That lovin’ feeling
There is still the unexpected lurking about in Rajasthan’s southern reaches, with great food, atmospheric forts, intriguing guides and car-crazy royals – all best seen right after the monsoon leaves the land lush and verdant
What on earth is that smell?” I wonder for the umpteenth time. Warily (and somewhat indiscreetly) sniffing my underarm, I reassure myself that it isn’t me. I must have wondered aloud, because Vaibhav, the photographer with me, replied, “It’s bat poo, silly. Every palace here has at least one colony!”
We’re in a corner of southern Rajasthan, and thankfully, there is much else besides the bats to uncover. We’re starting out in Udaipur, which has all the classic ingredients for romance and is a good place at which to start. Then we’re headed towards some unusual suspects, wandering south to Dungarpur and a little east to Chittorgarh before making our way to Bundi and Kota, quite unsung and surprising. It’s a part of Rajasthan that’s little known, often brushed aside in favour of the big names; it feels like almost criminal neglect. Of course, there are the forts and the temples and the palaces, yet most are ruined and forgotten and so all the more charming, filled with stories and traditions and quiet spaces.
And the skies have opened up – this is downright atmospheric, and takes about two seconds to fall in love with. It’s prolifically green, so cool and windy you never want to roll the windows up, and there are some beautiful birds to see. For this part of Rajasthan, you needn’t wait till winter comes – the world is so much prettier, so alive, and there’s a surprising nip in the evening air. Just perfect for snuggling up, or to go exploring old ruins, squelching through mud puddles together. And the monsoon is also pretty much off-season, so none of the harrowing crowds, and no digging deep in your pockets. This is some kind of wonderful.
Water, forests, birds – I can’t help but wonder if I’ve come to the right state. One thing feels very familiar, though – the hospitality. Maybe it’s because we’re going through the smaller towns, or maybe this is just how people are this side of the country. Royal or not, everyone’s genuinely happy to see you, and they make you feel right at home straight away. Everyone and everything takes its time here, though you won’t want to rush anyway. Whether you’re revelling in the feeling of discovery as you walk wide-eyed around a fort, or learning to appreciate centuries-old fine art, or even if you’re doing a whole lot of nothing, you’ll want to do it slowly, bit by bit.
There’s no doubt about it, Udaipur in the rains is heart-stoppingly beautiful and very typically romantic. Who cares if you don’t do anything but stroll the bylanes, or huddle up on one of the ghats after a drizzle and stare out at the ridiculously pretty palaces and quiet lakes, all coloured rose gold by the evening light. Oodeypore (as the British referred to it) could probably turn Captain Hook into a blubbering romantic. Even Octopussy would have fallen for Bond a lot quicker if she hadn’t been so busy plotting to kill him.
Udaipur was the last capital of the Mewars, and the Mewars are about nothing if not pride. Even now, centuries later, the people are as passionate about their gorgeous land as their kings once were. The rains are always a boon, especially here, but Jyoti Jasol, who works at the City Palace Museum, is worried the rain won’t always be around to save the land and the people. The Aravallis are fast disappearing under the onslaught of decades of mining, steadily putting this entire ecologically-sensitive region in grave danger. The government needs to start being more protective and create awareness or the lakes once made for the people here won’t be filling up any more.
Udaipur’s City Palace is huge, beautiful and absolutely dramatic, and thankfully, the crowds are thin this time of year. It’s actually a mammoth complex of several palaces, all built in succession starting from the 16th century, when Maharana Udai Singh II escaped Akbar’s final assault on Chittor. Today, it’s partly occupied by the royal family, part heritage hotel and part museum. It’s a crazy maze of corridors, with incredibly narrow doorways, all designed to confuse and slow down the enemy, so even if they did eventually find the king, their heads would be spinning too much to think straight. Bending through one of the doorways as our guide regales us with superbly gruesome (and probably apocryphal) stories of how enemy armies used camels mounted on elephants as battering rams to break through the city gates, I wonder how those tall and portly kings I see in the portraits ever fitted through.
We’ve only spent a morning at the City Palace, but I imagine you could easily spend a day here. A day to take in the glittering mosaics of the Mor Chowk (once the Diwan-i-Khas) the delicate jali work on the zenana screens, rooms upon rooms with latticed windows looking out over the lake, painstakingly carved marble columns, bold, colourful murals and stained glass decorating the walls. They might be getting old, but they’re still pretty grand. Surrounded by the serene Lake Pichola, and with the majestic Aravallis standing guard all around, the setting couldn’t be more cinematic.
It doesn’t stop there though. The legendary Lake Palace sits pretty in the middle of Lake Pichola. And when the sun starts to cast a warm glow, head to Lake Pichola for a boat ride and dinner at Jag Mandir, Udaipur’s other (and original) lake palace, owned by the royal family and open to non-residents, too.
Sajjangarh, the brooding, derelict monsoon palace, looks perfect in a downpour. Perched high on a hill, it’s cloaked in grey clouds and shuffles in and out of view, right till you get to it. Originally planned to be 13 levels, only three were completed when Sajjan Singh, who built it as his pleasure palace, died suddenly. There’s literally nothing to see inside, no people even. But when the skies clear out, the view, of the sun dipping low over the lakes and city below, and of cottony clouds tumbling over the nearby hills, takes your breath away.
