The Mewari matrons thumped their laundry with mallets on Udaipur’s ghats and then, with scant dimunition of vigour, scrubbed their feet with a clothesbrush. Twisting their hair into a topknot, they dunked themselves into Lake Pichola. Their petticoats, tied over the breasts, slipped frequently to the waist. They hitched them back without haste, bantering with the stranger in their midst even as they hissed because the water was ugly cold.
“Hamare jheel mein nahao,” they said, inviting me in. I declined the pleasure, which elicited laughter at my city ways. “Bathroom jamta hi nahin humlog ko,” they chorused. I began to understand their bonhomie and good humour when they started to tell stories about the drying up of Pichola. Over eight rainless years, they had watched the lake wither to a few scattered puddles and finally to a field of mud where boys played cricket, tourists got camel rides, and residents grew corn.
The monsoon of 2005 ended the drought. Pichola is again its luminous old self, the first thing that these women see from their haveli windows when they awaken in the morning. So they descend to these ghats each day to wash clothes and to bathe and to escape from hearths and husbands for a few blessed hours.
Udaipur, which celebrated the return of its lakes with two weeks of fireworks, hasn’t quite got over the shock of their vanishing. Signs painted on shop and restaurant walls proclaim: ‘Save Lakes, Save Water, Save Udaipur’. This isn’t any old exhortation about conserving natural resources, not when the city’s identity is intertwined with its lakes. Even a child here knows the City Palace is nought without the ripples lapping against its walls, the pearlescent Lake Palace unimaginable without its silver setting.
My first port of call in Udaipur, as for most visitors, was the City Palace, that legendary edifice of pillared balconies, arched gateways, domes, towers and turrets set on a low ridge east of Pichola. At the entrance to the palace museum, I encountered a genealogical chart whose floor-to-ceiling immensity traces the reigns of the 76 maharanas of Mewar, regarded as the world’s oldest ruling dynasty, tracing an unbroken lineage back to 734 AD. Nav Chowki Mahal, in the palace’s oldest section, marks the exact spot where in 1559 a hermit advised city founder Maharana Udai Singh to lay the foundations for a palace.
The City Palace is a complex of several ‘mahals’ — some no more than a single room, others immense spaces with courtyards and terraces. These royal apartments, distinct in their identities yet creatively integrated, were built incrementally over five centuries. The Kanch ki Burj features a turret whose every inch — floor, ceiling and walls — is covered in resplendent coloured glass. The marble Badi Mahal comprises rooms set around a pillared courtyard with a massive tank at its centre. This serene space, sheltering trees and parakeets, is an incredible five floors above ground level.
Other exquisite apartments followed: Chini Mahal, with its niches and jharokas covered in blue-and-white Chinese tiles; Moti Mahal, through whose multi-hued window panes the royal ladies of Udaipur had watched their ‘White City’ change colour; Mor Chowk, with five glass-inlay mosaics of peacocks; Brij Vilas, wallpapered with religious prints, where royal dowagers had lived; and Bhopal Vilas, with its Chippendale table lamps and Murano glass chandeliers.
The palace’s maze of rooms, corridors, staircases and courtyards was surprisingly easy to navigate, marked as the trail was with clear signs. Its collection of royal artefacts includes miniature paintings embellished with gold and silver leaf, armoury, lithographs, Danish porcelain, crystalware, palanquins, howdahs and carry chairs. After wandering through the museum for more than three hours, I felt I had achieved only the briefest sampling of what it has to offer.
I returned at night to Manek Chowk, the main courtyard outside the palace buildings, for a sound-and-light show recreating the history of Mewar. It’s the newest attraction in Udaipur, but there were few in the audience, perhaps because the show was entirely in English. While I was apprehensive before the start of the Son et Lumière, I was finally more awed than let down. The terrace seating provided a panoramic view of the 2km stretch of the City Palace, and the chiaroscuro on its façade was grand. Turrets, arches, cupolas and balconies were spotlit in random sequence, revealing the intricate details of latticework and carvings that are easily missed by day. The play of light made weathered ochre surfaces blaze amber and copper, with the surrounding dark intensifying colour.
