The temples of Udaipur

Text Robyn Alexander Photographs Naashon Zalk. My feet are bare and I’m standing in an old stone and marble temple. Incense fills the air, along with the sound of the chanting and rhythmic clapping of the women around me. My brain is filled with just one thought: Diana Vreeland’s proclamation that ‘pink is the navy blue of India’. Because I’ve just realised the truth of this famous fashion pronouncement (although I think that orange could probably give pink a run for its money here in the Rajasthani city of Udaipur) – and the women clustered around me, smiling and kindly trying to make me feel welcome in their place of worship, are proof of it. Jagdish Temple – like temples in other Asian countries I’ve visited – has a constant stream of people moving in and out, taking time out of their busy days for a moment of reflection, prayer and worship, and apparently that stream has been constant since it was first opened in 1652. Jagdish is the largest temple in Udaipur and features a remarkable black stone image of Lord Jagannath, an aspect of Vishnu. Its detailed exterior carvings are also worth a look, and the cool marble floors feel marvellous underfoot. As we depart, moving carefully down the steep staircase, which has been made slippery by the monsoon drizzle that’s fallen while we were inside, the bearded, long-haired holy men sitting on the steps greet us with soft calls of ‘Namaste’. It’s been quite a day already, beginning with the enormous treat of simply waking up and opening the front door of my pool suite at the Oberoi Udaivilas hotel. Laid out before me were the steps down into the world’s most beautiful swimming pool and, beyond its edge, the hotel’s lush yet manicured garden stretching to the edge of Lake Pichola. And visible across the shimmering lake, the cream-coloured stone walls of the City Palace complex, soaring skywards. The palace’s twinkling lights, viewed the previous evening when I’d had a night swim after a delicious dinner at the Udaivilas restaurant, had hinted that it must be something very special to behold, but the sheer visual splendour of the huge palace complex in daylight was quite breathtaking. After breakfast we met our guide for the next couple of days, the wonderful Lalit Sharma, and embarked on one of the Udaivilas boats. As the last traces of morning mist cleared, we all fell quiet on board, drinking in the vistas of the massive buildings visible all around Lake Pichola. An artificial lake that was created in 1362, Pichola is not large, and we are fortunate to be visiting it this year, when the monsoon has been good and it is almost full. The lake is home to no less than three palaces: the City Palace on its edge, the Lake Palace (now a Taj hotel) and Gul Mahal, built on the islands of Jag Niwas and Jag Mandir respectively. This morning we cruised past Jag Niwas towards the domed Gul Mahal palace. If you’re old enough (or you’re a James Bond buff) you’ll recognise Gul Mahal as the star-attraction location of the movie Octopussy – but it was actually built as a palace for celebrations and is more famous locally as the place where the young Mughal prince Shah Jahan sheltered during his campaign to overthrow his father, Jahangir. (It’s also part of local lore that the domes and marble of Udaipur’s palaces were the inspiration for Shah Jahan’s legendary creation, the Taj Mahal.) After passing Gul Mahal’s troops of welcoming (or protective?) carved elephants, bright flags and white marble domes, we disembarked on the opposite shore of the lake and took a short drive up to the City Palace complex and museum. The City Palace is nothing short of monumental: it’s the product of 300 years of construction and the attentions of many maharanas (kings) from Udaipur’s ruling dynasty, the Mewars. (The House of Mewar is the world’s oldest-serving royal dynasty, with a line of direct descent that dates back to the year 734.) It consists of 11 separate palaces, or mahals, which were built over a lengthy period but somehow form a coherent whole that is the largest palace complex in Rajasthan It also features a number of images of the sun – the symbol of the Mewar dynasty and the emblem of Udaipur as the City of Sunrise. The current maharana has a home here too, tucked discreetly away from the parts of the complex that are open to the public. A visit to the palace museum takes several hours, and during ours I was repeatedly delighted: by the exquisite peacock mosaics and king’s balcony in the 17th-century Mor Chowk or peacock courtyard; by the airy Amar Vilas garden courtyard at the highest point of the palace; by the beautiful views of both the city of Udaipur (founded by Maharana Udai Singh II in 1559) and Lake Pichola; and finally by the many paintings and decorations showing the maharanas battling to protect their land and citizenry