Udaipur is famous for many reasons. To those in the west it is mostly known for its gleaming white Jag Niwas hotel found in the middle of one of its many lakes. To the Indians themselves is it known as a home of the great Maharana family. To the travellers, who could never afford a night in such a famous hotel and are relegated to simply looking at it, Udaipur is mainly known for a very special ceremony involving unmarried women and coloured hats.
Udaipur was the first stop for us into Rajasthan. We had heard so much about this part of India and were looking forwards to our visit with relish. The historic capital of the former kingdom of Mewar in Rajputana Agency, Udaipur’s fierce independence had successfully led it into the modern world almost untouched. This is in part due to its mountainous region being unsuitable for heavily armoured Mughal horses; Udaipur remained unmolested from Mughal influence in spite of much pressure.
We had already experienced a “preview” of what we could expect while in the colourful southern city of Mysore, with its grand palace covered in bulbs, culture revolving around the charismatic power base of the Raja’s and incredible local markets.
We arrived, as ever, by train. It remained the quintessential method of transport across India, but its routes into Rajasthan were not all going to where we wanted and so we were soon going to abandon the train for buses and other methods of transport. But, for now, we caught a tuk tuk to the “travellers” centre. The city is built up around lakes and almost everywhere we went overlooked them somewhat. [pullquote sid="pullquote-1310222606" align="right"]The city is built up around lakes and almost everywhere we went overlooked them somewhat.[/pullquote] For Indian cities, Udaipur is fairly well off and the buildings are all brightly painted and shining in the vast amount of sunlight. In the distance, over the almost endless roof-top gardens and restaurants, are the majestic rolling Aravali foothills.
The huge visible distance lends an ambiance to the city. However, when we arrived it was very early and still dark. We had called ahead and booked our room at Anjani hotel, an old royal Haveli Anjani Ji converted to hotel which is situated near to the Pichola-Lake. It’s bright White frontage and views over the lake made it a great choice and not too expensive. We walked up a steep alley to the hotel front and entered the foyer.
There was no-one in sight and the lights were all off. Cesca called out into the dim room and three men, obviously sleeping behind the counter rose and bid us welcome. They certainly went from sleeping to working quicker than I can manage, however they made the mistake of trying on a little room gouging with Cesca first thing in the morning. After twenty minutes she had not only got us the original rate back, but also double upgraded to an incredible suite overlooking the lake. It had a four-poster bed and was quite wonderful. We then went to the rooftop restaurant for breakfast.
[pullquote sid="pullquote-1310222606" align="left"]I looked out into the lake and could see that it was very low at the moment.[/pullquote]
The hotel floating in the center had originally been a palace for the local Rana of course, but now was a playground for the western rich. Those that don’t stay at the other great hotel locally: the Oberoi. That hotel was outside of town and hidden from view around the lake edge. It was even more exclusive. I wondered how much it cost to stay there.
We spent the next day exploring Udaipur and considering the purchase of silk bed covers as gifts for those back home. We also perused the local cafes and partook of the local foodstuffs, or at least the tourist versions of same. The best place we found was a German style bakery serving up all sorts of wonderful delicacies.
Then we decided to visit the great City Palace built in 1559 and overlooking the lake from atop a nearby hill. Walking up to the grand ‘Bara Pol’ (Great Gate) entrance was to experience the brilliant architecture of India.
We were learning that Rajasthan had not lost any of its classic beauty compared to the, obviously, war-torn southern cities. How could this be? The story goes that the invading Marathas tormented the Udaipur rulers for years until the British came to their rescue in exchange for becoming a British territory. A wise choice as the southern states that fought against the empire suffered greatly against the most formidable army of that time. Indeed it would only be the great peacemaker Gandhi (a hero of mine) who could break the British will, well that and WWII having bankrupted it. After independence, the “princes” here lost those rights in the change to democracy, but kept their palaces which are now run as trusts.
