Approaching town, Udaipur is like a mirage on the edge of the desert. It's the richest kingdom of Rajasthan and feels it. Within the old city walls, the streets overflow with artisans, jewelers, and craftsmen.
One of the highlights of India's growing upmarket tourism sector, Udaipur boasts world-class resorts and five-star culinary delights. It also boasts quiet lakefront guesthouses and casual rooftop restaurants.
In a country less known for its romantic getaways, Udaipur offers tranquil nights, splendid strolls, and an exotic seduction that's hard to resist.
Rajasthani folk music is some of the most haunting, romantic, and heart-wrenching music on the planet. It's believed that gypsy music has its origins in Rajasthan, India. While little is known about the culture that generated the Gypsies, linguists and historians believe that the Gypsies were originally from North Central India and began their great migration around 300 BC. It's said that the Gypsies entered southeastern Europe in the end of the 13th century. Because they were assumed to be from Egypt, Europeans began calling them Gyptians and then simply Gypsies. The Gypsy tradition is very much alive and well in Rajasthan and it's not uncommon for a musician to sit down next to you on the street and begin playing the Sarangi.
The Maru-Gurjar painting style of Rajasthan began in the 5th century and, under royal patronage, various forms developed. Arts in Rajasthan reached their pinnacle between the 15th and 17th centuries. The major style practiced in Udaipur today is miniature painting, which captures in small scale much of what makes the place so harsh and enchanting. If you want to have a mural painted on your fingernails or your name on a piece of rice, there is, perhaps, nowhere better on earth than Udaipur. Traditionally, miniature artists use paint that's made naturally, mixed from minerals and vegetables found in the area - ochre for red, coal for black, aventurine for green. The style of paintings found in Rajasthan, miniature or otherwise, are typical of what many Westerners imagine when they think of Indian art.
Drawing upon the rich culture of Rajasthani art, music, and dance, performance is a big part of the culture in Rajasthan. Today, actors and dancers no longer perform for royal audiences, but share their talents for all to see. Many like the Bopa and Kalbellya Gypsies were born into the craft and carry on a longstanding family tradition of dancing with fire, handling marionettes, and twirling around while balancing an unthinkable amount of bowls on their heads.
A Storied History
Formerly known as Mewar, Udaipur was founded in 1559 when Maharaja Udia Singh I took flight from the final sacking of the fort at Chittor by the notorious Mughal emperor Akbar. As Udai Singh and his followers resisted Muslim might, the city grew a reputation for patriotism and independence. The city has a proud heritage and boasts the longest lineage of any modern ruler. A walk through the streets of Udaipur reveals a myriad of ways to explore the fabled history.
Known as the Venice of the East, Udaipur encircles the blue waters of Lake Pichola. The lake reflects the delicate marble architecture of the buildings above, which themselves sit below one of the world's oldest mountain ranges, the Aravelli Hills. Within the lake are two palace-covered islands, Jag Niwas and Jag Mandir. Lake Pichola, which is thrillingly out of place in this desert landscape, was artificially created in 1362. It's now one of several contiguous lakes developed over the past few centuries in and around Udaipur, each of which make lovely backdrops for a sunset stroll.
Edge of the Desert
While downtown Udaipur boasts elegant shops and riverside cafes, just five miles outside of the city you'll find untouched wilderness in the Aravalli Hills. Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary, which surrounds the Monsoon Palace overlooking Udaipur City, provides jaw-dropping views of town and a chance to see panthers, sambars, blue bulls, hyenas and a variety of birds and reptiles. Head a little further north and you can go on a safari through the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Head south, and you can laze away along the world famous Jaisamand Lake in Jaisamand Wildlife Sanctuary. A brush with the wild is never far away in Udaipur.
Not only is Udaipur home to India's second largest palace, City Palace, but it boasts the oft-photographed Lake Palace and the luxurious Fateh Prakash Palace. Scattered about the town, you can also find the dazzling Hivalis (mansions) of the noble elite. Because of a marble quarry nearby, much of Udaipur is built like a fairytale city; the white glistens under the desert's spitting sun, dancing from roof to roof around the sky blue lake.
Going to India and not doing yoga is like going to Italy and not trying the pasta. Whether you're a novice or a master, start each day off right with some of the best Yoga instructors in India. A great studio is never far away and you'll find classes from sun up to sun down. From the roof of a palace, to the edge of the lake, there's no better place on Earth to stretch, relax, and salute the sun!
Rajasthan is a land of sweets and spices - and you may need the sweet to cool off your mouth after the spice. Sweets are never called desserts in Rajasthan because they're had before, after and during the meal. The streets of Udaipur are full of small sweet shops selling fudge-like treats. The spice content of Rajasthani meals is even hotter than that of other Indian regions. Luckily, it's slightly cooled down by the cooking method. Because Rajasthan is a desert region, there's a scarcity of water. Therefore, most dishes are cooked with milk, buttermilk, and butter. Even better than the food is the setting in which you eat it. The skyline of Udaipur is capped with numerous rooftop restaurants offering stunning views of the lakeside city below.
James Bond was Here
You know a city is sexy if it was prominently featured in a James Bond film - especially if that film was one with a name like Octopussy. Don't think this fact is lost on the locals. You're guaranteed to see Octopussy projected onto the walls of at least one rooftop restaurant you visit. Watching the film, you soon realize that not much has changed in Udaipur in the last thirty years. This place is truly timeless!
How to get to Udaipur:
By Air: Dabok airport, also known as Maharana Pratap Airport, is 15 miles from the city center. There are daily flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur on Jet Airways, Indian Airlines, Air Deccan, and Kingfisher Airlines.
By Train: Udaipur is on the Western Railway meter gauge network. Trains like the Chetak Express and Mewar Express connect to Delhi, Chittorgarh, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Ajmer, and Jodhpur.
By Bus: A series of tourist buses connect Udaipur to most Rajasthani towns like Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Mount Abu. While padded sleeper coaches are available, train travel is still much more comfortable in this part of India.
***All images courtesy of Mark-Map.com.