In a town where appliquéd, mirror-worked and chain-stitched textiles are piled high in every second shop, it was hard not to part with all of my remaining rupees. On each and every item of apparel and homewares, my eyes feasted and I lusted after the exquisite detail. Painted miniatures of rajas in profile, fancily-dressed horses and Hindu gods were a dollar a dozen in Udaipur, dotted amongst leather and tribal handcrafts’ stalls. With an artist’s help, I spent two hours painting my own miniature of a Marwari horse with pointed ears and silver bells. The artist’s skill in this time-honoured tradition was masterly. He explained the mineral-based paints and the origins of their colours and was keen to encourage me. He was also glad to have customers – finding paid work is hard for an artist anywhere in the world so I tipped him a small amount. I’d quite enjoyed playing the tourist at the artist’s studio and he was keen to capitalise on my presence that day by offering to paint some fine henna work on me. I regretfully declined. Rupees were hard to come by here in Udaipur – all five ATMs I’d found were empty after my first day so I stuck to using Eftpos as much as possible.
In a shop trading authentic Kashmiri art and handicrafts, I made a happy collection of several papier-mâache boxes to take home as gifts for friends. I further appreciated the artistry of these boxes after my panting lesson. I can see clearly not only the skill and time taken to paint the boxes but also the difference between these and their inferior counterparts. A fine brush of a single squirrel hair is used to paint in this dainty style. The artist explained that squirrels are caught using a rudimentary trap made of a large cooking pot with its lid propped open and food inside. Attached to the lid is a string that, when pulled by the hopeful squirrel catcher, closes the door to their temporary tomb. But only for a short time as the brush makers are a non-harming, temple visiting type of people. Opening the lid slightly, the squirrel will poke a little of its tail out before the catcher quickly grabs a tuft of its fur. There’s gotta be an art to having the patience to do that well.
The City Palace of Udaipur has a fantastic museum along the same, flamboyant Mughal style of the Meharangarh Fort, still part-way through its restoration. It’s a smaller and more crowded space so it was hard to get the quality of photographs I did in Jodhpur. But at least I was less likely to be hassled here. No-one asked for selfies with the curious, shaved-headed white woman in salwar kameez. Inside the museum I chatted to French and Thai tourists like it was normal to be an outsider trading rupees for sunset boat rides.
The palace had been occupied until the mid 1970s and so retained several centuries worth of design and décor. It was an interior decorator’s delight! A blue corner room overlooking the courtyard featured Dutch painted tiles, indigo blue on white, framing turquoise square glass windows. Other colour combinations were just as arrestingly beautiful; hallways of palest pink, forest green and cream floral bursts; a canary yellow room with soft grey line work features; royal filigree gold and blood red ceilings. Then the surprising loveliness of sunset orange door frames bordered with cool turquoise and violet details. French blue and crisp white peeked out from behind carnelian red and malachite green doorways. Here, the jali cut marble screens were particularly proud with peacock-coloured glass laid into the spaces between tree-like forms. One jali screen at the bottom of a winding staircase was carved of 9 squares – at least a metre by a metre in size – exhibiting the skill of the craftsmen. Each square was cut differently; tessellating hexagons, diagonal dots and dashes and over-lapping ovals all played with the job of filtering the slanting sunlight. Geometry danced across the floor.
To record scraps of my daily travel journalling, I accumulated from an Udaipur shopkeeper several handmade, leather-covered notebooks with imprints of peacocks, mandalas and marigolds framed by twisting vines. The designs echoed those on the arched doorways of the palaces I’d visited in Rajasthan and the handmade paper inside them so soft l found myself writing on clouds. One I bought to match my fuschia pink kameez, such is the nature of personal styling when filling one’s travel bags en route. Seated in the Eftpos-carrying Rainbow Cafe, I could have been anywhere on Sydney Harbour with my chocolate cake, jasmine tea and a pillow-soft notebook in which to attend to my interior world. Shopping for beautiful things in a luxurious city and contemplating an afternoon nap, I felt safe enough to briefly unwind into holiday mode.
On my last day in Udaipur, I was glad to have gotten lost in the right direction for an afternoon. Walking across an arched footbridge and into the less flashy, more back-packery side of town, I was seeking a well-reviewed restaurant Millets of Mewar in the hope of being able to eat an actual salad. Instead, I was drawn into quiet reverie as I followed the restaurant’s perplexing signage along winding, muddied alleyways to a place away from the centre of things. Stumbling across a pack of kids riding bikes off jumps made from piles of rubble, I smiled and walked on past a small allotment of lush green foliage. A semi-rural sort of place this was, with its secret, clean-aired beauty. I sensed I was near water. Through a stone archway, I spotted a trio of women washing their clothes and bodies just beyond. I was delighted to find the street opened unexpectedly onto a large lake – a wide vista bordered by distant, smokey-grey mountain ranges. A coffee-coloured calf munched on lotuses and hyacinths at the water’s edge and a hulking street dog (up to his belly in the water) stood and stared blankly at me. It is impossible to describe how that place felt; it was everything I knew about India and yet was nothing I’d ever been privy to before. The scene is coated with a wash of nostalgia in my memory now. I knew I was lost and yet I’d found it.
Marwari horse – the Marwari is descended from native Indian ponies crossed with Arabian horses. They performed well in battle conditions and the Rathores, rulers of Marwar and successful Rajput cavalry, were the traditional breeders of the Marwari. The horses have characteristic, inwardly-curved, touching ears.
Kashmiri- carpets, shawls, carved woodwork and stonework, namdas and painted boxes are among the rich and vibrant handicrafts of the north Indian region of Kashmir.
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15. India: Rupees
16. India: Taj