The next morning I drove to the cliff-top palace built in 1884 on a distant hill range. The winding road to Sajjangarh led through a wildlife sanctuary; mongoose and deer darted into bushes at our approach. The lofty structure at which I finally arrived was inspiring, but I winced at the sight of the entrance portico: a tree stump with clay birds and cardboard cut-outs of big cats welcomed me to ‘Nature Interpretation Centre’.
This Aravalli aerie, which served for decades as a ‘monsoon palace’ for royalty, was acquired by the forest department in 1956. Touring the palace, I discovered that officialdom’s attempts to creatively interpret the natural world include a murky aquarium and several wildlife posters. A caretaker explained that the palace tower also serves for wireless transmissions, hence the tangle of antennae and wires on its roof.
Neglect is everywhere apparent in Sajjangarh, in contrast to the far older but immaculate City Palace. Drilled holes mar its marble floors, the stench of urine pervades its staircases, and ornamented balconies have crumbled. I struggled to square this reality with the romantic vision I had seen by night in Udaipur: the tiered palace, bathed in floodlights, had seemed like a forest fire raging up a hill.
Returning to Udaipur, I visited the ancient Jadgish Temple. Hordes of beggars clogged the entrance, while local residents picked their way through these unfortunates distributing an odd miscellany of til laddoos, raw food grains, slices of bread and clothes. “Oye behen! Oye behen! Pant de!” the beggars importuned. A few constables mock-lathicharged them every few minutes but utterly failed to intimidate. It was chaotic even by the standards of small-town India, and I stopped just long enough to learn that the surreal scene marked the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti and wasn’t an everyday event.
The narrow streets that radiate from Jagdish Chowk took me to various ghats and bazaars. Some teem with hole-in-the-wall jewellers, others with tailors, cloth merchants and swordsmiths. All have shops from whose ceilings hang chains of handmade-paper diaries bound in silk, which gives the ‘old city’ area of Udaipur a dazzling effect. But few traditional havelis remain even here; most have been demolished to build budget guesthouses for tourists.
The rash of charmless guesthouses whet my desire to visit an authentic haveli. That quest took me in the evening to Gangaur Ghat, where the 18th-century Bagore ki Haveli has been converted into a museum. The exhibits, promising to showcase Rajasthani culture, were stunningly unimaginative, but the graceful interlinking of its 138 rooms, terraces, balconies and courtyards underscored the virtues of traditional architecture.
I headed from Gangaur Ghat to Bansi Ghat, where I would join other visitors to the city on a sunset cruise of Pichola. As the motorboat slid away from the jetty, I gazed upon that mix of regal and mundane images by the lake’s edge that would be my lasting impression of Udaipur. The arches of the City Palace, bathing ghats, banyan trees, chhatris, calves butting heads, and golden temple spires appeared and vanished in quick succession. The last of the sun set water on fire.
Then we were at Jagmandir, the ‘summer palace’ built in the early 1600s on the lake. In its medley of built and open spaces, maharanas had listened to music, speared fish and courted ladies. Here Prince Khurram sought refuge and retreat in 1623 after instigating a rebellion against his father, the emperor Jehangir. This island palace of verdant courtyards and marble terraces was deemed the garden of heaven, evoking as it did happiness, beauty and an idealised life.
Jet Airways, Air India and Spice Jet fly daily to Udaipur from Delhi, Jaipur and Mumbai. Train services to Udaipur are limited; the only convenient exception being the overnight Mewar Express or the Chetak Express from Delhi.
Where to stay
Top-end: Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel and Fateh Prakash Palace Hotel (www.hrhhotels.com), both part of the City Palace complex, offer old-style luxury and terrific views of the lake from some of the better rooms.
And of course, the Lake Palace hotel, managed by the Taj Group under a long-term lease from the ex-royal estate, offers sumptuous accommodation bang in the middle of Lake Pichola (www.tajhotels.com).
