Maharajas, Gods & Grandeur

The flight between Mumbai and Udaipur is like being in a time machine. My flight takes off from 21st Century Mumbai and it seems that on landing at the Maharana Pratap Airport in Udaipur, I have been transported to the 19th Century. The first thing you notice is the collective posture – it would seem the word ramrod was invented for these people. Correction – it is the second thing you notice. The first is the omnipresent moustache. Clearly, if you are clean shaven as I am, you will be in a minority; the lack of facial hair almost certainly categorising you as a metrosexual. In a land oozing with machismo.



Udaipur City Palace


My last trip to Udaipur was over a decade ago but not much has changed, and this includes the shops with their dated merchandise as also the unattended stalls. What has changed is the security — the vintage rifles had been replaced by modern weapons and the personnel manning them are certainly not lax. If it was not for the modern weapons and the buzzing of Blackberries and Androids, one would be hard pressed to believe one was in 2012.


Once outside the airport, we hop into our pre-paid taxi and are on our way to Devigarh. What strikes me about the drive is the greenery. The flora and shifting sands in other Rajasthani towns like Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer leave little doubt that they are close to a desert. Udaipur, on the other hand, is lush green — thanks to the numerous lakes in the area. The only cacti are those that grow on the edge of fields to keep wild animals at bay. As we pass small towns and villages on the way to Devigarh — which is on the outskirts of Udaipur — our Rajput driver Kishore Singh decides to give us value for money by doubling up as a guide and tripling up as a philosopher. He discusses history, religion, water woes during his stay in Mumbai and honour killings as we snake our way to the resort.



While the roads are new and wide, the average driver, like elsewhere in India, lacks road sense. Rules are meant to be broken — it does not matter which side one overtakes from or is overtaken from. After 30 minutes of driving through colourful villages, we finally see our resort. Words can’t do justice to the sheer magnificence of the structure as it stands atop a hillock, proud and unwavering like a Rajput warrior, overlooking the 14th century village of Delwara at its foothills. Bought from the erstwhile royal family and painstakingly restored over a period of 15 years, Devigarh is clearly a labour of love.


Like other palaces-turned-hotels, in the old wing no two rooms are the same. The new wing has standardised rooms called ‘Garden suites’. These rooms, unlike the palace rooms, do not afford the spectacular view of the Aravallis. We stay in one of the five Aravali Suites, a notch below the Presidential Suite. The spacious suite has all amenities that are standard in five star properties. I have not travelled so far to watch TV on a 42-inch screen but I guess there are those who are slaves of the small screen. The free wifi is useful as the cell phone network is patchy at times and I wanted to keep an eye on India’s Olympic medal tally. We check in and follow our luggage to our suite.


Devigarh’s peace and tranquility are a welcome. The weather is agreeable, so we decide to cool ourselves in the pool overlooking the green hills and then proceed to the bar where we watch the sun set over the Aravallis as we sip our cocktails. The next day is spent in the resort digging into sumptuous meals. The restaurant serves Indian as well as continental cuisine. The food is brilliant and our regular waiter — a charming old man named Mangi Lal — went out of his way to make us comfortable.


On account of the rain we had to cut short our camel ride. At the end of our stay on the way back to Mumbai, we make our way to UDAIPUR City to spend a day there. Having checked TripAdvisor for the best restaurants in Udaipur, we make our way to the top-ranked one — Millets of Mewar. Fine dining it is not, but the view is good and the food is delicious. The entire lane where Millets is located — near Chand Pol/Nayi Puliya — is a delight for food lovers. Most of the top-ranked Udaipur restaurants can be found here.


I am a bit of an automobile enthusiast, so on finding out on the Internet about the Maharaja’s Vintage Car Museum, I have to visit it. There are 20 odd cars on display — from the 1930s to models from the 1960s. Some are a testament to the halcyon days of the Maharajas, while some seem to suggest that all good things do come to an end — even the might of kingdoms. In the 1930s the Maharaja seems to have exclusively commuted in Rolls Royce cars. By the 1960s, he was using the much humbler Rambler Classic 232.


Maharaja’s Vintage Car Museum (by Miikka Skaffari)


Some of the cars are truly unique — like a Rolls Royce converted into a jeep for hunting expeditions. My personal favourite is the 1946 MG TC convertible in red. If in Udaipur, don’t miss the museum. Due to paucity of time, we have just about enough to see Lake Pichola and Lake Fatehsagar — both of which would probably look more imposing and majestic with the architectural wonders around them if there was more water in them. Hopefully, the next monsoon will refill these lakes to their glorious levels.


