In my head, Udaipur is a place where I am forever about 10 years old. It is always a holiday with my cousins and we sleep at night in string cots on the roof under the open sky. The roofs of those houses were connected: each shared a wall with the next. If you were agile, you could vanish from home without ever touching the ground. That was our fantasy.
I am in Udaipur decades later, in search of another Rajasthan fantasy: rain. I have gone for my first glimpse of it to the ramparts of the derelict Sajjangarh fort (rebranded Monsoon Palace), forever associated with the Bond film Octopussy, which was shot there. Even today, Udaipur’s alleyways have posters that point towards dark stairwells, enigmatically promising “Octopussy Nites”.
The Sajjangarh fort will forever be associated with 'Octopussy', which was shot there. Even today, Udaipur’s alleyways have posters that promise “Octopussy Nites” I haven’t had the nerve for that kind of Nite and have gone to the real place instead to chase my monsoon.
Kanhaiyya, my taxi driver, points to a cluster of huts 2,000 feet below. “That’s my village.” The village sits on a chequered tablecloth of green and ochre maize fields that extends to the feet of the emerald-coloured hills that surround us. Low clouds have smudged their tops away. Kanhaiyya claims there are villages at the top and that buses make improbable journeys through those wooded slopes transporting rural daily-wage labourers to the city and back. It is hard to imagine such drudgery in these magic mountains. In the distance are the shimmering ovals of Udaipur’s legendary lakes and the Rajput palaces that float on them.
The water from these hills flows into the lakes, Kanhaiyya says “Taj Mahal is worth 10 paise, no more, when you see the carvings at Ranakpur,” a shopkeeper had told me in Udaipur.
His income depends on rain: if the rains come, the lakes fill and tourists flow into Udaipur. Even on July 6 the Times of India had reported: “There is no water left in the lakes and no tourists can be seen.” When there is no rain, Lake Pichola dries up and the palaces on the lake become, as one journalist described it, “luxury liners stuck in a sea of caked mud”. A week before my trip, a tourist had said with ruthless frankness, “That is not a lake, it’s where all the rickshawallahs pee. It will be a lake, however…if it rains.” There has been a four-day deluge just before my trip, but the City Palace’s lakeside walls show a dark watermark 10 feet above the current level. The day is hot, the evening still and the dimly lit terrace at my hotel has a mosquito symphony playing Next to me, a blonde girl in backpacker’s uniform — faded salwar and stringy tee — sits yoga-straight on the floor, sheathed by her daydreams and insect repellent.
Devi Garh is hidden away from urban life by the Aravali ranges. Every suite has a view of them. Small shrines on hilltops as well as ancient temples surround us.
Next to me, a blonde girl in backpacker’s uniform — faded salwar and stringy tee — sits yoga-straight on the floor, sheathed by her daydreams and insect repellent.
I do the touristy thing and walk the next morning to the royal jetty for a boat-ride. The palaces on the lakes are hotels for millionaires. From the other bank, they are remote, aglow with flaming torches at night. It is only possible to reach them by boat, and you are not allowed in unless you are staying there.
The water thuds against the sides of our boat and cormorants observe us from their perches on buoys. Boys swim alongside screaming “bon jour”, while the mostly Italian tourists observe them through cameras.
A man washes himself on one bank, a woman is beating clothes half to death on a stone beside him. The City Palace looms behind them and the Monsoon Palace is toy-like on one of the hills that rim the horizon. The heavy skies relent with a soft breeze as we pull away from the shore. My Udaipur fantasy will come true at last.
But a piping voice sounds a sceptical note. “When will the boat go faster, Mummy?” the girl says, and gives a disenchanted sigh when the awful truth dawns. “The Kidz Playhouse is more fun.” She turns to me. “My brother is too small for the Playhouse. He’s stupid because he is just nine months old.”
The boat docks at Jagmandir hotel. It has a garish restaurant in which the centrepiece is a pink plastic wedding cake within a glass case. It is pleasanter to look outside. The water laps the walls of the restaurant and the building seems to be floating forward. I can hear the girl, ecstatic about the cake. She insists on being photographed with it, posing proudly next to the glass case.
I lose sight of them as I walk away from the City Palace through the old city, flanked by little shops that swab off the grime with the dazzling colours of their puppets, clothes, paintings. Every kind of vehicle squeezes past as people dodge them with nimble expertise. Donkeys stand in patient, immobile clusters, oblivious to the frenzy. Their droppings add to the smell from the open drains in which purple water flows from the dyeing shops.
