Incredible India!

2010-09-24 13:02

India is the embodiment of the the Forrest Gump analogy “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”.

This is a country where cows and elephants are revered; and where there are so many gods you’ll never be short of one to pray to when navigating the populous roads.

Bygone eras are intertwined with its cities’ contemporary ­Bollywood lifestyle, while the ­fabulously rich live alongside the ­desperately poor.

Seeing entire ­families cooking and camping ­under an embankment next to a four-star ­hotel chain manned by guards is not uncommon here.

There’s the frantic pace of the country’s entertainment hub, ­Mumbai, where a significant number of the city’s estimated 14?million ­residents can be found on the streets at any given time.

That’s exactly what happens when we land in Mumbai after 1am on a Tuesday.

The scene is like a Friday nightclub rush hour. Scooters are ­buzzing, three-wheeled taxis are hooting and cars are flashing their lights.

Everybody has to be somewhere, and they have to be there now.

The only ones taking it easy on these bustling streets are the cows and oxen that leisurely stride up and down the road like supermodels on a catwalk.

But, ­surprisingly, there’s no road rage or ­accidents.

The first night is spent in the ­ultra-modern luxury of the recently refurbished Oberoi in Mumbai, the first of ten targets in a terrorist ­attack in the city on the evening of November 26 2008.

The psychological scars of the employees and the physical scars on the establishment are not visible.

As the staff are slowly coming to terms with the tragic events, the Oberoi has undergone a complete makeover.

The conservative décor pre-2008 has been replaced by a sleek, ­modern style.

The stark atrium-look is offset by splashes of red with a crimson piano as the centrepiece of the reception area.

The rooms are befitting of five-star luxury, ­complete with a borderless flat-screen TV in the suite’s bathroom.

Of course, the miniature red ­piano – a replica of the one at ­reception – is such beautiful ­confectionary art that it is left ­untouched.

And it doesn’t come as a surprise when the general ­manager, Steven Kalczynski, admits that the chef’s masterpiece is ­usually ­returned to the kitchen ­intact. ­Instead, I crave biltong.

The following morning, we board a flight to Udaipur in western ­India, famously known for providing some of the scenery for the 1983 James Bond film, ­Octopussy.

Known as the Venice of the East, this “city of lakes” is like something straight out of a storybook – you can have breakfast in a five-star hotel, lunch at the street market, dinner in an authentic marble palace, and, in between, enjoy shopping at high-end jewellery stores and bargaining with local traders.

The fabulous wealth and decadent lifestyle of India’s royalty is laid bare in Udaipur.

There’s the massive City Palace which stands on the east bank of Pichola and comprises separate male and female palaces.

The men’s ­palace sports balconies and ­archways with ornate windowpanes, jade accents and the family’s sun crest; while the women’s one has very few and rather austere ­verandahs.

According to our tour guide Lalit Sharma: “That’s because women were not allowed outside and when they went onto the ­balconies, they had to be covered.”

Still, life could not have been that bad in the ladies’ gilded cage – the beautiful mosaic art, swimming fountains with scented water, and marble courtyards suggest they were indulged and pampered.

The queen’s original bedroom suite at the Taj Palace – which used to be the royal family’s summer palace – is fairytale perfect, ­complete with a swing made with copper bells instead of a rope. ­

Definitely the stuff all little girls fantasise about when they dream of being princesses.

On dry land life is a little different, though. Many of Udaipur’s residents congregate at the Jagdish Temple in the middle of the city every afternoon to pray to the gods and be sprinkled with holy water.

While the spirituality of the ­experience may be lost on the average tourist, the intricate architecture certainly isn’t. The carvings on the walls are detail-perfect: demons at the bottom and animals above them; followed by humans; then ­celestial dancers; and ­finally gods.

The afternoon prayer services are a sensory journey with ladies in colourful saris, bells, incense, ­flowers, scented water and ­chanting. It’s a place that those on a yoga tour will enjoy.

The other side of town is where gastronomes will feel thrills run right through them.

The fresh ­produce displayed in woven baskets and carts leaves a heady aroma in the air.

Fresh ginger competes with ­garlic and coriander, while palm sugar and tea vendors try to ­out-shout each other.

There are also a lot of trinkets at the market and you can pick up a bindi or ankle chain for about R20, or a complete set of wedding jewellery for about R50.

The quality is not good, though, and you’d probably pick up better costume jewellery at the Oriental Plaza in Joburg.

