A Month in India

Dec 8th, 2011, 02:16 PM
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Bhainsrorgarh – A Fort on a River of Glass

The drive from Bundi to our next destination, Fort Bhainsrorgarh was fairly uneventful (for India). By the way, the word “garh” on the end of that word is seen a lot in the Hindi language; it means “fort”, so we were headed for the Bhainsror Fort to be exact.

Our guide Bhanwar Singh stopped at a roadside fruit stand for some fresh guava that looked like a greenish-yellow apple but tasted like a cross between an apple and a pear. Bhanwar wanted to show us the fruits of the region, as we have never tasted guava. The pretty young Hindu guava vendor who was sitting yoga-style on her roadside table alongside her produce sprinkled a pinch of a mix of salt and cayenne pepper on some of my husband’s guava slices – man did that make the guava come to life!! Who could’a predicted guava as our new favorite fruit!

We also visited the Baroli Temples, an off-the-beaten-track site of 9th c. temples, similar to the ones at Khajuraho, but smaller with unusual carvings and elaborate altars. The complex also included some impressive Shiva “lingams,” which are sculptures of the male sex appendage engaged with the female organ; it celebrates the joy of sexual union.

Two pillars stand a couple of football fields away from one of the temples, and we were told that at certain times of the year (perhaps during the solstices?), sunlight travels though the two pillars and illuminates the temple altar. I am convinced that Hinduism is the last true remnant of paganism in the world. No one knows when Hinduism began, and unlike other religions, Hinduism has no known founder -- and nothing much seems to have changed over the centuries. As we were leaving, we each received a spot of yellow paste on our foreheads as a blessing (My husband just “loves” that glop on his forehead!).

Our Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel is the most romantic spot yet. This former Maharajah palace is perched at the end of a promontory on a cliff 200 ft. above the crocodile-infested Chambal River. Our host, Rajveer, is a member of the royal family who owns and operates this place. Our living quarters were huge with a bathroom as large as some of our recent hotel rooms.

And as soon as we were settled in, we had lunch on the roof under a stone gazebo. We really felt like royalty as we enjoyed the views of the river and watched the green parrots flitting around the colorful palace gardens.

Of course, no hotel is perfect. Every hotel that we stay at here in India seems to have at least one “lucky” gecko hanging out on the walls of our living quarters. Here at the Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel, we have two in the bedroom and one in our bathroom. One of these geckos is rather large, and looks like he could have been around for a while. He loves to hang on the wall right above our bed, picking off insects as they seek out the lamp over the headboard of our bed. These big green carnivorous critters are of course harmless to humans and do devour a great quantities of insect life; for that we are grateful and welcome their presence. However, I am still leery of them, and just hope this one doesn’t jump on my face while I’m sleeping.

Power outages daily are also an issue here – my husband counted 9 thru the evening and night, and those were just the ones he was awake for. But I am totally charmed by the elegance of this old palace and the wonderful service. For example, we were given our own table in a small private dining room at dinnertime. The walls held carved niches displaying old teapots and other household items -- also old photographs of former Maharajahs, each one showing the proud hunter standing in front of a dead tiger or antelope with gun in hand and foot on the poor critter (not quite so charming!).

We lost power again just as we finished our meal. Of course, my husband, the former “Boy Scout,” had his trusty flashlight handy, but the staff had already placed candles along the way back to our room. This is very sweet, but the “servant mentality” here in India makes us feel uncomfortable – and sorry for the staff. Even the owners refer to the men who work in their hotels as “boys!” We don’t think they are being mistreated or anything. They all seem to be good natured about it, and just deal with it as a job they are lucky to have.

“Serving” other people seems to be the prime directive. My husband secretly gets very unhappy when he’s not even allowed to pop the aluminum top on his beer or soda can here; the “boys” will bring an aluminum can over at dinner time, and they have it popped and poured into a glass before he can tell them “no, I want to do it myself!” Guess he will have to re-learn how to pull the aluminum tabs off when he returns to the states.

The next morning, my husband was feeling a bit under the weather, so I took the recommended boat ride on the river by myself. One of the staff led me down to the water’s edge where I met the two boatmen who would man the oars to propel the small wooden boat. I had a momentary thought that I must be out of my mind, but then I hopped in the boat and we were off.

