Udaipur In A Day
Once a capital of Mewar’s royal kings, the city of Udaipur is still a world full of regal charm. Besieged by several man-made lakes and the lush Aravalli Hills stretching away till the eyes can see, the City of Palaces is a romantic, surreal city that somehow balances on the precipice of old world charm and modern sensibilities. We had arrived in Udaipur from Jaisalmer in an overnight3. After travelling close to 2000 km in Rajasthan in this unplanned trip, we can safely say that it is great to cover by road as the well laid out highways make travelling smooth and convenient. One can go at one’s own pace, and stop at the road side dhabas to explore the amazing, authentic Rajasthani food.
The trademark friendliness, warmth, generosity and kindness of the people of Rajasthan are another feature that is shared across this desert state. The journey was comfortable and we were soon lost to the dreamland, as the bus gently rocked us into a deep slumber. I think I dreamt that we were royals of Rajasthan, travelling on elephants and camels with a large entourage accompanying us for our upkeep! You I can imagine my happy mood as the morning sunshine awakened us from our reverie.
As we got off the bus to a cool, sunny morning, we started our day with a round of spicy (and pretty amazing) tea at the bus stop itself. We chatted with the shopkeeper, who told us that this was the best time to visit the city of lakes as the heavy influx of tourists had not yet begun and the weather was perfect. Later, our auto driver doubled up as our guide as we queried him about this quaint town. Established in year 1600 by Maharaja Udai Singh, after whom the city is named, Udaipur was repeatedly oscillating between fighting and signing peace treaties first with the Mughals and then the British. It joined the Rajput kingdoms to form the state of Rajasthan in independent India. The driver regaled us with proud stories of the wars fought on the land, of braveries and deceits.. It felt like time flew, and before we knew it, we were at our hotel. Located near the Udaipur City Railway Station, our hotel had comfortable, elegant rooms and a rooftop bistro. We had reached the hotel pretty early in the morning, and the staff was kind enough to allow us an early check-in. We went up to the rooftop bistro and snacked on a light breakfast of a freshly prepared vegetarian sandwiches and some more tea, breathing in the crisp, refreshing morning air and gazing at the lovely city.
We had earlier planned on resting for a little while before venturing out to the city since we had undertaken what we thought would be a taxing bus journey, but the overnight sleeper bus was so comfortable, and we had both slept so well, that we decided to begin our explorations of the city right away. Quite on a whim, we decided to take a cycle tour, called the Old City Cycle Tour. This was partly because the tour was highly recommended both by the hotel staff and online, partly because it gave us a unique opportunity to observe the city, but mostly because K thought we had indulged in all sorts of decadence over the course of the last one week, and a bit of work out would not be amiss. We commenced our tour from Ganesh Ghati, a rustic area with a lot of hotels. We started with the back streets of old city, and though I thought that I would have trouble cycling after such a long time, but with K’s patience and encouragement, I quickly got the hang of it. We got an intro about the City of Lakes, Palaces, Forts, Gardens and Temples.
It was an exhilarating experience, paddling around in the city, watching royal abodes and beautiful lakes, lush greenery and old temples, from a vantage point that we that was so unique. In addition to the novelty of the experience, we also got an interesting peak into the lives of the locals and their day to day affairs, like fathers dropping children to schools on their cycles, vegetable vendors setting up their stalls, children playing street cricket.. This was an amazing experience in itself, as we always try to discover life beyond the tourist attractions in whatever destination we visit. We continued to cycle through a kaleidoscope that was this city, the busy Jagdish Chowk, the famous Clock Tower, the historic bazaar.. The sights and smells of the city overwhelmed us. The cycling tour was full of opposites – we cruised through beautiful, wide roads along the lakes and paddled furiously through busy city roads with other cyclists, experienced the calm and quiet at one end, and madness of the peak hour city life at the other. After about 2 hours since we had started, we circled back to Ganesh Ghati from a shorter route, tired and out of breath (at least I was), but totally refreshed.
Next up, we decided to explore in a bit more detail the famous lake Pichola, the crowning glory of this City of Lakes. Since we were feeling indulgent and a bit like royalty ourselves in this city of excesses, we convinced ourselves that the best way to experience the beautiful lake would be by lunching like royals at the luxurious Lake Pichola Palace Hotel. The picturesque beauty of the lake was in full bloom as we entered Upre, a delectable rooftop restaurant inside the hotel. The restaurant was tastefully decorated in an understated royal style, and the gastronomical North Indian cuisine was a delight to the senses. It didn’t hurt that the panoramic views of the lake and the city were gorgeous. We could spot the Gangor Ghat, the City Palace and Jag Mandir Palace in addition to the Lake Pichola.
Although this indulgence put the budget of our trip a bit off track, but the food and the excellent ambience made our little sojourn at Upre more than worthwhile. Thoroughly satiated, we decided to make our way to the next stop.
Our next halt was at the Fateh Sagar Lake. This majestic man-made lake comprises of three small islands and offers pretty views of the Aravalli Mountains. On one of the islands of the lake is housed the Solar Observatory of Udaipur. This is considered as the best solar observing sites in entire Asia and is home to India’s biggest multi-application solar telescope (MAST). Unfortunately, the observatory is not open for public. We walked besides the lake for some time, talking and clicking pictures in the romantic area. The sun was out, and on the cold winter afternoon, it felt like a blessing. There were other tourists out for a walk, and some local children playing in the water, diving in with complete abandon. Eventually, we bid the picturesque lake goodbye and headed for the evening show of Bhartiya Lok Kala Mandal. Located in Madhuban, the Kala Mandal building is unique in its architecture with a conical tomb like entrance and hosts shows of ‘kathputli’ (kaath means wood and putli means doll) and cultural performances.
