Big Shots: Ranakpur

Later on this week, MarkontheMap heads to the glitzy disco ball of India – Mumbai!

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Why Udaipur is the Most Romantic City in the East

Udaipur exudes a peacefulness that’s hard to find in India. The lavish palaces and cobblestone streets of this luxurious lakeside city offer visitors a tantalizing taste of the region’s glorious past.

Approaching town, Udaipur is like a mirage on the edge of the desert. It’s the richest kingdom of Rajasthan and feels it. Within the old city walls, the streets overflow with artisans, jewelers, and craftsmen.

One of the highlights of India’s growing upmarket tourism sector, Udaipur boasts world-class resorts and five-star culinary delights. It also boasts quiet lakefront guesthouses and casual rooftop restaurants.

In a country less known for its romantic getaways, Udaipur offers tranquil nights, splendid strolls, and an exotic seduction that’s hard to resist.

Gypsy Music

Rajasthani folk music is some of the most haunting, romantic, and heart-wrenching music on the planet. It’s believed that gypsy music has its origins in Rajasthan, India. While little is known about the culture that generated the Gypsies, linguists and historians believe that the Gypsies were originally from North Central India and began their great migration around 300 BC. It’s said that the Gypsies entered southeastern Europe in the end of the 13th century. Because they were assumed to be from Egypt, Europeans began calling them “Gyptians” and then simply “Gypsies.” The Gypsy tradition is very much alive and well in Rajasthan and it’s not uncommon for a musician to sit down next to you on the street and begin playing the Sarangi.

Art 

The Maru-Gurjar painting style of Rajasthan began in the 5th century and, under royal patronage, various forms developed. Arts in Rajasthan reached their pinnacle between the 15th and 17th centuries. The major style practiced in Udaipur today is miniature painting, which captures in small scale much of what makes the place so harsh and enchanting. If you want to have a mural painted on your fingernails or your name on a piece of rice, there is, perhaps, nowhere better on earth than Udaipur. Traditionally, miniature artists use paint that’s made naturally, mixed from minerals and vegetables found in the area – ochre for red, coal for black, aventurine for green. The style of paintings found in Rajasthan, miniature or otherwise, are typical of what many Westerners imagine when they think of Indian art.

Theater

Drawing upon the rich culture of Rajasthani art, music, and dance, performance is a big part of the culture in Rajasthan. Today, actors and dancers no longer perform for royal audiences, but share their talents for all to see. Many like the Bopa and Kalbellya Gypsies were born into the craft and carry on a longstanding family tradition of dancing with fire, handling marionettes, and twirling around while balancing an unthinkable amount of bowls on their heads.

A Storied History

Formerly known as Mewar, Udaipur was founded in 1559 when Maharaja Udia Singh I took flight from the final sacking of the fort at Chittor by the notorious Mughal emperor Akbar. As Udai Singh and his followers resisted Muslim might, the city grew a reputation for patriotism and independence. The city has a proud heritage and boasts the longest lineage of any modern ruler. A walk through the streets of Udaipur reveals a myriad of ways to explore the fabled history.

Lakefront Setting

Known as the “Venice of the East,” Udaipur encircles the blue waters of Lake Pichola. The lake reflects the delicate marble architecture of the buildings above, which themselves sit below one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, the Aravelli Hills. Within the lake are two palace-covered islands, Jag Niwas and Jag Mandir. Lake Pichola, which is thrillingly out of place in this desert landscape, was artificially created in 1362. It’s now one of several contiguous lakes developed over the past few centuries in and around Udaipur, each of which make lovely backdrops for a sunset stroll.

Edge of the Desert

While downtown Udaipur boasts elegant shops and riverside cafes, just five miles outside of the city you’ll find untouched wilderness in the Aravalli Hills. Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary, which surrounds the Monsoon Palace overlooking Udaipur City, provides jaw-dropping views of town and a chance to see panthers, sambars, blue bulls, hyenas and a variety of birds and reptiles. Head a little further north and you can go on a safari through the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Head south, and you can laze away along the world famous Jaisamand Lake in Jaisamand Wildlife Sanctuary. A brush with the wild is never far away in Udaipur.

Architectural Marvels

Not only is Udaipur home to India’s second largest palace, City Palace, but it boasts the oft-photographed Lake Palace and the luxurious Fateh Prakash Palace. Scattered about the town, you can also find the dazzling Hivalis (mansions) of the noble elite. Because of a marble quarry nearby, much of Udaipur is built like a fairytale city; the white glistens under the desert’s spitting sun, dancing from roof to roof around the sky blue lake.