For the next hour, I felt as if I was floating into an Impressionist painting. The lake perfectly reflected the palace and all the greenery along the shoreline – in fact, the reflections were so shimmery that I actually started to feel dizzy.

Crocodiles are supposed to inhabit these waters, and the boatmen did point out what they said was the head of a crocodile crossing to the other side of the river, but it was hard to see. I also saw monkeys swinging through the trees, and when we neared an island in the middle of the river, about 50 large vampire bats went wild, screeching and soaring around overhead. The boatmen returned me safe and sound, gladly accepted their tips, gave me a couple of “namastes” and disappeared back onto the river.

My husband was feeling better, so we decided to walk through the small village on our own. It was impossible to take a peaceful stroll because the town’s people acted as if two freaks from “albino city” had just rolled into town. Little kids flocked around my husband like he was the Pied Piper of Bhainsrorgarh!

We stopped by a small grocery store to pick up a couple items, and when we turned around, a crowd of over 30 town people had gathered behind us just to see what we were up to. Everyone was friendly enough, but it gets to be pretty draining when the whole town is gaping at you, and we were happy to escape back up the mountain to our isolated palace.

Now we want to give you some straight talk on cow manure. My husband proudly considers himself somewhat of an expert on this topic; since he grew up around a farm, he is no stranger to a cow patty. But even he has never seen cow dung raised to the peculiar reverence it receives here.

Raw cow manure is smeared on the front step surface of each country house for good luck. Maybe for more practical reasons, we think it might also give the home owner a place to wipe off his muddy shoes for more foot traction when entering the home; Bhanwar told us that it even keeps the mosquito population down. And a carefully swept cow dung kitchen floor is a real point of pride in a home.

Cow dung is even a source of artistic expression. Women create colorful patterns in their front yards. Initially, I thought these were sand paintings, but of course, as we found out, they are “dung designs.” We even observed cow excrement “fancifully” reshaped and decorated with little white flowers – pointed out proudly to us by a young man who acted as if he was showing us a sculpture by Rodin! We guess that since the cow is a highly sacred animal in India, any cow “byproduct” is considered sacred, too. Either that, or some here might have a little too much time on their hands.
Magster2005 is offline  
Dec 8th, 2011, 03:28 PM
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What a delight to read! Waiting for more.
Marija is online now  
Dec 8th, 2011, 07:01 PM
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Your report may be the very best and most informative I've read. Bravo! Keep it coming.
dgunbug is offline  
Dec 8th, 2011, 07:39 PM
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bookmarking. Thanks!
linawood is offline  
Dec 8th, 2011, 10:42 PM
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Maybe I won't drop Bundi off the list after all...
carobb is offline  
Dec 8th, 2011, 10:51 PM
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I was also curious about Jojawar for the same reasons as julies.

Narlai looks gorgeous and I haven't read a bad thing about it. We watched "The Darjeeling Limited" a few nights ago on tv and I recognised Narlai in the film. Like you julies, I'll probably stick with Jojawar as it fits better into my budget. I'm considering Dungarpur as a possible alternative to Narlai...

Magster I'm still really enjoying your report and can't wait to hear all about your experiences in Jodhpur...
carobb is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 06:13 AM
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carobb -- Bundi really is special -- see it if you can. We also had some of our best meals there. I especially liked Bundi Haveli - great food, service (we loved our waiter, Mac), and a wonderful view of the palace from their rooftop terrace.

I will have to take another look at "The Darjeeling Limited!" We watched it before we left, but I missed seeing Narlai.

Just one more thought regarding Narlai (and accomodations in general). In India, you can really mix it up in terms of your accomodations. Overall, we averaged less than $100/night, but we had a mix of the very cheap (as low as $35/night) and the expensive. So, instead of just looking at moderately-priced places (which I would normally do) you can go with the extremes.
Magster2005 is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 06:26 AM
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Udaipur – City of Romance

Touted as the most romantic city in India, Udaipur enjoys a marvelous location on the edge of a manmade lake (another Maharajah project) surrounded by the ancient Aravalli hills. With a sparkling white Lake Palace that “floats” in the middle of the lake (the James Bond movie, “Octopussy” was filmed here). Our hotel room was a stunner with a “jharokha,” a fancy, cushioned window seat jutting out over the water that I immediately fell in love with.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to tell you about a stop we made on the way to Udaipur at Chittorgarh Fort. The guidebooks call it the greatest fort in Rajasthan (Rajasthan is the largest province in India), even though it was sacked three times. Each time all the men died in battle, and the women self-immolated themselves “to avoid losing their purity,” making this place more tragic than great in our minds.

