INDIA NOVEMBER 2005
Vibrant. Colorful. Diverse. Embracing. When thinking about India, these are the words that come immediately to mind, even though our visit began with tragedy. Three bombs shattered the festive atmosphere in Delhi as Indians prepared for the joyous Diwali festival, killing 59 people and injuring about 200 others when Pakistani Islamic terrorists detonated them outside a railway station, in a busy market, and on a bus the day that we arrived in India at the end of October. We’d just spent about 20 hours in transit and were out of touch with the news, but the young man from the travel agency who met us at the airport lost no time telling us about the tragic events earlier that day as we were chauffeured to our hotel. I’d traveled to India for the first time just five weeks earlier on a business trip to Mumbai and Bangalore and was eagerly anticipating our holiday based on the tantalizing glimpse of the culture that I’d gotten during that brief visit. While saddened by the terrible toll on the families afflicted by this heinous act, news of it did not diminish our desire to explore the country further. It was after midnight by the time we checked into an elegant room at the Imperial Hotel, and we succumbed to much-needed sleep.
After a wake-up workout in the hotel’s small but modern exercise room and a delicious buffet breakfast in a light-filled atrium, we met our guide for a city tour. Due to the bombings the government had closed some of the more popular sights, such as the Red Fort, but there was still plenty to see. Beginning with settlements as early as 300 BC, Delhi has grown into the home of 13.5 million people on the site of 7 ancient cities, each featuring the palaces of its Muslim conqueror. The British shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 establishing a governmental area to the south of the old Delhi area known as New Delhi, where the seat of government still resides after India’s independence in 1947. India’s population is so vast that although more than 80% of Indians are Hindu, India has the world’s second largest population of Muslims after Indonesia (nearly 130 million) and about 25 million Christians in addition to Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis. While field hockey is the official national sport and football (soccer) is very popular, locals joke that cricket is the national religion. Indians speak 18 official languages, hundreds more minor languages and thousands of dialects. Indians will advise you in all seriousness that English is the only language common to all.
Vikas, our handsome young guide, bragged that Delhi is the 4th greenest capital in the world and the 2nd most biodiverse. As we noticed that first day and confirmed during the rest of our travels, India seems to be blessed with a large proportion of highly attractive people. We suspect that baldness genes must be largely recessive among this population and that Indians would have no idea what Americans mean when lamenting about “bad hair days”.
We started our tour in New Delhi, admiring Sir Edwin Luytens architecture and the imposing government buildings constructed of Rajasthani sandstone. The presidential palace grounds cover 3300 acres and include elaborate gardens, fanciful elephant topiaries, a dairy farm, and the 145 meter Jaipur Tower, a gift from the Maharajah of that district. We walked down the broad, lawn-lined avenue named Rajpath to the India Gate, a triumphal arch built in 1921 to commemorate the Indian soldiers who lost their lives in World War I and other conflicts.
Army, Navy and Air Force flags fly at full mast and an eternal flame burns in memoriam. We arrived just as Navy servicemen wearing crisp white uniforms with white spats over their highly polished shoes were turning over the guard to an Air Force squadron in sky-blue shirts and dark blue pants. The sailors, accompanied by a brass band, marched in tight formation, their left arms swinging straight up to shoulder height. Five palaces surround the gate. Once residences of the Maharajahs of India’s most populous cities, they are now government buildings.
As we headed to visit Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in the country, Vikas told us that cities ending in the suffix pur (such as Jodhpur and Jaipur) originated as Hindu cities and those ending in the suffix bad (such as Hyderabad) were Muslim. We caught a glimpse of the Red Fort, Lal Qil’ah, built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, of Taj Mahal fame, to be his palace when he established his capital of Shahjahanabad in Delhi. The gold, emerald and ruby peacock throne was looted in 1739, and as a result of that and subsequent invasions, no treasures remain in the fort.
In the 1650’s A.D., Shah Jahan commissioned Jama Masjid, whose vast open courtyard is large enough to host 25,000 worshippers. As we traversed the courtyard, we heard that the mosque contains a shrine with a hair from Muhammad’s beard, a pair of sandals, as well as the prophet’s footprints in marble. Constructed of red sandstone and black and white marble, the harmonious architecture features a two-story arched entry flanked by a colonnade with10 scalloped arches and two 130-foot minarets. Three black and white striped marble domes, a larger one in the middle with 2 smaller on either side, are visible beyond the entryway. Men in white robes rested on the perimeter of a rectangular reflecting pool and prayed in the quiet interior corridors.
A lively market flourished outside the mosque grounds selling pomegranates, custard apples, pear, pineapple and banana in addition to fireworks for the festival. Vendors squeezing limes for juice perfumed the air with their refreshing fragrance.
We continued on to the tomb of the second Moghul emperor, Humayun, dedicated by his widow 9 years after his death in 1556. The opulent Persian style is similar to the Taj Mahal and is reputed to have been its inspiration. Geometrical pools and square gardens divided into four quadrants surround the handsome mausoleum built of red sandstone with white marble accents. We were surprised to see marble Stars of David with lotus flowers in their center embedded in the walls. We learned that this is a holy Hindu icon that consists of two intersecting triangles representing man - knowledge and woman – wisdom. The dignitaries within are buried north to south with their heads in the direction of Mecca, though only replicas are on view, the real crypts remain hidden.
Near to Humayun’s Tomb, stands the tomb of Isa Khan, a chief minister in the service of Kher Shah, the Afghan ruler who defeated Humayun and exiled him to Persia. Less grand than Humayun’s, the octagonal sandstone structure is still pleasing with an arcade of arches topped by a large dome surrounded by smaller domes.
Qutub Minar, at 72.5 meters (139 ft.) the tallest stone tower in India, was erected in stages beginning with the first Muslim ruler of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din Aybak in 1193 and ending with the 5th story in 1368 courtesy of later successor Firoz Shah Tughlaq. Originally intended as a victory tower, the fluted red sandstone minaret has a series of intricately carved balconies and is beautifully inscribed with Arabic verse and text from the Qu’ran. The complex in which it is located, includes the Alai Darwaza gateway built in 1310, one of the oldest mosques in India with dozens of beautifully carved columns, the tombs of Iltutmish and Imam Zamin, Alauddin Khalji’s madrassa, a 27 m high incomplete tower named Alai Minar which was intended to surpass the Qutub Minar, a sundial, and a 21 ft. high iron pillar that has not rusted during its 2000 years. Pale green and blue parakeets with black and white collars and vivid red beaks nested in the cracks of the sandstone edifices and playful squirrels striped like chipmunks chased each other around the grounds.
After lunch, we visited Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. The museum was closed due to the terrorist incident, but we strolled in the garden on the banks of the Jamuna River and admired murals illustrating his illustrious life. A simple black marble monument with an eternal flame immortalizes the great pacifist leader.
We had an excellent dinner in our hotel at the Spice Route restaurant, which offers an eclectic menu of Pan-Asian cuisine. The restaurant is lovely, elaborately decorated with murals, thick painted wood columns and a carved ceiling.
Monday morning we arose early to catch a 6 a.m. train to Agra. We decided on the train instead of driving because I’d read that it is faster and more comfortable. The train was well equipped, with good seats and in-seat power. Porters offered newspapers, tea and sweet crackers followed by a hot breakfast consisting of a vegetable croquette and sliced white bread. The sun rose in a hazy sky illuminating fields of grain dotted with clusters of shanties. Our driver was waiting at the station with a clean, well-maintained Skoda, a Czech vehicle. He drove us to the hotel to check in before our tour. The Oberoi Amar Vilas is the only hotel with a view of the Taj Mahal and we splurged on a room with a balcony and that signature view.
Our guide met us in a cushy lounge at the hotel and we headed off to see the Taj Mahal. On the way he told us that Agra, on the right bank of the Jamuna River, was the 16th Century capital of the Moghul Empire. Currently, besides tourism, its chief industries are silk, embroidery and leather.
