I hear the chanting from miles away, but it takes a ferry ride across the river, an hour on my bike, and a 30-minute climb to get to the source.
I bike along the Tongahadra River valley, a palm-lined oasis in the veritable desert. It’s so incredibly hot that my body refuses to remain dry. With clammy hands and growing pools of sweat under my eyes, I pedal on toward the Monkey Temple – birthplace of the monkey-shaped god Hanuman, who’s considered a devoted disciple and very strong warrior of Lord Rama.
Leaving my bike with a seemingly trustworthy banana seller at the foot of the hill, I start the long hike up the 572 steps to the top.
The town of Hampi — a trash heap built on the promise of tourism — sits on the edge of a beautiful rock cemetery in the distance. The landscape itself is one of the most jarring in all of India.
Like gaping at clouds as they morph into barely familiar shapes, the Hampi region is a mesmerizing, constantly surprising jumble of utter unpredictability. Formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion, the result is truly awing. It’s at once both desert and oasis.
Amidst the rubble of the precariously perched boulders and jumbled rock clusters sit ancient ruins to rival those of Angkor. The pleasant symmetry of the majestic kingdom sits in stark contrast to the rutted rock cemetery surrounding.
In 1336, Telugu prince Harihara chose Hampi as the site for his new capital Vijayanager, which in the ensuing centuries grew into one of the largest Hindu empires in history. At its peak, the empire covered the vast majority of Southern India.
Just before it was raised to the ground by the Decca sultanates in 1565, Vijayanager boasted over 500,000 residents living in unparalleled grandeur.
It’s amazing what man can do under the auspices of religion. The massive columns of Hampi’s grand structures are like ancient storybooks, full of wild tales of gods and warriors. In addition to the heroic plotlines, the walls of the ancient city provide vivid displays of Hinduisms casual mix of the erotic and the everyday.
The historic site of an epic battle, the 21st century city faces an altogether different type of conflict – that of conservation. Local residents moved in amongst the ruins, building guesthouses and restaurants on top of priceless constructions as tourism began its gradual rise several decades ago.
Some locals even spend their entire lives monitoring minor monuments, claiming ownership and demanding fees from onlookers.
Though the town relies on tourism, Hampi remains one of India’s remarkably well-kept secrets. It’s a wonder the place isn’t bustling with intrepid jetsetters. A trip from the nearest train station at Hospet belies none of the glory of Hampi – but a few high-end resorts could certainly alter the trajectory of this architectural and natural wonder.
Turning away from the dramatic vista, I venture to the far end of the hilltop temple toward the source of the noisy clamor. Entering the lavishly decorated temple, I find a two-man band in a side room, blasting their music into mountaintop speakers.
Around another end of the temple, a fat-bellied man lies on the tile terrace with two young attendants.
The young boys massage his limbs as he offers orders between bouts of lethargy. Others stand by, waiting to serve. A larger-than-life mural of the Monkey King, Hanuman, looms above the entranced man and it strikes me that the two are not so dissimilar in appearance.
Hampi is a holy site mentioned in the Ramayana as Kishkindha, the realm of the monkey gods.
It’s a place where anthropomorphism is not fiction but fact and men can get away with pretending to be descendants of animal gods.
Each morning and evening, crowds gather to clean their bodies and souls in the river below the monkey god’s towering home.
As I make my descent back toward the river, the sun plots its course through the valley walls. Crossing back across the rambling water, an Elephant plays in the stream, dressed in ceremonial gear for a parade in a neighboring village.
As the orange sunset gives way to the violet hour it begins to rain. It’s the first rain of the season – the first rain this area has seen in months. The chanting from the monkey temple grows as the rain intensifies and the people of Hampi praise the monkey god while the sky turns tar black.
Entering central Mumbai is like entering a whole new India. It’s the India you witness on the TV – the showcase piece for the rest of the nation. This is the India they want you to see, steeped in colonial stuffiness and Hollywood pretension it might look close enough to your homeland that you buy into the dream temporarily.