The Sahastra Baahu Temples, by the more popular Eklingji Temples, is a sight for sore eyes, and a great place to tarry at for as long as you can manage. The relief carvings on the stone are stunning, and the artisans clearly had a sense of humour: in one of the erotica panels, a woman looks on, horrified, hands clapped over her mouth, at a couple doing the nasty.
More to do
While there’s a lot of history in Udaipur, there’s quite a bit if you just want to take it easy, too. Sit down to a private high tea (4pm; ` 400 per person) at Udai Bagh, quiet and secluded. You could take evening walks in Saheliyon ki Bari, a pretty little garden with fountains and lotuses, made once upon a time for princesses and their ladies to have a little fun in. Clamber up the steps of the Jagdish Mandir – legend has it that if you rub the head of the deity that’s placed outside the temple seven times, he makes your aches and pains go away. Screenings of Octopussy are a dime a dozen, but the most tacky and fun thing you can do is take the cable car that rumbles up to the Karni Mata Temple: the views are not bad at all.
We’re driving, bleary-eyed, on a smooth road, past dewy green fields dotted with egrets posing atop buffaloes. These roads are far easier to drive on than they used to be and airport connectivity is much better, too, and yet, Dungarpur’s largely escaped notice and remains completely underrated. The Juna Mahal here is surprising, and Udai Bilas, the newer palace, partly converted into a hotel, is the last word in pampering. It’s a bit like that secret you’re itching to tell, and yet want to keep to yourself.
Udai Bilas Palace stands, like any self-respecting Rajput palace should, under a canopy of trees at the edge of Gaibsagar Lake, stuffed full of blooming lotuses. It’s very regal, very inviting – lots of arches, balustrades and large balconies jutting gracefully out of the subtle bluish-grey local Parewa stone, with black and white chequered marble floors and honeycombed carvings on a grand pillar in the centre of a grander courtyard. The best part? It’s empty. The only others here are a couple of artists, restoring paintings. You could hop onto one of the cycles and ride around the countryside, spotting scores of egrets wading in little mud pools or just hunker down by the infinity pool, which, by the way, is awesome. At this time of year, not too many people are on holiday, and the staff will spoil you sillier than usual. We’re bedding down in one of the oldest rooms, just above where buffaloes once turned the water wheel. When we look out the window, there’s a gaggle of ducks splashing about the lake, clambering up the steps of the Shiva mandir in the middle. This feels really nice.
We’d spent the morning waffling about, exploring the run-down 13th-century Juna Mahal, which is, in a word, splendiferous. The older palace of the erstwhile royals, today it’s mouldering away, with creepers steadily climbing the walls, though the turrets and chhatris (round domes) are still very much there. It’s deserted; there isn’t another soul here, except for a very patient caretaker who’s helpfully opening up the musty old rooms – and, of course, the bats.
Look up at the ceiling of the Darbar Hall; it’s an explosion of colours, detailed murals as bright as they were hundreds of years ago. You’ll be craning your neck for quite a while – there are scenes of war and tales of Krishna, and panels of floral tiles to take in. The real surprise, though, is the Aam Khas. It’s a riot of colours, as glass and mirror work and painted tiles make beautiful mosaics that cover the space. These paintings, done using mineral dyes, are art at another level. There’s even a wall covered in illustrations from the Kama Sutra. It’s hidden away behind doors in one of the Maharawal’s chambers and is very intriguing and has me twisting my neck in all directions. I’m glad the guard’s not around.
Running your hands over these walls makes you wonder. How did those artists create such exquisite beauty such a long time ago? Did they ever think that years later, there’d be nary a soul to appreciate it? It really hits you that there’s so much to suddenly take in, hidden away in a ruined old palace up on a hill.
It’s been a long, absolutely brilliant day. I’m back at Udai Bilas Palace, sprawled out on the dewy grass. The setting sun is splashing orange and pink light everywhere, and there’s a Great Dane hovering over me. She’s got her fat paw over my phone and is breathing heavily as she playfully nips my ear. And at that moment, I couldn’t care. Five more dogs quickly crowd around, all extremely persistent lickers eagerly waiting their turn. Vaibhav and I can’t wipe the grins off our faces. Third day into the trip, and this is easily my favourite place. In fact, I’m already planning my return.
Udai Bilas Palace is run by Harshvardhan, the current prince and the coolest (and only) royal I’ve ever met. He comes over for a chat, inviting us back to his garage later. It’s your normal royal garage, you know, with about 20 restored vintage cars, shiny and pretty and über cool. And there’s a pub – a pub! – at the back, complete with quirky auto memorabilia and those things that lift cars up in real garages. I wonder if the day could possibly get better. But in this happy remote corner, it just keeps on picking up, at its own lovely, lazy pace.
Old-school sex ed
The erotic sculpture panels in Hindu temples that illustrate sexual positions have a lot of symbolism connected to them. Some scholars say they were meant to symbolise fertility, which, in turn, stood for prosperity, oneness and the creation of life. Another school of thought declares it a type of sex education. Marriage at a young age was very common, and, as newly-wed couples visited temples for blessings, this was a way to teach them an important aspect of their lives together.