Royalty, Religion & Lamb Biryani – R&R in Rajasthan

Just Now in Jodhpur

Jodhpur, India / Friday 31 October 2014

It’s been another of those ‘just before a trip’ weeks – back-to-back meetings, everyone wanting things cleared ‘before you leave’..those no-time-for-toilet days. It’s an Indian holiday this time – four of us on this trip – Brian, Kooi Fong, and Shobs. The trip materialised over dinner some months back. We were talking about going on holiday together, and KF said ‘Let’s go to India’ – they’d never been, and were of the (possibly mistaken) view that going to India with us two “Indians” would be “safer”. B wasn’t exactly jumping with joy or anticipation as India wasn’t on his ‘to visit’ list…but he said ok too. Planning then started with a vengeance with itineraries, visas and accommodation sorted out with our very efficient travel agent.

And so, there we were at T3 for our flight…only problem was we were supposed to be in T2 (my misreading of our itinerary….we were landing at Delhi’s T3), so Skytrain to T2 it was. We still had plenty of time after checking in and changing money so had a little pre-trip drink. I wondered whether to have dinner in-flight (since it was a 2.30AM flight, and I really didn’t need to eat at 4 in the morning) – but dinner was lamb curry, so the decision was practically made for me (note: the lamb curry was very good). Watched a documentary on Vivian Maier, the nanny/photographer (quite a disturbingly strange story), and fell asleep with my Playlist on.

We arrived at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi airport ahead of schedule at 5.20AM. What a pleasant surprise – the airport was no longer the chaotic mess I remembered it as (though that was 20 years ago) – I could’ve been at KLIA or Hong Kong or Changi. It was modern, efficient (we were through immigration and bag collection in no time)….and The Toilets Were Clean!!! We had a 5-hour wait for our flight to Jodhpur so we walked the length of the airport before deciding on a South Indian breakfast at Vaango (!) which had Rajnikant lookalikes on its billboards, and a sweet waiter named Rafeeq. They had barely opened when we walked in so we waited. The milk hadn’t come in yet (“Doodh nahin hai”…I understood that!) so we had 2 coffees between us, and various dosas – I had a ghee roast dosa which was crispy and delicious.

We’d been there about an hour when a young man walked up to us and asked if we were so-and-so. He was from the travel agency and had been walking up and down looking for us. As we were each taking turns to go to the washroom, every time he passed by he only saw 2 or 3 of us – and he was looking for a party of 4…he finally came by when, on one of his walks, all 4 of us were at the table. We were told we’d only be met at Jodhpur airport so we weren’t expecting anyone to be meeting us at Delhi. Sumit was extremely helpful – he gave us a phone for use while here, and even lent KF a SIM card when she said she was going to buy/rent one.

Slight moment of anxiety when we checked in as the baggage allowance for the JetKonnect flight to Jodhpur was only 15kg and 3 of us were above that limit. Sumit said they were strict about the allowance, and that they weigh bags separately…but we smiled nicely, and the lady at the counter was kind – our luggage was weighed together and we were 5 whole kilos below our 60kg limit. Jetlag set in on the flight and all our heads were lolling. We were told at least 3 times that Jodhpur airport is also a defence base and no photography was allowed on the tarmac or in the terminal – despite this, some clowns still took photos on the tarmac…though this was no Paro Airport. As we landed I looked out for ‘blueness’, Jodhpur being the Blue City….but all I saw was one blue fence and two blue roofs.

We were met by Narender, the agency’s contact here, who gave us a quick background to Jodhpur – it was founded by the Maharaja Jodha; when towns end with a ‘pur’ or ‘pura’ it had a Hindu founder, when it’s a ‘abad’ (e.g. Ahmedabad) it had a Muslim one; Jodhpur is also known as Sun City; the blue was to indicate homes of Brahmins – who would be on invaders’ Do Not Kill Register; and blue also keeps away mosquitoes.

Our 9-seater Tempo stopped outside the gates to the Old Town, and we and our bags were transferred to 3 autos. Our hotel was in the old town – where only small cars were allowed (it sounded promising and quite exotic already). We then had a bone-shaking, and joint-loosening, ride to our hotel, through narrow narrow lanes, within touching distance of other autos, cyclists, and humanity in general, and several near-misses (by Singapore standards). Our hotel, the Raas, was a little walled fort of it’s own. We were greeted with a welcome drink – a delicious lime, honey and ginger concoction, and a very welcome cold towel.  We had lunch while waiting for our room…the menu was chock-a-block with lamb dishes…I am in lamb heaven. The lamb biryani was super yummy; we also had a vegetable biryani, a chicken curry, and for drinks we had a Rat’s Ass (the welcome drink + vodka) – and the rasmalai we shared for dessert – the best I’ve had. The room was lovely – all rooms at the Raas have a view of the Mehrangarh Fort, which is Jodhpur’s commanding centrepiece – quite magnificent.

View from our room at the Raas

After lunch, and a shower, it was time to go walkabout.Outside the oasis of our hotel, things were a bit more chaotic – honking autos, motorbikes – having to watch for these while watching out that we didn’t step into fresh cow dung. The first thing that struck me was that people are friendly, they smile easily – everyone I smiled at, smiled back (unlike in Moscow), when we looked slightly lost, a guy came up to us and gave us directions. And so, dodging autos, motorbikes and cow dung, we got to the clock tower market – the local pasar, where paper-eating cows, autos, motorbikes, cycles and people competed for the same space. We weren’t sure if people were happy about their photos being taken, especially as on our way to the market, a young man helpfully warned us to ‘be careful’ when taking photos of people, as “some of them want money.”
Market square – everyone and their cow within touching distance

Brian had lost his sole (soul very much intact though) and we found a moustachioed cobbler who hand sewed the sole back, all for Rs100 (about SGD2) – shamelessly bargained down from Rs200. At one point, there were drums and wedding-type music – and we joined the crowds to see what was happening. There was a rather old man in a posh looking turban and a garland of marigolds. He had a retinue of young giggling girls in his wake. We had no idea what was going on, and I hoped this was not a wedding with grandpa as bridegroom, and one of the giggling girls as bride.

