India days eleven and twelve
27.10.2015 - 28.10.2015
Udaipur was the southernmost point we visited in Rajasthan on this trip – after this we would turn north again towards Delhi. The city’s setting in the Aravalli Mountains, and around a string of man-made lakes, gives it a unique character among Rajasthan’s cities.
You are never far from the water here, so views are often more scenic. Local life focuses to some extent on the lakes, creating a more relaxed vibe than elsewhere, and the city’s efforts to become the cleanest city in India have borne fruit, at least in the centre.
We spent the largest part of our day here exploring the City Palace, an amazing structure which is actually many palaces in one – all piled on top of each other on the eastern shore of the oldest lake, Pichola. We also had time to stroll in one of the oldest streets, visit a temple and some pretty gardens, but not, unfortunately, to take a boat ride on the lake and visit the famous Lake Palace hotel, nor to visit the Monsoon Palace. Another day here would have been good – but I could say the same about almost every place we visited on our tour of Rajasthan!
We drove to Udaipur from Narlai via Ranakpur, stopping to visit the stunning Jain temple there en route (see my previous entry). We also stopped in a bustling small town, Sadri; drove through the Aravalli Mountains with some beautiful views; and had plenty of chances to photograph the traditional rural Rajasthani way of life. There were oxen pulling ploughs and turning water wheels to irrigate the land (I made a little video of the latter and tipped the woman operating it for her trouble), and men and women (the latter in the most colourful of saris) working in the fields. We also saw several troops of the Langur monkeys whose antics never failed to make me smile!
Threshing and drawing water
By the time we arrived in Udaipur it was late afternoon. We checked into our hotel, the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace, which lies a little way out of the oldest part of town on the shores of Fateh Sagar, one of the city’s many lakes. This rather grand old hotel is part heritage property, part newer. We had a large room in the newer (cheaper) wing, but with a lovely lake view that more than compensated for any lack of character, and a window seat from which to enjoy it.
While our reception here was welcoming it was also a bit stifling. A friendly girl from reception showed us to our room, and the bell boy followed with the luggage and showed us all the facilities (expecting a good tip, of course) and also explained how we could give feedback and mention him by name. While he was still doing this the phone rang - it was reception wanting to know if we liked our room. And as he left a lady from the spa arrived to tell us that we could book a massage and the prices were displayed in the room (so clearly that we hadn't needed her visit to point this out!) This over-solicitousness continued throughout our stay - for instance, one morning at breakfast three different staff members hovered over us offering to fetch coffee, bread, pancakes etc., despite it being a buffet! While well-meaning it became a bit wearing at times.
One bonus of our stay at the Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace was the view over Fateh Sagar Lake, especially at sunset. The hotel faces west across the lake and in on a ridge above it, so perfectly positioned to catch the final rays of the sun as it goes down behind the hills on the opposite shore. The hotel makes the most of these, with musical entertainment as the sun sinks and drinks served on the small terrace overlooking the lawns. But with most if not all rooms facing towards the lake, we found we could just as easily enjoy the sight from the comfort of our own room with its strategically positioned window seat!
Lake view, late afternoon
Evening entertainment is provided in the rather incongruous form of bagpipers who played "Scotland the Brave", among other tunes, as the sun set over the hills on the other side of the lake! I just had to make a video of that. Later there was a puppet show and later still the ubiquitous Rajasthani cultural performance.
The hotel has three restaurants. On that first evening we chose to eat in Aangan, which serves Indian food and has outside seating with a view of the lake. The food was OK but the menu very limited as they were having a kebab festival which meant that we were restricted to choosing between a set platter of meat kebabs or one of vegetarian ones, with both of us having to eat the same. Prices though were reasonable (we paid 3,200IR which included three drinks and a three course set meal). A shame, as I think their regular menu would have suited us well and made this a good choice.
On balance we probably liked this hotel among the least of all those we stayed in on this trip. It looks very grand, and has wonderful views - these are its best feature. But it lacks some of the facilities you would expect of a hotel with these pretensions, such as a bar (!) and swimming pool (it would have been better by far to use the lawns for this purpose than to add a third unnecessary restaurant). Also, while I did feel staff really wanted to be helpful, the attentive service felt drilled rather than genuine.
