How to Visit India without seeing the Taj Mahal: Udaipur, Rajasthan

Udaipur here we come…..

As a first time visitor to India, looking to see some sights but more importantly to meet the real India, one might assume that the Taj Mahal was on my “must see” list.  It wasn’t.  Keeping in mind that my goal of slow travel allows me the freedom to skip famous sites, side stepping the standard itineraries in my quest to experience incredible India.  Udaipur was our first stop.

Street Scene – Udaipur Wedding Procession

Perusing the map and studying the Rough Guide to India which became my bible in the weeks leading up to my trip, it became clear that we would have to choose what to sample in this enormous country which ranks seventh largest in the world..  We settled on Rajasthan, the Land of the Kings and India’s largest state and we chose to begin our travels in Udaipur.

After much deliberation and not a small amount of anxiety, about just how to travel,I decided to join the backpacker way of life for a couple of weeks.  This was no small feat for this sixty plus, baby boomer traveller.  Intrepid though I usually am, I had qualms about schlepping a heavy backpack, and staying in local guesthouses.  However, my adventurous spirit and innate curiosity got the better of me, and found me with a 10 kg backpack strapped to my back as I made my way out of the Udaipur airport in search of my daughter and adventure

Udaipur at Night

Udaipur, aptly named the City of Lakes, is situated in a basin that connects six lakes beginning north of the city  and running right through the city center.  Staying at one of the guesthouses or hotels that line Lake Pichola, is a must for the visitor to Udaipur.  There are a range of options to choose from starting with the very simple family run homestays and ending with the most romantic hotel in India, made famous by James Bond in Octopussey,  located directly in the middle of the lake, the “Lake Palace.”  We chose to stay in the Panorama Guest House, on the western side with a lake  view from our lovely, clean room, and from the common porches and rooftop restaurant, all of which we enjoyed during our five day stay.

Arriving in Udaipur is a soft landing for the first time traveller to India, which I certainly was.  While the streets were busy, and honking motor bikes wove their way through traffic, Udaipur is a relatively small town of manageable proportions, and a noticeable lack of beggars, street people, and running sewage.  Like all Indian cities, cows are free to roam the streets of Udaipur, often leaving behind their “piles.” Watching my feet to avoid them was unfortuantely not an option, as my five senses were inundated with sights, colours, people, smells,  and thus I became all too intimately acquainted with these cow piles.

Chai Shop

Walking around the city, popping into narrow alleyways, up crooked streets, and into local shops is the way I prefer to travel.  We easily found the small chai shop near our guest house where neighborhood shopkeepers get their daily fix of chai.  A literal hole in the wall, this windowless cubbyhole of two square meters, houses a stove where the chai is cooked and a table lined with two benches.  Squeezing into our seats on the bench, while answering the questions of the very inquisitive locals, we watched as Akshara, the mistress of the house sitting cross legged on a mat ground the cinnamon, fresh ginger, black pepper and cloves with a brass mortar and pestle.  This mixture was added to boiling water along with tea leaves, milk and sugar, and within a minute or two, the steaming chai was poured into small glasses and passed around to the waiting customers.  The regulars keep a running account in the owner’s leather bound ledger of how much tea they drink.  We, on the other hand, passed over our crumpled rupees (10 rupee for a small cup- approximately 60 cents US), and received a big smile from the owner and his wife.


City Palace Entrance

As slow travellers, while not feeling the moral imperative to visit every tourist site, we did judiciously choose which sites to visit during our stay.  The impressive City Palace, built over a period of 400 years, entirely of marble and granite with exquisite carvings, allowed us a glimpse at how the royals built and decorated their houses, conducted their lives, and provided a bit of background into Mewar culture a prominent group in the state of Rajasthan..  India, with a population of more than 1.2 billion people, is home to diverse cultural groups and languages,  many of were well represented in the hordes of local tourists at the site.  Aside from an entrance fee that for non-Indians was quite high, there was also a camera fee, which I opted out of, and thus have virtually no pictures of the palace.  This, however, allowed me to experience the palace completely, without worrying about catching the best picture, or composing the right shot.  This brings slow travel to a new height.

Peaceful Tiger Lake

Leaving the palace behind and taking a rickshaw for a twenty minute ride out of the city to Tiger Lake restored our equilibrium and sense of quiet as we looked over the serene waters, and enjoyed the breezes in the hot February sunshine.  The lack of tourist facilities around the lake was refreshing, and we enjoyed the silence along with the waterfowl and a few couples.

Fort Walls – 36 KM!

After a quiet Saturday, our day of rest, we took to the road for a one day trip with hired taxi and driver.  This allowed us to take in two world class sites, the Kumbhalgarh Fort and the Jain Temple at Ranakpur and gave us plenty of time to get to know our garrulous driver and his views on love, marriage and life.  Winding through the rolling, green hills a three hour, sometimes hair raising ride took us to the 15th century Mewar fortress that encompasses 340 temples within its 36 kilometer long walls.   We visited two temples and took a short walk along the very wide walls allowing us a small taste of this staggeringly huge fort as well as firing our imaginations of what the fort was like in its heyday filled with hundreds if not thousands of armed Mewar soldiers.

Jain Palace

A lunch break and one hour drive brought us to the Jain Palace at Ranakpur in the early afternoon.  Jainism an offshoot of Hinduism, that emphasizes ahimsa (non-violence) and asceticism.  The temple is anything but ascetic.  Built in the fifteenth century and lavishly carved of grey and white marble, the temple is a monument to Mewar creativity, ingenuity, skill and industry.  It stands today in its pristine state, well maintained, overflowing with visitors from all over India and the world. The visitors are greeted by friendly Jain monks, willing to pray for you (for a price), and eager to talk with you about their way of life.

Sunset over Lake Pichola

Returning to Udaipur just in time for sunset over Lake Pichola we joined the throngs of local teens and twenty somethings in their weekend finery as we watched the sun make its final descent of the day.

Traveler Tips:

  1. Travel guides: I used the Rough Guide to India which I found comprehensive and up to date, but I did leave it at home because it was way too heavy for my back pack.  So read up before you go, and then let it go!
  2. We stayed at the Panorama Guest House and used the Booking site to book. We found their reviews for the most part reliable.  In this case, the reviews were accurate and we were happy.
  3. Udaipur is a wonderful place to begin a visit to Rajasthan . There is an airport with frequent flights, many tourist services, much to see and do, and yet you are not in the tourist mecca of the world.
  4. The airport of Udaipur is about 22 kilometers outside of the city.  We took a prepaid cab into the city.  We pre-paid at the airport immediately to the left of the exit.
  5. While chai is prevalent all over India, seek out the place where the locals drink their chai.  You are guaranteed a tastier brew.
  6. In Udaipur we did most of our travelling by foot, although rickshaws are readily available.

Coming up next: Slowly Eating our Way Through India

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