Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Road Trip Across Rajasthan

Anne and I spent the second half of April 2012 in the north of India, more specifically a region called Rajasthan (which means "the land of the Rajas"). Being our first time in India, we experienced severe culture shock. In hindsight, had we started with the south of India and one of its big, modern cities (Calcutta, Bangalore or Mumbay), it may have been less shocking.

Anne in front of Humayun's tomb in Delhi.
To sum up the Rajasthan experience: extreme poverty, squalor, intense heat (~50C/120F), majestic forts and palaces from a glorious past, shacks and shanties from a not-so-glorious present, desert, overpopulation, incessant honking, dust, pollution, street vendors everywhere, skinny cows everywhere, mounds of garbage everywhere, flies everywhere, colorful saris, hundreds of eyes fixed upon us every waking minute. This blog post will focus on the beautiful relics of the past, the gems that attract thousands of tourists to Rajasthan every year. All photos included in this post have been selected carefully, so as to depict only the beauty, and not the squalor. I'll tackle that in a follow-up post.

Our 2,200 km road trip through Rajasthan.
There was a lot of driving involved. We managed to secure a car and a driver, who was respectful and nice, but ended up demanding a huge tip. We refused to pay and so our two-week long "friendship" ended on a sour note. Our Rajasthan odyssey spanned over 2,200 km, starting in New Delhi and going through Mandawa (famous for its havelis), Bikaner, Jaisalmer (the desert city), Jodhpur (the blue city), Pushkar (the holy city) and Jaipur (the pink city). From here we crossed into another region, called Uttar Pradesh, where we made stops in Fatepur Sikri (the abandoned city), Agra (where the famous Taj Mahal is) and Varanasi (supposedly the oldest city in the world and also the holy city, where they burn people by the Ganges river). Most travelers around this part of India end their tour de force with an overnight train from Varanasi back to New Delhi, but we pressed on towards the Nepali border, where we crossed at Sunauli.

The key to successfully traveling in India is how much are capable of lowering your tolerance to being surrounded by human misery. A blind eye, a deaf ear, an insensitive nose and not minding stepping on layers of mud and feces from humans and various types of animals will go a long way in this country. 

Peacocks are native to India and represent India's national bird. They're everywhere, from the side of the road, to hotel roofs, to stylized 3D paintings on palaces.
While traveling in India I found a tattered copy of Sarah MacDonald's  bestseller "Holy Cow" in the lobby of one of our hotels. I stole and read it as we moved along with our trip. I felt relieved to recognize some of the first feelings and impressions I had when first arriving in this country. I am not alone when feeling like this. I am not the spoiled 1st world tourist who can't handle a 3rd world country. India is not your average 3rd world country; India is a parallel universe. It's like being on drugs and having a weird trip that you can't get out of.

I loved Sarah MacDonald's comparison in her novel, where she resembles India to Wonderland and herself an Alice constantly feeling out of place, awkward, helpless, not understanding the rules by which this universe works.

Indian sexy time.
Anne and I had been traveling for 5 months already before hitting India. We've been to Bolivia, the poorest country on the South American continent. We've experienced Cambodia, considered the poorest country in Southeast Asia. And we also spent some time in crazy metro Manila. You could say we've been around the block. That said, India was by far the most shocking and different experience. A Canadian woman we met on a boat on the Mekong river in Laos told us India will change us forever. At the time I thought she was exaggerating, but now I see what she meant. India is such a unique experience, that you will come out of it mentally and perhaps even spiritually changed.

Painting on the inside walls of our hotel in Mandawa.
The first sign of oddity came when we had to obtain our visa for India at the visa office in San Francisco. Unlike most Southeast Asian countries that offer cheap visas on arrival, visas for India are difficult to obtain. We got our first taste of the infamous Indian bureaucratic system. We later also found out that India passed a law two years ago that prevents holders of a multiple entry visa from entering the country if they haven't been out of India for two months. Apparently, this is to deter white people who want to live there permanently and do border runs to renew their stay, much like white people who live in Thailand do, by going to Burma or Cambodia for a day or two. Now, that's a real concern there, India! I see swarms of white people desperately wanting to move to India. Let's get real there, please! You're only deterring honest tourists who want to spend their hard-earned money on incense, bangles and diarrhea-inducing curries.

