Jagmandir Palace on Lake Pichola in Udaipur, the white city, Rajasthan, India

Colorful Rajasthan: India’s Scenic State in Five Days, Part Two

Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.

Feature Image: Jagmandir Palace on Lake Pichola in Udaipur, the white city

In Part One, I viewed tigers at Ranthambore National Park in Sawai Madhopur and explored the pink city of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, with its Hawa Mahal palace. Here, I continue my short five-day tour of Rajasthan in the white city, Udaipur, and blue city, Jodhpur.

The performer is alluding to the historically most vital job in Rajasthan – carrying water in the Thar desert, Udaipor, Rajasthan, India
The performer is recreating the historically most vital job in Rajasthan – carrying water in the Thar desert.

White city: The brevity of my trip forced me to give up a poetic train trip to the city of Udaipur and take a mundane, one-hour flight instead. Udaipur’s historical district is famous for its breezy location on the sloping shores of Lake Pichola. No wide boulevards could fit there, merely steep and narrow streets, some of them accessible only by tuk-tuk. That is how I also traveled, with my luggage, to the guesthouse where I stayed in a haveli, one of the cozy, multi-story townhouses on the lakeshore. The top terrace had a restaurant with panoramic views of the city, the lake, and the surrounding mountains. Udaipur receives more rain than the rest of the state, which makes the landscape surprisingly lush for Rajasthan.

I saw from the terrace how people use the lake to relax, and to help them with laundry and tuk-tuk wash. When I went downstairs, a street vendor wanted to strike up a conversation with me. He put a phone with a picture in front of my face. I recognized the lady on it: “Oh, that’s Judi Dench. With whom?” “With me! They were shooting a movie in Udaipur. She is a nice lady and took a selfie with me.” That movie was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Udaipur was also the setting for an older Bond movie and many others. The reason is simple. Udaipur is India’s quintessential fairy-tale city, thanks to the landscapes and the architecture where building façades are ornately decorated with white marble carvings.

The lakeshore in Udaipur at Gangaur Ghat , Rajasthan, India
The lakeshore in Udaipur at Gangaur Ghat

Besides havelis, the city has several palaces. Two of them are on islands in the lake, making a boat trip very worthwhile. Others sit in the city and the Monsoon Palace sits on top of a mountain. The prime royal residence of Udaipur is the immense city palace, which grew over centuries on a cliff, right above the lake. Visiting it takes the better part of the day, and a great deal of attention, as one walks through tens of spectacular halls. Some have paintings of maharajas and court life; others have glittering walls and dome ceilings. Mosaics of peacocks with glass inlays create a sense of luxury while the numerous courtyards make the tour pleasant. (Links to Wikipedia reviews appear at the end of this post.)

The city palace of Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
The city palace of Udaipur

At the gate to the palace, I had to jump to the side of the road as the maharaja’s motorcade came rolling in. A lot of Rajasthani cities and palaces are still residences of the former royal families. I roamed the streets for a bit and later, I walked up the steep staircase leading to the Hindu Jagdish Temple. The priest there asked me to wait downstairs because they were just cleaning the Holi decorations. Suddenly, water in red hues began rolling down the steps. I started walking up but suddenly had to run back down again as blue water began streaming down; followed then by yellow water. I might have missed Holi but not the Holi cleanup.

The priest gave me a tour of the temple complex, describing the story of Hinduism through the lines of reliefs on the temple’s exterior. He did not skip the Kamasutra, which was depicted on a small section of the wall, making the temple particularly interesting to visitors from abroad. Inside the temple, I saw the black statue of Lord Vishnu, who was still wearing his deep-yellow Holi attire.

Miniature and painting workshop of the Jagdish Temple in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
Miniature and painting workshop of the Jagdish Temple in Udaipur

I then made my way to a small temple workshop, where artisans preserve the old art of miniatures. The intricate small paintings are arranged in large scenes, with many tiny figures. The art form dates from the era when maharajas ruled over Rajasthan. Miniatures together with silver smithing are two art forms in which Udaipur excels and has no rival in India.

At the restaurant on the roof of my haveli, I made new friends. Akhil and Raji, who were visiting from Mumbai and Bangalore. They took me to a local performance where we sat on the floor and watched traditional dances. The wide range of traditional dances underscored how varied the historic cultures became. The mountains, the forests, the Thar desert: each corner of the Rajasthan was isolated and as a result, developed its own customs and dances.

The evening continued at a street stall. Akhil and Raji showed remarkable patience as they taught my clumsy fingers to eat panipuri, without breaking the shell and spilling the delicious liquid all over myself. When I mastered it, I kept lining up to try more, not least because panipuris come in many flavors, from sweet to savory

The most beautiful temple: The six-hour drive from Udaipur to Jodhpur allowed me to see more villages, in one of which the locals were still enjoying the Holi festivities, with colors flying in all directions. The driver said that in some places, Holi actually lasts the whole week.