If Mumbai were New York, Chowpatty Beach would be it’s Coney Island, boasting “world famous” street food and doting, pre-teen couples. If it were LA, Malabar Hill would be its Malibu, boasting some of the world’s most expensive real estate. If it were Antwerp, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus would be its Central Station, offering visitors a lavish welcome to the bustling city. And if it were Paris, the Gateway to India would be its Arc de Triomphe, introducing you to the grand boulevards of this cultural capital.
Made of a series of reclaimed islands, the old fort walls of historic Mumbai were removed long ago to make way for the city’s constantly expanding sprawl.
Mumbai is a world-class city and truly a rarity among India’s megacities. In the center city, there are trash bins, clean streets, and an absence of cows and rickshaws. It’s almost as if you’re no longer in India.
Initially, this new India is refreshing. Yet, after a time, central Mumbai feels stale. It feels sterilized, manufactured, and meticulously organized to appeal to Western investors. Business suits prevail, Indians bicker on cell phones instead of gossiping with each other on the streets, and only the Indian tourists are wearing saris.
But, who’s to say this is wrong. Often times we tourists prefer things to be exotic in order to feel as though we’ve traveled further and seen more. Perhaps, there’s nothing wrong with this “new India.”
Though you’ll hear the soundtrack blasting on each street corner, Mumbai is nothing like “Slumdog Millionaire.” In fact, many here were upset with the way their city was portrayed in the Oscar-winning Danny Boyle film. However, one thing the movie did capture quite accurately is the modern metropolis’ dizzying divide between the rich and the poor.
Mumbai is a town of grand houses and gritty hovels – a megacity centered around lavish gothic architecture, statued circles and tree-lined boulevards that spills out into one of the world’s largest slums on the far side of the horizon. It’s a city where rich and poor slide past each other without ever acknowledging the other’s presence.
It’s the India of the past fist-to-fist with the India of the future.
You’d be as likely to hear English on the streets of Mumbai as you would Marathi or Hindi. The GDP here is three times that of the rest of the country. A hotel room in Mumbai is double or triple the price of nearly everywhere else in the country and coffee at the faux Starbucks chains is equally dear.
In this modern India, caste and class are harder to decipher. The traditional system is obscured – distorted by business and opportunity.
India produces more films per year than any other nation on the planet, and the majority of these films are made in Mumbai. Home to India’s dream-making machine, grand cinemas dot the city, showcasing the latest and greatest Bollywood has to offer.
Producers are known to comb the streets for white, blond tourists to play roles as extras and backup dancers. They look for girls who’ll appear in clothing — or lack thereof — that no Indian woman would be caught dead wearing – girls that will dote on budding Hindi pop stars to make enough dough to extend their holidays.
Mumbai may be a city of dreams, but it is also a city of uncomfortable extremes.
The order of the daytime gives way to the disorder of the night. Men gather on Mumbai’s gritty backstreets, stumbling and stuttering the night away. The once polished avenues soon become the bedrooms of Mumbai’s other residents.
An early morning trip outside of the hotel reveals an entire family huddled along the steps – bare-chested and mud-marked. Small children wander around aimlessly with Disney-wide eyes and blank stares – stuck in the jail of their parent’s poverty and their caste’s fate.
Is Mumbai the future of India? If not, it’s certainly the face that it likes to portray not only to itself, but also to the world. It’s the good. It’s the bad. And it’s the ugly.
It’s a glittery dream floating above the smog of reality.
Udaipur exudes a peacefulness that’s hard to find in India. The lavish palaces and cobblestone streets of this luxurious lakeside city offer visitors a tantalizing taste of the region’s glorious past.
Approaching town, Udaipur is like a mirage on the edge of the desert. It’s the richest kingdom of Rajasthan and feels it. Within the old city walls, the streets overflow with artisans, jewelers, and craftsmen.
One of the highlights of India’s growing upmarket tourism sector, Udaipur boasts world-class resorts and five-star culinary delights. It also boasts quiet lakefront guesthouses and casual rooftop restaurants.
