It's the annual Jaipur Elephant Festival, put on by the Rajasthan Tourism Department the day before Holi, the spring Hindu festival of colors.
Elephant owners day-glo paint up their pachyderms, varnish their huge toenails, give them crowns of beaten silver, anklets, velvet blankets and drape them with garlands of flowers (edible jewelry!). Then, they parade through the Chaugan Stadium for an elephantine beauty contest, a quick game of Jumbo football and a heck of a lot of photo-taking.
We got to the stadium, which the Jaipur Maharajahs use to play polo, three hours before the festival starting time because we'd heard that getting a spot in the shade was tough. What an understatement.
There were only five or six people there when we arrived, but by an hour to show time all the seats were taken and people meandered around optimistically, searching for a magically vacant chair. Before the rush though, we got out to the elephant beauty parlor being conducted in the alleys around the stadium entrance.
Teams of men coaxed, pushed and prodded their huge pets into standing still while they carefully outlined drawings on their rough, grey skin. Flowers were popular motifs, though some drew stars, flags and lions too.
Back at the stadium a group of women in sparkly saris tossed rose petals on the foreigners arriving (strangely, Indians were seated in a different section) and daubed paint on their foreheads. The MC arrived and started playing loud Holi-themed music. There seem only to be four songs about Holi in the Indian repertoire, and we heard them each about 600 times. Finally got that bad Kesha song out of our heads, though.
The crowd was fairly quiescent during the start of the festival, but since there weren't enough chairs, it was a natural progression from wandering around to find a place to sit to wandering out onto the festival ground to get a better look at the gorgeous elephants and the twirling dancers that accompanied them. The police working the festival, though they'd been rigorous about chasing stray dogs, beggars and kids off of the stadium ground and away from the foreign guests (which included diplomats from Malawi, Botswana and the "Republic of Dominican"), seemed reluctant to tell tourists to get back to the designated seating area.
Despite the MC's increasingly hysterical pleas and admonitions to "please sit down", the arena slowly filled up with people wanting to get up close to the elephants. Soon the seats we'd so jealously guarded for hours now were redundant and we took off for the field as well.
There was a small scare when the elephants playing football started to charge toward the milling crowd, but no one was trampled. It got chaotic, but it was fun.
Next year, the tourism department would do well to make an additional standing or floor-sitting area for tourists, and to wrap up the official part of the festival early so people can go do what they obviously really want to do--go get their portrait taken with an elephant.
**Click here to see our photos of the Elephant Festival!**
Walking through the Sun Gate to the bottom courtyard of Amber Fort, I feel like we've stepped into a set of Conan the Barbarian.
"Can I punch a camel in the head?" Dan asks.
No camels just here, but the crenelated walls of the yellow fort look perfect for snake-worship or simply throwing a grappling hook over.
This is the ancient capital of the Jaipur aristocracy, built before the pink city was created. It sits halfway up a scrubby mountain, lording over a village in the green valley below. Defensive barriers, not unlike China's Great Wall, line the ridges of the hills around. Another fort, Jaigarh, the last line of defense we presume, dominates the peak of the mountain. It was never taken in battle, and the Jaipur royal family's one-and-one-quarter flags continue to fly defiantly from its tallest tower.
Winded from climbing the hill, we took plenty of time to look over the forts.
Amber (say it with a silent 'b') is a fun-house of tiny, odd-shaped rooms, tilting passageways and mysterious corners, stairways and bypasses. One courtyard, the Jai Mandir, has mirrored paintings that glitter silver in the afternoon sun. On a more practical side, I overheard a guide telling tourists that the fort has more than 100 latrines hidden throughout its four stories. The hamam, or bathing area is also interesting--certainly the oldest jacuzzi I've ever seen.
Jaigarh is built flatter, on a wider expanse. The walls have triple-holed shooter's hideouts and ramps for canons. The view reaches the 11 kilometers to modern Jaipur and over countless valleys around it.
There's a puppet theater that used to amuse royal children, a long dining hall with manikins forever enjoying tasty medieval food fashioned out of plaster (men and women separately, of course).
The best part of the fort, though, is the garden. Three forty-foot tall scalloped archways in red sandstone look east over the village of Amber and the golden walls of Amber Fort, made toy-like by the distance.
