Tuesday, August 24

Udaipur


Everyone associates the Taj Mahal with India. Its iconic image adorns almost every advertisement and website promoting the sub-continent. Everyone eventually visits it when they come to India. I first saw the Taj Mahal in 2002. Therefore, having seen it, I was keen to spend our only weekend in India visiting a location new to both Garry and I. This resulted in us visiting Udaipur, home of another iconic Indian building, the dazzling white marble Taj Lake Palace. This former royal summer palace sits on an island in the middle of Lake Pichola. From a distance it appears to float on the water’s surface, despite its foundations being firmly anchored into the lake bed.

The Lake Palace was built in 1743-1746 for Jagat Singh II, the Maharana of Udaipur. It occupies a four-acre island directly opposite the family’s grand City Palace, on the shores of Lake Pichola. Over time the Lake Palace fell into disrepair as the damp lake environment took its toll. It was converted into a luxury hotel in the late-1960s and today anyone with enough spare change can experience the life of an Indian royal. Garry searched the internet for days before securing a price we could stomach. He eventually found a deal that included breakfast, dinner and a room upgrade.


Access to the island palace is gained via small elegantly canopied boats. A short ten minute ride transports guests from an ornate reception jetty to the hotel’s broad marble veranda. As we entered the hotel lobby an employee hidden from view showered us in fragrant rose petals. We were clearly in for a weekend of unadulterated luxury.


The experience only got better when we shown our room, located at the top of narrow marble stairway. We discovered that our room took up most of the top floor of small wing overlooking the lake, and was one of only two rooms offering a private balcony. And what a balcony it was! Imagine if you can an expanse of white marble at least six metres wide by four metres deep, offering an uninterrupted 180 degree lake view. We couldn’t believe our luck.


The hotel itself was a heavenly oasis offering comfortable areas for lounging, spectacular gardens and postcard-perfect water features. We ate breakfast both mornings next to marble-framed windows through which the jumbled Udaipur skyline unfolded. The entire experience made it hard to leave the premise. However, we made four brief excursions in Udaipur.

We ventured ashore on our first day for an early evening walk through the main street of the old city. It was classic India; cows in the middle of the road, hooking horns, street hawkers and colourful sights around every turn. We eventually reached the temple of Jagannath Rai, known more commonly as Jagdish Temple.


It’s a remarkable structure, largely unaltered since its completion in 1651 for Maharana Jagat Singh the First. Built on raised terrace, this Hindu temple can only be reached by climbing a series of impossibly steep stairs. As you enter its battered gates you’re confronted by layered, soaring spires – or shikhars – the tallest of which rises more than 25 metres. Every visible surface of the temple’s spires and walls have been carved with images of Hindu folklore including elephants, horsemen, musicians and dancers.


Later in evening we joined a hotel sponsored boat tour around Lake Pichola. The highlight of our tour was undoubted a visit to Jag Mandir, another ornate island palace we could from the balcony of our room. This three-story building was completed by Maharana Jagat Singh the First in 1652. It was here that Prince Khuman Singh, later known as Emperor Shahjahan, sought refuse from his father emperor Jahangir. He’s best known for commissioning construction of the Taj Mahal. Today the island is used for weddings and other private functions.


Its most famous feature is a dramatic row of life-sized elephants that greet you upon arrival. Each animal has been carved from a single block of marble. We spent almost half an hour on the island, touring its palace rooms and gardens. As we wandered, daylight began to fade, and the venue was soon lit by dazzling spotlights. Upon returning to the Lake Palace we then entertained by a troupe of local dancers and musicians.


Our final day in Udaipur involved two excursions; a cable-car ride up Machhala Magra (or Fish Hill) and, a tour of the expansive City Palace. The cable car ride was excellent decision. From the summit of the hill the entire city unfold before us and the unique setting of our hotel could be fully appreciated. Udaipur is often called the City of Lakes. From this vantage point the name seemed most appropriate as at least four separate bodies of water could be seen.


The City Palace was equally impressive. The Palace sits on a bluff overlooking the city. It’s actually three palaces; the first is a museum, the second a hotel and the third remains a private residence for the former royal family. Incredibly, the royal family lived in the entire complex until the mid-1970s. We spent almost two hours wandering through the rooms, corridors and courtyards of the oldest palace before it was time to head for the airport.

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