In a country less known for its romantic getaways, Udaipur offers tranquil nights, splendid strolls, and an exotic seduction that’s hard to resist.
Rajasthani folk music is some of the most haunting, romantic, and heart-wrenching music on the planet. It’s believed that gypsy music has its origins in Rajasthan, India. While little is known about the culture that generated the Gypsies, linguists and historians believe that the Gypsies were originally from North Central India and began their great migration around 300 BC. It’s said that the Gypsies entered southeastern Europe in the end of the 13th century. Because they were assumed to be from Egypt, Europeans began calling them “Gyptians” and then simply “Gypsies.” The Gypsy tradition is very much alive and well in Rajasthan and it’s not uncommon for a musician to sit down next to you on the street and begin playing the Sarangi.
The Maru-Gurjar painting style of Rajasthan began in the 5th century and, under royal patronage, various forms developed. Arts in Rajasthan reached their pinnacle between the 15th and 17th centuries. The major style practiced in Udaipur today is miniature painting, which captures in small scale much of what makes the place so harsh and enchanting. If you want to have a mural painted on your fingernails or your name on a piece of rice, there is, perhaps, nowhere better on earth than Udaipur. Traditionally, miniature artists use paint that’s made naturally, mixed from minerals and vegetables found in the area – ochre for red, coal for black, aventurine for green. The style of paintings found in Rajasthan, miniature or otherwise, are typical of what many Westerners imagine when they think of Indian art.
Drawing upon the rich culture of Rajasthani art, music, and dance, performance is a big part of the culture in Rajasthan. Today, actors and dancers no longer perform for royal audiences, but share their talents for all to see. Many like the Bopa and Kalbellya Gypsies were born into the craft and carry on a longstanding family tradition of dancing with fire, handling marionettes, and twirling around while balancing an unthinkable amount of bowls on their heads.
A Storied History
Formerly known as Mewar, Udaipur was founded in 1559 when Maharaja Udia Singh I took flight from the final sacking of the fort at Chittor by the notorious Mughal emperor Akbar. As Udai Singh and his followers resisted Muslim might, the city grew a reputation for patriotism and independence. The city has a proud heritage and boasts the longest lineage of any modern ruler. A walk through the streets of Udaipur reveals a myriad of ways to explore the fabled history.
Known as the “Venice of the East,” Udaipur encircles the blue waters of Lake Pichola. The lake reflects the delicate marble architecture of the buildings above, which themselves sit below one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, the Aravelli Hills. Within the lake are two palace-covered islands, Jag Niwas and Jag Mandir. Lake Pichola, which is thrillingly out of place in this desert landscape, was artificially created in 1362. It’s now one of several contiguous lakes developed over the past few centuries in and around Udaipur, each of which make lovely backdrops for a sunset stroll.
Edge of the Desert
While downtown Udaipur boasts elegant shops and riverside cafes, just five miles outside of the city you’ll find untouched wilderness in the Aravalli Hills. Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary, which surrounds the Monsoon Palace overlooking Udaipur City, provides jaw-dropping views of town and a chance to see panthers, sambars, blue bulls, hyenas and a variety of birds and reptiles. Head a little further north and you can go on a safari through the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Head south, and you can laze away along the world famous Jaisamand Lake in Jaisamand Wildlife Sanctuary. A brush with the wild is never far away in Udaipur.
Not only is Udaipur home to India’s second largest palace, City Palace, but it boasts the oft-photographed Lake Palace and the luxurious Fateh Prakash Palace. Scattered about the town, you can also find the dazzling Hivalis (mansions) of the noble elite. Because of a marble quarry nearby, much of Udaipur is built like a fairytale city; the white glistens under the desert’s spitting sun, dancing from roof to roof around the sky blue lake.
Going to India and not doing yoga is like going to Italy and not trying the pasta. Whether you’re a novice or a master, start each day off right with some of the best Yoga instructors in India. A great studio is never far away and you’ll find classes from sun up to sun down. From the roof of a palace, to the edge of the lake, there’s no better place on Earth to stretch, relax, and salute the sun!
