A magical land. Magnificent castles. Illustrious kings. Mesmerising queens. Tales of valour. Opulence and splendour. History and culture. Udaipur is Rajasthan in a gist. And for this very reason, it is sure to find favour with the history buffs, culture vultures, spiritual seekers, compulsive travellers and the average tourist alike.
I wanted to break into rhapsodies, I wanted to compose a ballad in its praise, and, sketching skills permitting, I wanted to capture its beauty in a striking visual memoir. But alas, none of the tools, camera included, do the city justice. Udaipur, the erstwhile kingdom of Mewar, has to be experienced (and not just once) to truly savour its beauty.
The best part is that you don't have to be an international celebrity or a guest at a destination wedding to feel its magical tug. As it happens, merely stepping on Udaipur's soil is enough to make the fairy tale come alive.
It was evening by the time I got there and what better way to get acquainted with a city than a sunset cruise. As a veteran of cruises, sunset and otherwise, I was prepared to be adequately charmed, but as the ferry gently bobbed on the lazy waters of Lake Pichola, with the sky serving as a hue-changing backdrop, I felt as if I had crawled into a rabbit hole in a magical land. For one brief moment, as the sun's rays dabbled the lake's surface, I could be forgiven for thinking I was a princess. The appearance of Jag Mandir Palace, an island of calm (not to mention, decadent luxury) did little to dispel the illusion. The island palace as ethereal, as captivating in the present, as it must have been ages ago. Many a sigh escaped the lips as the boat tour came to what felt like an abrupt end. Lake Pichola, built by the eponymous ruler of Udaipur, was hard to say goodbye to.
But I need not have fretted, for the next day brought many more surreal delights. Sajjan Garh, better known as Monsoon Palace, seemed oddly familiar. Vaguely remembered from another life, perhaps? No such luck. I was quickly brought down to terra firma by the spoilsport guide who gleefully informed us that a James Bond flick was shot there. The monsoon retreat of the erstwhile rulers was perched atop a hill and from that vantage point, it was far too easy to imagine oneself as the lord and master of all that one surveyed.
At City Palace, too, I was quickly transported back in time, to the halcyon days of Mewar. Strictly speaking, it was not a palace; more like a clutch of palaces strung together by their abundant riches. The spellbinding architecture, arched gates, windswept courtyards, secret corridors, and sprawling terraces managed to convince me that I had been there before. In another time, in another life, and looking at my dusty, crumpled outfit, certainly in better clothes.
As we ambled into the world-class museum housed inside the complex, I decided to peer at the royal paintings, in the off chance of spotting a doppelganger. Alas, a closer look yielded no concrete results. But when has that ever stopped the fertile imagination from taking flight.
At Saheliyon ki Baari, the garden constructed for the ladies in waiting to the princess, I daydreamed some more. I could imagine the ladies of yore taking their leisurely stroll, swathed in metres and metres of rich, colourful fabric, trimmed with shimmery gota work. I peered around purposefully, half hoping that the sight of a marble pavilion or a gushing fountain or a lotus pond would trigger a memory. Nothing. But I was not disappointed. Because next on the itinerary was a day trip to Chittor. The land of legendary courage and jauhar-committing queens. Where Alauddin Khilji was smitten by a mere look of the beauteous Padmini. Where the saffron-robed king waged war to protect her honour. Where she chose to jump into a funeral pyre when defeat loomed large. The guide took us to the room from where the king had accorded Khilji a view of the queen. Right across the water, was another palace, where Padmini had stood, her head bowed, probably feeling like a showpiece. I could feel the hackles of my inner feminist rise. How I wished the king had chosen to fight before acquiescing to Khilji's offensive demand.
I calmed down only when Meera Bai's temple came into view. I marvelled at the time-darkened pillars of the ancient temple and wondered how on earth could she feel so much love (that she was willing to give up her life) for Lord Krishna. Someone whose very existence is debatable, someone who isn't even visible to the naked eye. Her kind of bhakti—pure, unadulterated devotion and unshakeable faith—is so moving, so profound, it is something one can only aspire to.
I came back from Udaipur armed with the conviction that history would be so much more interesting to students if only it were taught outside the classroom, on the grounds where it unfolded many, many centuries ago.