9 day trip

Rajasthan : Of wild life and tips for your own adventure

A train for 2-3 hours from Jaipur and we were supposed to reach Sawai Madhopur well in time for dinner. However, considering all our trains were on time till now, chance had to catch up and this was significantly delayed- so we had to make do with oranges, biscuits, and some really bad chilly bajjis from the railway station eateries for dinner.  Once in Sawai Madhopur, we were just glad to crash to sleep barely registering that we were finally at the home of the Ranthambore National Park, the Bengal tiger reserve.

However, we were aware we had to wake up early the next morning for the safari. In the chilly morning, our hotel caretaker was sweet enough to stay up with us as we scanned every passing safari truck in semi-panic since the person we’d booked from wasn’t reachable to confirm we’d be picked up!

After quite a wait, we finally got to our truck and after picking folks from a few more hotels, reached the Ranthambore National Park. IMG_7018While one can always cross ones’ fingers to see a tiger when in Ranathambore or any other Tiger Sanctuary. However, in my opinion, it ruins the experience if you don’t enjoy all the other creatures around that, thanks to human overpopulation and general nastiness ,are seen less and less frequently today. IMG_7069So we enjoyed each one- the graceful deer running across the dry overgrowth, the peacock gang assembly, the langurs making warning calls to each other of the tiger in the distance, the interesting looking nilgai and a very fluffy eagle.IMG_7032IMG_7041IMG_7059

Back from the bone-chilling cold of the open truck we were grateful for hot alu parathas for breakfast before we managed a short nap and rushed to the train at noon back to Jaipur. We left out luggage in the railway station’s cloak room and tried to hire a bike. A delay by the time the rental guy arrived, then further delay since the bike ran out of fuel just as we were far away from the rental space and the with fuel that dried up just as the rental guy left the place and we trudged along with the bike to the not-so-near fuel pump and refuelling finally got to Bapu Bazaar for our last bit of quick souvenir shopping for those at home and a street food dinner. IMG_7075We then got back to the station for our luggage and made our way to a hotel closer to the airport so we could take our flight back to our home, and the weather that had spoilt us silly- back in good old Bangalore.

Here are our tips for your own adventure in Rajasthan:

  • Rajasthan is vast and has scores of tourist places. Prioritise how you’d like to spend your time based on your interests of you’ll end up rushing from one place to another anxious about missing out.
  • December end is horrible in terms of tourist crowds and expensive(in terms of stay and of course flights). We landed there then since we had an event to attend that brought us to Rajasthan anyway. It is also very cold at night – check the weather and dress/pack accordingly.
  • Tourist season in Rajasthan is relatively short due to the extreme weather. Though winter can get severely cold , summer is unbearable- in the words of a car driver in the Sand dunes – the searing hot, oppressive winds will not allow for you to even open your eyelids- so take care before jumping at the incredible deals then.
  • Food is primarily vegetarian in most places we landed up in Rajasthan. You may have other options in larger cities/more upscale hotels but I wouldn’t count on it. If you have a sweet tooth however, it more than makes up- the sweets are amazing -, especially milk-sweets. This is your place to indulge.
  • Hire a bike Vs a car if you’d like to spend more time exploring “old cities” in Rajasthan. The streets are very narrow and even the rickshaws in those parts are made extra narrow to be able to navigate through them. Rickshaws/taxis are however were quite expensive on an average- it maybe since we were there in December too- but budget accordingly. They, however, do not need to be booked in advance/online.
  • Plan your commute between cities with care even if you’re on a relatively spontaneous trip- inter-city taxis are very expensive in some places because there are simply no public transport options like trains/buses.
  • A rule that applies to all travel but especially here- carry drinking water everywhere, cover your head with a cap to avoid heating up during the day and wear good walking footwear- the palaces and forts are very expansive.
  • Wrt shopping, be aware of rough prices if possible, alternately decide what you’d like to pay – like any place highly dependent on tourism prices vary based on where you come from, how you speak, how you’re dressed and what you look like.

All the tips and stories aside, we hope you get to make your own memories of Rajasthan and share them with us too!

