I had visited Udaipur for the first time as a teenage kid; when my grandfather insisted that we go to his daughter’s home. My memories of that trip are of a tasty meal (which surprisingly included karela vegetable) that we had in the train. I remember my elder cousin took me around Udaipur on a scooter and me being astonished at the pretty water bodies and lakes in the city and wondering if I really was in Rajasthan.
As is the case with so many people, we don’t really bother to explore places in our own state thinking that they can be seen at any point of time. Even though I am a Rajasthani, I can frankly state that I haven’t seen my own state in an extensive manner apart from the usual visits to Jodhpur, Pushkar, Ajmer, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Shekhawati, Bundi, Chittaurgarh, Ranthambore, Alwar, Sariska and some other places like Bharatpur, Pali and Kota. I was in Jaipur scheduled to embark on the North Zone leg of the Doors of India Campaign in the last week of August; but that was not to be due to the Ram Rahim fraças in Punjab.
So when I sensed an opportunity of a few days, I immediately booked myself on a bus to the lake city of Udaipur and informed the relatives that I was coming over! Udaipur is known the city of sunrise and is also called the ‘Venice of the East.’ It is India’s most romantic city and has been recently in the news for becoming a favoured wedding destination for high profile people. And being the slow traveller that I am, it was decided that I should spend around a week in Udaipur. 2-3-4 days just don’t do it justice.
Udaipur : An Introduction & History
Tucked in the Aravalli Hills, Udaipur is built around four man-made lakes and is surrounded by gorgeous green landscapes. Udaipur was founded by Maharaja Udai Singh II in 1568. It was the capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Mewar (after shifting from Chittaurgarh) and the kings are said to be direct descendants from the Sun. Their royal emblem is also of the sun itself. Udaipur has a proud Hindu history and has fought many battles to repel Turkish, Afghan and Mongol invaders. It still has a laid-back charm and is becoming Rajasthan’s most popular city for tourists. Udaipur is the top choice of holiday destination for Gujaratis, due to the proximity to Ahmedabad and the excellent condition of roads.
Top Attractions & Places to Visit in Udaipur
City Palace & City Palace Museum
Udaipur’s City Palace is the largest royal complex in Rajasthan and is constructed in light yellow stone on the banks of Lake Pichola. The massive building comprises of eleven different palaces constructed by successive rulers from the 16th Century to the 19-20th Century. When I got to the ticket counter, things had really changed a lot over the years, and the ticket prices had gone up too!
There are many gates for entry and exit inside the City Palace Complex and it is better to enter from one side and exit from the other side to enable the visitor to see everything. Once inside the palace, narrow passages connect the various mahals and courtyards, creating a confusing effect designed to prevent surprise intrusion by potential invaders. A large part of the palace is now converted into the sprawling City Palace Museum and a few parts of the City Palace have been converted into luxury hotels. I highly recommend visiting the City Palace as soon as it opens in the morning; so that you can explore the beautiful interiors at your own pace. I remember taking a total of 3-4 hours to explore the City Palace & Museum.
Highlights of City Palace
Although the entire palace is worth seeing, but sometimes one might miss these sights due to fatigue or just the constant grandeur.
- The gorgeous peacock mosaics in the 17th-century Mor (Peacock) Courtyard.
- The glass and mirror encrusted Moti Mahal.
- The extensive collection of miniatures featuring Krishna legends in Krishna Vilas.
- The blue room, the most photographed part of the City Palace Museum ! (You know what I’m referring to!)
- The exquisite Zenana Mahal (Palace of the Queens).
My favourite views and frames were from windows while walking from one palace to another. There are superb scenes of the pristine blue waters of Lake Pichola, on which the immaculate white marble Lake Palace appears to float.
Does the above photograph also remind you of the #DoorsofIndia Campaign?
Entry charges for The City Palace Complex – Rs. 30 and The City Palace Museum – Rs. 300.
Saheliyon Ki Bari
Since my relative’s house wasn’t too far away from Saheliyon ki Bari, I visited it on one of the mornings. It is a three hundred hundred year old garden that was made for the enjoyment of the 50 odd women attendants who came as a part of the princess’ dowry! In English, it can be loosely translated as Garden of the Maids of Honour. Construction was ordered by Sangram Singh II in the early 18th century. The gardens in Saheliyon ki Bari are centred on a square courtyard enclosing a large pool that is surrounded by other greens.
