In most countries, when you want a well, you dig a deep, roughly round hole and keep going until you hit water. Then you need a long rope and a bucket to haul up the water. Not so in 8th century India when the Chand Baori stepwell was built in Rajasthan. We stopped for a look on our way to Agra – by arduous car. In Chand Baori’s case, the dig was about 60 metres square at the top and it went down a dizzy 13 stories on three sloping walls, with the fourth forming a temple style building that reminded me of an Escher drawing. To get the water, all you needed was a team of strong young women who had to descend using 3500 steps, fill their buckets and carry them back to the surface on their heads. Easy!
The site is remarkably well preserved, although the water is now a suspicious green and there is a fence to stop people who might take on the dangerous decent but run out of puff on the return journey and have to be winched up.
The main reason we went from Jaipur to Agra by car was to stop at the world heritage listed Fatepur Skiri, a walled city built in 1586 for the Emperor Akbar and was the capital of the Mughal Empire for about 10 years. Made from red sandstone, it took 36,000 people 12 years to build, but the emperor only lived in it for four years before he got sick of the political wrangling and called in the removalists. From that point on, the place was deserted for 400 years, but did vandals destroy it, or squatters move in? No. Only vegetation was interested in occupying it until 1903 when Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy, said “I say, it is jolly well too bad that this damn fine place is choked with weeds and other unsightly undergrowth, tut tut. I’ll requisition a few pounds and do a spot of the old restoration thing.”
Today is it the most under-visited-yet-outstanding example of antiquity in India. It is almost fully restored and illustrates the rather nice life Emperor Akbar led. The city was home to around 700 people, 600 of whom were his concubines. Between those and three queens – each with her own palace, the emperor got plenty of sex – even if the women didn’t. He slept in a huge, elevated bed, accessible only by removable silver ladder. This not only gave him privacy but made him much harder to murder while asleep. At that time death was more matter of fact than it is now. Those found guilty of a capital offence were executed by an elephant called Hirn who, on command, stamped on their heads. This elephant was much respected for his one-hit skill and a monumental tower in his honour stands in a field outside the city wall.
When the emperor wasn’t busy being entertained or siphoning the python, he tried to start a new religion called Diney Elhai that encompassed all the popular religions he could think of. But his religion had too many competitors and not enough congregants, so it collapsed.
Another significance of Emperor Akbar is that he was the grandfather of Shah Jahan, who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal – which is principally what we came to see in India. We took a room at the Agra Double Tree Hilton which promised a view of the Taj. Well, if that little blip through the smog is the Taj, the claim is correct. The hotel is full of rowdy, rude, oversize tourists – in contrast to the staff who try very hard to be pleasant.
After having recovered from the doctor’s visit we had to squeeze two our day schedule into one. Our guide talked like a 33-record played at 45. His knowledge flew at such a rate that I had to buy a book called The Holy Cow to make sense of even some of it. India is a an almost infinite number of interlocking hierarchies. There are three major Hindu gods, Brahma (the generator), Vishnu (the operator) and Shiva (the destroyer). If you take the first letter of these descriptions, it spells GOD. Is that significant? Probably, the guide replies vaguely. From there, the hierarchy runs down through another 30 gods and goddesses. That’s 33, not the 33 million that reside in cows, as our last guide told us.
Then there’s the cast system which is officially outlawed but is still observed in matters of marrying within the cast – of which they are four major ones. After Brahmins (priests and teachers) our guide was in the second layer, the Kshatriyas, or warriors, which is why he wears a moustache, he tells us. Under him are the Vaishyas who are traders but lazy and happily fat. At the bottom are the Shudras who sweep streets and clean toilets. But the caste system is far more complex than that, because each cast has layers of subdivisions.
Having done with Hindu gods and casts, there are many religions operating in India, and they all have different layers and takes on gods and casts. Many are versions of Hindu and others variations of Islam. In some places the Hindus and Muslims get on well but in others they don’t.
I don’t know how anybody understands where they fit in. They probably just put their heads down and plough on, guided by their family environments.
