Saturday, January 3, 2009

Royalty in Rajasthan

Our introduction to the Indian state of Rajasthan (meaning literally land of kings; raja is short for maharaja) came in the form of Jaipur. The newly created (18th c.) pink city was one of wide perpendicular avenues and famous bazaars. It became the pink city to impress the Prince of Wales on his visit to the town a few centuries ago, and the idea stuck.

We had to work to enjoy the city as bits of what we now ironically call "incredible India" started to creep back in: amazingly incompetent rickshaw drivers, running the obstacle course of feces and trash and corpses in the streets, avoiding getting relieved of all your money by touts, and trying not to get trampled by the immense crowds of people everywhere. But we did it, and managed to see the royal palace - where the current maharaja still lives. Then we scrambled through the madness to an odd and intriguing astronomy observatory built by a former king with an interest in the stars. On a day trip thirty minutes out of town, we saw the Amber Fort, a place we could wander and get lost in a maze of open-roofed pale yellow walls with the big blue sky shining above.

A major improvement in the "incredible" category, Udaipur is the lake city of Rajasthan with opulent wedding cake buildings piling up on one another towards the sky. Finally letting my breath out, relaxing and being able to see my surroundings, we wandered through the hilly meandering alleyways, catching brightly-clad Hindu women with gigantic golden nose rings skirting around every corner. I took a cooking class with an Indian Renaissance woman, Neena, who cooks, stitches, raises the kids, teaches aerobics and is cute too. We saw the opulent City Palace and the Lake Palace (the Raja's summer home) in the distance hovering on the water.

We took a day trip to the giant Kumbalgarh - the most fortified fortress I could have ever imagined. We walked up layers and layers of giant walls that spiraled up and around the palace that sits atop the highest of the hills. Then we saw Ranakpur, a Jain temple held up with a forest of pillars - no two of which are exactly alike. Returning to Udaipur for New Year's Eve, we started the evening on the rooftop of our hotel, which we had to ourselves, drinking Indian Savingon Blanc and watching the fireworks pop sporadically in the sky. Then to a romantic dinner on another rooftop surrounded by hipsters of all kinds, overlooking the floating confection called the lake palace and waiting for a new year to come.

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