KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
On many occasions I have been asked to name my favorite city in India. I struggle to make a choice, because there are different things I like about the places we have visited. To pick a favorite, there seem to be at least five things that have to be special about a place for it to receive top billing. The city itself has to have an unusual ambiance, the accommodation a home-away-from-home, the weather has to be favorable, the food delicious, and the people we meet or visit, welcoming and hospitable.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to leave out our visits with family because visiting India and staying with family members is an experience most foreign travellers never get to enjoy. There is no place like the home of a brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, nephew or niece. The love that comes from these relationships is universal. We are fortunate to have each and every one of these family members living in India, and we have visited almost all of their homes.
When I am asked about my favorite place in India, I believe that people want an insight into a possible dream place that they themselves might be lucky enough to visit one day. With confidence, I can now answer - "Udaipur".
We flew from Aurangabad to Udaipur and were met at the airport by an old friend, Om Prakash Gupta. We first met Mr. Gupta when we visited Rajasthan in 1991. Mr. Gupta has been a business associate of Anil's brother, Arun, for many years, supplying Arun's business with marble from Rajasthan. Their relationship developed into an enduring friendship and they have each visited the other's home in the past. In 1991, seventeen members of our extended family toured parts of Rajasthan and Mr. Gupta showed us the highlights of this hometown with all the hospitality that Rajputs are famous for.
This time, Mr. Gupta made a tentative booking for us at a hotel a little outside the city centre and understood when we wanted something a little closer and a little more comfortable. He took us to the Rajdarshan Hotel where he knew the food services manager and was able to get us a substantial discount on the room rate because of this connection. The hotel is close to the old city and had all the amenities we were looking for. A wonderful buffet breakfast was included in the room rate and we were delighted to have typical Indian breakfast foods as a change from omelets and white toast.
The weather in late February and early March is almost perfect. Rajasthan can be very cold in December and January and this year a cold wave swept chilling temperatures as far south as Mumbai. For this reason, February is the peak season for foreigners to visit and we were happy that we arrived just at the tail end of the rush. This meant that plenty of rooms are available, restaurants are not full and historical sights are not overrun with busloads of tourists. Peace had descended on Udaipur.
We planned to spend three or four days in Udaipur and then move on to two of the cities we had not seen during our visit in 1991. For this reason, we were up early our first morning and off to see the City Palace, also known as the Winter Palace. Mr. Gupta invited us to his home for lunch after we toured the Palace museum and we were able to meet his wife Sangeeta again and also the other members of his extended family. We sat on the floor and ate our meal off steel Thalis placed on low wooden tables. The food was delicious but sitting comfortably in this fashion was difficult for us - need to do our stretching exercises!
We enjoyed meeting the three children in the Gupta family, the older two are talented artists and the youngest was very shy but observed us from the safety of a parent's side. Before leaving, Sangeeta and her two sisters-in-law each tied a decorated red thread around my left wrist. They have taken it upon themselves to each tie these threads on the first 365 married women they meet. I'm not sure where I stand in the count but was honoured to be considered worthy enough to help them in this endeavour.
In the evening, we walked into the old city to the Bagore-ki-Haveli to enjoy a folkdance presentation in a small courtyard of the traditional Rajasthani mansion. We followed this up with dinner on a rooftop terrace overlooking Lake Pichola. A gentle breeze kept us comfortable after the heat of the afternoon. In one corner, a television was playing a video of James Bond's Octopussy. Much of the film had been shot on location in Udaipur and the citizens are very proud of this fact. We had packed a lot into our first day and slept well that night.
The following day we spent exploring the small winding lanes of this whitewashed city and ate lunch on another rooftop terrace, this one overlooking the Jagdish Temple. We watched as devotees swept into the temple and made their offerings. The sunshine was dazzling and we had a terrific view of the flat roofs of the homes in all directions. After a rest in the afternoon, Mr. Gupta appeared to take us a short distance out of the city to visit the Monsoon Palace. Its location atop one of the highest peaks in the area is considered an ideal place to watch the setting sun.
As the evening settled in, we stopped to peek into the new Udai Villas Hotel, a sumptuous six-star hotel opened a couple of years ago. Visitors have included politicians, Bollywood and Hollywood stars and even Bill and Hillary Clinton. The hotel was very quiet in the early evening and we could imagine ourselves as Indian royals from time past, enjoying the fountains, pools and gardens in the sprawling grounds. Mr. Gupta then ushered us to a lakeside restaurant, the Ambrai with its view of the floodlit City Palace and Lake Palace Hotel across the water from Hanuman Ghat. After another busy day it was great to have a quiet dinner on our own in such a spectacular setting.
