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In Udaipur, India, beautiful people mingle in a beautiful city

UDAIPUR, India

Madam, please, sit, sit," said a man in a soft tone. The voice came from below and was somehow different from all the other appeals of vendors desiring my attention. There was calmness to his solicitation. I obliged and glanced his way. He flashed a smile, put down a half-bound leather journal and tapped a small plank of wood near him. "Sit. Sit. Come talk."

Abbas Ali, 82, was comfortably sitting with his knees to his chin, surrounded by colorful handmade journals, ledgers and accounting books. The smells of dyed leather and fresh paper were in direct competition inside his shop in Udaipur's Bada Bazaar. He turned and brought forth a stack of letters from satisfied customers all over the world: England, Australia, Germany. His work has traveled far beyond the rolling hills and lakes of his native city of Udaipur, pronounced oo-DYE-pour. He grabbed my hand, looked intently into my eyes and began to tell me his story.

Ali remembers learning the craft of bookmaking from his grandfather. He would eagerly practice with leftover scraps of silk, but always after his studies. He attended Aligarh University in Uttar Pradesh and completed a dual degree in physics and chemistry. Soon after, he landed a government office job. "It didn't take," he said. He saw more scope in the family business and took over the shop, walking in the footsteps of two generations.

The shop has not changed much over the years. The location, layout and merchandise have all remained consistent. In the back of the shop's front room, Ali's son, Firoze, sits on the floor surrounded by towering stacks of completed ledgers, waiting to satiate the documentary needs of an Indian bureaucrat. He too went to university and left after a year to work alongside his father. Another generation guaranteed to keep the family business running.

"I'm so satisfied," Ali said. "Less responsibility, more health. And health is wealth."

Venice of the East

Udaipur, or the City of Lakes, is widely considered the most romantic city in India. Some have even dubbed it the "Venice of the East." Built around four lakes, its obvious charms are seductive. Magnificent palaces, temples, ghats — wide flights of steps leading down to the water — and majestic views make it a popular travel destination. Even Hollywood could not resist the city's regal allure. Scenes from the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy were filmed near the famous floating Lake Palace Hotel.

The city center is a maze of narrow, hilly streets lined with small cafes, cozy restaurants and artisan shops. At sunset, the golden light glimmers off Lake Pichola, highlighting the city's breathtaking 16th century architecture. It's guaranteed to make even the most practical traveler swoon.

But it was going to take more than the bullet points in Lonely Planet and a handful of palaces to win me over.

That challenge went to cultural and adventure tour escort Gyanendra Narsingh Rana. On less than a day's notice, Rana met me at the rooftop restaurant of the Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel just as I was finishing my coffee and toast. Dressed in khakis, a pressed colored shirt and aviator glasses, Rana is a licensed tour guide in nine states in India and had a calm swagger, spoke exceptional English and possessed an undying love for Udaipur. Maybe it wasn't going to be much of a challenge to win me over after all.

"Let's just walk, it's the best way to experience the city and talk to people," Rana said after I explained to him that I had already visited Udaipur's obligatory sights. We left the lakeview breakfast nook and plunged into the city's colorful bazaars.

Udaipur's bazaars are known throughout India for their wide range of handicrafts. Handmade garments, miniature paintings, silk wall hangings, purses, traditional embroidery, leather-bound journals and even wooden puppets and folk toys can be purchased in the many one-room shops. We dodged rickshaws and impatient motorcycle riders while passing one store after another. Some were packed and had a small crowd of eager customers gathering on the street. Others were idle, and shop owners took breaks to commiserate over cigarettes or indulge in a game of carrom.

After fewer than five minutes of walking, the demographic of the shops' customers seemed to change drastically. The curious tourists faded and locals strolled along with bags full of the day's fresh vegetables. "Most visitors don't see this area of the city," Rana said as he entered a blue four-story building. We were in the Moti Chohatta, an area near the clock tower known for its silver. After three flights up a wobbly wooden staircase, we came to a small room where five men sat in a semicircle with their heads down in deep concentration. The craftsmen looked puzzled by our sudden entrance, greeted us with a nod and a faint smile and resumed the tediously precise craft of koftgari, or silver inlay.

We were in the small metal factory of the Soni family. The Soni name dates back more than a thousand years in Udaipur and was used to identify the goldsmithing caste. Ashok Soni, 42, noticed my fascination with what the craftsmen were creating. "Every man has a specialty," said Soni, "one cuts the metal, one prepares it for the decoration and one will do the silver inlay work."

Soni runs the family business alongside his father, Ganpat Soni, 70. We walked over to his father's bedroom where we were greeted with a brimming hot cup of chai. I took a seat next to the elder Soni and noticed a row of images of the family's patriarchs, a garland of yellow daffodils resting gently against some of the frames. I learned that the four-story building we were visiting houses three generations of the Soni family, as well as their factory and showroom. Ganpat Soni began working when he was 14 and became well versed in the goldsmith trade. However, he had a vision of expanding the family business and transitioned from goldsmithing to koftgari.