The Ranakpur Temple, Rajasthan, India
The Ranakpur Temple opens up to the surrounding nature
Ranakpur Jain Temple, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India
Ranakpur Jain Temple

We passed by forts too, but most importantly, we made a stop at Ranakpur Temple. This 15th-century marvel stands isolated, at the bottom of a valley. The impression of the temple defies words. The marble structure contains high-ceiling halls, where every pillar and wall are covered with delicately sculpted reliefs. The number of pillars exceeds four hundred and no two are the same. At the end of each hall is not just a window but a large opening that leads straight into the surrounding forests.

Ranakpur is one of the main pilgrimage sites of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion. With only five million adherents, it is less well-known abroad, and yet, the religion’s philosophy and followers have greatly influenced India, including Mahatma Gandhi. Perhaps naïvely, even we outsiders, can feel how the temple, with its setting, embodies some of the tenets of Jainism — asceticism, hard work, open-mindedness, and a close connection with nature.

Blue city: When my driver and I finally arrived in Jodhpur, I knew it would become my favorite city in Rajasthan. It is defined by the enormous 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort, whose massive walls on top of a rocky mound conceal the comfortable palace inside. The fort is a popular venue for weddings, one of which produced a search and laser light columns and musical event that evening. Not surprisingly, weddings are a Rajasthani specialty. Priyanka Chopra got married in Umaid Bhawan Palace, the residence of the current maharaja of Jodhpur. The daughter of India’s top billionaire from Mumbai chose Udaipur for a part of her wedding ceremonies.

Mehrangarh Fort overlooking Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India
Mehrangarh Fort overlooking Jodhpur
Streets of Jodhpur, the blue city, Rajasthan, India
Streets of Jodhpur, the blue city

Jodhpur lies at the heart of Rajasthan, where even the dry bushes begin to disappear, and the landscape turns into desert. The dusty narrow streets are, nonetheless, incredibly picturesque, thanks to the old decorative style of the houses and the typically blue walls. On some houses, the blue is just a background for murals. Where Udaipur’s vibe is luxurious, Jodhpur’s charm is in its ruggedness, which is probably what attracted most me to the city. Or maybe, it is that I like color blue.

The houses also have flat roofs with terrace restaurants. In one of them, I ordered laal maas, or mutton red curry, which is a local specialty. Sitting alone, I did not end up eating alone. A gentleman at the next table struck up a conversation with me. He was born in India, but now works for a tech company in California. So, the topic of the conversation, with the fortress towering above our heads, was clear – tech.

Toorji Ka Jhalra – the stepwell in Jodhpurr, the blue city, Rajasthan, India
Toorji Ka Jhalra – the stepwell in Jodhpur

After my meal I walked to Toorji Ka Jhalra, the most enchanting spot of the entire trip. It is a stepwell in the center of Jodhpur. I had not known what a stepwell was until I stood at the edge of a  gigantic square hole in the ground, leading to a pool of water below. Created in the 18th century, its sides were reinforced with stones and numerous sets of staircases, all symmetrically converging and diverging. The design ensures that even large crowds can orderly reach the lifesaving water. One side of the stepwell is embellished with a tall arch and false windows, so that walking down to the water feels like entering a subterranean palace. These days, the stepwell serves as a swimming pool for kids. At the top, a musician played ravanahaththa, an ancient predecessor of the violin. For me, it was the perfect ending to travels through Rajasthan.

Early next morning, I could not resist, nonetheless, and rolled that luggage of mine to the stepwell to see it one more time. Next to it is a chic café with red armchairs and shelves of Indian religious statues. I ate breakfast there before heading to the airport. The repast gave me a few moments to reflect on the places in Rajasthan that I had to skip because of my short five day trip: namely, the gold city of Jaisalmer in the desert, the camel fair in Pushkar;, the fortress of Chittorgarh,. Mount Abu; and,  the cities of Ajmer, Bikaner, and Bundi. Rajasthan did not bow to my, nor anyone else’s hectic itinerary. It is we, who must slow down and take time to explore this incredibly scenic part of India to fully appreciate all that it has to offer.

LINKS (in order of appearance in the post): Udaipur; Lake Pichola; havelis; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Monsoon Palace; Hindu Jagdish Temple; Kamasutra; Rajasthani dances – Kachchhi Ghodi, GhoomarChari; panipuri; Thar desert; Jodhpur; Holi festival; Ranakpur Temple; Jainism; Mahatma Ghandhi; Jodhpur; laal maas.


One thought on “Colorful Rajasthan: India’s Scenic State in Five Days, Part Two

  1. Thank you! Good story. I have family in Udaipur and have been there often.. each time a pleasure, especially the few days I was treated to a stay in the Lake Palace. Magical. In the outer shopping areas 20 years ago it was not unusual to turn down a narrow byway and encounter a working elephant…. Camels roamed the roads, along with the ubiquitous cows who often chose to nap in the middle.
    Sorry you missed Jaisalmer, the old fort carved from sandstone.

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