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Hinduism, Hindi and meditation guitar: Udaipur

INDIA | Friday, 31 July 2009 | Views [3846]

Udaipur is a picturesque city set on a lake where a large part of Octopussy, the James Bond movie, was filmed. I had booked rooms in the Udai Niwas hotel right beside the main temple, in the middle of the old town. Even from the rickshaw ride into town it was obvious that something had changed for the better. It was sunny for starters, and warm and dry. Gone were the nasty smells, replaced by spices and incense. The streets were clean (as clean as can be expected) and the buildings were old, meaningful and looked after.

It felt like arriving in India for the first time. About 300 years ago. Of course as a result there are more tourists and more tourists mean more touts and scams. You can't have it all! The room wasn't ready so Giles and I killed time with breakfast in the rooftop restaurant with spectacular views over the nearby temple, palace further up the hill, the lake with its island palaces and the mysterious forts perching on the hills in the distance.

It was immensely pleasant after the last few days in the mist. After a freshen up we strolled about drinking in the atmosphere.

The ghats, the steps down to the river where people used to and still do wash and bathe, played home to a collection of blissfully lazy cows.

A guy who tried to convince us that we should immediately go to his tailor shop to get suited up told us that we were lucky with our timing. Only two weeks before the lake had been dry and people were getting across to the fancy hotel in jeeps rather than cruisers. Everything here seems to depend so much on the rain, and all I was selfishly asking it to lay off. In common with other old cities, the streets are made up of professions, like saree street.

I had a few chores to do. I would be in India long enough to justify a local sim card and my bag had started to tear so i needed to get them sorted. To get a sim in India you need to provide proof of address in India and a passport photo. I have no understanding of why either are necessary. I got away with a card from the hotel and an old pre-beard photo.

The lady who I asked to fix my bag had never fixed a bag before it seems. She sewed all the wrong bits together and made it worse so I had to start again elsewhere. It was great to have an excuse for going down all these tiny streets, working out how to negotiate the cow in the way, placidly chewing the cud wondering why the strange man is looking at it.

We had a late lunch in another rooftop cafe – you get decent exercise in Udaipur running up and down all the stairs. As we were tucking in some kind of Hindu procession got tangled up with a school bus near the main square. On the way back I wasn't paying attention and nearly got knocked into the gutter by a large elephant.

This was starting to feel more like the India I had imagined.

In the evening it seemed every restaurant was showing Octopussy. I hadn't seen it in years and was looking forward to it. I am a big fan of Bond movies but Roger Moore has never floated my boat. This movie reminded me why with its tired, dated plot, hammy overacting. I asked the guy serving us if he liked it and how many times he had seen it. “16 years I have been working here” he said, “and I hate this film. It is a shit!” I couldn't have put it better – I didn't stay for the finale.

I was in the mood for some cultural exploring the next day so after breakfast I visited the beautiful Jagdish Mandir temple. It has a long set of steps up to it, and then its shape carries on up towards the Gods. I didn't see a sign saying “no photography” in the inner sanctum but a young guy sidled up to me and warned me before the tell-tale flash. He offered to show me around. Usually I turn down these offers but this guy seemed ok so I let him point out the key features. There was a healing stone, smoothened through use, against which people rub the bits of their body that aren't working any more. The roof of the temple had intricate designs indicating the wheel of reincarnation: animals at the bottom, then humans, some dancing, others fighting or in Kama Sutra poses and then deities the further up you go. The flag at the top indicates that it is active.

I can't say that I have taken in much Hindu yet but from what I can gather here are the basics. There is a trinity of Gods, Brahma the creator, Siva the destroyer / restorer and Visnu the preserver. Ganesh, the elephant headed son of Siva and Parvati is quite popular and represent good beginnings and is the remover of obstacles. There are lots and lots of other gods too and they tend to have wives and consorts too. Each has a meaning or representation, such as femininity, desire or protection, an iconography and a following. They also have multiple incarnations just to complicate things for monotheists.

I think a story goes a bit like this (Sorry if I've got it wrong). Parvati, the goodess mother of the earth and wife of Shiva the destoyer was at home, bathing, scrubbing the sand and dirt from her body. The sand formed into a son, who she called Ganesh. She sent Ganesh outside the house to guard her dignity against anyone coming in. “Even if your father Shiva comes do not let him in.” Shiva, meanwhile was out hunting – he sent a man of his to give word to his wife that he would be home soon with food and  to prepare the fire. The man tried to carry out his orders but after fighting and losing against Ganesh, returned to Shiva. Furious with this story, Shiva wondered who this boy was and decided to go and kill him himself – whoever he is how dare he behave such at the house of Lord Shiva. They fought long and hard but Shiva eventually won, decapitating Ganesh with a swift flick of his sword. Parvati, on seeing what had happened cried “Shiva, what are you doing? This is our son!” On realising his error Shiva fell to his knees and cried also. When this initial grief passed he saw that Parvati was inconsoleable so he tried to remedy the situation. “The next man or beast to come down the road from the mountain shall give up their own head so Ganesh can live again” Lo and behold, an elephant came down the road and thus Ganesh has to this day the head of an elephant. But Parvati was not placated. The only way she would forgive Shiva for his deed was to make Ganesh the first, the first whom people pray to -  before even Shiva. So, Ganesh is worshipped and prayed to for new beginnings of any sort – births, engagements, marriages, new businesses..