Today his son oversees a booming export business; the most popular items are daggers, swords, helmets and picture frames. "We export mostly to the Middle East," said Soni, "Syria, Oman . . . some for personal use but mostly to hotels." I listened as father and son explained the great pride they take in continuing traditional crafts. They dusted off books to help me understand the tedious process of koftgari and showed me the wooden molds used to cut the intricate patterns of silver from thin sheets. The molds were more than 80 years old and in every imaginable pattern. I asked Ganpat Soni what would have happened if his son hadn't taken over the family business. He sipped his chai and said, "It is already written, it was already decided, it was his destiny to go into this business."

Rana and I continued to walk from one bazaar to another. Moti Chohatta led to the sari shop area on Maldas Street, which led to the shoe area, or Haathi Pole. Scenes of commerce rich with color and energy unfolded before us. Donkeys, cows and goats strolled alongside the human locals in the narrow back streets of the city. Vendors specializing in saris, spices or silver creatively displayed their wares while others kept their precious merchandise well hidden.

The vintage ivory bangle salesman didn't want to talk. Sitting on a red silk rug in the back of his second-story jewelry store, I learned he specializes in refurbishing tarnished ivory bangles. Traditionally a Rajasthani woman would weary ivory bangles from her wrists to her upper arm during marriage. Today the ivory trade is illegal; however, the salesman assured us that the market for his goods was alive and well. He acknowledged that one ivory bangle could go for upward of 150,000 Indian rupees, or roughly $3,300. After showing us his latest creation, a half-inch-thick ivory bangle adorned with emeralds, rubies and gold, he quickly became skeptical when I asked for a photo. We were kindly asked to leave. No bother, it was time for lunch anyway.

Born into the camel business

Rana, who is a native of Udaipur, and I talked over lunch about the Indian notions of destiny and duty. They seem at times to be interchangeable. He agreed that it is common practice for the family trade to be passed down from one generation to another. "It is much easier this way," he said. Rana's father was a government employee, his mother a housewife. His dream was to become a judge. After finishing a degree in legislation and law, he wanted to begin his career as a lawyer. However, with no family connections and little money, Rana's only option was to become a legal clerk. "It was a difficult time," he remembers. "I realized that if you don't have the right family background you can't do certain things." I was beginning to understand why the family business was so prevalent. It wasn't just the combination of duty and destiny but also a generational claim to a profession, a way of life.

"I can't leave Udaipur without riding on a camel," I said to Rana as we left the restaurant filled with palak paneer, butter chicken and naan bread. We hopped in a rickshaw and drove toward Lake Pichola. We stopped at the first group of camels waiting patiently in a row. After a little tense bargaining, I was introduced to my camel. His name was Husmusk, or Happy, and his owner was Rata Pebari, a thin, middle-aged man with a weathered face and a turbani. A 20-minute camel ride is long enough to go roughly four blocks in one direction. Men on rusted bicycles and children on foot hurried passed as I tried enjoying the views of Lake Pichola. But I wasn't interested so much in the bumpy ride as I was in Rata Pebari's story.

I began asking Pebari questions as soon as I dismounted from Husmusk. The other camel owners quickly surrounded us and I began to learn the nuances of owning a camel. Pebari's father was a camel breeder. He joined the family business: "It was the first opportunity I had. I got my skills and knowledge from my family." But the skills go far beyond walking a camel a few blocks. Pebari and his fellow owners know every degree of camel care: administering vaccines, curing stomach ailments, mending sores. "There are no good doctors for camels, especially in the village, so we have to do everything ourselves," he said, glancing over to the others. "Everyone takes care of each other. We are family."

"Udaipur is a good city in many senses," Rana had said when we first met in the rooftop restaurant eight hours earlier. "It is not too big, not too small, it's very clean; we have natural beauty and man-made beauty," he said, then added, "and people know each other." It seemed like an obvious point, but it was something fundamental embedded in the city's fabric. It wasn't just the architecture, the palatial views and the classical Rajasthani dances that gave Udaipur a feeling of timelessness; it was the devotion of its people to the region.

Rana and I found our way back to the city center, where our journey had begun. We sat along Lake Pichola and watched as the sunset enveloped the city in a brilliant golden hue. Lovers walked by slowly, hand in hand. A boy giggled as his grandfather swung him up over his head. A young local sat next to a foreigner and gingerly struck up a conversation.

"I was always interested in history and culture," said Rana, "that's why I chose to become a guide." I asked if he had children. He nodded, and said he had a little girl. "What do you want her to be when she grows up?" I asked.

"That is for her to dream, not me."

Former St. Petersburg Times photo intern Kainaz Amaria is a photojournalist and multimedia producer in Mumbai, India. She can be reached at mail@kainazamaria.com.

If you go

For travel information on Udaipur, go to incredibleindia.org or www.udaipurtourism.com.

For more about the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, go to www.tajhotels.com and click on "Taj Hotel Finder."

If you hire a cultural and adventure tour escort, be sure he or she is licensed. City tourist centers and hotels can help you find qualified guides. Prices will depend on tour. Gyanendra Narsingh Rana, mentioned in this story, can be reached at rana_gyanendra@yahoo.com.

A check of online travel sites showed airfare from Tampa International Airport to Udaipur beginning at about $1,000 for a round-trip ticket in coach. Most itineraries included three or four flights, with total travel time of 30 hours or more, each way.

In Udaipur, India, beautiful people mingle in a beautiful city 07/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 22, 2010 2:03pm]

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