 

9 day trip

Jaisalmer and Jaipur- Of sandy sunsets and unsung saviors

After return to our stay,  we hopped on to the car ride we’d booked shared with a tourist from China, one from Australia, a senior couple from Calcutta. An hour later we dropped off only to ride camels to finally get to the Sand dunes.

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Once there, we alternately walked around and sat awhile in the sand, well-aware of how scary the beautiful landscape could get in the summer or even for someone by themselves unfamiliar with the vagaries of the desert. IMG_9514One of the most memorable parts of our experience while waiting for the sunset- was sharing segments of oranges between the couple, the driver and us, sitting on the sand, chatting about life, weather, food just watching the endless expanse of the desert. IMG_6581

After the sunset, we were taken to a resort and treated to a cultural music and dance performance and a meal. This seems like a popular option in any of the sand dune tourist “packages” offered in Jaisalmer. The highlight of the evening, however, was just making our way back to the jeep and looking up for a second, only to see the more dramatic celestial performance of the millions of stars clearly piercing the pitch darkness of the sky. IMG_6656

Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend more time there since we had to catch the midnight train to Jaipur. However, a good night’s rest was not to be. We were rudely jostled awake before 5 in the morning by well-behaved toddlers and the most inconsiderate adults who plonked a group of 7 in seats booked for 4. Luckily every journey has to end and after sharing our breakfast of trusty theplas with the kids we reached Jaipur just after noon.

Exhausted from the lack of sleep on the train we decided to spend the afternoon at our comfortable hostel with a nap to catch up on rest. It was early evening when we decided to ride to Jal Mahal after picking up our bike passing by the unmistakable Hawa Mahal beautifully lit up. IMG_6688

By the time we got to Jal Mahal, it was dusk and parking was disallowed at that time so we decided to return the next day instead. On the way back, stopped at a very crowded “MM Khan hotel” which is a restaurant that seemed a local favourite from people of all social and economic classes. Despite having their hands full both literally and figuratively, the staff were attentive and kind and the food was cheap and undeniably delectable for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.

The next morning, now well-rested, we made our way to the Amer Fort. We first stopped at the majestic Shree Narsingh Devji Mandir just because we saw it on our way. A quick exploration of the temple and we made our way to the Fort. IMG_6717

As we got there, we realized it’d be yet another place packed with crowds even as we snaked our way to the parking space. We were also grateful we were on a bike since the cars were struggling a whole lot more.

Despite the hefty entry fees for the Amer Fort, and its vastness, we were perhaps saturated with architecture that alternately reminded us of our relatively recent trips to Gujarat and Turkey plus the crowds got on our nerves after a while and we decided to make our way out.IMG_6787

We picked a few snacks on our way back for ourselves and made our way a second time around to Jal Mahal.IMG_6963

We stumbled upon a nook around the lake that seemed to be a favourite of the birds and settled into watching them and the little kittens around.There happened to be 2 tribal ladies selling something while seated on the parapet. One of them angrily chided a young man who tried to litter plastic into the lakeshore.IMG_6893

Seeing the kittens hungry, since we had nothing but the snacks we had bought, we fed it to them and their very wild and suspicious mother. The tribal woman exclaimed at how kind it was, chiding the previous couple seated there who refused to share their food despite the pitiful wails of the kittens. She very wisely said “Children are children whether they are human/animals…how can one ever not help them when they whimper”.  While she smoked a bidi and most likely had no formal education, she was the most discerning and enlightened person we’d met in a while.

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I asked her consent and embraced her only to have her elderly friend also insisting on a hug. They profusely blessed both of us and insisted we come again and see them though I don’t think they could get an idea of how far we lived when we tried to explain we were from Bangalore. True human connection is a rare find and we really hope to get an opportunity to meet them again. Meanwhile, if you see the 2 tribal ladies by the side of Jal Mahal do give them our love.

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9 day trip

Jaisalmer : Of getting lost in the desert and finding our way to food!

A very kind auto driver had been arranged by our Airbnb host to pick us up from the Railway station at an ungodly hour. Even as we dragged our luggage across the alleys of Jaisalmer in the dark, I knew it’d be my favourite of the places in Rajasthan and I was right.

A quick nap and we were ready to start our day with breakfast at our stay itself.

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This, was effortlessly our view from our stay.