The second sign of oddity: boarding our flight to New Delhi, we went through a long process of verification of visa and address where we'll be staying in India. Due to this verification process, we couldn't get boarding passes right away; we were told to come back after a while. Third sign: I tried to buy some Indian rupees at an exchange office in the Bangkok airport and was told people outside of India are not allowed to posses Indian rupees. You can only get rupees once you're inside India. I've never seen this with any other country I've ever been to. Fourth sign: at our hotel in Delhi we tried to use the complimentary wifi (available only in the reception area of the hotel) and were asked to register our names, nationality and passport number in the "internet usage ledger." Later on, the process of "checking in" to any of the hotels we stayed at in India involved long minutes of writing lots of personal details into the hotel ledger, such as: where we came from, where we're heading next, what day we entered India, how long is our visa for, when does it expire, etc. 

Going back to the photos, we spent our first day in New Delhi visiting the  tomb of Humayun, built in 1562 AD. A storm broke out as soon as our driver dropped us off at the gate. It was the most intense storm I've ever experienced in my life. In a matter of minutes, the sky turned from blue to dark grey, the wind stirred up leaves and dust, the sky was covered in back-to-back lightnings. It almost felt like a tornado.

Many of the most famous constructions in India were made after it was invaded by the Muslims in the 13th to 16th centuries. It was the flourishing Mughal empire that created masterpieces such as the Red Fort in Delhi, Humayun's tomb, Fatepur Sikri or the Taj Mahal. Persian became very influential as the language of prestige of the Islamic courts. However, Persian was soon displaced by Hindi-Urdu. (Side-note: I am fascinated by anything Persian these days.)

We found shelter right inside the tomb, where we waited for about an hour for the rain to end. It was getting dark, and it was a little bit creepy, but we weren't the only people taking shelter there, so it wasn't too bad.

The name Mughal is derived from the original homelands of the Timurids, the Central Asian steppes once conquered by Genghis Khan and hence known as Moghulistan, "Land of Mongols". Although early Mughals spoke the Chagatai language and maintained some Turko-Mongol practices, they became essentially Persianized and transferred the Persian literary and high culture to India, thus forming the base for the Indo-Persian culture and the Spread of Islam in South Asia. (from Wikipedia)

In front of the famous red fort in Delhi. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, started construction of the red fort in 1638 and work was completed in 1648 (10 years). The fort is built within the walls of the old city (Old Dehli) and was used as residence for the Mughal emperors.

Beyond this gate is another, larger open space, which originally served as the courtyard of the Diwan-i-Aam, the large pavilion for public imperial audiences with an ornate throne-balcony (jharokha) for the emperor. The columns were painted in gold and there was a gold and silver railing separating the throne from the public.
In front of the gated palace where the president lives.

Our first stop after Dehli was the small town of Mandawa. Our charming hotel in Mandawa was an old remodeled haveli. A haveli is a a private mansion in India and Pakistan. The word haveli is derived from the Persian word hawli, meaning "an enclosed place". They share similar features with other mansions derived from Islamic Architecture such as the traditional mansions in Morocco called Riads.

The owner of the hotel showed us the "honeymoon suite," a room plastered with mirrors and gold all over the rooms and the ceiling.

The inside courtyard of an old haveli in Mandawa. Havelis were originally built by rich caravan merchants, who were in the business of trading opium. In fact, anyone in this dry deserty area that made any money was through opium trade. When opium trade moved from camel caravans to ships, this route became obsolete, and all the merchants abandoned their luxurious havelis. Now, these houses of former glory are being squatted by poor local people. Despite being heavily unmaintained, you can still see the beauty of the paintings and wood carvings.

An old woman sleeping on a day bed inside the inner courtyard of a haveli. The families living in these houses would let us walk around their house in exchange for a few coins at the end. They usually charged an astronomical amount and were upset if you only left them a few coins. They probably make their living from money left by tourists every day.

Camels were ubiquitous on the roads, mostly used as traction animals for two-wheeled carriages. There were so many of them everywhere, that I completely ended up taking them for granted and not bothering to take photos.

The Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur is 5 km long and built atop a 125-m high hill. The Umaid Bhavan Palace which has 347 rooms, was once one of the largest private residences in the world. This place is also one of the locations where the movie The Fall was filmed.