Arriving in Udaipur it is immediately obvious why it is so often called the “city of lakes”. A string of them runs through its heart and you are never far from water here. All the lakes are interconnected, and you will see different numbers cited, as it seems to depend on whether you count the smallest stretches of water as an actual lake or not. Wikipedia suggests that in total there are three main lakes in the upper catchment area above the city, six lakes within its municipal boundary and one lake downstream. Our guide on the other hand said there were just five in the centre. In practice though you will probably be most aware of just three – Pichola with its famous Lake Palace in the southern part of the city, Fateh Sagar in the more modern northern part, and smaller Swaroop Sagar which links the two.
Pichola from near the City Palace
The lakes are not natural; they are all manmade. Pichola is the oldest, constructed in 1362 and extended in 1560, while Fateh Sagar was added in 1678 and Swaroop Sagar in the mid-19th century. In the past there have been considerable problems with water pollution, caused by poor treatment of sewage, but there have been efforts in recent years to clean up the lakes. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend bathing here. It is possible though to take boat trips on both Pichola and Fateh Sagar, and I wished we would have found time for this during our brief stay.
Most of the next morning was devoted to the building which dominates Udaipur’s old town, the City Palace, which stands on the east bank of Pichola Lake. It was founded by Rana Udai Singh II in 1559 – according to legend he chose this spot on the advice of a hermit who was meditating here and whose blessing he sought. It has been developed and much added to by subsequent generations of maharanas to create what is actually a whole complex of palaces – most sources describe eleven in total. Part of it is still occupied by the Mewar royals, who in today’s democratic India have retained their titles (and wealth) but no power. They run the complex as part tourist attraction / museum, part heritage hotel.
Entrance fees can be confusing as there are many ticket options, depending on which parts of the complex you want to see. Our tour was pre-paid as part of our holiday but if buying your own ticket you’ll want to study the options in advance (not easy, as the official website doesn’t explain them properly!) I did however spot at least one ticket counter part way round the tour where those who wanted to add extra sections could do so.
The publicly accessible parts are something of a rabbit warren of narrow passages, steep stairways, and hidden courtyards. We were very glad we had a guide, although the audio guide you can hire would also be helpful in finding your way and ensuring you don’t miss anything.
You enter the palace either from the south, as we did, climbing up a path with great views of Pichola lake (see above) and passing the private quarters of the maharana, or from the north via the old city and the Badi Pol, the main gate. Either route leads you into the Manek Chowk, a large courtyard with lawns which was created in around 1620.
City Palace seen from Manek Chowk
This is the main ceremonial area of the palace and is still used today for royal festivities and public events. The buildings of the palace tower above you on the courtyard’s west side. Near the northern end of the courtyard you will see some large indentations in the ground which our guide explained were where elephants would be tethered (you will get a better view of these later, looking down from above). A large wall in the north west part of the courtyard was used for elephant wrestling – two elephants would stand one each side of the wall and wrestle each other with their trunks (you can see photos of this inside one of the palaces).
On the wall of the palace look out for the large sun – the Mewar maharanas worshipped the sun and would greet it each morning. In the event of cloudy skies, they would greet instead a pure gold sun mounted on an inside wall of the palace, and to encourage the people to do likewise they had this gold plated version mounted here.
From the Manek Chowk you pass through the Toran Pol, with its heavy spiked gates and a wonderful painting on the ceiling of the arch depicting dancing girls.
One of the first sights of note on our explorations of the City Palace was the Ganesh Chowk, off which is this small statue of Ganesh, the Ganesh Deodhi. It was sculpted in marble in 1620 and is an object of reverence. It is set in a small niche and surrounded by beautiful glass inlay work depicting girls with fans, flowers and vines, peacocks and more.