Rajasthan is a land of sweets and spices – and you may need the sweet to cool off your mouth after the spice. Sweets are never called desserts in Rajasthan because they’re had before, after and during the meal. The streets of Udaipur are full of small sweet shops selling fudge-like treats. The spice content of Rajasthani meals is even hotter than that of other Indian regions. Luckily, it’s slightly cooled down by the cooking method. Because Rajasthan is a desert region, there’s a scarcity of water. Therefore, most dishes are cooked with milk, buttermilk, and butter. Even better than the food is the setting in which you eat it. The skyline of Udaipur is capped with numerous rooftop restaurants offering stunning views of the lakeside city below.
You know a city is sexy if it was prominently featured in a James Bond film – especially if that film was one with a name like “Octopussy.” Don’t think this fact is lost on the locals. You’re guaranteed to see “Octopussy” projected onto the walls of at least one rooftop restaurant you visit. Watching the film, you soon realize that not much has changed in Udaipur in the last thirty years. This place is truly timeless!
The Maharajas once ruled Rajasthan with bejeweled fists from the security of their imposing forts. The passionate monarchs had an affinity for all things exquisite and the splendor and extravagance of these erstwhile rulers lives on in the forts of this fabled land.
The castles of Europe have nothing on the forts of Rajasthan. If you’re after truly massive structures with enough opulence to please the king and queen of any country, Rajasthan is the spot.
Built of burnished sandstone and marble, these architectural marvels contain intricate carvings, elegant facades, majestic domes, and elaborate balconies.
The great Rajput rulers of Rajasthan fought off the Arabs, Turks, and, most notably, the great warriors of the Mughal Empire. It was not until the British came in and offered their protection that the maharajas slowly lost their power.
When the leaders struck deals with the rulers of the British East India Company, the maharajas were reduced to puppet rulers. Rajasthan soon became a part of the newly independent India in 1948 when the “desert kingdoms” were incorporated.
The role of the Maharaja continued its slow fade until the title itself was officially squashed in 1971 when royal entitlements were abolished along with privy purses through a constitutional amendment.
Today, the erstwhile Maharajas are considered political, cultural, and religious icons in modern Rajasthan. They play the role of philanthropist, conservationist, and keeper of traditions.
Here’s a look at three of the Maharajas’ great forts of Rajasthan:
The muscular fort at Jodhpur is a beautiful beacon on the flat landscape. The formidable walls grow organically out of its rocky perch. From the top, the view over the city of Brahmin-blue buildings is striking. The decadence of Jodhpur’s fort is unmatched. Behind Mehrangarh’s seven gates is a terra-cotta-colored palace complex dotted with elegant courtyards and lined with intricate carvings. The 15th century fort is truly the most impressive example of Rajput grandeur in Rajasthan and the theatrical, award-winning audio tour may be one of the best on the planet.
A lighthouse on the edge of the desert, 99 colossal bastions encircle the still-inhabited streets of this massive fort. Within the fort walls are seven meticulously carved Jain temples dating from the 12th to 16th centuries. There are also several lavish Havelis and the elegant seven-storey Maharaja’s Palace. Sadly, the fort at Jaisalmer is an example of what can happen with unchecked development. Unlike Rajasthan’s other historical monuments, the narrow alleyways of the fort now house numerous gift shops, restaurants, and guesthouses. Overcrowding and poor drainage have seen the fort sinking into Trikuta hill.
Nestled 1100 meters skyward in the Aravalli Hills, this 15th century fort is perhaps the least visited of the forts of Rajasthan – and that’s a shame. Kumbalgarh was the most important Mewar fort after Chittor. Kumbalgarh was only taken once in history and it took the combined forces of Mughal emperor Akbar and of Amber and Marwar to breach its defenses. Even then, they only managed to hold onto the fort for two days. Understandably, rulers would retreat within the massive stone fort in times of danger. It is a testament to the romantic expectations of Rajput grandeur. The massive fort walls stretch some 36 kilometers and enclose roughly 360 temples, palaces, gardens, and bunkers.