The fort included the ruins of the palace complex (sacked, according to our guide, by “the Arab fanatics”), an artificial lake where the royal ladies once swam (accessible by a private passageway), a temple with some more erotic sculpture, and an interesting 37 m. victory tower that is actually wider in the middle that at either end.

Plus, another floating palace where the beautiful Maharini Padmini (try saying that 5 times fast) once drove a Sultan crazy with desire for her love. This Sultan was obsessed by stories he had heard about her beauty, so finally Padmini agreed to let him have a glimpse of her reflection in a mirror, hoping that would satisfy him. However, the sight of her only inflamed him more, and the Sultan captured the fort and killed all the men. Of course, he never did get his hands on Padmimi -- she self-immolated herself too, along with the other women of the palace.

Our guide at Chittorgah was a lovely young Indian woman named Parvati, and we ate lunch at her family’s “haveli” (bed and breakfast) along with a French couple who were also touring the fort. The French couple was very friendly, and we were thrilled to practice speaking some of our “rusty” French with them. But the real story about this lunch is a tale we like to call “Parvati’s Meeta” (meeta is the Hindu word for sweets).

Lunch was a simple affair, but the real pleasure was the experience of being a guest in Parvati’s home. We met her little boy who was running around naked, wearing nothing other than a narrow leather cord tied around his waist (typical of little Indian boys). Remember the Jains – the extreme religious group that even gave up wearing clothes? When her little boy first appeared, Parvati said, “He’s like the Jains!”

Her son carried a box of “meeta” (sweets) – 2 cruller-like pastries and 2 candy rolls – and he was fingering the treats (and himself as little boys do). We just figured they were his box of goodies. Imagine our surprise when the exact same box of sweets appeared on our luncheon table for dessert. I looked over at the French couple (I couldn’t risk looking at my husband), but no one said a word. And NO ONE touched the “meeta!”

As lovely as it was, Udaipur was a difficult place for us because my husband was sick with the “Delhi belly,” and I was heartsick over some sad news from home. That’s the one thing about traveling – you really don’t want to get bad news when you are on the other side of the world. As a result, we took it easy with more down time than usual. However, we did take some prearranged tours beginning with the City Palace.

The City Palace is Rajasthan’s largest palace, built over time by 20 some Maharanas . The terms are confusing but here in Udaipur they prefer the title Maharana which means warrior king (supposedly even better than Maharajah). The palace was made up of colorful, sumptuous rooms (in typical Maharana fashion).

We even bumped into the current Maharana as we exited an elevator there in the palace! We didn’t recognize him but knew something was up because our guide looked like he was going to faint when he doubled over into a major bow. We saw an official portrait of the Maharana later, and verified that it was definitely him. The glory days of the Maharanas may be over, but these guys still get tremendous respect.

My favorite palace sights were the mosaic peacocks, each one made from 3,000 pieces of glass, and the Crystal Gallery. This gallery displayed the never-used crystal furniture purchased by a Maharani in 1877 from the renowned English cut glass manufacturer F & C Osler. The Maharani died before the stuff arrived, and it was never even removed from the packing boxes for 110 years.

What a decadent display this was (unfortunately no photography allowed) – sofas and chairs (all with crystal frames and deep red cushions), a foot stool that looked like a giant prism, and a bed with an amazing crystal headboard.

Another highlight of our stay was a cooking class at “The Spice Box.” Shakti, the owner and teacher, spoke decent English, had a good sense of humor, and did a remarkable job of instructing the class. This class was only partially hands-on, but each of us got to do some of the cooking. Shakti clearly explained each step, especially the preparation of the spices that required boiling the spices in oil and water until the water evaporated. Spices are the key to Indian cooking and superheating the spices enriches the flavor. Our only problem with Shakti was that he also operates a spice shop, and naturally, we all ended up buying a bunch of spices from him at the end of class.

