Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Indian Village Life

Chhatra Sagar is a beautiful 'camp' near the small town of Nimaj. It consists of eleven luxury tents which sit on top of a dam overlooking a reservoir which looks like a lovely natural lake, with wild life galore. The lake was created in 1890 by a powerful noble of the desert kingdom of Marwar, making the area a beautiful green oasis in this dry land. This year, India has enjoyed a particularly good monsoon season, and so we are seeing Rajasthan at its very greenest and all bodies of water totally full.

The site was a favourite place for visiting dignitaries for whom temporary camps were set up. The great grandchildren of the nobleman who built the dam now run it as a permanent camp for tourists, with lovely tented rooms. Raj, was a cousin whose family was from Udaipur, and he was our gracious, rather shy, host during our visit.

We took a tour through the family's farm and learned a lot from Raj about the crops and habits of farmers. The hotel here pays people in the village to show their various trades as we take a tour; they contribute to the village in return for the villagers allowing copious pictures (taking pictures here is sometimes chargeable) and not petitioning the visitors for money or gifts. It meant that we saw some real people doing real things, without the begging associated with India.

The fields here grow three crops a year. We saw many different crops in the irrigated fields - millet, henna, anise, sesame. In Shahpura we had seen a large lake that had filled during monsoon. Within a couple of months, that lake would have dried out, and the farmers would grow wheat in that area.

For small farmers who can't justify owning or renting a harvesting machine, millet is laid out on the road, and cars passing over it do the hard work of separating the grain from the stalks.

Fences made of stone separate the fields. Stone quarries are common and we saw many companies cutting the stone for building material and for making fences, especially as we got close to Udaipur.

The fields seem to be worked mostly by women in their colourful dresses and shawls. When Wayne remarked to Raj that he saw a lot of men sitting around relaxing but no women relaxing, Raj laughingly pointed out that the men did the hard work - supervising the women.

We saw a mix of farming methods from hand farming with wooden tools, bullocks pulling a plough, to some small harvesting machines. Medium-sized farmers will rent these harvesters from the bigger farmers. Interestingly, many of these harvesters were Massey Ferguson, even some quite new ones. We had not realized this old Canadian company was still manufacturing.

We saw many women walking with water containers, having collected water from a lake or pond or the village pump. Electricity was much more common than running water. Some pretty modest homes boasted TVs, or even the odd dish. There were lots of motorcycles, and of course ubiquitous mobiles.

We also visited the village itself, with a chance to see right into the homes that did not have walls on the street side. The homes were certainly modest, but not as modest as one might have expected. The most interesting part of the home was the power outlet, mostly dedicated to powering electronics - cell phones deemed more important even than light. I loved the contrast of the clothes line of bright Indian fabric packets, containing cell phones.

Here are some other views of the homes:

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Nagaur is a small city, by Indian standards, of just under 100,000. Dominating the town is the huge fort, with 1.5 kms of walls enclosing 36 acres of land, accounting for half the area of the city. Inside the fort is an enormous palace area, controlled (still today) by the Maharajah of Jodhpur. 12 havelis occupied by 12 queens comprise part of the fort, and these have been restored and made into hotel rooms; we stayed in one of these rooms and had a lovely terrace looking out over the fort. 

Many of the forts and palaces we've seen have been Mughal and reflected Islamic architecture and painting; this fort is completely Hindu.  But what was most interesting was to have a peek into a historical site in the process of reparation. Because the Maharajah who owned the fort was in Jodhpur, this vast area lay unoccupied for hundreds of year, until the Indian army was stationed here during 60s. The fort took a real beating during their visit, and this has made the job of restoration even bigger.  There was a small museum area within the fort, describing the efforts at restoration, which was particularly handy because of our guide's weakness in English. 

Many rooms and their beautiful paintings have been restored, for example the room shown below.

There are many rooms made of plaster based on crushed sea shells, which resembles marble, some with beautiful original paintings. Pillars are lined up to give symmetrical vistas whichever way you look. There is beautiful painting and other decoration on the walls.  But what blew my mind was the ingenuity of the cooling mechanisms for the middle of a desert.    One kilometer of clay pipe or troughs circulated water throughout the palace and delivered it to countless internal fountains and pools.

