Jains, Jews and New Beginnings

Trip Start Sep 28, 2011
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Trip End Oct 24, 2011


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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In the early 19th century, an agent of the British East India Company, described Udaipur as the "most romantic spot on the continent of India". In southern Rajasthan, several hundred kilometers southwest of Delhi, Udaipur has been the seat of the oldest of India's princely dynasties, the Maharanas of Mewar since the 16th century. The current Maharana, who claims to be able to trace his unbroken lineage back to the 8th century still owns the City Palace complex which dominates Udaipur and its lake front and lives within one of the several palaces within the complex’s walls.

Udaipur itself, is just a “small” city of around half a million people. By Indian standards it’s relatively clean and orderly (so one of our guides assured us) mainly because of the presence of many colleges mostly devoted to IT although the city even boasts two medical schools. Not that the casual visitor would notice! The city center streets are clogged with human and vehicle traffic and the omnipresent cows who wonder around (and park themselves) with complete impunity. Even on the main roads, highways & expressways around Udaipur, cows wondering along the carriageways (mostly going against the traffic flow) or just sitting and contemplating who knows what, are a constant hazard. Water buffalo are perhaps an even bigger hazard, with their enormous horns and black colour which makes them next to impossible to spot at night. Cows and buffalo certainly aren’t the only road hazard though. Cars, trucks, buses and motor scooters have no problem at all in driving down the wrong side of the road against the legal flow of traffic, even on multi-lane highways with a central divider. Our guide assured us that this is perfectly standard practice, even if illegal. To prove the point we did it ourselves when our driver missed a poorly signed turn-off and decided to drive up the wrong side of the highway rather than go to the next turn off on our side, several kilometers further on.

The highlight of Udaipur is the incredibly picturesque Lake Pichola dominated on one side by the vast City Palace complex. It’s actually man-made – a reservoir rather than a lake which depends on good monsoon rains to keep it full. The lake does dry up periodically – the last time in early 2010, at which time, the legendary Lake Palace Hotel, in the middle of the lake was accessible only by 4-wheel drive vehicles and camels! The recent monsoon rains though had been good and for our visit, Lake Pichola was at its best. We stayed at the Lake Palace Hotel, originally built by a Maharana as a “pleasure palace” where he could enjoy himself without being bothered by his wife. The hotel is only accessible by motor launch (assuming the reservoir hasn't dried up) and a more beautiful and luxurious hotel in a more stunning location would be hard to find.

Crossing by launch from the city jetty to the hotel, you are treated to views of the city skyline and the hills around the lake many crowned by palaces or temples. It’s the City Palace complex that dominates everything though. Comprising the King’s Palace and the Queen’s Palace (both now museums), smaller palaces which are now two hotels and a conference centre as well as the palace which is the residence of the current Maharana and his family, it makes for an imposing sight. The Maharana has no legal or political power now, so he has gone into business in a big way and is very much a mainstay of the region’s tourist industry. Although extravagantly wealthy, by western princely standards (or modern day Arab standards for that matter), the Maharana’s of Mewar didn’t live in particularly extravagant palaces. So beyond the impressive building, there’s not much to see with a couple of exceptions: the grand Durbar Hall (royal reception hall) with its massive crystal chandeliers, the Crystal Gallery and the incredible miniature paintings.

The Crystal Gallery is so-called because of its extraordinary, unique collection of crystal furniture ordered from a now defunct London glassmaker. The furniture, including a bed, sofa, chairs and tables was ordered by a Maharana in the 1870's. Unfortunately, he died before the stuff arrived and the family left it all in crates, completely undisturbed until rediscovered by the current Maharana 110 years later, unpacked and put out on display.

Don't be fooled by the name, miniature paintings are mostly not miniature. "Miniature" describes the style and detail of the painting and not the size of the canvas. Local artists perfected the skill of painting stories or events on a single canvas using brushes made from camel hair or camels’ eyelashes. What results are vibrant, colourful, highly detailed paintings from which the experienced observer (or in our case, with the help of the guide) can follow the story of an historical event. The Palace complex has literally thousands of these paintings.

Jain or Jew?

Kamal, our excellent guide in Udaipur, let us know almost from the outset that he is a Jain from an orthodox Jain family. Jainism developed from Hinduism in the 5th century BC, a few decades before Buddhism as a revolt against the direction the Hindu hierarchy was then taking. Fewer than 1% of Indians are Jains, but Kamal explained to us that the Jains are “the Jews of India”, as he put it “family-oriented, hard working, heavy focus on education and highly adept businessmen”. Strict vegetarians with a firm belief in the sanctity of all life, Jains we were told won’t even eat root vegetables, because ants may have been killed in harvesting them. Kamal seemed to be exemplifying all of this – with a degree in accountancy, he owns a marble business (www.theedgerock.com) and his wife is a fashion designer. Tour guiding, so he told us, is just his hobby. His sister is a Jain nun, spending her life walking barefoot around the country side in meditation and prayer. She eats only once every three days (until recently, just one meal every four days), fasting it seems being a keen component of Jainism

So it was with enormous enthusiasm that Kamal took us to the Jain temple complex of Ranakpur in a jungle-sloped valley 50 miles or so from Udaipur. The journey itself was fascinating, dodging cows, water buffalo and even caravans of Rabari tribesmen. The Rabari are a colourful nomadic tribe which move around the country side shepherding flocks of sheep, goats and camels together with all of their possessions. They live by selling the milk of their flocks and “renting” out their animals to farmers to nibble down the grass and fertilize the fields. The temple itself is an architectural masterpiece, built in the 15th century entirely of marble, intricately carved, with 80 domes, supported by nearly 1500 pillars.

A New Beginning

It was while on the way back to Udaipur from Ranakpur that we got the call from Benjamin that Kimberly had gone into labour. At 3:30 am in California, 4 pm in India on October 17, Kim was a little over three weeks ahead of schedule. We quickly made the decision to cut short our trip and return home as quickly as possible. No mean feat – Udaipur must be about as far away as it’s possible to be on the planet from San Diego, but with the help of telephones, the internet and our travel company, we managed to get back within 48 hours. Benjamin kept us updated by phone through our night and thanks to the wonders of the internet and Skype we were able to see Bennett Samuel Lee and his proud parents, within a few minutes of his birth!

So, we didn’t quite make it to our 40th anniversary celebration at the Taj Mahal (that would have been on October 21), but what a sweet and wonderful coincidence for us that two such memorable events should have India as their “centerpiece” 40 years apart!
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Comments

Dan Egerton on

Huge congratulations to you all! We are so excited for you. What a beautiful baby boy.

Speak soon.

Love to all

D&S

Marie Davie on

What a great anniversary gift. You and Sandra are pros holding that baby. Bennett is just so precious. He is quite handsome for a new born. Perfect little features. Congratulations also to the new mommy and daddy!

PS: David, I did not know that you joined the "Red Hat Society". You made a statement with that one.

The history and pixs of your trip are spectacular. Thanks for sharing them and your good news!

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