Udaipur Kumbalgarh Fort and Mount Abu Wed 9 – Sun 20 December 2009
Udaipur is renowned for being the most romantic place in India - maybe that explains the fact that you can't move for weddings! It has many beautiful palaces with the Pichola Lake as a centre piece and the purple Arivalli hills in the background. Whilst all this is true we weren't as knocked out with Udaipur as we thought we might be. It was scenic, and we saw all the main sights (and catching up with Tony and Michelle which we managed a couple of times was a highlight) but we'd preferred other cities. Maybe it felt too "touristic" maybe it was the lake being very low due to the years of drought or maybe it was the all consuming pollution everywhere, as we both ended up with hacking 20 unfiltered cigs before breakfast style coughs!
The first day we set off to see the city palace. All the other palaces we'd been to in Rajasthan costed out as 500 rupees for a (non India) person with audio tour and camera. We assumed it was the same but then got hit by a further 200 for the camera which irked us. Only around $4 Aus but we're on a strict budget these days! Furthermore this pass only extended to the main palace and there were various other galleries - one with a priceless crystal collection - which you had to pay extra to enter. Even within the main museum there was a photo exhibition partitioned off which we'd have been interested to see but again you had to pay more so we didn't bother as it felt a bit cheeky. Maybe we've become travelling grouches! I guess Udaipur gets a lot of short term tourists (mainly French and German when we visited) who don't feel this - but we do!!
Anyway to finally stop whingeing we saw around the main part of the City Palace which is now preserved as the City Place Museum. The palace dates back to the 16th century when Maharaja Udai Singh II was fleeing the sacked city of Chittor as previously he'd met a sage who told him it would be a good idea to found a new city here and so this is where he settled. The exact spot this meeting happened is now the site of the royal courtyard.
Near the entrance gate was the armory with an impressive collection of richly decorated weapons. In the various paintings we had seen the horses with head gear like a long truck, interestingly this was done so that they would be mistaken for baby elephants by the enemy's warrior elephants and thus would escape attack as an elephant never attacks its young. Apparently this worked!
The various palace rooms were very extravagantly decorated with mirrors tiles and paintings, some tiles having a Christian theme and showing the European influences which existed at the time - though all Maharajas remained Hindu. There was a gallery of exquisite miniature paintings showing life in the court - though quite a few had been borrowed by the V & A in London for an exhibition they were showing!
The sun symbol - the god of this royal dynasty - was represented everywhere as was Rajasthan's state bird the peacock. There was a sequence of beautiful mosaics of peacocks round the aptly named Mor Chowk (Peacock Square) as well as ornamental gardens with fine views over the city- all very attractive.
As we left there were teams of workmen setting up marquees for a wedding - a nightly occurrence at the moment as the elaborate firework displays which light up the sky every night show. We saw the French champagne being delivered and stacked in fridges (under armed guard!) Apparently to have your wedding here costs around the equivalent of $150,000 Aus and it is booked out for every night through the winter months. Good business brain this Maharaja!
Next we headed to the nearby Jagdish temple. Built by Maharaja Jagat Singh in 1651 this had a lot of elaborate carving and really looked like a Jain temple to us but was Hindu. It housed a black stone image of Vishnu as well as India's largest brass Garuda (Vishnu's man-bird vehicle). There were elephants leading to the entrance with various holy men hovering around seeking donations. Wedding fever was still everywhere as we saw several newly married couples visiting the various gods and being blessed which is done on the day following a marriage to ensure that the couple have a happy married life.
We had a wander around the shops - very touristic you get asked to buy a lot but it's all pleasant and friendly enough - there was some lovely silver work and again many good miniature paintings. Michelle our friend brought some lovely jewelry but I managed to resist - she's back at work in 4 weeks I'm not! We met Tony and Michelle again for their final night in Udaipur before they had a horrific 4.30am start the next day to head for Pushkar - that's the problem with organized tours!- and had a relaxing beer on their hotel's rooftop again. It was great to meet up.
The RTDC was chockers with guests - mainly attending weddings- and as ever we were a big focus of attention. They are only interested and never unfriendly but sometimes that level of interest as you get up can be a bit intrusive - so Andrew often kindly goes and entertains the crowd whilst I regroup! It's funny the conversations often sound alike and go like this with group responses:
"so we shipped the car to Indonesia"
"then we drove through Malaysia to Thailand to Cambodia and Laos - we couldn't go through China…."
