17 Sep 2018 20:49 IST

A city, inside and outside

The infinite joy of taking a holiday in the city of lakes

A recent visit to Udaipur, the city of ‘lakks’ in the words of a longtime resident, was memorable for many reasons and was, on many counts, bitter and sweet. Best of all, though, was the sight of the verdant hills of the Aravalis that surround the city enjoying the final thrust of the monsoon season. Drive out in any direction and the fields and slopes are a symphony of green. The sad story of relentless environmental degradation that pervades the Indian landscape presents itself here as well, thanks to mindless mining and continuous construction activity, but the beauty that exists cannot be denied.

The Aravali mountains run some 700 km all the way from Delhi, through Haryana and Rajasthan to Gujarat, and are now under severe threat from human assault. Yet it is human hands that gave Udaipur its iconic look thanks to the interconnected lakes that were constructed — among them, Fateh Sagar, Pichola, Swaraoop Sagar, Rang Sagar and Doodh Talai — which help imbue the city with charm and shape its character. We went on a fabulous, rain-washed drive up to Ubeshwar just a little outside Udaipur, where there is a temple to Mahadev, a temple to Vaishno Devi a short climb up, cave and all, and a brilliant view of the Aravalis.

Dour Dinesh, who drove us on this 20-km exploration from our digs at Jaiwana Haveli in Lal Ghat near the Jagdish temple in the heart of old Udaipur, and whose unforgiving demeanour projected pretty fiercely upon the free and easy atmosphere as we set out, slowly and perceptibly loosened up as the cityscape sped past and the greenery took over. Slowly, he too began to feast his eyes on trees, little streams, misty clouds descending from the hills… When, in an attempt to break the ice, I asked him what he thought was the most special thing about the city, the Udaipur-born and brought up Dinesh said, “We are polite here in Udaipur. We speak softly and gently. Nobody will bite your head off, ever.”

He was right. Everywhere during our short stay, all the people we encountered or interacted with were gently disposed towards us and each other, with smiles never far from their faces. The places we visited also reflected this spirit. For instance, the biological park at Sajjangarh offers an aesthetic experience of the environment as well as the animals in its charge. There are many who oppose the idea of zoos, but setting aside judgments to simply be in the moment, you realise that this sanctuary is possibly among the best designed and maintained in India.

Yes, the animals are fenced in, but they have room to roam as well: the tiger, the lion, the Himalayan black bear which spontaneously demonstrated to us how it comes down slopes, butt first, the ostrich, the black buck, the leopard, and many others. Anil who guided us through the 36 ha zoo on a battery-powered golf cart clearly cared about his job. His favourite is a leopard, he feels a connection with this particular cat. He sat – Meru is the leopard’s name, I think – at the top of a wooden ramp, unmoving, unperturbed. Anil said he was still mourning the recent passing of his mate, Rani. “Rani was very famous,” Anil said. “People used to come especially to see her.”

The previous night, we went on a comfortable walk along the Fateh Sagar lake. Although there were many people walking, talking, contemplating, it was quiet, people were chilling. There was none of the hustle and bustle we’re used to, although it was quite crowded even late at night. At one end is a newly installed aquarium, small, but again, aesthetically laid out and easily accessible. Called ‘Under the Sun’, it’s large enough to showcase an amazing variety of aquatic life yet compact enough to explore without visitors getting cranky. That’s what makes it a learning space rather than a tourist space. For the touristy touch, you can stick your head in the middle of a whole lot of colourful fish and not get wet, or stick your fingers into water and have them nibble at your nails, and/or both!

After that, it was time for pav bhaji. Although it was late in the night, the open-air eating joint close to Sukhadia Circle was bursting at the seams with gourmands and the service from the eateries nestling cheek by jowl all along one side of rows and rows of tables appointed with coolers was prompt and presented with a smile.

When you’re in Udaipur, it’s natural to want to visit Nathdwara, some 50 km away. This little town is home to Srinathji, among the best-loved Krishna hotspots in India. But there was not enough time to squeeze that trip in. Then, suddenly, there was a brainwave: Why not say hello to Srinathji at Ghasiyar on the outskirts of Udaipur? That decided, Ghasiyar it was.

The story of Srinathji’s association with Ghasiyar goes like this: The deity worshipped at Nathdwara originally came from Jatipura in Mathura. All was well until the Scindias descended upon them and threatened to loot the temple unless they were paid off for their, well, greed. When the maharana of Udaipur heard of this, he immediately arranged to have the deity removed from Nathdwara to Udaipur until a new haveli was built for him in Ghasiyar, at the foot of the Gokunda mountains.

Once the threat from the Scindia army abated, Srinathji returned to Nathdwara and there he has remained. However, his picture and the memories of his sojourn permeate Ghasiyar and sweetly float among the hills and pastures surrounding. That’s why the gaushala at the temple is special. While up on the hills you see some laggardly cows continuing to graze, down below in the temple’s gaushala, those that have returned are herded indoors. Most are compliant and enter the cowshed with mild moos, but they leave behind a pretty heap of dung awash with urine! And there’s one number that simply refuses to heed the herder and quite literally turns its back on the gate!

It is twilight and the tinkling of bells mixes with the smell of dung and urine and you look around expecting the gopikas to put in an appearance. Krishna, of course, is there already. Listen, and you can hear the melodious call of his flute – almost.

Udaipur is among the better-known tourist destinations among the hundreds and thousands in India. There’s so much to see and feel – but be ready to climb steps and stones and slopes, whether in the havelis converted into charming hotels or among the hills. It is, like many destinations in India, a feast for worshippers and non-worshippers where you can escape the frenzy while yet feeling the fervour. For us, personally, it was a visit begun apprehensively that ended with sweet memories.

Doesn’t everybody need a holiday every now and then even if it is short, especially when there’s so much to see and it’s so easy to travel?