From here we climbed some steps which led to the Rajya Angan, the earliest courtyard of the palace, built by Rana Udai Singh II in the 16th century. The early coronation ceremonies of the Mewar rulers took place in this courtyard. A room off this courtyard has displays about Pratap Singh and his famous horse, Chetak, who carried his master to safety despite having been shot in the leg during the Battle of Haldighati fought between the Rajputs and Mughals in 1576; once Pratap was safe, Chetak died of his wounds. Chetak is depicted in this model wearing a strange elephant-like truck, which was intended to deter attacks from the battle elephants who were trained to wield swords in their trunks and slash the enemy. It was just such an attack that caused Chetak’s wounds, so we can assume that the disguise was not good enough to fool the elephants on that occasion at least.
From the Rajya Angan we climbed further to the Chandra Mahal which was created by Rana Karan Singh II in the early 17th century as a leisure place for the rulers. In the centre is a large basin carved from a single piece of marble which is thought to have been used during Holi celebrations. It is also said that on the occasion of Karan Singh’s wedding the basin was filled with 100,000 silver coins which were later distributed among the poor of Udaipur. A balcony to one side of the courtyard offers fantastic views of the lake below.
View from Chandra Mahal
Wall carving, Chandra Mahal
Roof detail, Chandra Mahal
The next part of the City Palace that we came to on our tour was the Badi Mahal or Garden Palace (also sometimes known as Amar Vilas after its creator, Rana Amar Singh II). This dates from 1699 and was designed as a summer house. It has a marble basin in the centre and is planted with trees, like a roof garden (we are 30 metres or so above ground level here). Around the edges are terraces with 104 intricately carved marble pillars to support their canopies.
You can get some great views of the town below from here. It was also from here that my photo (above) of the elephant tethering pits in the Manek Chowk was taken.
In the Badi Mahal
Badi Mahal windows and view
From here we descended (I think!) past a room which displayed paintings of court life to one of the most ornate rooms, the Kanch ki Burj. Like the Chandra Mahal this dates from the reign of Rana Karan Singh II. Its walls are covered with red zig-zag mirrors (a 19th century addition) and it has some beautiful tile-work and a mirrored dome.
Kanch ki Burj
Continuing our tour we came next to the Badi Chitrashali Chowk, a square courtyard built during the reign of Rana Sangram Singh II (1710-1734). This space was used for music and dance performances, and was another of my favourites. It is decorated with blue tiles imported from China and windows of brightly coloured glass in which it is possible to frame a photo of the city below.
Beyond lies a terrace which provides another good spot for views - the city from one side, and Lake Pichola from the other. You can also look down into Manek Chowk and get a more detailed look at some of its features less easily visible from ground level, such as the statue of Ganesh in my photo below. There were a lot of visitors here all jostling to get the best photos so you may have to be patient!
Views from the Badi Chitrashali Chowk of the city and of Manek Chowk
From here, steps lead down to the Moti Mahal or Pearl Palace, its walls covered in mirrors and coloured glass. This is another of Karan Singh II’s additions – he seems to have liked rich colours and ornamentation. He was also responsible for the Manek Mahal or Ruby Palace which lies on the far side of the Mor Chowk.
We passed then through a succession of rooms, the names of which I didn't always note although my camera was kept busy!
We came at last to one of the City Palace's most photographed and acclaimed areas, the Mor Chowk. This is arguably the most beautiful of the palace’s many delights. Some other parts are more colourful, and it lacks the views of other courtyards, but its decorative elements are among the most exquisite and it has a pleasing uniformity of design. The stand-out features are the five mosaics of peacocks, commissioned by Rana Sajjan Singh in 1874. Each is made from about 5,000 pieces of coloured glass and stones. They are protected by windows so hard to photograph without reflections, but I got my most successful image by putting my lens right against the glass to capture the intricacies of the work – each fine strand of the feathers is a separate shard of green glass, for instance.
Although easy to overlook when focusing on the peacocks, the rest of the courtyard is also beautifully decorated, especially at the upper levels.
Upper levels of the Mor Chowk
At this point I confess I started to tire and although I took more photos of the remaining rooms and palaces these were mostly of small details that caught my eye, and at times I omitted to note where we were exactly within the complex!