Traffic is just as confusing, especially in Jaipur. There is a huge number of road rules, but nobody obeys them and the traffic is too overwhelming for the cops to enforce them. The general idea is to avoid collision but take the opportunity to fill any space on the road or footpath that is vacant – even for a moment. Do not be a sucker by keeping to your lane. Keep your finger on the horn button because blowing your horn might cause a slight hesitation of the vehicle near you whose space you can capture. And it is okay to drive on the wrong side of the road if the right side is too crowded. The millimetre is the unit of measurement used for traffic manoeuvres.
On our way to the Amber Fort we passed through old Jaipur which used to be called the pink city, but was painted terracotta when the contractors thought that was close enough to the pink it had been painted in honour of Prince Albert, The Prince of Wales. (The Pink Prince?) Prior to being pink it was painted yellow – for reasons unknown. The Amber Fort and palace were quite a highlight of the day. They are 400 years old and once the home of the royal family. Incidentally, according to our guide, there are 565 states in India and each has a royal family, most of which are still wealthy even though they no longer have political power. That equates to 565 kings, each probably believing he is more important than the others. Back to the fort. It is surrounded by a 16-kilometre wall which follows the contours of the steep hills around the palace. It is not unlike the Great Wall of China, but about four thousand kilometres shorter.
Within the Amber Fort is a temple to the goddess Kali in which a goat used to be sacrificed every day and witnessed by the king so that when he went into battle, he would not be squeamish at the sight of blood. These days the goats have been spared, but in their place bottles of whisky or rum are sacrificed, but not spilled. Oh no, they become the property of the temple officials who consequently spend most of their time drunk while in charge of a holy place.
Not being palaced out, we dived back into the terrible traffic for a visit to the city palace. The royal family still lives there and for a sizeable charge you can poke about in their spectacular private lodgings or, for a huge sum, take tea with the king. Why do they allow such an invasion? “To make money,” our guide blandly explains – even though the king owns plenty of city real estate.
One of the historical exhibits at the City Palace are two 1894 silver jars which are the biggest silver objects in the world. It took 14,000 melted down silver coins to make each one – weighing 345 kilos. They each held 4091 litres of Ganges water (presumably cleaner than it is now) and were taken to England by Maharaja Swai Madho Singh when he visited for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 because he didn’t trust the pommy H2O. The jars had lids, wheels and ladders for practical usage.
After a buyer-beware visit to a textile shop and a jewellery ‘wholesaler’ (not) we sought refuge in the Holiday Inn which had a Valentine’s Day special of all you could eat and drink for about A$35. We tucked into some cheek-curling hot curry doused by beer after which I made for the desert table where everything looked attractive, but had no substance or taste. Then I spied some tall glass containers full of brightly coloured meringues. I took two green ones and was well into the second when the chef came running in to tell me they were very old and only there for decoration. I had eaten the display. But I have to say they tasted no worse than the rest of the stuff on the table.
Hotel toaster review
The Holiday Inn breakfast is a boisterous affair with everybody loud and busily loading in the calories. Toast is not high in the popularity stakes, as demonstrated by the Skinnymini Double Knobber, below. This demonstrates the Indian preference for narrow loaves of bread. The first pass produces only warm bread but by the end of the second pass a satisfactory transition to toast has been achieved.
This was far from the worst toaster I’ve seen and certainly better than the broken-down contraption at the Leela Palace. I asked the toast captain to tell me about the origin of the Skinnymini, but his understanding of English was only capable of concluding that I was crazy.
Leaving the Leela Palace was sadder than I had imagined. The staff lined up like a family, with hugs and good wishes. I had anticipated a wounding bill for all the room service extras that Michelle’s sickness had required, but none of it was charged. We leave the Leela, resplendent across the misty lake, with every intention of returning, our bank manager’s pale face notwithstanding.
