After yesterday’s reality check in the Old City, I looked forward to spending the late morning in the City Palace Museum. If Sharnita and I weren’t smitten by Udaipur’s streets then perhaps we’d find the confines of its history more appealing. Happy to give Udaipur another chance, we crossed our fingers and set off after eating a basic breakfast à la Jassu.
Before we took even ten steps towards the palace, our request for a little luck was quickly answered when a pigeon showered a heap of good fortune on Sharnita’s head. Stifling my laughter, I noticed that the feathery fiend had even managed to land a greenish-white semisolid on her eyelashes. Right, back to the hotel!
When we finally did reach the City Palace, Sharnita and I decided to get the audio guides so that we could learn the stories and context behind this massive complex. Built entirely of granite and marble, Udaipur’s City Palace is the largest in all of regal Rajasthan – to simply amble around without understanding its significance would’ve been a waste. Although I’m not a die-hard fan of audio guides, I’d recommend renting the one here because it’s actually very well produced – colorful narrators and apt background music help make the 16th century palace accessible to even the most disinterested visitor. Bring your own earphones if you can though. The ones provided are flimsy and who knows how frequently the foam covers are replaced, if at all. I shudder when I think about the possibility of other people’s ear sweat rubbing up against my lobes. Ugh.
The sun was fierce when we made our way through the palace gates and we immediately found ourselves jostling with other Indian tourists for shelter in the walls’ skinny shadows. The relatively few foreigners meanwhile seemed to be enjoying the ample space of the sunny courtyards like a modern day British Raj.
I’m not going to give you a brief history of the 16th century City Palace or even attempt to take you on a tour because a) I think you’ll get bored and b) Wikipedia already does a decent job of that. Instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite stops and some of the interesting things that I learned:
- The Horse Diorama – This installation represents the legendary Maharana Pratap Singh and his beloved horse, Chetak. Artificial trunks were often worn by Rajput horses to disguise themselves as baby elephants, which helped them avoid fatal attacks by enemy elephants. Pretty ingenious, huh?
- The Battle of Haldighati Painting – The audio guide is great for this mutli-scene painting because it walks you through the great battle between Pratap’s Rajputs and Akbar’s Mughals. Although Pratap lost this battle, he later launched a successful attack that freed Rajasthan from Mughal rule.
- Amar Vilas – The highest point of the City Palace, Amar Vilas is a raised garden complete with fountains, arches and marble pillars. The audio guide’s suggestion of listening to a couple ragas at this stop was a nice touch. It added another dimension to the already peaceful surroundings and encouraged me to take a much needed break!
- Maharana Bhim Singh’s Apartments – These ornate blue-walled rooms show how luxuriously one of Rajasthan’s rulers once lived. One room serves as a memorial for his daughter whom he had poisoned to conveniently solve a botched deal. I’m guessing he didn’t win Dad of the Year.
Sharnita and I took about two and a half hours to complete the tour, but that’s because maddening hunger pangs forced us to rush through the final eight stops. After two hours, I began paying less attention to the audio guide, anyway. No offense, City Palace. It’s not you, it’s me.
After last night’s failure of a dinner, we were hell-bent on having a good meal and luckily we found one at Savage Garden. Like The Sassy Spoon in Mumbai, Savage Garden’s snicker-inducing name doesn’t do the restaurant justice. The deep blue walls, banana trees and pink-flowered crape myrtles help create an extremely photogenic oasis of calm that rejuvenated us as soon as we entered. Run by a German expat, Savage Garden serves authentic Italian and Mediterranean food that rivals what you’ll find in Mumbai and for a fraction of the price. We ordered the bruschetta, gnocchi al pesto, and aubergine tomatoes – all were fantastic. Our bill came to about Rs. 800.
Exhausted after a day spent in the sun, we went back to the hotel to rest and ventured out again only in the late afternoon for a cold cuppa at Jheel’s Ginger Coffee Bar & Bakery on Gangaur Ghat. Come here if you’d like to smoke a cigarette in an air conditioned café. There’s also a small patio out back in case you want to be outside and eye-level with the ebb and flow of Lake Pichola.
Feeling like we’d seen enough of Udaipur, we planned to make an overnight trip to Ranakpur and Kumbhalgarh the next day. Rankapur is home to probably the most impressive Jain temple in the world and Kumbhalgarh is one of the most important forts in Rajasthan. We booked a private car with a Ms. Kavita at Kotia Travels to pick us up at 8:30am. It cost us Rs. 3,300, including food and accommodation for the driver, tolls and parking fees.
Given our early start tomorrow, we capped our day with a candlelight dinner at Jaiwana Haveli’s rooftop restaurant. While there was a solid selection of local Rajasthani dishes, we stuck to good ol’ paneer tikka and butter chicken. Both were fairly bland (probably to cater to foreigners’ palettes) and nothing to write home about. Side note – I have yet to taste a better butter chicken than the one at Gaylord in Mumbai. Just putting that out there.
Reflecting on our second day in Udaipur, I couldn’t help but continue to feel underwhelmed by it all. While I loved learning about the Rajput dynasty and observing the architecture of the City Palace, I realized that my underlying apathy for Udaipur stemmed from how starkly divided it was. On the streets we were around garbage, diseased dogs, beggars, pushy shopkeepers, dust, and noise. Sharnita and I had to walk in single file and shout to one another to avoid getting hit by speeding traffic.
The gates of the City Palace and 5-star hotels, however, were entrances to another world. These private properties were clean, serene and beautiful. Sharnita and I could walk side-by-side and even stop to take a selfie or two. We were surrounded by gardens, art and high levels of craftsmanship. It was admittedly romantic even if artificially so. It finally hit me that a ticket to the City Palace or a room at a heritage hotel isn’t just an opportunity to peek into Udaipur’s past. It’s also an escape from the harsh and often difficult realities of a 21st century India. And it troubled me that we had to seek solace in these insulated enclaves to experience India’s much advertised romance.
Granted, this isn’t a problem that’s limited to Udaipur – the City of Lakes is just my scapegoat. It’s the same with Agra, Amritsar, Jaipur, Varanasi and even the mountain capital of Leh (just to name a few). There’s just no connection between the rich history of these cities and their frantic path to the future. It’s this disconnect that I find disconcerting. I understand that my issue has more to do with India’s general state of tourism and development and not Udaipur in particular – but either way, it’s a humbling and unfortunate realization.
Sorry to end on such a serious note but I think it’s important to bring these thoughts, no matter how cynical, to the surface. What do you think? My next post will be about our trip to Ranakpur and Kumbhalgarh. Will my impressions change once outside the city? Stay tuned to find out!
Here’s some general information for the City Palace as of March 29, 2014:
Hours: 9:00am to 5:30pm
Entrance Ticket: Rs. 115
Camera Fee: Rs. 225
Audio Guide: Rs. 250
Don’t forget to read about other Trabblr members’ experiences in Udaipur or even pen your own by clicking here.
You can follow me on Instagram at hershkumbhani.