from invaders. From the City Palace we went on to visit Jagdish Temple, and from there to the retail delights of Ganesh Handicraft Emporium, which is situated in a beautifully renovated haveli (private mansion) in the Old City. Ancient culture, history, romance, spirituality and shopping – all before lunch. And lunch itself, which we ate in Durbar Hall in the Fateh Prakash Palace (part of the City Palace complex and now a privately run hotel) beneath three of the most enormous crystal chandeliers I’ve ever seen, very much lived up to the standards set by our incredible morning of sightseeing. Formally clad waiters served us several delectable courses, the highlight of which was the Rajasthani speciality, laal maas – a superb dish whose name means ‘red meat’ and which consists of lamb cooked in a bright red sauce that gets its colour from Kashmiri chillies (they impart the vibrant colour and tangy spiciness without too much heat). In the afternoon there was just time for a relaxing Oberoi Therapy signature massage in the spa back at the Udaivilas, then another quick swim in the world’s loveliest pool and a shower before our evening programme commenced. With the night lights out on the lake, we embarked on one of the Udaivilas boats again and cruised across to the Taj Lake Palace for dinner. Even more so than during the day, at night this former royal summer palace, dating back to 1746, seems to float on the lake’s surface, making its atmosphere of romance that much more powerful. Just as marvellous was the dinner that awaited us at Jharoka restaurant, a blend of Indian and contemporary fare that included an exceptional Indian-style cream of corn soup that was served as a mini ‘cappuccino’, and paneer bhurji tortellini – tortellini filled with Indian cheese served with a lightly spiced tomato sauce. On our second and last day in the city, we put in some serious shopping time – one of my fellow travellers fell for an exquisite piece of emerald jewellery – and persuaded Lalit to take us on an informal tour on foot through the old market, where we all enjoyed getting up close with the everyday bustle and trade of the city. The photographers had literally to be prised away from the many picture opportunities there. And then, after a classic vegetarian thali lunch – a selection of small dishes such as rice, dhal, vegetable dishes, bread, yoghurt, chutneys and a sweet item or two – and a quick tour of the maharana’s vintage car collection (which, car-lovers, features a custom-made 1924 Rolls- Royce and a fabulous 1930 Ford Phaeton), we returned to the Udaivilas for the last time. Departing for the airport and the start of our journey home to SA, I promise myself that I’ll soon be back. Back to spend some more time exploring the remarkable mix of culture, romance and history – not to mention the utterly delicious food – Udaipur has to offer. Next time around, I’m planning to visit the other legendary Rajasthani cities of Jaipur and Jodhpur too, and the desert fort of Jaisalmer … and then there’s Kerala, and the Taj Mahal … and my lifelong dream of seeing a tiger in the wild, perhaps at Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Now it’s just a case of turning some more dream journeys to India into reality. getting there We flew direct to Mumbai from Johannesburg with the award-winning Jet Airways. Currently operating five direct flights from Jo’burg to Mumbai each week, Jet Airways provides outstanding service in the luxurious Première (business) Class and Economy Class. Première features flat-bed seats, as well as great in-flight entertainment and food. The generous legroom and attentive service make Economy Class journeys a pleasure too. From Mumbai, Jet Airways offers onward connecting flights to 49 destinations across the Indian subcontinent (including Udaipur). 011-622-1363/5 or 0860-JETAIR, where to stay The spectacular Oberoi Udaivilas resort opened in 2002 but, with its traditional design and opulent finishes, feels as if it’s been on the shore of Lake Pichola for centuries. The cuisine is sumptuous, the service impeccable and the spa not to be missed. We also recommend the Taj Lake Palace, situated in the middle of Lake Pichola – romantic and super- luxurious. getting around Tamarind Tours took care of our travel arrangements, and we highly recommend them for their friendly staff and attention to detail. Offering a number of packages, from a romantic honeymoon to that dream trip to see a tiger in the wild, they can also customise an itinerary for you. shopping Our travel group picked up clothing, traditional paintings and quilted bedspreads. Ganesh Handicraft Emporium has excellent Indian textiles. For jewellery ask your driver to take you to Gem Arts Emporium, 119 Saheli Marg, Udaipur. This article was originally featured in the December 2010 issue of House and Leisure.