Of all the regions in India, I chose Rajasthan as a top destination for us based on its rich and romantic history. The state that constitutes the country’s far west is brimming with rugged Mughal forts and refined Maharajas’ palaces. Here at the crossroads of India and the Middle East, countless battles were waged, won, and lost as Hindu warrior princes fought to preserve their land, their faith, and their privilege.
Our Rajasthani tour actually began in another state, Uttar Pradesh, home of one India’s most corrupt and just ousted politicians, and the famed Taj Mahal. Despite periodic bursts of cold, hard rain, our “sunrise” tour of the legendary mausoleum was more moving than we ever expected. The Taj is quite simply spectactular…in any light, in any weather, through any lens, from any direction. From pictures, we had always assumed it to be vast, imposing, and teeming with tourists, but it was none of these. Instead, it was small, intimate, and quiet. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still big by residential standards (though a few places in Buckhead and Bel Air could rival it) but much smaller than you might expect from a world wonder. Its magnificence stems from its delicate, inspired, and perfectly symmetrical design rather than its monumental stature. I am a huge fan of Andrea Palladio, a champion and pioneer of architectural symmetry, and once made a special trip to Vicenza, Italy to visit the Villa Rotunda, but the Taj eclipses anything I’ve seen to date.
In Uttar Pradesh, we also flashed through the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri before moving on to the southeast corner of Rajasthan. In Ranthambhore we fruitlessly searched for tigers before exploring the third vertex of the Golden Triangle, Japiur. Here we explored the Amber Fort, which is undergoing what in my opinion is an ill conceived restoration/renovation. The crumbling sandstone walls are being resurfaced with a fresh coat of mud that effectively buries fading grandeur under modern sterility. The kids enjoyed wandering through the mazelike corridors of the women’s (harem’s) quarters and as usual in Asia were the objects of much interest from the locals.
Even more engaging than the fort was Jantar Mantar, an 18th century observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh Ji II. We hired a guide who explained the fascinating form and function of all the structures—giant sundials, astrological markers, and classical global positioning devices.
From Jaipur we raced to Pushkar, a pit stop we could have done without. The town of only 18,000 is a tourist hotspot during the infamous Camel Fair in November, but the rest of the year is devoid of much activity other than wedding celebrations and locals trying to extract “donations” from foreigners for priestly blessings. After dinner in a dirty restaurant and a walk through some grotty, (one of my new favorite words) deserted streets, we were ready for Udaipur.
It seemed fitting that we would spend the nexus of Tom’s birthday and Valentine’s Day in Rajasthan’s most romantic city. Our hotel–The Tiger–was beautiful and just a stone’s throw from the captivating, sparkling waters of Lake Pichola and its picturesque floating palaces. Rich in amenities for foreigners, Udaipur is also the setting for the James Bond classic Octopussy, which each and every rooftop cafe airs nightly. Dax and Tom caught the ending while having a late night snack. They might have seen the whole thing had we not attended an impressive traditional dance program in which one woman balanced a dozen terra cotta pots on her head while stomping on a mound of broken glass, Of all the cities in India we’ve visited, we found Udaipur the most comfortable and could easily have spent a week or more soaking up its flavors and rhythms.
We took a spin on the lake, blazed through the City Palace grounds, paused for a moment to try to figure out why there’s schmutz in Tom’s fancy camera (still don’t have an answer on that one), and hit the road for a place no one had ever hear of–Jojowar. We had planned on hitting the Jain temples in Ranakpur along the way, but due to communication glitches between us and our primarily Hindi speaking driver and travel agent, we ended up missing it, which was sad but ok since Jojowar proved a fascinating diversion. We stayed in a remote, renovated palace still owned by the descendants of the region’s last raja, a noble who collected taxes from the local villagers to send back to the Maharaja in Jodhpur. After a wild walk through the small town in the evening and a “safari” in a jeep driven by the aristocratic proprietor, we were off again the next morning for Jodhpur.
The city of the Brahmins was beautiful when viewed from the palace above, but a little skanky from the ground. We enjoyed a fascinating audio tour of the building, ogled at the rows upon rows of blue houses, painted that color by their occupants to indicate their membership in Hinduism’s highest caste. After a restful night in a hotel that seemed frozen in 1957 (another royal family legacy), we motored on to Jaisalmer, the westernmost city in the state, a mere 50 kilometers from Pakistan and only 500 kilometers from Kabul.
We watched a spectacular sunset from a rooftop in the Jaisalmer
Fort, wandered some Jain temples, got our laundry done (finally) and caught our breath for about 10 seconds before racing out the Sam Sand Dunes where we thought we would board our camels for a 2-day safari. The result of yet another misunderstanding with our travel agent, we learned that the safari was actually a group of tents where we’d be staying for the next 48 hours. We’d get one camel ride and a free dinner. Oh no. The Andruses and even their companion Heather refused to get out of the car until our travel agent and the manager agreed to include three extended camel trips and all our meals. While negotiations went on, eight men stood at the ready vying for the right to remove our bags from the roof. Once Tom had gotten someone to sign a paper confirming the deal, we dropped our bags in our tents and headed out to the dunes on five camels. I’ll let one of the boys describe our camel days, which though not epic, will be a fond memory I’m sure.
A final 5 hour drive back to Jodhpur and we boarded a train for Mumbai from where we take a plane to Cochi in the southern state of Kerala.
The bottom line: This kind of travel is nuts. Though we see fantastic sights, it’s too much too fast and not very much fun as a result. We’ve vowed to never use a travel agent again (sorry Sister Workman, nothing personal) and leave making itinerary mistakes to ourselves. This one was all my fault. It’s just so hard to resist the urge to see it all.