Quote Of The Day

"Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake - Chessmaster Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower (1887-1956)"

Friday, November 16, 2018

India Day 18 : Udaipur - The City of Lakes / The White City

Yesterday morning Stuart and I drove south through the Aravalli range, a lush landscape of rolling hills, passing small villages and flashes of the brilliant pinks and reds of shepherds' turbans. 

We were heading towards the beautiful 'City of the Lakes' (also as known as the ‘White City’) - Udaipur. A gorgeous city where the pace of life is somewhat slower than the rest of Rajasthan. 

Upon arrival into Udaipur, we headed to our hotel (more of that later) and just relaxed and soaked up the romantic city vibe! 

In the evening, we enjoyed a steady bike ride around Udaipur and it's surrounding villages during sunset. It was a wonderful way to see the city and to experience the lesser known areas of Udaipur. We stopped half way and a street vendor made us some fresh masala tea (fast becoming my favourite tipple in India.)

Udaipur is one of India’s most romantic destinations, with stunning palaces and colourful bazaars set alongside lakes and surrounded by wooded mountains. 

The city was founded by Udai Singh in 1567 after a resounding defeat by the Mughal Emperor Akbar at his former stronghold of Chittaurgarh. The city was attacked by the Mughals over the next 25 years, and subsequently by the rising power of the Marathas, until lasting peace was achieved under British influence in 1818. The rulers of Udaipur are the senior family of Rajasthan, and may call themselves Maharanas, which is a cut above the average Maharaja. 

Later in the evening we took a swim in the hotel pool and enjoyed the view across the lake over dinner. 

Today we undertook a city tour which covered the main sights including the spectacular City Palace overlooking Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace. The Lake Palace is the largest palace complex in Rajasthan and houses a thoroughly impressive range of interior decoration, as well as a section on royal paraphernalia, toys and miniatures (Udaipur has several schools of painting).

Nearby is the Tripolia Gate, where the ruler was weighed on his birthday and his weight in gold distributed among his subjects.

We also visited the Saheliyon-ki-Bari Gardens (Gardens of the Maids of Honour) at the north end of the city. Complete with an antique artificial rain system (waterspouts supplied from a series of clever pipes and gravity) and boasting attractive ornamental designs as well as a delightful lotus pool it was a nice change from the bustling streets. 

Tonight we are promised a Folk Dance Performance at Bagore Ki Haveli. Now, I don't about you, but any folk dancing, even traditional Rajasthani folk dancing, fills me with dread. So let's see if we make to through to the final bow.

Nice place here. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

India Day 17 (later that day) : Indian Tonic Water

Tonic water (or Indian tonic water) is a carbonated soft drink in which quinine is dissolved.

Quinine was added to the drink as a prophylactic against malaria, since it was originally intended for consumption in tropical areas of South Asia and Africa, where the disease is endemic. Quinine powder was so bitter that British officials stationed in early 19th century India and other tropical posts began mixing the powder with soda and sugar, and a basic tonic water was created. 

The first commercial tonic water was produced in 1858. The mixed drink gin and tonic also originated in British colonial India, when the British population would mix their medicinal quinine tonic with gin.

So since we’re here, it would be rude not to. Chin, chin!

India Day 17 : Chanoud Village

Having rested in the luxury of the fort for a day or so Stuart and I decided to explore this classic Rajasthani village a bit more. 

After breakfast we took a tour with the old retired headmaster of the local school. 

It was an intimate experience of rural life in Rajasthan; as we were met and greeted by the exceptionally friendly locals. The chance to experience life in a small rural community.

We went to temples, people's houses, and one of the schools. 

The locals here are so friendly for lots of reasons. They love the fort and anyone who stays there, they realise our money filters down into the local economy, and they are just genuinely friendly people! No cynicism here.  

Also everyone was dying to have their picture taken. Why? Well, we promised to send them physical copies. And people do. We distributed loads of photos from previous visitors. It was a sort of village-wide hide and seek - we showed people we met photos taken weeks or months ago - have you seen this person or that person? A sort of game the whole village plays. 

Many of the families said that they can't afford cameras of their own so this game was the only way they got to see photos of their kids growing up. It was quite sweet actually. So everyone wanted their photo taken. Everyone! They were queueing up!

Most of the villagers here are actually farmers, but have skilled second jobs too. The two harvests a year (first green lentils then chickpeas) are over in a matter of months so a second skill is always handy. Cattle herders, silversmiths, leatherworkers, shop owners, builders, masoners, teachers, cleaners at the fort, cooks at the fort, drivers for the fort... Ok, you get one of themes here. The fort is a big local employer. 

Back in 1971 the current fort owner's father gave 400 acres of land to the villagers to farm. And they have never forgotten it. They farm, they raise cattle, buffalo, goats and sheep on the land they were given. 

