It wasn’t the most auspicious introduction to a new city: I arrived in Udaipur on an uncomfortable nightbus, on which I’d been kept awake most of the night by a full bladder. I hadn’t found a couchsurfing host, and the recommended hotel had messed me around and eventually told me they were full, so I’d had to book a more expensive one down the road. Arriving at 7am, I’d had to wake up the duty manager who was asleep on a mattress in the foyer.
For several days before I travelled there, everyone had been telling me how beautiful Udaipur was. I’d been sceptical – I’ve seen a lot of places in India which are sort of beautiful, but ruined by filth and human activity – but eventually my expectations couldn’t help but be influenced by the repeated message.
As the autorickshaw driver took me, bleary and zombified, from the coach drop-off to the hotel, my first glimpse of the early morning sun glinting off the waters of Lake Pichola had been quickly followed by the sight of the litter and scum floating on top of it. Of course it’s dirty, I thought. It’s India. Why did I ever even entertain the notion that it might be actually beautiful, as opposed to just possessing some nice architecture but desperately in need of a good clean?
I met up with a group of fellow travellers from couchsurfing: Agnieszka, a Pole; Arne, a German; and Lise, a Colombian. It promised to be a fun multicultural experience.
We visited the Bagore ki Haveli, an 18th century waterfront palace which was neglected until 1992, when it was restored and turned into a museum displaying the aristocratic culture of Mewar, the princely state of which Udaipur was the capital. To quote the information board at the entrance to the museum:
“The idea was not to realistically reconstruct the past, but to symbolically invoke the spirit of the by-gone culture by means of a few selected objects displayed in a context that would defy the conventional notion of a museum and also save itself from the arduous task of artificial reconstruction of history under the name of ‘authenticity’.”
So what you’re saying is, you couldn’t be bothered to check if any of it was accurate, so you just made it all up? And then tried to justify the decision with some postmodern story about ‘defying conventional notions’? Too right. Stupid ‘authenticity’ wouldn’t give you crazy mirror rooms, a freaky puppet gallery, and models of world landmarks built from polystyrene packing foam, would it?
The girls sped around the exhibits, declaring they weren’t into museums, and we moved on to the Jagdish Temple. Surprisingly, it’s the first properly large, old Hindu temple I’ve visited, so I enjoyed the tall tower jam-packed with carved sculptures of patterns, animals and dancing girls. I was especially intrigued by the googly eye motif.
The large statue of Garuda, above, had them, and I noticed a lone figure, among the many on the temple walls, which did too. It reminded me of the 1000 stick-on googly eyes I once bought on eBay and used to stick all over people’s things in their offices. Can anyone explain the prank’s relevance to Hinduism?
After Jagdish, I went to the City Palace museum, while the girls chose to go shopping. It was the usual Rajasthani palace stuff, a list which now includes howdahs and palanquins as well. An original sight was a room dedicated to James Tod, the British military officer and amateur historian who was posted by the East India Company as their Political Officer in the Rajput states in the early 19th century. He was highly respected among the Rajput chiefs, and one of the exhibits is a miniature painting showing the Maharaja of Udaipur riding out to meet him on his return from a tour of Rajputana. Two portraits of him were shown side by side: one realistic Western drawing, and one Indian, in profile and stylised with the same teardrop-shaped eyes given to Maharajas and princesses. It was a fascinating contrast. There was also a copy of his three-volume Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, and an antique gas-powered fan.
Outside the City Palace we reconvened, and got caught up in a Hobson Jobson. It’s the month of Muharram so all the Muslims are getting excited about the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali. To commemorate his death in battle against the Caliph during Islam’s early schisms, Shia Muslims parade through the streets shouting “Ya Hussein! Ya Hassan!” which was interpreted by early British explorers as “Hobson Jobson”, a term which was then used to describe any noisy, shouty spectacle put on by the locals. But this was the real thing, and having seen it for myself, I can tell you it really does sound like “Hobson Jobson”.
We took a taxi up to Sajjangarh, the Monsoon Palace, on a hill overlooking Udaipur. The building itself isn’t very interesting but it has spectacular views of both the city and the countryside beyond. It’s a popular spot to watch the sunset. Like in Pushkar, it was too hazy to be a very good sunset, but it was still a nice place to end the day.
That evening, the girls wanted to do some more shopping, so we wandered around looking at what Udaipur had to offer. Miniature paintings, mostly. Each city in India, and Rajasthan especially, seems to have a product it specialises in. For Udaipur it’s miniature paintings. Despite my strongly-expressed opinions against shopping while travelling, I actually found some paintings I liked a lot and ended up buying them. And once you’ve started, it’s difficult to stop. So sorry for giving the game away, but quite a few people are getting miniature paintings as gifts when I get back.
The next day, Arne and I took a boat ride on Lake Pichola. The girls didn’t join us – they wanted to do even more shopping. From the boat, the romantic setting and beauty of Udaipur is more apparent. I started to understand why everyone raves about Udaipur. Yes, it’s dirty and congested, which at ground level spoils the beauty, just like every other place in India. But every cafe and restaurant is on a rooftop and has views across the lake; every place you visit gives you the same. Unlike other places, you end up spending most of your time relaxing and seeing the city at its best, rather than assaulted by sounds and smells and traffic at street level. Even when you’re on the ground, you’re usually inside an art shop being presented with dozens of different paintings for consideration, while the chaos remains outside.
The boat trip stops at Jag Mandir, another island palace cum hotel on the lake. There’s not much to see, but the clean, pretty courtyards and gardens are nice. We had a glass of champagne at the bar, sitting at a table looking out past marble elephants back to the main part of the city across the water. From there, you see the sunlight glinting off the rippled surface, and the lake lapping against shoreside havelis and townhouses; you can’t see the litter lapping with it. It’s glorious.
When we found the girls again after the boat trip, I thought they’d be all shopped out, but apparently not. They were still going strong. Arne joined in too, and eventually had to buy a leather satchel too, just to carry all the other stuff he’d bought. Agnieszka had about 10kg of stuff to take home to Poland. I could hardly comment: I had a stash of paintings and a couple of other items wrapped up in my bag too.
That evening, the girls continued shopping while Arne and I went to the Dharohar Dance and Music Show put on at the Bagore ki Haveli every evening. It was a fantastic show, and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting Udaipur. There were dances with flaming pots on the head, girls spinning bells around and clinking them against brass cups all over their bodies, puppet dancing, and a dance from the desert of western Rajasthan, where women carry stacked pots of water on their heads: the dancer increased her load throughout the dance, finishing with a stack of 11 pots which were twice her own height again. When we got back to the hotel for dinner, Arne explained it in a way he thought the girls would understand: “It’s the best 100 rupees you can spend in Udaipur.”
The gang split up that night, as the others were catching a night train to Ajmer and moving on to Pushkar for the camel fair. Over the next couple of days, I took day trips out to Kumbhalgarh, Ranakpur and Chittaurgarh. I have no shortage of photos of those places, since I was then on my own and had nothing better to do than take constant snaps.
Before Udaipur, I was growing a bit tired of samey Rajasthani cities, the ubiquitous dirt spoiling what could otherwise be quite beautiful. The City of Lakes made me break several of the principles I’d adopted: I took hundreds of pointless photographs no-one will ever look at, I bought a load of stuff, and I actually enjoyed it and found it genuinely beautiful. Udaipur made me fall back in quite like with India again.