We got back to our hotel as it got dark. On the way we passed a blue painted archway, and S and I tried to engineer a Steve McCurry-in-Jodhpur moment – no such luck unfortunately. Just outside the Raas one of the guards, seeing us taking photos of the house across the street, pointed out a tree with hundreds of little birds, home to roost for the night. If he hadn’t pointed it out I would’ve missed it completely – they were so well camouflaged.

Dinner that night was at the Raas’ rooftop restaurant…lamb chops, lamb pepper fry (what would my mother say!!), fried okra, chicken korma – and a for-old-time’s-sake, Old Monk and coke to wash it down. It was a lovely cool night with a view of the west wall of the fort. B and KF got their first Inglish lesson, and how to correctly use ‘just one minute’ and ‘just now’ (as in, for example, “May I have the wifi password?” “Just now I’ll bring the password.”). We also covered pronunciation and gesticulation (they were particularly proficient in this last bit of the curriculum).

It’s been a wonderful first day, a gentle introduction to India for B and KF. On our walkabout this evening we only encountered 2 beggars, who weren’t even very persistent. That night, we drank a toast to good friends, good company and a wonderful start to the trip…it’ll be the first of many toasts, I’m sure.

Till the Cows Come Home

Jodhpur, India / 1 November 2014

I have not slept this well in a long time – the mattress and pillows were just right. The turndown service provided a welcome gift (bangles) and earplugs for those who might be disturbed by the muezzin’s 5AM azan call. I didn’t use the earplugs, and I barely heard the call. Breakfast was another fab meal where one orders the mains and it’s buffet for the rest. In an attempt at being healthy, I had some muesli, nuts and yoghurt…and pao keema – a delicious toasted bun with…minced lamb curry…this is turning out to be a lamb for breakfast, lunch and dinner kind of holiday!
There were some very soothing chants in the background – we asked the head waiter, Vishnu, where we might get a CD of this music, and were told that it’s a compilation put together by the hotel – AND that he’ll copy it for us! Vishnu’s father is Malayalee, he grew up in Hyderabad, and he and his family want to visit Sri Lanka – and so we three were ‘connected’ – S being Malayalee, my mum’s family having its origins in Andhra and my dad being Sri Lankan.. Our travel companions joined us a little later – they too had slept very well. KF threw caution to the wind and had a fruit juice.

We had a 9AM start and were met by our very cool guide – a pony-tailed man in reflectors and jodhpurs (!), who was also a Sham – so for today, he was Sham 1 and I was Shyam 2. Turns out this is a part-time job and he also has a ‘radio jockey’ job – thus the well-modulated tones.

First on the agenda, a drive through (alongside actually) the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, with quite magnificent views of the Mehrangarh Fort, to the Jaswant Thada, a monument in marble built at the turn of the 19th century by the Maharaja Sardar Singh in memory of his father Maharaja Jaswant Singh, who died while astral travelling by the sounds of it. The intricately carved marble monument overlooking a tiered garden and a lake is beautiful and peaceful – and architecturally has that combination of Hindu and Muslim features, in the domes for example, which is fairly common in India – and is far more beautiful than either architectural style on its own. The wide angle came in very useful here and was the source of much happiness!

Next stop the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur’s centrepiece, with walls 20 metres wide! The fort has been restored and maintained by the Jodhpur maharaja and has halls and halls of fascinating  exhibits from centuries ago. There was a range of elephant howdahs – there were elaborate gold-plated ones with 2 seats –  the front seat for the maharaja and the rear one for his footman, or bodyguard; there were curtained ones for the royal women (with peep holes on all 4 sides so they don’t miss any of the action, or scenery); there was a cradle-like one which rocked its occupants (that must have been comfortable!); and there was one with a chair – for the French who couldn’t sit on the ground – though balancing on a chair in a howdah on an elephant’s back must’ve been harder than sitting cross-legged on the ground!
There were round tipped swords, which Sham told us, had been dipped in poison while being made – these swords were lethal forever, and all it took was one touch (not even a cut!). We saw the great Akbar’s sword…it was displayed almost casually, with no additional rah-rah.

There were little artefacts – one was particularly amusing – it was a silver figurine of a dancing lady, and it was used to store alcohol for the royal ladies – the alcohol was poured out of one outstretched arm. I suppose drinking in public was a no-no for the maharanis! But these royal ladies were health conscious too – there were huge dumbbells (the kind one swings over one’s head…the original kettle ball??) which were used for exercise by the royal ladies.

There was an entire section dedicated to the various cradles that were used by the royal babies, and a whole section on miniatures – Sham pointed out some of the intricacies of some of these profile-only paintings…the sketches were only done with one clean stroke of the pencils, no double lines anywhere; each strand of hair was painted in (some of the brushes were made from camels’ eyelashes!); there were skirts and sarees that actually looked transparent – how did they do that??; some of the paints used gold, silver and other minerals and when the light fell on the painting at certain angles all these colours suddenly shimmered – very wow!

One ice cold Coke later, it was time to make our way out of the fort through its oldest gate – about 400 years old (we’d come in through its newest (about 200 years old)…we walked through the areas of the fort whose claim to fame was the filming of Dark Knight Rises, and that Richard Gere Visa ad. But for me, the fort’s biggest claim to fame is that there were absolutely no touts or hawkers – a first for me in India – or anywhere really!