Incidentally we learned that buffalo are up to ten times more valuable than cattle round here as, a) they can actually be slaughtered, b) they produce more milk than cows, and c) the milk is richer so produces more and better butter. As a consequence the only crime in these parts is occasional buffalo rustling!

Lovely village, lovely people. We'll be sure the send copies of the many photos we took back to them. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

India Day 16 : Chanoud Garh

Yesterday Stuart and I left Jhodpur and headed further west to a little Rajasthani village called Chanoud. 

More about Chanoud Village itself later, but  the first stop was our bed for the next two nights, Chanoud Garh. Located in the centre of Chanoud village, and like many forts in the region, the building is laid out around two main courtyards. 

Our hosts, the Singh family, live around one courtyard with their pet dogs, and our suite of rooms was one of those located around the other. We were in the tower suite in the corner. Who doesn't like a turret to sleep in, eh?

The fort has been restored over 8 years in a mammoth renovation project with much care and attention taken to respect the original building and character. The result is both spectacular, spacious and charming. 

The Singh family have lived here for 350 years, that's 13 generations. They used to own 1000s of acres of land, 80 villages, have 400 private soldiers, and have judiciary power. But then the water dried up and so did their power - and their money.  

After partition in 1947 the current owner's father decided to move into the horse racing business. After some initial success that too fell on hard times and a decade or so ago he could no longer afford the upkeep of the roof over his head. Something had to be done. There was concern in the village too- even that after all these centuries many there still depended upon the fort for work and for custom.

So the call went out to the owner's children for help. The three siblings jacked in their day jobs in different parts of India, decided to move back  to their grandfather's home, and join forces to make the fort a going concern as a hotel. Eight years later here we are. And business is thriving for the dad, the mum, the two brothers and the sister. They now employ 40 full-time staff and as you might expect, the service is excellent. 

The place is stunning too, its former glory recreated, and the villagers couldn't be more pleased. 

The terrace area is an ideal spot for soaking up the sun, the garden courtyard with its fountain a joy to behold, and dinner is held by candlelight on the roof. 

Food is locally-sourced and delicious. It is traditional home-cooked Rajasthani cuisine at its best. 

The butter is home-made, so are the jams the yoghurt, and all the bread. The meat is local. The vegetables and rice are all from the village too. 

In the evening there was a jeep drive where we drove through some of the other nearby villages to rural farmland, along the way we meet the local farmers and herdsmen. 

We saw hundreds of birds: lapwings, eagrettes, sangrows, drungos, green bee eaters, demoiselle cranes, falcon (known here as shikra), hoopoos, white cheeked bulbuls, red vaulted bulbuls, shiks, crows, finches, common sparrows, stone chaffs, bush chatt, and kites. Oh and a harrier, a flock of peacocks, and a partridge (but sadly not in a pear tree).

We watched the sunset over the incredible salt flats and lake and took in the scenery.

Later that night we climbed our turret steps weary but happy. A stunning end to a stunning day. 

Definitely a road less travelled.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

India Day 15 : A few personal reflections on India

We have visited a fair few places in India on this trip. We have lots more to see of course, but I thought it might be interesting to pause for a few personal reflections on the India we have seen so far.

This was prompted somewhat by my Dad who having read my postings recently, posed a few interesting questions that I thought I might address...

“How have the unique and distinctive crafts, religions and historic buildings survived apparently unchanged?

Compare European and Japanese and Chinese urban development - is it the size of the country or is it the unsophisticated country populace - will it survive better educated children and the impact of social media?”

Well, from what we have seen so far, changes are probably coming to India - and coming very soon. Rural India is on the decline. The rise in popularity of the city as a place where people want to live is phenomenon that is happening all over the world. And India is no exception. Internal migration is a major challenge here. 

It is not just access to the essential services that a city provides (there are severe water shortages in the countryside), but there is little infrastructure to speak of in rural locations, and the wifi is terrible. Like their counterparts around the the world, the young are better informed, restless to communicate, and restless for change.

This desire of the young to wear modern clothes, live a modern lifestyle, and ‘get on in life’ puts inevitable pressure on the ‘old ways.’ Through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter the outside world makes its presence all too clearly known - there are other ways to live. 

One of the women we spoke to here has two daughters. She herself had an arranged marriage but told us she would never dream of imposing that system on either of her daughters. And her daughters would never dream of allowing their mother to do it to them. Within one generation, in that family at leat, things have changed for women here. 

This might be only a minor readjustment of course and not a revolution. Look at the rise of farmers markets in the UK. There is that sort of melancholy for the past here too. The desire for the authentic. Judging by the packed outdoor markets here I suspect the old ways will still have a large part to play in the future of India. It’s not all office jobs and tech start-ups. 

