A Travellerspoint blog


Love Indian Style

Marriages, Musicals and Mausoleums In Jaipur and Agra

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India is a country that is rushing head-long into the 21st century, and there are definite conflicts between tradition and the modern world. This is perhaps visible nowhere more than in romance and marriage. November happens to be wedding season in India, as it is astrologically a very “auspicious” season of the year. Everywhere we went, almost every night we heard or saw weddings taking place.

And trust me, there is no way that you can miss an Indian wedding. In the West, we tie a few cans to the bumper of a car and paint “Just Married” on the back. In India, there is a procession through the streets with the bride riding behind the groom on the back of a white horse (or even an elephant if you can afford it, I suppose, as we saw several times in Delhi). They are both dressed in incredible finery, with ornate bejewelled headbands for her and a big turban for him, and they are preceded by a marching band and followed by a horse-drawn cart with a generator for the string lights carried by the merry-makers. It’s a huge, festive party, and I really wish I had some pictures to share, but I never had my camera along when we came upon one!

But we noticed one odd thing, and this comes back to the cultural differences: the bride was always a lot younger than the groom. In the case of one wedding procession we passed in Jodhpur, the groom was about 25, and the bride appeared to be maybe 15. The whole concept of getting married that young, and probably by the arrangement of your parents with the groom’s, just doesn’t jibe too well with the Western ideal of how romance and marriage work. And it also doesn’t automatically sit well with young Indians, either. Many are being influenced by the relationships they see in the movies, and “love marriages” are becoming much more common than they used to be.

From Jaisalmer, we traveled eastward to two larger Indian cities where we observed a lot about love in India, both historic and modern: first to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, and then to Agra, home to India’s greatest icon.

Jaipur is called the Pink City, and upon entering the old part of town, it’s not difficult to see why: everything, from the city gate...


...to the buildings of the back alleys...


...is painted a lovely warm terra cotta pink. Jaipur may not be the most peaceful or beautiful or dramatic city in India, but the color creates a nice unifying quality that is very attractive.

The city is best known for the famous Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds: an incredibly ornate and stunningly beautiful architectural confection attached to the Maharaja’s palace.

Interestingly, it’s almost just a façade: only one narrow room deep

The Hawa Mahal was built so the women of the Maharaja’s harem could remain secluded while watching the outside world go by. This custom, guarding the virtue of women by protecting them from outside eyes, is called purdah, and is still practiced to some degree today in more conservative segments of Indian society. The Hawa Mahal is fronted with windows filled with fine laticework that shielded the Maharaja’s wives and concubines from the attentions of those going about their business in the streets below.

A short way outside the city is the Amber Fort, one of the most graceful and stately in Rajasthan.

It’s a long climb to the gate

Like every Indian castle, the Amber Fort features two main areas: the public and private rooms where the Maharajas held court and lived, and the zenana, where the women resided. The rules of purdah ensured that only eunuchs served the ladies, and only the Maharaja himself could enter the zenana. This sounds incredibly restrictive and sexist, but it was all in the spirit of protecting the women. Or so we are told.

Today, however, the relationship of the sexes is influenced far less by courtly honor than by the silver screen. India is the world’s most voracious market for movies, and the Hindi film industry has come to be known by the nickname “Bollywood” (after Bombay, or Mumbai, where most are produced). You think the American movie industry is important in our culture? It’s got nothing on Bollywood. The day after the Mumbai terror attacks, the front page of Delhi’s English-language paper, the Hindustan Times, was covered with quotes from... Security officers? Politicians? Nope: Bollywood actors and directors. They’re huge -- looming larger in Indian culture than just about anyone other than Gandhi and the Hindu gods.

Bollywood films are really interesting. They are almost all romantic comedies of the “boy and girl (who are both stunningly gorgeous) meet, fall in love, are separated by some obstacle that they eventually overcome and get married in the end” variety that almost never comes out of Hollywood anymore. They are extremely clean, as India’s censors allow nothing more than chaste hand-holding and longing looks, even after the wedding. And most interestingly, they are almost all musicals, with syrupy balads, soaring duets, and big, flashy production numbers -- all of which may or may not have anything to do with the plot. A really terrific English-language example of Bollywood style is British/Indian director Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, an Indian adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that is well worth checking out.

In Jaipur, we decided to go to the historic Raj Mandir Cinema to catch the latest Bollywood offering.

