Never mock the value of a holiday from a holiday, especially while travelling in a country such as India. As everyone knows, backpacking is obviously one of the most physically, mentally and emotionally draining lifestyles in existence, so a dose of ‘R n R’ is a necessary antidote to traveller’s fatigue. Reflecting this principle, I broke my typically demanding sightseeing routine and spent four days chilling out in Udaipur, a veritable oasis of calm and tranquility within a land of chaos and pollution. The White City is dreamily free of the dust, dilapidation and destitution endemic in other North Indian cities, while the hassling, traffic and honking are relatively tame. While touristy, Udaipur was certainly my favourite of Rajasthan’s colourful royal capitals.
I stayed at Bunkyard Hostel in Udaipur, which was my favourite accommodation in North India. The hostel featured lovely open balconies on each of its five levels overlooking Udaipur’s iconic Pichola Lake. The terraced rooftop was my favourite hangout, as it boasted surely the most spectacular view in the city. I met a fantastic bunch of people at Bunkyard, including British Hermione who I later travelled with in Kerala. Before you ask, her last name is not Granger (I’d like to congratulate myself for not trifling her with this inane question).
The serenity of Udaipur’s lakes and the beauty of its waterfront villas and palaces are reminiscent more so of the Mediterranean than North India. Clustered around the lakes are winding streets of whitewashed buildings with almost Venetian-style facades bordering the water. Udaipur’s City Palace is one of India’s largest and contradictory to other Rajasthani forts for emphasising opulence rather than defence. Along with other palaces converted into uber expensive hotels, it directly fronts Pichola Lake and dominates Udaipur’s skyline. The city is refreshingly green, heavily vegetated and surrounded by hills, a distinctly unRajasthani appearance. Udaipur doesn’t boast a staggering ensemble of tourist attractions, its just a pleasant city to amble around.
I intentionally coincided my visit to Udaipur with the biggest event on the Hindu calendar, Diwali. The Festival of Lights is the Indian equivalent of New Year’s Eve, celebrated for five days around the darkest night of the new moon between mid-October and mid-November. Diwali signifies the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. In the led up to Diwali, Indians begin festooning their homes and businesses with candles, flowers and tinsel. Firecrackers become increasingly more prevalent, culminating in a near constant barrage of explosions on Diwali itself. After sunset on Diwali, Udaipur glowed ethereally from hundreds of thousands of tiny candles alighting entranceways, benches and walls throughout the city. I spent the evening on the rooftop of Bunkyard watching the spectacle unfold. We lit lanterns and released them into the air, nearly burning down the neighbouring restaurant in the process. Unfortunately there was no planned firework displays, just thousands of fireworks individually bursting from different parts of the city all night. The day after Diwali, strange configurations of people made from cow dung decorated with flowers marked the entrance to every building.
For a taste of Rajasthani culture, I attended a traditional dance and puppetry show in a beautiful, candle-lit outdoor theatre. The show was composed of several performances that demonstrated routines originating from different regions of Rajasthan. The opening sequence featured women in multicoloured saris and dresses pirouetting at incredible speeds while urns of fire balanced on their heads. We watched a bizarre performance depicting benevolent and malevolent gods battling for supremacy, which constituted excessively garbed men prancing around on stage, arrogantly staring into the sky and engaging in a very soft form of combat. A puppetry master revealed his extraordinary skills by performing curtainless, permitting us to see how his subtle hand movements instigate the incredible acrobatics of the puppet. The highlight of the show was saved for last, when a middle-aged women performed a solo dance act while balancing terracotta pots on her head. She started with one pot, which increased to three, then six and eventually a dozen. While appearing to be disconcertingly nervous throughout, she successfully accomplished her dance routine each time a new batch of pots were added to the tower on her head, which was up to one-and-half times her height by the conclusion.
In Udaipur, I enrolled into an activity I had inexplicably never participated in before: a cooking class! Together with British Hermione, German Emi, Israeli Mickey and an American couple gobsmacked by the concept of travelling for more than three weeks, we were taught how to prepare a dozen North Indian dishes by a Rajasthani widow named Shanshi. She started the cooking classes five years ago without any English and has since become fluent in the language purely through interacting with foreign tourists. She taught us how to make chai masala, pakora, naan, parantha, chapati, several curries and pulao during the five hour class. Perhaps the most intriguing insight was that virtually all North Indian curries use exactly the same base. Onions, garlic and ginger are fried until golden, when seven spices (chilli powder, cumin seeds, turmeric, aniseed, ground coriander, salt and garam masala) and chopped tomatoes are added. The mixture can then be stored for up to a week before being used for various curries. The constituent ingredients of the curries (like lentils, cauliflower and potato, spinach and paneer, potato and peas) are cooked in the base, possibly with the addition of other spices, fresh chilli, cream or nuts. Shanshi provided us with booklets of her easy-to-follow recipes, which are thankfully free of the excessive quantities of sugar, ghee and butter synonymous with North Indian cuisine.
While lacking outstanding natural, architectural, religious or culinary wonders, Udaipur was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip to India. The city’s relaxed and cosmopolitan vibe was a welcome relief in the typically frenetic and traditional state of Rajasthan.
That’s all for now,