We got the tickets and found our way to the seats in front to get a nice view of the stage. The performance was promised to be of 1 hour with half an hour puppet show followed by 30 minutes of cultural dance performances. The kathputli show told the story of Rajasthani people starting from the royals to the common folk. Wooden dolls with bright painted yellow faces, sharp features and dressed in traditional Rajasthani clothes, being deftly handled by the puppeteers, enthralled the audience. The music was made up of dholak and vocals of the lead puppeteer. This simple yet powerful act evoked an enjoyment that was reminiscent of simpler times of our childhood. This act was followed by traditional Rajasthani dance performances, which were pretty magnificent themselves. The the highlight was a dancer balancing 8 pots on her head, all the while dancing with precision and a whole lot of energy.
We had been very excited about the show, and thankfully, were not disappointed. As we were making our way out of the auditorium, we got a chance to interact with the lead puppeteer. He was a humble, unassuming fellow and talked shyly about his experiences in doing his bit in keeping alive the tradition of ‘kathputli’. Once we had drawn him out of his shy shell, he was very forthcoming about his life story, and his passion for this dwindling art, a legacy from his forefathers, was palpable. It was truly touching. We thanked him for entertaining us, and also for keeping this brilliant art form alive.
We took an auto from here to our next destination, Chandpole. I asked the driver for some shopping tips because, well, because of course I would. The driver was very happy to comply, since the auto drivers usually get a cut from the money spent by customers brought in by them. He took us first t a shop selling famous Udaipuri rajai, quilts that were a speciality of this city.
Even K, who is usually immune to such shopping expeditions, was interested in the incredibly beautiful quilts that were spread for our benefit. These were thin and feather light, but were known to be very warm. Our misgivings about having to drag these (in case we bought any) with us through the remainder of our “backpacking” trip were assuaged by the shopkeeper, who told us about the ridiculously low shipping charges for these. We ended up buying three exceedingly beautiful pieces, of course after an appropriate game of bargaining. The shopkeeper packed our quilts right in front of us, compressing the three rather huge double-bed quilts into a fairly small package, and labeled them appropriately.
Next, the diver took us to a few jewelry stores. The first few ones were no good, since they sold precious metals and stones and were way out of our modest budget. The one that wasn’t expensive, carried cheap imitation of real jewelry sets, and didn’t look like something I would like at all. K had decided to sit this one out, preferring to chat with the driver. I was about to leave the store, when my eyes fell upon a rusty silver set of earrings dangling at the corner of a showcase. As I asked to be shown that piece, it was as if a bulb had been lit up in the elderly shopkeeper’s face. He took that pair out excitedly, and then proceeding to fish out several boxes filled with similar old but exquisite pairs of earrings. He told me that such old earrings (classics in my eyes) didn’t sell much these days, and that he was forced to sell the more modern, garish ones in the shop. He seemed super excited to show me these classic pieces of jewelry, which he felt truly represented his city’s rich heritage. These were not expensive either, and before long, I was lost in the world of jewelry, buying for myself and for gifting to friends back home. It was only when K finally came looking for me did I realize how much time I had spent in the shop. We quickly paid for the pieces I had shortlisted, I bid adieu to the sweet old man who waved me goodbye affectionately, and made our way to our dinner destination.
Our chosen place for dinner was a bit unusual – known as Jheel’s Ginger Coffee Bar & Bakery. Some of our friends had once been to this place, and couldn’t stop raving about it. The bakery was a smallish eatery, famous for its paneer tikka sandwiches and pizzas and it would have made more sense to go there in the afternoon, but we simply had to visit this place before we left Udaipur. Having heard so much about it, and since we were to leave Udaipur early next day, we decided to not let go of the opportunity. One of the features of the café is the beautiful view it offers of Lake Pichola, and as we sipped on our cold coffees, the lights glittered and marked the boundaries of the lake which gleamed with the moon.
A cool breeze soothed our bodies, tired with the day long holiday. Even in the chaos of the busy café, K and I shared a moment that was peaceful, intimate. We ate heartily the brilliant, if somewhat predictable fast food, and gazed at the beautiful scene that beheld us, talking now and then, reminiscing about the day’s activities. The moon glowing on the lake, the sky taking on vivid hues that seem impossible in the Delhi city sky now, the lake shimmering as if delighting in the awe it inspired in the thousands who were looking at it, and of course, with K holding my hand, it was the perfect setting to say goodbye to a city which was both subtle and extravagant, and beautiful beyond measure. We caught an auto back to the hotel, tired beyond measure, but very happy. We slept like babies that night.
After a quick check out early in the morning (the hotel staff was thoughtful enough to provide us an early tea, and pack our breakfast for us), we caught our train to Pushkar. We had expected our sojourn to the City of Lakes to be just about long walks on the beautiful banks, but the city was so much more. It had a character, a personality unique to Udaipur. The people were both proud and humble at the same time, and full of a palpable joy of existence! The trip to Udaipur might have been short, but the smiles we took from the city remain with us even today.