A Travellerspoint blog

January 2011

Jaisalmer -"Highly Recommended by Lonely Planet"

sunny 22 °C

Jaisalmer, in the heart of The Great Indian Desert and close to the Pakistan border, was at one time a prosperous staging post on the Silk Road from India to central Asia and Persia, but both time and trade have passed this remote city by. Today the grubby labyrinthine streets beneath the fortress walls are a medieval minefield of open sewers and piles of animal excrement, and they teem with unwashed, barefoot beggars and their unkempt children…
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But, due to its affluent past, Jaisalmer has a wealth of architectural wonders. A massive sandstone fortress encompasses most of the old city and we had planned to stay at the historic, and seemingly exotic, Nachana haveli just outside the city gates…as recommended by the Lonely planet…
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However, looks can be deceiving, and after a few minutes we concluded that staying in this dank medieval mansion might be akin to being thrown into a Victorian workhouse. The windowless dungeon-like room we were shown could have been part of the charm, but overnight temperatures here in the desert drop to single figures. Not only was there no heating, but the electricity supply blows with the wind here and is about as reliable as an Indian train; it will come, they assured us …eventually. So, we picked up our bags and went knocking at these Palace gates...
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Modern day aristos are feeling the pinch like everyone else, (even Liz has to let the plebs into Buckingham Palace for a bit of pin money), so it’s not surprising that the Maharajah of Jaisalmer has turned a wing of his massive palace into a ritzy hotel for the moneyed traveler. The Palace is enormous, with thirty elegant and expansive guest rooms and suites, together with so many corridors and public rooms that we are frequently lost. However, the recession has taken a major bite out of the up-market travel industry and well-heeled travelers have been replaced by the sneaker brigade. As a result, a family of four from Seattle and us have the entire palace to ourselves. The silence is deafening…
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In addition to the hotel, the palace houses two private museums, several temples and the Maharaja’s stable of polo ponies…
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We just hope the old boy isn’t relying on the hotel takings to keep his steeds shod, because we got our room for a song.
Tomorrow we will visit the great fortress on the hill overlooking the city. In the meantime we will carefully tread the city’s streets where so many shops, hotels, restaurants, hairdressers and massage parlours claim to be “Highly recommended by the Lonely Planet” that Jaisalmer must have an entire book to itself?

Posted by Hawkson 04:41 Archived in India Comments (1)

Down on the Farm in Jodhpur

sunny 25 °C

Baggy riding breeches known as Jodhpurs originated in this Rajasthani city where polo has been the sport of maharajas for centuries. Jodhpur is also renowned for the myriad of indigo coloured buildings that make up the old city…
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In the midst of this maze of ancient streets and lanes is the market – as vibrant and chaotic as any we have found in India…
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And standing sentinel high above the tangle of city streets is the Maharaja’s enormous castle – the Mehrangarh Fort…
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This virtually impregnable fortress is an impressive reminder of the power wielded by the Rajputs – a local Hindu clan who were under constant attack by the Muslim Mughals. The Rajputs were never defeated here, although they eventually formed an alliance with the Mughals, (as they did later with the British). This part of the palace was where the Maharaja’s many wives were kept isolated from all other men in what is known as ‘purdah’…
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When one Maharaja died in 1843, all of his thirty-two wives calmly stepped onto his funeral pyre and were burned alive. This is the custom of ‘Sati’ and here are the right handprints they left behind…
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The Mughals are no longer a threat today, so Jodhpur’s royals now live across town in the impressive, art-deco, Umaid Bhawan Palace…
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Three thousand workers took fifteen years to build this pile for Maharajah Umaid Singh in the 1920s/30s. Unfortunately, the Maharajah metaphorically fell off his polo pony just three years after it was completed and his four-year-old son took the reins. However, maharajaship ain’t as regal as it used to be and to make ends meet most of the joint has now been turned into a luxury hotel.
In case you’re wondering, we are not staying up here on top of the world; we are down below in the ‘new’ part of the city where the wide streets teem with traffic, pedestrians and farm animals. Jodhpur may be a relatively modern city of a million people but, as in all Indian cities, stray cattle wander the streets and thrive on the garbage that is simply piled on every available corner. And, along with the cows, there are pigs, goats, dogs, chickens, camels and rats. Living here is to live on a farm and this herd of about twenty cows are being ‘farmed’ on the road outside our hotel’s gates…
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Posted by Hawkson 07:13 Archived in India Comments (2)

The Antiques Roadshow

sunny 25 °C

A road trip across Rajasthan is a mind-spinning kaleidoscopic journey through history, where, apart from cellphone towers and satellite dishes, the present century ends at Udaipur’s city gates. After that the roads deteriorate into a mishmash of nineteenth-century cart tracks, early twentieth century tarmac and a short stretch of modern dual-carriageway, (though the centre median is completely ignored by bus and truck drivers who see no reason to stick to the correct side if there is less traffic on the other). Our vision of this ancient roadway was re-enforced by the odd camel cart…
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And even an elephant… Elephant_ride.jpg
Every road journey in India is a spring-snapping, bone-jarring, death-defying adventure but, as we climbed the arid Aravalli mountains, the 16th century fort at Kumbhalgar took our breath away…
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This enormous ‘castle-in-the-air’ stands on a peak more than a thousand feet high and is surrounded by a curtain wall of more than 36 kilometres. The view from on high is truly spectacular and explains why this bastion was breached only once; and then only for three days…
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After Kumbhalgar we drifted through the middle-ages as we passed dozens of ancient ox-driven bucket wheels being used to lift water from the wells…
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And then we were back in 1469 at the beautiful Jain temple of Ranakpur… Ranakpur.jpg
...the finest, best preserved, (and cleanest), religious building on our trip by far.