"so we shipped to Chennai and then drove to Kerala, Goa, Mysore, Ooty Pune …"
I always think listening to this if we said "so we hired a space ship and flew to Jupiter" the dutiful response …"Ahhhh…Jupiter" ..would never be far behind!! We must seem like aliens. Another classic comment we got was "is this car a very old hummer?"" …….we wish!!!
Anyway after getting through all this we were off for another day's sightseeing. We had a wander around the fruit market - really colourful especially the ladies' gorgeous saris - we actually printed off some of these pictures and gave them out before we left - they were absolutely thrilled which was nice.
Having a good place to hole up and work on my web diary (with a free Wi-Fi connection for some reason!) at the RTDC was a godsend and I spent the rest of the day sweating over a hot PC whilst Andrew did some car maintenance stuff (again with an appreciative inquisitive audience!)
That evening we headed to Bagore-Ki-Haveli to see a cultural show. This Haveli set on the waterfront was the 18th century home of a former Prime Minister and had been beautifully restored making it a perfect setting for the show. We had had this show -only 60 rupees about $1.50 Aus - recommended by a few travellers we'd met and we were really glad we made the effort as it was superb.
To the accompaniment of traditional music and singing there were a variety of traditional dances performed. All were good but the fire dancers where the ladies spun like dervishes with pots containing lit fires on their heads were particularly impressive as was the puppeteer. However the real piece de la resistance was the finale the "water carrier dance." Traditionally performed by ladies (ours seemed to have once been a man but who cares!) this dance demonstrated how water is carried on the head back from the river. We've seen ladies out in the rural areas with 3 or 4 pots on their heads but for this dance the dancer ends up with 10 on her head whilst spinning around walking on glass and balancing on containers. It was quite phenomenal and we'd really recommend this nightly show to anyone in Udaipur.
The next day I spent the morning once more updating the web (it's a hard life!) before heading into town to meet Christine and Thomas our German overlander friends who had arrived the day before. We all headed out to take a boat ride on the Lake from the City Palace Jetty to Jagmindir Island. Again a bit of a gripe the boat ride was advertised on the sign at the kiosk as being 300 rupees a head - yet we were charged 325 …why??? As we had to cross the palace complex to get on the boat and there was an automatic 25 rupee charge for this! Again a bit cheeky!
Anyway -with a number of other tourists- we walked down the somewhat ratty red carpet and boarded the boat and headed out on the Lake. We passed Jagniwas Island on the way. This is the location of the Lake Palace Hotel - indeed the hotel takes up the whole island. This water set palace was built in 1754 by Maharaja Jagat Singh II and converted into a hotel in the 1960s. Now owned by the Taj group and renowned as one of the world's top luxury hotels the Lake Palace allegedly helped put Udaipur on the international tourist map. They discourage casual visitors though you can - by prior arrangement with their boats - go for lunch or dinner. This is rumoured to be over priced and not that good (though we don't know personally obviously!) so this boat trip was as close as we got. You can get to see a lot more of the Lake Palace if you want to as it stars in the Bond movie "Octopussy." We did so one evening at a restaurant with a great roof top setting - we could see the landmarks on the movie out of the window as we watched it - great fun!
For now though after a jaunt around the lake we landed on Jagmindir Island. Another summer palace built in the 17th century by Maharaja Karan Singh. Here you could get off and have a look around the old palace museum and the lovely frangipani gardens. Our enjoyment was slightly marred by the Indian security guards who blew whistles at you if you walked in the wrong place (there were no signs)…. I hope they don't do that to the guests who stay in the small range of luxury suites here, no doubt at great cost!!
The palace did have a lovely setting and we got to see a fabulous sunset across the water on the way back. We also walked back through the palace compound where a concert was in progress and the palace was beautifully lit up so we did get something for our 25 rupees after all!!