If you ever visit India and are considering skipping the Taj Mahal, seriously reconsider. Yes, you’ve seen the photos, but they don’t come close to capturing the magnificence of the most over-the-top tribute to romantic love in the world. The mausoleum is dedicated to Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s beloved second wife, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child at the age of 38. She made her husband promise not to remarry, to care for their children and to erect a mausoleum in her honor. Completed in 1648, it took 22 years and 20,000 workers to build.
The main entrance gate, built of brick-colored sandstone, towers 30 meters high. A passage from the Qur’an is inscribed on the gate. All of the letters appear to be the same size; however, this is an illusion. The height of the characters varies depending on their distance from eye level. Your first view of the tomb, which is meant to resemble a crown, is at a distance through the portal as you emerge into the lushly landscaped park. Positioned on a platform at the end of a grand esplanade, surrounded by 4 minarets, and glowing as pure white as newly fallen snow, the Taj duplicates its incomparable image in a long reflecting pool as smooth as glass. The white marble, transported by ox and camel carts from Rajasthan, is reputed to be the hardest in the world, with such low porosity that rain cleans it naturally. It isn’t until you draw much closer that you perceive the gray tint of the stone and the elaborate decoration that covers both the exterior and interior. The 162.5 ft. tall minarets are intentionally angled slightly outwards so that in the event of an earthquake, they will not topple inwards onto the mausoleum and damage it. 3 balconies ring the minarets with chattris (domed kiosks) on top that mirror the similar chattri on the roof of the Taj.
The entire complex is designed to be perfectly symmetrical, from the landscaping to the buildings. A mosque on the left side of the tomb is replicated as an ornamental building on the right side purely for balance. There are 22 domes on the site. The principal dome at 35 meters high is meant to invoke an inverted lotus flower. It is a double dome, like that of Humayun’s Tomb, to increase stability and provide perfect harmony inside and out. The finial on top of the dome combines Persian and Hindu iconography, the crescent moon combining with other elements to evoke a trident, a symbol of Shiva. The base of the Taj features a large central arch with smaller arches flanking it, a design that repeats on all 4 sides of the building.
The Shah planned to build a complete duplicate of the Taj Mahal in black stone on the other side of the river, but was imprisoned at age 67 by his third son who was alarmed at the amount of money his obsessed father was spending on this construction. He died in captivity 8 years later.
At the foot of the stairs leading to the mausoleum, you must place cloth covers over your shoes to protect the marble flooring of the monument. From the platform you can clearly see the exquisite carvings, painting and the marble and semi-precious stone inlay that decorates the arches, columns and roof edging. Because anthropomorphic designs are forbidden by Islamic law, marble, agate, jade, jasper, malachite, lapis and coral are artfully carved into in the form of calligraphy, flowers, fruit, vines and geometric shapes in repeating patterns. The gray and black zigzag pattern on outer columns gives the illusion that they are concave, when they are flat in reality.
When you enter, the Queen’s tomb is in the center of the room, and the King’s is higher up on the left hand side behind a marble gate. Although the bodies are buried in identical marble caskets in the basement of the mausoleum, these replicas are installed at ground level for visitors to view. The white marble is stunningly inlaid with precious and semi-precious gemstone poppies, hibiscus, roses, lotus, lilies, jasmine, honeysuckle, fuchsia and chrysanthemums. Every surface of the chapel is richly decorated with carvings and inlay, including a 14 chapter prayer of sorrow and grief.
After admiring the magnificent details of the Taj, we crossed the lawn to the mosque, which is constructed of red sandstone and white marble and includes some of the architectural attributes of the mausoleum, such as lotus-shaped domes, the floral inlay design above the main arch, the repeating smaller arches and the chattri atop columns at the 4 corners of the building. There’s a beautiful view of the river from the far edge of the platform. Our guide took a break while we wandered the grounds at our leisure.
It’s impossible to top the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, but Agra Fort is still an extraordinary sight. Built in the 16th C of red sandstone, you penetrate the crenellated walls of the fortress via a drawbridge over the surrounding moat. Our guide pointed out the battlements where soldiers poured hot oil on attackers and where they rolled boulders down sloped ramps if the enemy managed to advance that far. The great Muhal Emperors, Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb resided in the fort’s palatial precincts when they ruled the country from Agra. This is where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, and it’s rumored that the tower in which he was confined had an excellent view of the Taj Mahal.
Once you pass the gate, you enter the courtyard through an arcade of scalloped arches, to find precisely designed geometrical gardens and a white marble palace within. Velvety red coxcomb flowers border the edges of the vast lawn. There are several structures in the fort, including great halls, golden pavilions, the harem quarters, mosques, a drum house for the musicians and the glass palace – a royal room whose walls are covered with mirror mosaics. The throne room features white marble with precious stone inlay and a view of the Taj. Marble columns throughout are inlaid with stone flowers and topped with intricately carved capitals. Warm and cool water were run through pipes behind the wooden walls of the palace to control the inside temperature. An open air pavilion with a swing afforded a place for the Queen to catch breezes from the river during sultry days. We were only allowed to visit a small section of the fort, but it was enough to gain an appreciation of its splendor. As we made our way to the car, Stu spotted a small group of women, resplendent in brightly dyed saris, balancing ceramic bowls filled with spices on their heads, whom he immediately dubbed “The Spice Girls”.
We had a very good lunch consisting of chicken tikka served with a spicy green garlic sauce, malai kofta (vegetables) and garlic naan at Riao restaurant, where an exceedingly helpful waiter enhanced our dining experience. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the balcony of our room at the hotel, enjoying the view of the Taj Mahal and of the activity on the grounds. There were many interesting birds on the property, including an electric blue kingfisher. We were amused to see a young man in uniform walking a well-groomed langur on a leash. The monkey would have been almost as tall as he on its hind legs, with a whip-like tail, long white fur and black face and ears.
We dined at a restaurant in the hotel, an experience greatly improved by the live music – a man on drums and a woman playing sitar. Otherwise the meal was not high on our list to recommend and the service left much to be desired. Especially when compared with lunch, which was a fraction of the cost. We have to admit that the best feature of the hotel was the view of the Taj. The rooms were fine, though not nearly as nice as those in other Oberoi hotels, and the staff was amazingly sweet, but seemed to require better training.
We would stay there again, however, if you’re a stickler for service, you may feel that this property doesn’t offer sufficient value for the price. The next morning we ordered breakfast on our patio to enjoy the Taj view one last time before leaving Agra.
Our guide accompanied us to Fatehpur Sikri, after which he returned home and left us to the care of our driver. Fatehpur Sikri, now abandoned, was the first planned city of the Moghuls, built in 1571 by Emperor Akbar and serving as the capital until 1585. Built predominantly of sandstone, the buildings surround an airy open courtyard. From the upper floors you gain a beautiful view of the grounds set among sparsely vegetated hills. The architecture is lovely, with details such as elephant head and lotus flower carvings on column capitols, intricate carvings and paintings, including Akbar on horseback and other battle scenes. The bottom floor of the Panch Mahal, a five-story palace, features 176 fat columns incised with a lotus design supporting a ceiling of scalloped arches. Akbar had created a new religion, which did not survive his demise, and included icons representing multiple religions in the design. No furnishings remain, but the richly painted, carved and inlaid walls, both inside and out speak of its former opulence. In the House of Commons, our guide told us that elephants crushed convicted criminals. A hamam (Turkish bath) was situated adjacent to the Muslim wife’s palace, a colorfully and ornately decorated building. The Hindu wife’s palace, equally flamboyant, was opposite the kitchen. The summer palace faced the lake to take advantage of the cool breezes, while the winter palace was at the opposite end of the courtyard.
Our guide told tales of harem dancers, humans participating as game pieces on a court-sized game board, and singers entertaining the Emperor and his entourage from a platform in the middle of a pool while the women watched from screened galleries. During its prime, this bustling metropolis housed companions and assistants of the Queens as well as government officials, the royal medic and the King’s retinue.
