Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rajasthan - the Province of Colors

Holi - Calcutta, India - Photographer - Sucheta Das
“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life.- Richard Dawkins


If there were to be one event that would awaken us to the sumptuous, sparkling, spectacular beauty that is the world, it would be Holi.

Just a short three weeks from now (March 20th), thousands of every race and color across the entire subcontinent will congregate on the streets to engage in a war unmatched by any other. The reason: to spread peace, happiness, and acceptance. The ammunition: countless gallons of colored water and powder paint. The target: anything and anyone. The result: immediate chaos and endless elation.

Indore, India -Photographer - AP Photo

Hindu legend says that Krishna is the reasoning behind the colorful festivities of Holi. One day, when Krishna questioned why his skin was a dark color compared to the fair-skinned god, Radha, his mother's quick solution was to smear paint all over the face of Radha. This solution brought more than comfort to the concerned Krishna. The young prankster took a quick liking to such an act, and throughout his youthful years in Vindravan would prank the gopis (traditional cow herding girls) by smearing all colors of paint on their faces.

Gauhati, India - Photographer - Anupam Nath

Today, the masses of gather to recreate this prank but on nationwide scale. The festivities have come to represent a symbol of love for all people by washing away their initial physique in a monsoon of rainbow colors.

And to top it all off, its 3 days before my birthday...

Mumbai, India - Photographer - Rafiq Maqbool


Many journeys will happen before this crazy birthday celebration and festival of acceptance, but I couldn't wait any longer to digress on the incredible insanity of Holi. And much has happened since my adventures to Rishikesh and Haridwar, across the massive province of colors, Rajasthan.

Jodhpur - the Blue City

Like a still lake mirroring perfect blue, so did Jodhpur reflect the clear, cloudless skies of western Rajasthan. A vast majority of the homes, shops, and restaurants are completely covered in shades of blue. The truly unique site seen in the above photo can only be fully appreciated from Mehrangarh Fort, an ancient stronghold that sits atop a rock that seems to erupt directly from the arid Rajasthani flatlands. It only gets better when there an opportunity to zipline from the fortress walls over the Blue City!

Yes, for only $27, I could fly out of the botanical garden and off across a rocky landscape. The zipline wasn't just one ride. And it wasn't over after just one ride! There were 6 other lines that ended with a 1000 ft. line to a small entrance back into the fortress walls. More than worth my money, this was my first zipline experience and definitely not the last one I'll latch onto.

Can't beat them shades... which are now, unfortunately, lost forever in the desert :(

Unfortunately, my path took a very uncomfortable turn after the ziplining was complete. I had been feeling a stomach bug a few days before in Delhi, and as the day moved on in Jodhpur, my best friend became...

Yep, the good ol' squatter. I didn't have the money or time to return to my familiar homestead spot, as I was over 500km from Delhi. So as much as I wanted to spend time exploring the interior of the fort after a adrenaline-pumped morning, I could not walk farther than a hundred feet before I had to return to wash rooms of the Mehrangarh Fort. I'll spare you of the picture of what can only be truly described as, a "shithole" of a bathroom. I will show you a much more aesthetically pleasing wander through the blue passages of Jodhpur.

A girl insisted on modeling for me... I was uninformed of the price: 1 pen, and 1 chocolate.

A Rajasthani woman and man play cultural music. I'll digress on the singing and instruments on another article in the near future because it will take too long to explain.

More traditional singers.

Not all buildings are blue, but all are their own beautiful solid color.

Indians and baby pictures... I'll have to get to the bottom of this fascination...
After I mustered the strength for this slow walk through the city and eventually find an auto rickshaw out towards the Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Yep, that's someones house... excessive.

For fifteen long, tolling years, over five thousand men were employed to construct what would become one of the largest and most expensive private homes in the world. The palace alone spans 3.5 acres, while the entire grounds of the super-estate totals 25 acres. Today, this second "fortress" of Jodhpur is home to the royal family of Maharaja Umaid Singh, yet they only live in a small piece. A majority of the building is now home to a museum and, for those that wish to spend far too much money for far too much luxury, a branch of Taj Hotels. "Oh, but its really only 139,000 Rs ($3088)!" Please...

