4th May 2004
TRAVELS WITH MY CAMERA /ANU MALHOTRA
IN THE HEARTLAND OF RAJPUT VALOUR
“If you want to live like the Maharajas for a few days, then this is the train journey of you,” says the presenter of our television serial to the camera standing in front of the gleaming steam engine. The Delhi Cantonment railway station is abuzz with hawkers as the garlanded passengers board the Royal Orient for an eight day journey in the lap of luxury.
We have a bogey of four compartments and a salon to ourselves for the duration of our filming stint. A valet wearing a smart achkan and an orange turban shows me to my room. “This is spiffy,” I think, looking at the beautiful interiors- two upholstered beds, a dressing table and old-fashioned lamps.
Suddenly the train lets off a shrill hoot, the guard waves a green flag and the engine begins to chug. I stand by the open door of the saloon; grip the door rails and lean out to let the cool air brush the city cobwebs off my mind. It’s exhilarating! Soon, the city gives way to mustard fields glowing in the setting sun and idyllic pastoral views glide by. The valet serves us masala chai and pakodas in the salon; which is upholstered in electric blue velvet and comes with paintings, lamps and even a TV set. The train whistles its approval.
Dinner is served in a formal dining room by liveried waiters in white gloves and the menu is extensive. Afterwards, I chat with a foreign passenger in the bar over a glass of wine and he exclaims, “What a wonderful way to experience India!” Exactly my thoughts as I sink into deep slumber; lulled by the swaying motion of the train.
Bed tea, madam! We’ll be in Chittorgrah in half-an-hr.” soon, after a hot shower, I’m ready for the City of Valour. Pink streaks light up a desert dawn, as our luxury coach bring us to the massive seventh century fort of Chittor. We walk through ruins that tell tales of romance and Rajput chivalry. Thrice in its log history, Chittor was sacked by a stronger enemy, and on each occasion, jauhar was declared. The men donned the saffron robes of martyrdom and rode to certain death, and the women dressed in all their finery immolated themselves in huge funeral pyres along with their children.
The stones glowing in the early morning sun have many stories to tell. At Meerabai’s temple, our presenter says, “If you listen closely enough, you may hear her soulful songs dedicated to Lord Krishna.” The guide takes us to Rani Padmini’s Palace, built beside a large pool with a pavilion in the centre. He relates the legend: “As Padmini sat in this pavilion, Ala-ud-din Khilji was permitted to see her reflection in a mirror. Just a glimpse was enough to fill him with the urge to destroy Chittor in order to possess her. As many as 13,000 women led by Padmini committed jauhar, rather than suffer humiliation at the hands of Ala-ud-din.” The preservation of honour was more important than death.
After this emotional whirlwind tour, we are back in the train in time for a sumptuous breakfast. There’s a puppet show on in the lounge, accompanied by Rajasthani music. Soon, we steam into Udaipur, which was founded by Udai Singh II, who moved here when Chittor finally fell to the Mughals in the 16th century.
I step off the coach and the panorama of this lovely city makes me gasp with joy-the beautiful Pichola Lake surrounded by low-lying hills, dominated by awe-inspiring palaces, with ghats and the city spread on one side and the white palace floating in the centre: it’s a visual treat!
The blue water laps the side of the boat as it lazily glides past whitewashed ghats spread over with colourful lengths of cloth. We sail around the 18th
-century Jag Niwas Palace, formerly the royal summer residence, which today is the famous Lake Palace Hotel. The view across the lake, especially of the imposing City Palace moulded in soft yellow stone, is glorious.
With its ornate turrets, canopies and 11 mahals, constructed by successive Maharanas in the 300 years that followed the foundation of Udaipur in the 16th
century, the City Palace is the largest royal complex in Rajasthan. The present Maharana, Shriji Arvind Singh, still observes many traditional and ceremonial rituals. His birthday celebrations and the festivals of Dussehra and Gangaur are the highlights of Udaipur’s social calendar.
As we film from one of the upper terraces, I see the sun going down behind the hills, setting the waters of the lake ablaze with golden radiance. The Lake Palace glows serenely. From the gilded city surrounding it, I hear the clamour of this day and age, but from the walls around me emanate faint echoes of the past- of bejeweled maharajas and lavish durbars; the singing of women and the thunder of hooves; of men of honour and women of grace.
TRAVEL TIPS YOU CAN’T DO WITHOUT
- The Royal Orient, operated by Gujarat Tourism, offers luxury tours of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The route has recently been altered. For more information, contact Gujarat Tourism (dial:23744015) or log on to www.gujarattourism.com
- Udaipur is accessible by road, rail and air from all major cities. Chittorgarh, situated 115 km to the north-east of Udaipur, is accessible by rail and road.
- Udaipur has hundreds of palaces to stay, from simple lodges to extravagant palaces.
- The old city makes for an interesting ramble. Also visit Fateh Sagar, another lake, and Shilpgram, the rural arts and crafts centre.
- For more information, contact the Government of Rajasthan Tourist Office, Bikaner House, India Gate, Delhi-110003. Dial: 23386069, 23383837.
- If you need more details, send an e-mail to our columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org