It was past 2PM by now and we were all starving. Sham led us through the narrow winding up-and-down streets lined with blue buildings to what used to be a haveli (a private mansion) which was now a guest house. We had a marvellous lunch – some local specialties – gatta curry (a gram flour dumpling curry), lal maas (a red hot lamb curry which Sham would’ve cooked for us had we stayed longer), egg curry, various rotis, dhal…and one gulab jamun that was shared 4-ways…not as good as Amma’s. The haveli had a rooftop with colourful old tiles – and A View – of the Blue City. Lunch, rooftop view, and toilet stop done (by the way, all the toilets so far have been Clean – is it Rajasthan or are things changing in India??) it was time to meet our guide for the city walk – Kuldeep Singh, who was a charming young man with a quite magnificent handlebar moustache – he too spoke extremely well, and after checking that we were “sorted”, we began our walking tour with Kuldeep from Virasat Walking Tours.

The streets of the old city are narrow and in parts if you stretched out both arms you could almost touch the blue walls on either side. The upper levels were even closer and Kuldeep said you could probably walk across to your neighbour’s from the rooftops. While once the blue painted walls indicated Brahmin homes, now anyone was free to paint their homes any colour they wanted – as Kuldeep said, we were after all in “the world’s largest democracy.” Many artisans chose to live in the old city apparently as they felt safer there – crime rates were low…robbers would have a hard time getting out of that maze where everyone seemed to know each other. A silversmith sat on his front steps working on a fine silver anklet (which KF tried…she’s beginning to think she was Indian in a past life) while his wife sat near him slicing vegetables for dinner.

Cows wandered the street, all very well fed – Kuldeep explained that most homes owned a cow or two. The cows were left to roam the streets in the morning, and in the evening they made their way back home…gives a whole new meaning to “waiting till the cows come home”! At one point a group of 3 cows blocked our path, and a helpful gentleman who was watching us from his second floor window threw a dipper of water at the cows who promptly made way for us!

The people of Jodhpur are So Friendly – and they are happy for their photos to be taken – some even asked for their photos to be taken (no money in return needed). Kuldeep with his magnificent moustache was also subjected to our photography – he said he could’ve just come to our hotel if we wanted to take his photos. When he saw his photo though, he had a big smile and said, “You obviously know what you’re doing.” 🙂

Today was also a lesson in how to walk on an Indian street. As we made our way through the narrow lanes, Kuldeep just walked straight ahead, generally ignoring horns, and crossing the lanes without looking left or right…the autos and bikes just avoided him. And so I did just that – we had to walk single file through the narrow alleys of the old market; I kept my eyes on Kuldeep’s back and ignored all the honking, no sudden moves left or right – this was whether we were walking down an alley or crossing one. If any of us made the mistake of stopping to look left or right before crossing, we were stuck for ages, unable to cross. Discovering how to walk in India was a bit of a nirvana moment – for me at least.

The market was huge, with intersecting alleys lined by shops and stalls that sold just about everything. Brian got his pappads from a stall that sold all manner of to-be-fried crispy stuff as well as pasta – most in exposed containers, though B’s pappad came in a packet. There were crispy letters of the alphabet which Kuldeep said he used to teach his 6 year old son his ABCs. He very proudly told us he had been ‘recently blessed with a baby girl’ who’s 1 month and 10 days old.

KF goes native

It was fascinating how everyone seemed to know everyone, and funny too how Kuldeep treated all the shops as if they were his grandfather’s – he popped into one to borrow a pen (and expressed annoyance when the shop owner didn’t have a pen), and he left his phone to charge in another while KF got herself bangles – he then popped into another shop to get KF a stick-on bindi to complete the Indian look. He also stopped to check his moustache in a mirror, and when we laughed he said it’s quite a high maintenance moustache – and also told us that the Indian Army gives out a moustache allowance for soldiers to maintain their moustaches!

We passed a huge warehouse-like place with cauldrons of I know not what…this was the place that made and supplied sweets for most of Jodhpur, including Haldiram’s…I decided I didn’t want to look too closely at their processes (or equipment). Just as well, as almost immediately after that, Kuldeep stopped at a hole in the wall shop and got us gulab jamun, which was the best gulab jamun I’d tasted – almost as good as my mum’s!

Some of the streets were particularly clean and being decorated with coloured powder – Kuldeep explained that it was for a religious festival. We also asked him about the celebration we’d seen yesterday – and from our very detailed collective description, he was pretty sure it was a retirement ceremony we’d seen – I was relieved it wasn’t a wedding.

It was getting dark by now and we sped up a bit, stopping at an intersection where there was a tree with a male and female idol at its base – the idols looked like a cannonball had been fired through their crotches, and a very helpful sign was painted into the tree – “God of Sex”. After very politely asking if he could tell us about this, and promising that he will be subtle (in view of female company), he proceeded to tell us the story – long story short, this was more about fertility than about sex.

It was dark when we got to the clock tower market, which we were at the previous night. We said our goodbyes to Kuldeep who handed us off to Sham. B’s other sole had given way in the course of today, and we made our way back to the cobbler who greeted us like old friends. This time, since we were old friends, and he didn’t ask, he got Rs50 more than he did yesterday.

We did a quick auto ride around the city before getting back on our minivan, and on to an arts and crafts place which had the loveliest Ganeshas made from various stones – I got two which were guaranteed to bring me good luck at home, and which would guide me to make all the right decisions at work – just what the doctor ordered. When the man in the shop found out we were from Singapore, he proceeded to tell us about all his other Singaporean customers (by name) and what they bought (jewellery) – I knew one of the people he mentioned and he told me more than once to send his greetings to her.

We had one more stop – Maharani Textiles – where we were shown some lovely shawls, sheets, and stuff done for some of the fashion houses (Kenzo, Hermes, MiuMiu, LV), with the ‘extras’ being sold for a fraction of the price than what one would pay in Europe, HK or Singapore. …I was reminded of a scene from Crazy Rich Asians. The flamboyant guy at the shop not just spread out the wares, he also draped some of the shawls around him with much flourish. He peppered every sentence with “you understand?’ – like, “This was was done for Kenzo…you understand Kenzo?” – at one point I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. He also mentioned several celebs who purportedly shopped there…Richard Gere, Sting and his wife (who according to him were there last week for the RIFF festival and stayed at the Raas – where we were staying!) – and also brought out an issue of Forbes which mentioned his boss, Mukesh Jain. We ended up buying a few things, and spending far too long trying to decide which shawls to get…Sham just shook his head, and said “I told you you would like this.”

