be interesting if we could crane our necks to the right when we looked at the photo:

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Later on that night, we left the waterfront:

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And made our way into another hall just to the left for a folk festival. It was a packed house and showcased traditional Rajasthani dancing, with women with swords in their mouths and flames on their heads spinning each other in circles.

But the main event was an older lady, who Rose and I guessed had been on the circuit a long time, and perfected a dance turn from this:

imageInto a freestanding tower as she whirled around:

imageAs she brought her show to a finish, it was our turn to start up our next whirlwind leg of travel: another overnight train, this time to Mumbai followed by a contentious ride in a tuk-tuk, an argument at a bus stand, 2hr walk trying to find a Wifi and bathroom (still couldn’t find both), a 1hr high speed overview of the city in the back of a cab before a 12hr overnight bus ride to Goa in front of a group of vomiting passengers.

Y’all come back now ya hear.

Talk soon.

Jaipur tour

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We’re in Jaipur, the capital of the biggest state in India: Rajasthan.

Translated in Hindi as the “Land of great kings”, Rajasthan is widely known as the place where Maharajas lived lives of opulence that would put today’s highest-spending hip hop artists to shame (with the exception maybe of Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z who are both industries in their own right).

Jewel bedecked elephants. Yep. Five or more costume changes a day with gold and other jewels sewn into the fabric. Uh huh. More diamond rings than fingers. Check.

While the two groups might have shared the same taste for extravagant parties, and big chunky jewellery: the difference was that Maharajas did it as their livelihood.

In other words, they were rich for a living.

Sadly, hip-hop artists had to work. Maharajas? Just be born to the right family.

Quite a good skill, if you could pull it off. Unfortunately for them, it wouldn’t last.

After Indian independence in 1947, the fiefdoms were consolidated into a single state, which inevitably stripped them of their royal powers and largesse, as the British, who had been their benefactors, had now left town.

With this new vacuum, many former fiefdoms struggled to pay the bills. Understandably tough, when you’re sitting in an 80 room palace, and it has dawned on you that you can no longer afford to pay your peacock groomer. Faced with these difficult decisions, some Maharajas sold the lot and called it a day, while others took advantage of a new opportunity: tourism.

Luckily for them, many people not only wanted to see how lavishly they once lived, but were willing to pay for the experience. Recognizing this, some Maharajas sold their estates and palaces to international hotel chains or decided to run them themselves.

This ushered in their new incarnation as ticket sellers to their past, giving people entrance to their former palaces now converted into museums or hotels.

In a change of fortune, many Maharajas chose to work, which, if any of us could be so lucky, meant they now made money showing off how they used to spend money.

And Rose and I were one of their new benefactors, having bought a ticket to walk the grounds of Jaipur’s once lavish City Palace, built by the founder of Jaipur: Jai Singh II.

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In true royal fashion there were plenty of costumes on display showing off jewels encrusted in lapels, and in other corners tossing away pretence altogether by just having a jewel as the entire lapel.

The palace also had a lot of inlay work on their balconies, which, after doing his accounting, had the Maharaja had to lay off his peacock groomer, was a smart move because he could at least remember what they looked like when they were healthy:

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After touring around for a while, however, the thing that really caught my eye was this:

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Monkeys. They were everywhere, and amazingly acrobatic. At one point while Rose wandered through a jewellery exhibit I chose to stay outside and watch them run around and swing from tree to tree. It looked fun.

I’d just dodged one of the palace guards (who was wearing a palace uniform much like this)

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who had taken it upon himself to be my tour guide through a costume gallery, moving from one shiny jacket behind glass to the next, giving an explanation of each one’s importance:

“This jacket was worn by the Maharaja when he ate Naan bread”
“This shirt he wore only when he ate lentils”.
“These pants are his toothbrushing pants. Yes, he wore different set of pyjamas to bed.”.
“Do you pluck your eyebrows?”, he would ask “No, I don’t”. “Well, it was a very important part of the Maharajas day, and he would do it wearing this special shirt made specifically for the occasion”.

And on. And on. And on we strolled through the minutiae of his royal wardrobe. Just when I thought I was goingto shake him, he would careen in to a speech on underwear for a half hour, before switching into his dissertation on royal toothpicks.

I give him credit that his scholarship never wavered, even when I turned from polite indifference to outright contempt with a look on my face saying: “Thanks. But give me the cyanide”.