Today, November 1, was the holy festival of lights, Diwali, the day that commemorates the triumph of light (good) over dark (evil). The holiday celebrates the rescue of Rama’s wife, Sita, from her kidnapper, the evil king Ravana, a popular tale from the Ramayana that is often interpreted in dance and art. As we drove to Rajasthan we observed stalls piled high with marigolds, which are strung up and draped on carts, storefronts and everything else including people, and sweets, which are shared in the celebration.
Graceful women balanced ewers on their heads as they walked to temples to pour water on the statues. We saw fruit carts straining under their load of apples, bananas, oranges and pomegranates. People piled into flat beds hauled by tractors, an inexpensive, but uncomfortable and risky, mode of transportation. Over a decent lunch at the Motel Gangaur, our driver, informed us humorously that 3 things are essential for safe driving in India – good brakes, good horn and good luck.
We arrived in Jaipur, known as “The Pink City” due to its rose colored buildings, late in the afternoon and headed straight to our hotel, the Oberoi Rajvilas. It’s a beautiful property featuring Rajasthani-styled bungalows surrounding flowered courtyards scattered among acres of landscaped gardens with domed pavilions and reflecting pools. Our private garden was visible from the sunken marble tub in the bathroom. I took advantage of the well-equipped gym but none of the sybaritic spa services.
An events coordinator had invited us to join them in a Diwali ceremony at a small temple on the hotel grounds, so we cleaned up and met a small group of hotel employees and guests there. The temple was ablaze with light from candles and oil lamps. Men and women formed separate lines and filed into the temple to hear the prayers and receive a blessing in the form of a colored string tied around our wrists and a smudge of color on our foreheads. We learned the origins of the holiday and that Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, will experience 10 incarnations, 9 in the past and one to come. Among the 9 were Rama, Krishna and Buddha (Lord Siddhartha). As we walked back from the temple, fireworks exploded in a frenzy of light and joy. We dined outdoors and enjoyed a skillful dance performance incorporating flame pots.
We started the next day in Jaipur, which was founded by the Maharajah Jai Singh II in 1727 when he moved his capital there from Amber. The town is reputed to have been painted pink in 1853 in honor of the visiting Prince of Wales and has retained its rosy glow ever since. There are 7 entrance gates to the walled city, topped with battlements and painted with white scrollwork. Jaipur was the first planned city in India and is well laid out in a grid with good underground drainage. Shops compete for an award for the best Diwali decoration and they were still decked out with flowers and banners. A grinning flower vendor placed long leis of marigolds around our necks when we passed his kiosk.
The renowned Palace of the Winds, Hawa Mahal, is a five-story crown-shaped stone façade, enabling the ladies of the court to view the activities on the main street from behind intricately carved screens without being observed. On the pavement nearby, one of a pair of snake charmers coaxed a hooded cobra out of its basket by blowing into a gourd pipe. The lovely pink Monsoon Palace of the Kings reflects its elegant symmetrical image on the still waters of an artificial lake.
The Amber Fort (aka Amer fort), about 11 km from Jaipur, is built of white marble and red sandstone and features some fine carving, paintings and halls of mirrors. The courtyard was used by the Maharajahs’ army while the royal entourage lived in the fortified palace and the public inhabited the valley outside.
We entered the Hall of Public Audience, where citizens could lodge complaints and seek justice and where criminals were tried. Our guide told us that criminals could be tied to an elephant’s tail, where they would be vigorously whipped when the elephant ran. The exterior of the hall in red and ochre sandstone featured carvings of elephants, roosters, wading birds and other animals. Within, white Makrana marble columns, the same high-quality Rajasthani marble used for the Taj Mahal, with lotus flower and elephant face carvings, held up the vaulted ceiling. Woolen carpets and oil lamp chandeliers added color and light.
Saffron used to be grown in the garden of the King, but due to climate change, we’re told that it is only grown in Kashmir nowadays. The King’s palace is elaborately painted with carved screens over the windows and images of Ganesha in the arches over the doorways. A star-shaped pool is at the center of a flower garden in the courtyard. The Hall of Pleasures features sandalwood doors with ivory inlay, light and dark blue geometrical patterns on the walls and lime and pale green plastered arcades with etched designs. The tower affords a view of the servants’ quarters and the Jaigarh Fort up the hill.
The oldest section of the fortress was built by Man Singh I, a great warrior and lover with 12 queens and a populous harem. Each queen had her own apartment and the royal quarters included a pavilion for dancers and musicians with teardrop shaped columns. The summer palace of the King was decorated with small mirror mosaics in the shape of flowers, urns and geometric figures. Perforated screens let in breezes and copper pipes dripped water on curtains of coconut and palm fiber to further cool rooms of cream and gray marble with scalloped arches. The winter palace was known as the Mirror Palace and was covered with even more inlaid mirror decoration as well as stained glass. One of our favorite sights was the 300-400 year old frescoes of Krishna playing a flute, in the company of his many consorts.
Jai Singh was as interested in astronomy as architecture and he built a large observatory in Jaipur that features a 90-ft. high sundial that also works at night based on the position of the polar star. In addition to the amazing sundial, there are a variety of other instruments, including one used to track planetary position and to predict the dates of eclipses, and one that tracks the passage of the sun from the northern to southern hemisphere using shade and light to indicate the sun’s position. There are also smaller structures dedicated to the 12 signs of the zodiac, since astrology was considered as much a science as astronomy.
Without doubt, the most magnificent site in Jaipur is the City Palace. The Mubarak Mahal is the first of the seven opulent palaces within and contains the textile museum, which showcases royal robes of gold and silver brocade, court costumes, gold-embroidered pashmina shawls as well as polo and billiard outfits. Even the Maharani’s cow merited fancy headgear – a red mask accented with gold thread. The voluminous clothing of Maharajah Sawai Madho Singh I (ruler 1750-68), appeared to prove the claim that he stood 7 ft. tall, 4 ft. wide and weighed 550 lbs. The hall of Rajput arms and weapons in the Maharani’s Palace spells welcome with knives and good-bye with pistols. Daggers with crystal or ivory handles carved into the shape of horses, rams, lions, birds and roses, and gold sword hilts bedecked with rubies, emeralds and malachite were among the magnificent articles on display. Beautiful red and blue frescoes on the ceiling are accented with 24-karat gold.
We stepped through a tall brass gate flanked by cannons into the courtyard where people congregated for an audience with the King. Even today a small flag signals the presence of the Maharajah. Just inside the gate, guards dressed in long white coats with shiny brass buttons, white pants and red turbans posed with 2 brilliantly polished silver urns in the Diwan-I-Khas, the Hall of Private Audiences. At 5’ 3” tall, 345 kg and a capacity of 900 liters, they are reputed to be the largest silver vessels in the world. The guards told us that Maharajah Madho Singh II would only drink water from the Ganges and commissioned these two huge urns to transport Ganges water on his voyage to England for the coronation of Edward VII.
In the pink and white arcade with scalloped arches, rifles hung on the wall in a circle resembled a decorative sunburst, an innocent misrepresentation of their true purpose.
The 7-story Chandra Mahal, or Moon Palace, is home to the current Maharajah of Jaipur, who used to be a Brigadier General as well as former Ambassador to Brunei. Stunning highly dimensional paintings of peacocks embellish the arches above the 4 doorways in the courtyard. The art gallery in the Hall of Public Audience features miniatures, carpets, paintings and ancient manuscripts on bark, leaves and paper. Other objects in the collection include an opulent gold and silver-plated howdah, a crystal Czech chandelier, ceramics and other treasures.