Anne being a badass, wearing a pair of Jenni's Alladin pants and covering herself up with my sarong.

Inside the palace. It's only been 3 months since we were in India and I already forgot most of the details about these places. It was a bit of sightseeing overload, where we tried to pack in too many temples, forts and palaces in one day, every day, for almost 14 consecutive days. Not my way of traveling and enjoying things, but it was part of the deal we signed up for.

This is the zenana, or women's quarters. The "windows" are sculpted in stone and it's amazing how well preserved they are to this day. They are sculpted in such a way, that the women can see outside, but the men outside can't see inside. More or less, women were kept here as prisoners, unable to go out whenever their wanted, and unable to receive male visitors. Some important women were allowed to attend important country affair meetings by having a special room or nook where they could sit behind a screen like this and listen in. They were not allowed to speak or contribute, but they could only listen in, and then later discuss the issues with their husbands in the privacy of their bedrooms.

The fort also had a gorgeous museum where you could see on display all sorts of war weaponry and artifacts. Just like with architecture, the Moghul craftsmanship in metal and woodwork is quite impressive.

After the Mehrangarh Fort we visited a camel farm. Nothing impressive there, just a bunch of camels eating and hanging out. The place had a few stores where you could buy camel leather goods, shoes and some woven goods. You could also try out camel milk, but since my stomach had not been well, I was too afraid to experiment. I ended up buying a pair of camel leather flats, which are cool and I still wear them, even if they stink like pee. Apparently that's how camel leather shoes smell like; nothing you can do about that.

Anne, raking up some camel poo in the camel barn. Or at least pretending to... you know how it goes with models and photoshoots...

Outside of Jaisalmer we spent one night in the desert where we went on a camel safari. One of the camel owners told us it hadn't rained in the desert in years, but minutes later a mini storm cropped up.

Here we are, riding camels in the desert.

Goats everywhere, trying to eat whatever they can in this barren land. One interesting thing to note here is that curries from the Rajasthan area (as well as Pakistani curries) are cooked with goat milk instead of water, since water is in such shortage. This also includes meat curries.

One of my favorite photos of Anne.

Anne really liked the face of my camel. And that little boy is the owner of my camel. He received it as a present from his father and it represents his livelihood. He loved and took great care of his camel, as tips from tourists riding it were his sole source of income.

And here we are, a sweet group shot of us and our camels. Mine is even posing for the camera.

Watching the sunset in the desert. What a perfect day that was - I can't even find words to describe the feelings of awe when coming face to face with the beauty and diversity of our world.

We spent the night at a small rest house in the desert, where we ate what I thought to be the best food we had in India. The locals also entertained us with some traditional Rajasthani music and dancing, which we weren't asked to pay for. It was all included in the price for room and food.

After spending one night in the Thar desert, we moved on to the city of Jaisalmer, famous for its fort built in yellow sandstone. The fort has three beautifully sculptured Jain temples of the 12th-13th centuries and five inter-connected palaces. The coolest thing about this fort is that it's still inhabited. The main city lies outside and around the fort, but the fort itself is a maze of narrow lanes where regular people live.

The Jaisalmer fort is on the list of the world's 10 most endangered historical constructions. The reason is that the fort sinks into the sandy limestone hill every year, and some of its towers have already collapsed.  This is primarily caused by the sewage and water drainage system, which now carries a larger volume of water than it was originally designed to support. With burst pipes leaking into the hillside, the fort is continually eroding and self-destroying itself from within. There is no renovation work going on and no archeological funds from outside, like we've seen in other countries, such as Vietnam or Cambodia.

Before an Indian couple gets married, they consult an astrologist who figures out the best date and time of the day for the wedding to take place. So, for example, if the astrologist says you have to get married a year from now at 5am, the wedding has to happen exactly at that time in order for the couple to have luck in their marriage. Outside the house of a married couple they paint a sign like this one with the date of their wedding.

The city of Jaisalmer seen from inside the fort.

Inside a textile store, where Jenny and the shop owner are sealing a deal with some black tea, after painfully long hours of negotiations and bargaining. After interacting with merchants in India, I believe they must be the best and most persistent salespeople in the world. Also most annoying.