In one tiny shop, there is a shrivelled old man doing something intricate. A rolled cigarette dangles from his lips, unlit. When he looks up, his eyes are as blue as the walls of his shop. “I’m making instruments to cut glass. See that little stone on top: it used to be a diamond. Now we use a fake.” He shows me how glass is cut. He describes the way Udaipur’s renowned thekri work is done: intricate patterns cut into glass and fired into mosaics.
Silver jewellery is sold from every other shop around the clock tower. At the first, the shopkeeper tells me he used to work at the public library until life cruelly imprisoned him behind a shop counter. At the next shop, the man wheedles me into buying too much, talks politics, claims he used to be a reporter. Out of the blue, interrupting his diatribe on corruption, he urges me to wear a coral. “Then you’ll go far. I read foreheads. You’re hardworking and much-travelled — no?” My forehead begins to feel as vulnerable as an open book. He scrutinises it with a frown, claims I have two brothers. “Only one,” I correct him, “born in Udaipur.” He is unfazed. “You were meant to have two. Two brothers are good to have.”
I leave him and flee to Devi Garh.
Devi Garh, the palace of a junior raja who reported to the Maharaja of Udaipur, was a ruin when the new owner and the architects got to work. Its transformation is so complete the old Rajas might want to be reborn and live forever in the hotel. Devi Garh has nothing but green and blue slopes all around; the only settlement nearby is a village that sits at the toes of the hill the palace perches on. The palace is an intricate jigsaw of courtyards, gardens and secluded suites. As I enter, a flock of birds takes sudden flight. The rain is coming, they know. The swimming pool’s water clouds moments later as a burst of rain shatters its mirror-still surface. The wind builds up, the umbrellas over the deck-chairs seem ready to take flight towards the Aravalis. I am mesmerised, but the manager, Mr Dutta, frowns with worry: rainwater in the pool means the chlorine balance is going wonky.
I am served dinner in the Sheesh Mahal, an unbearably romantic eyrie on top of the palace, from where, through tiny jharokhas, you can see Delwara village, imagine its ancient stepwell rejuvenated by the rainwater. I can hear faint sounds of a flute. From time to time, a faraway bell tinkles.
I walk back to my room over rain-slicked stairs and courtyards. Baskets with long umbrellas have sprouted in the corners. The silence is amplified by the dripping sound of rainwater from the eaves. Everything is densely quiet, utterly serene.
It takes 162 people, says Mr Dutta, to keep that serenity going. When he tells me in detail about the workings of the hotel, I am exhausted just listening. I flee to the spa. It is pervaded by mysterious scents, the light is low, the music gentle, raindrops are chasing each other down the French windows. But Jino George is far from relaxed. “Customer is always right, you see. We can’t show anger. But some of them make bad demands. Their mind is only cracked. Without any manners they talk, and then the therapist is crying and coming to me. I tell guest politely, we are not doing that kind of treatment here.”
In the kitchen, stress levels run higher still. Mayank, the Barker Chef, has to be a ringmaster to make sure the five different orders at Table 8 are synchronised. “It’s like a circus. I have to make the tigers and lions dance together.” He grins. “I like the work, one day I’ll write about it. I’m reading all the time, everything. I like Stephen King. And García. You know, ‘Hundred Years of Solitude’? I’ve read it twice.”
Devi Garh is hidden away from urban life by the Aravali ranges. Every suite has a view of them. Small shrines on hilltops as well as ancient temples surround us. About a hundred kilometres away is Ranakpur, a set of Jain temples from the 14th century. “Taj Mahal is worth 10 paise, no more, when you see the carvings at Ranakpur,” a shopkeeper had told me in Udaipur.
The central Adinath temple is a cunning confection of pure marble, built so it needs no artificial light. The layered ceilings open each room to the sky, yet shelter them from the elements. Not a drop of water enters the temple through the hardest downpour. True pilgrims avoid it in the monsoon though: “In the rains, there are many insects on the floor. We Jains can’t harm any living creature, so we don’t go there,” the shopkeeper said.
Since I am not even vegetarian, I decide it doesn’t matter. It is a spectacular drive through the mountains. In places, they have been sliced open for the highway and on either side we have craggy walls of granite and sandstone. Further away, the slopes glow a lush green against the cloud-heavy sky. “Four days ago, all this was dry and burnt,” the driver says. “Now it’s beautiful.”
The wooden water wheels in the fields are idle. Newly sprung waterfalls gush over the rocks. Raindrops powder our windscreen. A woman in a scarlet ghagra walks past with a pyramid of brass pots on her head, and an umbrella over her pots. She smiles towards us through her balancing act. The rains have come to Rajasthan.
