Warning: Long post ahead:
I had other posts planned first, but in my post-my-laptop-is-not-broken euphoria I have to get something off my chest: I loved India the minute I got here. But I wasn’t in love.
Until this last week.
I’ve been to New Delhi, Agra, Aligarh, and had been starting to worry because I never go the fireworks I had read about. (I guess falling in love with a place has a lot of the same feelings as falling in love with a person.) All that changed the minute I set foot into Udaipur.
Udaipur is sometimes called “the Venice of the East”, but never having been to Venice I cannot speak to the accuracy of this name. From what I’ve heard of Venice’s beauty, though, this seems like a perfect description. Udaipur is filled with lakes of all shapes and sizes, and built around the lakes are palaces, temples, homes, hotels, and shops, packed tightly and stacked on top of one another. Every building has a rooftop from which one can look out over the lake, and the many bridges connect islands to the mainland.
Getting to Udaipur from Delhi consisted of an overnight, 12-hour weekend train ride in sleeper class. After the long trip for which I was thankfully able to sleep on-and-off, we packed ourselves and our things into a bus for the drive from the train station to the city. When the bus dropped us off our first view was of Lake Pichola, the same
lake that we would find our hotel rooms looking over. At just past 8 o’clock in the morning, the sunlight shimmered on the water and cows ambled past us on the bridge. We walked through the streets of downtown Udaipur, which are both typically Indian and unique to Rajasthan, until we got to our hotel. Turning to our teachers in awe, we ran to the bay windows overlooking the lake as they smiled knowingly. Our hotel was a gem.
The next few days were spent with an ideal balance of lounging about in our beautiful hotel room, exploring the gorgeous city of Udaipur, and making educational excursions to rural Rajasthan. Within Udaipur, a few friends and I found the most beautiful rooftop restaurant, and were able to look out over the lake at sunset while sipping lassi and munching on veg sizzler (what appeared to be fried vegetables topped with cheese fries and some sort of fatty, orange, delicious sauce, more or less). It was particularly satisfying to be able to order in Hindi, but not as satisfying as the awe-inspiring experience of watching the sun sink below Udaipur’s patchwork skyline and dark lakes. Our wonderful teachers even planned a cultural night for us atop our hotel’s roof, complete with traditional food, music, and dance, and late into the night they showed us what a real, crazy Indian party is like.
Aside from exploring beautiful Udaipur, our trip’s itinerary included excursions to health centers, school, and small villages in rural Rajasthan. Now, describing these places as rural is not the same as describing my childhood hometown in Pennsylvania as rural. This is rural. Like three small homes, kilometers of poppy fields and wheat fields, then another home and a tiny preschool. Rural. And beautiful. I’ve driven through quite a bit of the United States in my day, but none of it had me glued to the window like driving through the bumpy roads of Rajasthan.
Far from the noise-filled streets of Delhi, most of Rajasthan (“the Land of Kings”) is desert. Don’t let that conjure up images of barren, dusty plains, however, because somehow Rajasthan manages somehow to be almost lush despite the climate. Cacti and palm trees grow side by side next to fields of chickpeas, wheat, chili peppers, and even poppies. While driving by the fields one will also pass women in the brightest of saris carrying baskets of crop and pots of water on their heads, as well as children that stop their play to wave at passing vehicles.
We made this drive three times, to visit three different types of NGOs. Rather, three similar NGOs which interact very differently with the government to carry out their missions. The first of these was a mobile clinic that travels to different village centers to provide a day of medical care once every few months to these communities. The day we visited the mobile clinic it was stopped at a village center beside a school, so 30 or more children ran out of their classroom to watch us walk out of our bus. Talking with doctors, government liaisons, villagers, and the occasional brave child, we got an idea of the way the government works with NGOs to get to healthcare to rural, mostly inaccessible populations. The next NGO had a less cooperative, but still pleasant relationship with the government. They would go fill the gaps in healthcare delivery, nutrition, and women’s empowerment, then wait for the government to take over where they started. Here we visited another school, this one full of even younger children.
The last NGO, however, was by far the most interesting, as well as the most breathtaking, experience. Prayas, a 32 year old organization in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, works for the communities it serves in a number of ways. It empowers women in the community, works to change rather than impose changes, and has drastically improved the health of everyone in the community, especially women and infants. We spent a night and two days at Prayas and they were some of the best days I’ve had in India so far. We talked to girls at a local, free boarding school for tribal women, we asked questions of traditional healers and birth attendants, and we closely observed the way a successful and beloved NGO works on the ground. With this NGO in particular we were able to see the way an NGO can work to protect marginalized populations from their own government, as is needed in the tribal communities of Rajasthan.
