Lake Pichola is waiting for the monsoons. Each day in the dry tail end of spring the water level drops further down the stone ghats where local washerwomen still pummel their soapy saris against the steps, much as they have done for centuries. Not yet ruffled by the monsoon showers, the Lake is still this evening; a watery mirror interrupted only by the wake of boats ferrying tourists towards the jetty below me. To the west, the dust is thick in the Aravalli Hills that enclose Udaipur, turning the setting sun into a perfect saffron orb.
“Did you know, the emperor Shah Jahan was exiled on this island in 1623? The legend goes that much of his inspiration for the Taj Mahal came from the domes and gardens he discovered here.”
The tour leader I've been eavesdropping on eventually wanders off, umbrella held high, and my wife and I keep wandering along the waterside promenade of Jagmandir Island. Once a pleasure palace built for the ruling maharajahs, it’s easy to see how Jahan was inspired here to build his famous monument to love that has graced the skyline of Agra since 1653. The marble domes and formal gardens on Jagmandir are stunning in their simplicity, mirrored in reflecting ponds much as they are in the rectangular pools at Agra.
This warm spring evening though, it’s the reflection of the Taj Lake Palace hotel that catches our eye. A white marble edifice shimmering across the lake, it seems like an apparition that might disappear in the blink of an eye. Thankfully that’s not the case, as it’s where we’ve laid our bags for the night; a dose of five-star comfort that’s a welcome respite from the past week of tiring travelling.
No sooner has our boat pulled up to the hotel quay, than the handsome Rajasthani doorman – his smile as broad as his bushy handlebar moustache – whisks us up the stairs. His deep red coat matches the carpet that lines our path to the lobby, where rose petals rain from above as we step inside. Yes, I could definitely get used to this.
The dry days of spring morph into mild evenings and Bhairo, the Lake Palace’s rooftop restaurant, has the best seats in town to gaze across at the city. While Bhairo – which offers a modern European-influenced menu – has the vistas, it’s the spices of Neel Kamal that catch my attention.
Overlooking the formal courtyard gardens below, the hotel’s flagship restaurant is reminiscent of a maharajah’s private banquet hall, and serves up royal Rajasthani fare and Indian favourites with fine dining flair.
Indian thalis – a tasting platter of two or three curries, served with rice and naan – became my standard order in India, and the ‘Menu Exceptional’ at Neel Kamal is a thali with style. Rajasthani favourites like Laal maas (lamb curry cooked with whole spices), Bail Gatta curry (fenugreek seasoned dumplings in aromatic gravy) and Thikri Ki Dal (yellow lentils spiced with ginger and chili) were three favourites from a feast that stretched to a dozen courses.
Neel Kamal adds a touch of style to each dish, but they are all Rajasthani standards that you’ll find in most decent restaurants across the state. And as my wife was happy to discover, vegetarians are extremely well catered for on Indian menus, where carnivorous dishes are often the exception.
After a traditional North Indian breakfast of stuffed paratha (flat breads rolled with cheese and vegetables) and a pot of spicy masala chai we’re eager to get out and explore the city. The doorman hails a boat that delivers us to the doorstep of the towering City Palace.
Once known as Mewar, the city of Udaipur was founded in 1559 when the Hindu Maharajah Udai Singh II fled the sacking of Chittor by the Mughal emperor Akbar. Vowing not to be defeated by the Muslims again, he built his imposing palace on the shores of the Lake. Generation after generation added successive layers, and today 17 individual palaces make up the labyrinth of royal rooms that tower over the Lake and the city beyond.
Leaving the serene gardens of the palace complex, the frenetic city is a shock to the system. Auto-rickshaws screech to a halt to heckle us for business; shopkeepers exhort us to step inside for “just looking” while dogs, cattle and camels create chaos amongst the traffic. I reckon John Kenneth Galbraith, a US diplomat based in Delhi, was right when he described India as “a functioning anarchy.”
We leave the crowds behind though and take a breather at the intricately carved Jagdish Temple. Built by Maharaja Jagat Singh in 1651, it enshrines a black stone image of Vishnu as Jagannath – Lord of the Universe – while a brass image of the eagle-god Garuda loyally waits.
Jagdish is the most accessible temple in Udaipur, but it’s certainly not the most impressive. Udaipur makes an excellent base for exploring some of the most magnificent holy sites in Rajasthan.
There are other, more elaborate, temples to explore further afield, but most tourists to Udaipur stay within the city. Brochures brag about this city of Rajput kings being the ‘Venice of the East’, and in the old town all roads – winding though they may be – eventually lead towards the lake.
We wander towards the nearby Gangaur ghat where freshly washed saris are laid out to dry on the ancient stone steps. Nearby, cattle quietly chew the cud as a busker screeches away on a traditional ravanhasta fiddle, hoping for a few rupees. Local children, still wet from an after-school swim in the lake, chat to us to practise their English. Across the creek that feeds Lake Pichola, brightly painted elephants enjoy a mud bath in between amusing tourists with rides through the narrow streets.
Lining the waterfront, the lakeside havelis near the ghat are a good option if the Taj Lake Palace is a bit rich for your wallet. Once home to the town’s aristocracy, many of these palatial waterfront homes have been restored and converted into small hotels, with personal service and richly decorated rooms. Most also have excellent rooftop restaurants, allowing you to drink in the views of the lake while devouring a portion of dal bati churma, a popular Rajasthani lentil dish.
From the haveli rooftops, the famous façade of Udaipur opens up before you. The sandy hues of the City Palace transform as the sun dips behind distant hills, children splash about happily at the ghats and the lake waits, patiently, for the monsoon.
The wake from a boat loaded with tourists slashes open the mirrored surface of Lake Pichola, as a necklace of lights flickers to life around Jagmandir Island. Shah Jahan may have grabbed the headlines with the Taj Mahal, but it’s hard not to think that the magic of Udaipur played its part.
First published in Food&Home Entertaining, August 2010