Sunday was reserved for a quiet day with a planned nap in the afternoon. We did a little shopping, something we usually shun as we must keep our luggage under fifteen kilograms each in order to avoid excess baggage charges on India's local airlines. I bought two lovely silver bracelets and Anil selected two soft Kashmir (cashmere) sweaters. He's thinking ahead to keep himself warm for the long walks we plan to take in Victoria this summer/fall. We had dinner on yet another rooftop terrace; this one became our favorite - the Jaiwana Hotel. It's an unassuming place and the food is delicious. We ended up there again and again.
After our day of rest, Monday saw us hiring a car and driver and heading out of Udaipur to visit the famous Jain temple at Ranakpur and the massive fortress at Kumbalgarh. While the structures themselves were worth the effort of a 260km drive, it was the surrounding countryside we passed through that was the highlight of the excursion. The landscape seemed to change dramatically every twenty kilometers and we passed countless farms and small villages along the way. It's in places like these that the majority of India's one billion people live and we felt privileged to witness this rural way of life.
I'd read great reviews about a small restaurant in a lane not far from our hotel and urged Anil to give it a try. For some reason, he was a bit reluctant, its name was Savage Garden. I began to question my going when I stepped into a huge fresh cow pie and strained to find the sign along the small lane. The tables were nestled under a tree in a small courtyard with vibrant blue walls and soft twinkling lights. A small fountain trickled in the centre of the tables. There was only one other diner when we arrived, but then we knew we were early, Indians like to eat much later in the evenings.
No sooner had we chosen a table than fireworks erupted directly overhead. I craned my next to look and found myself showered with shredded paper and then the grit from the exploded shells. I just missed getting a piece in my eye. We ordered our meals after I asked the foreigner in the corner if he was enjoying his dinner. While we waited for our dishes to be prepared a bird flew into the tree above us and promptly dropped a load on Anil's khaki trousers. This was beginning to look like a Savage Garden for sure.
My meal was exceptional; Anil's a disaster. We had opted for dishes from the Italian section of the menu. Anil's 'pasta with spicy tomato sauce' was just undercooked fettuccini with tomato ketchup and a load of red chilies. There wasn't even a small garnish to make it look appetizing. Savage food. We didn't linger over our meal and to make the evening truly memorable, a viscous dog lunged at me as I passed the gate it seemed to think it was responsible for guarding. I practically ran right up Anil's back when it bared its teeth. We decided then and there to stick with the rooftop terraces and give the back lanes a miss at night.
Editor's Note: Now you know where my back problems originate!
Tuesday was set aside for Anil to watch the first game of a three-game series of one-day cricket. India and Australia had found themselves in the finals of the competition. I went to the Reliance World to use my internet account because the rates at our hotel were ridiculous. I was able to upload all the photos of the Ajanta and Ellora caves and catch up on overdue emails. Anil was thrilled to be left alone with his cricket, and kept in touch with his brothers on the mobile phone to discuss the progress of the match.
In the evening we ate our dinner at a heritage boutique hotel, the Udai Kothi. The terrace there has Udaipur's only rooftop swimming pool. There are alcoves around the pool furnished with soft divans (futons), bolsters, pillows and low lighting. While the terrace is beautifully decorated, we found each and every foyer on the several flights of stairs filled with antiques, paintings and fresh flowers. This would be the perfect place to stay for a honeymoon, an anniversary, or just a dream vacation to India.
As you can probably tell, our intended stay of three to four days in Udaipur was beginning to stretch itself into a longer visit. We had no idea we would find the city so enchanting and were in no rush to leave. We kept telling ourselves that we could shorten our stays in Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, or Jaipur. While they each have their highlights, we had heard that Jodhpur and Jaipur have become overcrowded and dirty. Why would be want to leave paradise and run off to anything less?
Mr. Gupta had been away on business to Mumbai but insisted on inviting us to his home again for lunch, this time to introduce us to typical Rajasthani food. We were a little apprehensive, as we didn't want to have too heavy a meal. The Rajasthanis love to use copious amount of ghee (clarified butter). Instead we were treated to dal baati, a simple meal eaten by people in the villages. The baati is a ball of dough made from whole-wheat flour and cooked on an open fire. It is said that baati cooked on a fire of cow dung has the most authentic flavour. Ours was cooked in a tandoor oven in the Gupta kitchen but we were told that they sometimes light a dung fire on their roof in order to have the true flavour of traditional baati.