The next day just to complete our contribution to the coffers of the Udaipur royal family Andrew and I saw the Maharaja's vintage car collection. These cars - the collection contained Rolls Royces, Buicks, Mercedes, Cadaillacs and Fords amongst others - were beautifully resorted. One of them had starred in the aforementioned Bond movie and another been used by HRH Elizabeth II on her 1961 visit. The 1934 RR that was custom built for safari use with an open top and a huge picnic basket on the back was my favourite. The ladies' had less fun than the men with all their sporty numbers as their cars were all blacked out to observe purdah. Also on display were a range of solar powered auto rickshaws which the Maharaja won some environmental award for. Sadly none of them are in use on the streets - though they certainly need to be!
Thomas and Christine now head South to Goa so we go our separate ways - we hope they have a great trip. On Wednesday 15 December we finally left Udaipur stopping first for lunch. We had got very partial to a local South Indian restaurant - Sankalp - apparently they are part of a chain -which churns out fabulous dosas at very good prices. As their sign boasts they were in the Guinness book of records for producing the world's largest - 30 foot - dosa at their Mumbai store which they asked me to mention here. Great dosas and a bit off the "tourist" beat- they can be found near the Mewar Motor Building in City Station Road.
So off we headed by early afternoon - not too far this time just to the fort of Kumbalgarh 84km to the north. We had been told this was really worth seeing and the view was impressive as we drew up - a real old fashioned looking romantic fairy tale fort!
We arrived as the sun was setting and had a wander around the compound as the sun set admiring the view from the walls and having a look at the many temples.
After dark the building is lit up for 30 minutes and you can go to a viewpoint to take pictures. It was hard to capture this effectively on film -but it was pretty impressive. None of the hotels looked like they had the room for camping so we just found a little layby near the fort sheltered from the road. Here we had a perfect little hideaway. - a great camp spot for free.
The next day was to be my birthday so we went to the Aodhi hotel (the only western style up market hotel in town) to book dinner. They have a nightly set buffet - a very pricey 1,000 rupees though they agreed to discount to 800 for us - so we booked in for the next night and headed into town for a much cheaper meal that night. It was pretty chilly and we had early showers to beat the cold and pulled out the hats/gloves and jumpers!
The next day dawned pretty overcast - there had been a raging gale overnight so we'd hoped for clear blue skies but no dice! Never mind I enjoyed my birthday breakfast with a superb view up to the fort. We took the hike up to the fort to have a look around. This was off the track of mainstream tourism and there were no touts/guides which was great but we could have done with a few more signs in English! The LP came to our rescue telling us that this amazing fort -built in the 15th century and 1100 metres above sea level -was taken only once in its history and then held for only 2 days before re-capture.
It was also the site of an amazing example of devotion to royal duty - when the baby royal prince (the same Udai Singh who founded Udaipur) was nearly murdered. Asked by the murderer where the royal prince was his nurse Panna Dhai pointed instead to her own infant son. He was killed and she escaped with the prince thus securing the royal line. This act is apparently still honoured by the current Maharaja of Udaipur at an annual awards ceremony, by the Panna Dhai award which recognizes devotion to duty which achieves "permanent value through sacrifice." We're not sure how you earn it now- hopefully no one has to die!
The place does have a magical air as well as breath taking views over the surrounding countryside. There is still a small community living within the fort and they seem unspoilt by tourism - chopping wood herding cattle, carrying water and generally going about their business despite our presence. Long may it continue!
So off we headed for my birthday meal! They had made a real effort and reserved us a place right next to the fire.
It was nice but we felt for a vegetarian buffet a bit over- priced by Indian standards - they are on the tour circuit of high end European holiday makers (and wealthy Indians) so they can get away with it. After dinner we saw live entertainment by the pool (very cold!) again we saw a water vessel dance - with a girl this time. The restaurant kindly presented me with a birthday cake - it was very fluffy and sweet and wouldn't have survived "on the road" so we gave it to the musicians for their kids. Hope they enjoyed it!
The next morning we drove on towards Mount Abu Rajasthan's only hill station. It was an attractive drive and once we left the city behind it was like stepping back a century. We saw ancient machines of wheels driven by bullocks to pull up water which is used for crop irrigation and camels used as transport everywhere, and as ever we didn't have to leave the car to go shopping - for fruit anyway! On the way we stopped to look at a baori or step well. These carefully designed wells -unique to Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat -are often elaborate structures reflecting the importance that water has in this very harsh arid landscape.
