Rajasthan and the Technicolor Desert Tour

We’ve been absent from the blogosphere  recently because we have been lost in the technicolor dream of the Rajasthani desert (“blogosphere” and “technicolor dream of the Rajasthani desert” are Daniel’s words) . For the last three weeks, we’ve been touring India’s most flamboyant state, Rajasthan. Known for its fearless, mustachioed warriors, its ancient forts, flamboyant palaces, painted elephants and bejeweled camels, dangerous dances, colorful cities, and even more colorful sarees. We couldn’t find time to write about all of our-ahem- colorful experiences, so we decided to just give the highlights of our favorite Indian state to date.

Jaipur (The Pink City)

Jaipur is often called the Pink City, because its entire Old Town is painted “pink” (definitely, actually orange).  We’ve heard two stories to explain this most flamboyant of choices.

First: Apparently, the Maharaja of Jaipur ordered the entire town to paint their houses pink, the color of ‘welcome,’ when some British royalty were visiting and, when he liked the effect, maintained the decree that ALL HOUSES MUST REMAIN PINK.

Second story: The Maharaja of Jaipur, that same guy, envious of the red sandstone that define the great buildings of Delhi and Agra, wanted to imitate the color in his very own city, but lacked the sandstone deposits in nearby mountains. Instead of shelling out for some imported rocks, he decreed that every one must PAINT THEIR HOUSES PINK…ish red. This Maharaja,named Jai Singh, also named the city after himself. A colorful character, indeed.

The Pink (definitely, actually orange) City of Jaipur

The Pink (definitely, actually orange) City of Jaipur. Pictured here: The Hawa Mahal, the lady house

We took a train from Agra to Jaipur, where we had a wonderful stay at the Hotel Pearl Palace (shout out) and  remained there for five days. We had a brief introduction to tourist pricing, Rajasthani valour, and the lengths jealous kings will go to hide their wives. We were also blown away by the Rajput architecture and costume. We were shown around/possibly swindled by a friendly rickshaw driver who took us to the sights and had us gracefully ride on some elephants who were sweet and gentle creatures,  and impressive poop machines.

Jawa Mahal: Jai Singh's water palace. An effective fort and sanctuary for blistering hot weather.

Jal Mahal: Jai Singh’s water palace. An effective fort and sanctuary for blistering hot weather.

Atop Madonna the Elephant

Atop Madonna, the Elephant

Pushkar (The Holy City)

We then took another train ride to Pushkar, one the holiest Hindu cities. Although it’s generally known as an old hippie hang out and ‘the place Israelis go to smoke pot,’ it’s a pilgrimage site for its mythological history.

Pushkar. Good life. Long life. Good friends. Safe travels.

Pushkar. Good life. Long life. Good friends. Safe travels.

The town and its “lake” (glorified pond, no disrespect) is the center of the story of the holy marriage between Gayatri and Brahma. Brahma’s wife, the goddess Sarswati, was needed to perform a sacred ritual, but she was unavailable at the time. Instead, Brahma married Gayatri so she could perform the ritual. When Sarswati returned, she was, understandably, pissed and cursed Brahma, saying that only in Pushkar could he be worshipped. Gayatri was doomed to stay on the top of a nearby lonely mountain, divorced from her beloved. Sarswati remained at the top of  the opposite, higher mountain to make sure the curse stuck. Thus, the only Brahman temples in India can be found in Pushkar, a fact local priests love to remind unsuspecting tourists.

We, unsuspecting tourists, first met the lake through just such a priest. On our first day, as we walked down the street, a man handed us flower petals. We refused but he insisted, “They’re not for you. They are for the lake.” Egos checked, we accepted the flowers and went down to throw them in the lake. Once there, the priests expertly separated us and began a very complex and interesting ritual, in which we repeated mantras and put lake water and various colored powders (and rice and sugar) on our hands and face.

As we continued, he gave us some quick-fire phrases, and questions and we tried to keep up:

“Okay, repeat after me. Pushkar-Pushkar-Long life-Long life-Good life- Good life-Good friends-Good friends-Good family- Good family-Safe travels- Safe travels- Pushkar- Pushkar-India-India. How many family members do you have?Seven Usually people are coming from Britain and Europe and all over and they are giving donation in their own currency. You are from America so you use dollars. Now, continue. How many family members? Seven Five dollars for every family member. Five dollars for every family member. So how much? Um, $35?  And then there are five gods. Repeat. Krishna-Krishna-Shiva-Shiva-Ganesh-Ganesh-Vishnu-Vishnu-Lakshmi-Lakshmi.Five dollars for every god. Now take out your money and put it in this coconut. Thirty-five dollars  and twenty-five for gods so sixty dollars on the coconut. Now.”

“Wait- what?”

Here a second priest joined in “Yes, $60, now, on the coconut. For the lake.”

“I don’t even have that much on me,” I said, feeling that wasn’t quite the point.

“Fine. That’s 3600 rupee. Put that on the coconut. Now”

That was some fast math. “I don’t have that much. I can give 100 rupees.” I felt like I was losing somehow..