In the morning light, the old city of Jaisalmer woo-ed us some more and we couldn’t help grinning at the sheer beauty of every structure around us- the intricate craftsmanship in the uniformly brown buildings lent themselves to being admired endlessly.IMG_5702

We ordered breakfast as per the host’s recommendation and gobbled up our 2 plates of delicious Dal Pakwan with some tea- it was our favourite dish of the trip. It was also Christmas and it received one vote from us to be part of Christmas meals going forward.IMG_9416

Reaching Jaisalmer at midnight seemed to set just the right mood to visit the ghost town of Kuldhara. We hadn’t learnt our lesson with maps yet and were yet again lost – this time in the desert!IMG_5736

It would have made for a fun horror story of its own. However, it was also hauntingly beautiful and the barren landscape had its own kind of magic. We happened upon a herd of wild camel and deer which was somehow a surreal experience when by ourselves in an unfamiliar landscape looking on in awe at these creatures unshackled from human need.

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Thanks to Anand’s skills of retracing routes being better than mine, we finally made it to the dusty site of Kuldhara. It’s often referred to as a ghost city or a haunted town due to the intrigue around why people from an entire village deserted it seemingly overnight. The reasons theorized are

  • An earthquake leading to panic/destruction of property
  • Unreasonably severe taxation by a minister and his cruelty to the villagers
  • Water just drying up causing the inhabitants to move away- this we heard from a guide in Gujarat still happens to this day.
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The mystery around the town comes from the fact that there are said to be “hauntings” and ghost sightings when anyone ever tried to inhabit the place again. However, currently, it’s only afflicted by the influx of tourists wandering around the place hoping for one of the ghosts to flit by.

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The deserted town of Kuldhara

We ambled around the ruins imagining the lives and times of the village people who once had their homes there and how hard it must have been for them to leave it all behind and disappear/move to another place- depending on the version you’d want to believe.

By now the desert heat and time we’d spent getting lost, led us to be ravenous, and the one icecream we each had in Kuldhara wasn’t enough any more. In the very first restaurant we saw along with rotis we ordered ker sangri which sounded unique to us and we quite enjoyed the exotic looking vegetable. The hotel staff on my request enthusiastically even showed us the “raw” vegetable and explained its pre-processing and cooking. Later on the trip, we even picked a bottle of ker sangri pickle for ourselves on our way back from Rajasthan.IMG_9447

Just after the meal we then promptly ran out of fuel. Thanks to some support by an auto-rickshaw driver pushing our bike with his foot as he drove by its side, we made it to the nearby fuel pump. We then made our way to Bada Bagh(big garden) which I think is a strange name to give to a group of cenotaphs from the 16th century.

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The memorials are referred to as chattris(umbrellas) due to the shape of the yellow sandstone structures. Stone slabs in some of them describe the person the memorial is dedicated to in a language long lost. We were lucky to also be there in time for the sunset and see the structure slowly glowing in the warm orange of dusk till it was gently enveloped by the inky winter evening.IMG_5896

Making our way to the town of Jaisalmer we “escaped” the Tibetan restaurant we first entered, thanks to the desperate waiting customers who let us know they’d been waiting for over an hour. Thankfully the next place -though lit up in suspiciously blue lights- had food we enjoyed with not much wait despite a very large Bengali family having just made a significantly large order just as we were seated.

The next morning we decided to indulge in street-fare of dal pakwan, kachori, cutlet, jalebi and tea that made up our yummy breakfast.

The Jaisalmer Palace is right in the center of the Jaisalmer fort where we were staying and we had to ofcourse give it a look. It was relatively less crowded we had a good time enjoying the filigree work and remnants of the lives and times of royalty in Jaisalmer.

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Jaisalmer Palace

It was relatively less crowded we had a good time enjoying the filigree work and remnants of the lives and times of royalty in Jaisalmer.

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Jaisalmer Palace

Baa-ri Haveli , a 450 year old heritage home was next on our list and was a joy to enjoy the colorful space with every nook and cranny filled with local art and quirky household items.

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Baa-ri haveli

Next was Patwon ki Haveli. The Haveli itself was interesting and also full of knick-knacks everything from attire to utensils but the crowd from Christmas vacations having all landed in Rajasthan at the same time made it hard to really enjoy it.IMG_6341IMG_6376IMG_6380IMG_6388

We also went in front of Nathmal-ki-Haveli but the crowds were a turn off. and considering how much we liked Jaisalmer we decided it was perhaps meant for our next trip.