We were exhausted by this time, and were falling asleep in the Tempo on the way back to the Old City Gates where we switched to our autos…that woke us up. I’m convinced our auto driver had tried out for the VISA ad (with Pierce Brosnan) – he drove at breakneck speed, missing pedestrians and cyclists by millimetres; he cut off B&KF’s auto (he wanted to come in first?), and we approached the hotel entrance at such speed, I was convinced we were either going to miss it completely or topple over…fortunately we did nether as he swung around that corner, and screeched to a halt at the Raas.

10.1415062071.lamb-chop-and-soy-yoghurt-cutletWe had a lovely dinner at the Raas dining room overlooking the pool. Lamb featured prominently on the menu (as usual) and we had a bottle of Indian wine – Grover’s…we should probably stick to Old Monk and Kingfisher. We also checked if Sting and Trudi were at the Raas last week – it was more like last year…oh well, just a slight difference I suppose.

What a lovely day – the sights and sounds of The Blue City have been quite something else. The clean toilets have been a big surprise too. But the best part of today – the oh so friendly people of Jodhpur, with their ready smiles and ‘anything goes’ hand gesture (B and KF are perfecting it) – it’s fantastic to be able to take photos unsurreptitiously, and to see the kids smile when they see their photos. There was Bhavesh 1 and Bhavesh 2 – 2 boys we met on our walk, who posed for us. Bhavesh 2 in particular was a very serious young man…who dissolved into giggles when he saw his photo. Then there were Anji and Yoges who couldn’t stop posing; there was a man in a barber shop who didn’t object to our clicking away at his lathered face; and there was a group of elderly men watching the world go by (a practice called ‘athai’) – we had walked past them, then went back to ask if we could take their photos – again that ‘anything goes’ hand gesture – and a question (“where are you from?”), and smiles of approval when they saw themselves; there was an elderly lady who clapped me on my shoulders in a very grandmotherly fashion – I think she liked how she looked in the photo! This is what I’ll remember best from Jodhpur – this and the cows that go home.


A Celestial Evening & the Best Gulab Jamuns

Narlai, India / 2 November 2014

10.1415228657.masala-uthappam-at-the-raasAfter a less cholesterol-filled breakfast today of masala utthapam for me, it was time to leave our oasis of a hotel for our next stop – Narlai, a village about 3 hours away. On the way, we stopped at Ranakpur, to see a spectacular 15th century marble Jain temple – one of the 5 most important Jain temples in India. It is named after the Mewar king, Rana Kumbha, who helped build it on condition that it is named after him (the tradition continues today…Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital…). There are 1444 marble pillars each with intricate carvings and a story to tell, and all arranged so that the idol is never blocked. Apparently even the Mughal Emperor Akbar was so taken by this temple, he carved a message on one of the pillars, saying ‘do not destroy.’

We all had to get audio guides as human guides were not allowed inside. I did see though a couple of men dressed like priests, but probably not priests, dispensing holy ash and blessings to unsuspecting ang moh visitors, and then offering to show them around for a fee. One elderly couple were quite taken by this and immediately agreed; another man said he has no money as he had to leave his (leather) wallet in the locker at the entrance.

Then it was on to Narlai. Sham had told us yesterday it was a nice little village, and to do the village walk but I have to confess I hadn’t had time to read up much about it before our trip. The fact that our driver had to stop for directions got us just slightly concerned. We eventually got to Narlai, and its sandy lanes that could only fit 1 vehicle (or 1 bullock cart) at a time. We later realised that all of us, though we didn’t say anything at the time, had the same thought – where the %&*# were we going?? Then, without the least warning we pulled up outside a walled property, and a traditionally-dressed man with a luxuriant moustache was namaste-ing us. We walked into this amazing pebbled courtyard where we each got (marigold)-garlanded – by the Indian staff – and one very un-Indian boy with a posh accent. We later found out that Fred is from London and interning with the the Rawla Narlai for 6 months. We also later found out that Fred is from Eton.

The Rawla Narlai used to be the Maharajah of Jodhpur’s hunting lodge, built in the 17th century. There’s a new wing where they have tried to maintain the same architectural style as the original building – this new wing overlooks the swimming pool and the spa (which is made up of a row of tents – which have en-suite massage rooms – and masseuses from Assam and Mizoram). As Fred was showing us all this, a tall distinguished-looking gentleman came along and introduced himself as our host (Rana….) – a cousin of the Maharajah (!)…introductions all round (and he asks me if we have met before!! Maybe in a royal past life?)

Our rooms were in the old wing (the original building) – B & KF’s room was practically a suite with a balcony overlooking the gardens. The Rana had said that people come to Narlai to visit the step well — which dates back to the 5th century – and to climb to the top of the Shiva Rock. The Shiva Rock is an imposing structure – Narlai’s Table Mountain. At the very top, from our wing (which also housed the Maharani’s room), we could see a white marble elephant – as the story goes, the Maharani was very fond of her elephant and was distraught when he died (at age 75) – so she got the stone elephant built in his memory, and it was placed at the top of Shiva Rock, where she could see it every day from her quarters.

The Maharani’s wing

We made arrangements for the Stepwell dinner then sat down for a chat with the Rana over our welcome drink – the lodge he said was used by the Maharajah in the 17th & 18th century mainly. Later, the royal family started to go to Africa for their hunting trips – more game, more fun, more exotic. The lodge fell into disrepair and had to slowly be restored – when budget allowed. They started with only 2 guest rooms initially. All the staff are from Narlai, and so, the Rana said, they may not be as polished as the staff on other properties, but their priority is helping out the village, and providing employment.

