The royal caretaker
Roop Singh is an old man. He has a bright smile and a quick sense of humour. His 81 years are evident as he guides us around the Bara Mahal (the old hunting lodge of the Maharana of Udaipur), his walking stick echoing as he leads us to what used to serve as the Maharana's bedroom. All that remains is a miniature panorama — palaces, lodges, rivers, animals, trees and plantations — that covers the four walls from ceiling to floor. Singh points out to the tigers in the picture. "Now, there's only one tiger left," he says, his handlebar moustache bristling. "Me".
They call it the Lake City, Udaipur. On my three-day visit, ensconced in the opulent lap of Oberoi's Udaivilas on the banks of Lake Pichola, Singh serves as a touching reminder of an illustrious past.
In the lap of luxury
From the first floor of the Bara Mahal, the caretaker of the lodge points to where the royal family now lives. "All the royal land has been given to big resorts," he says, his gesture encompassing every resort visible from Lake Pichola. Udaipur was once the capital of the erstwhile Mewar kingdom. Today, it is a city of resorts.
It's easy to get swept up in this luxury. How can you not feel like royalty when your every need is attended to: a chauffeur picks us up at the airport in a BMW, the housekeeping staff in the morning is different from the people attending to our room in the evening, one person takes us on a tour of the grounds, a different one brings us the breakfast scroll and yet another brings us breakfast.
By contrast, Singh spends most of his day in the Bara Mahal, with only peacocks, deer and wild boar from the hotel's conservatory for company. Occasionally, he receives visitors, those who find time to tear themselves away from their private pools and hammocks to indulge in a bit of sightseeing. The 81-year-old caretaker has also been a tourist guide for over 40 years. He's always smiling, even when talking about the past, a time when the hunting lodge was actually used during shikar. Singh conspiratorially tells us a story from the past, one I suspect he has told many times before: During the freedom struggle, the then Maharana of Udaipur vowed not to eat from his sone ki thali till India gained independence. Post August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru personally offered him food on a golden plate. The touching gesture had political undertones. Nehru wanted the state of Mewar, and the Maharana signed it away to the government of India.
And the other city
On Singh's advice, we visit parts of the city that he promises will not be bustling with tourists. One of these is the Hathipole market. Here, row upon row of shops sell everything — from scarves, silver jewellery, footwear and bandhani to fresh fruit juices, sweets and pickles. It's a smorgasbord of colour and smells — and history.
Hidden in one of these lanes are Udaipur's brass bands. Jaipur and Udaipur are popular wedding destinations and Hathipole has an entire street dedicated to all things wedding-related — cards, lights, jewellery, clothes and music. The bands' vehicles are painted in vibrant colours and look like Carnival floats. In stark contrast are the instruments, many of them old and dull but still in use. The older band members are hesitant to talk, the younger ones are eager. They tell us tales of how band members get together at old godowns to practise and how their song selection depends on popular Bollywood 'item numbers'.
These non-touristy streets also reveal a little about the people of Udaipur. They love their scooters here. Everywhere we turn, we find a Bajaj scooter, in different stages of ruin but still in use. One shop owner's Vespa occupies pride of place in his empty shop. Rajasthan is known for being colourful and vibrant, and this is reflected in the clothes, footwear, jewellery and on the walls of Udaipur. Graffiti on the walls here takes the form of wall paintings, of kings and queens, of royal subjects, of gods and goddesses, and of hunting expeditions of yore.
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