Lake Pichola, named after the nearby Picholi village, was created artificially in 1362 AD primarily to supply drinking water and to meet the irrigation needs of Udaipur and its neighbourhood. The lake has four islands — Jag Niwas, where the City Palace is located, Jag Mandir, which has a palace with the same name, Mohan Mandir, from where the king witnessed the Gangaur festival and Arsi Vilas, which has a bird sanctuary, was built by one of the Maharanas of Udaipur to enjoy the sunset from this particular spot. Rudyard Kipling was so impressed by the beauty and charm of the lake that he described it as — “If the Venetian owned the Pichola Lake, he might say with justice, `see it and die'”, in his novel Letters of Marque.


Lake Fatehsagar was first built by Maharana Jai Singh in 1687. But 200 years later, flood washed away the earthen bund which forms the lake. It was then reconstructed at a cost of ` 6 lakhs by Maharana Fateh Singh, the ruler of former Mewar state in 1888. The foundation stone for the new construction was laid by Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria. This reconstructed northeastern embankment has three names, the Pal, the Drive, or Connaught Bund (embankment or breakwater). Now, the lake is 2.4 km long, 1.6 km wide and 11.5 m deep and has three islands, of which Nehru Park is the largest. It has a boat shaped garden restaurant and a zoo, which are very popular among the tourists. Nehru Park is accessible by inboard motor boats from the bottom of Moti Magri. The second island has been made into a public park with a water-jet fountain in it, while the third island houses the Udaipur Solar Observatory (USO). Not far from the main city, this lake is a popular picnic spot among tourists and is often referred to as ‘the second Kashmir’


During our stay in Devigarh, we decide to take a trip to the temple town of NATHWADA which draws devotees from across the country cutting through various social strata — the Ambanis are regular visitors. The narrow lanes leading to the temple are lined with small shops selling trinkets and chai. On entering the temple complex of Nathdwara, one is hard pressed to believe it is in the same town. While there is the usual throng of crowds, the temple complex itself is spotless and well-maintained.


The story of how the much loved deity got here is interesting. During Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign, when many temples and idols in Vrindavan were destroyed, the keepers of the Shrinathji idol sought new shelter for it, hiding it from the Mughals. They hid it in various parts of the country before they were given refuge by the Maharana of Mewar. The wheel of the chariot carrying the deity — Krishna as a seven-year-old — got stuck and refused to budge in a particular spot in the kingdom of Mewar. Taking it as a sign from God, that He wished to reside here, the keepers of the idol decided to make this the new home of the child deity. And so, this imposing temple has stood since then at God’s chosen spot.


Nathdwara Artists are a group of artists working around the precincts of the famous Nathdwara temple. They are renowned for splendid Rajasthani-style paintings, called ‘Pichwai Paintings’, belonging to the Mewar School. The paintings revolve around the image of Shrinathji, the enigmatic black-faced figure of Krishna, who is shown holding up Mount Govardhan. Over the centuries, these artists have produced a work of gorgeous illustrations. Several books have been published on this subject.


The word Pichwai derives from the Sanskrit words pich meaning back and wais meaning hanging. These paintings are cloth paintings hung behind the image of the Hindu god. Each pichwai painting is considered a seva or an offering to the deity and hence personifies Shrinathji as a prince with jewels and luxuries, surrounded by gopis.  Apart from Pichwai Paintings, the artists also produce smallscale paintings on paper. Themes from Krishna legend predominate. Ghasiram is the town’s most famous painter, Kundanlal who studied for three years at the Slade School in London, worked in a style influenced by European art are some of the most popular names.


There is a wall within the complex on which devotees make a wish and draw a reverse swastika promising to return and make a new un-reversed one if their wish is granted. From the number of reverse and un-reversed swastikas – it did seem that the deity did not disappoint most of his devotees. The darshan itself kept getting delayed on account of it being Janmashtami. We decide to make our way back to Devigarh and make a special trip just to the temple town sometime in the future.


On our way to the airport, I feel pride in being Indian — not necessarily as a citizen of the state but being a citizen of a civilization which is so rich in its tradition and so steeped in his history. In the age of glitzy malls and coffee shops that dot the metros, in the age of political protests and terror alerts that plague our everyday lives — perhaps a step back in time is needed. The joy of watching a turbaned kid flying a kite is a throwback to a much simpler time — as is enjoying a drink watching the sunset in peace and tranquility. This time travel to a place of turbaned kids, of devotees of old world hospitality and charm will help reaffirm your faith in civilization.


Posted by Debangana Sen

Debangana’s love for travel goes beyond her usual poring over the wallpapers of Ireland. When not doing that, she’s busy planning her next trip.