India, Part I

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City Palace, Udaipur

Though I’m only four countries in, India tops the list so far in my ranking, but I’m finding it enormously difficult to write about. In so many ways, it’s probably exactly what you imagine; very colorful dress, chaotic cityscapes, beautiful countryside, vibrant culture, very spicy food. But there’s something going on beneath the surface that I can’t put my finger and that a laundry list of cliche characteristics obviously doesn’t capture.

India, like every country, has a lot of problems, but there is a tangible sense of optimism here. Proudly members of the world’s largest democracy, Indians have to deal with all the clunky bureaucracy that comes with living in a free and open society, and it means progress is slow and circuitous, and there are a lot of missteps along the way. But while China, for example, seems to be dragging its population into modernity at whatever cost, the people of India are lifting their own country up in the world, maybe not particularly quickly or smoothly, but this is a country with the goal of making progress for the benefit of its people as much as anything else. We owe a hell of a lot to the Chinese, and there are many wonderful things about China, but it’s hard to ignore the way the government treats progress as something to achieve in itself, not as a means of creating a better country for its people.

Anyway, India is a country with a long and detailed history, and every building has 5,000 words worth of description that I am not terribly qualified to give, and would not be particularly interesting to read. As such, I’ll try to give a little background, but this post will mainly be a lot of pictures because I think this is a place where a decent photo will serve far more interesting and instructive than my paraphrasing of my guide, with an assist from Wikipedia.

Delhi

Humayun's Tomb claims to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. As does every tomb in north India
Humayun’s Tomb claims to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. As does every tomb in northern India

Delhi is a good way to see India through a slightly softened lens. As the political center of the country and one of its most modern cities, Delhi can feel fairly blasé particularly in New Delhi, the upscale part of town with many embassies and diplomatic homes.

Old Delhi is, obviously, the more historic part of the city, founded in the 17th century. As the Indian capital was moved around the country, and following the British colonization of India, Delhi has been built and rebuilt a number of times over the centuries, and you can haphazardly trace the progression of Indian history as you move around the city. Old Delhi is a tangled web of barely organized chaos. Cars slowly ease their way through the masses of people on cramped streets, with hundreds of power lines dangling overhead with the many illegal cables people use to siphon off power for free. A Hindu funeral slowly moved its way through the crowded market on a Sunday morning while everyone went about their business scurrying around the procession.

Delhi power lines
Delhi power lines

Delhi is an important epicenter of Indian history and you’ll find thousand-year old structures in the middle of all the present-day chaos. Throughout northern India, the general design aesthetic merges elements of Hindu design, which is very ornate and creatively constructed, with Muslim design, which is strictly symmetrical and employs a lot of geometric elements.

Though Muslims are and always have been a minority in India, they have exerted an enormous amount of control in every aspect of the country, from governance to architecture. The Mughal empire, which ruled large portions of India from 1526 to 1857 and is responsible for many of the country’s historic structures, was governed by Muslims. The Jama Masjid mosque dates back to the 1640’s and sits smack in the middle of the old city. Muslims account for 14 percent of the population in India, and while that amounts to a lot of people in a country of 1.25 billion, it’s still quite the display from a group that is heavily in the minority.

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Mosque courtyard. The whole place can accommodate 25,000 people at full capacity.

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Moving on, the Red Fort is the historical nexus of Delhi, serving as the home of Mughal kings for several years and as the official site on which India’s first prime minister declared independence in 1947. The Mughals were not ones to skimp when it came to their royal apartments. The enormous complex of buildings inside the red sandstone walls, built by the same king responsible for the Taj Mahal, once housed the emperor, his many wives, and a huge staff to keep the place running when it was built in the 17th century.

A visit to the Red Fort will require some imagination; thousands of jewels inlaid in the marble walls have been stolen (some of which can now be found in the Crown Jewels collection in London) and the original curtains, carpets, and furniture are long gone. Thankfully, they’ve had the good sense not to clutter the place with a bunch of replicas, so even though you’ll most be looking at marble arches and stone filigree work, it’s surprisingly easy to imagine the fort’s former grandeur.

Lahori Gate
Lahori Gate
King's chambers
Emperor’s chambers
Passageway leading to the inner courtyard, now a great place to buy tchotchkes
Passageway leading to the inner courtyard, now a great place to buy tchotchkes
The queen's chambers. The pool at the bottom used to be a fountain inlaid with precious stones.
The queen’s chambers. The pool at the bottom used to be a fountain inlaid with precious stones.

Turn around and you’ll bump into yet another centuries-old site at the Qutb Complex. Commissioned by another Islamic king in the 13th century, but built by Hindu craftsmen, the walls of the former mosque and the minaret have Hindu markings (ornate carvings on pillars, depictions of figures, etc.) hidden inside what appears to be very traditional Muslim architecture.