Indian Art Deco at its best

I have no idea what the title means

The movie was a real treat, and seeing it surrounded by Indians who were all curious whether we followed it -- we didn’t understand a word but we didn’t really need to -- was a blast. Prem (Sonu Sood) and Chandni (Eesha Koppikhar) meet in a music competition, fall in love and sing to each other a lot, but can’t get married because her father dies and she has family responsibilities. Prem becomes a music star and Chandni opens a music school, and years later things finally work out for them. Not exactly profound, but good fun.

Interestingly, since the censors are so strict, it forces the directors to find other ways to build romantic tension since the characters can’t just jump in the sack. So they are much more creative; this movie had a really wonderful scene where Prem sings to Chandni as she sleeps on a train. There is a terrific moment when a gust of wind blows aside her sari, exposing her foot. Sonu Sood’s acting and the cinematography in that moment were amazing; I never knew that the sight of a toe could be so erotic. It was very effective!

From Jaipur, we headed to our final destination in India: the big, ugly industrial city of Agra, which just happens to be the home of quite possibly the most beautiful building in the world...


...the Taj Mahal. You’ve seen it in pictures, but pictures really don’t do it justice. And it does change colors throughout the day:

Brilliant white at midday

Dusty rose at sunset

Soft blue at dusk

The Taj Mahal is also the world’s greatest monument to love. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1631 as a tomb for his wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child -- now that’s devotion. Quite romantic. A fitting end to this examination of love and marriage, Indian style.

And to our time in India.

Posted by Bwinky 08:49 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (4)

The Swirling Sands of Time

Into The Desert to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

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My apologies to anyone who considers our last post a case of over-sharing. I thought it was a pretty humorous situation, even at the time it was happening. But now, back to our regular travel blog with its astute observations and pithy thoughts on India, rather than disgusting diarrhoeaic details...

There is no easy train connection between Udaipur and our next stop, Jodhpur. Rather than risk a public bus when we were still not at 100%, we decided to splurge on hiring a car and driver to make the six-hour trip. Let me tell you, the roads in India are a real experience. Some time in the future (probably when we are back and have a more reliable and speedy internet connection) there will be a post of photos of stuff we saw on the road to Jodhpur. And I mean, ON the road to Jodhpur. Driving in India is not for the faint of heart. Even being a passenger requires some guts -- or a blindfold and Valium.

Jodhpur is magnificent. Lying on the edge of western India’s Great Thar Desert, it seems torn from the pages of a history book. With the huge and imposing Meherangarh Fort guarding bright blue houses tumbling down a rocky red cliff, it is Rajasthan’s most dramatic city...

Jodhpur: you can almost hear the echoes of the Maharajas’ horns

...and also one of India’s noisiest and most chaotic. The tangle of narrow bazaars in the old city accommodates a ridiculous amount of autorickshaw, motorbike, bicycle, human, and bovine traffic, and the cramped alleyways reflect and even seem to magnify the incessant horns.

Watch your step -- “cow chocolate” everywhere

In search of a little quiet, we took a jeep ride out into the countryside with Deepak Choudri, a local guide. Deepak is from a region that is home to a sect called the Bishnoi, and he runs tours that raise money for economic and social development, and support local artisan cooperatives.

That’s a vintage 1959 U.S. Army Jeep that he’s restored

The Bishnoi are farmers and herders who traditionally live in grass-roofed mud huts and are very conservation-minded, protecting the endangered trees and antelope with their lives if necessary. We took a drive out among the villages.

Bishnoi village, now complete with solar electricity

Traditionally, Bishnoi women wear elaborate jewellery as a symbol of marriage

We stopped and had chai (sweet, milky Indian tea) with a local family Deepak knew. They spoke almost no English, but the teenage daughters, Sharda and Neema, had a great time getting Lynn all dolled up in local fashion -- Indians really seem to find fair skin fascinating.

Bishnoi fashion plates -- the latest in desert couture

From Jodhpur, we took an overnight train to the end of the line: the remote outpost of Jaisalmer (JYE-sahl-meer). Rising like a desert dream from the dusty Rajasthani landscape, Jaisalmer really feels like another world.

”Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore...”

Only 100km from the Pakistan border, Jaisalmer is ancient. Within its massive sandstone fortress, the oldest inhabited fort in the world, lie dozens of golden havelis (traditional merchant mansions built around courtyards).

Echoes of the silk road caravansarais of the past

As one might expect from its proximity to Pakistan (a fact you cannot forget due to the frequent roar of Indian Air Force jets on patrol), the city has a distinctly middle-eastern flavor. There is a definite frontier-town feel in the air; the streets are a little dustier, the saris a bit brighter, and the turbans a touch whiter than anywhere else. This feels like India’s wild, wild west.

