The road to Udaipur was long and winding. We passed through dirty towns where mysterious, veiled women walked holding babies. Or they rode underpowered motorcycles with their upper arms decorated with stacks of plastic bracelets. We saw other women attired in colorful saris with complicated belts girdling their hips, made of real silver. In the villages, slight, thin ghosts of women were burdened with heavy silver ankle bracelets, like prison chains. White designs of chickens, flowers and peacocks adorned mud adobe dwellings. Gypsies, poorest Indians of all, literally squat in dark, low tents by the filthiest part of the roadside, with open cooking fires and bare-bottomed skinny children.

After 4 hours, the road began to turn upward, with trees planted French style along each side. We came into a dry jungle, beside streams, the road sinuously winding. We came to an astonishingly beautiful temple in the forest, and we met our guide for the rest of the trip, Mahendra Singh.

The Ranakpur temple was founded by Jain priests in 1439 and has to be the most beautiful we’ve ever beheld. Of 1,444 columns carved of marble, no two are alike. They contain musicians, gods and goddesses and geometric patterns. This temple was immaculately clean (unlike the rest of India). A flag flying indicates an active temple. This one had saffron robed monks grinding sandalwood paste for anointing pilgrims. The Jain sect is a Hindu sect which shuns all animal products, meat, fish, eggs, leather, and even onions and garlic, because to cultivate means to kill insects living underground. The intricately wrought sculptured domes and halls create a feeling of calm and peace.

In the uplands after the temple, we saw scenes out of the Bible – water irrigation mills driven by water buffalo, donkeys laden with bricks, women with veils, stopped over the fields sowing and cultivating, with date palms in the background. This is a 3rd world country, where 800,000,000 still live at subsistence level. We bought custard apples from women in saris, and drove by fields of mustard and wheat. At the 5,000 foot level, the air turned refreshing and cool.

We came down into the lake town of Udaipur as it was getting dark. The town is only 500,000 people, but drivers are aggressive and the air rank with diesel and dust. We boarded a launch in the setting sun and our hotel, the Taj Lake Palace, shimmered like a dream in the middle of the lake. We were greeted by a tall man with a red umbrella and red costume. Rose petals rained down on us from above. The palace was built in 1743 and is a hotel with black marble walkways, interior gardens, gorgeous roof terrace and intimate bars, and fine restaurants overlooking the lake and City Palace walls. Our view is of the Jacmandir Island with strobe lights and green and white fairy lights illuminated for a wedding party the night we arrived.

The room is cozy, but luxurious, with wood lattice ceiling with brass decoration, white marble floors, bathroom lined with midnight and royal blue and blue arabesque tiles, and crystalline sparkling marble sink and floors. Not even the boom of wedding fireworks could keep us awake in this dreamy place.

Claudia and Gail

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