The areas of the fort were positioned to maximize air flow during the summer months for natural cooling.  On the roof was a square structure cunningly designed to catch and funnel the wind, from whichever direction it was blowing, down a vent and into the rooms below:

 The roof had rainwater catchment with pipes that directed the water into giant pools - Olympic sized for sure. There were separate pools in restricted areas where the women would bathe. 

For the baths, there were separate hot and cold water cisterns, and you could see the holes in the wall of the bath where the equivalent of faucets must have been (shown in picture) so you could mix the bath water to your taste in temperature.

Water pressure delivered water from cisterns on the roof (shown in picture) to power all the fountains, with oxen working to pump the water up. I couldn't help thinking how much I would have loved living here, but also how much water-starved peasants must have hated the whole idea of all that water being used for bathing, while they struggled for enough for sustinence and agriculture.

Our driver Harnam taught us the expression ABC (Another Bloody Castle) which can be applied to some trips to India.  With the natural cooling and the many pools and baths spread around, and the ecological soundness of this fort, it was far from an ABC.  Nagaur would qualify as an eco-resort in modern times. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Indian Cricket

India is a nation of cricket fanatics. The wound is still raw from India's shellacking at Britain's hand losing all five matches in their recent tour of England. The Indians have won the first three matches of the British tour in India. As we arrived back at our hotel in Mumbai today, the team was just boarding their bus to go out and face England in the fourth of five matches. Opposite us on the square in front of India Gate, there were throngs of excited fans, cheering and waving each time another player came out to the bus. There were three army men with machine guns pointing out from an armored vehicle protecting the illustrious group. (this was the Taj hotel where the attack and siege took place some years ago.). Our Indian friends tell us that India won't be satisfied with anything less than a five-game whitewash to redeem their pride.

We also saw cricket at the local level today at the Oval Maiden. The pictures you see were taken from the walkway midway of the field, which must have measured at least four football fields in length. There were myriad games going on, of varying degrees of formality, some teams with uniforms, some not, some all in white with an official referee. 

But here's the kicker: the pitches the games were being played on were all overlapping. The fielders from one game might be standing behind the wicket of a game two or threes over from their own game. Deliciously Indian. Just like road traffic. Thank goodness they were playing with a tennis ball, because a regular hard cricket ball could have been perilous, since a ball could arrive from one of many games.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The Lake Palace Hotel, Udaipur
Udaipur - a dream city built around a number of artificial lakes, with a dream hotel, the Lake Palace seemingly 'floating' in the middle of Lake Pichola (it's actually built on an island.) We were greeted (and security checked) on shore and handed to a canopied craft to take us to the hotel. There we were greeted by a distinguished man with a luxurious moustache to escort us to the hotel under a highly decorated Indian umbrella.
As we walked to the front door, I was showered with sweetly-swelling rose petals. This happened at the Rambaugh Palace in Jaipur, another Taj hotel, so perhaps this is standard for their properties. Despite its staginess, I loved it; I laughingly protested once when leaving that I hadn't got the full treatment on the way out, and the imposing gentlemen rushed to my side with the umbrella ever afterward.

Lake Pichola was full, due to this year's spectacularly good monsoon. As little as two years ago, due to several years of bad monsoons, the lake was completely empty. It would have been a crashing disappointment to arrive at this fabled locale to find the lake not there. Our room had a lovely oriel window, with comfortable cushions - I called it 'my' window although we did fit in two people at times - which overhung the lake and was a beguiling place to loll in comfort gazing over the lake at the main palace.

Udaipur Palace
The Maharanas of Udaipur built several beautiful palaces here. Their main palace is the second biggest palace in India. Part of it is now a museum, part a hotel and the newest part is the residence of the current Maharana. Its massive presence dominated the shoreline view from the hotel. I have included some pictures of pretty parts of the palace.

The Lake Palace was once the Summer Palace. Though just a couple of minutes boat ride from the shore, it picked up cooler winds in the summer heat. And at the crest of a nearby hill, we could see the Monsoon Palace, more comfortable during the rainy season, pictured at left.

On our boat trip around the lake, we made a stop to tour the so-called Party Palace, the scene of special receptions and parties in the old days. The current Maharana is a consummate businessman and now runs this as a hotel, and also rents it out for parties and weddings. Apparently Bollywood stars like to fly in for special occasions here.