All of that was extremely interesting, but what has stuck out in my mind has been the extra-curricular activities during our stay there, somewhat of an introduction to what life is like for most Indians (70% live in rural areas). Our last night in Rajasthan was spent at Prayas and after a full day of travelling and observing we were all ready for sleep. I chose, however, to take a walk with a few others down the moonlit highway through the hills near Prayas. The walk was beautiful, spent looking up at the stars I miss in Delhi. On the way back, not quite ready to go to bed when surrounded by such beauty, we sat on the roof and talked. Someone was struck with the brilliant idea that the five of us should steal mattresses from the floor where we were to sleep, and move them to the roof. So we did, and it was stunning to fall asleep under the stars, and wake up to the sunrise and the sounds of nearby villagers beginning their days.
After waking up, but before breakfast, we walked down the road not even a kilometer and found not one, but three ancient temples built into the hillside, ripe for exploring. Feeling like Indiana Jones, I walked through temples that felt like time portals and ran my fingers across time-worn stone carvings. At one temple in particular I walked inside, then a local woman followed me inside. Wordlessly, she pulled aside a curtain to show me a shrine. The whole experience felt so surreal. I thanked her, then walked around the back to find a wide, deep well with narrow stairs leading down to it, and bird’s nests hanging from the branches above it. There, again, a local man (the woman’s wife) was eager to show me hospitality. He called me over and we struggled to converse in my limited Hindi as he pointed out things for me to photograph. Eventually joined by my friends, we talked to the whole family and thanked them again.
We walked slowly back to Prayas for breakfast, admiring the scenery all the while. After finishing our food we visited the girl’s school (much to the girls’ amusement), then walked through the village center.to a garden area. We relaxed there for a while before meeting barefoot in front of a shrine with the traditional healers and birth attendants. Surrounded by old shrines, incense, and intricately knotted banyan trees we observed the meeting of East and West in the way this NGO dealt with the existing traditions of the community. Then we were lucky enough to see firsthand traditional healing in action. Hearing drumming in the distance, a traditional healer interrupts our teacher to ask something in Hindi. Our teacher translated for us:
“Would you like to see a ceremony to cure a woman possessed by evil spirits?”
We jumped to our feet and ran outside to observe the procession. Led by a small group of men, a line of women in bright Rajasthani saris danced an eerie dance to the drum beat while balancing full pots of water on their heads. Following that group were a few straggling children and men, and then the woman in question. Her face covered, she moaned and writhed while the women around her directed her in the direction of the drumming. Like so many experiences that week, it was truly surreal.
After that excitement we returned, said our goodbyes, and left for our final field trip before returning to Delhi: Chittorgarh Fort. I’ve walked past Agra Fort, and through Ranthambore Fort, as well as castles in Wales, but none of them have inspired as much wonder as Chittorgarh Fort. For one thing, it is gargantuan, and carved into a cliff face looking over Chittorgarh District. Clambering over walls, running down stairs, walking barefoot into temples, and balancing gingerly on railings, I was overwhelmed. On the one hand it is massive and beautiful and ancient, every corner filled with stories. On the other hand, it is wide-open and beautiful, the air is fresh, and there is so much to explore. I kept thinking how fun it would have been to be a child and play hide-and-seek in these walls.
From Chittorgarh Fort two stories stick out, one of legend and one personal experience. One of the famous stories of the fort revolves around a particular palace in the middle of the lake.
I will defer to Chittorgarh’s own websitehere:
Desperate to have a look at the legendary beauty of Padmini, he sent word to King Ratansen that he looked upon Padmini as his sister and wanted to meet her. On hearing this, the unsuspecting Ratansen asked Padmini to see the ‘brother’. But Padmini was more wordly-wise and she refused to meet the lustful Sultan personally.
On being persuaded by her husband Rana Ratansen, Rani Padmini consented to allow Ala-ud-din to see her only in a mirror. On the word being sent to Ala-ud-din that Padmini would see him he came to the fort with his selected his best warriors who secretly made a careful examination of the fort’s defences on their way to the Palace.
On seeing Padmini, in the mirror, Allah-ud-din Khilji decided that he should secure Padmini for himself.
The rest of the story is almost like a Greek tragedy and can be found on the website, I highly recommend taking a look at it if reading this post hasn’t tired you out. I got to stand in the tower where Allah-ud-din Khilji stood and looked into an angled mirror, across a moat, onto the dais of Rani Padmini’s island palace.
My own story, much less grand, felt almost magical to me so I will share: While wandering child-like around the ruins I stumbled across a darkened temple. I heard lovely music and smelled sandalwood emanating from inside, so I slipped off my sandals at the door and stepped inside. Feeling the cold marble under my feet, the air itself almost felt different and suddenly there was a cold breeze. The carvings inside were intricate and beautiful, and I turned around to find a turbaned man, and behind him a three-headed statue showing the faces of Shiva. My friend joined me inside and he beckoned us over, offering us an orange mixture to place dots upon our foreheads. We bent down and he put the wet dye between our eyebrows. My friend dropped a ten rupee note in the shrine’s bowl for the two of us, then we left feeling strangely light. We shared a look and smiled in wonder at the temple, India, and the world in general.
India is incredible, as the posters say.