Saheliyon ki Bari is billed as Udaipur’s finest garden with maintained fountains, greenery, lotus pools, marble elephants spraying water and a fantastic variety of trees in different enclosures and lawns. The entrance fee is negligible and therefore it seemed like the favourite place for local families too for picnics and day out with kids. The lush environs are also a hangout place for young canoodling couples trying to get some privacy from the prying eyes.
A random conversation with a random stranger at this garden meant I had company for the next leg of the journey; he was an Army officer with a Royal Enfield bike at his disposal!!
Entry charges (if memory serves me right) are 20 Rupees.
We reached Shilpgram after a super cool bike ride and crossed the extremely pretty Fateh Sagar Lake on the way. Shilpgram is a rural arts and crafts village which was established to promote and preserve the traditional architecture, music and crafts of the tribal people of various parts of India. It is located 3 kms out of town and has displays dedicated to the diverse lifestyles and customs of India’s rural population in different regions.
There are splendid cultural performances by various tribes in Shilpgram and also a small museum with really old exhibits but I shall cover that in the Offbeat Udaipur post. There are shops set up by artists in different corners inside the crafts village. In the high season, it can become extremely crowded with tourists. Shilpgram crafts village is spread in a large area surrounded by greenery and has artists from different parts of India living on site. Due to the open air feel, mosquitoes can make a killing. So don’t stick around after 4 in the evening!
It took us more than two hours to explore all the offerings of Shilpgram.
Entry charges for Shilpgram including camera are Rs. 100.
Just outside the main entrance gate close to the ticket counter of the City Palace, Jagdish Temple is Udaipur’s most popular and respected temple. It was built in the year 1652 and is dedicated to Lord Jagannath, an aspect of Vishnu. There’s a statue in black stone of Lord Jagannath as Vishnu. Jagdish Temple is a towering stone structure adorned with carvings. I was lucky to be there during the time of the aarti which is a divine experience also attended by many locals. The entrance of the temple is flanked by two elephants and presents a pretty picture with women selling colourful flowers to be used as offerings.
There is a signboard embedded in stone in an ancient language and photography isn’t allowed inside. As you climb the stairs of the temple and turn around, the bronze made statue of Garuda (vehicle of Vishnu) is visible. Among the carvings on the exterior of the temple; most are figures of Vishnu, scenes depicting life of Krishna and dancing apsaras (nymphs). If you look carefully, there is a fair possibility of chancing upon some erotic carvings too.
Bagore ki Haveli Museum
The rain clouds had started teasing at the Jagdish Temple itself and by the time we walked along the side lane to reach Gangaur Ghat it had started pouring. On the left side of Gangaur Ghat is the entrance to the 18th Century Bagore ki Haveli. The haveli was originally a structure belonging to a Prime Minister appointed by the Mewar Kings of Udaipur. Bagore ki Haveli is supposed to have 138 rooms and is built right on the banks of Lake Pichola.
The haveli is a huge structure of two-three storeys and is spread across multiple courtyards. A part of the Haveli building has been converted into a notable museum, and is arranged on two floors with various exhibits. The first room took me to a passage with a never ending puppet collection with windows overlooking the lake.
On the upper floor, there are several perfectly restored rooms with exquisite furnishings, artworks, and exhibits. Some rooms have musical instruments, traditional kitchen equipments and one glass cabin showcases a colossal turban that is believed to be the largest in the world. One of Udaipur’s must see experiences include the Traditional music and dance show that are staged here every night at Bagore ki Haveli. There’s a separate ticket for the same, but it is well worth it.
Entry Charges for Bagore ki Haveli Museum are Rs. 100.
Sajjan Garh (Monsoon Palace)
After the mosquitoes started troubling me at Shilpgram, I decided to get out of there and then figure out where I wanted to go next. Although I had wanted to visit Sajjangarh, but I had no idea if evening / sunset time was the best time to be there! A chance conversation with a stranger at the chai place on the street meant I was headed to Sajjangarh at the right time. I paid an auto guy 50 Rupees and he dropped me to the base of the Sajjangarh Fort; there’s also the Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary nearby. I hitched a ride in a private car to carry me up the 3-4 km distance to the entrance of the fort.