Apart from a magnificent place to stay, a couple of points stick in my mind. One is that the Leela makes the best hot chocolate of my long drinking experience. Number one used to be at an upmarket food store in St Petersburg, but now the Leela has shot to the front. I asked the chef how he makes it, thinking he may reveal a secret powder additive. He told me: ‘Very straight forward. I like to share my knowledge because goodness will come of it. First you must obtain a block of dark chocolate, sir. Then break into pieces! Prior to that you must have prepared a gouache comprising chocolate and cream. Then melt the chocolate pieces you have broken and mix them with the gouache. Then add milk sir! Heat it all up and pour into a suitable cup.’ That might explain my love for the Leela’s hot chocolate and the likelihood of me running out of belt loopholes if I partook too often.
The other is the Leela toilet paper. If bank paper is about 80 gsm, then the Leela toilet paper comes in at about 10 gsm. This is too indelicate a subject about which to complain to the management or even discuss with other guests as in ‘lovely place, but what do you think of the bum fodder?’ because I’d have to go into awkward detail. If we come here again, and I hope we do, we’ll bring a few rolls from home of the reliable three-ply Quilton.
At Udaipur airport I laughed at the poor buggers who had booked on the budget Spice Air to go to Jaipur. They faced a squashed-up hour in a little prop plane. We had booked with Air India – and paid a fair bit more in spite of the fact that the Air India Jaipur flight habitually runs four hours late. The bus drove us out on the tarmac and what did we board? A little prop plane for a squashed-up hour. Same as Spice Air. The only saving grace is that Air India doesn’t crash as often as Spice.
We’ve come down a few notches at the Jaipur Holiday Inn. It is situated opposite a massive roadworks construction site where an overhead railway is being built. So the view is less than inspiring. Next door is a shopping centre with a MacDonald’s. We’d arrived late in the day and wandered in for a careful box of chips and a harmless(?) chicken burger. Michelle was still getting over her food poisoning ordeal and I was coming down with a cold. The restaurant suddenly filled with little kids who rushed to fill up the tables and waited expectantly for a burger and a cup of water each – but only chicken or veg burgers. Beef and pork are verboten. It turned out they were from a nearby orphanage. Many were barefoot, and most needed a good bath. I was curious as to how they spent their time during the day and found out when we left. One little girl from the group, accompanied by her brother carrying a baby, were back on the street begging. This was their occupation, widespread in Indian cities.
We wandered into the shopping centre only to find most of the shops in darkness. An assistant in one clothing shop that was operating explained that there had been a mass dispute with the management over rent and most of the shopkeepers had legged it. Westfield beware.
The massage parlour was still operating however, revealing a severe glowing red interior through the partly open door. It was about as inviting as an abattoir.
Today we were supposed to visit a palace and observatory. But last night the dreaded lurgy got me from both ends. My temperature went through the roof and would not respond to Panadol. Michelle decided it was time to call the doctor. He arrived late afternoon carrying the obligatory bag and doing an impersonation of Peter Sellers impersonating an Indian. He looked down my throat, thumped my back, asked my age and weight – but didn’t take my temperature. Then he unzipped a large black pouch from his bag and tipped out a mountain of packaged pills on the bed. With his special surgeon’s scissors, he cut off the required number of pills from their sheets and dolled out five lots for me, along with a set of hand-written, illegible instructions. Michelle then made the mistake of mentioning that she’d been sick too. Ah, he thought, a chance for a double consultation with only one visit. He examined her throat and went back to his pile of medication for some more cutting, allocation and illegible dosage instructions. Although we had a travel insurance plastic card ready and loaded to pay, the little doctor lusted after cash, about A$200 worth which we’ll now have to try and claim back later. Before we started pill popping Michelle looked up the medications on the internet and discovered that most of them were for complaints we didn’t have. One combination antibiotic was illegal everywhere except India. It was certain to make you feel worse rather than better. Subsequently we have thrown away all he doctor’s pills and are using those we brought with us. The doctor’s visit has scared away my fever and we’re ready to resume our program tomorrow. So I suppose it was worth calling him.