Hotel owners don’t refer to ‘hotels’, they refer to ‘properties’ – the Rana asked “which property” we were at, at Jodhpur – from the hand gesture, and “Ohh Raaas”, it was obvious he approved. There’s a little temple off the courtyard, and as we sat there chatting, the temple bells started to ring – evening puja time. With hasty excuse me’s, we rushed off to see what was happening, to say a prayer or two and to get some photos – I suspect the hotel staff dragged out the puja a bit just for us.

The Step Well dinner experience started at the Rawla Narlai – with drinks in the courtyard, and more chat with the Rana. The ladies got traditional shawls, and B got a Rajput turban, and many silly photos were taken. We walked out to the lane in front of the hotel…and there were our rides…2 bullock carts!!! The moustachioed door man held a chair for us to step on and we settled into our seats. We made our (slow) way through the village, past little houses, groups of men and women, some chatting, some chanting, kids who waved at us in great excitement…though I do think most of them must have thought it funny that these foreigners were getting a kick out of riding in a bullock cart – and paying for it. We eventually left the village behind, and our way was only lit by the moon – and the oil lamp that the man, who was walking by the carts, carried. We passed a sadhu (or someone who gave the impression of being one) singing in a most beautiful voice…and after that, there was only the sound of crickets, and the swish of the bullocks’ tails – the bullock on S’s side had a quite active tail, which almost reached S’s cheek once! It was a magical ride – but there was more magic when we reached the well – it was lit by 400 oil lamps, all the way down to the water, and a bonfire was going. Our 2 sofas faced the bonfire and the well – and we were the only guests there!

The stepwell dinner

It was an indescribable evening – the sadhu we had seen reappeared in orange robes and with his sitar – he sat on one of the lower steps and sang – so it sounded like a disembodied heavenly voice was rising from the well. It was a trance-like celestial experience – midway through his performance, he came up to the bonfire and lit what looked like a humongous joint – was that his secret?? We were plied with starters – chicken tikka, fish, various bhajis. In between the starters and the thali main course, we got a head, neck, back and hand massage!! How much more decadent can this get?! Dessert was banana cake and officially the best gulab jamun I’ve had so far…very close to Amma’s! Village staff or not, the service was excellent and attentive.

Eventually the bonfire turned to embers, and the oil lamps started to go out, and it was time to leave – in a jeep this time. What a magical evening this has been. We all agreed that we are indeed fortunate to be able to do this trip – which has been full of surprises – and to do it with such good company. Tomorrow we have an early start to catch the sunrise from the Shiva Rock.

Monday Mornings

Narlai, India / 3 November 2014

A 6.30AM start today for our walk to the top of the Shiva Rock. One of the Rawla’s staff, Bagdharam, was accompanying us, and he carried a little Dora-Diego-Tarzan bag with a flask and some cookies for when we got to the top. The village was waking up as we walked to the base of the rock, and Bagdharam stopped to ring temple bells and said many ‘Ram Ram’s and ‘Hari Om’s to the various people we passed by.

At the base of the rock, we all said an Om Namashivaya and were on our way – it was 750 steps up – with many stops to admire the view (and catch our breath), and when we were near the top, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise. We made a quick stop at the Shiva temple near the top, then went to visit the Maharani’s elephant, where we had masala tea and cookies and enjoyed the lovely breeze and view. It had taken us about half an hour to get up there; going down was a lot faster and we were back ‘on the property’ for breakfast by 8.
At breakfast we met another intern, Isabelle from the US via Scotland. We were mistaken when we thought that the interns were doing a course in hospitality or tourism – both Isabelle and Fred were there ‘just for the experience’. I later found out that Fred was in his gap year after Eton, and was going back to do Theology (!). We finally had fruit for breakfast today – after being assured by Isabelle who’s been having fruit and salad everyday, and has been none the worse for it. We sat out on the patio for breakfast with a view of the Shiva Rock and the elephant we’d just visited. The Rana said, when we met him this morning, that ‘only those who are meant to visit the Rock will do so’ – for some reason, that sounded quite profound to me. There were a group of men at the temple today so we went to see what was happening – they were just sitting around, having a smoke and (opium) tea – apparently this happens every Monday morning – how very civilised. We found out about the opium tea from an English gentleman who was toting not one but TWO LEICAS (so no lens changes necessary) and had been photographing the men in the temple. He thought we should know, in case we were offered the tea, that there was (a very small amount) of opium in it. [Note: we weren’t offered any tea.] We also saw the sadhu from last night (who recognised us and bowed deeply – aiyo!) who had probably come for his Monday morning fix.
After breakfast, we went for a walk through the village, accompanied again by Bagdharam. We stopped at a Shiva temple in a cave, bats and all. The village reminded me of the villages in Chennai Express –  it was almost idyllic.  The people were friendly, the homes modest but clean. We saw some women picking cotton out of the buds – they wanted to know our ages, and if I understood correctly, they asked why were we walking around without our husbands (B had stayed back in the hotel, so it was just us 3 females with Bagdharam). And since we were all sharing ages, I asked Bagdharam for his – he’s 40 (we tried not to look too surprised…we all thought he was older). We stopped at the home of a goatherd – there was a boy about 11 years old – Jitender – who was quite keen for his photo to be taken. He immediately struck a very serious passport photo face – until KF said, ‘Say chapati’ – which cracked him up.
Bagdharam offered to take us to his home which was about 1km away – we had to decline – by this time the sun was beating down and my head felt like it could fry an egg – we’d forgotten our hats. We were back in the hotel after an hour or so’s walk, one which was peppered with ‘Ram Ram’s and ‘Hari Om’s – by the end of the walk we were all saying it too when we walked past a local. KF is increasingly convinced she was Indian in a previous life. Then it was spa time! I had a wonderful massage – the fall-asleep-in-the-middle-of-it kind. As I walked back to the room, I bumped into Fred who was having a swim (apparently he lives in one of the spa tents), and he said to take our time, stay as long as we want, etc. etc. As it turned out it wasn’t quite Right(ly) Said Fred – there were 22 guests coming in that day and we had to vacate our rooms pronto – check out was at 12 noon and it was 2.30PM by the time all the massages were done. To his credit, Fred came by to apologise for ‘wrongly saying’ – but all was good, we had a yummy lunch (different type of mutton curry this time) at the Rawla Narlai, before leaving for our next stop – Udaipur – a 3-hour drive.