Jenny and I got our hands painted with henna by a young girl in the fort. It took her almost an hour to do both hands for each of us and she only charged us the equivalent of 2 USD. The girl was really sweet and smart, she was going to college next year, but until then she had to work in her uncle's shop.

From Jaisalmer we moved on to Jodhpur, also nicknamed the Blue City, due to the blue wall paint on most of the houses in the city. One of the biggest attractions is the Mehrangarh Fort, one of the most beautiful and impressive things I've seen during our trip through Rajasthan.

The main entrance to the Mehrangarh Fort.

How the Raja and his wives traveled.

The wall surrounding the fort. Look how thick it is, you can even drive a car on it!

My Indian princess trapped inside the fort pose.

View of the city of Jodhpur from inside the fort.

The inner courtyard of our haveli in Jodhpur.

We had to drive an average of 5 hours every day, so there was a lot of reading and sleeping going on. The car's AC wasn't functioning properly and it was 100 degrees F outside, so at times it got really hot and unbearable.

After Jodhpur, our next destination was Pushkar, also considered the holy city. We found out our hotel had a pool, and since we were so exhausted from all the driving and fort sightseeing, we didn't care about any tourist attractions anymore, so we decided to allocate some time to pure relaxing and poolside idling. Since it's the "holy city" they don't serve any alcohol, but in our hotel they had alcohol-free beer, so we ordered some. We also got a hookah pipe. Life was finally good! Except for the men working at the hotel, who would creep around and stare at us in bathing suits.

Pushkar is a pilgrimage centre and India's only temple dedicated to Brahma is located here. It's also breathtakingly beautiful at night. This photo was taken from a cool Pink Floyd themed rooftop restaurant. Imagine the former hippie glory of this place...

Dinner with a view.

Dinner at a Pink Floyd themed restaurant in Pushkhar. I loved plain lassis so much that I ordered one whenever I had the chance.

Sikh temple in Pushkhar.

The holy lake in Pushkar, where people and cows wash and bathe. 

We were not allowed to take photos in this area, but I snuck a few. 

This is the heart of the Holi festival of colors. Our hotel had a warning for tourists against going out during Holi, as they will be covered not only in paint, but also in dirty water, mud and flour. 

Everyone in India thought I was an Indian woman. I once photographed a traditional Iranian wedding and the family of the bride started talking to me in Farsi. I told them I am not of Persian origin and don't understand a word of Farsi. In San Francisco, corner store attendants always ask me if I'm Palestinian. I don't know much about my family tree beyond my grandparents, so anything's possible...

And here we are in Jaipur, hanging out in our hotel room with two Italian dudes who were also staying there. Again, no alcohol to be had in this city, unless you pay a driver to buy alcohol for you from a secret source. Our hotel only had bottled water, so we called the room service and asked them to deliver 5 bottles to our room. It was already past midnight, so when the bell boy came to deliver the waters, he was a bit shocked when he saw two boys in our room. Totally uncool with Indian customs and totally confirming that white women are sluts. As you can see, we had an outrageous and debaucherous water party.

In Jaipur we visited Jantar Mantar, the famous complex of astronomical instruments. Jantar Mantar was built in Jaipur between 1727 and 1734. The name is derived from Jantar  ("instrument"), and Mantar ("formula", or in this context "calculation"). Therefore jantar mantar means literally 'calculation instrument'. (via Wikipedia) This place was also one of the locations of the movie The Fall.

The samrat yantra, for instance, which is a sundial, can be used to tell the time to an accuracy of about two seconds in Jaipur local time. The Giant Sundial, known as the Samrat Yantra (The Supreme Instrument) is the world's largest sundial, standing 27 meters tall. Its shadow moves visibly at 1 mm per second, or roughly a hand's breadth (6 cm) every minute, which can be a profound experience.

Anne chatting with our Jantar Mantar guide. He has a small long braid of hair in the back of his head, a sign that he belongs to the "superior" Brahmin caste. He was very proud of his caste membership and told us about it several times and how he is superior to other guides who are not Brahmins, and who shouldn't even be guides, but should do some lower class work.

Anne petting a cobra snake. You have no idea how much money this guy asked us for this photo...  I sincerely hope stupid tourists don't fall prey to his quote, otherwise this guy might be millionaire. In rupees...