As the sun set behind Jaigarh, we kept an eye out for roving barbarians and made our way down the mountain and back to the 21st century.
The Maharajas of Jaipur were so feared on the battlefield that Jai Singh II was declared to be greater than just one man.
Given the title “Sawai,” a man and a quarter, his descendants still honor their family's historical prowess by flying two flags--one full- and one quarter-sized.
The Jaipur royal family still live here and, according to their museum's audio guide, take an active interest in promoting their city and its tourism.
On our first full day here we took a look at the public portion of the regal City Palace, a giant compound constructed in red sandstone and cream marble in the middle of the pink-painted Old City.
Entering the gates of the palace was like walking into one of the books about British India I'd read as a teenager. Turbaned guards stand at attention (beside a metal detector, nowadays), and the 20-foot-tall wood and steel gates open wide enough to allow an elephant through (or at least a minibus full of tourists).
The rooms inside the Jaipur palace aren't ancient. The city was built in the 1700s, but some of the courtyard buildings were finished in the last century. Whatever century they were built in, they still impress today. Delicately painted archways, gold and silver inlay on the ceilings and plush Persian carpets are awesome in any time period.
After the main palace, we walked around to one of the most famous landmarks in Jaipur, the Hawa Mahal. Built on a smaller scale than the City Palace, the 'Palace of the Winds' was dedicated to Krishna.
Almost a whimsical construction of sandstone arches fluffed up like foamed milk, the palace's front rooms were a favorite of the women at the turn of the 19th century. In a time when women, especially the royal family, were expected to keep purdah behind a veil or screen at all times, the Hawa Mahal has several stories of latticed windows where the women could watch the street below without being seen.
After spying down on the markets and traffic, we decided to check it out in person and wandered for awhile.
It's a beautiful city and deservedly famous, but it's fame has brought about a harder line of competition in the tourist industry.
The sales people and rickshaw drivers here are the pushiest we've encountered yet in India. The first driver we chose to drive us back to our hotel stopped twice to try to bully us into visiting tourist shops. This would have been exasperating enough if the shops weren't the same ones whose touts we'd had such a hard time getting past on our walk. So, we abandoned that driver, which didn't make him very happy (he came after us and pulled Dan's hair, which precipitated a few choice Aussie words from Dan) but really, how many times can we say, "No shopping?"
Our hotel's manager, who seems like a conscientious and kind-hearted man, has warned us three times already in our short stay that we shouldn't trust any shops or rickshaw drivers and that unless we wanted to be cheated we'd be better off doing our shopping in another city. In his words, "Don't go shopping and you'll have a happy trip." No problem for us since we're really only interested in buying postcards at the moment, but what a pity for tourists who only have a short time in India.
From the massive sandstone gate through to the delicate carvings and inlays of the pleasure halls overlooking the river bed on the other side, the Fort takes up a huge amount of central Delhi real estate.
First a royal palace and then used by the British as a garrison and then, after Independence, by the Indian army, today it's a park popular with local families and one of the must-see attractions of Old Delhi. It's so popular that even when we visited on a weekday afternoon there were a few hundred people in front of us waiting to get in.
Because each visitor is checked by security individually, it took a long hour's wait before we could enter and we were worried that the inside of the fort would be crowded. But the complex is so large that even with the thousands of visitors it receives every day, the fort seemed roomy. We refused the advances of several guides in favor of wandering by ourselves, and enjoyed the peace of the shady grounds and empty outbuildings.
Leaving the fort at sunset was an amazing contrast between the tranquility of the park to the chaos of the Old Delhi streets.
It's the perfect melding of Cairo and China—you can feel the geography inherent in the culture. We are here where the East slowly turns to the Far East.
It has the chaos of Cairo, the street stalls and smells. Yesterday evening we walked to the Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in Delhi. During the call for prayer, as the sun was settling behind the 2-story buildings ringing the mosque, Dan and I walked through the traffic, by eateries selling kebabs and bookstores specializing in Arabic. It reminded me of Egypt, of Turkey, even Morocco.
But that's not the whole city. Also, there's a bustle in the air, a sense of commerce and focus on the future that reminds me of China. The traffic and street sellers have more in common with their eastern neighbors, I feel.