We were met at Udaipur by our guide, Rajendra Solanki, aka Ricky, before being dropped off at the Leela Palace jetty for our boat ride to the hotel. We passed an island, domed buildings and lawns entirely lit up – we were told by our very royal looking boatman that it belonged to the Maharajah and it was used for weddings and other parties – it looked like some fairy land. Our hotel was also like some fairy land – with the fancy greeting (here we had rose petals raining down on us as we entered the hotel, and  our photo taken – this was a first), the chandeliered lobby with all its silver pieces, and the in-room check-in. Our rooms had a view of the Lake Pichola which we’d just crossed – beautiful! Once again we wished we were staying longer so we could enjoy the hotel.

Dinner was at The Dining Room – Goanese prawn curry, and spinach with garlic and pine nuts (very yum). Tomorrow, according to our itinerary, we’ll be ‘waltzing around Udaipur’.

Sun Dynasty Stories

Udaipur, India / 4 November 2014

Another delish breakfast – this time of akuri (Parsi scrambled eggs) and a masala omelette – and we were ready to start our waltz.


The day started with more giggles…as we left the hotel to get the boat, the doorman in full Rajput regalia appeared with an ornate red and gold umbrella to walk us (individually) to the boat, which was all of 10 metres away. I swear this has been a ridiculously decadent holiday. With much giggling we settled down in our boat and were helped with our life jackets…actually the boatman (also ornately attired) pretty much put the jackets on for us.

Baldev, our trusty driver, and our Udaipur guide were waiting on the other side – our guide today was Rajendra something something Singh Solanki – “call me Ricky”. As we drove past Lake Pichola he said Udaipur is famous for its lakes – 5 main ones, and all man-made, or more accurately, Maharajah-made, over the centuries. Some years ago Lake Pichola dried up and our man Ricky played cricket on it. He said he doesn’t play cricket anymore – he has responsibilities now in the form of children (he showed us photos – another proud dad). He also said that it was Muharram and that it would be best to avoid some parts of the city as it would be very crowded and perhaps not too safe.

Our first stop was the winter palace, the City Palace – building of the palace was started by Maharana Udai Singh, and construction continued over 400 years by various rulers who followed. This was the second capital after Chittaurgarh, which we’ll be visiting tomorrow. The Maharana (not the aforementioned Udai Singh but the Rana Arvind Singh Mewar) and his family still live on-site – though the Rana wasn’t in residence today (only 1 flag was flying – if he were in, there’d be 2).

The entrance to the palace was chock-a-block with tourist buses but our man Ricky managed to get the tickets sorted quickly (he has “connections”) and we were soon on our way. Ricky was full of hilarious stories, and the giggling continued. As we walked up a hill, a buggy driven by a uniformed guard came careening round a corner – Ricky said that’s the prince’s bodyguard – and that when the prince is not in residence, he behaves like he’s the prince – and that everyone can’t stand him (the bodyguard i.e.). At some point during the palace tour Ricky pointed out a grinning lion sculpture…and explained that the lion was smiling because he was not married, and that he (Ricky) was like that too last week when his wife was out of town…sigh.

10.1415558263.ganesha-toran-at-entranceRicky was also a wealth of information, pointing out things that we would have missed or not realised the significance of…the elaborate Ganesha Toran at the entrance, recently painted for the Rana’s daughter’s wedding – the bridegroom touches the toran with his sword as he enters the bride’s house (in this case palace) on an elephant. Ricky said he did the same at his wedding except he was on a horse, not an elephant.

We entered through the northern gate, after peering through the railings at the current Maharana’s palace (and not seeing anyone) – the Tripolia Pol (or triple-arched gate) was built in 1725 and was the main entrance. There was a two-level entrance/exit to the palace – a lower one which allowed the Maharana to get on/off his horse, and a higher one to allow for the Maharana to get on/off his elephant. Opposite the entrance, were bollards with chains and an area that looked like a mini-skate park – the elephants’ sleeping quarters. At one end of the palace, the windows only started at what appeared to be the 4th floor, with the floors below all window-less. At the top, there was an open space and a tree grew out of it – Ricky explained that that part of the palace was actually on a hill, and a facade was built around the hill. What looked like the 4th floor was actually the top of the hill! This was just one ‘security’ feature. The other (which we saw repeatedly) was the doorway – the doorways were narrow and low – which meant that one has to bend over to go through…presenting one’s neck for soldiers waiting beyond the door!

In the palace grounds, there was a large black cage which Ricky said was used for tigers. He added that the cage will be transported to Delhi – to be used for politicians (though it may not be large enough). Near the cage was a wall over which elephants used to play tug-of-war (with their trunks – first one to touch the wall loses). Across from the palace were the old stables, and a view of the city – which was surprisingly blue as well. There was also a row of shops which we visited at the end of our palace tour – got a tutorial on how to recognise genuine pashmina (no tassels), the different grades (beards and babies are best) and 3 different ways to use a shawl – there’re about 50 ways in total, but for that we’d need to visit the shop owner’s website.

On the 4th floor which was actually the 1st floor, there was a large jacuzzi-like tub – we were asked if we knew what it was – all of us except KF said it had something to do with water – KF said it was for gems or money – she was right! She – and we – are further convinced now that she was a Maharani in a past life.