So, even if it was only for a few minutes, watching monkeys jump around freely was a treat. Also, on our way out, I spotted a sight that I had always associated with images of India since I was a kid:

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It was the only time we’d see a snake charmer. Much like the Maharajas’ glory, I think their time had peaked.

At this point, we were also both getting hungry, and soon set off for a misadventure at what we were told was the go to restaurant. On the menu was advertised the special dish: Rajasthani Thali, which is an assortment of lentil dishes and other vegetarian sauces.

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Looked promising, and the way it was advertised, so we thought: was that one of us could order the big version, the other person order a smaller version, and both of us could get as many re-ups as we wanted for each lentil dish we finished.

Even before we ordered, we asked the waiter if this was indeed the case, and we were reading the advertising properly. He told us yes.

But, then when he delivered the food, he changed his mind: “Not possible”, he said.

Apparently it turned out if one person ordered the big Thali and another person ordered a small Thali that meant both people were NOT entitled to any refills. It was a one off. Yet, the price of the big Thali was the same in an unlimited refill status as it was for no refill status.

To put another bureaucratic knot into play, it was also explained that if someone ordered the big thali and had refills, you were not allowed to share with your neighbour. And, given the huge number of waiters roaming around, it seemed to be enforced.

So, the only way to have the big Thali with refills was that if both of us ordered it – or one of us did, and the other person had to order something other than a Thali.

My explanation probably doesn’t make any sense, and we’re still both confused by the entire thing, but the result was that I ordered the big Thali with refills and Rose ordered a separate dish. And it was more of a big deal, since we were both on a budget, trying to stretch every dollar we could.

But annoyed with all the back and forth and recanting of their position, I ate myself into a stupor by asking for more and more and more refills as I went – mainly because I was annoyed and determined I was going to eat well beyond pleasure to force the staff to keep going back and forth to the kitchen, in hopes that they’d have to add a new disclaimer after I’d left forbidding people to eat as much as I did.

It was all really tasty. I knew I’d reached the end when the elastic band on my pants was taut and sweat broke out on my forehead thanks to two pounds of lentils burbling in my belly.

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I slowly waddled out, and we found our rickshaw and set off next to see another popular site: Hawa Mahal or the Palace of the Winds.

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During the Maharajas reign, it was designed for royal women to be able to look out at the street action without being seen. An early equivalent of the two way mirror. It was interesting enough: but we only stopped for 2 minutes. I took a photo, and we hopped back in the rickshaw, on to the next spot – which was sort of my issue with Jaipur – that it didn’t feel that easily walkable.

Sites were fairly scattered around, and it meant having someone cart you around everywhere, which isn’t the end of the world, but I like the option to walk: especially after I’ve eaten enough to last me three more future meals.

En tout cas, we next stopped at Jal Mahal, a water palace built by the Maharajas as a place to cool off when things got too hot for them at the City Palace.

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This was as close as we could get, which was fine with me, because I wasn’t interested in catching a boat out there only to unwittingly attend a two hour lecture on his highness’ former bathrobes and bathing suits:

“This suit he wore when he used the diving board”.
“This one he wore when he preferred to just walk in to the pool.”.

However, with the turn to democracy, it also means that tourists can now play at their own bid for accumulating things, and showing off, and Jaipur has two main industries with which to do it:

– textiles
– jewellery

And, unsurprisingly, both were scheduled on our day tour with our rickshaw driver, who similar to arrangements with our driver in Agra stood to make commission if we bought anything.

We started off taking a tour of a textile factory:

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And maybe as a result of coming so close to buying a carpet in Agra, we decided we couldn’t leave empty handed a second time – and thought this was it, it was time to make our rickshaw driver more money.

I’m really not into clothes shopping. But I’d been in need of a suit for a long time, and this purported to be one of the places to do it. Also the other reason was that we would be attending an Indian wedding, and it was fairly clear that we couldn’t recycle our easy-dri t-shirts and pants, that look like they belong on a high school gym teacher, into taking this fashion leap with us.

So, I watched Rose get swaddled in layer upon layer of fabric in various versions of what would become a Sari:

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While I ordered a suit and shirt and three chai teas to get me through the next three hours of measuring, tweaking and hand patting.

It was necessary, and I’m glad we did it. I was convinced we would be hijacked on the price – but after chatting with other people who got suits and dresses made in Vietnam, and in other parts of India – we landed right in the middle. Not bad.

And so, after another couple of hours slinking through jewellery stores, we called it a night and prepared for our next stop the following day: Pushkar. A small town on the edge of a desert where we’d ride into the sunset between two humps.

Talk soon