Everything you need for outfitting your expedition over the dunes

However, Jaisalmer is anything but undiscovered; the whole fort seems to exist for three things: selling food and beds to tourists, selling jewellery and textiles to tourists, and especially, selling camel safaris to tourists.

The main square of the old city: autorickshaws, cows, and carpets

No one comes to Jaisalmer without going off on a camel safari (ranging from an afternoon to a week), and we were no exception. Choosing a local outfit called Ganesh Travels that is owned by its camel drivers, we joined a small group that drove out into the desert to meet up with our new humpy pals.

Sweet ride, dude -- tricked out with the cool nose spikes and all

You ain’t lived ‘til you’ve mounted a camel

I am here to tell you that riding a camel for two days is excruciating -- there are no stirrups, so it’s just you, your *ss, and the camel bumpin’ along the sands. My thigh muscles will never be the same. But it was great fun. Our drivers, Mr. Khan and Mr. Ramadan, were hystically funny. Both of them grew up in the area and have been camel drivers with Ganesh for years (“Camel College -- plenty knowledge!”). One camel in our group had serious need of some Tums, frequently letting loud and particularly sour farts...

“OH my GOD! Camel naughty -- make desert perfume!”

They had a rhyme for everything... “No chapati, no chai, no woman, no cry.” “No hurry, no worry, no chicken, no curry.” I have no clue what the point was, but they cracked us up, bantering as they sat around the fire making vegetable curry and chapatis (whole wheat unleavened bread).

Chapatis, fried over an open fire then finished in the ashes -- gritty goodness

The Great Thar Desert is desolate but not barren -- in fact, it is the most densely populated desert in the world. There are many villages inhabited by goat and sheep herders among the scrub brush and acacia trees. During the annual monsoon, the desert blooms and they grow wheat where only a few short months later it is just rocks.

Waning daylight in a Thar desert metropolis

We slept among sand dunes under a pile of blankets -- it gets really cold in the desert. But sunrise over the desert with a cup of hot chai brewed by a turbaned camel driver over an open fire is a pretty darn special morning.


Posted by Bwinky 00:14 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Toilet Traumas II: The Squatter Strikes Back

The Joys of Delhi Belly in Udaipur

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UPDATE: We were nowhere near Mumbai during the terrorist attacks. Please join us in prayers for the victims and their families.

They say that if you travel to India, it’s going to happen to you. Clinically known as “Traveler’s Diarrhoea” (I do prefer the British spelling; that extra ‘o’ makes the word look so much prettier), everyone on the road calls it simply “Delhi Belly.” No matter how careful you are, inspecting the seal on each bottle of water, carefully assessing the hygiene of every dining establishment, avoiding food that has been sitting out, and washing your hands religiously, it’s just a fact of life. Come to India, and you are almost certain, as travel host Anthony Bourdain so eloquently puts it, to spend some quality time on the “Thunder Bucket.”

Our adventure -- and trust me, this is a story worth hearing -- began at the Pushkar Camel Fair, where we inhaled prodigious amounts of dust and camel fur, both of which we are allergic to. Combined with the toxic goo still stuck in our lungs from breathing the air (and I use the term loosely) in Delhi, we both were feeling the beginnings of some pretty unpleasant respiratory issues as we settled into the evening train ride to Udaipur.

And then came the fatal error in judgement: dinner on the train. It was such simple food; dhal (lentil curry), rice, and chapatis (unleavened whole wheat bread). It looked so innocent. It didn’t even have any meat. Well, something was hiding in there, alive, lying in wait...

As I have discussed in several previous posts, on this trip we are frequently staying with local people that we have met through an online hospitality organization called Couchsurfing. In Udaipur, we were supposed to be staying for three nights with an Indian man named Raj and his family. We arrived late (about 10:30pm) and they welcomed us warmly: Raj and his wife, his two beautiful little girls, and his mother. A really nice family, typical Indian middle class. They have a very pleasant flat in a classic building in Udaipur’s old city. We sat together in the small living room talking for a while, and they brought us some palak paneer (fresh cheese in spinach sauce) to taste -- we think they probably had a whole dinner waiting for us and were disappointed we had already eaten. But we were very tired, so we said we would like to go to bed.

“Alright, no problem,” said Raj. “You and I will sleep in the room across the courtyard, and the women will sleep in the other room here.”

OK, interesting. Not a sleeping arrangement we had anticipated or ever encountered before, but then, this is India and as I said they are a very traditional Indian family. So, putting on our best game faces, we headed off to separate sides of the house to sleep. Interesting and unusual, but certainly nothing we couldn’t handle.