After a delicious lunch of chicken biryani and vegetable curry at the Raj Palace Garden Restaurant, we headed to Jaigarh Fort (aka Victory Fort). High on a hill above the Amber Fort, Jaigarh hunkers, austere and forbidding with its plain tower and curved battlements. There is an armory and museum in the fort, but its chief attraction is Jaivana, the world’s largest handmade cannon, forged in 1720. Its formidable 20-ft. barrel is intricately carved and looks considerably more weathered than the huge green painted iron wheels it sits upon. Elephants and camels hauled all 50 tons of it up to the fort. It has a range of 22 km, but we were told that it was fired only once for testing. The cannon balls that fuel it weigh 100kg, about twice my weight. The most interesting objects in the museum were 14th C wine containers, shaped just like military hand canteens only about 3 ft. tall. Outside the fort, a langur with a solemn black face and silky white fur rummaged for food in a steel garbage can. We dined at our hotel, enjoying an excellent tandoori murgh.
The drive to Jodhpur took us through colorful towns and markets blazing with color. Men and women arrayed themselves in gorgeous day-glo saris and turbans and oodles of gold jewelry. We were amazed at the great wealth of these people to afford so much expensive jewelry, but our driver explained that people here would rather invest in gold than deposit money in the bank, and were literally wearing their life savings. Nose piecing was common and even the men wore gold earrings, often flower-shaped. Women sold fruit and vegetables from round baskets and cows meandered along roads bustling with people, carts, bicycles and other vehicles.
We had a home-prepared lunch at a farm overlooking a lake where birds and antelope played, and checked into our heritage hotel in the early evening. Umaid Bhavan is a former palace built of yellow sandstone during the 1920’s in art deco style. One of the wings is still occupied by royalty. The main hall is splendid with a high domed ceiling, carved balconies and golden star-patterned marble floor. The surrounding gardens are home to a variety of birds, including well-groomed preening peacocks. We found that the private spaces were a bit shabbier than the public spaces as one sometimes finds in historic properties.
There was no gym at the hotel, but the hotel offered a shuttle to a nearby Taj property where I was allowed to use their facilities. After a long workout and quick shower, as I was changing in the ladies’ locker room, a cleaning man walked in on me and refused to leave despite, or perhaps because of, my unclothed state. I locked myself in a toilet stall to finish dressing and managed to escape unmolested. It was quite upsetting, so I would not recommend using that gym unless you might enjoy this type of attention.
We had dinner at a popular local restaurant named “On the Rocks”. Though it featured romantic candlelit tables in a leafy garden, it was primarily a family place. The food was very good, and we were served by gregarious uniformed military men moonlighting as waiters.
In the morning our local guide, Pritam, picked us up at the hotel in a small Jeep and drove us out of town to visit some of the surrounding villages. He told us that 70% of Indians live in villages and that this is where one must start to relieve poverty. He said that Nehru believed in improving the economy from the government down, while Gandhi advocated building prosperity from the villages up. Driving down the road, we caught the attention of groups of boys who vigorously chased our vehicle, smiling and shouting greetings. When we stopped at a village of Muslim potters, we attracted more curious boys who were very pleased to pose for photos. While the boys wore standard western garb, the women brightened the scene in printed saris and scarves the color of lemons, fuchsia, tangerines and turquoise. The village manufactures clay pots for domestic use and one of the potters demonstrated his craft, adeptly hand throwing a small pot on a large unmotorized wheel.
When we were able to tear ourselves away, we continued on to a Bishnoi farm. Bishnoi, which literally means 29 in Hindi (Bish = 20, Noi = 9), denotes the 29 principles of a religion established in 1485 AD to worship Vishnu and protect the environment. Some of the commandments relate to social behavior, such as prohibiting lying, stealing and criticizing others, and encouraging tolerance and compassion. Others specify rules of hygiene and diet, such as bathing daily and adhering to a vegetarian diet. The most forward thinking tenets concern man’s link to nature and establish rules of conservation. The Bishnoi forbid cruelty to animals (such as castrating bulls) and the killing of trees as well as animals. They will even sacrifice their lives to save a tree, as 363 men, women and children did in 1730 to protest the harvest of trees by the local ruler.
The farmer, clad all in white, greeted us warmly and introduced us to his family. His wife and daughter were busy separating grain from the chaff. Their 10-acre farm grows millet, sesame, green and brown lentils, small ovoid cucumbers and watermelon. Kair trees yield a fruit that is used in curries and to make pickles. We inspected millet pods, which resemble cattails, and learned about ghee, clarified butter that can last 2-3 years without preservatives. Wasting nothing, dried cow patties are used for fuel. The daughter led us to the kitchen where she demonstrated how to make roti (flat, unleavened bread) from millet flour. It is cooked on a flat iron griddle.
Before we left, the farmer invited us to sit in a stone gazebo while he simulated an opium ceremony with Pritam. Called “the drink of Shiva”, opium water is offered to guests at a wedding and also shared after a dispute is settled. Preparation was ritualistic, involving a clay teapot and use of a wooden implement that looked like a scale with long cloth filter bags in place of the pans. They demonstrated how the drink would be offered and consumed since it would have been illegal to actually imbibe opium.
At our next stop we met a family of weavers with a tradition of making dhurries for 500 – 600 years. The owner had founded a 50 family cooperative to improve their businesses and qualify for government subsidies, which included practical items such as solar energy panels. The business was clearly thriving, illustrating the success of the Gandhi approach. In a thatched hut, the owner’s brother showed us how the rugs are woven by two people working together using naturally-dyed cotton, silk, camel hair, goat hair and wool fiber, maintaining the same design on both sides. He was careful to point out that they do not employ weavers younger than 16 years old. He led us to a courtyard where dozens of dhurries covered the ground like a vibrant multicolored patchwork quilt. The hardest part was narrowing down our selection to only one, but we finally chose the perfect dhurry for our den and have not stopped admiring it ever since we laid it down.
The owner, a trim, handsome man decked out in an aqua, hot pink, marigold and orange turban and diamond stud earrings, came to sit with us and showed us a photo album of some of his finest work. He has been featured in magazine articles and his rugs are renowned for their quality. We talked about his craft, his family and the cooperative, and met his beautiful young daughter when she took a break from her studies.
After lunch on the hotel terrace overlooking the garden, Pritam took us on a tour of Jodhpur, nicknamed Sun City because the sun is reputed to shine on it 325 days of the year. If Jaipur is predominantly pink, Jodhpur is washed in cool shades of blue, earning its second nickname, The Blue City. Founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha, it’s now the second most populous city in Rajasthan with about 900,000 inhabitants. The chief industries today include red sandstone quarries, cement production, fabric printing, chemicals, antique furniture exporting, embroidery, sewing and weaving.
The Jaswant Thada mausoleum was erected in 1899 to commemorate Maharajah Jaswant Singh III and is used for the cremation of Jodhpur royalty. The white marble buildings are intricately carved and the main building features several lotus-shaped cupolas and a chedi-inspired spire topped with gilded finials. We sat in the shade of one of the many leafy trees on the grounds, gazing over a small lake below, while our guide described the 4 spiritual stages of man: birth to 25 years, a period of celibacy where he acquires a strong body and knowledge; 25 to 50 years, when life revolves around the family; 50 to 75 years, less interest in family and more in social service; 75 to 100 years a period of detachment from friends, family and one’s own body in preparation for death.
When Jodha established the city, he began construction of a massive fort high on a hill to protect his kingdom. Expanded in stages during the next few centuries, Mehrangarh Fort is one of the largest in India with several palaces and 100-ft. high crenellated walls. We entered the fort via Jai Pol, one of 7 gates, which celebrates a victory over Jaipur in 1808. The red sandstone palaces within the fort contain a plethora of treasures – a regal coronation throne; embossed silver howdahs with stylized lions; a covered gilded palanquin for the ladies and an open wooden palanquin decorated with painted peacocks for the men; an armory with a vast collection of fancy weaponry, including a lion-headed sword hilt inlaid with gold, ruby and emeralds; boxes, combs and dumbbells carved from ivory; a collection of folk musical instruments, and paintings from the renowned Marwar school created with bright natural colors and gold on paper.