The information Getting there
Within Udaipur, there are plenty of autorickshaws. Also, cabs can be hired for the day (approx. Rs 1,500 for a small car). Everything is walking distance in the old city.
Where to stay
I stayed at the modest Kankarwa Haveli (from Rs 1,650; 0294-2411457, www.kankarwahaveli.com on the banks of Lake Pichola. It has 18 rooms around a series of pleasantly ramshackle courtyards and verandas. Unfussy vegetarian meals (there are eggs for breakfast) and beer could be had on the roof and the rooms were air-conditioned and clean. The highlights are its view of the lake and its amiable Alsatian, Bambi; the lowlight is that it has no power backup and power-cuts are frequent.
Hotels in Udaipur range from dirt-cheap (the buzz was that rooms were even going for Rs 150) budget rooms for backpackers to luxurious hotels. The luxury hotels all have fairly good rates going now, among them the Taj Lake Palace (from Rs 18,000; 2428800, www.tajhotels.com), the Oberoi Udaivilas (from Rs 16,500; 2433300, (www.oberoihotels.com) and the Trident (Rs 4,200; 2432200, www.tridenthotels.com). There are also, of course, the three older luxury hotels in the City Palace complex, and run by the HRH Group of Hotels (1800-180-2933; www.eternalmewar.in). They all offer 3D/2N packages right now: Shiv Niwas Palace (from Rs 9,500), Fateh Prakash Palace (from Rs 10,000) and Jagmandir Island Palace (from Rs 15,000).
If you drive 40 minutes out, you can stay at Devi Garh (monsoon package from Rs 20,500 for 3D/2N; 02953-289211, www.deviresorts.in) surrounded by hills and silence, and make day trips to Udaipur, Ranakpur, the Kumbhalgarh fort and the ancient Eklingji temple. The all-suite Devi Garh has three kinds to offer. The most luxurious is the Presidential Suite, with private swimming pool and outdoor Jacuzzi. The food is excellent. I sampled the palak pakori chaat, the Rajasthani thali and a sparkling grapefruit salad; the breakfast, served at your table, is a treat. The pretty candlelit bar turns out remarkable cocktails. For the energetic, they offer camel rides, mountain bikes, yoga; for the superstitious there is an astrologer on call.
What to see & do
A 16th-century Rajput city, Udaipur was the capital of Mewar, whose Rajputs were renowned for resisting the Mughals. Its natural defence is the Aravali hills that surround it and within is a city of palaces, lakes, temples and old havelis. It is interesting to just walk around the old city looking at the old buildings. Gaze at the lakes or go to Saheliyon Ki Bari, an 18th-century garden. The crafts village, Shilpgram, 8km away, is also well worth a visit. The City Palace complex has a good museum with several galleries and modern audio guides. Walk through the palace grounds to the jetty — a boat leaves every 15 minutes for a lake cruise. The boat ride is Rs 300, which is a rip-off because of its brevity. The drive (or walk, if you are energetic) to the Monsoon Palace (entry Rs 75, if in a car) is through an isolated wildlife sanctuary. There are hills and crags on every side and not a soul to be seen. The view from the top is fabulous, though the dilapidated palace smells and the Durbar Hall is ruined by a tacky display of government wildlife posters.
There is plenty of shopping in the old city: silver jewellery shops abound; also handmade shoes, bags and paintings. There are bookshops where unexpected treasures can be found.
Ranakpur, 90km from Udaipur, is set in a wooded valley. The drive is through the Aravalis, with only villages en route. This Jain pilgrimage centre has a series of temples, dominated by the Adinath temple, which is held up by 1,444 pillars that lead towards the central sanctum containing a four-sided figure of Adinath. Every pillar is carved differently and the unusual structure is open on every side to green hills and the sky. There is no electrical lighting; at night (open till 8pm), it is lit by candles. Carry binoculars to look at the sculpture on the ceilings and look out for the exquisite Bhairav-Bhavani pair of temple guardians, and the Kalpavriksh to stand beneath and make a wish.
Outside, the Parsvanath temple is alive with exquisite dancing figurines, warriors and gargoyles sculpted from marble. According to my guide, the same clan has been performing priestly duties here since the temple was established 18 generations ago; and the descendants of the original architect are still responsible for upkeep and repairs. The guides (tip them Rs 50-100) really are a fund of information. You are charged Rs 50 per camera. If you are in shorts or mid-length skirts or short-sleeved/sleeveless clothing, they insist on covering you up in a tent-like nightie, beware. There are toilets attached to the dharamshala next door, but nowhere that I could see to eat, so carry food and water.