Yesterday, on our walk, we passed a group of restaurants that could have been in any city in China—except for the features of the people running them and the lack of chopsticks. They were that garage-style restaurant where the door opens, a long low table is built all the way around the edge, the food is cooked on a movable propane stove at the front of the store and customers perch on small plastic chairs while they eat.
New Delhi's residents seem proud of their home; on the train we sat next to a man who told us that we could see Delhi in two days. Then, however, he started to explain all the things we could do. The two days would stretch to two weeks, it seemed, if we followed all his recommendations. Then, there was the couple we shared a table with at a busy kebab restaurant in upmarket Connaught Place. They saw us searching our Lonely Planet for cafes graced with wifi. They suggested a few more spots, making sure we knew if they were "in" or not.
So far, we haven't done much official sight-seeing. The city is overwhelming enough just looking at things from the streets. We're staying in what seems to be backpacker central, a less commercialized version of Bangkok's Khao San Road or Yangshuo's West Street. Amid the shops selling wry T-shirts and hookahs, past the cafes touting Italian, Mexican and Israeli foods, there's still a lot of local action here. Cows wander slowly through the impatient pedi-cab and motorcycle traffic, tiny temples waft incense to the streets, and local women in saris and delicate gold nose-rings do their shopping next to young European tourists with dreadlocks, tattoos and a different kind of nose-ring altogether.
We did spend an afternoon at the Indian National Museum, a four-story walk through time, from the Harappan Civilization to present day. Most fascinating were the exhibits on miniature paintings and ancient armor. The museum entrance fee for foreigners included an audio guide, which was interesting. All tourist attractions we've been to in India have different prices for locals and for foreigners.
Today or tomorrow we hope to check out the massive Red Fort and the city's famous bazaars.
Following Shiva's lovers south, we took a train from Madurai to the southernmost tip of mainland India, Kanniyakumari, or Cape Comorin.
Named after a young girl sent to kill a demon and foiled from marrying Shiva by a cruel trick, the cape is also well-known as being an important meditation spot for the 'wandering monk' Swami Vivekananda.
Vivekananda lived in the late 1800s, and became an ascetic as a teenager, later in life wandering all over India searching for knowledge. He was, like Gandhi, a believer in Indian independence.
At Kanniyakumari, Vivekananda went to a rock a few hundred yards offshore and meditated for three days. After the meditation he decided to travel to the United States and other countries to try to get support for India's freedom.
Today an extremely crowded ferry reaches the rock and the one next to it which holds a 133-meter high statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvallavar.
The poet is best known for his 133-verse poem Thirukkural. The poem, which reads in English more like a set of rules to live by, is carved into the walls inside the monument's base.
Sightseeing aside, Kanniyakumari was a health stop. I came down with a dreadful case of Delhi Belly--and we hadn't even reached New Delhi yet! Two courses of antibiotics and several days flat-out rest later, I recovered and we continued on our journey through India.
Once upon a time, the king and queen had a beautiful daughter. Her eyes were as beautiful as a fish's, her hair luxuriant. Her face was lovely, and her personality as sweet as a Tamil Nadu mango. The girl was perfect in all ways except one. She had three breasts.
Triple breasts was really a triple blessing, wise men told the horrified family. All little Meenakshi had to do was wait until she found her true love, and then the unnecessary appendage would melt away.
So little Meenakshi enjoyed her time in the palace of her father and mother. She lived behind the tall walls in cool courtyards. Gardens full of flowers were her playground and peacocks were her friends.
When she was a teenager, and the story of her beauty and her odd affliction were becoming worn with the telling and re-telling, it seemed for awhile that Meenakshi's true husband would never come. No matter how many suitors she met, her third breast stayed put on her chest.
Then, suddenly a handsome young man appeared in a village not far from Madurai. It wouldn't be wrong to say this mysterious prince was as beautiful as a god, because, that's what he was. An avatar, or incarnation of the god Shiva, he came to Madurai and asked for Meenakshi's hand in marriage.
Her third breast disappeared, and the princess, besides having to go out and get all of her clothing altered to fit her new, sleeker physique, duly married the handsome stranger.
As wife of the handsome god (unlike another maiden-turned-deity, poor little Kanniyakumari, who missed her wedding to Shiva because of an evil trick) Meenakshi herself was a goddess, the reincarnation of Parvati.
