Post 55 – Day 31 ‘The Magical Mystery Tour – Day 1’ (Pt 1)

Post 55a Post 55b Post 55c

I reached Udaipur that afternoon. The streets were filled with back-packers and the grandchildren of hippies, their hair dread-knotted, their clothes fashionably ‘alternate’. It was like being in Nimbin, the ‘rainbow’ village on New South Wales’ far north coast; there, the car loads of teenage kids just outside of town quickly changing by the roadside into something akin to what they thought their parents or grandparents wore back in the 1970s.

In the most stylish market cafes of Udaipur, if you listened carefully, you could just make out some indigenously spoken Hindi amongst the English, Hebrew, French, Japanese, German and Nordic. I should have been here in 1967, the fabled ‘Summer of Love’. I was almost half a century late, but on this road trip, at last, I could walk unnoticed. In this place I was just another Westerner in the crowd, and an old one at that. No one asked me for a photo. I had finally achieved a state of irrelevance, a level of grace above even that of anonymity.

The new driver speaks good English, is affable, as all have been, and is based out of the very city I am now in. The drive up from Ujjain passed along a modern highway for much of the 350 kilometres it took to get here. I’d probably driven along the same road that invading Bactrian Greeks, inheritors of Alexander the Great’s eastern domains, had travelled over two thousand years earlier. The Greeks, or the Graeco-Indians if you prefer, maintained a political influence in India until the first years of the Current Era, the last king, Strato, being defeated by Indo-Scythians around 10 CE. Greek armies had once raided as far to the east as modern day Patna (the Pataliputra of Mauryan, Sunga and Gupta times) in Bihar state, and coin hoards suggest that for a period in the last centuries BCE they had conquered Malwa. Long isolated from the rest of the Graeco-Roman world Strato’s kingdom could claim the title of the last of the independent Greek city states, long after Athens, Corinth and Syracuse had been consumed by the Roman Empire.

Only a small section of the route took us through villages, and only small sections of the highway are in need of repair. The land either side of the roads is open, mainly green farmland planted to cereal crops but also with parcels of white flowered poppy fields yielding opium legally cultivated under government licence. There are lots of palm trees, just of one species. I take them to be some type of date palm, as there were fresh dates and lumps of sticky brown palm sugar commonly available for sale in Ujjain. Only the fear of coming down with something debilitating caught from buying ‘street food’ scared me from their purchase.

We cross from Madhya Pradesh into Rajasthan without incident but as with highways elsewhere there are frequent tollway stops. The driver silently pays each toll, the transactions well rehearsed from what I take to be regular performances. Like my guide in Kolkata he has a collection of bank notes of such size and number that I can only but envy.

I’m in a new tour car, but it’s the same functional white colour. Shame it wasn’t painted with flowers, ‘Peace’ signs and ‘Make Love, Not War’ slogans from the Age of Psychedelia, for I’d hummed old ‘Sixties’ rock songs quietly to myself all the way from Ujjain north; Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, Donovan’s ‘Universal Soldier’, Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’, Big Brother and the Holding Company’s ‘Piece of My Heart’, turning them over and over again on the turntable of my youth, managing to remember nearly every word, every line, …and every accompanying singer’s face; now, regrettably, aging and slower. It was like singing silently in the shower, but with no water to dilute my vocal ineptitude. Those songs were all music icons of their age, some made famous at Woodstock in 1969, others made even more famous by the ethereal women that sang them, and some because those that sung them are dead. I sat out the wait at the last tollway gate wrestling with Country Joe and The Fish’s anti-war ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag’; the one that starts “Come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again. He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam…” and ends with “Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.” Two or three renditions down the road, on the Rajasthan side of the border crossing, I started substituting ‘Afghanistan’ for ‘Vietnam’, after quickly giving up on trying to make ‘Iran’ fit in. Pre-emptive as it might have been, prophetic it was not. The word ‘Iran’ never did rhyme, stretch and twist the thing as I did in my mind. And ‘Iranistan’ seemed a poor effort all ‘round, and if nothing else ‘Afghanistan’ was topical, the collateral death of innocents and all. We hadn’t learnt a thing, just replacing napalm with smart bombs and cluster munitions. As always, women and children rank somewhere at the top of the death list, and we rarely count the animals, some 8 million horses dying in the First World War alone. The body count of the wildlife never gets a look in. I’m trusting that the One True God is keeping accurate count of the fallen, sparrows and everything else.

