Give in to Udaipur’s charms…
We were booked in Trident Hotel and our choice couldn’t have been more perfect. Trident shares expansive gardens with Oberoi Udai Vilas, one of the most uber-lux hotels in the world. Location, location, location…the words raced through my head, as we walked to the hotel’s boat jetty. There, we were rewarded by a stunning sight of the colossal city palace shimmering on the Lake Pichola. Even better things awaited…an exclusive one-hour boat ride to remember.
We drank in the grandeur of the surroundings as we glided on the tranquil blue waters under a blue cloudless sky. Islands of the Jagmandir Palace and Taj Lake Palace seemed to float. A bunch of bathing kids laughed and chattered at one of the several ghats. Several graceful temples lay scattered along the shores. The mountain ranges all around us enclosed, protected the lake. The beige-gold stone of the City Palace seemed to rise from the depths of the lake. The water lapped gently at the walls of the structures everywhere. I couldn’t help thinking of Venice…but these waters were not murky green, they were a clean, clear blue. A foreigner posed like a queen at a jharokha far above, lost in the surreal beauty. There was peace all around. Gorgeous. No touch of garish modernity, no stark whitewashes, no glaring banners, just an unspoilt homogenity, quiet grace and antiquity. As we neared the end of the hour-long treat, the sunset bathed the City Palace walls in a warm golden glow and it transformed, soaking in the colours like a sponge, transforming from cream to lemon to yellow, ochre and rust. Soon the light from the skies faded, the waters turned darker.
A labourer couple were crossing the lake in a row boat, probably going back home after a long, hard day at work. How blessed they were not to get caught in nerve-wracking traffic jams. Did the calmness of Lake Pichola and the romantic setting matter to them at all? The woman in a fuchsia pink saree, the pallu covering her head demurely, was at the driving seat, rowing the boat along slowly, while her husband (maybe) was hunched up, exhausted. An everyday scene, but in a subtle way it added to the charm of the lovely evening. At this moment, Udaipur was the most romantic city of India.
Later, we hailed an auto-rickshaw to reach our dinner venue…the lakeside restaurant Ambrai at a beautiful heritage haveli hotel, the Amet Haveli. Under the clear starry skies, at a table by the lake, we stared at the City Palace opposite us for the longest time. It was now glittering with thousands of golden yellow lights, and below, dark navy waters of the Pichola were sparkling and dazzling with the stunning reflection. Strains of Shivratri aarti from the temples across on the ghats filled the air, adding to an unbelievably romantic ambience, as we savoured delicious, authentic Mewari cuisine.
It was a pleasant surprise to know the entry fees at the City Palace Museum…Rs.250 per entry, an extra Rs.250 per camera and Rs.250 for an audio guide. We need more of such fees for upkeep at all our monuments in India. Through the huge Tripolia Gates and massive front gardens, we stepped into the fortified structure with a guide, who we discovered had an rigid attitude and an elevated sense of time. He rushed us along the first few exhibits, keen to land the next customer within an hour. We dumped him within five minutes and continued in peace, feeling the place at our own pace. Over the next couple of hours, we went back into time, reliving the lives of the royal Mewars…glancing at blue serenity through the pretty jharokhas frames, catching sunbeams dancing through intricate jaali-work on iron windows, zigzagging between carved pillars on open terraces, perching on water fountain sides, and tiptoeing across narrow corridors of the second largest palatial apartment complex in the country. Later, satiated with the biryani and rose kulfi at Palki Khana, a restaurant inside the palace complex, I gazed at the huge brass sun icon adorning the gates and wondered how the king felt about not being a real king anymore.
Outside, we tasted old city life of Udaipur…temples stood shoulder-to-shoulder with quaint shops selling local crafts and bandhej garments, and vendors rolled past with carts selling everything from fried snacks to glass bangles. A weird purple-white tiger-striped police motorbike leaned against a wall. Cute puppets dangled lifelessly from strings. Antique brassware fought for shelf space. Thin houses competed for attention with loud blue, orange and pink paint. The fading green painted iron shutter on a sky-blue house beside a yellow peeled wall showed off its vintage appeal. Like the distressed effect that designers artificially create for hand-crafted furniture! Here in these ignored alleys, these beautiful elements were lost, pushed aside as old and useless.
Life crawls at a snail’s pace in these tiny little streets squeezed for space. Old people squatted on narrow steps outside houses, watching passersby. Shopkeepers engaged in personalised client interaction while in back-lanes, young men stood chatting idly. Autos manoeuvred comfortably through the maze of cows, pedestrians and hand-pushed carts, darting in and out of side-lanes in case a lone car approached from the other side. All women I saw, young and old, were in neon-bright lehengas…what’s age got to do with it! Dupattas covered their heads, as did multi-colored turbans on men’s. I thought about the connection with the head-gear and heat. I imagined Rajputs warriors on their legendary brave horses, galloping into the walled city. Now, their descendants were traversing the same roads on not-so-gallant scooters. But overall, not much had changed over the centuries.
Like all of Rajasthan, Udaipur had a beguiling twin persona…the richness of a royal heritage and unaffected charms of its colourful, friendly people. I couldn’t decide which was more appealing. Can you?