Udaipur is lakeside romance, three lakes surrounded with palaces & temples. There are even palaces and temples in the lake, built on shallow areas so that they appear to float right on the lake’s surface.
At the lake side, Udaipur is a beautiful oasis of quiet and peace. We sit on the steps of a temple and watch boys clean their clothes on steps that lead into the lake. The younger ones cannonball from a high perch into the lake laughing.
Step ten feet up any alley leading away from the lake, however, and Udaipur is any other tourist city in India… honking horns, free-roaming cattle, packs of mangy dogs, and salesmen (always men) wanting to lead you to their shop.
The contrast is astounding, and a little jarring. I keep returning to the lake, staring out over its calm waters, listening to the birds sing or the slap of a wet saree against stone.
We hire a driver to take us out of congested Udaipur to the remote fort of Kumbalgarh. Along the way Abdul, our driver, tells us of his life. He has three children from his wife, two girls and a boy. Sadly, his wife got neck cancer. He sold his car and his land to try to save her, spending Rs500,000. She passed away, and now he is putting his life back together. Most of his money goes towards education for his children, but he is trying to get a bank loan to get a car of his own again.
“Are you married?” he asks me. The dreaded question. I say what I have been told I should say, no, I am not. “No children?”. No. “You are traveling with your friend?” he asks. Yes. “Do you live together?” Yes, for 23 years. “Oh, so you are life partners then?”
Abdul then proceeds to tell us about all of the sex tourists to come to Udaipur. Apparently one french man is infamous for coming every three months, bringing many, many gifts to give to the boys he brings to his hotel room every night. “He is 60 years old!” says Abdul, “and he brings boys home who are 20 years old.” Good for him, I say. Abdul smiles. “This man speak a little hindi, but he knows all the nasty word. He say to boy ‘I think you have large banana’. He takes the boy to eat with him, and soon the boy go to the man’s room. Every night a new boy. There are many men who come to Udaipur to meet the boys, from Germany, from England, from France, not so many from America.”
As we’re driving through a canyon, I spot a cave opening on the opposite side of the river. I ask Abdul to stop so that I can take a look. Dan and I walk down to the river’s edge. There is no easy way to cross, but I want to check out the cave. “I’m going to wade across” I tell Dan. “Oh, so you don’t mind getting your camera wet?” he snarks.
I roll up my pants and wade in, my camera and shoes held high. The rocks in the river are smooth and slippery with algae, but I reach the other side without slipping. A local boy wearing a deep purple shawl crosses with me, either worried or curious. On the far side he shows me the path up to the cave opening. I put on my shoes and climb.
The cave is shallow, perhaps 30 feet deep. Inside are a mattress, a bowl, and a single red electric light bulb. There is also a lingum covered in silver leaf. Towards the back of the cave I can hear the squeaks of bats. I sit for a moment, smelling the mixed aromas of damp earth and wood smoke, before heading back to Dan.
We arrive at Kumbalgarh, and trek up the winding path to the fortress. At every step of the way, arrow slits look down on us from the ramparts directly above. An invading army would have had to follow the circuitous switchbacks up the mountainside, being fired upon the entire time, and at each switchback was a new gate to penetrate. There are seven gates in all, each one topped by a room from which torments could be rained down onto invaders. The fortress was only breached once, by the combined armies of three other kingdoms.
Kumbalgarh is not a fairy-tale castle… it is a stronghold, lacking most of the filigree of the pleasure palaces. It sits high above the valleys, a symbol of power.
“I think perhaps it is time for me to marry again. My parents have chosen 75 women. But I no want women for children, three is enough. And I no want woman who have their own children. My parents will talk with each woman and they will choose the best one for me. I will not see my wife’s face until wedding night.”
Won’t you speak with her beforehand, Abdul? “No, my parents choose. I will not speak with my wife until wedding night.”
We drive through the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, a deep canyon containing a river. We pass dozens of gray langur monkeys sitting by the side of the road eating carrots left by a well-wisher. There are panthers here too, but we don’t see any from the car.
We arrive at Ranakpur, where a major Jain temple complex is located. The main temple (called ‘Chaumukha Mandir’) is a massive structure containing 1,444 individually hand-carved columns. The temple is entirely made of white marble, and every square inch is covered with intricate and beautiful carvings. The temple interior is a peaceful place despite the crowds of Indians and westerners wandering amongst the pillars.
It’s time to head back to Udaipur.
“Many of the womens from Europe come to India for fuck,” volunteers Abdul. “They are perhaps a little old, a little fat, more than 30 years age. Mostly French women, also German and British. Maybe when they young they fuck a lot, now every night they want the fuck.”
Sounds like fun, I say.
“Oh, yes, I have three girlfriends. One Australian, one French, one German. They come at different times, and I am very busy with them making the fuck.”
What will your wife think of your girlfriends when you marry, Abdul?
“Oh, it is okay. My wife will know that men need girlfriends. She will be traditional wife.”
We come to a water lift. These are everywhere in the farms around Udaipur. They use a team of oxen to lift water from a well or pool up to a water tank or irrigation system. The oxen pull a large beam around in a circle. A system of gears rotates a wheel. On the wheel is a chain of buckets. As the buckets rise over the top of the wheel, they spill their contents into a trough. The water then flows from the trough to its final destination. The horns of the oxen are still decorated from Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that happened last October.
The next morning I walk down to a lakeside temple. In front of the temple, steps lead down into the water. Middle-aged and old men gather there for their morning rituals, bathing, washing their clothing, doing yoga or meditation, or praying to Lord Vishnu within the temple. I sit on the steps and try to be still.
On the patio of the temple by where I am sitting, a man has laid out small bowls of food, piles of grain, and other similar offerings. He tells me that this is the offering for a friend who has died. The piles are laid out from right to left, and are:
- Wheat, representing Lord Brahma
- Rice, representing Lord Vishnu
- Green Lentils, representing Lord Shiva
- Black Lentils, representing Lord Yamraj (the lord of death)
- Sesame seeds, representing the deceased man
To one side is a mandala made of rice, with a small coconut propped up in the center on a copper bowl.
The terrace is inset into the temple, and has walls on three sides, colorfully decorated with penises and naked women. I gesture towards the graffiti and say “Not enough girls?” and the men laugh. Yes, they say, local boys do this. I’ve seen them gathering here at night, smoking, coming and going on their scooters or by foot. No girls, of course, just the boys, 20-year-olds feeling their oats and waiting to become the men who bathe in the morning.