The Hindu religion dominates this part of India. Our guide, a young Hindu man, told us there are three main Hindu gods, but beneath them stretches a huge family tree of gods estimated to number about 33 million. I asked him if their names were all written down somewhere. He said no; in any case, no book could be big enough to list them all. Moreover, it is unlikely any one person knowns them all or even where to find them. I don’t know how he arrived at 33 million, but he was adamant that this was the current number. Apparently, it is written in Hindu texts.
Rajiv is 22 and is engaged to a girl he met by accident at a wedding. Normally, parents arrange marriage for their children who accept that they may never love their spouses. Our young man was an exception, although he still had to seek approval from both families. His courtship was mostly conducted by phone. They occasionally meet in secret where they talk, but no physical stuff. They will marry in two or three years when the groom’s bank account has grown sufficiently. Then they will go to live in his father’s house which already holds a battalion of relatives. He is studying to join the police force in the specialist tourists branch. Being a guide with good English should get him in.
The Queen’s Garden is the only park in Udaipur that charges admission. It used to be closed to all but the queen and her ladies in waiting – who would frolic about in the greenery. All the gardeners were women too – and still are – but rather than hoe they now form up in smiling quartets and charge for photographs. The gardens have two impressive fountains and the famous Viagra Tree of Udaipur, pictured.
Knowing the Indian penchant of testing machines beyond their use-by dates, we took a chance on the cable car that climbs a mountainette from where you get a second-to-none view of the city, lakes, palaces and houses. The tallest building stands out at 15stories; the rest max out at two or three. We looked down on the kings former Pleasure Palace sitting on an island in the remarkable hand dug lake – one of an interlocking system of five that flow in sequence. When the king felt a trifle randy, he would summon the HMAS Orgasm and go the island where a selection of ladies awaited his majesty’s pleasure.
After the cable car returned without falling into the ravine, it was time for us to go into town. With a straight face I asked our guide if the Old Fruit and Vegetable Market, which we intended to visit, sold old fruit and vegetables. “Oh no sir, it is all fresh,” he replied seriously. “Nothing old. Only the name of the market.” We joined the honking motorbikes and mini vans, brilliantly sareed women, road repairs, all mixed in with clothing, dust, spices, barrows of vivid vegetables, tiny lemons, mountains of chilli and everybody in what looked like a frenzy. Yet there is an order to all this. Somehow it works, underpinned by friendly good humour. This is where the locals shop, and they understand the chaos code.
The one item you will never see in an Indian food market is beef. It is illegal to sell it in India. The cow is sacred because it is a micro-receptacle of the Hindu gods, all 33 million of them. Our hotel (currently voted by Conde Nast as the best leisure hotel in the world), and whose menu goes on for many pages of delicious options, never mentions beef.
Hotel toaster report
Since the Leela is now voted a world 2019 best leisure hotel, I entered the breakfast dining room with high expectations of its toaster. It would surely be a bejewelled work of art topped by a silver elephant expelling perfect toast in record time from beneath its raised trunk. But bitter disappointment awaited me. There stood a battered Jaipur Juggernaut, its front scratched, and topped by a collapsed chef’s hat. Almost in tears I put in two slices and waited, but they failed to reappear. They had finished their journey stuck deep in the outward-bound tray slide, joining other slices that would never see the inside their disillusioned owners’ mouths. I had to use tongs to get my two slices out and they were barley warm. I spoke to a distraught toast captain who was going to resign if the manager didn’t make an urgent replacement. Derek Bedchamber will be horrified when he reads this and may need therapy.
We declared a rest day for our last at the Leela Palace, but our plan was short lived. The chef, who had taken special delight in cooking for Michelle, made her a couple of dishes yesterday that changed the course of our rest day. She awoke this morning complaining of severe stomach cramps and found it hard to walk. He pulse rate had gone wild too. She rose from bed and immediately brought forth an award winning, out of control, fire hydrant-worthy throw that covered the floor, the wall and me – as I sat at my computer. She had food poisoning. She finished the expulsion in the bathroom basin – which immediately clogged up. Being a qualified cat poo cleaner I tried to turn my skills to this situation but it was beyond me. We called housekeeping and a team of uniformed cleaners arrived continually whispering their sympathy, along with a plumber and a housekeeper who became mother and brought Michelle lemonade and other upchuck cures. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful as they went to work restoring Michelle and our room to former order.