One of the things we missed most in India was the ability to wander around. We are accustomed to walking 6-8 miles a day when we travel, and in India, we were lucky to get in 3 miles per day! So, we decided to take a walk through the backstreets of Udaipur.

Well, as lovely as Udaipur looks down by the lake, the rest of the city is typical India. Raw sewage was running through water channels in the backstreets, and several rats ran across our path. We walked only about 3 blocks, and that was enough of a walk for us!

I had my palm read by our guide, and I am still trying to figure out if it was worthwhile or just a hoax. Some of the comments were insightful, but others were just plain wrong. Like everything in India, nothing is clear.

On the last night of our stay in Udaipur, we ate our best meal of the trip at “Ambrai,” a wonderful restaurant on the far side of the lake where we had an incredible view of our hotel, the City Palace, and the “floating” Lake Palace. Unfortunately, my husband was still on the bland food diet, but I ate a fabulous meal of paneer (condensed cottage cheese cubes) served in three different sauces. We even drank a small bottle of Sula Sauvignon Blanc, the leading (and probably only) name in Indian wine.

A few notes on booze in India. As stated, there is only one wine brand name that we ever saw. That is a wine called “Sula”, which comes in both white and red but is quite expensive. And there is also just one beer in this country that we were able to uncover: “Kingfisher” beer. It’s a lager beer, and not bad at all, but no other options. This was a bit surprising to us since some research turned up the fact that India is the 3rd largest user of liquor in the world, right behind the United States and Russia. Guess they must go for the hard stuff!
Magster2005 is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 07:19 AM
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I am enjoying reading your report. I've been to northern India, but not to some of the places you visited, so I am really learning a lot about the places I missed. Thanks for posting.
shelleyk is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 07:26 AM
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"One of the things we missed most in India was the ability to wander around. We are accustomed to walking 6-8 miles a day when we travel, and in India, we were lucky to get in 3 miles per day!"

This is a recurrent refrain I keep hearing about India and its cities. And, this disappoints me, and is steering me much more in the direction of rural India and smaller towns (of course I suppose these are just as grubby), because we too are those who don't just scurry from site to site. We typically wander and enjoy the ambience. And, I've also read that a lot of time your walk can turn into a constant being pestered experience.

Great report! If you could detatch yourself from your husband's illness and your sadness, where would you rank Udaipur in terms of the other locales you visited?
julies is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 07:49 AM
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So sorry that your husband suffered from Delhi Belly while in India. I had such a bad case that I couldn't get out of bed for a week after returning home. Luckily I got it as we departed India (a parting gift!). I'm surprised that your husband was able to handle a cooking class while feeling so badly.

We walked around quite a bit throughout our travels in India, but certainly not the amount that we are accustomed to, which is similar to you. Our problem was the heat.

Your report is so informative and I am enjoying learning details that I did not know when we traveled to India.
dgunbug is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 07:55 AM
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I am loving the detail in your report, magster2005. You have incredible recall of details....did you keep notes as you travelled?
Loving your takes. You obviously enjoyed your trip to India.

A comment about wine in India. There was a TV segment on 20/20 type show about a year back. An Indian entrepreuner made his millions at a young age, sold the business in USA, and then was looking to do something with the rest of his life...and chose to become a winemaker...in India. Found out there were no wineries in India to buy...started learning the business in France at the lowest level. Eventually, researched soils in India, was told by experts not to "waste" his time and money...climate and soil was not right...went ahead anyway...and the result is Indian wine, for the first time ever. And supposedly,by many accounts, it's a decent wine.

RE:Chittorgarh story. My, how the ideas about sexual purity have changed over the years. And for the good!!

Story about cow dung....once it dries, it is actually self disinfectant. In fact, everything from a cow is usable, cows are clean animals. Is it any wonder that the cow became a revered animal...in India.(Leave it to the religious priests to make them sacred...over time). Cows give milk, bulls were/are used for agriculture, leather is used for shoes/purses, cow dung is fuel, beef for others etc.