The Sheesh Mahal, was composed of large rectangular mirrors, rather than fragments as in other mirrored rooms, superimposed with images of gods and goddesses. A gold ceiling, stained glass and paintings distinguished the entertainment room. If we had to choose a favorite room, it might be the Jhanki Mahal, from where the queen and her retinue viewed official activity in the courtyard, and which now contains a wonderful collection of royal wooden cradles decorated with gold leaf, carvings and fanciful paintings of fairies, elephants and birds. The current Maharajah’s infant cradle, with its cherubic crest, is gently rocked by an electrical motor. From here we continued through the ladies’ apartments and further enjoyed the Turban Gallery which showcases the fabulous headgear typical of each community and region in Rajasthan.
After the magnificence of the fort, we took a walk through the Sardar Market in the old town for a view of the mundane. A dentist practiced in one corner, while ladies wearing dozens of colorful plastic bangles shopped for household supplies. Sweets wagons piled high with dates, sugar cane candy and peanuts competed for attention with stands of lime, ginger, peas, potatoes, garlic, onion, rice, spinach, lentil, chili, crisp papadum and ghee. In a 150-year old lane vendors hawked coconuts, spices, nuts, raisins, betel leaf and fragrant rose petal jam.
The next morning we drove to Ranakpur to visit the splendid Jain temples, established there in 1496. The complex consists of several temples, and we started with the main one, the four-faced Chaumukha. Our guide was a high priest, one of 17 generations of his family to follow this tradition. He advised us that the temple, built by a Jain businessman with the help of the ruler Rana Khumba, covers 4800 square feet, is 102 feet tall and contains 84 rooms on each of its 3 levels. There are 29 pillared halls and 80 domes. As in all Jain temples, practically all of the pale marble surfaces are exquisitely carved and none of the 1444 columns, each created from a single hunk of stone, bear the same design. The columns change color at the end of each hour from gold to light blue, further enhancing their allure. Carvings throughout the structure feature figures of deities, dancers and musicians as well as purely decorative forms as fine as filigree.
The main hall houses a shrine to Lord Adinath, first of the 24 Tirthankaras, a Jain spiritual leader who achieves enlightenment through asceticism. Over the entrance to the main hall an intricate carving from a large piece of sandstone represents Om, the sacred incantation. The upper terraces provide beautiful views of the wooded landscape and the other temples, Surya, which honors the Sun God, Neminath and Parsvanath.
On the drive to Kumbhalgarh we passed stone-fenced farms where yoked oxen pairs pulled plows and turned water wheels. Women carried stacks of branches through fields of sugar cane, mustard and corn, sowed grain, and adeptly balanced urns of water on their heads. Men wore white dhoti, wrapped pants fashioned from one long strip of cloth, with short-sleeved white jackets. Young boys hawked lumpy green custard apples at the side of the road. A man in a rich red turban lead a brightly painted camel festooned with richly patterned cloth, garlands of flowers and other ornaments, while plainer camels lumbered down the road bearing bristly loads of straw. A grey Langur with a silky-haired baby clinging to her chest watched the action.
Maharana Rana Kumbha governed the Mewar Kingdom from 1433-1468 and built 32 of the 84 fortresses that served to protect the kingdom from the Mughals, including Kumbhalgarh, Achalgarh and Mandalgarh. Renowned as a powerful general, he was also a Sanskrit scholar and gifted musician, building temples as well as forts. Kumbhalgarh Fort, the largest and most complex of Kumbha’s forts, was built in the 15th C atop an 1100 meter hill. 36 kilometers (over 22 miles) of 15-foot thick walls, second only to the Great Wall of China in length, enclose a vast complex that includes 360 Jain and Hindu temples, humble homes and many palaces including the handsome Badal Mahal (Palace of the Clouds) birthplace of the illustrious warrior Maharana Pratap. While the interior is largely plain, a frieze of elephants decorate a 19th C Maharani’s bedroom, harmoniously painted walls and fragments of marble floors hint at the former glory of the palace There are seven towering gates, most notably, Ram Pol, the impressive main gate with its curvy bastions and tall guard towers. The fort was defeated only once, brought low by a water shortage.
There were hardly any visitors so we were able to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the fort without crowds. However, while enjoying the far-reaching views from atop the magnificent walls, we came upon a group of young men visiting from Gujarat. They spoke little English but through hand gestures indicated that they wanted Stu to take a photo of them with their own cameras. Undoubtedly his sophisticated photo equipment signals his skill at photography since other travelers often approach Stu to take their photos. At first we thought that they wanted a photo of the whole group together, but it soon became clear that they each wanted a photo of themselves posing with me. I found this quite surprising, especially since I was easily twice their age and obviously married, but I cheerfully complied. It was especially amusing when one fellow had two photos taken, with and without sunglasses on both of us, and then the rest had to follow suit. Much later, after relating this story to an Indian colleague, she suggested that it was because of my pale skin, which she claims is highly valued. Considering how attractive Indians are, whether dark or light-skinned, I find this puzzling, but perhaps humans always value most that which they do not themselves possess.
We spent the night in what was undoubtedly the best hotel in the area, a simple but appealing place called the Aodhi Hotel, which was constructed in a similar style to the fort. We found the staff to be charming, the food and accommodations good and the location excellent. The hotel featured a cozy bar, nice pool and romantic candlelit dining room. The fort was well worth the detour.
On the drive to Mt. Abu, we stopped for lunch at a place called Mateshwari Jaydeep. Our driver always recommended terrific places to eat with authentic local food at extremely low prices, many of them frequented primarily by locals. By now, his initial reserve had dissipated and he treated us like a kindly and somewhat protective uncle, freely sharing stories and advice.
Mount Abu, the highest peak in the Aravalli Range at 1722 m. (5,649 ft.), attracted many sages and saints making it an important pilgrimage site for Jains and Hindus. It was also a key military vantage point, site of the 2000 year old Achalgarh Fort. The original fort was conquered by the Deora-Chauhan rulers of the Sirohi state in 1311 AD, and was afterwards invincible. Mt. Abu was established as a hill station in 1835 as a result of the British-Sirohi Treaty of Friendship in 1823, when the British established it as the summer capital of the Agent to the Governor General of Rajputana and invited local royalty to build palaces there to establish friendly ties.
Providing a cool respite from the deserts of Rajasthan, Mt. Abu town is jam-packed with visitors, though delightfully most of them are Indian. We encountered only a handful of other foreigners and enjoyed the most immersive experience of our trip. While many of the visitors may have come for spiritual reasons, there seemed to be plenty who came to enjoy the fresh climate and recreational activities.
We stopped at our hotel first, Jaipur House, a pink Rajput style mansion built in 1897 by the Maharajah of Jaipur, who was offered his pick of locations to build on. He chose a perfect spot perched on a cliff with spectacular views of Nakki Lake and the surrounding countryside, near to “Turtle Rock” a popular natural rock formation shaped like, well, you guessed it. Strolling through its lush gardens and elegant halls you can conjure the image of the glitterati of the era attending upper-crust polo matches, lavish banquets and garden parties in high style. After 50 years as a guest house to the Royal House of Jaipur, it was converted into a royal heritage hotel for tourists. With all of this grandeur and history, we expected more from our guest room, which was a bit run-down-at-the-heels and austere, though certainly comfortable enough for a couple of nights. After dropping our stuff, we headed down to the lake to get the lay of the land, browsing in some shops on the way.