I got there a short 15 minutes after closing time, and was not even allowed in the restaurant to buy a drink which probably could have costed me more than my ziplining adventure and all the food and transport of the entire day combined. But hey, I understand, some people want the top-of-the-line luxury accomodations!

I decided that, with only 45 minutes till dusk, it would be a nice view back on the fort over the blue city. I took another quick rickshaw ride to catch the setting sun.

Fortress walls

As the sun set on Jodhpur, thousands of swallows erupted from the fortress walls. It was feeding time, and thousands of mosquitoes, gnats, and other pesky insects met their doom in a swarming feeding frenzy right above my head.

On my way to the train, a wedding erupted out of the blue.

Music all around!

For how much pollution and junk lies in every city street, for how annoying the roudiness of honking horns can be, nature still dominates the senses with its bounty of life in this beautiful Blue City.


"Not all those who wander are lost." - J. R. R. Tolkien

On the edge of "Desert National Park" (very original) lies the small town of Jaisalmer. Famous for its desert festival and camel rides, I initially came for neither. I came to rent a motorcycle, and ride as far as I could into the desert. And I did, but not before I overcame some heavy obstacles.

On my first day I spent all my time on the toilet as my stomach bug hit its peak infliction of pain and suffering. I couldn't walk more than 10 feet from my room without having to return to the throne and submit to the throbs of what felt like a cluster of needles in my digestive tract. There in my little hotel room I lay incapacitated, waiting for the epic battle of bacteria to subside and allow me the freedom of the arid desert road. Though the battle had been won by the next morning, my second day in the city fared another form of misfortune: a massive storm ensued, right there in the middle of the desert. It poured rain for the entire day, and made walking around the city streets not so pleasant. It was not until the third day that I could get myself out on the open road.

My trusty metal steed.

Now, even thinking of riding a motorcycle in Delhi is a worse idea than being in the middle of the Serengeti stampedes on foot. Everyone else around you is moving so frantically towards their destination that one wrong move will leave you pasted on asphalt in a heartbeat. As fascinating and intimidating as this pseudo-living organism can be on the streets of Delhi, I was thankful to have the less conflicting streets of Jaisalmer. After watching the Motorcycle Diaries, I had always dreamed of barging like Gustavo "Che" Guevara and Alberto Granado, with no plan or route to follow but out and away from all that I knew. Off I went into the desert with a backpack of food and water in hand, as the sun rose upon my open road to pure freedom.

I soon learned that you don't really leave civilization behind in the desert region of Rajasthan. First of all, its not really a sandy, dune-like environment I had envisioned. The entirety is very lush with both native and invasive shrubbery that spots the desert like Joshua Tree National Park in California. Name those plants Mom, Dad and Tracey!

After a good morning and early afternoon in the shrub land, I decided to turn back and explore the city streets of Jaisalmer.

I parked my steed outside of Sky Dream Hotel. It turns out that the owner, Lucky, was completely hospitable to letting CouchSurfers stay free of charge in his cozy hotel overlooking Jaisalmer Fort. The walls of this stronghold brought me back to my childhood years on the beach, matching the sand castle molds that made satisfying fortifications against an onrush of waves. Today, Jaisalmer Fort does not defend against imminent attacks, and instead is home to a beautiful little town within its sandy walls.

The fortress town is also home to a very nationally appraised jeweler, Roop Kishore Soni. Though his specialty is silver, the man has pulled incredibly accurate carvings with hands as steady as stone.

These are two of the most intricate pieces of artwork I have ever seen To truly understand this intricacy, please click on each picture and they will open in a new window. You can then zoom to the full quality of the picture and see the minute details. The first picture is of some carvings of Hindu gods on grains of rice. Incredible! The second picture is a hair. Yes, a human hair. I have put a small red box around where Soni carved Lord Krishna. It's a shame that I could not capture this for you, as my camera isn't even accurate enough to see such minute detail. You'll just have to see it yourself!