But the miniature paintings are a different matter.

Brahma Arts & Textiles is where young men, who are descendants of the royal ­family’s portrait painters, create ­delicate artworks depicting the ­history of the city or it’s wildlife using tiny hairs from squirrel tails for paint brushes.

The artwork is set on silk, paper, wood, marble and ivory, and can set you back anything from R250 to R2?000.

And it’s worth every cent.

Just be sure to avoid the kitsch elephants and horses – they are the equivalent of taking a wooden ­giraffe home to Europe from Africa.

But it’s really the food that ­Indian people are passionate about, and after less than a week in the country, I was not only tucking into spicy foods – something I usually avoid – but was also ready to turn vegetarian.

I fell in love with the thick, rich gravies of North Indian cuisine; and their use of chillies, saffron, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, ghee (clarified butter) and nuts.

The restaurants are inexpensive.

A tapas-style lunch at a city restaurant cost about R40 and included a free pass to check out the ­Maharana’s vintage car collection, including the Rolls Royce Phantom used in Octopussy and the green Cadillac that ferried England’s Queen Elizabeth around during a visit to the city in the 60s.

After two days on the ground; hopping from palace to city centre, from five-star luxury to street ­market; I was awash with so many ­images, experiences, scents and sights that I felt as though my mind had entered an altered state.

India really is incredible – a heady, colourful blend of enduring culture, history and spirituality that makes it an experience that leaves the visitor changed.

»?Shota was a guest of Jet ­Airways

How to get there?
We flew nine hours on a Jet Airways flight straight from OR Tambo International to ­Mumbai.

From there, it was another ­two-hour flight to Udaipur.

For more ­information, visit ­­

Where to stay?

The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udairpur, on the banks of Lake Pichola was home for two nights.

The backdrop to the five-star resort is reminiscent of Magaliesberg with it’s steep hills, lush vegetation and chorus of wildlife at night.

It encompasses 12 hectares of manicured ­gardens and courtyards, and is designed as a ­Mewari palace, recreating the luxurious ambience of a royal residence complete with decorative water bodies and carved-stone pillars.

There’s a spa, wildlife conservation and ­baby-sitting facility, among other services.

Visit for more information.

What to pack?
India is never really cold, so clothes in cool, flowing fabrics are advised.

Dresses, pants and shirts in cotton and linen translate well from morning to night.

Keep a lightweight wrap to shield your shoulders from the sun in the afternoons and the breeze in the evenings.

Don’t forget a bathing suit for a dip in the hotel pool.

What to do?
A visit to the Crystal Gallery at the Fateh ­Prakash Palace will leave you gobsmacked. ­

Tables, chairs, four-post beds, punkah poles, fly-whisks, thrones, fountains and shrines – all made from cut-glass crystal.

Legend has it that the maharana (king), Sajjan Singh, ordered the crystal from Britain and died a day before he took collection in 1884.

His son then became superstitious about the crystal and locked it away.

The collection was only unveiled 10 years ago by the current maharana.

While the stuff must have been pretty eye-popping back in the 19th century, you’ll find prettier faux crystal at Woolies or Mr Price Home these days.

It’s advisable to drink only bottled water, but some hotels, such as the Oberoi, have their own purification system, which makes their tap ­water safe.

Eat inside restaurants and don’t give money to beggars.

If you think SA minibus taxi drivers have nerves of steel, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Udaipur at a glance

»?Udaipur was named Best City of the World last year by

»?The city is also known as the Venice of the East and the Kashmir of Rajasthan.

»?Udaipur is mentioned under the spelling Oodeypore in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as the birthplace of Bagheera, the panther in the king’s menagerie.

»?Most of the James Bond film Octopussy was filmed in the city, the Lake Palace and the
Monsoon Palace.

»?Some scenes from the British television series The Jewel in the Crown were filmed in Udaipur.

»?Hollywood movies and TV serials filmed in Udaipur: The Darjeeling Limited, Opening Night, Heat and Dust, Indische Ring, Inside Octopussy, James Bond in India, Octopussy, Gandhi.

»?Udaipur is a favourite wedding destination. Many celebrities – including film stars, business families and politicians – choose Udaipur to hold wedding ceremonies, especially at the Taj Lake Palace.

»?It is claimed that Jag Mandir of Udaipur was the inspiration behind Shahjahan’s creation of the Taj Mahal.

»?The Disney film The Cheetah Girls One World was shot in Udaipur in January 2008. – Source: Wikipedia

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