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The Qutb Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world at 239 feet and has managed to withstand several powerful earthquakes with relatively little damage.

I don’t have much to say about Delhi beyond the major sights, unfortunately. It’s the best example of a modern city in northern India, but especially in comparison to some of the other places I visited, it doesn’t have much character. You’ll get a great sense of history in Delhi, and an idea of what India 10 years from now might look like, but it’s hard to access the part of the city where you can see and understand how most people in India live today. Delhi is trying to be both a historic center and a modernized city, and it’s only somewhat succeeding at either. Which is why you have to visit Udaipur.

Udaipur

Lake Palace Hotel, featured in one of the more tragically named James Bond's,
Lake Palace Hotel, featured in one of the more tragically named James Bond movies, “Octopussy”

Udaipur was featured in Octopussy 32 years ago and seems content to continue to cash in on that fame, but the city lives up to the hype. Most of Udaipur clusters around three man-made lakes, dammed in the 14th century. You can’t exactly call Udaipur unspoiled. Like most Indian cities, it’s pretty dirty, but little pollution and a relatively small population (598,000) means that you’re never cut off from the lakes and the city’s natural environs. From the royal palace overlooking Udaipur, the city spills out onto the surrounding hillsides, and because buildings come right up against the waterline, the whole place looks like it’s sinking (unlike Venice, it’s not).

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The royal family in Udaipur continues to live in part of the palace and serves a ceremonial role, which means something very different than in the U.K.; the prince was working as a barista at the cafe on the palace grounds the morning I visited. Again combining local and Islamic architectural elements, the City Palace was first built in 1559 and took more than 400 years to officially complete, serving as the capital of the Merwar dynasty in the meantime.

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The palace has all the usual features of a royal abode: enormous reception halls, the king’s bedchamber conveniently located next to the room reserved for dance performances, elaborate dining rooms, the works. There’s also a ridiculous collection of crystal items–light fixtures, flatware, a bed–commissioned in the 19th century by the royal family for an undisclosed price that, until recently, sat in storage because it was deemed to be bad luck.

The city center sits just outside the palace walls, and a stroll through the street markets in Udaipur lacks the crazy of some other cities in India, but is no less dynamic.

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Taken at the morning vegetable market in Udaipur

Udaipur served as the capital of the Mewar Kingdom (I can’t keep all this straight either) which existed simultaneously with the Mughal kingdom and mostly retained its independence from its creation in 743 until Indian independence in 1949. As a result, there are a lot of Hindu temples in the surrounding area, though most have been defaced and/or destroyed by Muslim raids at one point or another.

Eklingji has managed to avoid this undignified fate for the most part and its highly intricate carvings remain largely intact today, despite being more than 1,200 years old.

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If you’re familiar with Jainism, then you’re already one step ahead of me because this meant absolutely nothing to me when I arrived in India. The Jain religion is vaguely similar to Hinduism, as they also believe in reincarnation, the benefits of self-control, multiple deities, etc. Non-violence is the guiding principle in Jainism, which is on rare occasions taken to extremes. Ultra-devout Jains wear cloths over their mouths to avoid breathing in and killing bacteria, and will carry a broom with them to sweep the path they are walking on to avoid stepping on any insects.

Perhaps due to this intense pacifism, the Jains have been walked all over by the other religions in India and South Asia for a large part of their history and today make up only .4 percent of the Indian population. As one of the oldest religions in the country, however, they have some beautiful temples and the Ranakpur Temple, from the 15th century, outside Udaipur is fantastically well preserved.

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Like seemingly every city near a body of water, Udaipur is often compared to Venice, which is ridiculous, but it’s a beautiful place and a very peaceful, quiet city by Indian standards. This is the kind of place that I don’t think makes it onto many first timers’ itineraries, but is in my opinion a far better way to get a good sense of north Indian culture than by visiting Delhi.

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Jodhpur

View of the city from the Mehrangarh Fort
View of the city from the Mehrangarh Fort

Jodhpur is the India I came to see: amazing architecture, interesting history, streetscapes exploding with color, wildly decorated tuk-tuks, insane traffic jams, and all other varieties of craziness.
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The thing about cows in the streets in India is absolutely true, at least in the state of Rajasthan, and this kind of confuses me. Cows are sacred in Hindu culture and thus it is highly taboo to kill one, which is great, but the solution is to simply let them roam free. Of course, most people in India don’t have the land or the resources to take care of a cow, so I’m not suggesting anyone is at fault here, but the idea of letting your sacred animal wander through a traffic jam in the middle of a busy city seems odd to me.

