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Posts Tagged ‘Udaipur’

Ranakpur

I have seen some pretty unbelievable man-made structures in my life. Versailles. Ankor Wat. The Hagia Sophia. The Chrysler Building. So I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised by human ingenuity and skill. But it still would never have occurred to me that you could make an entire giant structure – inside and out- out of marble.

Wide interior view of Ranakpur

But that is Ranakpur a Jain temple about two hours drive outside of Udaipur. And it is a work of art, a true example of man’s devotion to his god (or gods).

For a bit of context, its important to note that (according to our guide the day before) 95% of the marble in India comes from the environs of Udaipur. It explains why the Lake Palace and the City Palace are adorned throughout with beautiful white marble. But they have nothing on. Ranikpur.

One of the many, many marble sellers outside Udaipur

Just the drive is worth taking- you drive out of the city of lakes, drive past dozens and dozens of marble dealers (your first clue of what’s to come), and into a mountainous world that seems like a cross between the Scottish Highlands and Lord of the Rings. Rajasthan in the monsoon is very different to the desert most people associate with the region- it is a lush grouping of craggy mountains with monkeys and goat herders co-existing with the cars and motorbikes making their way along a road reminiscent of Amalfi’s perilous drives.

When you pull up to Ranakpur’s main temple you start to get the sense you’re seeing something unique. Every piece of the structure is marble- the steps you climb, the wall you lean against, the ceiling you walk under. And when you finally step into the entranceway you are greeted by an imposing labyrinth of a space, with 1,444 pillars holding it up- all are intricately carved top to bottom and no one pillar has the same design.

One of the ceiling designs in Ranakpur

The temple dates back to the 15th century and the same group of families have looked after it since that time. Our guide’s entire family had devoted their lives to its upkeep- he spent every morning cleaning and ‘feeding’ the temple with a bath of milk. Tourists are allowed to visit between noon and five every day, although certain areas are off limits to non-Jains.

A close of some of Ranakpur's columns

For those unfamiliar, Jainism is a religion focused primarily on non-violence. It has been explained to me as a cross between Hinduism and Buddhism (pardon the complete oversimplification). A Jain friend of mine and I joke that the Jains are like the Jews- small in number, powerful in business, but very focused on family and education. And like the Jews who often give significant contributions to Jewish causes, so have the Jains, across the centuries, donated funding for some extraordinary temples.

Everywhere you look in Ranakpur you see some new intricate design- on walls, on pillars, on statues and most especially on the ceiling. Some of the designs are so finely carved that they appear translucent.

Carving of a snake made from a single stone

When you walk out you’re supposed to look up and make a wish on one of the more staggering ceiling designs. Our guide insisted that there is a 100% success rate here. Perhaps that belief comes from 600 years of wishing to maintain the beauty if the temple. That wish certainly has stayed true.

Another interior view

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“Excuse me sir… sir… SIR!”

The car swerved out of the way, just narrowly missing a group of cows lying casually in the middle of the highway. The driver looked back at me in his rearview mirror as though I was completely insane for being perturbed at his proximity to the animals. This was just everyday life here – cows lie with abandon and drivers go around them at the last moment possible. This was Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Daniel had suggested we do something to get out of Bombay and relax while it was still the low season throughout India. He had found a great monsoon deal at the Lake Palace, which is one of the most famous and unique hotels in India- he had rightfully convinced me that despite still having a bit of jetlag, it would be worth the trip.

India for me had only been Maharastra (the state where Mumbai is located). It was Mumbai and a bit of its environs. I was curious to see my new adopted country in a different light (For a sense of the streets of Udaipur, I’ve attached this video of my ride in a rickshaw, below).


And Rajasthan brings to light the classic India that many imagine. The cow element was something I had come to believe was a myth – while Mumbai has cows tethered to the side of the road I had certainly never experienced the famed cows wandering through the streets. Here it is inescapable – on the side of the road, in the road, crossing paths with trucks and motorbikes, cows just stare at the people who regard them with such awe and piety.

Lake Palace entrance (from a boat)

But beyond that curious Indian stereotype, Udaipur itself is a dream. It is said to be one of the most romantic cities in the world and it’s easy to see why. It’s as though Venice and India from the Raj times collided to create a city on water surrounded by hills and beautiful architecture.

And the Lake Palace is the epicenter – built in the early 18th century for Rajasthan’s King (the Maharana), it is only accessible by boat and once inside it is breathtakingly beautiful. Ceilings and columns with glass mosaics lead down to marble floors. A lily pond and views of the lake come at you from every direction. It is a true testament to the beauty of Indian design and skill.

We spent today wandering the city and its sights. The most notable is the Maharana’s other home – The City Palace. In present times the Royal Family rents out the Lake Palace to the Taj Hotel Chain and they have turned the majority of their City Palace into a museum. They still live in one (very, very large) section of the palace. They have also turned another lake structure, Jagmandir, into a place for dinners and weddings. It must be good to be Rajasthani royalty.

Jagmandir lit up at night

In the City Palace

The City Palace is also incredible – Indian marble columns are intricately carved and walls are inlaid with Venetian glass mosaics or Chinese tiles, all from the 18th century. The Palace is so large it was completed over 400 years, beginning in the 16th century and only completed in the 20th century. Elephant fights used to take place in the courtyards, and this practice was only discontinued in the 1950’s.

Lake Palace courtyard

Being in Udaipur is like getting to experience another world in another time. Unlike Mumbai, which is struggling to keep pace and prove its modernity, Udaipur seems to be happily frozen in its glory days (and profiting handsomely from them). It is romantic and tranquil and calming, as though each moment we’ve sat on the boat coming out to our hotel on a lake is something you can capture in time.

This feeling, of course, is a far cry from the moment of terror where we almost hit the cow. It’s almost incongruous. But maybe it all fits – while we were rushing to enter the city perhaps the cow was laying there thinking, “slow down, relax, take in the sights. No one will hit you. Just enjoy Udaipur.”
And we will take that advice – after all, we’re not leaving ‘till Tuesday!

Daniel and Ali with the Lake Palace behind

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