The final part of the journey to Mount Abu was the most scenic - up a winding road through wooded hills a welcome change after the hot dusty plains of the rest of the state. You have to pay a toll fee to enter the town and stopping to do so we were accosted by various touts. One was from the Holiday Inn ( a Holiday Inn - a bit down market to THE Holiday Inn!) and after a drive around we ended up back to him as being a bit out of town the HI had plenty of room.
As a holiday resort Mount Abu is fairly seasonal - apparently around Dwali and Xmas and during the heat of the summer it's very busy. It seemed to be gearing up for a busy period when we were there not that it really affected us. It is very near to Gujarat, a state with a very high proportion of NRI's (non resident Indians) mostly working in the USA or the UK. They often take a break at Xmas - and we met quite a few of them spending it in Mount Abu!!
Set around the Nakki Lake, the vibe at Mount Abu was similar to quite a few of the other hill resorts we've visited. They have pedalos on the lake and a "romantic" Eiffel tower in the main square to cater to the very popular honeymoon market! They also have a lot of shopping opportunities!
That first evening we headed out to Honeymoon Point one of several venues to watch the sunset whilst avoiding attack from the big crowd of monkeys! On the way there we met a couple from Switzerland - Fabian and Fran - who are ex-overlanders - they have spent the last year driving their toyota around South America and have just shipped it back to Switzerland where they will be following it by air. We really hope to do an overland trip of South America in a few years so we were eager to pick their brains which we spent a really great evening doing. They hope to fly home on Xmas Eve - BA strikes not withstanding - we hope you made it guys!
We went to the "Hilltone" (there's also a "Sheratone" ) for breakfast next day. This was a belated birthday treat for me - not just cereal for a change! - and we enjoyed reading the papers on their lawn before heading out to the Dilwara Temples. This amazing group of exquisitely carved Jain temples is the reason Mount Abu is a major pilgrimage point. Cameras weren't allowed but to try and give an idea we have photographed some postcards - we think they came out pretty well!
Dating from the 11th to the 16th centuries the intricacy of the marble carving is astounding. Apparently the artisans were paid by the amount of dust they collected - no doubt spurring them into ever greater efforts. We felt the Jain temples at Ranakpur (see previous page) had the edge but that might have been due to the fact we were surrounded by hordes here which lost the atmosphere a bit! Very impressive.
We then drove out to Guru Shikhar - the end of the plateau and at 1721 metres the highest point in Rajasthan. The roads out here are very twisty and the driving CRAZY!! No one slows down or waits they just rush on - we saw about 10 near misses of bad accidents. We had already had a bit of a shock that morning whilst driving down the main road of Mount Abu when a herd of meandering cows slowly shuffled off the road to reveal the torso of a man down a man hole - no warning no safety area penned off nothing - he could easily have been decapitated! It's still pretty scary driving here at times!!
On the way back (maybe needing calming!) we ducked into the Universal Peace Hall. This is run by the white robe wearing students of the Brahma Kumaris Spiritual University who are easy to spot as they make their peaceful way around town. We were spoken to by a friendly guy - basically the message seems to be that all religions are paths to god and peace can be achieved through spiritual knowledge, meditation and yoga - or something like that! We had a look around "paradise" which was a garden with various sculptures no photos allowed and lots of "ssshhh" signs - even in the kids play area - paradise is obviously very quiet- meaning it can't be in India!!! I don't think anyone would disagree that world peace would be great - but I felt there was a bit of a creepy cult type vibe re: all this and we weren't keen to sign up for the (free) 7 day course! They also had a museum in the town centre which we never made it to despite having best intentions.
On the way back we stopped for afternoon tea at the very grand Palace Hotel. This was formerly known as Bikaner House and was once the summer home of the Maharaja of Bikaner. Built in 1893 by Sir Swinton Jacob it was like an English country house - an impression reinforced by the very weak wintery sun. We had afternoon tea on the lawn next to the tennis court (alongside a lot of moneyed looking Indians) and very nice it was too. It'd be a great spot to stay - I wish!!