At day’s end our driver escorted us to a popular scenic overlook called Sunset Point. Whole extended families and raucous groups of friends congregated on the path and climbed up on rocks to catch the glorious view. We spent a lot of time conversing with a family with two adorable daughters and were greeted warmly by many people, most curious about what brought us to Mt. Abu and how we were enjoying our tour of India. I had my little Polaroid and started snapping shots of the cute children. The photos were tiny and not great quality, but were enthusiastically received nonetheless. I enjoyed watching the expressions of the children as their images emerged. Unfortunately, a professional photographer selling family portraits felt that we threatened his business and our driver hustled us out of there shortly after the sun dipped out of sight to avoid any unpleasant confrontation. Back at our residence, a small band of musicians were playing and we listened awhile before heading up to bed.
The next morning after breakfast we returned to Nakki Lake and rented a pedal boat. Everyone greeted us as we pedaled by and we pulled over near the shore to see three beautiful children having their photos taken while richly dressed up as Rajasthani princes and princess. We found ourselves alone near the far side of the lake when we spied two young men pedaling furiously to overtake us. We suffered a fleeting moment of concern before realizing from their huge grins and hand waving that they had exerted themselves so much only to say hello to us.
A short time afterwards a family in a rowboat pulled up alongside us and the mother reached over and handed her children to me. I was flabbergasted but soon understood that this was another photo op. The family took a photo of me with their children, talked with us a bit about our visit, retrieved the little ones, and happily glided away smiling and waving farewell. I cannot overstate how horrified most U.S. parents would be at the idea of handing their infant over to complete strangers on a lake (unless they were looking for a trade-in), but I was touched and totally disarmed by the innocent trust and goodwill of the gesture. The memory still makes me smile writing up these notes so long after our trip.
From the lake we headed out to visit one of the Dilwara Jain temples built in 1056 AD. We joined a long line of devotees to enter and it was well worth the wait. Though far smaller than Chaumukha, the carvings that adorned all of the ivory marble surfaces were even more intricate and breathtakingly beautiful. One hall featured a row of lifelike marble elephant statues, decked out in ceremonial finery.
We hungrily consumed a delicious lunch of vegetable biryani, chicken tikka masala and mixed vegetables at the restaurant in the Neelam Hotel then walked off lunch poking around town, watching a timepiece repairman and other tradesmen, chatting up the Gujurati tourists, sucking up the local color, and climbing up to see Turtle Rock, Toad Rock and other fancifully shaped boulders. After dinner we decided to attend a glitzy carnival temporarily set up in an open field. There were the typical children’s rides, like the Tilt-a-Whirl and Ferris Wheel, food and sweet stands, stuffed animals, loud music, and games of skill and chance, but also stands of consumer goods, such as clothing and house wares.
We enjoyed our time in Mt. Abu enormously, particularly thanks to the warmth and friendliness of the people we met, but it was time to move on and we were keen to visit Udaipur. On the way we encountered a religious procession accompanied by a brass band in vivid red jackets with gold-fringed epaulets, three men on horseback, and a joyful crowd on foot. One striking gentlemen with a long gray beard and vivid saffron colored turban was draped in a garland of sunny marigolds. Our driver pointed out the floral patterns on the ladies’ garments and told us that the fabric is unique to the region. Sun glinted off the women’s copious silver and gold jewelry and the mirror fragments sewn into their clothing. A lovely young woman in a flower-printed sari crammed into an overstuffed taxi with riders hanging off the sides.
We arrived in Udaipur in time for lunch at the Garden Restaurant, owned by the family of the Maharajah, which serves traditional Indian thalis, served in segmented metal plates that reminded me of the foil plates that old-fashioned frozen TV dinners came in. There are no menus and no utensils; you use bread or your hand to scoop up the food in the traditional manner.
Udaipur is an exquisite city clustered around five lakes, Pichola, Udai Sagar, Swaroop Sagar, Fateh Sagar and Dudh Talai, at the foot of the Aravalli Mts. The last Mewar capital, founded in 1559, it is a wonderland of temples and palaces, many converted into grand heritage hotels. We were wait-listed for the renowned Lake Palace Hotel, which floats majestically in the middle of Lake Pichola, but ended up at the Oberoi Udaivilas. In retrospect, we don’t regret it one bit. Udaivilas is a modern interpretation of the royal palaces of yesteryear, a fantasy of ochre domes, pavilions, reflecting pools, terraces, marble, gardens and hand-painted murals, ideally located on the shore of Lake Pichola. In the evening groups of candles gently illuminate elegant rooms and halls.
After we dropped our bags in our gorgeous room, we arranged to take a complimentary ride on the lake in a shikara boat, a traditional wooden Kashmiri boat for two. We settled into comfy cushions in the shade of the boat’s canopy and enjoyed wine and canapés as we glided noiselessly on the still water, soaking in the serenity and scenery. It was pure heaven. We finished the day with dinner at the hotel on an outdoor patio while enjoying a spirited performance of musicians and dancers including a fire-breather to heighten the wow factor.
In the morning we drove around Lake Fateh Sagar to visit the splendid Hindu Jagdish Temple, built in 1651 by Maharajah Jagat Singh I. Three stories of carved walls and columns are stacked on a high platform culminating in a 79 foot main spire ornamented with skillfully wrought figures of dancers, elephants, horse riders and musicians. To access the temple, you climb a flight of marble stairs guarded by two hefty stone elephants, symbolizing good will and prosperity, and with trunks raised, welcome. The omnipresent marigolds symbolize peace. The main shrine honors Lord Vishnu, with smaller shrines to Ganesh, Shakti, Shiva and Surya.
We continued our tour into the City Palace, the second largest in India as 22 succeeding generations of Maharani expanded it to its current size. It’s not just one huge building, it’s a complex of palaces, gardens, courtyards, pavilions and cupola-topped towers. You enter the first courtyard via the massive gate Bari Pol (circa 1616), which aptly means “big gate”, to find 8 marble arches, called torans. The Maharani were weighed here against silver and gold and the equivalent value was distributed to the indigent, so having overfed rulers was highly beneficial to their subjects. Perhaps this is the origin of the expression “worth your weight in gold”? Beyond this courtyard lies the triple arch Tripolia Gate that was added by Maharana Sangram Singh II in 1713. The vast public courtyard on the other side includes a grassy promenade and an area once used for parking elephants that now serves the same purpose for automobiles. Both are full of gas, I’ll let you decide which is the more pungent vehicle. Half of the palace houses a public museum, while the other half is still occupied by the Rajasthani head of state. The emblem of the Udaipur Mewar kingdom is prominently displayed over the entrance to the King’s Palace.
Our guide advised us that Chittor had originally been chosen as the capital of Mewar due to the protection afforded by its high location, but the capital was shifted to Udaipur so that the food supply could not be interrupted. A genealogical tree of the Mewar Dynasty starting at 566 AD claims that they had the second longest ruling lineage in the world, exceeded only by the Emperors of China. In the Rajya Angan (Royal Courtyard) we found a gallery with painted statues of the famous warrior Maharana Pratap with his horse Chetak. The original armor and weapons used by Maharana Pratap and Chetak during the battle of Haldighati in 1576, between the Rajputs and Mughals is displayed there.
The Palace’s treasures are too numerous to catalogue and include beautifully rendered paintings embellished with gold, rich frescoes painted with natural dyes; antique furniture, marble sculptures, delicate crystal and porcelain figurines, decorative inlaid and stained glass, lustrous enamels, valuable Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese ceramic tiles, and silver and gold objects.
The Sheesh Mahal is literally a palace of mirrors, an extravagant luxury in the era in which it was built. Among our favorites were the Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace) with the Maharana’s lavish bedroom ornamented with mirrors and stained glass, stunning ivory door and intimate private courtyard; Badi Chitrashali Chowk an airy pavilion decorated with blue Chinese tiles and a balcony affording a lovely view of Lake Pichola; and Krishna Mahal with its valuable collection of miniature paintings depicting the processions, festivals and games of the Maharani and a poignant memorial to a beautiful princess who averted a war between princes from Jaipur and Jodhpur who were vying for her hand in marriage by poisoning herself. Had Helen of Troy been more prone to sacrifice, the Greeks and Trojans might never have come to blows, but then we would have been deprived of those stirring epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
High platforms at the entrances to the King’s and Queen’s Palaces made mounting horses and elephants easier for the royal family. We traversed many courtyards, some intimate, and some more grand, as we moved between the various structures. The Coronation Courtyard, where the Prince is crowned after the death of the King was surprisingly plain except for one entrance. But Mor Chowk (1874-1884), the courtyard attached to Mardana Mahal (King’s Palace) with its 5 resplendent peacocks composed of 5000 pieces of mosaic glass tiles, more than compensated. A huge sun, symbol of the Mewar dynasty, shines down on Surya Chopar (Sun Square).