As the room key is put in the slot on arrival (like European hotels, indian hotels sensibly turn off the power when you're out of the room and putting the key into the slot signifies you're 'home'), the TV automatically starts running a video and the sonorous voice of a stately man with a full beard and mustache greets you. It is the current Maharana welcoming you and describing his hotels under Taj management along with a bit about their history and background.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A new definition of service

The service in India has been over the top. Our guides have told us that Indians are taught to render utmost respect to parents, teachers and guests. 'Guests are golden', as he says. At the Rambaugh Palace in Jaipur, they said they wanted us to feel like a Maharajah and Maharanee - after all, we were staying in the palace of a Maharajah.

At every hotel on arrival a bevy of hotel staff will gather, to present flowers, to offer cold drinks and cold cloths, and to mark our foreheads with an auspicious mark. At the Rambaugh Palace, an impressive gentleman with a vast flowing mustache escorted me from the car with an ornate ( antique?) umbrella to the stairs; as I walked up the stairs, a lovely lady in a sari was throwing beautifully scented rose petals over my head.

 Flowers are a constant theme. Every lobby will have flowers, or elaborately arranged flower petals, floating on water in shallow bowls, often with lit candles at night. At the Rambaugh Palace one afternoon, I heard music and went outside to see a band playing, trumpets and drums, a man dancing with a horse body hanging from him(in bare feet on black pavement) and a line- up of hotel staff in the driveway to greet a woman arriving in the hotel's antique car. I couldn't determine if she was a celebrity, or had maybe just booked a more majestic room. One evening, there was a performance on the patio.

Everyone has a constant eye on you, to see if there is anything they can do to help. At breakfast one day, I gazed yearningly at the Cambazola on the cheese board. One of the hovering waiters offered to cut a slice but I explained I didn't dare eat cheese (lactose intolerance) just before going out touring. Lo and behold, when we returned, there was the Cambozola, crackers and dates in the room. My iPad charger gave out in Jaipur and the hotel lent me a charger. As we were leaving at nine there were no stores open to buy a new one, since the stores open at 11. The upshot was I left with their charger which they would replace later. Good problem solving. The woman who did this had a delightful personality and was one of the most attractive women I have ever seen. After a quick photo, I whisked my husband away from her !!!

At an Indian hotel, You don't walk up to a desk to check in. Oh no, you are escorted to a nice seating area to fill in the registration form. (In one hotel, we even filled in registration form in our room). And, of course, someone escorts you to your room. This was true even in the fairly modest hotel we stayed in at Varanasi, so it's not just limited to the outrageously gorgeous hotels that have been the norm.

A buffet is not self-serve in India, at least not in the hotels we are staying in. After your plate is loaded, someone will rush to your side to carry it to the table. Items are also passed while you are sitting.

When you say thank you for these services, or for the driver always opening the door for you, the response is "It is my duty". Our van is stocked with cold drinks and snacks; when passing drinks to us, they are always presented on a small silver tray, as with other things in the hotels.

I have high hopes that my husband is taking careful notes about this assiduous service. Of course, he is probably hoping I am the one taking notes!

Jaipur Fort

Our visit to the Jaipur Fort was amazing. There are 12 kms. of walls leading from the hilltop fort - if you didn't know where you were, you might think you were looking at the Great Wall of China. Brightly decorated elephants deliver tourists to the top of the hill. The fort is enormous,making for a very impressive view from the highway below. Once inside, there is a magnificent palace enclosed within the walls.

What impressed me most was the Hall of Mirrors, full of intricate patterns, all involving mirrors. In another courtyard there were beautifully decorated doors, one for each season. There was a lovely formal garden sitting in the watery moat, designed to look like a Persian carpet floating on the water. Very good illusion. The palace had its own sort of air conditioning, generated by the flow of water, and the palace was positioned on the hill, to maximize its access to breezes. Truly lovely.

Government doing some good in India

Everyone here constantly complains about the government and its corruption. To me, it seems as if they are doing some good things despite the complaints.

School support and rules:
Scool used to be mandatory to Grade Five and now it is mandatory to Grade Eight. Moreover, all kids in school get a free meal at lunch, which is important to some. There are also some 'incentives' for parents. Pretty well everyone we talk to seems to support these initiatives.