Incidentally there was an eclipse on that day, so the temples had delayed opening times due to their eclipse-specific ceremonies that needed to be done. So after passing by it several times, we found the Jain temples in Jaisalmer fort finally open in all its glory. The detailed ceilings of the structure in yellow sandstone are utterly hypnotising and it’s easy to imagine the cool interiors providing respite from the unforgiving heat of the scorched desert land.

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Chandraprabhu Jain temple
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9 day trip

Udaipur, Jodhpur: Of grand palaces and grander sunsets

We ended our heritage walk at the Ambrai Ghat which was the most spacious and well maintained of the ghats we’d been to in Udaipur and afforded a view of the Jag Mandir, City Palace and Shiv Niwas. We’ve every single time in the past had a very good experience with heritage walks but we wouldn’t recommend this one. Hopefully, you can find a better one.IMG_4880

After a yummy lunch at a modest restaurant just opposite our place of stay, we headed to what’s referred to as the City palace also on the lake Pichola. This palace is the largest in Rajasthan and named after Maharana Udai Singh who the city also gets its name from. The term palace is misleading if it gets you to imagine a single structure. This one comprises of 11 palaces within built over 400 years by different rulers each with its own adornments with everything from paintings to ornamental tiles and mirrors. One aspect of the palaces in Rajasthan we’d notice over time is that the exteriors are kept very simple while the interiors are ostentatious.

The images below are in no particular order but more to be enjoyed as a snapshot of what the palace has to offer.

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Manak Mahal: was used as a space for an audience with the rulers and therefore has a raised recess lined with mirror work.

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Bhim Vilas : having miniature paintings from mythological stories of Radha-Krishna with paintings of scenes from royal celebrations and processions.

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These colours were a favourite despite the grandeur of the other spaces

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Sheesh Mahal: a crowd favourite is a whole room made of mirrors up to the ceiling providing for a trippy experience.IMG_4952

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Bada Mahal

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Mor Chowk: with glass mosaics of, as the name indicates, peacocks representing the Indian seasons with glass mosaics in green, gold and blue.

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After enjoying that kaleidoscopic experience in the City palace,w e headed to the nearby Saheliyon ki Bari which we’d recommend for a visit more as a garden than for its historical significance. IMG_5008It was made especially for the queen’s 48 maids and understandably provided respite from the searing Rajasthan heat. IMG_5013A personal favourite was the lotus pond but the fountains in them sure could do with some maintenance.

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One doesn’t think of lush green mountains when thinking of Rajasthan but we made our way through the snaking roads over the verdant Aravalli range of mountains to the Sajjangarh Palace.

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The palace is also referred to as the Monsoon palace since it was used by the king to watch the approaching monsoon clouds over the Aravalli hills. Continuing our sunset chasing experience track in Rajasthan we found a vantage point among the other tourists and did just that.

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Unreal winter sunsets everywhere in Rajasthan.

We decided to spend the later part of our evening at Shilgram Mela a cultural fair for artisans from all over the country. While enjoying the colours, fabrics, handicrafts as we strolled around, we made good work of the variety of local snacks available: sweets made of freshly ground sesame seeds, several of pure milk and butter, rabdi, onion pakodas and corn. IMG_9372IMG_5088We were also treated to dance performances from different states and tribes of India, even managing to get a seat despite the crowds, and cheered the artists on. A round of conversation and egg burji from a local vendor and we headed back to our stay for the night.

 

Early the next morning, we headed to a café by the Lake Pichola for a slow breakfast. The voices of the musicians by the street evocatively singing “Padharo humare des…” in the distance reach to our ears as we silently watch everything that makes up Udaipur- the palaces, the narrow lanes, the music, the ghats and the still waters of the lake standing witness to it all.

In a fun contrast, we then made our way through the city to the extremely dusty bus that would take us to Jodhpur. With nothing much else to do, the heat within the bus from the warm mid-day sun lulled us into sleep. On intermittently awakening, we’d see endless open-air stores selling large slabs of marble of every shade under the sun(quite literally) and at one instance a store selling Kadaknath black chicken promising the very best of health.

