The magic of Udaipur

Sandstone forts rising out of the desert, legends of maharajas, epic battles and lost loves. Noble war horses that died in battle to save a princess, royal elephants, silk and precious jewels. Turbaned men sitting on camels, riding into a golden sunset. This is Rajasthan – a desert state of myth and magic, windy, dusty streets and brightly coloured cities. Completely different to the balmy haze and deep greens of the South, Rajasthan is hot, dry and arid.

After a long day’s travelling we arrived at Udaipur at sunset, strolling across the tarmac of the modern and very new looking airport as if we owned the place and had just stepped off a private jet. The red mountains of the desert were visible in the distance, the surrounding countryside only sand and scrub. The ride into the old city was hair-raising, as we bombed down a maze of streets and past havelis (I’ll use this term often – it means a traditional, ornately decorated residence), cows, rickshaws, motorbikes and tourists, with golden-lit palaces and temples towering above. Hotel Anjani is slap in the middle, near one of the water ways, a steep white building, with the most picturesque 360 degree view in Udaipur from the roof restaurant and a fantastic place to have a beer at sunset! It’s indescribable, like falling into an Arabian Nights tale where a raven-haired prince could come and sweep you away. Carolyn found it on if anyone comes to Udaipur and wants to stay there.

This WAS like Venice, yet with an Indian flair. Domes, minarets, gracefully curved arches, studded doors, tiny parapets with intricate latticework, stained glass windows looking out onto a jumble of roofs and pastel coloured buildings, the magic hangs in the air. Despite the consistent noise of rickshaws and bikes, sitting above the city and watching life unfold below is an incredible experience. The city surrounds Lake Pichola, constructed in 1362 by a gypsy tribesman who wanted to transport grain. It fills from the water flowing from the Aravelli Mountains, which means that in a drought the lake becomes dry. It is constructed so that it connects with other lakes that surround the city, with water flowing from one to the other.  Of course there are issues as with many places in India - overpopulation, bad sewerage, and pollution are destroying the lake system.  It seems the government has now stepped in although responsibility is being passed from one department to another with nothing really being done, and local citizens are up in arms.   I would have thought that anything which may have a negative impact on the tourist trade, and therefore $$$, would be quickly addressed.  I hope they act before the beauty of this special place is spoilt, because that would be a great tragedy.

The Lake Palace nestles in the middle of Lake Pichola. A heritage listed building which is now a hotel, it was built in the mid-1700’s as a summer palace for Maharaja Jagat, and one of the locations in Octopussy (playing at several restaurants across Udaipur daily!). We didn’t go there as you can only go for lunch and dinner if you aren’t a guest, and the food doesn’t get a good rap in the LP.

The City Palace sits on the bank of the lake, a spectacular golden hued marvel. Half of it is a museum, half is a 5 star hotel, however the museum is incredibly well set up and presented. If history and buildings aren’t your bag you can walk through the grounds for a mere 25 rupees. It was built in 1559 by the city’s founder Maharaja Udai Singh, after discovering a meditating hermit on that spot and seeking his blessing – the hermit then told him to build his palace there. The maharajas lived a sumptuous life, and the palace is ornate with marble floors, cupolas, fountains, hidden balconies and stained glass windows, all with picturesque views over the city and surrounds.

A lake ‘safari’ is cheap and takes you near to the Lake Palace, and then to Jagmandir Island, which is also now the home of a 5-star resort. Built by another Maharaja in 1620 it is supposedly the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. A row of enormous white elephants greet you as you come into the red-curtained dock and there are wonderful views of the Lake Palace and City Palace.

Getting up early, on our search for a decent coffee, we wandered across the road to one of the ghats. Here women wash bare-breasted on the steps, or visit the temple. They sashay down the street, water containers on their heads, in rich-coloured saris. There are pigeons everywhere – rock pigeons thrive in Rajasthan – and of course cows, cows, and more cows. The rubbish seems to be cleaned up regularly (possibly by the cows who eat EVERYTHING), and there are some good restaurants. Udaipur has a few noteworthy temples, particularly the Jagdish Temple which is right in front of the City Palace entrance and constructed in 1651. I was templed out and there were too many tourists who were watching some sort of blessing inside, but apparently the temple enshrines a black stone image of Vishnu.

Also worth doing is a nightly show – it’s near the Tiger Hotel. Seated round a pretty courtyard, the show has a puppeteer, dancers, dramatic re-enactments of ancient legends, a gentleman who danced with about 20 pots on his head, and traditional music. For the $60 entry fee (about AUD$1) it’s fabulous value and was really one of the few cultural activities I’ve done since I’ve been here!  It reinforces the essence of Udaipur as a mystical city.  I'm not spiritual as most of you know, but there is something in this place that will stay in my heart. 

I loved Udaipur. We only had 1.5 days there and it wasn’t enough. I’ll be back, and when I do I’m going with cash and a handsome fella so I can live like a Maharana and stay in one of the beautiful palaces – I can only imagine what a romantic experience that would be! (Handsome volunteers may apply herewith ;) )