Government school kids all wear sky blue uniforms and we see them all over the place. We visited a village school with our gentle and quiet-spoken host Raj near our tented resort in Nimaj. The day started with a school assembly where the kids chanted to the goddess of learning, whereafter the kids went to their classrooms. They sat at long desks in dim classrooms. The teachers were all men and there were some posters and maps around the sparse classroom. In the principal's office, there were three Acer computers under covers and a paltry collection of books. For what it's worth, all the kids we see going to and fro to school seem very happy. Like everybody else here they smile at us a lot, and wave and shout.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the cost for university is fairly accessible at $50-100 according to our guide in Varanasi. However business education is more expensive, as explained by Harnam our driver, who says the fees for his daughter in undergrad business administration are $500 and will go to $1000 when she continues to her MBA.

Government work in rural areas:
One member of each family is given 100 days of government work a year. According to our driver, this has been transformative for the villagers, lifting them out of poverty. When we toured the village near Shahpura, the houses looked very poor; however, when you peeked inside the courtyard, things looked a lot more prosperous. Our guide had talked with these villagers and they told him that their annual income was about $4,000 dollars. As he put it, this is 'saving income'; i.e. since you grow your own food and barter a few things with other villagers, you have more money than you need for subsistence. One can see that many people spend this disposable income on a motorcycle!
On the other hand, our guide in Chhatra Sagar, from a much richer class, complained that the work was all make-work and not much to India's benefit in the end.

Land Ownership
Land ownership in India is restricted to 18 hectares. So explained Sat Sungh, the Rajah owner of our hotel in Shahpura. On the other hand Harman told us that this guy owned 850 hectares. Hmm. It seems that this rule is an 'Indian rule' (rather like the rule that you have to wear a helmet on a motorcycle in some places - yeah, right). Apparently you can set up a co-operative of family members to own land, because a co-operative can own unlimited amounts of land. Sat had lamented to us that he'd spent a day of looking through dusty old land records, to make sure everything was in order for when his only daughter came to inherit. Methinks he might be searching for ways to dipsy-doodle around that rule for another generation.

Havelis to Hotels
As well as restricting land ownership, the government has put pressure on the rich property owners to repair crumbling palaces and haveli (mansions) and turn them into historic hotels. They have also encouraged this by providing significant loans to support the work. This has saved many gorgeous buildings from disintegration - not to mention providing a pretty cool tourist experience for us!

Affirmative Action
And lastly, there have been efforts to support upward mobility by the lower castes through affirmative action with regards to entrance marks for various university programs and professions. Controversial just as it is at home.
However, in discussions here, it's not long before a reference to caste appears. Despite assurances that the caste system is dying out (and it probably is, though slowly), on my brief brush with Indian culture, I suspect affirmative action would be required to break the spiral of caste lock-in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jaipur Market

In the previous post I described the wonderful service we've received from our tour company and the hotels. Granted, this is an impression formed about people who are being paid to serve us. But people everywhere have been unfailingly pleasant.

I accidentally intruded on a photo a man was taking of his wife. I apologized but was invited to become officially part of the photo.

We took a fascinating walk through the Jaipur market yesterday, but not the part catering to tourists, but rather the part where residents shop, with plastic chairs, rope, mattresses, kids clothes, all sorts of shampoo in single serving envelopes, lots of spices, and wonderful fruit and vegetable stands. Everyone smiled at us a lot, well knowing we were not potential customers. My husband struck up several conversations with shopkeepers and everyone was delighted to have a chat with these foreigners.

People just seem to be pleasant here.

I've included some photos here of the market. Note the colourful vegetable stands and the bright drums and the hanging rows of 'single serving' shampoo and other products. (I remember reading in business publications what a breakthrough it was when western companies finally 'got it' that these sizes were the only ones affordable to Indian masses). Doesn't that computer shop do just everything? One thing that really got me was the advertisement for electronic stock trading in the ATM kiosk tucked into the traditional marketplace.

