L a k e s , pa L a c e s a n d s h e e r mag n i f i c e n c e

Why udaipur i s goose­bumps- i nduc­ing

WKND - - Travel - By Malavika Bhat­tacharya Pho­tos By ro­hit nair

Amost un­ex­pected patch­work comes into view as the flight descends into Udaipur. Not the arid sand­stone and salmon hues of the desert, so com­mon in Jaipur and Jodh­pur, but a che­quered mo­saic of al­ter­nat­ing muted and neon greens. In­ter­spersed with lakes, ringed by tiny hills, and greener than many In­dian met­ros, Udaipur is a def­i­nite de­par­ture from what one might ex­pect in Ra­jasthan. Then again, it is called the City of Lakes.

Chit­tor­garh, the erst­while cap­i­tal of the Me­war king­dom, was re­peat­edly ran­sacked from the 14th to the 16th cen­turies. In 1568, when Mughal em­peror Ak­bar struck, Ma­ha­rana Udai Singh II left to cre­ate a new cap­i­tal in a val­ley within the Aravalli Hills. Thus Udaipur was formed, full of mar­ble palaces and mon­u­ments, the well- pro­tected cap­i­tal of the Rajput king­dom of Me­war.

Con­tigu­ous wa­ter bodies lie scat­tered through the city, of which Lake Pi­chola and Fatehsagar, both man- made, are ma­jor tourist draws. I walk down the prom­e­nade along Fatehsagar after sun­set, a cool sum­mer breeze bring­ing a spray of mist up from the lake. Far across the inky black lake, the yel­low lights of ho­tels housed in for­mer palaces cre­ate spools of gold on the wa­ter. Lo­cals are out in hordes, feast­ing on the chaat that ven­dors are dis­pens­ing — flaky ka­cho­ris and hot jalebis.

I head to the old city in search of a meal at one of the many famed ter­race cafés or lake­side restau­rants. I’m eas­ily dis­tracted by colourful side streets so nar­row that I have to plaster my­self against the walls of houses to al­low a car to pass. Slen­der lanes wind around tiny hills, crammed with galleries and an­tique shops, kitschy clothes stalls and ta­bles hawk­ing gem­stones. The old city is a war­ren of trea­sures, where crum­bling façades stand be­sides smartly re­fur­bished haveli- ho­tels.

Mural- splat­tered walls ap­pear around ev­ery turn, dis­play­ing ele­phants and tigers. One wall in par­tic­u­lar catches my BEAUTY IN SYMMETRY: Beau­ti­ful gaze­bos line the serene Fateh Sa­gar Lake in Udaipur; ( left) a typ­i­cal colourful en­trance to an old house in the city

eye, in­dica­tive of the many na­tion­al­i­ties that have passed through these lanes. It is em­bla­zoned with at least six lan­guages, of which I recog­nise English, Hindi, Korean, and He­brew. Here, I cross the bridge over a nar­row canal and into a sim­i­lar labyrinth of al­leys on the other side. The road winds up­wards, past the tow­er­ing, 17th- cen­tury Jagdish tem­ple and leads to the Badi Pol. Lit­er­ally mean­ing ‘ big gate’, this is the main en­trance to the City Palace — the icon of Udaipur that de­fines its sky­line.

It’s after hours now and the museum is closed, but we can still ac­cess the palace grounds to wan­der its court­yards and cor­ri­dors. Be­yond the Badi Pol rises the Tripo­lia Pol — a troika of arched gates, bathed in a golden light against the night sky.

In In­dia, it’s rare to have gorgeous touristy mon­u­ments all to your­self, but at this hour, the place is de­li­ciously empty, de­void of the tourist hordes. The palace is un­doubt­edly mag­nif­i­cent. It stands over­look­ing Lake Pi­chola at a tow­er­ing 30 me­tres. Con­struc­tion be­gan in the 16th cen­tury by Ma­ha­rana Udai Singh II, but sub­se­quent rulers kept ex­tend­ing the palace, and so for nearly 400 years it grew into the sprawl­ing, im­pos­ing mar­ble- and- gran­ite struc­ture of to­day. It is a stag­ger­ing five sto­ries tall, with pro­trud­ing bal­conies and lit­tle arched win­dows adorn­ing its façade. Col­umns and cupo­las, lat­tice­work, stained glass, and del­i­cate carv­ings — I may be un­able to en­ter the palace, but I still mar­vel at the em­bel­lish­ments as shad­ows play on the peel­ing frontage. Clumps of bougainvil­lea burst forth from the muted walls.