[pullquote sid="pullquote-1310222606" align="right"]Blocked and guarded in here, the Rana could survive anything their local enemies could throw at them.[/pullquote] Like all Maharanas palaces this one was a monument to pure familial power and a building to inspire a cultural influence. Gleaming white buildings with gigantic doors, designed to defend against elephant attack, protect the entrances to the palace proper. Clearly this was more of a castle than just palace. It had the winding corridors and courtyards, the guard rooms and barracks of a major civic administrative centre.
Interestingly the title of “Maharana” is that given to a military warrior ruler not a king (“raja”). Hence they are “princes” of their domains.
Inside the giant doors was the armoury and guard-room. This was a highlight for me and I stood amazed at the superlative inventiveness of the Indian’s methods of waging war. Swords and spears were only the beginning. Almost all the beautifully inlaid weapons also had a hidden pistol somewhere in the structure. I saw axes with pistols in the top, swords with pistols in the handles, even pens that could fire a bullet.
These were not even the most incredible weapons, for the Indian’s also used arms I had never seen before. Such as a very long sword built into a gauntlet so that the four-foot blade protruded from the fist like a giant punch dagger. It was stiff and with the gauntlet coming quite far down the arm meant that the warrior would not be able to use his wrist to “roll” or turn the blade and would have to swing his whole arm using his elbow as the main joint. It must take an amazing amount of training to use effectively not to mention a lot of space on the battlefield.
Once through the armoury we entered the maze of rooms, hidden gardens, jewelled chambers and throne rooms of the palace proper. These were all still intact and had not been looted. Stained glass and brightly coloured artworks adorned all the Walls. One motif I noticed regularly was the visage of a Rajasthani man, all round-faced and with the traditional moustache of the region.
I realised that the Ranas had built up quite a cult of personality here in their power base. This revolved around their ability to “protect” the local population from the assignations of invading hordes from the north. Much was made of the Ranas personal prowess in battle – not surprising if he had so many hidden pistols to fire – and how this leant itself to the divine right of warriors to rule. [pullquote sid="pullquote-1310222606" align="right"]This palace exuded power and influence from every window and in every piece of “branding”.[/pullquote] There is a lot of is sort of thing in all monarchies, but it is only when seeing it not directed at oneself that you can see it for what it really is: a method of keeping a family line in power. As the Patrician of Ankh Morpork says, “people mostly want tomorrow to be just like today”.
That is not to say I didn’t find it alluring and beautiful, quite to the contrary; I thought it magnificent and a stunning artistic marvel. I wondered how anything I would go on to see in Rajasthan could compete. Little did I know that this palace was the standard of this area of India, and each city-state had an equally or better edifice to the past.
One thing I do remember well was the very high quality audio tour that spoke at length about the legends and history of the building, something that would be difficult to discern without local assistance.
After a few hours we returned to our hotel and met the owner. She and Cesca got on very well and we were presently surprised when she offered Cesca a job renovating the hotel. We seriously considered it and I wonder now what would have become of us had we relented to the temptation.
That night we ate out in a roof top restaurant and spoke with the waiter who, as it turned out, used to work in the mysterious Oberoi.
“How much is a room for a night?” I asked.
“$2000 a night,” he said, “but it doesn’t really have rooms”.
“What do you mean?”
“The hotel is like nothing else. You get your own wing, your own cook, your own staff and your own pool. You basically get your own hotel”.
“Wow!” Cesca exclaimed.
The waiter smiled and filled our glasses.
We had a few days until the festival we had come to see, and I would like to say we spent it exploring the countryside and many temples, but the room was so nice and the heat so high that we mostly spent it exploring each other. Not to say I didn’t learn new things!
In the mornings Cesca would go and do some yoga at the local school, and then we would explore the cafe’s (of which there were many, usually filled with too-loud Americans yelling into their phones and sipping lattes). After that it would be some shopping and then back to the room.
It was great to relax and Udaipur was just the place.
Eventually the night arrived and we had the opportunity to see one of the strangest festivals in all of India. Down by the steps to the Gangaur Ghat a large crowd of very brightly dressed Indians all milled around as though waiting for something.