Amar Vilas, the highest point in the complex, includes the elegant Badi Mahal (Garden Palace). A rectangular bathing pool formed from one piece of marble contributes to the serenity of the central garden. The surrounding cream-colored arcade of the palace is composed of 104 pillars intricately carved in Persian style from local marble.
We ended the day’s tour at Sahelion Ki Bari (Garden of the Maidens), a lush garden built in 1734 as a picnic spot for the royal ladies. Fanciful gravity-operated fountains and peaceful pools are set among mango trees, palms and bougainvillea. Four marble elephants, each carved from 1 hunk of marble, perch on the border of one pool that features a brightly colored fountain with three graduating basins embellished with bird and lion sculptures.
We had lunch at the hotel and I took advantage of the amenities on property, a brisk workout followed by a restoring Thai massage, after which I sipped ginger tea while soaking my feet in a bath scented with rose petals. Bliss! We decided to order room service rather than disturb our composure by venturing out to dinner.
Rajasthan was magnificent, but we were ready to adopt a slower pace down south in Kerala. We caught an early morning flight from Udaipur to Cochin with a stop in Mumbai. We dropped our bags at the Taj Malabar and headed out on a city tour with a native local guide.
Kerala has been an important port and center of the spice trade since at least 3,000 B.C, though the modern state of Kerala, whose name is derived from the ubiquitous coconut palms, was established in 1956 from the 3 kingdoms of Cochin, Malabar and Thiruvanathapuram. A population of about 31 million sprawls within its 14 districts and thanks to the availability of free, government subsidized, and private schools, Kerala boasts a 100% literacy rate. Indeed, one of our fondest memories of our time here is of the students in their crisp uniforms traversing the canals in the morning in all manner of boats. Our guide advised us that there is very little industry in modern Kerala, though there is still a Spice Exchange in Cochin. She said that much of the income in the area is sent from relatives working abroad.
Vasco da Gama reached the area around 1498 to establish Portugal’s position in the lucrative spice trade and built the first Portuguese fort in Cochin. They were ousted by the Dutch, who were succeeded by the Nairs, who ultimately succumbed to the British. Kerala was a haven from religious persecution, sheltering Jews from Spain and other areas. Christianity was introduced around the 9th C by refugees from Assyria and is still widely practiced in the region, though Judaism is now less common. About 20% of the population in Kerala is Christian compared to only 3% in the entire country.
We stopped in the Paradesi Synagogue (1568), the only active synagogue left in the area, a handsome temple decorated with 1,100 blue and white tiles, each with a different design, a Murano glass chandelier, coconut oil lamps and a whitewashed wooden ceiling with red, turquoise and gold accents.
We also visited the austere St. Francis Church, the first Christian church in India, built of wood by the Portuguese in 1503, and subsequently refitted in stone. Portuguese and Dutch gravestones line the walls, the most famous being that of Vasco da Gama himself. Although he died here, his body was returned to Portugal, leaving his memorial tomb empty. According to our guide, in a Christian marriage in Kerala no rings are exchanged, instead the husband gives his wife a sari and a gold pendant.
Matancherry Palace, erected by the Portuguese in 1554 in the style of a Chinese Pagoda, is now a historical museum. The first thing we noticed were the beautiful teak ceilings with their geometric carvings and an 18th C painted wood palanquin. Many rooms were embellished with murals in shades of ochre, orange, brick red and green depicting scenes from the Ramayana, such as the birth of Rama, playboy Krishna charming his legion of girlfriends with his flute-playing, Monkey-God Hanuman and Rama battling demons, Shiva surrounded by family, and Vishnu gripping the serpent Ananda. The ladies bedchamber was covered with erotic murals, Krishna enjoying an orgy, animals copulating and other titillating scenes clearly designed to incline their mood towards lovemaking.
Brass domes in teak topped the dining hall of the Maharajah and we found a carrier made of crocodile hide, a collection of royal costumes embroidered with gold and silver and an 18th C palanquin canopy sewn with silver thread. Lotus flowers, the national flower, were carved into the ceiling of the King’s audience room. The doorway was designed with low clearance intentionally to oblige visitors to bow when entering in the presence of the King.
We headed down to the waterfront to watch the fishermen using Chinese fishing nets to haul in catch via a system of teak poles, ropes and stone pulleys. They invite tourists to help them tug on the rope and it’s a fun way to learn more about this method. In the nearby fish market we found huge blue tiger prawns, young hammerhead sharks about a foot long, and long silver seerfish, similar to tuna. With the rapid and concerning decline in shark populations worldwide, and particularly because hammerheads only breed once per year with relatively small litters by fish standards, I couldn’t help wishing that they’d toss the babies back in.
We had dinner at our hotel in a restaurant fittingly called the Rice Boat that is modeled after the traditional kettuvalam and specializes in fragrant Kerala curries. We had a good view of the sea and the open kitchen where the chefs transformed the fresh catch of the day into a scrumptious feast comprised of fish cooked in banana leaves with crab and mussels in a savory sauce enlivened by tamarind and fiery peppers and served with rice pancakes. The fish was so fresh it practically leaped off the plate. This meal alone was worth the trip to Cochin, but there were many more wonderful meals to come.
After breakfast we boarded a small speedboat for a 90-minute harbor cruise. Colorfully painted ferries, depicting subjects such as Hanuman, or a flashy peacock, transported locals and visitors to various stops around the harbor. We passed humble but attractive fishermen’s homes identifiable by their large nets, as well as fancier estates ensconced in lush tropical greenery. Fishermen in wooden boats and children playing on the shore or on the way to school greeted us warmly as we motored by.
We had lunch on the outdoor deck at Brunton Boatyard, sharing a grilled fish and seafood platter while enjoying the view of the lively harbor. We strolled through town passing shops displaying rice, potatoes, tea, spices, shallots, garlic and chilies in large well-worn burlap sacks while industrious men loaded and unloaded trucks laden with goods. We also visited some crafts/souvenir shops targeting tourists before hopping a fast boat back to the hotel.
That evening we had the great fortune of catching a performance of Kathakali dance, a traditional art form that originated in Kerala during the 17th C, inspired by more ancient religious theatrical rituals. The dancers’ faces are completely masked in thick layers of brightly colored make-up that is meant to reflect the nature of the characters they portray, for example, predominantly green for heroes, red for villains, yellow for women and a combination of red and green for the anti-heroes. They wear towering headdresses glittering with gilt, silver and a veritable rainbow of color perfectly coordinated with the opulence and vivid hues of their costumes. A band of bare-chested musicians wearing long white mundu (a sort of sarong) accompanied the dance with 3 types of drums (the chenda, madalam and edekka), while 2 singers chimed in with voice, cymbals (etalam) and a brass gong called the chengala. The dancers enact scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata using a complex choreography of mudra (hand gestures), facial expressions and footwork. The extensive training, skill and stamina required are not evident when watching the graceful and deceptively effortless-seeming performance of a master.
We enjoyed the Rice Boat so much that we took the lazy route and had dinner there again, this time savoring snapper and seerfish, paratha, spicy chili poppers, smoked salmon, and prawns. I wrote “kudos to the chef” in my notebook after dinner so it’s clear that the restaurant was worth a second visit.