The Udaipur dynasty is also known as the Sun Dynasty, and everyone starts the day with a bit of pre-breakfast sun worship. There’s an image of the sun on the outside of the palace, for the commoners, and one inside for the royals – just in case the sun can’t be seen…wet weather plan – they really do think of everything!! The palace is also friendly to the physically challenged, given that one of the most loved Maharanas, Bhupal Singh, was paralysed from the waist down (from polio?) and needed a wheelchair to move around.
The palace is actually a palace complex. The current Maharana owns Historic Resort Hotels (HRH), a chain of heritage palace-hotels and resorts. Besides the City Palace Museum, there’s the Fateh Prakash Palace which houses a convention hall – the Durbar Hall Sabhagaar, which has portraits of the royals, past and present. It also houses a surreal crystal gallery, just above the Durbar Hall. In the late 19th century the Maharana Sajjan Singh had attended what sounded like a trade exhibition at Calcutta (if I remember Ricky correctly) – he was quite taken with the crystal pieces he saw and ordered a crazy amount of various crystal ‘things’ from Birmingham. There was a crystal bed, a crystal dining table, a crystal punkah (or fan), pretty much crystal everything – all with the Mewar emblem. Unfortunately, the Maharana died before the crystal he had commissioned arrived in Udaipur, and so he didn’t enjoy all the crystal-ness, which remained unopened till the 1950s. It was the present Maharana who decided to exhibit this surreal collection in the ’90s. No cameras were allowed here, so only mental pics were taken.

The other palaces in the complex are the summer palace (now the Lake Palace hotel on Lake Pichola) and Jag Mandir – or pleasure palace, – the island we saw on our boat ride to the Leela last night – party central for the Maharana and his harem. There was also a Monsoon Palace up in the hills, which the Maharana and family retreated to during the monsoons (just because it’s nice to be in the hills when it rains, and they could). We had a boat ride on Lake Pichola after our palace tour, and stopped for a while at Jag Mandir. They were preparing for a party that night – it looked quite fab. On the lake, there was a small building – this used to be a temple, but is now used as a helipad.

Ricky said that many celebs attend parties at Jag Mandir and no one knows they’re in town till they read about it in the papers the next day – it’s the whole private jet/helicopter/boat thing – no need to drive through the city. The Lake Palace Hotel was where Liz Hurley and Arun Nayar got married, and where some years later, Ricky saw Mr Nayar with someone else. The Lake Palace Hotel’s main claim to fame  – it was the home of Octopussy…another movie to watch again.

On our boat ride back to mainland, we were talking about food and drink, and I said we were enjoying the Old Monk here – suddenly our boatman came to life and was very animated…it’s his fave drink too and he was espousing its virtues, and the fact that one shouldn’t have more than 2 pegs to benefit from its medicinal properties (RUM = Regular Use Medication) – he said he gives his daughter a spot when she’s unwell – it always does the trick!

We outdid ourselves at lunch – at Fateh Sagar, overlooking another of Udaipur’s lakes – we had lamb/mutton in 3 different forms, washed down by a Kingfisher.  This is the life!

Next stop after lunch was the Rajasthan School of Art, where we saw how the miniatures were done, and were shown some fabulous pieces…which resulted in considerable lightening of the wallet…
By this time we were all quite tired and decided to skip the city walk. We went instead to a nearby park, which we were told was a park for the maharani and her retinue of women. Unlike the palaces which were maintained by the royal family, this one was maintained by the government – the difference was stark.

On the way back, at B’s request, we stopped to have a look at the Maharana’s vintage car collection – it was a great stop, and the giggles continued as the guy who showed us around persisted in ‘arranging’ KF (and on occassion B too) around the cars…there was the James Bond and James Bond babe pose, the ‘look, I’m lifting the car’ pose, and several others which had us in stitches. The cars themselves were beautiful – a 1960 Merc (among others), several Rolls Royces (with 2 red Rs, 2 black Rs and 1 black/1 red R – the guy at the showroom said the colour depended on whether Mr. Rolls or Mr. Royce or both were dead…but I later read that this was incorrect and the reason for the change to black was a bit more mundane –  Mr. Royce just thought that black was aesthetically more appealing).


Dinner that night was at the Raas Leela, a restaurant near our hotel…er, property. It was open air by the lake – and when we asked our doorman for directions, he took us there in a hotel buggy! Have I already said that service has been incredible? Ricky knew the owner of the Raas Leela and had made the reservations for us – he’d said it was a birthday celebration and to make it special (!) …our table had flowers strewn over it, and the owner himself took our order. It was another delicious meal…no prizes for guessing what was on the menu.

Suitably stuffed we rolled back to the hotel (without buggy), and I fell asleep the minute I hit the bed.


Checking out Chittaurgarh

Chittaurgarh, India / 5 November 2014

We were up early today to try and get some photos around the hotel when the light was good. We had a quick breakfast…and I was yet again wow-ed by the oh-so-attentive staff. I had picked up a bowl of fruit and a ramekin of muesli from the buffet spread, and was heading back to our al fresco table. From nowhere, a waiter appeared, saying he’ll bring the food to my table and promptly relieved me of the great load I was carrying!

The light was lovely, and the hotel grounds beautiful – and once again we wished we were staying longer. After breakfast it was time to get on the road again – to Jaipur via Chittaurgarh. Chittaurgarh – or Chittor – is the largest fort in India, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sprawls over 280 hectares on a hill overlooking a valley – which was the site of bloody battles. Chittaurgarh was the capital of Mewar from 734AD for about 800 years till it was abandoned after the siege by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century.

10.1415218255.jayu---our-chittaurgarh-guideBut I am getting ahead of myself. We stopped first at the Ram Pol (the main gate) to pick up our guide – a young man called Jayu. He was originally from Ajmer, where his parents still are – he came to Chittaurgarh when he was 14, when he was ‘called’ by his uncle. His uncle brought him up and he remained in Chittaurgarh, helping his uncle run a guest house, the Padmini Haveli.