They were mostly middle-aged women and children. They didn’t have long to wait. Amidst much fanfare the first younger girl came into view. She was dressed in very fine and colourful garments and on her head was a large pointed puppet. There were two types, one male and one female.
They were made to look like they were dressed up for something as well. The girls’ numbers swelled to a dozen full casts for Punch and Judy. They all seemed happy, but ever so slightly embarrassed.
I learned that they were all unmarried women and that this ceremonial procession was to ask the Gods for aid in finding them a partner. Cesca and I decided that it was all very sweet really.
We spent a couple of hours paying with the hordes of local kids who had come for the colourful spectacle being played out by their sisters and aunts, but found the two Westerners an unexpected bonus.
We had quite a flock demanding money, photos and school-pens following us until the festival ended and we went for a drink.
As we sat on yet another rooftop bar, ruminating on the night’s brightly lit strangeness and the phenomenon of unmarried sisters; I noticed something on the hills in the distance:
They were on fire.
A large fire was burning over the brow of the hill. Judging by the distance to the glow it was a dangerous size and I briefly wondered about it coming down to threaten the city itself. Over the next hour i watched it out of the corner of my eye as it swept along the hill-side.
Eventually we turned in. The next day we booked a hire car to take us to Jodhpur and we left Udaipur behind. It had been a very relaxing and pleasant city area to visit with some incredible architecture and that amazing palace. I still remember it very fondly.
Our hire car drove us through the countryside towards the great city of Jodhpur and we watched the beauty pass us by in happy, if warm, contemplation.
About half way through our journey we stopped at the enormous Jain temple of Ranakpur, near Sadri town, in the Pali district of Rajasthan.
It is acclaimed world-wide for its intricate and architectural style and one of the five major pilgrimage sites for the Jain faith. [pullquote sid="pullquote-1310222606" align="left"]The guide-book wrote that the “temple is wholly constructed in light coloured marble and comprises a basement covering an area of 48000 sq. feet. There are more than 1400 exquisitely carved pillars…”[/pullquote]
The sign outside asked menstruating women to refrain from entering and so I went in alone. Inside, the temple’s complex chambers with carved pillars the interesting geometry threw me for a moment; it was incredible. I heard later that it was seriously considered as one of the new “wonders of the world”.
The Jain cult is not well known outside of India, but it is as ancient as Buddhism and not dissimilar. Certainly much ink has been spilt in claim and counter claim of who came first between them. Suffice to say, they are both of importance. Both are concerned with spiritual release through discovery of the nature of the “self” and the veneration of those who have achieved this release in the past. Given that Buddhism has splintered into such variant churches, the fact that Jainism remains almost unchanged after 2000 years is quite an achievement.
Then a smiling man in a robe approached and introduced himself as the High Priest and would I care to make a donation? I should have known what was coming next as I had been in umpteen Indian temples by this point: he was going to “spot” me.
In India, the spot of paint on the forehead means that one has attended temple that day. They come in all colours and guises, but Cesca and I had decided to avoid them. It seemed to me that it’s unfair to appropriate beliefs you don’t hold or to “fake” as such. For example I hate it when politicians claim affiliation to a cause they don’t actually support, such Tony Blair wearing a “Drop the Debt” wrist band at the G8; as if he really cared for that.
As I leant in to pass the note into the man’s proffered pot I suddenly felt the unmistakable strike of a fingertip just above my eyes. He had got me!
“Oh!” I said startled, “You got me!”
He just smiled the smile of the believer and moved on. His job done.
I took some photos and left to show Cesca, who informed me that the bright blue mark was very becoming while trying not to laugh out loud at my unimpressed expression!
We got back in the car and returned to the road.
“Are you not going to wipe that off?” Cesca asked.
“No,” I replied, “it was a very relaxing and impressive temple so I think that the priest earned a little blue spot from me today.”
We huggled up and as the car drove into a valley we watched as the countryside slew past and the sun started to dip over the horizon.