A stream of traffic worked its way around her as she stood still in the middle of the road, gazing nonchalantly around; an elegant tranquillity in the midst of a motorised chaos. The holy cow seemed oblivious to danger as our taxi-driver swerved to narrowly avoid her, cursing joyfully under his breath, as we made our way to the old part of town.
Udaipur lies nestled amongst the Araveli mountain range in the Indian state of Rajasthan and has deservedly been called the ‘Venice of the East’. A series of lakes that lie at the heart of the city, hand-built in days gone by, imbue the white city with a certain air of tranquillity. Tourists of every nationality pass through on their relentless whistle-stop tour of Rajasthan but its worth travelling slowly sometimes, to steep oneself a little deeper in its calming ambience.
The majestic City Palace, with its golden domes and turrets, dominates the surrounding area. It has been home to a succession of Maharajas of the Mewar dynasty since 1559. We spent two whole days wandering through the endless rooms, corridors and courtyards, all beautifully restored, fascinated by the sumptuous extravagance and grand scale of a golden age. The walls are lined with miniature paintings, depicting the dramas of the palace history, from ascensions and weddings to tiger hunts and invasions.
At the edge of the lake there is a delightful afternoon tea-room with musicians playing sitar and tabla. Unfortunately we could barely afford to share a chapatti in this idyllic place but it was fun at least to read the menu whilst walking past and imagine. And your imagination can run freely here: whilst you stroll through the gardens and courtyards you can feel the opulence of the palace permeating the soul.
Below the City Palace lies the Lal Ghat area; with its narrow winding streets and craft shops, it slightly resembles St. Ives on a balmy afternoon. The tumult of Indian city life is kept at bay: the roads are swept daily and discrete policing keep cows, beggars and parked cars away.
The craft shops sell cloth , jewellery and miniature paintings, some better than others, and buyers must always beware, but it’s a pleasant way to pass the time, endlessly discussing and debating with the shop owners who, by and large, are friendly and philosophical as to whether you buy or not.
Udaipur has several five-star hotels costing goodness knows how much per night and luxurious they are indeed. But Lal Ghat is where you find the more modestly priced hotels and guesthouses, from £10 per night for a double room. We stayed at ‘Pratap Bhavan’ run by Colonel Rathore, retired from the Indian army, and his charming wife. The rooms were clean and spacious and the hot showers an absolute blessing. They gave us a warm welcome.
Every hotel boasts a roof-top restaurant, each one claiming to have the best views of the lake. Looking down from above, one sees a woven maze of open stairs, balconies and terraces, a veritable cross-section of life being lived on every level: a young girl drying her hair in the morning sun, a boy playing cricket on a fourth floor terrace, two old ladies nattering whilst washing the lentils. This place is not for the unfit or those prone to vertigo: everywhere you go is either upstairs or down and everywhere has a view of somewhere.
Lake Pichola has suffered from past droughts but this year was full, graced by a bountiful monsoon. Rising out of the lake is a palace built on a whim by an adolescent Maharana, its white walls glistening in the afternoon sun. Now a swish hotel, frequented by business moguls and movie stars, it featured in the James Bond movie ‘Octopussy’ and if you missed the acrobatic antics of Roger Moore then there are plenty of restaurants playing the film nightly. It’s a real hoot, believe me!
The residents of Udaipur are a friendly open bunch of folk who are intensely proud of their city. ‘Which country is suffering without you’ seems to be the latest chat-up line from the handsome male shop-owners which charmed my wife. The waiters are warm-hearted and helpful and were over-the –moon when we spoke our meagre Hindi with them and they insisted on teaching us a new word or phrase everyday and were delighted at our modest improvements.
On the steps of the ghat, a gaggle of women wash piles of clothes, rinsing and then beating the cloth with what looks suspiciously like a rolling pin, pounding the dirty water out and then rinse and pound some more, the noise echoing through the corridors of the town.
A few plump middle-aged men squat on the steps, stripped to their shorts, brushing their teeth and then stoically plunge into the austere waters. Some come to piously feed the pigeons, others just sit on the steps of the ghat and watch. ‘This is where we come to dream’ said one young man.
A few women, stout and doughty, fill their water containers at the stop-tap and then elegantly hoist them on their heads and disappear into the shadows of a doorway. A rickshaw hurtles past, squeezed to the brim with school-children and their satchels and one distraught driver.
Dogs scratch themselves and doze in the shade. By night the streets belong to them, and the y howl their territorial disputes. A policeman makes his nocturnal beat, tapping his staff as he goes, tap, tap, to assure the insomniacs that all goes well.
Too early in the morning, the temple is filled with chanting and the mosques summon the faithful to prayer.
Behind Lal Ghat lies the Jagdish Temple where the Hindu sadhus, or holy men, congregate and a busy crossroads where one experiences Indian life with all its glorious contradictions: from beautiful to ugly, ridiculous to banal, perfume to stench, superlative to expletive, and sometimes just plain weird, all jostling cheek by jowl.
The crossroads is an endless weaving of rickshaw, cow, bicycle and humanity all joggling around each other. One walks precariously at times, ever careful not to bump into or be bumped by anything passing, whilst gazing at the myriad of open-fronted stalls that sell just about everything.
And then there is the noise, the relentless hooting of the rickshaw horn and shouts of people, the dust and pollution, but as one walks through the ridiculousness of it all to buy the sweetest of papaya or banana one can find oneself strangely at home with the place.
Then its time to retreat to the safety of the rooftop restaurant elevated above the ground-floor chaos. We are foreigners here, we always were, but Udaipur opens its heart to the tourist who drinks deeply of its culture: its music, dance, fabric, puppets and paintings. And then it’s time to watch with awe once again at the setting of the sun behind the mountains, and drink another cool lassi, for time passes slowly here, like the holy cow on the street below that gazes around nonchalantly and then trundles on her way.