After a rest in the afternoon to digest the baati (it had been served with spoons of ghee drizzled over the broken pieces on our plates), we took an auto rickshaw to the Gulab Bagh (Rose Garden) for an evening walk. Mr. Gupta was to meet us there, as it is his habit to walk there for forty minutes each evening. Unfortunately, he was tied up on business but we enjoyed our walk in the cooler evening air. He managed to get away just in time to pick us up and rush to the jetty to catch the last boat leaving for a sunset ride on Lake Pichola. We hurried to the last three seats available on the small boat and headed out on the quiet lake just as the sun was setting.
The evening air was cool and there were flocks of ducks flying in low circles above our heads. We had read in the Times of India that the migratory birds are passing over the sanctuary at Bharatpur because there is a severe water shortage there and the lakes are drying up. It appears that many are now stopping to rest on the lakes of Udaipur despite the proximity of so many people. As we cruised along in our little boat, we actually passed through hundreds of birds on the water; they scurried to make way for us but did not take to the air.
What made the boat ride really special was that we were able to view the famous Lake Palace Hotel up close. The former Maharajah's Summer Palace, built in 1754, has been turned into a world-famous luxury hotel. In the past, visitors could come for lunch or dinner and stroll through the many courtyards, terraces and gardens of the palace. Now, only registered guests are allowed on the premises and a stay at the hotel was way beyond our budget. After circumnavigating the Lake Palace Hotel, we crossed an expanse of water and passed by Jagmandir Island. The palace built on this island in 1628 is thought to have been influenced emperor Shah Jahan in his design for the Taj Mahal. It's a lovely place for a romantic dinner and is often used as a venue for lavish weddings.
We ended the evening with a walk through the nearby Dudh Talai Gardens overlooking Lake Pichola and encompassing man-made waterfalls and a musical fountain. I would have preferred to have the waters dancing to traditional Indian music but the predominately young crowd obviously enjoyed the raucous Bollywood tunes. Mr. Gupta bid us good evening and we headed back for our third dinner on the Jaiwana terrace. The food is delicious there and we love the simple atmosphere and the views from the terrace.
Our last day in Udaipur was spent at Reliance World uploading all the photos I had chosen for the entries on Udaipur and then we headed back to the hotel so that Anil could watch the second match of the India/Australia series. India won the first of the three games and the second game was a real nail-biter. India was victorious and was declared the winner of the Commonwealth Bank Championship. Recent cricket contests between India and Australia, in Australia, had been fraught with controversy, accusations of racism and poor refereeing, so it was thrilling to see India beat Australia at its own game. I always say, don't get mad, get even!
For our last evening, we took an auto rickshaw to the outskirts of Udaipur to visit Shilpgram, a crafts village with displays of traditional homes and handicrafts from Rajasthan, Goa, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The place was deserted at this time of year so we were able to see everything quite quickly but it was hard facing the vendors who were there to sell their gift items. Each vendor is given a chance to have a stall at Shilpgram for a two-week period in the high season and again in the off-season. We could see in their faces that they probably hadn't made a sale all day and were desperate for us to buy something, anything.
How do we explain to these village people that we have rid ourselves of most of our possessions in order to travel the world and can't or won't begin to acquire such things again? If we were heading back to Canada, we might have considered some as gift items but we will be on the road for another two to three months and have very limited luggage space. Walking away without making a single purchase was a tough experience.
The young man who was our guide at Shilpgram works as a teacher in his home village nearby. We were glad that we had met with him because there was no transportation back to the city once the sun set. He was kind enough to phone a friend to come with his auto rickshaw to pick us up and drop us back near Lal Ghat. As we passed through the small lanes, we realized it was the Hindu festival of Shivratri as all the small temples were busy with lines of devotees and there was religious music being played loudly from each and every one. We remembered being at Kovalam Beach in Kerala last year on Shivratri and listening to the Gayatri Mantra being played continuously on the temple loudspeakers there. I liked the version we heard so much that I ended up getting a CD copy to add to my iPod.
Our three-day sojourn at Udaipur had stretched to over a week. It was time to move on to the desert city of Jaisalmer, but I was a bit sad to leave. I've learned that it's best to leave a city when you still feel there is more to see and do. It's a great reason to return and someday we will.