It is a Sunday afternoon. I stretch to pick up the remote control and shut off the television. James Bond 007’s movie ‘Octupussy’ was good and entertaining. Its location of the city and the palaces brings up many forgotten memories. I grow drowsy as my mind drifts to that enchanted city called ‘Udaipur’, situated in the north Indian state of Rajasthan. A city, famous across the land through its song and story, Udaipur, which was once the capital of a vast hilly region called Mewar. Its rulers, the soldiers of Rajput clan, ruled non-stop right up to the independence of India, in 1947, for an incredible 75 generations!
Me? I was busy playing out ‘what ifs?’ as I went boating on the lake Pitchola in the heart of Udaipur. As in what if I had lived in those palaces, or danced with my royal friends to the beat of folk music, or simply a royal bath with maids of honor waiting upon me? Then there was the prettiest ‘What if’ of all. What if the clock turned back and the Moguls and the Rajput filled the palaces and I actually relived the past! Ah, but it was so easy to dream up such experiences in the penumbra of such perfections!
And this city and this palace are twin peaks of perfections. Now, a luxury hotel, rated amongst the most exotic in the world, Lake Palace Hotel was once called the ‘Jal Nivas”. It was built in 1740 as the cool pleasure palace for royals and their dancing girls. Its rich wealth of marble structure with stained glass and rich artifacts make it truly a great holiday retreat, available to anyone who can afford to stay. Visitors, who just want to look around, can come to this palace hotel for a meal or the sunset cocktail. In fact the price includes the boat ride from the mainland. There is a story that goes that the lake surrounding the palace was infested, in those days, with crocodiles. While the royals enjoyed the comfort of the boat rides, the dancing girls had to walk on a tight rope to reach the mainland.
My two companions and I had swapped our Air-India flight at Delhi Airport for a rented car. Some few hours later, our car had finally taxied off the highway. Passing through the villages, you catch the smell of cooking fires. The streets are crowded with villagers, with men dressed in colorful turbans, short kurtas and skin tight pajamas. Women dressed in hand printed sari that cover from head to toe. Silver jewelery adorns their head, neck, waist, hands and feet. Bare-footed children waved and shouted excitedly as our car snailed down the narrow path created by the moving villagers. You catch a glimpse of the city palace hotel which dominates the sky line. The city, the palaces and the prismatic sky, is why you are here. You only have to look around you to get the emotional kick-start of a lifetime.
The evening is warm and pleasant. The rays of light, filters through the shades, into my bedroom, I rouse from my reverie, draw up the shades and take a deep breath. Telephone starts to ring, I go to answer. It is my friend, who is inviting me over for a game of a scrabble and dinner. I decline politely, having already decided to spend the day all by myself- alone. I wander up to the kitchen and prepare a cup of coffee. Balancing a cup of coffee in one hand, and a book, ‘Life isn’t all ha ha hee hee’ by Meera Syal in another hand, I make my way through the rooms, on to my balcony and plop down against the corner seat. The view from my balcony is beautiful with small children playing in my building compound. But my mind can neither concentrate on this immediate beauty nor on my favorite book, it drift back to Udaipur dreamscape.
The city palace dominates the skyline of Udaipur like no other structure. It is famous for its fine style of painting and stained glass. The complex was deliberately laid out like a maze to confuse the armed intruders. Eleven palaces in granite and marble built since Mogul Udaisingh’s time make this the largest palace in Rajasthan with many hidden splendors.
Days were spent doing what you do in Udaipur. I reduced my consumption of novels and went exploring instead. We visited the Peacock Court known as ‘Morchowk’. This part had a huge peacock made of 5000 pieces of stained glass. I focused my pocket torch on them and they glittered producing a fabulous spectrum of light.
Just facing the ‘Morchowk’ is the women’s quarters called ‘Janana mahal’. This is one of the finest rooms in the palace. Its walls are adorned with famous theme- scene from the life of lord Krishna. The palace also hides other delightful rooms. Like one of the king’s bedrooms- ‘Maharana ki kothi’ its walls are adorned throughout with the mosaic of precious stones and mirrors. It is very much common amongst the royals and moguls alike. The most perfect palace I have ever set my eyes on.
Next, we were led to the ‘Krishna Vilas’. Our guide informed us that this part of the palace recalls a great tragedy. It is said that this palace was built in the memory of the sixteen year old princess by the name of Krishnakumari, who drank poison to avoid the dilemma of choosing a groom from the two rival lands of Jodhpur and Jaipur – the neighboring cities of Udaipur. They say that she drank the deadly drink with such great dignity and grace that even the sternest of the warriors wept like children.
As we walked ahead, we came across a meshed, net-like structure. It looked so sinister that we watched in wonder. Our guide informed us that it was the woman’s private quarters. This enclosed existence is in marked contrast to the harsh war-like world of man. The women would sit at a distance and watch all the activity of the palace without being noticed. The woman did have their outdoor fun too. There was a secluded garden built just for them where their natural exuberance would gush freely.
Next day, we had visited the garden of ‘maid of honor’ known as ‘Sahilon ki Badi’. This is situated to the north of Udaipur. In the interior of this garden, there is a big open ground where you will find the group of loyal villagers. These villagers performed the folk music with traditional dances- a music so enticing that you were led to believe as though you are reliving the past. For shopping, we headed towards the roadside market known as Jagdish market. This is a unique market where you would find cabin-like stalls laid close together side by side. There were variety of things on sale including artifacts, silver jewelry, handicraft gifts, embroidered clothes and most cute of all- puppets. We were told that there were also state run emporiums that sold high quality goods at reasonable bargains.
And for typical Udaipur entertainment, we enjoyed a traditional Rajasthan cuisine, which is mostly vegetarian with puris, lentils and vegetables cooked in sweetest spicy sauces. Late evenings, we were entertained by watching a puppet show with folk music and dance. The music was so lively and stimulating that everybody present, were unconsciously shaking their heads and tapping their feet. Me? I surprised myself by swinging and dancing to the rhythm of folk music holding the hands of local performers.
Now, I tap my feet as I watch the sun go down behind the mountains. It is getting late and chilly. I get up and put away the book. That was the wonderful experience to crown my visit to this fairy land. I hate coming down to the earth. But alas, all good things must come to an end. I pick up the phone and call my friend. “Listen dear; is the invitation to the game of Scrabble and dinner still open?”