I have written a lot about the City Palace and shared lots of photos, and yet this was not all we saw here! It’s an amazing place and you could quite easily spend the best part of a day here. As it was, we were here for several hours and still missed things I am sure.
City Palace Road
After our visit to the City Palace we took a walk along this road which I found held a wealth of fascinating activity and photo opportunities. Udaipur prides itself on being among the cleanest of Indian cities, and while that cleanliness seems only to apply to the very centre (we saw the ubiquitous rubbish heaps everywhere else) it was definitely in evidence here. There was also perhaps less traffic than we had become used to in the cities we visited, at least at the top end of the street, making it easier to find the best position for a photo. But as everywhere we found locals happy to see our cameras and for the most part to be included in our shots, when they realised this was the case.
This was also a good place to find local crafts, and although I didn't buy anything here (we stopped later in the day in a cooperative where I got a lovely cushion cover however), I did enjoy photographing the many puppets on display. Some of the shop signs raised a smile and made for good photos too.
Where City Palace Road becomes Jagdish Temple Road there is the large Hindu temple that gives the latter street its name, perched somewhat incongruously (or so it seemed to me) above a row of shops. This was built in 1651/2 by Rana Jagat Singh, and is dedicated to one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Jagannath. A black stone image of him stands inside, carved from a single stone (no photos allowed here), and around this central shrine are four more dedicated to Lord Ganesh, the Sun god, the goddess Shakti and Lord Shiva. A brass image of Garuda (the half-bird, half-man vehicle of Lord Vishnu), stands in a separate shrine in front of the temple. Outside every surface is decorated with carvings – elephants of all sizes, lions, images of Vishnu, scenes from the life of Krishna, dancing nymphs and all sorts of geometric and floral shapes.
Sahelion Ki Bari
These pretty gardens dotted with fountains are a peaceful oasis in this busy city. The name means “Courtyard of the Maidens” and commemorates a group of 48 young female attendants who accompanied a princess to Udaipur as part of her dowry. The garden was laid out by Rana Sangram Singh in the early part of the 18th century. It is said that he created it for his queen and these 48 companions, to give them somewhere to relax away from the court.
Although not large, there is quite a lot to see here, with several distinct parts to the garden. Near the entrance are lawns, and a square walled garden with a large pond in the centre of which is a pretty white marble chhatri. Water is something of a theme here – there are several other pools and numerous fountains ornamented with cranes and other birds, as well as elephants. A later Maharana, Bhupal Singh, added a group of rain fountains whose sound is designed to mimic rainfall (a rare treat in this desert state). Some fountains in the gardens play constantly, while others are activated by clapping your hands nearby.
There are also plenty of flowers, including oleander and bougainvillea. Some of the fountains were imported from England and the gardens show an English landscaping influence in places, just as English gardens of that period were often influenced by Indian styles.
There is a small entry fee (our guide paid so I’m not sure what this was) but the outer lawns are accessible free of charge and are a popular picnicking spot for locals.
Fountains of Sahelion Ki Bari
From here we drove back to Fateh Sagar, the lake a little to the north of the centre, where we stopped for lunch at a lakeside hotel. Later we stopped on a bridge over Swaroop Sagar which had super views in both directions. We could see locals washing their clothes at the water’s edge and had a good distant view of the Monsoon Palace. We met some local school boys too, keen to pose for photos!
We also visited the crafts cooperative where I bought my pretty cushion cover, before returning to the hotel to relax and catch up with emails etc. It was then that I wished that the hotel had used its extensive grounds for a swimming pool rather than a third restaurant!
But after another lovely sunset it was in that third restaurant that we ate our dinner. This is the Garden Grill. Its tables are set out among the trees and there is a nice view of the palace that houses the hotel, but not of the lake. Service was again stiflingly over-attentive (we were the only guests dining there as the hotel was quiet that night) and the food, which is "multi-cuisine" but all quite spicy (think Cajun chicken and Indonesian satay), was merely average. But we enjoyed the setting and the birds (stilts, I believe) that wandered the lawns between the tables. A full moon rose over the hotel palace and made a lovely backdrop to our final evening in Udaipur.
Tomorrow we would turn our sights northwards again ...