Have you read Part 1 yet? We left the trip at the Amber Fort and this part takes it up again just down the road.
Near the Amber Fort is the Jantar Mantar observatory. (Literal translation “calculation instrument”!) It’s a collection of structures designed to predict eclipses and track time, stars and planets. The Hindus are into their zodiac, so there were instruments for each star sign, and the enormous sundial was told to be accurate within seconds. Although, I suspect time and materials would have taken their toll and created an amount of subsidence by the time we saw it. Either way, there were monkeys all over this place.
Udaipur is about 400kms southwest of Jaipur and is known as the Lake City. We arrived after a rickety, hot bus trip. We did that a lot—rode rickety, hot buses. I also slept a lot. It’s a good way to pass the time, despite missing out on the passing sites. After arriving in Udaipur, and seeing more palaces, we had dinner at the Lake Palace. I’ve no photos of my own and no details except for what I ate, (rice and bread was fairly common), but I do remember the Lake Palace was built as a royal summer palace in the 1700s and is now a luxury 5-star hotel. According to the hotel’s website, the Royal Butlers are descendents of the original palace retainers. In shimmering white marble, it covers four acres of an island in Lake Pichola, and all visitors to the hotel are ferried by boat from Udaipur’s City Palace. I don’t remember that part, at all.
Leaving behind the decadence of the many forts and palaces we’d been seeing, we travelled to Rishikesh. It is here we find the spiritual heart of India. The Ganges has long been regarded as a sacred river. Indeed, the Hindus consider it the holiest of rivers. Everything happens here. It’s used for irrigation, it generates electrical power; people bathe in it, have ceremonies by it, and the Hindus cast the ashes of the dead into it. In my diary I noted that we watched everyone pray and send candles down the river. “This happens every night—what a drag.” I can’t help but chuckle. Was I dissing the boring ritual we’d just seen or did I find the notion of nightly prayer a bit ridiculous? Obviously, as an obstinate and unenlightened youth, I failed to see the cultural significance in front of me. And I chuckle because this devotion to and immersion in spirituality is utterly fascinating to me now. Here I was, at the lifeblood of India’s mysticism with no enlightenment to show for it. I can think of nothing more moving, now, than to stand by the Ganges river for Diwali—India’s annual five-day “festival of lights” that celebrates an inner awareness and the awakening of higher knowledge.
It isn’t just the Ganges flowing with spirituality. Rishikesh is sometimes called the “capital of yoga”. It’s a popular place for tourists to come seeking out enlightenment in one of the many ashrams, and more so since Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. And it was Rishikesh, in 1968, where The Beatles cloistered themselves for an intense period of swamis and songwriting.
Rishikesh is also the gateway to the Himalayas. An eight-hour bus trip took us up into a town called Auli. It’s close to the Chinese border so there was a heavy presence of military police. Our mountain trek was supposed to take us higher into the Himalayan Mountains, but India was on the brink of war with Pakistan over the northern state of Kashmir. Tensions were high and we’d already been diverted from Ladakh, and the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri in Rajasthan.
So, with a safe route plotted out for us we began our trek into the mist. By now, everyone had had a brush with Delhi Belly, or was in the throes of it at the time. We’d already lost three members from our group due to sustained illness and dehydration—a friend, one teacher and a staff member had stayed back at the hotel awaiting medical treatment. Ironically (and thankfully), having packed two jars of super-strong, expensive, broad-spectrum anti-biotics, supplied by my family doctor, I had no cause to use them.
Trekking up through the clouds we came across kelpie-like dogs that could only survive in the mountain environment where the air is thin; we saw members of the Army out on training exercise; and we came across temples and other buildings dotted through the mountains.
The mists of the mountains were cool and calming—a pleasant change from the 40-degree heat of the low-lying cities. After four nights of camping in the mountains we spent our last one on a rice field. Children flocked to where we were sitting and Fiona gave them plastic flutes she’d bought at some stage from a market stall. We had a chance with these kids to see them in their own environment, doing the same sort of things kids at home in our own country would do. Maybe these children experienced a similar poverty to their city counterparts but this felt different. There wasn’t any begging, just a simple curiosity. I guess life has always been more expensive in the city and with a bigger population to compete with, there’s no choice but to stick to the task at hand. Those few rupees from a harassed tourist could keep a whole family fed for several days.
We descended from the quiet mountains into the hustle and bustle of New Delhi—visiting Connaugh Place for a pre-departure shopping trip. Loaded up with clothes and pirated cassette tapes we were ready for home.
I’ve often heard India described as a land of contrasts and I can’t disagree. Even through the lens of my forunate childhood, I could pick out the differences. It’s more than just the dry heat and the humidity of monsoon season, it’s the extreme decadence and despairing poverty; the arid land of the barren mountainsides of Rajasthan and the misty forests of the Himalayas; the desperate sadness of circumstance and the festive celebrations of life, light and love. The India of my adulthood would be full of all these things but with the time and temperament to savour them. Instead of the blandest rice and bread, I’d eat the hottest tandoori and spiciest curries. I’d find joy in the colour and ceremony—vibrant saris, market stalls of powder dyes, lights and song. And I’d take the time for quiet contemplation; appreciating the mysticism of the Indian people and their land.