Udaipur is a gem, and it didn't hurt that we were there at the height of the Diwali celebrations when people were at their best. All the buildings were strung with lights, and as we walked down the street, people came over to shake hands and to wish us a happy Diwali. Everyone was dressed up, milling around, and in a great mood.
Udaipur (or "You Diaper", as some of my travel companions pronounced it) was the capital of the kingdom of Mewar. It was founded in 1568 by Udai Singh II, after his original capital was taken by the Mughals. It has probably the biggest palace in all of Rajasthan, and Pichola Lake, an artificial lake in the center, is quite beautiful. There's a palace that covers an entire island in the middle of the lake, so it gives the impression that the building sits in the water. The Water Palace is now a posh hotel owned by the Taj Group ( 200+ a night), and there are more under construction.
Udaipur's modern claim to fame is a bit more tenuous. It was featured in the James Bond film Octopussy, and there are posters for Octopussy all over town. If you've got it, flaunt it, I suppose. The Water Palace figured in the film, and apparently, there's also a high-speed chase by rickshaw through the streets. For the very curious, there's a cafe that plays Octopussy non-stop, but I'm afraid I just didn't have the time.
The night we got there, Diwali celebrations were in full force, so we went to the roof of the hotel to look at the fireworks. There was a great view of the City Palace, which was all lit up. There was a view of one of the mountains, which was also lit up since the trees were on fire, thanks to the celebrations. None of the hotel staff seemed overly concerned, and in due course I suppose it burned itself out.
The next day we took a whirlwind tour of Udaipur. We went by the Temple of Laxmi, where people were lined up down the street to pray for good fortune during the new year. During the day the men attended, and the women would attend that night. The cows were also milling around in the streets (as they do throughout the year) and some of the cows had been painted in bright colors. In front of some of the doorways, people had fashioned swastikas out of cow dung as part of the celebration. Not a good idea to wipe your feet on the welcome mat.
After passing the Temple of Laxmi, we stopped at the Jagdish Temple. The Jagdish Temple was built in 1651 and dedicated to of Vishnu. It has a long, steep flight of stairs, with a platform at the top and impressive stone work. Every time you enter a temple you need to take off your shoes, so I'd recommend slip-off shoes and loose socks to anyone who visits India. Most temples have a shoe minder, so I'd also recommend carrying change at all times, since these guys can be formidable. There's no sense getting blessed by a priest, only to be cursed by the shoe-minder.
While putting on my shoes I was approached by a man who wanted to show me his "art school", and this is one of the major money-making schemes in Udaipur. At the time I though it was biblically bad taste to do business in a temple, but this turned out to be one of the more benign schemes that I encountered while I was in India. There are several workshops in Udaipur that specialize in Persian-style miniature paintings. They're nice enough, though I suspect that if every living room in the world had a wall of these things, there'd still be a glut of them in Udaipur.
We took a tour of the City Palace, which is a huge, sandstone building, and the former maharana (ruler) of Udaipur still inhabits part of the palace. For me, though, the high point of Udaipur was the Folklore Museum. Though the exhibits were a bit dusty, there were good collections of puppets, musical instruments and costumes, as well as information on the local tribal people. The Bhil, for instance, are an animist tribe, famous in classical Indian literature as archers.
At 5 we had a James Bond moment at the Lake Palace Hotel, replete with tea and cakes. We were still dressed like slobs. Not only was I wearing jeans, I had forgotten to put my socks back on after a day of temple hopping. The fellow who had made the reservations was wearing shorts. I was sure that we were going to turned away or snubbed at best, but it's amazing what reservations can do, once the wheels are in motion. We were ferried across the water in a private boat, no questions asked, and treated to very attentive service. The whole tea came to a few dollars, which was worth the cost of the boat alone. As the sun was setting a contingent of bagpipers came out and played "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in the best Anglo-Indian tradition. I'm sure that it wasn't for me, but I appreciated the novelty nonetheless.
We had dinner at another waterside venue, this one being highly recommended by the guide book. It was tough enough to find that we worked up an appetite, walking through town and dodging Diwali firecrackers. Had I been traveling alone I might not have gone to such a place, and that's the advantage of traveling with a group. The food was tasty, and I had a very nice vegetable Jalfrezi. The disadvantage was that the food reminded me of the Indian food you get in London, down to the garlic naan which I didn't order but got anyway. This is also the disadvantage of tour books, which aim to please everyone. The water view was stunning, though; an authentic feature that would have been there whether there were tourists or not.$