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You’re probably read an article at some point about all the crazy, back alley places buyers from Saks and Neiman Marcus go to to find that amazing scarf or weird Faberge egg or whatever “exotic” thing that retails for four figures at your local department store. In Jodhpur, there is just such a place. You don’t have to be into shopping or fashion to appreciate the insanity of this system. The owner of Jain Textiles works on commission for companies like Hermes, DKNY, and Moschino, and whatever overstock he makes for their collections, he sells for jaw-droppingly cheap prices. An Hermes scarf that isn’t even available yet in the States, this guy sells for $150 (versus this. Look out for the ridiculous description).

I’m hardly some expert bargain hunter and/or someone with much fashion sense, but that’s crazy. This isn’t a very well-kept secret in Jodhpur, but the place is hardly crammed with tourists either, and it’s worth it just to meet the eccentric proprietor and see some of his antique pieces even if you have no interest in buying. The guy who runs the place would have no trouble fitting in with the beautiful people in New York, and it’s amazing to contrast this very cosmopolitan guy and the ultra high-end stuff he’s selling with the prices and his un-airconditioned a warehouse in a windowless building jammed into the middle of a street market.

View of the Mehrangarh Fort on the right and tombs at the nearby royal crematorium
View of the Mehrangarh Fort on the right and tombs at the nearby royal crematorium

You can’t miss the fort towering over Jodhpur on a nearby hill, constructed in 1460 and home to the royal family until roughly 70 years ago. During the 15th and 16th century, there seemed to have been an informal competition among the many rulers in Rajasthan, so basically every major city has this kind of fortification from about that time.

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View of the fort from the market in Jodhpur
Details from the interior
Details from the interior

This was the second fort/palace I’ve seen in India and even though they’re very similar in style, structure, etc., the intricacy of the design continues to amaze. The imposing exterior makes for a daunting sight from a distance, but it’s up close that the building really comes alive. Detailed filigree windows, brilliantly tiled ceilings and doorways, thousands of tiny shimmering mirrors, gold-leaf wallpaper, ornate window and door frames–basically everything an uppity design magazine would use to describe an Indian aesthetic, but the sumptuousness of the design and the details, even some 500 years after their construction, has endured.

As a comparison, here is where the royal family lives now.

The Rambagh Palace is also a hotel
The Umaid Bhawan Palace is also a hotel and was commissioned as a kind of jobs creation project during a famine in Jodhpur in the 1920’s.

Near the fort is the royal family crematorium, known as Jaswant Thada, an immaculately white building sitting atop a quiet lake with sweeping views of the city below. White marble structures with lots of intricate carvings are not exactly scarce in India, but all have felt distinct to me, as compared to Japan where I had trouble finding something noteworthy and unique in each and every temple. That’s not commentary on the quality of Japanese architecture, but Indian design is both grandiose and incredibly detailed. Whereas Japanese temples are best viewed from a distance to enjoy the clean lines and elegant simplicity, Jain and Hindu temples in India are great up close and from afar.IMG_0355 IMG_0292

Jodhpur is not a small place, a city of 1.3 million, but the surrounding area has largely resisted the push for urbanization. A Bishnoi village half an hour from the city center is still home to groups of local artisans as well as several nomadic populations and a few small farms. Bishnoism is a philosophy that uses 29 rules as the guiding principles, with the overriding theme being an intense devotion to self-sufficiency and a dedication to preserving and honoring nature.

This is not the absolute most untouched thing in the world (I think tourists come here occasionally), but it certainly felt authentic and no one is putting on a show. All these people really do this for a living and live on the property in small huts, some of which had electricity, but very few had running water.

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Unlike a normal potter’s wheel, this one is balanced on a stick in the center, so it spins slightly off center sometimes and you have to compensate as you’re doing it. He made the pot at the bottom of the frame in, like, 90 seconds.
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This guy is filtering opium tar and water to make what basically amounted to some lightly flavored water as the means of consumption.
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This woman is part of a famous weavers’ cooperative that makes rugs outside the city. Tons of celebrities have come here and their rugs were featured on the cover of Elle at one point, but their most loved guest seems to have been Richard Gere.
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Any one of these rugs took, at a minimum, several months to make (with two people working 10+ hour days) and they would just toss them in the dirt like it was nothing, allegedly because they’re that durable.

Jodhpur has so far been my favorite city in India. It doesn’t have the serenity of Udaipur, or the historical wow factor of a place like Agra (where the Taj Mahal is, which I’ll discuss in my next post), but it’s just a fun place. There’s a lot going on without lapsing into utter pandemonium, and the nicer, newer parts of the city haven’t completely steamrolled the older, more authentic bits.

Many thanks to my awesome guide, Goldie, who looks really thrilled about this picture being taken
Many thanks to my awesome guide, Goldie, who looks really thrilled about this picture being taken

This accounts for three of six cities I’ll be visiting in India. I’ll be posting again about the rest of my stay here in a few days before moving onto Bhutan.

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