I’m rambling again. It’s what you do on long journeys. And anyway, I was in India, and Rajasthan was the Republic’s largest state, any armed incursions there now being those of terrorists, not imperialist armies of invasion or occupation. The state is composed mainly by the Great Indian, or Thar, Desert. In the west it borders Pakistan, and Jaipur to the north is its capital, but my schedule included neither. The name means ‘Land of Kingdoms’, however, the first mention of the word ‘Rajasthan’ appeared as late as 1829, in James Tod’s ‘Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’than or the Central and Western Rajpoot States of India’. Before that people commonly called it Rajputana; I thought it had a pleasant Graeco-Indian feel to it. We passed a herd of camels by the highway, the animals contentedly resting in a space between thorn scrub, two drivers happy to be paid for photographs taken of two baby camels. Occasionally there are goats, long-horned cattle, and water buffalo. Rarely are horses or donkeys encountered. Horses are not so often seen but in Ujjain I had encountered four of these animals being used to pack-transport loads of building bricks through a narrow laneway. The animals seemed sad at the task. A day or so earlier, on the way to Mandu, a beautiful black stallion, regally fitted out in colourful harness and trappings, was made by the roadside to dance to the beat of a drum. This it did for the entertainment of villagers, and I was not convinced the animal enjoyed the exercise. There was an obvious cruelty in the performance; “it was doing it, not liking it”. Besides the Mauryan edicts of Asoka concerning the general welfare and care of animals Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ prescribes regulations for their welfare and stipulates punishment for cruelty and neglect. Riding or driving a temple animal, a stud bull or a pregnant cow, for example, as well as animal fights between horned or tusked animals, was specifically prohibited. Special regulations applied to animals in Imperial herds, horses and elephants. Detailed rations were laid down for horses, particularly those that were tired, mares giving birth, and foals. ‘Alberuni’s India’ lists horses, in addition to cows, mules, asses, camels, elephants, tame poultry, crows, parrots and nightingales, as animals not to be killed for their meat. His scholarly tome is silent on the subject of animals being worked to death. Kautilya on the other hand is quite specific as to the punishments to be meted out to those who mistreat, neglect, misappropriate or kill certain categories of animals, the mishandling of horses incurring the deduction of regulated wages; other human misdemeanours against certain categories of animals resulting in fines, the removal of peripheral body parts, or just simple execution.

Udaipur is set within a series of beautiful hills, atop one of which runs a massive fort and its extensive walls, both being of well crafted stone. There is also a large zinc smelter on the outskirts of the city, east of Udai Sagar Lake, its proximity to the city possibly not the healthiest location, as Bhopal had earlier proved. People tend to die young near smoke-belching industrial complexes, even if the deaths are not as dramatic and episodic as some disasters have a habit of being. Walk the 19th Century cemeteries of Welsh industrial towns, or the narrow valley of the little shale-oil mining ghost town called Joadja, south of Sydney, and count the graves of children taken before puberty. I rest my case. The smelter I passed on the road into the city is the property of Hindustan Zinc Limited, a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, the world’s second largest zinc producer. The company also operates zinc mines in Rajasthan. It just so happens that water wells within 80 metres of the plant’s effluent stream have iron, cadmium, chlorine, inorganic fluorides, sulphates, and not surprisingly, zinc levels significantly above that permissible for drinking purposes, indicating encroachment of contaminants into ground water supplies. Udaipur’s acclaim as the ‘City of the Lakes’ has not buffered the city’s focal lake attractions from pollution. Udai Sagar Lake, for example, receives untreated sewerage, industrial waste, and agricultural runoff. It’s a scenario encountered world wide, and nothing at all unique to India. Yet pollution threats did not stop international film makers using parts of Udaipur’s scenic charms for the James Bond film ‘Octopussy’, in addition to ‘Gandhi’, ‘The Darjeeling Limited’, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and the British television series ‘The Jewel in the Crown’. In an earlier century, when the industrial footprint of humanity had not sunk so deep, Udaipur, under the spelling ‘Oodeypore’, was mentioned in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ as the birthplace of the fictional panther ‘Bagheera’. Panthers, more correctly leopards, still roam the region.

Udaipur is situated on the Bawas River, and is the capital of Mewar, the region for centuries a Rajput kingdom and from 1818 a Princely State under the British. Today Udaipur is reputedly home to the world’s oldest ruling dynasty, said to span 76 generations and some 1500 years. Mewar was founded when the lands of Europe were still steeped in primitive lawlessness. Maharana Fateh Singh, the 73rd sovereign of Mewar, was 35 when he came to the throne in 1885; the title Maharana indicating his ‘warrior’ descent. When the British implored him to assist in drawing the state’s boundaries, for Mewar was at that time still poorly charted, he told them to follow the goats and draw the boundaries of the state where the animals led. Replying to a request for a map Fateh Singh produced a pappadum whose wrinkles he said would provide as good a map as any. Fateh Singh refused to allow a modern water system to be introduced into Udaipaur stating rightly that water carriers would be thrown out of work. He relented only when alternative employment could be found for all of them.


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