I continued my stroll, stopping only to pick up a Kanshan Shree lassi, the single greatest lassi ever conceived. It has over 18 different ingredients, and no lassi will ever surpass the divine multi-flavored explosion of taste that it holds.

All the pictures below are from within the fort walls.

A massive, ancient cooking put rusts on the streets of Jaisalmer fort

Really glad I'm not an ancient enemy...

Permanent residents

A traditional label that is painted on the front wall of a newlywed's home.

Traditional tribal masks of Rajasthan

Handprints found outside a Hindu temple

Handmade quilts

Lucky and fellow CouchSurfer Mia relaxing over a cup of chai

As the afternoon drew on, I headed out towards Gadi Sagar Lake, just outside the fortress walls. A beautiful sunset ended an amazing day full of adventure... and brought me closer to my day of camel trekking! The next morning would be the start of a 2 day ride atop the back of a camel into the elusive Ganga Dunes, a very small set of sand dunes about 1 hour out of Jaisalmer and 2 hours into the desert on a camel.

Camel Trekking

For me, the most surprising thing about camels were their sheer size. They stand at an average height of 7 feet! And once you're on top of one, you are very far off the ground.

I was lucky enough to see a baby camel only hours old!

Trekking was a bumpy, rash-threatening ride all the way to the dunes. The camel's saddle had no stirrups, which pretty much means that I had to say goodbye to the skin on my inner thigh. I had the most horrendous rash on my leg when we arrived at Ganga Dunes, and was very, very happy to be getting off. And just in time for a beautiful sunset!

Ahhhh... freedom.

Part of the deal for the Camel Trek was a free dinner and a night on the dunes. We huddled around a small fire and the guides cooked us some delicious Chapati, Dal, and Cauliflower that packed a traditional punch of Indian spice. Later on, one of the guides took out a small water tank and drummed a traditional Rajasthani tune.

As we ran out of wood and the fire faded into the sand, we all made way to our beds provided by the guides. I tucked under the triple-stacked, funky camel smelling quilts and took one last moment to take in the brightly lit desert from my perch atop the elevated dune. Miles into the desert I gazed as I lie under the luminous moon. I thought of my family and friends I had bid farewell exactly 2 months prior, and as I drifted into my subconscious, I wondered where my endless crave for adventure would bring me next on the wild frontier that was India.

Sunrise over Ganga Dunes

The next day was a quick ride back to transporter. We walked up to the car, and he yelled "challo challo!") ("Lets go! Lets go!"). I had forgotten that Jaisalmer's annual desert festival was about to begin, and that I was delaying the drivers attendance! We rushed back to Jaisalmer, just in time for me to catch a few snaps of the festivities.

Boss mustache galore. Oh yeah!
Jaisalmer was a beautiful escape from the big city feel of Delhi. On my last day, I caught a train to the capital of Rajasthan.

Jaipur - The Pink City?

The Water Palace - Jaipur

Not really, it just makes itself out to be that way by painting one small set of buildings pinkish (if your business is not pink in the Pink City area, you can be fined, arrested, and thrown in jail). I admit, I had a good time in Jaipur, but it was all packed into one guided tour by a rickshaw driver. Had I an extra day, I could have taken my time to see the sites below, but I had one day and much to see. So here's my compilation of photos from the day!

Jantar Mantar - the Ancient Observatory

Over 400 years ago, this observatory was built to calculate the positions of any celestial object. These massive devices were so accurate that calculations yielded numbers like the time of day within an accuracy of 2 seconds! I apologize in advance for not being able to explain the significance of every one, but I can explain a few in the captions.

At the top of this curve lies a metal rod, which casts a shadow upon the surprisingly minute measurements, telling the observer where the sun's angle in the sky

This massive stairwell is actually a sun dial! Casting a shadow down upon the curved portion on the left, there are again very precise measurements gained.