The people of Madurai constructed a gorgeous temple for Meenakshi, where to this day she listens to their prayers. Her husband Shiva also has an altar in her temple, and every night, after their holy business of listening to people's worries and hopes is over, the priests of the temple bring the statue of Shiva through the incense-infused corridors, give him a goodnight snack of a banana and fan him with peacock feathers. Then, he is brought into the inner sanctum where his wife's statue awaits him, so they can rest together before the temple opens the next morning.
We got to watch Shiva's bedtime ceremony twice while staying in Madurai. Friday nights, it seems, are the god and goddess' date night--Shiva gets to stay up a little later, and has a little extra pampering before meeting up with Meenakshi. Monday nights, on the other hand, he goes to bed at 9 and has a less elaborate goodnight ritual.
We missed Madurai's Float Festival by a few weeks. During this festival, I read in our guidebook, statues of Meenakshi and Shiva are taken to the tank (a large artificial pond where holy water flows) and put on floats. At the end of the festival they go back to the temple to make love, and in doing so, re-create the universe.
Me (in salwar kameez) and Dan (waiting for his new clothes)
When Gandhi and his party were agitating for Indian independence, one of his fighting points was what to wear.
One of the acts of civil disobedience he encouraged was boycotting British-loomed cotton. Gandhi noticed that India was producing a lot of cotton. However, that raw cotton was being shipped to Europe where the clothing mills of Northern England would turn it into thread and then into garments, which were in turn shipped back to India and sold to Indians at a much higher price.
Wouldn't it be better, he thought, for Indians to be self-sufficient in clothing themselves?
Gandhi himself made an effort to spin cotton yarn every day, and adamantly wore only the traditional Indian dhoti (worn like a sarong or loincloth) and shawls spun out of local materials. And, he bought the first of his Indian-spun, Indian-made dhoti's in Tamil Nadu's Madurai.
Tamils seem proud of this connection to the Mahatma, and most men we saw on the street were also wearing dhotis. We visited the Gandhi Memorial Museum in Madurai, where the centerpiece of the museum is, in fact, the blood-stained dhoti Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated in 1948.
Now, we were expecting to see a lot of sites connected with Gandhi, but clothing shops? Well, why not.
Encouraged by this, Dan and I decided our wardrobes were in need of an overhaul and decided to patronize Indian cotton as well.
First, we had to shop around for some fabric. The streets around Madurai's Sri Meenakshi Temple are clothing central. One of the gates leading up to the temple is a mini bazaar lined with sweating men churning cloth through their Singer sewing machines. Dan got some shirt fabric at a place also selling ready made clothes, and some pants fabric at a booth in the bazaar. Later, we found a tailor specializing in men's clothes. But finding something for me wasn't as easy.
Most stores we looked at carried saris. Now, saris are beautiful, but I don't really think they go with my backpack. Plus, the idea of having to wash five or six meters of cloth every time it got dirty doesn't appeal to me. What I was looking for was a salwar kameez. This is a three-piece garment, consisting of a knee-length-ish top, loose drawstring pants (I see some teenagers wearing skinny leggings under theirs—the latest fashion?) and a long, sheer scarf called a dupatta which is worn looped over the shoulders with the ends trailing down the back. We looked through several stores trying to find a salwar kameez that didn't come encrusted with fake gems, studded with round mirrors or scaled with sequins but had no luck.
Finally, we learned that a lot of salwar kameez aren't bought at the store. Instead, you go look at patterns in a shop, pick out fabric which suits the pattern you like (or vice versa) and go have it stitched up to your dimensions. After all my experiences shopping for clothes in China (What? You mean I'm XXXXL again? Last week it was only triple-X!), it was novel to go in, pick out clothes and not have to worry about the size. Later, I did buy a ready-made salwar kameez. It was cheaper, but the tailored one is definitely superior.
Shopped out, we picked up Dan's clothes at the tailor and took the train as far south as we could, to Kanniyakumari.
In Kumbakonam, we found a laid-back little town with friendly people and a picture around every corner.It's a 'Temple City' whose skyline is spiked with slope-sided gopurams—the town purportedly boasts 20 temples but it seems like more.
