Sights and Stories from Udaipur

Recently, I visited Udaipur, an enchanting city of lakes, mountains, and palaces. Despite being smaller than Jodhpur in size and population, Udaipur is a bigger tourist destination, and it’s not hard to see why. Jodhpur’s defining features are a massive fortress, built to keep out enemy elephants, and an ancient city, surrounded by thick walls. But Udaipur relies on its natural defenses, the mountains of the Aravalli Range.

The city was founded by Maharana Udai Singh II of Mewar, who retreated to his mountain residence after the Mughals sacked the original capital at Chittorgarh. Jodhpur, on the other hand, was founded by the Marwari leader Rao Jodha as a strategically positioned military stronghold and trading hub. So Udaipur started out as a vacation home, while Jodhpur has always been about business. As a result, Udaipur is softer, calmer, and more inviting.

It’s also a lot greener. Nestled in the jungle, the city is lush and tropical. After spending six weeks in the harsh environs of Jodhpur and the Thar Desert, I was astounded at the contrast. It was like visiting another planet.

Rather than writing a complete account of my trip, I’ve highlighted the most interesting pictures and anecdotes below.

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The Ranakpur Temple

On the way to Udaipur, I stopped in the town of Ranakpur, home to one of the world’s most impressive Jain temples. Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, emphasizes non-violence and spiritual growth, and its peaceful nature is reflected in the temple’s design. Topped with stone spires and domes, the structure rises tranquilly from the surrounding forest, and its interior holds an array of intricately carved pillars and statues, bathed in natural light from open sections of the ceiling. It made for a nice place to get some fresh air after my first encounter with India’s cramped public buses.

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The Ranakpur Monkeys

I’ve previously mentioned the prevalence of monkeys in India and my compulsive desire to photograph them. The monkeys are especially common around temples, where worshippers tend to give them food. In Ranakpur, I got my best pictures yet.

A species I hadn’t seen before. It’s called a rhesus macaque.

“Stop this madness! Before someone gets hurt.”

Baby monkeys are adorable.

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City Palace and Lake Palace

Udaipur is known for two ornate palaces, one in the old city and another in the middle of Lake Pichola. Their unimaginative names make it pretty difficult to mix them up. The City Palace is where the Maharanas used to live for most of the year, and the Lake Palace is where they spent their summers. The royal family still owns both palaces, operating them as luxury hotels.

In 1983, the two palaces were featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy, and many local hotels show the film every evening. They heavily advertise these showings, so the unfortunately provocative title is printed on signs all over the old city. My first encounter with these signs was somewhat jarring, as I was unaware that the city had anything to do with the film. All I saw was “OCTOPUSSY, 7 PM” painted in large black letters below the name of a hotel.

City Palace

Lake Palace

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The Menu at the Rooftop Restaurant

In Udaipur, like Jodhpur, hotels often have rooftop restaurants with views of the city. Occasionally, their menus contain a few spelling errors, so I had the option of treating myself to a breakfast that was “CONTINETAL” or “AMERTICAN.” I assume that in the great land of Amertica, all people are free to choose between “Butter,” “Jem,” and “hony” on their toast.

And since this is India, shouldn’t it be a Subcontinetal breakfast?

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Sunset over Fateh Sagar

Fateh Sagar is a lake just north of the old city.  It’s slightly smaller than Lake Pichola but has fewer buildings and more natural scenery. I went there to watch the sunset from Nehru Park, which is located on a small, grassy island.

The Monsoon Palace, visible from Fateh Sagar, is located at the top of a mountain. Because clearly the Maharanas didn’t have enough palaces…

View of the sunset from Nehru Park.

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The Local Hang-Out

On summer evenings, the youth of Udaipur drive their motorbikes to a cove on the eastern shore of Fateh Sagar. They lean against a white railing at the edge of the lake, leaving hardly an inch uncovered. From a row of rickety stands, vendors sell pakoras, Chinese dumplings, and cold coffee with scoops of chocolate ice cream. Everyone at Fateh Sagar seems to know each other, and the sounds of voices and laughter fill the air. I get the feeling that if had grown up in Udaipur, I would have spent a lot of time here.

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The Second Least Informative Museum I’ve Ever Visited

The world’s largest turban, apparently.

Bagore-ki-Haveli is a lakeside mansion converted into a museum, but like the Sardar Government Museum in Jodhpur, it has caused me to deeply reconsider what a “museum” actually is.  Can you stick a bunch of interesting things in the same building, open it up to the public, and then call it a museum? Or does it need something more, like an educational or aesthetic purpose? Do the curators have a moral obligation to provide basic details about the items on display?

The first few exhibits did a decent job of explanation. With the exception of a room full of puppets that all seemed to be staring at me, every display had a placard describing what it was and how it was used. But things got weird when I reached the world’s largest turban. I only knew it was the world’s largest turban because that’s what it said in my Lonely Planet guide. The exhibit itself had no markings whatsoever, and it was at the end of a long, white corridor filled with empty shelves.  There were literally no other artifacts in the entire room. Just the turban, alone in a glass case, looking like a cross between raw hamburger meat and the evil, disembodied brain from A Wrinkle in Time. It creeped me out.

On the other side of a courtyard, I found a hall of styrofoam sculptures, including replicas of major world landmarks. The lights flickered over the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, while the Taj Mahal gleamed in the next room. These structures were also mentioned in my Lonely Planet guide, but there was no explanation for why they were built or who built them. Like Stonehenge and the Easter Island heads, they were a mystery for the ages. Maybe it’s better not to know where they came from, to keep the mystery alive. But really, how hard is it to put up a sign?

Stryofoam: The Poor Man’s Marble

They may lack the grandiosity of the originals, but they’re a lot easier to carry.

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Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Sights and Stories from Udaipur

  1. David F

    Awesome pictures and explanations! I know you are doing some kind of work over there too, not just being a tourist all year. Could you please write to us something about that? I’m curious to read more about what you’re up to in the fellowship!

    • bensoltoff

      Work can be slow and uneventful, but I think I’ve amassed enough material for some substantial blog posts. I’ll write one later this week.

  2. Carol Sherman

    Ben. Just a few years ago I had dinner at the Lake Palace and you have stirred so many wonderful memories in me…thank you for your great blog and fabulous pics…India is my favorite destination in the world and I dream of returning one more time. Wishing you only happy and fascinating days in the most incredible place in the world.

    Love,

    Aunt Carol

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