“3600 rupee. On the coconut.” “For the lake” “Good life” “Sixty dollars”

At which point, I said a phrase I’m becoming increasingly fond of: “I am uncomfortable. I am going now”

I then stood up and walked away. Daniel, who didn’t use such a helpful phrase, continued arguing with his priest for the next five minutes until I came and grabbed him away.

The next day, now keen to the wiles of Pushkar, we found ourselves overwhelmed in a new and entirely welcome setting, the Ganesh festival, which was more like an epic house party on the street  than anything else.

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Ganesh in the lake! Ganesh in the lake!

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Ten-foot speakers hung out of the back of painted pick up trucks, blasting Hindi pop music as tight-packed crowds followed, breaking out into spontaneous drum circles and euphoric dancing. Statues of Ganesh paraded down the streets on camels and floats as children threw flower gardens worth of petals onto the people below. They danced well into the night, eventually throwing the statue into the Holy Lake.

Jodhpur (The Blue City)

Jodphur is well known for its fort, the Mehrangarh fort, which towers above the city. While one could be disappointed by the “pink” of the Pink City, there’s no doubt about Jodphur. The Blue City is really blue!

The Blue City is really blue!

The Blue City is really blue!

Back in the day, all Brahmins painted their houses blue to distinguish themselves (it also, supposedly, keeps the streets cooler and the mosquitoes away), but since then everyone has gotten in on the act. The whole city is bluer than the sky and astounding to look at from above. Zip lining off the ancient fort provided just such a sight-seeing opportunity, a pretty wonderful birthday present from Daniel!

Zipping into 25!

Zipping into 25!

An equally striking but less enjoyable birthday present was the food poisoning I got that very same day, which put me out of commission for the rest of our Jodhpur stay. Montezuma definitely had his revenge.The event,as a present to all of you, is not pictured.

The gigantic Mehrangarh Fort. The prison pit scenes for "The Dark Knight Rises" were filmed here. Also a bunch of important stuff in Indian history happened here, too, probably.

The gigantic Mehrangarh Fort. The prison pit scenes for “The Dark Knight Rises” were filmed here. Also a bunch of important stuff in Indian history happened here, too, probably.

Jaisalmer (The Golden City)

Near the western edge of Rajasthan, the last stop on the way to Pakistan, is Jaisalmer, the city filled with so many sand colored buildings that it has been dubbed “The Golden City.” But we did not come for the vast array of unique jewelry, textiles, or silver, the many temples and shrines, or oldest, continuously inhabited fort in India that seems to materialize out of the hill like some magical sand castle. No, we came for something else entirely. Camel safaris.

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We had an image, a very Arabian Nights conception, of a long camel ride into the desert: Sultans draped in billowing cloths and colorful turbans, gliding across endless sand dunes. That kind of thing. But if said sultans really did manage it with such grace then they must have had callused thighs and buns of steel to maintain such composure. Within an hour our hips ached, our butts were sore, and each bouncy step the camel took made us wince.

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We happened upon what seemed to be the sole stretch of sand dunes as far as the eye could see to set up our camp for the night. The packs we had been sitting on were our mattresses and blankets, and we laid them out as the sun set and the fire was kindled.  We could really appreciate our idealized notion of the life of desert nomads as the sky flooded with stars and we watched the fire die while  eating dinner.

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The romance lasted for about the first thirty minutes after we laid out on our mattresses. Sleeping in the desert is a delicate and doomed attempt to keepthe warmth in and keep the sand out, but no matter how many blankets you use or how tight you pull them over you, you’re going to wake up with a face full of sand. But that’s all part of the fun. Then came the beetles. Like something out of Jurassic Park, these creepy black bugs roughly the size and thickness of a thumb, crawled all over us as we (kind of) slept.

Udaipur (The Lake City)

Our final stop on our colorful tour of Rajasthan was Udaipur, the Lake City. Surrounding Lake Pichola, Udaipur has an energy that is positively European, like Venice or Amsterdam. The low foot bridges, the beautiful buildings that came right up against the water, lots of coffee shops and nice cafes, art and photo studios lining the streets.

And Octopussy.

Part of the famous Bond movie was filmed at the Lake Palace, a shmancy hotel in the middle of the lake, only accessible by boat and at least a few hundred dollars per nightThere seems to be a deep attachment to the movie that put the city on the map. Restaurants proudly display that they show the “Octopussy movie every night”. This seemed excessive at first, but after a while  we wouldn’t deign to patronize the kind of establishment that would dare provide dinner without (that one) show.

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As a belated anniversary gift, we treated ourselves to the posh Udai Kothi hotel, which rises out of the surrounding town looking like a wedding cake, and home to the only rooftop pool in the city. We woke up late in our curtained four-poster bed, took advantage of the spa services, took long walks and sunset boat rides around the lake, and sat leisurely at cafes on the lake watching people fish expertly off the bridges.

A cultural show in Udaipur. Count 'em: 9 separate pots carried on her head!

A cultural show in Udaipur. Count ’em: 9 separate pots carried on her head!

The brightly lit City Palace of Udaipur

The brightly lit City Palace of Udaipur

Just as we started to get to know our new favorite Indian city, it was time to round out our tour of Rajasthan.

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