And then, about an hour later, it happened: the Gut Gurgglies. You know what I’m talking about; that ominous feeling of the flood gates at both ends of your stomach being thrown open, emptying its entire contents into the express lanes to the nearest exits. The harbinger of imminent and extreme digestive unpleasantness. “This is Mission Control, T-minus-five and counting...”

I was going to be sick, and I knew it. In someone else’s house.

I got up and went out to scout the bathroom situation. It was just off the courtyard; thankfully not attached to either bedroom area -- not that Raj was likely to hear any unpleasant sound effects considering the depth of his slumber. I opened the door; yep, as expected, it was a squatter. Well, not ideal, but I would make do. Toilet paper? Of course not; this is India, where only foreigners wipe instead of wash. But no problem; I had a roll in my backpack, which was still in the living room. I went to the door to the other part of the house, where the women were asleep.

Padlocked shut.

Apparently they really take protecting their women seriously in India. I did not take personal offense at this, since my own wife was in there as well, though I did pause to consider the implications if there were a fire. But I can’t say I was very pleased with the development. Beginning to feel an urgent situation arising, I went back to the bathroom that would be my personal chamber of horrors for the rest of the night, resigned to the unfamiliar and unpleasant task of washing after each round of fireworks.

Diarrhoea with cramps on a squat toilet is not a very amusing experience. Vomiting into one is worse. The old plumbing leaked water all over the floor, so I had to kind of straddle the puddle, crouching with my knees against the edge of the toilet platform, and get my face quite unpleasantly close to the squatter to avoid missing it. In retrospect I am sure I looked really funny. Say what you want about the squat toilet being more ergonomic for defecation, the western toilet is way better for vomiting.

About 6am, I heard movement (and an unlocking padlock) from the other side of the flat, and I went to find Lynn. She had spent the night attempting not to cough in the faces of the wife and daughter with whom she had shared the bed. One look at my face as I croaked, “Hotel...” and she understood that things had not gone well for me either.

We apologized profusely to Raj and his family for needing to leave and be sick in private. They were all very concerned for us and sorry to see us go. And we were sad to leave -- they were lovely people, and we would have enjoyed getting to know them better. But it’s really hard to be a good guest when you are dreadfully ill. So we caught a lift to a cheap guesthouse and spent the next four days recovering. And there are certainly worse places than Udaipur to be stuck in a hotel room, looking at the view out of your window.

India. It has a way of getting into your head, and your heart.

As well as your guts.

Posted by Bwinky 22:27 Archived in India Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (1)

Of Camels And Castles

Into Rajasthan: The Lakeside Cities of Pushkar and Udaipur

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Rajasthan is the India of dreams: Lying on the edge of the western sands along the Pakistani border, it is imposing fortress walls, swirls of bright-hued saris, and camel caravans into the desert. After two days, we were more than ready to leave Delhi, so we rode off into the domain of the Maharajas, taking an overnight train and morning bus to the lakeside Hindu pilgrimage city of Pushkar.

Peaceful Pushkar, by its holy lake

The train was pretty normal, but the bus was quite an experience: a brightly-painted old school bus, packed full of excited Indian locals in their Sunday (or whatever day is appropriate for Hindus...) best. And, two bemused Westerners.

What this picture does not fully capture is that the kids in the front are all singing at the top of their lungs

And the reason for all the hullabaloo?


The Pushkar Camel Fair, for which we were arriving on the tail-end. It was over-the-hump several days earlier.


Anyway, the Camel Fair is a huge deal, one of the biggest festivals in India, with tribal people from all over Rajasthan coming into town to trade livestock...

”OK, ten thousand camels, but only because your sister broke a glass!”

...gossip and buy the latest in deserty fashions...

”So Vikram told Arvind that Nitin likes Kiran, but Deepti told...”

...and strike marriage bargains (I am of course not making this up).

If you can’t read the bottom, it says “Arrangement of Marriages & Parties”

The Fair coincides with Kartik Purnima, a festival in which the Hindu faithful come to bathe in the waters of the sacred lake where Brahma, the creator, dropped a lotus flower. They go down to the ghats, steps to the lakeshore, and ceremonially wash while saying prayers.

These are the steps down to the ghats; photos there are not allowed

From Pushkar, we travelled south to another lakeside city: lovely Udaipur, a city of grand palaces. Capital of the kingdom of Mewar, which maintained sovereignty under its proud Maharanas right through ‘til independence from Britain in 1947, Udaipur has numerous palaces ringing, and in the middle of, peaceful Lake Pichola.