A Son of the Circus

John Irving's books can be full of wildly eccentric characters, and A Son of the Circus is no exception.  The book pivots around Bombay-born Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon who practices at Sick Kids in Toronto.  A secret screenwriter for the infamous Indian Inspector Dhar films, he retains an apartment in Bombay and returns there periodically to work at the Crippled Children Hospital and to further his research to find the gene responsible for anachondroid dwarfism by testing the blood of dwarfs at the circus.  Inspector Dhar is played by John D., who was adopted by the Daruwalla family when his vapid mother, who had come to India to make a movie, gave birth to twins and only wanted one.  And this is just a taste of the  bizarre cast of characters:  the eccentric but lovable Daruwalla, the inscrutable John D.,  the ambitious dwarf Vinod who owns a limo service, the religious zealot Martin Mills who is John D's twin brother separated at birth, the ambiguous and sinister Rahul/Mrs. Dogar, the crippled boy and young prostitute headed toward the circus and a better life, and the angst-riven American hippie.  It makes one breathless just to lay out some of the characters in this book.  All of them struggle with where they belong and who they are, whether it's the feelings of the immigrant who never feels at home anywhere, the sexual ambivalence of several characters, the quest for religious faith.

Against this backdrop, the dogged Inspector Patel is working to solve a case of serial murders, with the help of this hodge-podge of characters.  The plot flies all over the place with total abandon.  The murderer is clear from the beginning, and the test is in catching the culprit with enough evidence to convict.

An indication of the quirkiness of the plot is the following line:  "Dr. Daruwalla's awareness that the source of his conversion to Christianity was the love bite of a transsexual serial killer had further diminished the doctor's already declining religious zeal".  Now strain to think of the plot development that led to that line occurring in the latter stages of the book!

I found this book quite interesting, because it takes place in India, and I'm traveling in India.  When our guide pointed out that the well-dressed beggar banging on our window at a red light was in fact a eunuch, I was immediately able to identify the person as a hijra, whose male sexual organs had been brutally removed (you don't want to know the details).  Whether I would find this interesting if it weren't for this connection, I'm not really sure.

The Raj Mandir

I felt I couldn't spend five weeks in India without experiencing Bollywood in true Indian style. So I went to see the new movie Rascal in the Raj Mandir theatre in Jaipur, along with 1100 excited Indians filling every seat in the enormous theatre. It has a very impressive sign on the front and a grand foyer.

We had only scheduled about an hour for me, expecting that I would not endure more than that of a film in Hindi. In the event, I would have loved to stay for the entire three hour run time.

The film was easy to follow even when you couldn't understand the words. A thief and his girlfriend have come into a briefcase of money. The man goes to a sports bar to watch a soccer match, and ill-advisedly tells someone about his money. This 'friend' is a thief and makes off with the briefcase. Despite the first thief's heroics, he loses the money and is roundly berated by his mother; the macho guy is reduced to slumped-shoulder humility before this raging harridan.

Alas, the second thief spends the money on a Rolex, and a hedonistic holiday in Bangkok, only to be relieved of his watch, money, and reservations by yet another thief, the leader of The Art of Giving charity. I think you get the picture, an easy and hilarious plot to follow. Only I didn't get to see the end, having left just before the intermission.

There was a big Bollywood dance number with scantily clad beautiful woman dancing to a frantic beat and fawning over thief number three quite lasciviously. The jokes were broad and somewhat slapstick. At times, bubbles would apear as overlays over the characters' heads with text in them, whose purpose I could not discern. The production was extravagant and as far from subtle as one could get.

The exuberant audience was totally into it. As the stars of the film appeared they cheered and whistled, and laughed heartily at all the funny parts. It was such a thrill to be part of this crowd.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Indian religious festivals

We have already been here for two festivals.

While in Varanasi, the festival of Durga was taking place. That's why our tour company didn't put us in one of the fancy hotels we've been staying in as they were all booked. (Lucky break for us, because none of them were right on a ghat). We saw many carts with statues of Durga, the goddess who embodies creative feminine force, in glittering dress being pulled along the streets by man, beast and motors. There was much chanting and loud music drifting in the air that we could hear day and night from our hotels.

We went to see the celebrations on the final night of Dussehra in Jaipur. We gathered in a large open area with hundreds of Indian families out for a fun evening. There were extravagantly lit effigies of Ravanna and his brother at the front of the park, and people selling souvenirs for kids and huge poppadams from baskets on their head. The day celebrates the triumph of good over evil, as Rama kills the ten-headed Ravanna with the help of the monkey god Hanuman. There were many beautiful fireworks set off and then finally the lights went out on the effigies and a blazing arrow set fire to the effigies for the grand finale. It was a great evening and we can now go forward feeling that we have been cleansed of evil.