We had a leisurely start the next day. I hit the gym and we lingered over breakfast enjoying the view of the harbor before being driven to Mararikulam and the Marari Beach Resort on the Arabian Sea. After all of the touring, we wanted to just rest for a few days and enjoy the beach. I intentionally planned for this part of the trip to coincide with my birthday since I adore the ocean. You know how you visit a place and the experience is so perfect that you long to return, but are afraid to go back lest the next visit fail to live up to your recollection and you don’t want to risk spoiling the memory? That’s exactly how I feel about Marari Beach Resort. I can never think about this place without grinning ear-to-ear.
We knew that we would love the place as soon as we entered the light, airy reception area, met the exceedingly lovely front desk team, and were escorted to our simple but scrupulously clean, comfortable and charming bungalow. This is not a fancy resort with room service, water sports, tons of amenities, etc. and there’s virtually no night life. It’s a peaceful, relaxing place where you can bring a family, or come as a couple, and happily decompress while enjoying an uncrowded, astoundingly beautiful and tranquil white sand beach. Or if you prefer enclosed water, there’s an Olympic size outdoor pool. The sea was a perfect temperature, warm but refreshing, surf was mainly calm, and we were usually the only people on the beach except when some locals might walk by. Now that’s my idea of heaven. One day we were about waist deep in the water when a pod of frisky dolphins cruised by grinning at us within a couple of meters from where we stood.
The food was very good and you can take cooking classes if you like. The main restaurant, Chakara, offers a buffet with a wide array of Indian dishes made with fresh ingredients from their own organic garden. But our favorite was the intimate beach bar and shack that features delicious just-caught grilled fish. We tried the restaurant for dinner the first night, but made a standing reservation at the beach shack for lunch and dinner during the rest of our stay. The skilled chef, Geo, was a cheerful, talkative young man, and the serving staff could not be more attentive, friendly or kind. During our stay we grew very fond of Geo and Eldhome, our waiter.
There are free yoga classes in the early morning in a pavilion swept by cooling sea breezes and an Ayurvedic Center offering a variety of treatments. This is not a fancy spa for pampering, they are serious about addressing specific medical conditions and talk to you about your ailments and needs before recommending a program of treatment. I had 2 sessions of the dripping hot oil massage that also involved pounding my body with hot pouches stuffed with herbs, and though it melts stress away effectively, I found that I prefer a dry massage.
Prior to my birthday, Stu had taken a blank greeting card to the front desk and asked them to write birthday wishes for me in Hindi as a little surprise. When he told them that it was my birthday, they replied, oh, we already knew that. We finally figured out that they must have seen my birth date in my passport when we checked in and made note of it. On my birthday (I’m not revealing which one), we had just returned to our bungalow after breakfast and were putting on our bathing suits planning to head to the beach when there was a knock at the door. Stu went to answer and called me to come. I was only wearing my bathing suit so I hid behind the door and peeked out to find practically the entire staff of the hotel, front desk manager, housekeepers, gardeners, etc. on our doorstep holding a large banana leaf filled with gorgeous tropical flowers. I stepped back in a daze and they filed into our living room, handed me the flowers and proceeded to sing a happy birthday song. I felt like Miss America, smiling and blushing in my bikini holding an armful of flowers, all I lacked was the crown.
After a glorious day at the beach, that evening we took our usual table in the beach shack. It couldn’t have been a more perfect night, balmy air bathed in the glow of a full moon and a sky so crammed with stars it was like an infinite diamond necklace just for me. After we’d finished our excellent meal, the serving staff and Geo surprised me with a chocolate cake with one lit candle and while singing a birthday song they presented me with a paper scroll wishing me health and prosperity that had been signed by every employee of the hotel. As if the flower presentation in the morning was not honor enough! I’ve never had such special treatment at a hotel, nor experienced as much warmth and caring. We were already extremely pleased with the resort and this was truly the icing on the cake. How could you possibly top that?
I didn’t take any notes about this but I suspect that there may have been a tear in my eye when we had to leave Geo, Eldhome and all the wonderful people at Marari and head off to our next location. It was a short drive to a boat jetty on Vembanad Lake where we boarded a boat to Coconut Lagoon to begin our appreciation of the Kerala backwaters. Vembanad is the longest lake in India at 96 km and the largest lake in Kerala, home of an extensive wetlands system.
Coconut Lagoon is a bit more deluxe than its sister property Marari, but still reflects the local character. We lucked into a handsome villa with a small private pool, so after lunch we enjoyed a refreshing swim. Probably the most fun thing we did while here was to go paddling up the canal in a small wooden canoe, like the ones we often saw the locals piloting. We were rewarded with beautiful scenery as well as a profusion of water birds such as kingfishers, herons, cattle egrets and darters. This was just a brief interlude on our way to board a houseboat to wind our way among the canals.
On the car ride to the next jetty, we came upon a children’s parade. We never found out the occasion that it celebrated, but the sight of these adorable youngsters in colorful costumes and uniforms was an unexpected treat. For the next couple of days we just slowly cruised along the canals in our crewed kettuvalam, stopping in small villages to chat with the villagers, bird-watching, monitoring the small boat traffic and activity of the fishermen, admiring the fiery sunsets, and generally soaking in the scenery and languid atmosphere. There’s not much to do and that’s the point. You’re obliged to attune yourself to a slower rhythm and embrace the luxury of time to think and dream.
If we had one complaint it was that the crew dropped us off in Aleppey much earlier than expected the morning we disembarked. We could tell that our driver didn’t know what to do with us since it was hours before we were due at the airport and we had no scheduled activities on our itinerary. Fortunately for us, or probably it’s just the general rule here, we had a very considerate driver, named Raj, who decided to bring us to his home to meet his family. On the way he pulled over at a roadside stand to buy some coconuts.
A young married man without any children yet, Raj and his wife lived with extended family in a cluster of very simple low wooden homes arranged around a dirt courtyard where chickens strutted outside their wire pens. He introduced us to his mother, who immediately invited us to sit down while she hastily finished the chore she had been engaged in when we arrived. We discovered that Raj’s wife was off at work, so we had no opportunity to meet her. While we discussed our families, Raj pulled out a long machete to remove the husks from the coconuts and open the top after which his mother presented us with coconut drinks. Until then we had had no idea that the coconuts had been purchased for us. We just sat around for awhile shooting the breeze until Raj decided that it was time to head off to the airport. It was a great pleasure to spend time with him and his mother and we cannot think of a better way to have spent the extra time or to end our time in Kerala.
As we began, we ended our trip in Delhi, returning to the Imperial Hotel. We had a full day to explore on our own and spent a major part of it at the National Museum of India. We were like kids in a candy shop, fascinated by the rich and extensive collection that includes archaeological objects, arms and armor, jewelry, paintings, sculpture, historical items and much more. The collection is not limited to Indian works of art and includes choice selections from many cultures. For example, we found a skillfully carved Haida wooden spoon from the Canadian Pacific Northwest. Among our favorite items were a surprisingly modern looking statue of a woman from 2700 BC, ornately decorated elephant armor and howdah, a graceful bronze Balakrishna dancer, a particularly beautiful pale stone Buddha head and an exquisite gilded and inlaid dagger with a lion’s head on the handle.
Our flight home was thankfully uneventful. We penetrated just a small section of this vast and varied country, but it was enough to fully capture our hearts and imaginations and inspire plans for future visits.
Imperial Hotel – Very highly recommended
The Oberoi AmarVilas - Highly recommended, mainly for view http://www.oberoihotels.com/oberoi_amarvilas/index.asp
The Oberoi RajVilas – Very highly recommended
Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace - Recommended
Aodhi Hotel – Ideal for the location
Jaipur House – Good for the location
The Oberoi Udaivilas – Very highly recommended
Taj Malabar – Highly recommended
Marari Beach Resort – Very highly recommended
Coconut Lagoon – Highly recommended
Houseboat - Recommended
Imperial Hotel – Very highly recommended