Jayu was an earnest chap, who didn’t like noise…it interrupted his narrative – which was a bit inconvenient, given the bustle around us. Before we started out in the fort proper, he scratched in the sand an outline of the fort, and explained the significance of the east and west gates. We were at the west gate; the east gate looked down on a green valley where crops were grown by farmers from the walled city. The valley was a weak point – it was outside the gates of the fort, and when captured the people of Chittor had not much choice – they either starved, or had to go down to the valley to fight – mostly they fought and thousands of lives were lost.

The stories of Chittaurgarh were simply fascinating, and Jayu’s telling of them transported me to another time.

This was Meerabhai country…Jayu told us the story of Meera, which I’d heard long ago from my dear grandmother…Meera, as a young girl, saw a wedding procession and asked her mother whom she will marry. Her mother, wanting her to concentrate on studying and not on men, pointed to a statue of Krishna and said she’ll marry him. In an example of how we believe our mothers are always right, Meera grew up completely convinced that Krishna was her man. Eventually the Rana of Mewar got wind of this devout and beautiful girl, and wanted her to marry his son, Bhojraj – described at times as ineffectual, and at times an understanding husband who was Meerabai’s only friend. Reluctantly, Meera married Bhojraj and moved to Chittaurgarh. While there, she spent most of her waking hours at the Krishna temple (which we saw)..incurring the wrath of her mother-in-law and other female relatives. They tried to kill her but never managed to…

Then there was the story of Panna Dai, nurse maid to the baby Udai Singh who eventually founded Udaipur. In a story of intrigue and murder, Panna Dai saved Udai Singh from being assassinated by substituting her own son for the prince, then watched as her son was killed, before escaping with the young prince…and ensuring that the reign of Mewar continued. Talk about loyalty!

Perhaps the story that movies are made of was that of Padmini (this inspired a few iPadMini jokes which were totally irrelevant) – whose beauty resulted in war and the deaths of thousands. As the story goes, the Sultan Alauddin Khilji of Delhi was obsessed with Padmini, wife of the Maharana in the 1300s. He was allowed to visit the fort unarmed and alone, and the Maharana, being a polite man, allowed Khilji to see the object of his desire through a mirror as Padmini sat on some steps across a lake (people in those days had 20/20 vision – or better). The condition was that Khilji was not to turn back to look directly at Padmini. Mirror viewing done, the Maharana, ever polite, accompanied Khilji to the pol – where the Rana was promptly captured by Khilji’s men outside the gate. Khilji said he would release the Rana if he could add Padmini to his harem (horrors!). Padmini was no dumb blonde and agreed – on condition that she was accompanied by 700 of her ladies…which Khilji must’ve thought a good deal – ask for 1 lady, and get 699 more. The 700 ‘women’, transported in palanquins, were actually soldiers – they managed to get the Rana back but just outside the gates of Chittor, there was a major battle – the Rana was killed.The lovely but distraught Padmini and her ladies did the honourable thing and jumped on a fire – this was called ‘jauhar’ – not suttee. Khilji was furious, needless to say, and in his wrath killed twenty or thirty thousand Hindus, and took over the fort. What drama!

Steps where Padmini sat on the left, room from which Khilji viewed her (through the mirrors) on the top right.
The reflection of the steps that started a war

There were 2 other takeovers of Chittor after Khilji’s (in between these takeovers the Rajputs returned to Chittor and had control of the fort) – one by Bahadur Shah (this too resulted in a jauhar) and the final one by the mighty Akbar who wanted to capture Chittor as a stepping stone to capturing the rest of India. More jauhar ensued.

We had time to see just a fraction of the fort. I would’ve loved to spend a couple of days here, reading about the history and covering more of the fort, its ancient Vishnu temple, the underground tunnels (wide enough for palanquins!), the victory towers with their ornate carvings. This was a ‘must come back’ place for me…maybe we could look up Jayu on our next visit and stay at the Padmini Haveli!

But it was time to move on. Next stop Jaipur, with lunch on the way at Fateh Prakash – we opted for a non-mutton meal of fried rice thinking it would be quick…it wasn’t, and we missed our lamb biryani.

It was a long long drive to Jaipur. We had stocked up on Old Monk, Coke and masala chips…because the only way to remain Zen on that drive was to have one’s eyes shut or resort to alcohol. Baldev may have been a bit stressed too, and was called several times by I think the ‘local office’ – probably asking “Where the %@&* are you?” from the sound of it. We were grateful that Baldev neither had his eyes shut nor did he reach for the Old Monk.

It was almost 9PM by the time we got to Jaipur, and our oasis of a hotel, the Oberoi Rajvilas, with its well spread out villas, set in 35 acres of beautiful gardens. As we turned into the massive gates, leaving the mass of humanity outside, the uniformed and armed guard stepped in front of our tempo, and snapped to a salute – we weren’t sure if smiling was in order so we remained suitably serious…till we drove past him.

The service once again was impeccable, with in-room check-in, and a welcome from the Jawbone-wearing GM, Anshul Kaul. It was room service dinner tonight – a very yummy fish curry with dhal and vegetables – I dispensed with the cutlery and dug in with fingers.

The fab sunken bath at our hotel in Jaipur

I almost fell asleep in the (sunken) bath – which was one of the best designed baths I’ve been in – marble but non-slip – and it came with a pillow! Once again I wished we had more days here…this is turning out to be a constant of this trip.

Tomorrow it’s an early start. Baldev had quite sternly told us when we arrived at the Rajvilas, “Tomorrow 8 o’clock.” And we said in dismay, “8 o’clock??” He replied, complete with hand gestures, “Bathe, eat, sleep.”…which is pretty much what we did.

One thought on “Royalty, Religion & Lamb Biryani – R&R in Rajasthan

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