Hinduism is a way of life...it is actually based on two epics...Mahabharata & Ramayana...which are stories of real life king Rama, and Krishna, and tell a tale about the great battle between good and evil. Later people started talking about them as divine, hence the religious aspect. These epics predate all other current religions...the story books are detailed (you'll like them LOL) and each set of epic books will fill all 4 sides of a good size room from top to bottom. However, because they are huge, lot of confusion exists today, because nobody has the time to study and understand even one of the volumes.
Now my take on all this...over time, priests have exploited the true teachings of these epics...ritualised the stories...call of money has reduced it to meaningless stuff (Isn't all religion about grab for money, and who can sell a story to the public under the guise of morality? Sorry, but I digress. Too cynical?). If you look closely, stories from the Mahabharata & Ramayana are found in almost every subsequent religious book. For example, end of the world is predicted in Hinduism and other religions. Hinduism actually divides life on Earth into 4 phases, and WE are in the 4th phase now. The end is NEAR...scary. No time is given, just phases.

Interesting that you picked up on the story about Brits trying to move Taj....they did give up on that...but did take all the jewels from the Taj..."Kohinoor" diamond is now part of Queen Elizabeth's crown. It used to be on the tomb of Shah Jehan at the Taj.

Keep it coming...awaiting next segment.
magical is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 07:57 AM
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I agree that the lack of walking opportunities is a turnoff. We're thinking about a trip to India in the fall (much shorter than both of yours), and are seeking walkable cities as well as rural places where we can go on short treks. Haven't begun serious research yet, but this report has been excellent for general ambiance, as well as a superlative snapshot of the day to day experience.

Looking forward to your Narlai report - we might want to stay at a place like that for several days.
crosscheck is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 11:15 AM
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Wow, I am loving all these comments!

julies -- Udaipur is lovely and definitely one of my favorite cities in India. I would say that it was the most beautiful city we visited. I was surprised to discover that I would also rank Jaipur high on the list -- I thought all the sights there were terrific.

dgunbug -- Luckily neither my husband nor I got violently sick (as I know you did), but I'm not sure that we are totally recovered even now 2 weeks later. We've been saying, "India keeps hanging on!"

magical -- My husband and I both keep journals that we write in every night. It's a habit we started years ago. We both enjoy doing it (helps us process what we saw that day), and it's our source for details later on.

I wonder if the wine entrepreneur you saw on 20/20 was the one who makes Sula? Here is a link to the histoy behind Sula wine: http://www.dreyfusashby.com/family.php?id=48

Thanks so much for your thoughts on Hinduism -- very interesting!

crosscheck -- As you will see when I post the Narlai report (coming up next), Narlai was a village that we really loved walking around. And I know there are trekking opportunities -- up to the top of the rock for one, and also out to the step well.
Magster2005 is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 12:44 PM
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The maker of Sula wine might have been the one on TV....he is described as the first winemaker in India...and seems to fit the description.
He has started a new industry in India.

When we were in Goa about 6 years back, staying at Taj Cottages, there was a welcome booth set up on the lawn for guests of Vijay Malia, owner of Kingfisher beer (and Kingfisher airline). He had booked half of the rooms at the hotel for his guests who had come to his birthday bash at his mansion next door to the hotel. Every morning at breakfast we heard stories about the birthday party...it was a 3 day bash...with performers like Lionel Richie and others performing. It was an interesting time...in addition to the weddings every night at the hotel.
magical is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 01:26 PM
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We were also surprised at how much we enjoyed Jaipur. Did you get to the Monkey Temple and step wells which are on the Agra road. They were both amazing.
dgunbug is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 01:34 PM
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dgunbug -- No we didn't get to either one. And I really wanted to go to the step well (you are talking about Abhaneri, right?). The step well architecture is so remarkable -- we loved the ones we saw in Bundi.
Magster2005 is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 01:37 PM
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I tried Sula wine several times and was not overly impressed with the whites. Can't speak for the reds. One night I had a choice of Kingfisher beer or a Sula white, and me the wine lover, opted for the beer. I guess that says something about it.

Udaipur was by far our favorite city also.
kmkrnn is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 01:38 PM
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""Kohinoor" diamond is now part of Queen Elizabeth's crown. It used to be on the tomb of Shah Jehan at the Taj."

The Mughal emperors having looted it in their turn from one of the native Hindu princes, who in turn had looted it...
thursdaysd is offline  
Dec 9th, 2011, 01:49 PM
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kmkrnn -- I did try both the red and the white Sula. I am more of a red wine drinker, but I actually preferred the white. Either wine was so expensive (especially for the quality) that, like you, we pretty much stuck with Kingfisher.
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