The City Palace, now restored as a museum

Fateh Prakash Palace next door, a swanky hotel

Lake Palace, an even swankier hotel, and James Bond hangout

Udaipur is an incredibly romantic place; wonderful for sitting on a veranda, sipping a cocktail as the sun slips below the mountains across the lake. Unfortunately, we didn’t experience a whole lot of that romance, because we were mostly holed up in our room. Stay tuned for exciting details in our next post...

Toilet Traumas II: The Squatter Strikes Back

Posted by Bwinky 23:17 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)


Koh Chang And Delhi: From Island Paradise To Urban Onslaught

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From Bangkok, we took a brief sidetrip north to check out the ruined city of Ayutthaya (eye-YOU-tay-uh). When Europe was just emerging from the Middle Ages, this place was one of the capitals of the world, larger and more splendid than London or Paris. Then the Burmese came in and sacked it, and now it is a sleepy provincial town with a backyard full of evocative ruined temples.

The way of the world: the sun sets on everything eventually

After the intensity of Bangkok and the preceding month of rushing through Southeast Asia, we needed a vacation from our vacation before taking the plunge into India. So we set off for the Thai coast and the island of Koh Chang, enduring a rather unpleasant five-hour van ride with a group of four French stoners who insisted on smoking in the van, doing more to damage Franco-US relations than Dominique de Villepin. But it didn’t matter once the ferry pulled up to the island.

Mountainous Koh Chang under a glowering sky

After its food, Thailand is probably best known for its beaches, and its islands are legendary. Swish Koh Phi Phi is too budget-breaking and party heaven Koh Phangan with its beach raves isn’t really our scene, so we opted for Koh Chang both because of its proximity to Bangkok and its status as a National Marine Park, meaning slightly less development. We were just looking for a place to chill out for a few days, and we found it: on the more quiet eastern side of the island, at a secluded beach-side spot called The Souk.

Nuthin’ but the sound of the surf (and the rain...)

Just what the doctor ordered: for $10 a night, you get your own thatch-roofed, whitewashed bungalow, complete with groovy under-the-bed lighting...

Note that the drug laws in Thailand are very severe, which I think is sort of too bad because how can you not be tempted when you’ve got a bed like this?

...and trippy tunes in the beachside cabana where Ed, the long-haired hippyish Thai “Head Dude” (so it says on his business card) holds forth behind the bar, mixing a mean margarita.

Yes, we can see you behind the glass, Lynn

So, after a pleasantly unhurried couple of days of mellowness, we took a deep breath, plugged our noses, and jumped off the pier from paradise into the swirling maelstrom that is Delhi, India.

Hope you’ve got your hanky handy, because you’re in black snot land now

There is absolutely no way to prepare yourself for India. The noise, the filth and pollution, the crush of people, and the poverty are unlike anything else that I have experienced... ever. We sat on the highway while our cabbie argued with another motorist after a fender-bender on the way into the city from the airport. We sat in the streets -- twice -- while wedding processions with brass marching bands and elephants stopped traffic. We were accosted by beggars with every possible deformity. We witnessed people defecating in the streets. It is, without question, the most soul-wrenching place I have ever seen.

Delhi: the bazaar of the bizarre

And yet, that is not the only side of Delhi. We were there during a big Sikh religious festival (celebrating the death of one of the gurus, not sure exactly), for example, and at times beauty pierced the ugliness. From colors on the street...

Offering flowers

Old Sikh warriors marching in a parade

...to stately architecture amid the decay...

The Mughal-style Jami Mosque, the largest in India

The British Raj-era government buildlings -- and note that this is at mid-afternoon, not sunset

...to simple glimpses of the faces of the people being human in a place that drains humanity...

A gorgeous sari at sunset

Morning light

...there are moments when Delhi has a certain charm. Moments when grace contrasts with chaos and filth.

It reminds me of some lines by a poetic songwriter named Jeff Johnson:

On and on this cycle goes
Wretchedness and beauty juxtaposed

The modern world often amazes me -- we can wake up on Koh Chang, in a quiet island paradise, and go to sleep in Delhi, a frenetic, seething cauldron. I can't think of two places that are more radically different. The concept of juxtaposition is one that has always fascinated me, pairing two opposites to highlight each other's qualities. The beauty of Koh Chang amplifies the ugliness of Delhi. And yet Delhi's ugliness in a way provides an ideal lens to magnify its charms.

Posted by Bwinky 22:05 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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