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Andrew Dispatch

I Don't Care if that Croc Is Vegetarian - I'm Still Not Swimming with Him! And Other Forms of Refreshment in Udaipur
May 10, 2000

Map
After a wretchedly hot and crowded 22-hour train ride, I arrived in Udaipur, "the Venice of the East." Udaipur is in Rajastan, "the Land of Kings," which includes the Thar Desert, medieval forts, tigers, palaces, lakes and some of the most colorfully clothed people in all of India.

I took a rickshaw to the house of my friends, Dr. and Mr. Bhanti. They welcomed me into their home with the hospitality that is famous to the region. Luckily I arrived just as the sun was setting, so I could enjoy the cool breeze on their rooftop terrace as we sipped endless cups of chai (Indian tea, with milk and sugar) while we awaited dinner. As the sun set, we watched thousands of green parrots with red necks fly overhead, to wherever they roost for the evening. The birds seemed to signal dinner, because soon we all sat on the floor of the terrace, atop colorful sheets, and watched as delicious dal (lentils, a type of bean) rice and temptingly-cooked vegetables were placed on our plates, topped off with yogurt and chapati bread (kind of like a thin tortilla). It was fabulous! For the first time I was enjoying Indian hospitality at its finest.

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Mr. Bhanti, CPA, chess master, and part-time Santa Claus impersonator
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After hours of talk, picture album viewing and games of chess, it was time for sleep. Sleep under the stars. It was so hot (the day had been about 43C/110F) that it was much better to sleep on the terrace, with the breeze, watching the stars, than to crawl into the stuffy house. So sheets were laid out and pillows distributed, and soon, when even the dull whispers finally faded out, there was nothing left but the sounds of dogs barking and parrots in the nearby branches of trees. The stars shone brilliantly overhead and lit up the sky. It was a perfect way to drift off in a new exotic land.

I woke up to the sounds of the same parrots, now heading out for their day of - well, whatever it is parrots do all day. I decided, after a few more stiff cups of chai, that I would visit the City Palace.

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The City Palace
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Udaipur is perhaps the most romantic city in Rajastan. It is full of palaces and lakes, and is a popular honeymoon destination for Indian couples. A long hot walk through the streets of the city led me to the gates of the City Palace, but only after I fended off touts and salesmen of all descriptions. Waiting for me near the gates were a few dozen helpful men, all of whom most eagerly wanted to be my guide. I chose one whose command of English seemed good, and we were off to explore the inner walls of this 400-year-old building.

Begun by Maharana Udai Singh II, who is also the founder of Udaipur, the City Palace saw many years of inconsistent building. The palace is still not government-owned, but rather has been handed down from father to son for the last four centuries. The current owner, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, lives in London quite comfortably from the income generated by tourists visiting his palace, as well as by the 19 hotels he owns in the city.

Vocabulary

rickshaw - a small, covered, 2-wheeled vehicle carrying one passenger and pulled by one person
tout - a person who peddles something
jaundice - a yellowish pigmentation of the skin (or metaphorically any surface)
labyrinth - maze

Today in Rajastan it is the year 2057, according to the lunar Vikram Samvat calendar used locally. How old will you be in 2057? Whatever the year, the view from the palace of Pichhola Lake, which was used in the filming of the famous James Bond film, "Octopussy" (back when Roger Moore was Bond - have you ever heard of him? He's no Pierce Brosnan!), is beautiful. It is rumored that the crocodiles in the lake are vegetarian, in deference to the Hindu caretakers, but I'm not convinced enough to go swimming there no matter how hot it is today!

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for larger view
One of the lucky 1,600?
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Stunning though the palace may be, it is, like the Taj Mahal, a jaundice-yellow rather than the original white marble. Why? Pollution, of course! But in its heyday, the City Palace was the place for some rockin' good times.

Way back in 1620, the ruler Karnsing housed 1,600 wives in the palace. Where did he get so many brides? Mostly from the daughters of local noble families, who wanted to show their respects for the ruler, and in the hopes that their daughter would be the one who gave him a male heir to the enormous kingdom he held. Can you imagine having 1,600 wives? How many shoes do you think they would collectively own?

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A cheesy disco--or the make-up room of a queen?
Caption
The palace is a blend of styles, since it has been worked on, on and off, since it was begun. The structures with a lotus flower show Hindu architectural influence, whereas Muslim architecture is reflected in the tomb-like designs atop some of the towers. Most unusual are the dressing rooms. Though built in 1620, the multi-colored glass and mirrors all over the room makes it look like a cheap disco. All it needs is a strobe light and some guys with open shirts and gold chains!

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Back in the day, all guards were eunuchs. Luckily for this man, that's no longer required
Caption
The palace has hand-cranked elevators, elaborate tilework and lots of decorative peacock statues. There are also countless paintings and beautifully done artwork throughout the palace, but most of it has been removed and taken abroad by the owner, leaving it more or less an empty palace with interesting architecture and labyrinth-like corridors. The best part of the palace for me was watching where, until 1955, they had elephant tug-of-wars. Two men would sit astride each elephant, and the elephants would link trunks, and try to pull the other one off balance. Sadly that's no longer the case. In 1955 when the owner went abroad, 99 elephants and 260 Arabian stallions lived at the palace. Now the owner has five Rolls Royces and six Mercedes. That's modernization for you.

Andrew

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...andrewcote@bigfoot.com
 

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