I can’t think of her without experiencing an ache that’s made up of equal parts longing and contentment. In all my other trips, I remained a mere tourist. In this one, I bloomed into a traveller. I didn’t merely flirt with Udaipur. I fell in love with her.
October. A well-travelled man had told me that Udaipur was one of the two most beautiful spots in India. I knew I had to go. And I picked the perfect travel partner – my sister.
Lake Pichola. She watched without judgement when we set foot on her banks, like so many before us. She did not cower before our expectant eyes. Or make a bid for our attention with ostentatious histrionics. She lay there, serene and silent. Golden man-made palaces floated majestically on her bosom. Tiny boats coursed her dark depths in the distance. Silvery sea-creatures lurked beneath her surface, their presence a mere hint. The calm night wind brought us the fragrance of hopes and dreams and other things suspended in the golden web of her still, ethereal beauty. Even now, I often return to her banks. Every time I shut my eyes, I can feel her whisper into my ear.
I’m listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as I write this and I feel like it’s the closest that human creation can come to the beauty that was Udaipur. If you go there, look beyond the dusty streets and beckoning bazaars. Gaze at Surup Sagar just before dusk. Admire the way the water gushes below the bridge, glinting now and then in the sparkling sun. Walk further along to Fateh Sagar Lake and take a boat ride as the sun begins to set – the very last ride. Or the one before that. When you alight at Nehru Garden in the middle of the lake, pause to see the way gold and saffron peek from between lush leaves and carefully carved bushes. Allow yourself to believe that Paradise might look something like a sun-kissed garden surrounded by a mountain-ringed lake. You will want to capture the marvels in your lenses but you won’t entirely succeed. Let it be. Trust that your memory will be enough.The Aravalli mountains greeted us wherever we went, sometimes from afar, other times close enough to trace with our fingers (or so we thought). When we sat at Cafe Namaste a.k.a. French Bakery, listening to Enigma’s mystical strains, I thought of the mountain top where Monsoon Palace (Sajjangarh) stood. I thought of the way the wind blew in from the green valleys below us, searching our faces for any message we might have for what lay below, before departing again. I thought of the smiling silence, content to reside there for eternity, shorn of the royalty that once graced those halls and exquisite chambers.
But we didn’t nourish our souls alone. All our senses were amply inspired. By day, we sampled the fare at German Bakery and roadside parathawalas. By night, we dined on lal maas and methi papad ki sabzi at Ambrai. We tucked into the quintessential Rajasthani thali at Whistling Teal and the dubious continental main courses at Savage Garden (best avoided). Alas, the weather was not cool enough for dal baati and churma.
Jagdish Mandir. Saheliyon ki bari. Folk Museum. Cable ride. Jagmandir Palace. City Palace. Lakeview Palace. Gulab Bhag. Udaipur zoo. Maharana Pratap Memorial. Bagore ki haveli. Ah, Bagore ki haveli. Every evening in our guest house at Lal Ghat, we heard strains of hauntingly lovely Rajasthani folk music. And one night, we heard it for real. Rajasthani folk dance, music and puppetry came together in a captivating melange at Bagore ki haveli every night at 7. Women balanced multiple pots on their heads while dancing gracefully in their mirrored chaniya cholis. Puppeteers spun charming tales of magic and humour. And all the while, turbaned Rajasthani men kept pace with their voices, tablas and harmoniums.
Bewitching artwork and handicrafts grace every tiny bylane of Udaipur like magical things that always existed. But at Shilpagram, a government-funded handicrafts village, we met the artists who spun the magic with their nimble fingers. We saw camels made of coconut shells and earrings fashioned from coloured thread. Men with eager shining eyes displayed their hand-woven shawls and regal mojris. Others caught our fancy with their clay tortoises and painted red laughing Buddhas. Musicians burst into song when we passed by and women danced around winding corners.
As I write, I feel the ache disappearing. I hope I haven’t poured all of Udaipur’s magic into these words. I want to retain some of it too. After all, she left a lake-shaped hole in my heart.