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Published: December 1st 2018
Off today to Udaipur. The Udai Bilas has grown on us despite its eccentricities and slightly haphazard way of doing things so it is sad to leave. We head north on NH8 towards Udaipur, just under two hours north. The countryside becomes more hilly and less productive. NH8 is in the course of being turned into a six lane highway; of course this being India, the construction goes on around you as you travel along. With little warning the existing roadway turns into a dusty track, with men with excavators slicing away the hillside in great clouds of dust as rock keeps crashing down (causing Mr Singh to cast anxious sideways glances), or hot tar is being laid and Mr Singh has to avoid driving inadvertently over it. There are numerous overturned lorries who negotiated the tight bends and cambers too fast; and quite a few stoved in lorries who lost a game of chicken with one coming the other way. Health and safety doesn’t play a big part here......
Udaipur city is a big place; we seem to drive for ever to reach anywhere near the centre. We go to visit the Sahelion ki Bari, a Moghul style garden
which was built by the Maharajah in the 18th
century. It is a rather pretty and verdant place. Then we go to the Monsoon Palace, visible for miles around on its high hilltop. It is rather disappointing; it is a large folly rather than a palace, sadly neglected and overrun with locals bearing their selfie sticks. Such vanity! Look at me looking fabulous (not) and visiting interesting places. God we hate selfie stick wielders. Not really worth the detour, but if you don’t check these places out you never know.
At last we arrive at the Shiv Niwas Palace hotel. It is part of the large complex comprising the Lake Palace, which we will visit tomorrow, another hotel, and the actual palace where the Maharana and his family live (the Maharana of Udaipur is regarded as the pre-eminent prince in India and is styled Maharana not Maharajah). This is seriously grand. Lots of very smartly dressed retainers, who look like a private army which they may technically be, fuss around. Once inside the precinct, one of them at the approach of a vehicle holds up a board with a “no horn” sign, as if anyone would be so uncouth
to hoot here. Our luggage is whisked away, but our room is not quite ready so we go and sit in a rather plush semi-open lounge. We are entertained by two squabbling pigeons who have a vicious fight as to who can sit on one of the glass light fittings, feathers flying and the light looking like it might crash to the sofa below at any moment. However the beaten one finally retreats to a safe distance. Off to our room, very pleasant, and then a short excursion to find the ATM we need. We are given a security pass that allows us to walk through bits of the palace that the hoi polloi cannot, which is rather fun. Out of the other side of the palace, and we have forgotten how awful and tatty streets for tourists can be. Lots of overpriced rubbish for sale, “you buy you buy”, fake sadhus who want money for taking a photo of their filthy selves, the whole scene is just ghastly. Oh and don’t forget the hippies, who all look like they have been on the road since c. 1979 and haven’t been home since. They are all our age, for goodness
sake! We visit a very unimpressive temple, the Jagdish Mandir, “one of the most important temples in north India”, it self-importantly declares, possibly because it was built by an Udaipur Maharajah in the distant past. Pah!, we know our temples, and this one's rubbish, and there's a great big rat looking expectantly as Sara's feet. We turn tail and leave. There is some carving on the outside which isn’t bad, but all the heads at lower levels been knocked off at some past time, probably by some Muslim invaders who passed through, which is how sculptures in temples have usually been defaced. Definitely time to return to our sanctuary.
In the evening, as we walk through to dinner, we are surprised to find a uniformed bagpipe band playing familiar British tunes in a courtyard. We are their only audience. “We have played in Scotland and Wales” they tell us proudly.
Friday morning, and we are surprised to discover that it’s positively cold outside at 7.30am. We go for a walk before breakfast and realise that our hotel pass allows us to go into the City Palace grounds before all the tourists, affording us the chance to take photos
in good light and with absolutely no people in them.
We make sure we’re at the head of the queue to buy tickets to go into the palace proper in a more or less successful effort to beat the crowds. There is though a ridiculous bureaucratic procedure to buy “seniors” tickets. The man ‘ and who tout for business. The palace rooms are all linked by tiny corridors with lots of steps and 90 degree turns, all designed to make it hard for invading forces to gain access. There are beautiful inner courtyards and balconies, with painted murals, mirrored tiling, Delft tiles, stained glass (much of it from Belgium) and much more. We’re amused by a model of a horse with a strange contraption on its nose that looks just like an elephants trunk. It turns out that’s exactly what it was designed to look like, so that when the horses went into battles against elephants, the elephants would see the ‘trunk’ and not attack one of their own!
Two thirds of the way through the audio tour we enter a large courtyard which is being set up for a wedding. Because of this, an officious female security
guard tells us we cannot see anything else on our tour except the silver gallery. But one of her male colleagues, dressed in the uniform of the Maharana’s private bodyguard, takes to us, and leads us across the courtyard, where at least three dozen people are busy dressing chairs and setting up a massive sound system, to the other galleries which are, of course, entirely empty apart from the odd guard. Some are less than interesting but others are fascinating. One room has huge paintings of court life, showing the Maharana hunting, watching Jetti wrestlers or being entertained at court. In all of them we can recognise the palace we’re walking round. One guard takes us round and settles us down in front of a TV screen, turning on old film of the 1940 wedding of the son of the Maharajah of Bikaner to an Udaipur princess. There are marching soldiers, lines of horsemen and the only camel corps in all of India, with camels pulling gun carriages.
In the afternoon, we debate whether we can face going back out to run the gauntlet of tourist shops. We decide to make the effort, in order to visit the Bagore
ki Haveli, a restored 18th
century merchants house. It seems initially unpromising, especially when the first room we come to is filled with a strange selection of doll puppets dressed in local costume lolling languidly on cushions. Most strange. But the building itself is beautiful, and the extent of the restoration effort becomes clear when we reach one small room left unrestored to show what condition the building used to be in . It’s literally crumbling to pieces.
After dinner, we notice vintage cars decorated with flowers leaving the palace grounds in the direction of the City Palace, so we go to inspect. The route to the palace is lit with open flames, and the main entrance is bathed in red light. The lead photographer tells us it’s the pre wedding henna party for a wedding group from the UAE. The band is positioned ready to pipe up every time new guests arrive, and there are four mounted horsemen standing to attention. We watch as cars and golf buggies ferry opulently dressed guests in, and smile at the fact that the first thing most guests do is take some selfies. We wonder if we can blag our way in,
but decide we don’t really look the part!
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