Colorful India (Part II)

To me one of the most beautiful sights in India are the graceful, feminine brightly colored saris worn by the women, so graceful and feminine especially when contrasted with the barren beige landscape. The saris are Indian women’s work clothes too. We saw women carrying baskets of rocks on their heads helping to build a road primarily by hand or working in the fields in their saris. There are 24 ways to wrap a sari and Indians can tell where you come from by the style of the wrap. On my first trip I helped a modern day princess change from her American dress to a sari for a photo shoot near an old fort. Our female guide told us, “Saris are very handy. No one knows if you’re pregnant, and you can make curtains from them!” As for the men and their turbans, imagine wrapping nine meters of fabric around your head (the whole nine yards?). The way it’s done can also denote caste and area.

We took a dusty, lumpy jeep ride into a village to see some artisans at work. One fellow and his family were rug weavers. With his eighth-grade education he had picked up English from the tourists and now heads up a co-op of rug-weaving villagers. Visitors have included Prince Charles and Camilla and Richard Gere. This peasant entrepreneur has been featured in national magazines.

We arrived in the pink city (pink-colored sandstone) of Jaipur by train, home to 22,000 jewelers. Gemstone cutting is big business. As we rode our bus to the hotel through the gates of the old city wall our guide commented, “When they built these gates they didn’t know how big our bus would be, but they knew how big an elephant with a saddle and swinging trunk was.” We just squeezed through.

Jaipur is famous for its Palace of the Winds–the scalloped façade where the sequestered harem ladies could peak through the design and see what was going on in the street below. We drove on to the Rambagh Palace (now a hotel). As I sat on the veranda having a cocktail, I was remembering the last time I had sat there on a sunny afternoon in 1993. It had once been the home of the Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur until the 1950s whereupon all the maharajahs were forced to give up their powers to the newly independent country. The Palace became a hotel in 1952.

A Princess Remembers Jaipur

My former husband, Cork, was working on a polo book. The Maharini Gayatri Devi and widow of the former Maharajah Jai lived (and still does) beside her palace in a home she and her husband built when they had to move out of the palace. We had an appointment for an interview and a photo shoot because her husband had been a famous polo player. We had hired an elephant to be brought in from the country (a two-day trip), painted with bright flower patterns and adorned as if for a wedding procession with a beautiful crimson cloak–all for the unbelievable price of $40.

Cork had finished his interview. We were seated on the lawn in front of the palace for the photo shoot, but where was the elephant? Tensions were building and the Maharani was getting cranky. We thought we might lose the whole shoot, when off in the distant edge of the field I saw this gorgeous elephant heading our way. Appearing, is a photo I took. Her book, “A Princess Remembers–The memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur,” came out in 1976. In it, she writes that no one believes how beautiful Jaipur was years ago when her husband ruled–painted and clean with water rills in the streets–until she shows them pictures.

Hunting tigers was banned in 1970 so we hunted them with our cameras at Ranthambhore National Park. The lodge was built in 1930 as a getaway for the Maharajah and Maharani (Ms Devi) of Jaipur. Among the photo memorabilia was one of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visiting the royal couple in 1961.There were about 40,000 tigers in India in 1900. Among the few left are the 26 in this park. We were lucky to see three cubs about a year old as we bounced about in an open jeep-like vehicle that held 20 people. Don and I also took a camel carriage ride into the village, stopping traffic while the camel ignored the horns and took his time trotting us across the bridge–more bumping.

The Taj Mahal

Every tourist has to see the Taj Mahal (a Muslim crypt) in Agra built by a king in honor of the wife (there were four) he loved the most. Too much. She died after giving birth to their fourteenth child. It took 22,000 workers 22 years to complete one of the wonders of the world in 1653. It remains so white because the makrana marble from the Indian quarry is the hardest in the world and the dirt washes off in the rain instead of being absorbed. The king never got around to building his black tomb across the river because his son put him in prison where he had a view of the Taj. When he died he was buried beside his wife. We wanted to take a picture of the Taj with the Montecito Journal but unfortunately since 9/11 no newspapers are allowed on the premises. The closest we could get was the photo you see taken from a dump with the Taj in the far background.

New Delhi was the cleanest of all the cities but tourists are still bombarded at every stop by people selling puppets, postcards, jewelry or just begging. The most difficult to turn away from are the deformed beggars, but if you give a rupee to one there’ll be a dozen. The city has been conquered and rebuilt seven times. The last plan was copied from Washington, D. C. Locals say China is the manufacturing capital of the world and Delhi is the brain capital because of computers. Mahatma Ghandi’s memorial is here. Again, since 9/11 you can only drive by the President’s Palace of 340 rooms where the Viceroy lives though he really has no power. The Prime Minister who does have the power lives in a modest house; a set-up similar to England, from whom India gained independence in 1947.

You can’t help but wonder what India will do about the population explosion, graft in the government and their infrastructure, which seems to be crumbling. It’s hard to see the burgeoning middle class we’re told about. But for me as a traveler because of the highs and in spite of the lows, India has a magic uniquely its own.