I could not figure this device out, and could not find a guide to eavesdrop on.

This is a massive sun dial. If you look closely at 12, you can see a shadow of the rod in the middle marking the time of day.
Around Jaipur

A tomb to an ancient ruler of Jaipur and his family.
Intricacy within the tomb.
Sleezy Samir and his rickshaw. This guy was all about getting women to join our rickshaw tour so we could take them out that evening and end up in their beds. It's just that straightforward, simple, and easy in his mind...
Samir's decals on the back pad of the rickshaw seating. He's all about sporting pink Reebok!

A train of elephants on the way to the Amber Fort!

The Amber Fort

Once home to the royal family of Jaipur, this massive Fort stands above a beautiful lake on a massive hillside.

Pigeons macking at the Amber Fort!

The entrance to the Amber Fort's living quarters.

The surrounding walls that enclosed another entire hillside around the Amber fort's hillside. Heavy fortifications!

The Monkey Temple

This was my least appealing part of the day. We arrived at this temple to find that it was covered, completely with shit. Bird shit, cat shit, goat shit, pig shit, horse shit, cow shit, and worst of all, monkey shit. I laughed hysterically, however, when a goat trotted up, blocked my path, gave me a blank stare, and just started shitting all over the place. I saw each and every animal shitting at some point on the way up the hill to this temple and realized that I didn't need to finish the climb to the top just for a simple view of Jaipur in a pile of shit.

Hawa Mahal

Constructed to resemble the crown of Krishna, Hawa Mahal was designed with 953 windows and 365 separate rooms. These windows were latticed and stained for the women of the royal family so that they could observe the city streets without being seen. This tradition relates to "purdah" (face cover), which was strictly enforced on the royal women back when the royal family of Jaipur was in power.

Raj Mandir

One of my favorite experiences of the day was in the evening. I stumbled upon the Raj Mandir Cinema, the largest theater in India. It seats 1,100 people, and found there was a movie playing in just 15 minutes. For 80 Rs ($2.00) I witnessed Bollywood at its finest. It was a beautiful image of the old theaters of the US. Heres a quick tour through the lobby!

Below is another video of the actual theater room. Watching a film here was the most fascinating (and frustrating) experience. Even though I felt back in the old theaters of America with an intermission, old popcorn makers, and big leather seats, I still had screaming/crying babies only 5 seats away and Indian men carelessly answering their cell phones and blabbering away at the top of their lungs (or filming the movie on their cell phone). All the same, I was captivated by the Bollywood-like scenes of the movie "Patiala House."

Just after exiting the movie, I felt my sweet tooth jonesing for some ice cream. Instead of the traditional scoop in a cone, I went for a different dessert that evening: Faluda.

Served in a ceramic cup (a first for me, and an interesting idea to oppose the use of plastic), Faluda is a combination of ice cream, nuts, sweet fruit syrup, and sweet noodles. I am a big fan, and felt myself immerse one step farther into Indian cuisine.

After stuffing myself with Faluda, I walked outside to an assault of the senses. Under the full moon, tonight would be a climax for wedding season, and as I looked up and down the main street, 4 different bands were drumming and trumpeting as loud as humanly possible in the presence of newlyweds. It was then I remembered an invitation I received earlier that day to an Indian wedding. I hopped in Samir's rickshaw outside with Jessica, a tourist of the Pink City, and sped off to the festivities.

The wedding was nothing that I could have ever anticipated. It turns out that our invitation was not even given by the family itself, but by a "brother" of the family. The issue is that every single man at the wedding said that they were the "brother" of the groom, and none of them looked remotely alike. Things got a bit more awkward when a large group of older women (possibly the aunts/sisters of the bride/groom) started to glare disapprovingly of our presence. Comfort did come, however, when we met both the mother and grandmother of the bride, who both thoroughly appreciated our company and were thankful to have us at such a special occasion in their lives. All the same, Jessica and I didn't stick around too long, and I had a train to catch. But before going, I took a good deal of family photos!