Mid-range: HRH Hotels also has newer offerings for smaller budgets, including the Shikarbadi Hotel (2583201-3), a former hunting lodge, and Garden Hotel (2521917). The Garden Hotel also hosts the maharana of Mewar’s Vintage and Classic Car Collection, which includes a 1938 Cadillac whose occupants have included Jackie O. and the Queen Mum of England, and a 1934 Rolls Royce Phantom that featured in the film Octopussy.
Budget: Udaipur’s charming havelis offer excellent, slightly more basic accommodation.
Hotel Amet Haveli ( 0294-2431085), an 11-room heritage hotel, is located near Hanuman Ghat and has fine views of the City Palace, Lake Palace Hotel and the old city. Kankarwa Haveli (2411457) is a peaceful haveli in Lal Ghat with rooftop views of Lake Pichola. The Jagat Niwas Palace hotel (2420133), next door, is another converted haveli that offers more facilities but is just as charming.
A month-old offering in the city is the Jal Dera (5131212), tented accommodation by the lakeside some distance from Hanuman Ghat (signs are posted). The tents are seasonal, October to mid-April, but have nice beds, toilets and shower cubicles with hot water.
Where to eat
The Garden Hotel offers lunch thalis of authentic Rajasthani food. Restaurant Ambrai at Hotel Amet Haveli (0294-2522447) has a lovely setting at the very edge of Lake Pichola. It offers Indian, Chinese and Continental food. Savage Garden (0294-2425440), a small converted haveli inside Chandpol, has tables set in a courtyard surrounded by royal blue walls. It’s popular for its. The restaurant at Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel is excellent for quiet breakfasts and tandoori dinners.
What to see & do
The Mardana Mahal and Zenana Mahal sections of the City Palace are now preserved as a museum (9.30am-4.30pm), and include a fine series of smaller mahals and apartments. The Fateh Prakash Mahal section, now a heritage hotel, houses a crystal gallery, a Danish porcelain collection and a spectacular durbar hall (9am-7.30pm). The crystalware collection includes ice buckets, decanters, liqueur glasses, punkahs, hookahs, foot rests, eye baths, ink pots, citrus presses, soap dishes, pickle jars, even a bed — and that’s just the tip of the 6,000-piece iceberg. The palace’s Flora Danica porcelain collection was acquired from a royal household in Europe. The original dinner service was commissioned by a Danish king in the 18th century, reportedly as a gift for Catherine the Great of Russia. At that time, an encyclopaedia documenting every wild plant in Denmark had just been published, which inspired the delicately painted pieces edged with gold. The durbar hall, built in 1909, has chandeliers made with Ferozabadi beads that weigh up to 1,000 kgs. The walls display royal weapons and portraits. The Durbar Hall, Zenana Mahal, Manek Chowk and Jagmandir Island can be hired for banquets or for a ‘royal wedding’ experience (the last fairly recent, fairly famous event was Raveena Tandon’s wedding a couple of years ago at Jagmandir). Visitors can also take a boat cruise of Lake Pichola which includes a visit to Jagmandir (9am-5pm, hourly).
What else to see & do
The forts of Kumbhalgarh and Chittorgarh, and the Jain marble temples of Ranakpur, are popular day trips from Udaipur. Non-A/C cars can be hired for Kumbhalgarh-Ranakpur and Chittorgarh. Gangaur Travels (0294-2411476), Namaskar Travels (2422108) and Parul Travels (2421697) are popular choices for car hires. They also arrange pick-ups and drop-offs from the airport, which is 26km from the city.
The workshops of swordsmiths abound around the ghats of Lake Pichola. The artisans, belonging to the caste of Siklikar Lohars, are specialists in a form of decorative engraving of sword blades and hilts that involves pressing pure silver and gold thread onto hot metal. Their forefathers sent their most exquisite pieces to the Mewari durbar and nobility. The swordsmiths of today cater largely to the tourist trade. Their jambia and kirach swords and daggers start at Rs 600 and can cost a couple of lakhs for larger, intricate pieces. Along with handmade paper and silver jewellery, these are the most popular gifts that tourists to Udaipur take home. Jagdish Pawar at Santosh Handicrafts (0294-2410791), inside Hanuman Ghat, welcomes visitors who want to watch him at work.