We took a look through the two listed in our Lonely Planet, and then spent the rest of our time just exploring the streets, with a vague objective of finding the river and/or wireless internet.
No luck on the wifi cafe, but on the advice of a guy we chatted to near the river, we stopped off at a neighborhood temple for a glance and ended up welcomed into the inner sanctum.
Leaving our shoes at the door, as always required in temples, we took pictures of the small gopuram and entrance hall of the Sri Kalahasthevswarar Temple, but didn't venture in farther for a few minutes.
Unsure about whether non-Hindus were allowed past the main entrance, Dan and I stood smiling in the doorway, carefully avoiding messing up the rice-flour drawings on the stone floor.We looked around, at the pillars leading to an image of Shiva, at a few men and women sitting on the floor, and grinned at everyone.
One short woman selling flowers got up eagerly.
“Country?” she asked.“USA,” I said.
“Country?” she asked again, followed by a burst of Tamil—utterly unintelligible to me. “America?” I tried.
“America!” she exclaimed, nodding her head. Then, shaking my hand and talking in Tamil, she led Dan and I to the south courtyard. It seemed we had a guide.
We walked around the front altar and checked out the carvings and minor shrines along the side. The lady talked, and sometimes asked me questions—none of which we could understand. We'd shrug and laugh, and she'd grab my arm and laugh too, and then go right back to asking questions.
In the center of the temple were two bigger altars, housed inside a stone room accessed from the south courtyard. It looked like these altars got a lot of traffic because metal crowd-control barriers had been cemented in to show clear exit and entrance chutes.
When we got there the metal grate to the shrines was locked but the woman started calling out and soon a green-skirted priest came up, unlocked it and lit candles on a salver for us. We still didn't know what to do, but tried to look respectful. He motioned toward the flame, so we did too. Then, chanting under his breath, he took his thumb and forefinger and smeared white ash on our brows, and then dabbed the middle of that with a large dollop of red paste.
Then, with a big smile, he asked, “Country?”
After the priest's curiosity was sated, the woman ushered us to the west courtyard and pointed out each of the places where people prayed.Then, in a surreal twist, she showed us that one of her legs was a prosthesis, and asked lots more questions we had no way of understanding and laughed.
From the north side of the temple, we could enter another sanctum.From the other temples we've seen, I'm guessing that each of these altars, shrines and sanctums were dedicated to different gods, or different manifestations of the same god.A little like the Catholic saints, if a person has a specific prayer, then they will seek out whichever deities are in charge of that kind of complaint.
To me, it seems like a big celestial bureaucracy, but I'm trying to find a book that will explain it a little better, like I did with the lives of the saints when I lived in Europe. Going to so many temples to look at carvings and paintings without knowing who the artwork represents and why it's important frustrates me..
Anyway, the north-entrance sanctum was carved out of a big block of rock, creating a crypt-like room filled with incense and mystery.We nearly left again when we saw men lying on the floor, touching their heads to the stone, but they got up, smiled and told us in plain English to “come in, please.”There, another priest gave us a sprig of mint (or basil—Dan and I disagree) and told us it was “medicine” and we should eat it.We took a nibble to be courteous and then fed it to a wandering cow later.The cow didn't want it but followed Dan around for awhile anyway.
That wasn't the only temple we visited, though I think we'll remember it best.
The day before we'd been able to look around the largerSarangapani Temple and chatted to another priest. This guy had worked in Texas, USA for a year before coming back to do his religious duties at the temple. He had so many questions for us that I wasn't able to ask him what job he'd held in Texas before he was called away from our conversation by another priest.
At the Kumbeshwara Temple at sunset, a group of men were involved in some kind of ritual—purification, maybe?A professional videographer was filming so we decided we could take pictures too.A line of men sat cross-legged on the floor and washed rice from their hands, chanted, and wound red scarves around their heads. We were lucky to find it—if we weren't so nosy about looking into every corner of the temples, we would have missed it.
After relaxing into the friendly, non-touristy atmosphere of Kumbakonam for a few days we decided to take a bus five hours south to bustling Madurai for more temples, a palace and hopefully some better internet access.
Our waiter carefully plopped a big spoonful of spicy chickpeas near the rice on my round banana-leaf-lined plate and watched Dan and I eat with our fingers:Mush it up, hold it up, poke it in with the thumb.Were we doing it wrong?