The com­plex houses the cur­rent royal res­i­dence of the cer­e­mo­nial Ma­ha­rana, and the City Palace Museum, full of art and glass­works and an­tiques. Some ex­cel­lent van­tage points pro­vide sweep­ing views of the lake and the city. There are other ma­hals and chowks, souvenir shops and tiled- floor galleries scat­tered through­out. Two other palaces within the com­pound — the Fateh Prakash Palace and the Shiv Ni­was Palace — have been con­verted to ho­tels. At Sun­set Ter­race, the al fresco restau­rant of the Fateh Prakash Palace Ho­tel, I sip on a lo­cal drink called Ma­ha­rani Saunf, made with fen­nel. There’s a grand view of Lake Pi­chola, the stun­ning Lake Palace look­ing like a mag­i­cal float­ing cre­ation in its midst.

To fully take in the grandeur of Lake Pi­chola, I’m back

the next morn­ing for a lake cruise. From the Sheetla Mata gate at the south of the City Palace, boats ply on the cerulean wa­ters for 30 min­utes or an hour. Our boat has a canopy to pro­tect us from the sun. This is a fab­u­lous way to take in the city sights and sky­line, as the boat glides past palaces, ho­tels, ghats, and tem­ples. The sand­stone frontages of the old city look grand from the wa­ter, an­cient havelis, arched door­ways, domes and tur­rets in pale shades of ivory and beige.

Most of the lake­side ho­tels were once palaces or homes of the af­flu­ent, now con­verted. In the cen­tre of the lake on an is­land, floats the Lake Palace ho­tel — the Taj Group’s iconic prop­erty that con­sis­tently fea­tures in ‘ Most Ex­pen­sive Ho­tels’ lists. Built in the 18th- cen­tury as the plea­sure palace of Ma­haraja Ja­gat Singh II, the en­tirely mar­ble struc­ture is reg­u­larly touted as among the world’s most ro­man­tic ho­tels.

The bougainvil­lea- draped frontage of the Lake Pi­chola ho­tel rises right out of the wa­ter. On an­other is­land rises the Jag­mandir palace, built in the 17th- cen­tury and now partly con­verted to a ho­tel. We go past Hanu­man Ghaat, Lal Ghaat and Gan­gor Ghaat — steps lead­ing into the wa­ter, tra­di­tion­ally used for bathing and wash­ing. It is an oth­er­worldly feel­ing, to be sur­rounded by blue wa­ter and fat ducks, with dis­plays of cen­turies- old op­u­lence by pow­er­ful kings all around.

The boat also crosses Am­brai, where we lunch later on, over­look­ing the lake in the shade of a ram­bling tree. The im­mensely pop­u­lar al fresco restau­rant in the Amet Haveli ho­tel is famed for Ra­jasthani spe­cial­i­ties — a fiery laal maas ( red lamb curry) and dhun­gaar maas ( smoked mut­ton in gravy), mopped up with fat naans.

Not many vis­i­tors make their way to the Mon­soon Palace, set high on a hill around 12km from the city. I’ve seen it on my so­journs through Udaipur, glow­ing yel­low in the night. Also called Sa­j­jan Garh after Ma­ha­rana Sa­j­jan Singh who built it in the 19th- cen­tury, the palace is at the end of a road that winds up the moun­tain­side as it cuts through the lan­gur­in­fested forests of the Sa­j­jan Garh Wildlife sanc­tu­ary. A taxi de­posits us at the base of the hill, where we wait for an ir­reg­u­lar shared car ser­vice that makes round- trips to and from the hill­top. It’s at least an hour’s walk to the top and taxis aren’t al­lowed, though per­sonal ve­hi­cles are. From the top, there’s a panoramic 360- de­gree view from an ex­pan­sive ter­race. The city lies far be­low, the bare brown hills of the Aravalli rise be­yond the green plains, and of the wa­ter bodies, Fatehsagar is most prom­i­nent, with a so­lar ob­ser­va­tory in the cen­tre of the lake.

Though much of the palace lies in dis­ar­ray, it is goose­bumps- in­duc­ing to imag­ine what the scene must be like in the mon­soon, when dark skies rip open upon the plains. A LAND OF COLOUR: 1 The view of Udaipur from the City Palace 2 One of the many boats that of­fer sun­set cruises on Lake Pi­chola 3 Royal bal­conies of the City Palace 4 The forts and havelis loom­ing over the build­ings lin­ing Lake Pi­chola

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