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
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