Cool fan in a Jaipur museum.

Cool door in Jaipur and one of my favorite photos of this trip.

Peacocks are India's national bird, and you can see them everywhere on the streets, perched on fences and walls, and as architectural decoration elements. This door was beautifully decorated with 3D peacocks.

The smoke inhaling part of a royal hookah pipe.

A miniature statue of a Saddhu, India's (in)famous holy men. I suggest doing an image search for Saddhus, they are a sight to behold, a mystery, something so eerie and completely different from our society.

Miniature statues at the museum.

Tourists entering the Jaipur fort on elephants.

The breathtaking Jaipur fort.

In the distance, the old defense wall surrounding the fort and the city of Jaipur.

Getting goofy inside the Jaipur fort.

Getting sexy inside the Jaipur fort.

Doing some yoga inside the Jaipur fort.

Inside the Jaipur fort - this reminded me of an MC Escher painting.

This fort was like a maze: so many levels, layers, tiers of terraces, staircases, inner courtyards, secret passages, rooftop terraces... we got lost and it was a lot of fun.

One of the many inner courtyards inside the Jaipur fort. Seeing the intricacy and complexity of the architecture, you can't help but be overwhelmed with awe at how advanced and skillful these civilizations were.

Anne, playing the gourd instrument with the cobra charmers.

A view of the Jaipur fort from across a small pond.

After Jaipur, our next destination was Fatehpur Sikri. This place has a very interesting history: in 1500, the greatest Moghul emperor, Akbar the Great, decided to build a new capital city from scratch. He picked this place, built the city, mosque, palaces, royal court, etc. only to discover a few years later that there is not enough water to sustain the population. So the city was abandoned a few years after the construction was completed. Above: the tallest gate in all of Asia, Buland Darwaza, the 54 mt. high entrance to Fatehpur Sikri complex. Inside the arch there is a quote from Jesus: "The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses on it. He who hopes for an hour may hope for eternity. The world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen."

The main inner courtyard of Fatehpur Sikri. Part of the floors are covered in white marble, and the rest is red sandstone. Everyone is required to take their shoes off. The ground is dirty, covered with pigeon poop and sometimes extremely hot from the sun, but you have to walk around barefoot because it's considered a holy place.

The screens in the background and those on the right side are called Jalis and are carved in white marble in such a way that you can see through them, almost as if you would through glass.

Giant bee hives perched at the top of Asia's tallest gate.

Inside the mosque in Fatehpur Sikri. Some people were sleeping on the ground, others praying or just chilling in the cool shade. I really loved this place and its pervasive, intoxicating spirituality.

Strolling around the main courtyard in Fatehpur Sikri, we walked past families having picnics, sleeping or squatting along the walls and merchants trying to sell all sorts of nicknacks.

We were forced to get a guide to tour Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned city. The guide turned out to be a really cool knowledgeable and non-annoying guy. So Akbar the Great was one of the most liberal and open-minded rulers of the Moghul empire. During his reign India experienced a lot of freedom of religions. The emperor himself had 3 wives: one Indian, one Muslim and one Christian. Each of the wives had her own quarters/palace. The palaces had connecting overpasses or tunnels, so that the wives could travel to visit each other without being seen by men. Akbar also had a pleasure palace (Panch Mahal), which was located very close to the Zeenana (women's quarters, or harem.)

Strolling around deserted Fatehpur Sikri.

And finally we arrived in Agra, where we did the mandatory Taj Mahal visit. I won't go into too many details, as everyone probably knows a lot about it. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal is widely recognized as "the jewel of Muslim art in India.

Wearing my new Salwar kameez in front of the Taj.

The entrance gate to Taj Mahal.

Qur'an verses are carved on the white marble walls. The flowers are in-laid precious stones.

The main architectural concept behind this building is symmetry. No matter what angle you look from, everything is perfectly symmetrical. The only exception to this rule is the layout of the tombs inside. The building was created with the purpose to hold only one tomb, that of Mumtaz. So her tomb is located right in the center of the building. But when her husband died, he was buried here too, so they added another tomb next to hers, which breaks the symmetry of the structure.

Under the platform on which the Taj Mahal is built.

And this concludes my belated blog post about our 2 week trip through Rajahstan.  Hope you enjoyed it!