A Place of Dreams… and Nightmares too
02.03.2009 - 04.03.2009 35 °C
At least the Taj Chain of Hotels may be feeling that it can be a bit of a nightmare. Their big conundrum can only be “what to call the Lake Palace when the lake goes dry?” Four years ago it was a Lake Palace in a dry lake and although it’s not quite dry this year, two consecutive years with very poor monsoons means water levels are low. But… the white onion domes still glow at sunrise and sunset, and it’s easy to see that Akbar was inspired by this architectural wonder when he built the Taj Mahal.
We didn’t go inside the Lake Palace – room tariffs are in the $1000s range! And anyway, this palace was constructed for summer use and summer is only just beginning here. Instead, we visited the City Palace which was built for winter use and is now a fabulous museum. It rivals Mysore Palace for its opulence and I think exceeds it for beauty or at least intrigue. It’s far older – parts of the Udaipur City Palace date back to the 1500’s when the city was first founded. The guide we hired was excellent, and we learned all sorts of fascinating details. The low doorways do not mean people were short. Rather, they are a strategic defense against enemies – when you bend your head low to enter a room, it’s easy for the guard to remove it! Uneven steps on a staircase also mean that someone trying to enter too swiftly is likely to trip and fall. Spikes placed way high on the gigantic portal doors are there to deter elephants from storming the place. And horses wearing armour that includes an elephant style trunk makes the otherwise potentially deadly elephant think the horse is a young of its own kind.
The palace was added onto by a long succession of Maharanas and there were some amazing rooms! The Maharanas bedroom was completely covered with mirrored surfaces, even the floor and ceiling. This was to help keep it cool, and also allowed the Maharana to sleep a little longer in the morning. The huge silver and gold image of the sun in the courtyard outside his room would reflect in the mirrors which allowed him to stay in bed to do his morning rites in adulation of the sun.
We were very puzzled when we found an outdoor courtyard with huge trees on the fourth floor! The explanation is that this part of the palace sits high on the hill, so it is (also) on the ground floor.
The palace also houses a large collection of miniature paintings that are extraordinary for their detail.
A third palace was constructed near Udaipur for use in the monsoon season. Not surprisingly, the Monsoon Palace sits high on a hilltop with fabulous views of the city and the hills all around, and we enjoyed watching the sunset behind some of those hills. On the way up there, we watched a mongoose for a long while, and saw a black buck (like an elk) chewing its cud.
It’s difficult to say what was best in Udaipur – all the gorgeous architecture or the labyrinthine streets brimming with shops full of beautiful hand crafted items – all the classic India souvenirs. We had a great time wondering up and down and all around, and a few vendors did manage to extract a little money from us.
One funny incident was our request for the name of a restaurant where locals eat and local food is served. (Most of the restaurants in the old part of town cater to tourists and we knew their menus weren’t quite authentic.) More than one person recommended the Natraj Hotel to us. We took an autorickshaw there and thoroughly enjoyed their thali meal. One of the many nice things about thali meals is that they involve little thought; they’re simply the “house menu” of vegetable curries, dahl, curd and sometimes sweets served in tiny bowls on a platter with rice, chapatti, pappadam and pickles. Later we learned it was Gujarti style food! So much for local - but delicious.
We did succeed in finding a truly local breakfast at a small stall just inside one of the 8 impressive city gates. The menu consisted of delicious saffron rice and a couple variations of samosa. It’s never difficult to find deep fried food here In Rajasthan!