British administrator and Oriental Scholar James Tod felt Udaipur is “the most romantic spot on the continent of India,” and he was bang on. The city of lakes surrounded by Aravalli’s or Jagra, as the range is called in Udaipur, will captivate you. The palaces and monuments will softly whisper their mesmerizing tales in your ears. You can sit by the lake for hours and soak in the gorgeous city. No wonder Udaipur is a popular destination for weddings and honeymoons. But even if you are travelling solo the company of the beautiful city is all that you need!
I fell in love with Udaipur the moment I stepped out of the aircraft on Diwali morning. Udaipur’s Maharana Pratap Airport captures the flavour of the city. I have never seen such a nicely done airport before. The cab ride from the airport, 22 km East of Udaipur, to Hotel Sarovar Pichola in the heritage city is about 40 minutes. While driving through the newer parts of Udaipur, modern and smart with malls and branded stores like any other city, the cab driver started talking about his city. “Madam people of Udaipur are rich. Sixty per cent of them are into hospitality and the rest in mining. Udaipur is also called the city of zinc you know.” In Udaipur, every cab and auto driver have their own tales of the city to share. He even offered to take me on a city tour the next day for Rs. 2200/-, which seemed quite reasonable to me then.
On reaching the hotel I was told that auto would be a more reasonable choice therefore I set out to explore the city on an autorickshaw. I heard a lot about the silver and stone jewellery of Udaipur. Being a lover of silver jewellery and handicrafts I decided to check out the markets first. I headed to Bapu Bazaar on learning from the auto driver that silver shops are to be found in that market. On the way, he also mentioned that I may like to check Shlipgram. Therefore, we stopped at Shilpagram first, a multistoried emporium that houses traditional sarees, fabrics, handicrafts and jewellery. After picking up an indigo saree and Kundan earrings from there I asked the guy to take me to a silver shop in Bapu Bazaar.
Silver Art Gallery was our next stop. I was floored by the design, the range and the price points. Silver in Udaipur is much cheaper than in Delhi and the designs so different. I picked up two pairs of earrings and a Kada from the store. It was almost lunchtime and I wanted to sample Rajasthani food. “Natraj chale jaiye madam,’ the guy attending to me in the shop advised.
As I stepped out of the shop looking for a conveyance to go to Natraj, an elderly auto driver stopped before me. I had initially decided to go back to the hotel after lunch but Ram Bhai, the auto driver, convinced me otherwise, “Aaj hi ghoom lo madam. Kal Diwali le ke baad aur bhir ho jayega.” As I didn’t know much about the city except the names of the tourist spots, he decided the route. He took me to Fateh Sagar Lake first and convinced me to take a speed boat with four strangers (something that the usual me would never do). I sat in the single seat at the front and quite enjoyed the ride I must say.
Udaipur, once the capital of Mewar founded by Maharana Udai Sign in 1559, has seven artificial lakes. The heritage city was built around Lake Pichola, the oldest lake of Udaipur. Fateh Sagar, another popular lake that was formed later, lies in the north of Lake Pichola. I was taken to an underground fish aquarium on the banks of Fateh Sagar next. It is a new addition to the tourist attractions of Udaipur. There’s nothing historical about it but the pretty little fishes are refreshing.
Saheliyon-ki-Bari (Courtyard or Garden of the Maidens), a beautiful garden with fountains and pools, built by Rana Sangram Singh for his queen Shakuntala, is also on the banks on Fateh Sagar. Queen Shakuntala was accompanied by forty-eight maids when she got married. She wanted a garden where she could hang out with her sahelis or girlfriends. ‘The foliage was much thicker in those days,’ said the tourist guide. ‘Women observed purdah then. Even the sun couldn’t penetrate the thick greenery.’ He also told me that the fountains were once natural, drawing water from the Fateh Sagar. They use a pump now to regulate the flow and ensure that there’s less wastage.
I headed back to the hotel after that, the music of the fountains still playing in my ears. Being Diwali I dressed up for the evening and sat in the rooftop bar with Lady in Red to witness the festival of lights, and what an experience it was! Well-lit monuments and their reflections in the lake, firecrackers going up in the air added a romantic aura to the festival.
Day 2: Sajjan Garh Fort, City Palace and more…
The construction of the Sajjan Garh Fort, also known as Monsoon Palace, was initiated by Maharana Sajjan Singh. He had originally planned it to be a five-storey astronomical centre. The construction came to a halt after the premature death of the young king at the age of twenty-six. His son Maharana Fateh Singh later completed the palace and turned it into a monsoon palace and hunting lodge. The popular James Bond film Octopussy was shot in the Monsoon Palace
Located on a hilltop overlooking the Fateh Sagar Lake the palace offers a panoramic view of the city. It’s great during the monsoon with clouds overlooking the Monsoon Palace. It’s also a good point for watching the sunset, I later learned.
Ram Bhai had reached the hotel with his auto sharp at 10:30 am to take me sightseeing. He dropped me at the gate of Sajjan Garh Fort, “Madam van le lo upar jane ke liye.” It’s about five kilometres hilly drive to the fort. One can either get a pass made for their private vehicle or take shared vans that keep plying up and down. A shared van! I stopped for a moment but I had to see the fort. So I walked up to the counter and got my ticket and a pass for the van.
I sat at the front seat of Tata Qualis and even picked up a conversation with the driver Govind. On my way back I found the same van, Govind on the phone while waiting for passengers. The van filled up in no time and we made our way down.
There’s a National Park next to the fort that I skipped and went to Shilpgram instead, not the emporium but a crafts village though they share the same name. Not many stalls were open at Shilgram but I did manage to pick up a beautiful Rajasthani skirt for my niece and Udaipur’s famed miniature painting. December is the time when they have a fair where craftsmen display their work. Realizing that I liked shopping Ram Bhai took me all the emporiums around. I did end up buying an ear in semi-precious stone, set in ‘anar ruby’ I was told, from one such place.
He drove me to Maharana Pratap Gaurav Kendra at Tiger Hill in Udaipur, which he insisted is a must-visit. Unfortunately, the place was shut that day so we headed to the City Palace. My hotel is just a kilometre away from the City Palace so I let Ram Bhai go. Rs. 1500 was all he charged for two days city tour.
The City Palace has been built over a period of nearly four hundred years. Maharana Udai Singh started the construction in 1553 and several rulers of the Mewar dynasty over the next four-decade added to it. When Udaipur became the capital of Mewar, City Palace was the seat of power. Now the intricately built palace houses a museum and galleries. Beautiful glass inlay work and paintings of past monarchs and their glories adorn the palace. With many narrow passages and stairways, security was of paramount concern when the palace was designed. The palace overlooks the Pichola Lake and Taj Palace Lake Hotel. An 18th-century marble structure on a lake island originally part of the palace has been leased out to the Taj Group. It was late afternoon then and I had to push my way through the throng of tourists, mostly from Gujarat, to make my way through the palace.
Jagdish Temple is just next to the City Palace. I bowed before the temple deciding not to go up the stairs and walked the lanes instead. There are small shops with Rajasthani handicrafts and jewellery on both sides of the road. I walked into a small silver shop close to the temple ‘Natural Collection.’ The man behind the counter opened boxes of jewellery, both set in stones and plain silver. Of course, I picked quite up a few pairs of earrings, not just for me my friends as well.
I stopped by Bagore-ki-Haveli and Gangori Ghat on my way back to the hotel. My last evening at Udaipur. After a tiring and satisfying day, I headed to the rooftop bar to get my fill of Udaipur in the evening, peaceful and beautifully lit up. You can never have enough of this gorgeous city!