Tomorrow, assuming Michelle continues her recovery, we’ll set out for Jaipur. If we stay here, I’ll have to have my hip replacements repossessed.
Before we set out into the dusty mayhem of Udaipur there are a few facts about the Leela Palace Hotel worth mentioning. It has 80 rooms and a staff of 360. The imbalance becomes evident at dinner when we are beset by teams of waiters who can’t do enough for us. They stand around ready to applaud our every mouthful and mastication. Even the chef appears regularly to give a passionate account of what he is about to cook and then returns to see if we liked it. And they all want to converse. It is hard for Michelle and I to get through a two-way conversation without some helpful interjection from one of the folk-costumed team. Room service usually brings two helpers per task. The entire place is being continually swept, cleaned and tidied up. When we arrive or leave to take the HMS Leela across the lake to the city, a small band secreted in a nook to one side the main entrance door strikes up with wild enthusiasm.
While our room is a model of elegance, comfort and superlative lake-view, we are well down from the top level of opulence at the Leela. One of the many effusive house staff took us on a tour of the hotel and showed us the royal suite, comprising a giant bedroom, formal dining room, lounge, kitchen, multiple bathrooms – all enhanced by silver embellishments and works of art. Various serving persons are included. The price? A$12,000 a night. This room rate, reception reminded us, is ‘dynamic’ meaning that you can make a lower offer.
Every night in the internal courtyard there is a deafening Indian traditional song and dance show. I couldn’t relate to it, although when two lady dancers jumped onto the stage balancing flaming pots on their heads, and then gyrated at quite a speed, I was engaged by the danger.
Our first venture into town was to the Winter Palace, a sprawling series of grand buildings that used to be home to successive kings (called by the locals maharanas, and ranked higher than maharajahs). The royal family still existed after Indian independence from Britain in 1947 but has no political power. The current king lives in a more modest palace at the far end of the building chain, still very wealthy and revered.
The Winter Palace is the largest palace in Rajasthan and the second biggest in India. I sits on a lake hillside and is very cleverly fortified. In all the conflicts that India has endured, it has never been breached. I can understand why. The narrow stone staircases alone would deter attackers because the steps are of different heights and some quite steep. Thus, they are easier to defend. There are also myriad secret passages which are still being discovered today.
The former kings lived well and entertained themselves with shooting tigers from the safety of rifle towers and being carried around in elaborate carriages either borne by four hearty men or an elephant. And speaking of elephants one of the favourite games was to position two elephants either side of a wall, have them lock trunks and conduct a tug of war. Which ever elephant puled its opponent to touch the wall, won a palate of vegetables. Apart from games and physical work, elephants also went into war. Horses were no match for them until somebody thought of fitting horses with mock elephant trunks to trick opposing elephants into thinking they were attacking a baby elephant – which was against elephant ethics. One famous painting of a battle showed how the king escaped – even though his horse had one of its legs cut off by a sword wielding elephant. The horse continued on three legs, jumped a river, and saved the king before it died.
The Winter Palace (also called the City Palace) showed plenty of old household wares, many introduced by the Brits when they ran India. One was a fan – but driven by steam which needed heat to boil the water which heated up the room so that the fan could cool it. That didn’t appear to make a lot of sense, but looked impressive. While visitors were ogling in disbelief at old wind- up portable gramophones sitting in wooden cases, I remember them being earnestly used when I was a kid. Have I lived too long?
Meanwhile, out on the street, holy cows wander, dogs are fed for good luck and traffic demonstrates it was never meant to be in these narrow, dusty corridors. Local busses have ladders at the back to enable people access to ride on the roof, where there is nothing to stop them falling off except balance. Our guide commented: ‘the motor bikes have become minibuses and the busses have become trains.’