The deities were set a task, to go around the whole world and tell everyone about the gods. Each deity chose an animal vehicle, such as a lion or a ram to bear them on their mammoth journey. Ganesh chose a mouse and ran around the abode of Shiva and Visnu once, snappily fulfilling his task. He's a bit of a wiseguy, I think people like hime for that too. As you can see I really don't know what it's all about yet – but it's certainly interesting when I can make something out. Anyway there were a few deities in little temples outside the main one. Shiva and ganesha on either side and Vishnu atop Garuda, his mythical eagle vehicle. Interesting that Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country decided on a Hindu name for its national airline.

After the temple and avoiding its slightly perturbing sadhus, wandering ascetics who usually only have a loincloth, a begging bowl and a beard to their name, I made for the city palace.

It was built over the course of successive generations of the Mewar line. The line is still running and they proudly proclaim that they are the longest serving dynasty in the world. The palace is entered by a tripiola gate which opens onto a wide courtyard and garden, complete with humps for mounting elephants, a wall over which they fought (elephants) for sport and a place where the head -wallah (forgive my impertinence - the Maharana) was publicly weighed on an annual basis - his weight in gold would be distributed to the poor and needy. Weight watchers eat your heart out! (ED Just re-read that. So bad I have to leave it in.)

 The palace itself is an imposing building with an impressive entrance, overlooking the city on one side and the lake on the other.

Underneath a golden image of the sun (the maharanas are descended directly from the sun) are the steps down from the main doors. They have an elephant sized step and a horse sized step, but none for people Anyone coming out of the main door would be getting on a horse, carriage or elephant.

Although still inhabited by the Royal family is mostly given over to an interesting museum. Much of the museum revolves around the life and times of Maharana Pratap Singh who successfully defended Udaipur against the Mughals and his faithful horse Chetak who he used to dress in a fake elephant trunk to bamboozle the enemy.

It's a luxuriously over the top place with ruby mirrored rooms, decoratively tiled images and exquisite courtyards. It must have been some life to lead here, but too gawdy for my liking.

I met back up with Giles in the afternoon..We had planned to take a boat across to the Lake palace but we had left it too late. He had decided to continue on to Ajmer in the East while I was heading for Jaisalmer in the West. We booked our respective tickets (no train to Kaisalmer so I was on another bus) and bumped into a character on the street. His name is Shariq Parvez and is a talented musician and artist. I quite like, but don't have much, sitar music. Shariq makes his own 'meditation guitar' music using an instrument he invented himself, a cross between a Hawaiian slide guitar and a complicated looking traditional Rajhastani string instrument. He played me his music and it was haunting, very good and then we had a good old chat about music. He offered to give me some of his tunes on MP3 and I went up to get my USB stick and iPod so I could play him some Rodrigo and Gabriela who I thought he would appreciate. He did, very much and wanted to get it off my ipod. I told him of my ipod troubles in Uruguay and he understood the complications. It was great chatting to him and I agreed to call in the next day. It was already dark when I said goodbye.

After a rooftop cheese toastie with Giles we said our farewells and parted company. We had different objectives for our trips to India and we both knew that they would be better achieved flying solo. He had an early train while I was on a dreaded night bus. I had a hindi course booked for the following morning. Footprint had recommended Meenu from Queen Cafe so I packed up and made my way across the bridge to meet her. We sat cross legged overlooking the kitchen/cafe and she took me through the very basics, hello, thank you etc. Hindi is very different from any of the latin based languages I know so it was hard for me to make associations to remember. I needed a few rules rather than just learn the sounds off verbatim. I asked Meenu for some more grammar. Meenu has learnt English from foreigners and her brain does not work through grammar. I think I was a difficult student for her ... questions about subjects and objects and auxuliary verbs!

But she was very patient and we took breaks from language by having little chats and cups of chai which her mother took us from downstairs. After about four hours I had built up a hunger so ordered one of the special curries for which her mother is famous. I chose a good sweet and spicy pumpkin curry. Meenu's raucous kids came home from school while I was still eating.

They were gregarious and good fun but well behaved, taking as many photos with my camera as they could but never quite getting to grips with the focus.

My head as well as my belly was full by now so I called it a day for the lesson. I was going to have to write all the words down in some form of structure if I was to learn anything.

But I wasn't in the mood for that so I relaxed on the hotel roof for a while before trying to find Shariq. He had said that he would be at the mosque that day so could not be sure about time so I wasn't surprised to see his shop closed and went back to the hotel. I tried his shop a few times over the next few hours but eventually the time came for me to catch my bus so I wasn't able to say goodbye. Or give him some music in return. I'm sure there's karma there somewhere.

I was prepared for the worst of journeys. I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride to Jodphur and not much better on the second bus to Jaisalmer. It was, as Mark McMahon, my mate who made his own round the world trip last year, would say, a right arse rattler of an Indian bus.

It wasn't that the road was bad per se, just that about every mile or so there was a massive B-BUMP as the coach rolled over what felt like breeze blocks. After the Vietnam bus experience I had decided to avoid 'sleeper' and had a chair instead. I was ok reading for a while but then it became impossible to hold the book steady so I got out the headphones and hoped the time would pass quickly, which it did. In Jodphur those heading on to Jaisalmer were changed onto another bus, this one equipped with an incredibly loud and lengthy horn, even by Indian standards. I took a Dozile pill, put on the eye mask, ear plugs and pillow hoped to get some sleep in spite of the comedy horn and the man behind me with the curly moustache who kept opening my window and not allowing me to recline.

Tags: history, lake, lesson, music, religion, sun


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