Indian wedding dowry/presents isn't wrapped/covered in any way as a surprise. They sport that newly acquired dowry for everyone to see, at the wedding.

New-age Indian hipster wear.

Within a few hours of these pictures, I was on my way Udaipur where I would reunite with my housemates from Delhi for an adventure into the country side.


Ranakpur Temple - Udaipur
In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth. - Mahatma Gandhi

Travel + Leisure Magazine puts it at number one for the "Top 10 most beautiful cities in the world." With two floating palaces, rooftop restaurants at almost every hotel, beautiful historical sites and little shops of handmade arts and crafts, I could not help but slightly agree. I think I would have been more inclined to love Udaipur, however, if I was more of the newlywed or retired folk who have a bulging pocket of rupees to spend. It was a bit frustrating finding a place to stay that was my usual nightly expense (Rs 150 / $ 4), and there wasn't really a budget place to eat in the entire city. Yet, I was satisfied all the same with the accomodation that indeed had its rooftop restaurant and a beautiful panoramic of the city.

Udaipur's art scene specializes in fine painting and leather work, and I took full advantage of the plethora of shops around to find some good priced, handmade leather photo albums to record this journey of a lifetime in style and beauty. If I felt so inclined to spend the whole day with a painter, there were lessons available to learn and create my own piece of art. With only 2 whole days in the city, I was more focused on a simple roam through the cobble stone streets.

Jagdish Temple - Udaipur

India is trying... they really are... look how happy this lil guy is to take care of your garbage.

This guy wanted to sell his genuine ray bans for a pair of cheap aviators... come on man! Recognize you're stylin'!

After a nice walk around town, Matt and I headed to the Monsoon Temple. Atop one of the taller hills surrounding Udaipur, this temple offered a fantastic view of the sunset. It was excessively expensive to get to the base of this hill and even more to get up to the temple. Since there was a nature reserve surrounding it there was a fee to enter the premises of the reserve, which I had no problem paying. However, we then could not use the initial rickshaw driver to get up to it, and instead had to fork out a ridiculous amount of rupees to a private taxi because the public bus that is scheduled to run all day until closing "no working" says the taxi driver. In the end, however, I feel I got a good moneys worth of natural beauty.


The next day, Matt and I got up at the crack of dawn to get a taxi ride out to the Kumbhalgarh Fort. Kumbhalgarh Fort is situated on the second largest wall in the world next to the Great Wall of China, which spans 32 km!

Matt observes the surrounded area of the fortress walls. yes, the wall encompasses all this land space and much more.

The beginning of the wall is in the background of this photo.

Knock Knock

Our cab driver sporting the hat, like many other Indians love to do.

A game some Indians were playing just outside the fortress walls.

The Ranakpur Complex

Ranakpur's Jain Temples are the most fantastic examples of intricate sculpting I have ever seen. Inside the largest of them all were over 400 columns, and every one of them had a unique design.

Cultural Dance

At the end of the day, Matt and I took our day taxi back to the city. It just so happened that we were right in time for a cultural dance performance, which had several crazy surprises in store!

These women have little cymbals all over their bodies. They swing other cymbals attached to strings like nunchucks all over their body to ring different tunes and rhythms
Yes, there are massive pots on her head. Yes, she is dancing all over broken glass. Crazy!
A beautiful dance of color and sparkle.

A Fond Farewell

Rajasthan is one of India's most desired destinations, and I am forever grateful to have experienced its multi-colored, multi-cultured, multi-climatic beauty. There is far more that I missed simply because I did not have the time. However, this gives me all the more reason to return to India sooner rather than later in my life.

When I lay in the sleeper car on the way back to Delhi, I thought about the open road of Jaisalmer, the fresh smell of a moistened desert and the crisp air flowing across my face. Freedom. Che must have felt that every day while riding across South America. His words again rang true in my mind. "What we had in common - our restlessness, our impassioned spirits, and a love for the open road".