The Jain temple at Ranakpur | Uadipur, the City of Lakes

By Molly McCahan
It’s difficult to tear ourselves away from the sincere hospitality of the Bishnoi, but we have much more ground to cover in Rajasthan, including one of the more unique towns on our itinerary, Udaipur. India’s like that. So alluring. So fascinating. It’s hard to end one experience, despite knowing full well that it won’t be too long before another curiosity is bound to capture your attention.
We rejoin Vinder back at the hotel in Rohet, and thank our guide generously for a great morning out in the desert. There’s a silent understanding about the opium encounter, and we exchange big smiles. Feeling a little giddy, we head back toward the highway for Ranakpur, a small village on the road between Jodhpur and Udaipur. It’s renown for its impressive Jain temple dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries.

The grounds here are nicely landscaped in most places, with vibrant green trees dotting the complex. In addition to the massive white marble sanctuary, there’s also a smaller and much older Sun Temple to visit. Ranakpur’s intricately carved pillars are the star attraction here. Supposedly no two are alike, and with close to 1,500 of them, we’ve got a lot of ogling to do. We leave our shoes out front, as is customary, and enter the space in anticipation.

The marble feels deliciously cool on our feet. We wander around for close to an hour, admiring the jaw-dropping carvings and statuary, and relishing the best gift of all in this country: silence. It’s not uncommon in Indian places of worship to hear cell phones ringing, men conducting business, and women playing with their children. Hardly what we’d expect in a sacred space. But Ranakpur seems to have a calming effect on even the locals, which is testament to its true power and grace. There’s something special about the place.

We continue on toward Udaipur, reaching the gorgeous City of Lakes in the late afternoon. Lake Pichola sparkles in the distance, an odd sight to see in the desert. It’s manmade, dating back to the latter half of the 14th century. Coupled with a few other lakes in the vicinity, this water is what makes Udaipur most unique among its neighboring attractions in Rajasthan.

We have three nights here and plenty to see. Our hotel on the outskirts of town is nice enough, but overpriced in our opinion, and full of Indian tourists. In most establishments we like immersing ourselves with the locals, but we’ve learned during our travels here that hotels aren’t one of them. Indians have an odd fondness for leaving their room doors open, letting their children run amok in the hallways late into the night, and basically wreaking havoc on we Westerners, who value our privacy, and more important, our sleep.

That said, Indians are an extremely welcoming bunch, with an intense curiosity about us. It’s hard to be annoyed when you have a table full of jolly locals asking you questions, inviting you to try their food, and in general, just being downright happy to see you. We enjoy a lively dinner in the hotel dining room, and wake up the next morning fairly refreshed.

Our first stop is the City Palace, the jewel in Udaipur’s crown. It was originally constructed by the Mewar king Maharana Udai Singh in the mid-16th century. Subsequent rulers have added on to the building, reportedly making it the largest palace complex in all of Rajasthan. After four hours here, we concur. The museum houses a number of notable paintings and artifacts; the ornamental tiles, mosaics, and mirror work are particularly captivating.

We stop for a quick lunch in town, then head out to the other side of the lake to explore Sajjangarh, the Monsoon Palace. Situated at the top of a hill, the palace is virtually abandoned and crumbling, but the views it affords are stunning. Udaipur and Lake Pichola shine in the distance. In the opposite direction, sublime vistas of a rocky, barren landscape remind us of Rajasthan’s remoteness.

On day two, other destinations here draw us in for a while, but nothing quite holds our attention after the impressive locations from yesterday. We visit the ancient temples at Eklingji and Nagda outside town but opt to skip the tour of Shilpgram, an ethnic village devoted to Rajasthani crafts. The latter sounds a bit too touristy for our liking, and quite frankly, we’re a little worn out.
Heading into day 11 in Rajasthan, we feel it. Despite having the luxury of a car and driver, it’s still long, tough traveling at times. We’re grateful when we can take a break from the action. Returning back to town, we wander through an interesting city park to take refuge with the locals. We hop on a small train that circles the gardens here, smiling with childish delight. These simple moments keep us refreshed and energized.

That night we remember it’s Christmas Eve. Despite not being Christians, we’re still nostalgic, perhaps plagued by a touch of homesickness. We have, after all, been gone for nearly nine months. We head out in search of a special dinner and discover a delightful little neighborhood tucked away from the action, perched right on the lake for spectacular sunset views.

Climbing the long stairway of an unassuming guesthouse, we’re blown away as we arrive on the rooftop restaurant terrace just as the sun disappears, and Udaipur comes alive with light. The city is literally glowing. It’s enchanting. We’re spellbound. We plop down in comfy wicker chairs and order two beers.
I could care less that I'm missing my mom’s succulent roast turkey and fresh-baked pies back in the States. Chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, and gulab jamun prove to be tasty substitutes as we settle in to enjoy a magical holiday evening under the stars, Udaipur-style.

For more info: Rajasthan is at its most pleasant from about mid-October through mid-March. December-February are quite popular, although booking ahead probably isn’t necessary unless you’re attending the Pushkar Camel Fair. Rajasthan isn’t short on tour operators offering packages and excursions; choose wisely. Consider a visit to the Indian government’s official Rajasthan Tourism site; you’ll find plenty of great reasons why they’ve chosen “The Incredible State of India” as their tagline.

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