Udaipur- not smart but definitely a culturally rich city!

A 5-hour journey, further delayed by connecting flights, had us landing at the smallish Udaipur airport late in the evening. I was grumpy about losing a precious half-day of our tri-city tour of Rajasthan. The cloudy skies and dusty roads—due to major flyovers being underway—en route to our hotel didn’t help to cheer me up. After about an hour of being on the highway, we pulled into the city lanes constricted by narrow roads lined with small-and-big stores. 

As we neared our hotel—an ancient Haveli-turned-boutique-hotel, the lanes got narrower and more chaotic. Our driver kept miraculously squeezing the Innova through these, dodging the pedestrians, and the stream of oncoming autos and two-wheelers. Even so, covering the last bit of the journey fell unceremoniously on our shoulders. I had hardly envisioned royal Havelis being located in the thick of such lanes, much less trudging three heavy suitcases up a short stretch to the said Haveli

And yet, our retreat for the next three nights, with its stately ambience and cosy rooms, had metaphorically distanced itself from its immediate neighbourhood. We checked into our room that overlooked Lake Pichola. The captivating view and inviting bed helped us recover slightly from the not-so-great first impressions of the acclaimed tourist destination. 

Karohi Haveli
We woke up the next morning to a glorious sunrise, temple bells, and a birdsong. After a fulfilling breakfast of melt-in-your-mouth aloo paranthas, Indori poha flavoured with fennel seeds and garnished with sev, and some steaming hot masala chai, we began our day—one that was to testify against forming opinions based on first impressions.

View from our room

The city palace

The Leela on Lake Pichola

We covered the tourist-y attractions like the Jagdish Mandir—visit it to marvel at the intricate carvings on the fa├žade and pillars of this Vishnu temple, the City Palace—a must-visit (whether or not you’re a fan of Indian history) simply to take in the sheer grandeur and ornate architecture, and Lake Pichola—a lake bigger (and better) than Fatehsagar. A boat-ride here is enjoyable for the views of the City Palace on one side and floating lake structures that included hotels like the Taj and The Leela. The entire breadth wears a festive look when the lights are up at dusk. While these attractions come with their share of wonder and should feature in your Udaipur itinerary, two experiences stood out for me as highlights of the day.

The Paliwal Arts is a miniature art store-cum-workshop centre located in one of the busy by-lanes near the City Palace. Sanjay Solanki who runs the store gave us a rundown of the traditional artwork of miniature paintings and nail art. Within seconds my and son and I had an elephant and a tiger sketched (respectively) on our thumb nail. The exquisite beauty of each of the miniature artwork on display—be it on a canvas or silk or on (the most expensive version) camel bone panels (a close replica of the now-banned ivory) was awe-inspiring.  

The painstaking art of creating miniature on different mediums is passed down from one generation to another within families—a handful of which remains in form presently. The paints used are organically produced and the paintbrushes are made out of the hair of squirrels. While the themes of the paintings (they depict historical or life events at the backdrop of the Udaipur City Palace or a slice from Lord Krishna’s life) appear to be similar, the difference lies in the details as every artist lends them a unique, personal touch with their interpretation of the event. The art is being kept alive and made known to the rest of the world through workshops conducted at the store.

There’s no right price for hand-produced art because the effort and love put in by artists to create a masterpiece—and each piece is one for the same reasons—cannot be pegged into currency. Yet, I’d say, the paintings are pretty much affordable, come in a wide-range hence suit every budget. More than anything else, the experience of learning the art or the history behind it is priceless. Purchasing art at such stores can be a small way to help these artisans get their worth in terms of money and name.

After some soul-satisfying dal-baati-churma, we opted to be lured into some shopping indulgence. The weaves of Rajasthan—bandhej (bandhini), Kota Doria, leheriya, applique work, patchwork, Gota-Patti—need no introduction. From sarees, to dress materials, dupattas, bedspreads, quilts, potlis, and embroidered handbags in every hue and shade—you name it, you get it. And, who can say no to the glib and suave Marwari salesman! 