But our day in the history department wasn’t over. When we arrived in Jodhpur we discovered that our heritage hotel, The Kothi, had a colourful past and a wonderful host family…
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This magnificent mansion, with 20ft ceilings and a wealth of antique furnishings, has been the home of six generations of the Singhvi family since it was built in 1888. The soaring main hall with its stone balcony is home to an antique-collector’s dream of ancient artifacts including many pieces inlaid with ivory and a diamond encrusted shield made of hippopotamus hide…
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Here in Rajasthan we are not watching The Antiques Roadshow – we are living it.

Posted by Hawkson 07:39 Archived in India Comments (0)

Udaipur's Backside

sunny 28 °C

After a few days in Udaipur we discovered that its opulent and impressive façade is barely skin deep. Just behind the whitewashed palaces, the ritzy hotels and the towering havelis that overlook the lake, lies a tight tangle of grubby streets teeming with tuk-tuks, stray animals and many who have to wash their hair under the street pumps…
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But this city has been divided between the haves and have-nots ever since its inception in the mid-sixteenth century when, as the legend goes, the first Maharana of Mewar killed a hare here and god told him it would be a great place to build both this palace and his two others...
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This immense City Palace was constructed for the privileged aristocracy in the mid 1500s on the backs of people enslaved by poverty… a common practice in the sixteenth century. And, today, as we tour the hard-scrabble backstreets just outside the palace walls, we see people and stray animals still scratching a living much as they did when this place was new, and we wonder what they make of the wedding taking place at the City Palace tonight. Here’s the mainstage for tonight’s affair …
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And here’s the city’s vegetable market where, we were reliably informed, inflation has pushed the price of many products well beyond the reach of the masses…
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This guy sells raw sugar...
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While this lady's whole life revolves around a rickety handcart from which sells individual sweets and packets of tea and coffee for just 1 or 2 cents...
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And these donkeys are still used as transport...
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However, tonight, maharajahs, mega-rich movie stars and well-healed moguls of business and politics won't need donkeys. They will breeze in on corporate jets, helicopters and limos to dine on caviar and to quaff bucketfuls of champagne at the City Palace. And they will be seated on a massive platform supported entirely by a flimsy forest of scrap wood – a metaphor for their precarious position in society perhaps?
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Surprisingly, the Palace remained open during preparations for this evening’s event, the first of the four day celebration of this particular wedding, and we watched as hundreds of lackeys raced to transform it into a glitzy Bollywood wedding chapel using thousands of metres of cloth, hundreds of crates of roses and orchids, (specially flown in from New Zealand), dozens of crystal chandeliers, together with sufficient stage lighting and sound systems to power a Celine Dion spectacular…

We have no idea of the cost of this one event, but weddings are huge money-spinners in India where conspicuous consumption and in-your-face flashiness have become the weapons of choice for the obscenely rich. Unsurprisingly, many might claim that the overt ostentation has been copied from the West, but one look at the Maharana’s monstrous mansions proves that such self-aggrandizement has been the norm here for centuries.
However, just as we wonder what the proletariat might make of the aristocracy’s profligacy, we wonder what the toffs might make of the shameful headline in today’s Times of India. “Eighty-percent of women in India cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins!”
We bet the bride at tonight’s wedding in the City Palace doesn’t have that problem, neither did one precocious ‘Indian princess’ we met at our hotel in Munnar. This young bride derisively complained that she didn’t have a flashy up-market camera because her insensitive relatives and friends had only given her gold as wedding gifts… What a bummer! But even worse, she protested, was the fact that she couldn’t wear the gold jewellery because it was much too heavy… Aw Shucks!

Posted by Hawkson 05:43 Archived in India Comments (3)

Udaipur's Shiny Face

sunny 28 °C

For much of our Indian sojourn the natural landscape has been marred by stark cellphone towers, belching smokestacks, refinery chimneys and crumbling concrete high-rises, and when we arrived in Udaipur it seemed that nothing had changed. The road from the smart new airport took us past massive zinc smelting plants and through squalid villages – complete with ubiquitous, and probably illegal, cellphone towers. But then, as we finally threaded our way into the centre of the old city, a magic wand was waved and we found ourselves transported to an enchanted land of palaces, castles and temples.This is the enormous City Palace which was started in the early 16th century by the first Maharana of Mewar…
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And, on a hill overlooking the lake, is the Monsoon Palace where the Maharana and his retinue could safely ride out the summer storms…
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Udaipur is a whimsical place, bursting with fairytale palaces and haveli, (great mansions), many of which have been transformed into stunningly beautiful hotels charging up to twenty-thousand dollars a night for a suite. Here’s our hotel: The Jagat Niwas Palace…
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And here’s our view across Lake Pichola to another great palace which has been turned into a hotel. This is the famous and incredibly expensive Lake Palace Hotel, which was the Maharana’s summer home and was featured in the1983 Bond movie, Octopussy…
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A cat may look at a king, they say, but when it comes to this uppity joint that’s about all we can do. We wanted to go for lunch one day but were politely informed that they don’t cater to riff-raff. No matter, when it comes to eating in Udaipur, there’s no shortage of haute cuisine. In fact, most restaurants are on the rooftops so we can enjoy the stunning scenery as parrots, hawks and pigeons flock to roost in the crag-like towers of the palaces, and the waning sun drops behind the surrounding Rajasthani hills…
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Or, we can turn our backs on this incredibly beauteous sight and watch 007 ass-kicking his adversaries in any of the dozens of restaurants that show Octopussy every evening… Now what should we do?

Posted by Hawkson 01:44 Archived in India Tagged udaipur Comments (2)

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