And what of the affect of mass tourism to old India - the new invasion, the new colonists? 

A sad tale to end with - in Jhodpur a few people have painted their houses ‘not-blue’ i.e. brown or yellow. The tourism guides have gone round to see them and have told them to paint their properties back to the correct colour blue. “That’s what tourists want to see.” Oh. What next? Disneyland India?

At 1.3 billion and rising, India is projected to be the world's most populous country by 2024, surpassing the population of China. 

It will be very interesting to see how India changes in those next 8 years. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

India Day 14 : Jodhpur - The Blue City

We left Jaipur yesterday to head 7 hours west into the increasingly arid desert to the beautiful city of Jodhpur. 

Jodhpur, is known as the 'Blue City' on account of the blue houses in its old town, and lies at the edge of the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan. This arid area, known as 'Marwar' or 'land of death', formerly had its capital located at Mandore, some eight kilometres north of here. As you might know, Jodhpur bears the same name as the riding breeches, which were named after its stylishly dressed inhabitants. I used to own a pair of black jhodpurs and wear them down The Bell in Kings Cross -  1980s fashion victim that I was!

This morning Stuart and I embarked on a bit of a tour of the region, which began at the incredible Mehrangarh Fort. This is one of the largest forts and probably one of the most imposing edifices in the whole of India.

The town was founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha, who built the imposing Mehrangarh Fort which towers above the houses far below. In earlier centuries, the rulers of Jodhpur ensured their own survival by marrying into the Mughal rulers' families. Unfortunately, the royal house suffered a bad turn of fate when they backed Shah Jehan in later years in a struggle for power  with his son, Aurangzeb, and their fortunes were reversed.

Steep and winding roads climb to the front and rear entrances of the fort, with many defensive structures built into the route. Nevertheless, the fort was taken by, in succession, the Moghuls, the Marathas and (as you may know!) the British. 

The palace interiors showed incredibly elaborate filigree work in sandstone, and the trappings of an aristocratic life were well displayed. On the road up to the fort was the Jaswant Thada, a dazzling white marble cenotaph to Maharaja Sardar Singh, who died in 1899. Perhaps the most memorable sight from the fort though was the vista over the surrounding plains, and one of the most obvious landmarks visible from the battlements is the Umaid Bhawan. Finished in 1945, and presently a hotel under the management of the Taj group, the palace was possibly the last great building created in India before the maharaja had to cede his property to the new nation. Designed by the Royal Institute of Architects, the palace was a job creation project for 3,000 of the maharaja's subjects, who were suffering from the effects of successive droughts which began in 1923. The superbly styled building is a resonating statement of wealth and power. 

The Chokelao Bagh was opened by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and is the only garden within the Mehrangarh Fort. Designed in 1739 by Maharaja Abhai Singh, the garden has three terraces, each with different themes. In the garden is the Batman Well. Why is it called the Batman Well? Well, they filmed one of the Batman films here and used the well as the setting for the boy Bruce Wayne falling down it. It’s not all high-brow culture here folks!

From the fort, we walked down into the 'Blue City' itself via a cobbled stone path. We were aiming to explore the central bazaar near the ornate clock tower. 

Once in town, we were lucky enough to get to see four largely undiscovered areas of the old city - Brahmpuri, Nav Choukiya, Sarafa Bazaar and Katla. Brahmpuri is the settlement of the Brahmins; their blue houses are packed together along narrow streets. We discovered some historic temples and shrines, as well as a stagnant pond and a few ancient wells, which are still used today. Nav Choukiya is a bustling square in the heart of the Old City that has been a popular meeting place for many centuries. Local villagers in vibrant dress congregate here to find work, old men sip chai (super sweet tea with ginger) and play cards. Gangshyam Ji Ka Mandir is a lively temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. This is a Bhakti temple where the devotees initiate the prayers, which take place six times a day. The temple was alive with beautiful chanting. Outside, we watched gold and silversmiths working traditionally in their small shops. 

Katla is a market where everything from household items to vegetables and jewellery is sold. Achal Nath Ji Ka Mandir is a temple maintained by Naga Sadus and dedicated to Lord Shiva. 

After a quick stop fir some tea we headed away from Jhodpur city to some of the outlying settlements to discover something of the way of life of different peoples in the surrounding area. We had heard it was worth trying to find some of the region’s many tribal groups. 

Among the two tribes we found were the Rabari and the Bishnoi. The Rabari are stock-herding nomads from the area of Gujarat. In recent years, as the world has turned its attention to environmental matters, the Bishnoi, too have become of interest. Guided by their founding guru, the Bishnoi live by 29 principles, which include protection and propagation of trees, and the effective use of water and the land on which they depend to grow food. 