It's more difficult than I thought it would be, eating with our hands. No chopsticks here, or even the strange double-handed fork-and-spoon combination of Malaysia. Most of the restaurants we've been patronizing (cheap and busy) are all-local establishments, and while the waiters sometimes bring us a teaspoon or two, having read or seen somewhere that foreigners need tools to getfood in their mouths, we are trying to go native.
Rule number one of eating with our hands seems to be that there's no 'hands' about it. In India and other places in South East Asia and the Middle East, theleft hand is used for dirty things like the bathroom and your shoes.That means your right hand has to do all the 'clean' things which so far seems to be eating and shaking hands. It's harder than I thought to repress the urge to just pickup some food with both hands. Try eating a chicken wing one-handed, for example. Pretty tough.
After rule number one, I'm shaky as to what the other rules are, or if there are any.I carefully watch other diners, trying to see how they maneuver their food to their mouths, but it's hard to do that and eat at the same time.Some foods are easier. The breads aren't too bad—chapatti or naan breads are a little absorbent and they soak up the curry gravies.
Rice is another story.
Like in our favorite restaurant here in Thanjavur (Tanjore), the Srii Devhar's Cafe, which we discovered by accident while walking to and from the ever-closed tourism office.This all-vegetarian, all-you-can-eat place serves useach nine small, refillable pots of vegetable curryon a banana-leaf-lined platter, a second plate each brimming with tender short-grain rice, and as many poppadoms (chickpea flour crackers) as we ask for.
What we then do with all this food seems to be a source of good-natured amusement to the waitstaff.
First, we go wash our hands. Every restaurant has a hand-washing station. Quite a few have soap, though this one doesn't.Next, we use a chemical sanitizer to sanitize our hands.This always gets the other diners' necks craning.
Then, we take all the little pots of curry off of the metal eating platter. Most restaurants use only metal dishes and cups.Usually, the pots have left rings of water on the banana leaf, so we take tissues or napkins and wipe this off.The waiters usually stop what they're doing to watch us clean the, in their mind already clean, plate. Remember, for local people who are used to the water, they probably don't even notice it, let alone get sick from it.
Next, using the left hand to lift the dish but the right hand to touch the food, we shovel some rice onto the banana leaf.Then, we chose one or more of the curries to dump on the rice. Kneading the gravy into the rice sticks the grains together, and then we can lift small portions to our mouths, using primarily the tops of the fingers. We use four fingers to hold, and the thumb to push up from underneath.
A lot of rice escapes, but we're getting better. At least we think so.Judging from their facial expressions, the waiters aren't in agreement.
* * *
Thanjavur hasn't been all eating though.
We came here on the advice of a guy we met in the airport coming to India; he gave us his phone number in case we made it here but we were unable to reach him. It has been a good stop though.The town has two main tourist draws, the Royal Palace of the local aristocracy and the Brihadishwara Temple.The first day we explored, the second day we checked out the palace, the third we went to the temple and the last day we just relaxed, took vitamins and tried to shake off the cold Imust have caught on the airplane.
The Royal Palace is in a walled part of the city that, from reading the guidebook, was once the nexus of an empire that reached all the way to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bali in Indonesia.The present palace, though, is now famous for King Serfoji II, a scholar in the 19th century who collected a lot of local artwork and local and foreign literature. We walked through the gallery of thousand-year-old statues and the library of palm-leaf books and English engravings for a glimpse of the path.
We also climbed the bell tower and met a group of hyperactive boys who wanted to talk to us all at the same time and practically pushed themselves off the walls to get us to take photos of them.We had a good time talking to them, but it was soured a little bit at the end when we figured out that they'd opened our backpacks (in mischief, rather than thievery, I think) without us knowing. Time to buy some padlocks, I guess.
It was a weekend to meet schoolkids, because the next afternoon while we were waiting for the sunset light to hit the golden sandstone of the 11th century Brahadishwara Temple, we were surrounded by kids on a field trip. Most of them just wanted to know our names or shake our hands, but some asked us to take their portraits, and none of them got into our bags.
Next stop: A town near Thanjavur, called Kumbakonam. Also recommended by our airport friend, it's described as a city of temples.