Does it get better than this? Yes, undoubtedly. When in Udaipur, do not miss the cultural show at Bagore ki haveli, for the Dharohar folk dance troupe will hold you spell-bound for the evening. We watched agape as dancers from three generations, a septuagenarian included, performed—often using interesting props—with skill and easy grace. The folk songs to which the dancers performed were sung live accompanied by traditional instruments. The singers sang full-throated in their inimitable rugged yet pitch-perfect and melodious voices. The puppet show was thoroughly entertaining to the adults and kids alike. Little wonder that the mini courtyard echoed with thunderous applause and whistles. 

Every dance form, representing a different region of the state, passes down from one generation to another within families. The traditional dances, the anchor briefed us, do not merely carry entertainment value but are closely linked to the personal lives of the rural folk and have a story to tell.

The best piece was saved for the last as the star performer, Jayshree, did the Bhavai dance. Balancing not one, two or three but up to nine pots on her head, she matched her steps to the rapid beats. Not once did her smile or step falter. There was a great deal of beauty and grace to her movements too. 

The Bhavai speaks of the times when ladies had to walk several miles in the arid desert to fetch water for daily life. Even in the face of such severe hardships, they would sport a smile on their face when their pots brimmed with precious water. Hence, the dance to express joy and gratitude!

We hear that although the government is doing its bit to encourage tourism and preserve the art, these remain endangered as the younger lot isn't too keen to pursue and pass it on. It would be a shame to let these die a natural death. Then again, tourism is a two-way street. In the hands of the host, it isn’t only about selling attractions to visitors but providing culturally rich experiences for them to take back as true souvenirs. As guests, we could do our bit to include the local flavour in our travel—eat local, buy local, and encourage the local art forms.

Coming back to first-impressions, I was glad I could get past and love the city for its goodness. While the city indeed grapples with providing proper infrastructure and a clean(er) environment for the tourists who come here in droves, yet, what each of us takes back hinges on whether we’re a traveller or a tourist; whether we can look beyond outward appearances and allow the rich history, art and cultural flavours to touch our soul.  

Sojourns in solitude

Swiping through my phone gallery, I pause at my favourite album. I linger and savour the memories lacing each camera shot. It was a sojourn I had always dreamed of and hoped for; one that came true. And yet, I haven't journaled it all, as I have always done, to come back to the narrative a later date, to relive the moments, revel in a state of a happy bubble, and feel grateful.

Nostalgia is a great muse. It rises up like fragrant wisps of strong filter coffee, covering your senses with an aromatic shield, languidly filling you up with emotions, and then with a gush, lets the thoughts and reminiscences flow out.

The end of 2017 was eventful in more ways than one. I had arrived at yet another crossroad in life. A new beginning awaited me, while I closed certain chapters. Emotionally, it was a tumultuous phase. I watched mutely as old connections withered away into nothingness. 

Life lessons don't come in sugar-coated pills. Still, it's not a pleasant truth to digest that it never mattered to certain people whether or not I existed (in their lives). It was amusing and painful to note the superfluous and fluff that we mistake for the real.

I was glad to leave the hurting wound(s) alone to heal on its own and seek refuge elsewhere. Drawing up trip itineraries, researching places to visit, weighing accommodation options, bookings, and finally embarking on a journey rank high as self-care, in my book. I threw myself into planning the trip I had been waiting for. It was a catharsis of sorts. 

Writing would have been therapeutic as well but I was nursing—and still not fully recovered—a battle scar of a different kind. This is, strangely, a wound that now resembles a dried scab. The urge to itch is irresistible but I'm wary of scratching the surface of something that's still raw beneath and would surely bleed. 

Writing (not to be confused with dairy journal) is always two-part: the first is where you strip yourself bare, laying down your innermost fears, thoughts, and intentions, untangling the wired mess in your head to correspond closely with the words on paper. This, though it doesn't seem like it, is fairly easy. 

The second and tougher part is to put it up for public consumption. To publish your writings means to be open to receiving empathy and judgment that would come your way in equal or unequal parts. To embrace that sense of the unknown that's par course when you throw open your life as a book, when you don't and cannot know all your readers. This part is what I'm battling against, the one that makes me reluctant to write and share honestly. And interestingly, it's the readers I know that terrify me more. I'm worried they would come across a person they never knew through their interactions.

My writing is a vehicle to find my inner self. It's an exercise not everyone else can or needs to appreciate. This, I'm beginning to understand but need to accept.