In the village we saw the deep-water wells needed to foster life in this arid area, a few of the more unusual customs, the weaving and building methods, and got a sense of security in communities. We also saw some of the social problems which they, too, experience. Not least caused by the increasing dry weather. The water is running out. Climate change is clearly evident here.

On a lighter note, it was a treat watching one of the elders perform a traditional opium ceremony. Naturally we stayed upwind of it though!

So it was a day showing us the opulent wealth of the past, the more simple life of the tribes, and what the future might hold for us all.

We like Jhodpur. We really do. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

India Day 13 : Block And Chop

Forts, palaces, and temples are all well and good but sometimes you need to consider more earthly things. So today Stuart and I thought we’d dig a little deeper into earthbound domestic Indian life. Specifically we thought we’d try and find out a bit more about two things in particular - Indian clothes and Indian food. Firstly, we thought we’d try and discover how some of the amazingly colourful designs on the shirts, scarves, and sarees we have seen on our trip are created. And secondly, maybe try and find out how some of scrumpy food we have been eating in India is prepared. And maybe even have a go at it ourselves. I mean, how hard can it be? [Spoiler Alert: Very!]

So in the morning we set off in search of the famous Bagru village near Jaipur to investigate how the beautiful fabric dying and block printing is done. And in the evening we were to find a family who graciously said they needed some help preparing, chopping and stirring the Saturday night family dinner. Lucky them!

As I mentioned, Bagru is well renowned for its hand printed clothing industry, with simple designs using uncomplicated techniques and earthy shades of natural dye. Chippa Mohalla, or printer's quarter, at Bagru turned out to be the ideal place to watch the block printers at work and see the hand block printing process up close, from the making of natural dyes and printing inks, to the finished fabrics drying in the sun.

The first place we came to, a boy was perched on a stool. We watched as the fifteen year old boy under the tutorage of his father chisel away at a block of wood - teak - to produce a unique block design. He had it look so easy but one slip and he would have to start afresh. Sometimes the designs are traditional ones. Sometimes they are new ones, send by email and the JPG files printed out. The chiselling certainly looked like artistic yet laborious and time consuming work. The block the boy was working on was about 9” by 4”, would take two days to carve, and, so his father said, was the basis of a repeating pattern destined for a saree. Such skill. Such patience.

Then we visited the dying sheds. Various colourful concoctions were brewing away in vats and tubs - indigo flowers from Australia for the purples, old iron horseshoes mixed with molasses for the blacks, and when the sugar beet yellow was mixed with the blacks and alum powder a vibrant red was produced. Ferrous oxide, ferric oxide, memories of colour chemistry from my school years came rolling back. First a mud mixture was used to screen areas on the silks and cottons, then the wooden blocks were used to print the repeated designs, the cloth was soaked in the vibrant dyes to colour the fabric background, and finally the whole lot was fixed using pomegranate flowers in boiling water. Then the finished product was dried for 4 hours in the sun.  

Repeated printing, soaking, boiling, fixing, and drying in the sun added more and more layers of colour until the desired finish was produced. Beautiful.

It was great to witness the process from start to finish, the marriage of art and craft, and to see the finished products display so much beauty. This tradition is certainly still alive and healthy in India. In this village alone 150 families practice it. 

We had a bit of a go at block printing ourselves too but of course made a complete horlicks of it. We joked afterwards, “your job is safe from us!” The head printer smiled sweetly. He knew it was. 

Then it was time for food. In the evening we found a local family who were patient and trusting enough of us to let us into their home to show us how they cooked a family meal. There English was good enough so they could intervene at the right points so we didn’t completely screw things up and poison the entire household. 

Cooking is a great way to interact with people and we first spent some time getting to know our hosts before they allowed us near their dinner. Luckily the weather was good so the cooking was all al fresco. 

It was quite exciting as they showed us various preparation techniques and we learned which spices and ingredients go into making some of the best and most popular Indian dishes. By the end of night we had picked up a few cooking tips to take home. And learned that there is no such thing as ‘just a little curry’. 

After the prep and cooking we relaxed as our hosts served our creations as a thali so we could all enjoy an Indian meal together. We even we offered some Old Mink rum to wash it down. 

They were super nice and very complimentary about our contribution to the cooking. “Not as good as yours,” we said. “Your job as head cook is safe!” The lady of the house smiled sweetly. She knew it was. 

Great day. Great fun. But from now on, we will leave it to the experts. 

My block printing is haphazard at best. And my cooking? Well, my cooking is normally in three phases. 
1. Prepare the food
2. Serve the food
3. Bury the dead

(Thank you Dorothy Parker)