Sunday, February 28, 2010

Udaipur, India

Stepping off the plane from Mumbai we were surprised how different the landscape in Rajastan is from southern India.  We’re in the desert now, and the ground is brown and dry, with rolling hills.

On our taxi ride into town from the airport, we noticed other differences; women here wear their sari pallaus draped over their heads, and for the first time in India I saw many women wearing lehengas (a long skirt with a separate blouse and a matching shawl called a dupatta). We saw two camels plodding down the highway pulling carts, and many of the men here wear turbans.  Waxed mustaches with the ends twisted into curlicues seem to be in style here for the older men.

Udaipur is so beautiful!  The streets in the old part of Udaipur are narrow and twisty and the homes are all built of stone; it instantly reminded me of Siena, Italy.  The city is built on a hill looming over Lake Pichola, so walking around town means climbing up and down.  The lobby of our hotel was colored with stained glass windows and our top-floor room had a great view out over the city and the lake.

Since we arrived in the late afternoon, we decided to start with a sunset boat ride across the lake to Jagmandir Island.  Along the way, we had great views of the City Palace walls and of the white frosted Lake Palace hotel, where a James Bond movie (Octopussy) was filmed and where Bollywood stars throw lavish weddings.

On Jagmandir Island, we took tons of photos of the Palace walls glowing in the setting sun, and sat for awhile admiring the stunning scenery across the lake.  But we were getting hungry, so we headed back to town.  For dinner we found a rooftop café that plays Octopussy every night (as many places in town do), so we sat watching 007 and swatting mosquitos.

The next morning we headed straight to the City Palace, excited to explore.  The fort has been wonderfully restored and preserved, so it was easy to imagine the lavish lifestyles of the maharajas who built the palace and lived there, beginning in 1600 and into the early 1900s.  We paid for an audio tour and I especially enjoyed finding a spot to sit and appreciate the architecture while listening to the period Indian music that was provided on the audio guide.

After lunch we explored Bagore Ki Haveli, an 18th century old mansion still in the process of being restored.  Its 138 rooms are set around a series of interior courtyards.  The museum was deserted so we nearly had the place to ourselves.  We decided to come back to the haveli later to see the Rajastani dance performance that’s hosted every night in its courtyard.

My absolute favorite part of Udaipur was our visit to Jagdish Temple, located just outside the walls of the City Palace. The Hindu temple towers over the city up a steep set of stairs on which people are constantly climbing up and down.  On the edges of the stairs, women sit with baskets of red and yellow flowers, stringing them for worship.  We left our shoes at the bottom and climbed up.

The temple is exquisitely carved out of limestone and is tiered like a pyramid.   The carvings depict elephants, Hindu deities, and everyday life.  The temple was flooded in yellow light from the afternoon sun.  We walked around the exterior once clockwise, as required, and then entered the temple.

In the open center, women sat singing, an early celebration of the coming Holi holiday.  Draped in their saris, the women made the most wonderful rainbow collection of brilliant colors.  A golden glowing niche in the back of the temple holds a statue of Vishnu.  The carved pillars around the central area were dusted in bright red powder, another indication of the celebration of Holi.

Mohit and I sat on the floor with the women and watched them sing with big smiles, clapping and rocking in their seats; what a wonderful sisterly time they were having.  A woman in a coral sari front of us turned around, smiled at me, and handed me a few tiny green leaves.   It was all so beautiful, so welcoming, so India that it brought tears to my eyes.  I was overwhelmed with happiness; I feel incredibly lucky to experience all this.

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