Yoga

Going to India and not doing yoga is like going to Italy and not trying the pasta. Whether you’re a novice or a master, start each day off right with some of the best Yoga instructors in India. A great studio is never far away and you’ll find classes from sun up to sun down. From the roof of a palace, to the edge of the lake, there’s no better place on Earth to stretch, relax, and salute the sun!

Rajasthani Food

Rajasthan is a land of sweets and spices – and you may need the sweet to cool off your mouth after the spice. Sweets are never called desserts in Rajasthan because they’re had before, after and during the meal. The streets of Udaipur are full of small sweet shops selling fudge-like treats. The spice content of Rajasthani meals is even hotter than that of other Indian regions. Luckily, it’s slightly cooled down by the cooking method. Because Rajasthan is a desert region, there’s a scarcity of water. Therefore, most dishes are cooked with milk, buttermilk, and butter. Even better than the food is the setting in which you eat it. The skyline of Udaipur is capped with numerous rooftop restaurants offering stunning views of the lakeside city below.

James Bond was Here

You know a city is sexy if it was prominently featured in a James Bond film – especially if that film was one with a name like “Octopussy.” Don’t think this fact is lost on the locals. You’re guaranteed to see “Octopussy” projected onto the walls of at least one rooftop restaurant you visit. Watching the film, you soon realize that not much has changed in Udaipur in the last thirty years. This place is truly timeless!

The Forts of Rajasthan

The Maharajas once ruled Rajasthan with bejeweled fists from the security of their imposing forts. The passionate monarchs had an affinity for all things exquisite and the splendor and extravagance of these erstwhile rulers lives on in the forts of this fabled land.

The castles of Europe have nothing on the forts of Rajasthan. If you’re after truly massive structures with enough opulence to please the king and queen of any country, Rajasthan is the spot.

Built of burnished sandstone and marble, these architectural marvels contain intricate carvings, elegant facades, majestic domes, and elaborate balconies.

The great Rajput rulers of Rajasthan fought off the Arabs, Turks, and, most notably, the great warriors of the Mughal Empire. It was not until the British came in and offered their protection that the maharajas slowly lost their power.

When the leaders struck deals with the rulers of the British East India Company, the maharajas were reduced to puppet rulers. Rajasthan soon became a part of the newly independent India in 1948 when the “desert kingdoms” were incorporated.

The role of the Maharaja continued its slow fade until the title itself was officially squashed in 1971 when royal entitlements were abolished along with privy purses through a constitutional amendment.

Today, the erstwhile Maharajas are considered political, cultural, and religious icons in modern Rajasthan. They play the role of philanthropist, conservationist, and keeper of traditions.

Here’s a look at three of the Maharajas’ great forts of Rajasthan:

Jodhpur

The muscular fort at Jodhpur is a beautiful beacon on the flat landscape. The formidable walls grow organically out of its rocky perch. From the top, the view over the city of Brahmin-blue buildings is striking. The decadence of Jodhpur’s fort is unmatched. Behind Mehrangarh’s seven gates is a terra-cotta-colored palace complex dotted with elegant courtyards and lined with intricate carvings. The 15th century fort is truly the most impressive example of Rajput grandeur in Rajasthan and the theatrical, award-winning audio tour may be one of the best on the planet.

Jaisalmer

A lighthouse on the edge of the desert, 99 colossal bastions encircle the still-inhabited streets of this massive fort. Within the fort walls are seven meticulously carved Jain temples dating from the 12th to 16th centuries. There are also several lavish Havelis and the elegant seven-storey Maharaja’s Palace. Sadly, the fort at Jaisalmer is an example of what can happen with unchecked development. Unlike Rajasthan’s other historical monuments, the narrow alleyways of the fort now house numerous gift shops, restaurants, and guesthouses. Overcrowding and poor drainage have seen the fort sinking into Trikuta hill.

Kumbalgarh

Nestled 1100 meters skyward in the Aravalli Hills, this 15th century fort is perhaps the least visited of the forts of Rajasthan – and that’s a shame. Kumbalgarh was the most important Mewar fort after Chittor. Kumbalgarh was only taken once in history and it took the combined forces of Mughal emperor Akbar and of Amber and Marwar to breach its defenses. Even then, they only managed to hold onto the fort for two days. Understandably, rulers would retreat within the massive stone fort in times of danger. It is a testament to the romantic expectations of Rajput grandeur. The massive fort walls stretch some 36 kilometers and enclose roughly 360 temples, palaces, gardens, and bunkers.