That evening we headed to the main sunset viewing area of town - the appropriately named Sunset Point. This was quite an experience - parking the car we joined the hordes walking the last km out to the point. Jostling alongside men offering horse rides, and vendors selling food/drinks and tacky keep sakes this obviously wasn't going to be a solitary sunset experience! Mount Abu doesn't have auto rickshaws - instead it has these amazing push cart things. We saw them everywhere - they look a bit like a child's go cart and are pushed along - we assumed they were used solely for luggage or maybe small kids. Whilst these were the main occupants we did see a number of adult Indians sitting somewhat pompously whilst they were pushed along! I didn't even feel game to try it for the picture -I'd have felt an idiot! The pushers were often little kids too so if Andrew and I had tried we'd no doubt have got bogged!!
Anyway the sunset was pretty if a bit overcast. It was a bit like being in a friendly football crowd very noisy lots of singing and a big chant as the sun disappeared!
That evening we again tasted the highlife by dining up at Jaipur House - once again the summer palace of a Maharaja - this time of Jaipur obviously! We'd had a look around it when we first arrived as it afforded a great view of the lake - we'd also sussed the menu and the prices were ok so we came up for a reasonably priced tandoori platter with a view. The food was great but it was a bit disappointing that we were the only diners - it was earlyish -7pm - and we've noticed Indians tend to eat fairly late. At present with the cold (down to 5 degrees at night) we tend to be early to shower and thus early to bed!
It was a lovely old house and as we left Andrew went to go to the higher level to get a picture a but he was waved away as the Maharaja was dining there with guests- so we weren't the only diners! So there you go another (albeit very minor) brush with royalty! We did get to meet his huge black dog though - who stared down at us from above perhaps daring us to climb up to his level!
The next day we took a drive out 11km to Achalgrah. This former fort is now the setting for a group of Jain temples as well as an ancient Shiva temple. The Shiva temple was obviously very important to a lot of the visiting pilgrims and many people were coming to be blessed. It was unusual in that the Nandi -Shiva's bull- was brass and rather than a lingam at the centre of the temple there was a deep hole said to extend down to the underworld. Within this hole there protruded a lump of rock which was supposedly Shiva's toe! All a little bizarre but the devotees were very moved.
There was then a steep walk up a hill with various shrines and temples mainly Jain and no cameras allowed. It was a tough climb but the view from the top made it worthwhile.
At the bottom was a holy lake which was absolutely filthy though people were doing washing in it! We had farmed our washing out the previous day and were relieved not to recognize it!! This is bound to happen one day!
We also picked up a couple of young guides who showed us the statues of the buffaloes which are part of an ancient story. Once upon a time …….there was a lake of sacred ghee (butter) here. Demons in buffalo form began to eat the ghee so the king shot them down with a bow and arrow. We couldn't find the King's statue but these are the buffaloes and the enthusiastic guides (who had little English which made it tough!)
On the way back we stopped off at the rubbish tip as when we passed it it'd been full of sacred cows and Andrew wanted to get a picture. As we pulled up the whole sea of rubbish came alive and there were kids running from everywhere. We then saw a lot of makeshift shacks and worked out whole tribes of kids lived there sorting through the rubbish for a living. When we left Darwin we had brought a bag of small shampoos and various toiletry bits and pieces collected over the years from hotels/motels. This had been put away under the car and we'd recently pulled it out to give to a worthy cause. We dug this out to give to them and they were thrilled - literally jumping up and down with joy. It really is quite humbling how little some people have here and how much we in the west take for granted. On the whole I'd say they are happier people than us too!!
After Rajasthan our next stop was to be Gujurat. We had planned to head straight to Dui - an ex-Portuguese island which promises sun beaches and fresh seafood. However we have been experiencing car problems - our steering has started to pull. Whilst this is not yet a major problem our policy is to always sort anything like this out the moment it starts. It looked like we'd need to order some new parts so we decided to head to Ahmedabad Gujarat's capital city - where we were assured that we'd be able to find the help we needed. So on Sunday 20 December we drove the 200 km to arrive at the large (4.5 million plus) smoggy city of Ahmedabad. We had rung ahead and secured parking at the Government run Toran Guest House- directly opposite Gandhi's famous Sabarmati Ashram. Off to Toyota tomorrow!