Sajjangarh was built by Maharana Sajjan Singh in the late 19th century. It was originally supposed to be an astronomical observatory but later turned out to be a summer retreat of the royal family. Sajjangarh Fort is perched on a hilltop around 300m higher than Udaipur and commands gorgeous views of the lake and Udaipur city on one side and the greenery of Aravalli mountains on the other side. It is also called the monsoon palace because the royal family desired to watch the monsoon clouds travelling across the countryside below from this very palace.
Sajjangarh feels like a neglected palace compared to the excellent maintenance of the other monuments in Udaipur and wears a forlorn look. When I asked the officer at the palace, he told me that Sajjangarh was abandoned because it was found impossible to pump water up to it.
Entry to the fort is through a colossal door and visitors are asked to move straight to the backside of the palace for the sunset views. At the time of my visit, due to renovation work going on in the interiors, I could not climb up to the seven floor observatory structure. I had to be content with the dazzling valley views from the base of the Palace and occasionally dreamed of how incredible it must be from the balcony of the fort.
Sunset at Sajjangarh with the clouds whizzing past will definitely remain one of my top memories of Udaipur. There is a large open space from where the greenery of the valley is visible and with the sinking sun is a sight to behold. Go out of the palace gate marvelling at the lights of Udaipur. Just remember to not stick for too long if you are alone and without a means of transport.
Sajjangarh palace is located inside the Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary. There is a possibility of sighting some wild animals on the jeep safari. From the ticket gate, official transport is in the form of a jeep which takes visitors to Sajjangarh (Monsoon Palace). The to-and-fro charges for the same are Rupees 90.
Entry charges for Sajjangarh Monsoon Palace are 10 or 20 Rs.
Jag Niwas Island
The Jag Niwas Island is now better known as the Taj Lake Palace hotel. It was built in the mixed Rajput Mughal architecture style as a summer palace during the reign of Jagat Singh II in the mid-18th Century. Entry to the Jag Niwas Island is restricted for only those who are staying at the Taj Lake Palace Hotel. Sometimes during the off season, the hotel allows visitors to visit with confirmed lunch or dinner bookings! Surely one of the most romantic experiences in the utterly charming lake city of Udaipur. (If only I had the money, tongue firmly in cheek!) Time and again, Taj Lake Palace Udaipur has featured in the world’s top luxury hotels and is in part responsible for putting Udaipur on the tourism map.
Jag Mandir Island
Jagmandir island is one of the three structures built on the Lake Pichola. It was built by Maharana Karan Singh in the year 1620 and is designed around a large garden guarded by stone elephants. The main building here is the Gol Mahal, which has detailed stone inlay work of bluestone within its domed roof. There are also some signboards detailing the history of the island. It is said that the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan once stayed here when he was young and was so impressed by Gul Mahal that he used it as the model for building the Taj Mahal in Agra.
There are regular ferries taking visitors to Jag Mandir island and it is a nice place to be for a few hours for the splendid evening views. One can also have a opulent fine dine feel at the restaurant on Jag Mandir Island (Maybe a cheap man’s Taj Lake Palace!)
When I was on the opposite side of Lake Pichola in the crowded lanes of the most popular tourist area, I briefly wondered if all the tourist destinations are the same. I could have been in Hampi, or North Goa, or Khajuraho, or Pushkar, or even Manali or Leh. The shops all sold the same stuff and the lanes were so crowded that it was impossible to even walk during the evening.
Yet, among all the chaos – some of Udaipur’s top homestays, guest houses luxury hotels and mid range hotels are within striking distance. Among the top recommendations to stay in Udaipur are Fateh Niwas Palace & Shiv Niwas Palace, Fateh Garh, Udai Kothi, Oberoi Udaivilas, Amet Haveli.
This post has been made keeping in mind the usual popular places for tourists to cover in two days. I spent a total of 6-7 days in Udaipur and shall be making a separate post on my offbeat experiences and activities in this gorgeous little city in Rajasthan.