Thursday, February 22, 2007

India - Udaipur’s Royal Cenotaphs and Boat Ride

We woke up fairly early and tried to get in touch with travel desk person to see about changing our tickets to delay our departure from Udaipur, but it just seemed as though it would be too much of a hassle to change everything downstream (i.e. train tickets, hotels, flights, etc.). We did still try since Udaipur was turning out so much better than we had initially anticipate, but it was not looking very, we went downstairs at 9am to meet with Doulet, who took us for breakfast at Café Edelweiss.

Quick Digression:
Along the way, Doulet told us that one of Udaipur's claims to fame is that it was the setting for a significant portion of the James Bond movie, Octopussy. It was the eponymous Bond girl's island in the movie. Many enterprising hotel owners and merchants around town show the movie a few times a day on little movie screens or large TVs to tourists curious about exactly where it turns up. Melanie and I ended up passing on the movie, but got a kick out of the whole situation.

Café Edelweiss is a German bakery that was highly recommended in most our guidebooks (they're even top of the list of the Udaipur travel guide on Wikipedia). While my personal preference would have been for a traditional India breakfast, I didn't want to be high maintanence, so we just ended up dining there. If you do ever find yourself in Udaipur at this particular restuarant, my advice is that you don't get the marble cake (which was dry and flavorless) and instead get the cashew nut crumb cake - very unique and quite delicious.

We also got a kick out of the fact that all of the patrons of the tiny restaurant were tourists, and between the two of us, Melanie and I could understand every conversation going on around us. There was a Swiss family, an Austrian couple, a French family, a Chinese couple from Taiwan, and also some English travelers. Oddly enough, there was only one American there.

After breakfast, we went to visit the cenotaphs (memorial sites) for all of the Udaipur Maharanas (other former kingdoms had Maharajas, but Udaipur was different). Doulet gave us a very good explanation of many things, including Satis, city naming conventions, different aspects of Udaipur and Hindi, etc.

We spent quite a bit of time walking around the various cenotaphs. Doulet had quite a bit of information on whom the various structures were constructed for (all of them were Maharanas - some were greater than others). Size usually gave a good indication of what the sons (who were responsible for building and paying for the cenotaphs) thought of their fathers.

Going back to the Satis, we also came across various tombs for the mothers of kings. These were special because they usually represented the now outlawed practice of the Sati ritual, which basically involves the wife (or wives - all of them) setting themselves on fire at their husband's funeral pyre. Apparently life as a widow was a very terrible one that involves being ostracized by general society and waiting for death. Going the Sati route at least offered promise of a beautiful rebirth.

From there, we visited a small Jain temple just across the street. For those that don't remember, Jainism is a very old religion that stresses non-violence to all creatures, and spends all of its money building beautiful temples for worship. It was still being added to even though various parts of the structure already appeared quite old. Many statue/temple fragments (mainly statues) from what appeared to be other ruins were mounted in the outer wall surrounding the Jain temple complex. I must confess that I was a little taken aback when I saw our volunteer tour guide within the premises (who had terrible English skills and wanted to practice with us) swat down a spider (!!!???!!!). The good news is that the spider was still alive after it hit the temple floor. I asked a few minutes later i he was Jain, and he said that he was, so I guess he must be a special sort of Jain.

Afterward, we proceeded to a store that sold Kashmiri shawls, carpets, and other assorted handicrafts. This place had quite a bit of very interesting merchandise…over the course of the time that we spent there, we purchased gifts for my grandmother, grandfather, mother, father and Xiao Ma – Melanie got some nice things for her family as well as herself. We also picked up a nice enamel frame, some cool papier-mâché boxes, and a nice box to store our wedding notes from our guests. After spending 3 hours there, I also made a friend of Ram (our salesperson), who ended up hugging me as we were leaving. I assume this is normal, and that I am not now somehow married to an Udaipuri.

After shopping, we went over to the City Palace to buy our tickets for the boat tour at 5pm. It was only 4pm, so we figured we had enough time to grab a quick late-lunch/early-dinner at a local restaurant called “Honey Dew.” This was a purely “veg” meal and was rather good, but a little on the slow side. Because of this, we ended up being several minutes late (we had mistakenly thought we could catch the 5:30pm boat) and missing our boat altogether.

Fortunately, there were still some boats running, albeit only for tour groups with prior arrangements. After looking sad (which we really were), acting pathetic and asking for help from the attendant, he took pity upon us and approached a tour group about letting us take a couple seats on their chartered boat. There was a very nice French-Canadian guide taking his tour group from Quebec all around India, and he cheerfully welcomed us to join his tour (but only for the boat tour).

It was thus that we had a very nice boat tour of Lake Pichola (the main lake of the seven in Udaipur). It was very peaceful, and we saw one of the most spectacular sunsets I have witnessed in years. Just the way that the sun turned both the clouds and lake surface into an impressionist tableau in that mysterious time between when the shadows all disappear and when the darkness comes.

For what it is worth, I know I'm not terribly poetic, but it really was a singularly amazing experience.

We also saw a ton of monkeys just after we stepped off the boat– nothing terribly earth shaking, but still pretty darn cool. We couldn't take very good pictures of them since it was already a little too dark, but these pictures show the best that we were able to manage.

The monkey is the one on the left (I'm totally gonna get it now)

After that, we went to an art school to look at their “miniature painting” – apparently a specialty of Udaipur. They had some amazing works, although we eventually decided against buying anything due to the high prices. We ended up regretting this later, but that is a story for another day.

The good news was that we did get our luggage back from Jet Airways at the end of the night – nice work, Ashish!

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