By the time we reached our homestay in the blue city, it was evening and we hurried to get ready for the reception of the wedding that had in fact set off this whole trip. We were warmly welcomed by my friend who I was meeting after a whole 12 years and his lovely bride and family.

We quickly realized that autos in Jodhpur are not only sell-your-soul expensive to hire but were also very hard to come by- especially where we were staying in the “old city” and trying to return after an event at 10PM. We managed one after significant effort but were glad we had hired a bike for the next day.

Early the next morning, we realised our stay also had a charming mosaic floored terrace that provided a view of the Mehrangarh Fort and the entire old city of Jodhpur. IMG20191223073015A quick breakfast and then we headed to the beautifully moving, traditional Sikh wedding ceremony with us dressed at our Sikh-est best. An elaborate lunch and a quick nap later, we got to the Mehrangarh fort.IMG_5181

The 15th century Mehrangarh fort seems to have disturbing beginnings – from being built by forcefully displacing a hermit- Cheeria Nathji – the ‘lord of birds’ on a hill that was then called Bakurcheeria(the mountain of birds); to burying a “volunteer” Raja Ram Meghwal on the site for good luck; to having handprints of women who immolated themselves as per the horrific practice of Sati.

In our blissful ignorance of this distressing background at the time of our visit, this fort named after the sun (Mihir) was a favourite. The all exteriors in reddish-brown with intricate work, the paintings, the stained glass, the palanquins, elephant howdahs in the museums were all fun to discover as we strolled into each new corner.

Within the 4 large gates, some built for more commemorative purposes were the palaces

Moti Mahal

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Phool Mahal

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Sheesha Mahal

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As it was close to sunset we rushed to the Chamunda Devi temple within the fort that yielded an expansive view of the blue city bathed in the orange of the setting sun. We just about had a view of the sun quickly disappearing into the horizon.

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But what for a moment, will take your breath away amidst the arid terrain of Rajasthan, bathed in the colours of the ocean, a city dyed in blue.

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9 day trip

Udaipur: Of strolling around the old city of lakes

Rajasthan has been on our joint lists for a while now, so after an early morning flight in late December we reached Udaipur from Bangalore to our stay in the old city on the first floor of a charming 70-year-old home. Since it was already 3pm we just about managed to find a restaurant a short walk away, that was open but forgettable. After picking up our rental bike and being in the City of lakes, it was only apt that our very first stop was the Fateh Sagar Lake.

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It turned out to be just the right spot to enjoy an evening walk and our first pretty sunset in Rajasthan while munching on chana chaat and corn with the locals.

Just a little ahead was the Maharana Pratap Park which boasted of a museum and a sound and light show. Curious, we bought tickets for both. The museum had an interesting set of paintings of kings and ministers of the era but an overarching theme was the Battle of Haldighati- whether it was the large model of the battleground or blow by blow accounts of how the battle came about.IMG_4749 You couldn’t but feel like you were immersed into the history of the place with Maharana Pratap and his famous horse Chetak who met their end during the battle against King Akbar. In addition to the museum itself, the park is a calm, green space to wander around and towards evening affords a lovely view of the Fateh Sagar Lake from atop the hillock.IMG_4750

Now well-informed of the history of the place, we were eager to witness the sound and light show. If you remember one thing from this entire post it should be this- DO NOT spend your time or money at this show. It was easily the worst performance we’d ever seen and we are quite tolerant in general. It was pretty much a pre-recorded audio file playing snippets from the history of the city with lights focusing on bewilderingly random parts of the really small fort ruin and a single plant in the lawn(!) in front of the audience.

Just to recover, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a restaurant that seemed to have regal furniture custom made for someone at least thrice the size of the average person. A quick meal and walk around the old city later, we called it a day.

Early the next morning we were all enthused to visit the Karni Mata mandir more to experience the sunrise from the hilltop – however, we were up for another surprise when we completely lost our way despite following maps and were presented with a maze of narrow alleys and lanes. Each of the very few people outdoors at that time seemed to lead us into an entirely different labyrinth. After quite some time of going in circles, it was a Muslim family getting their kids ready for school who were able to give us the right directions to the temple. Much later we finally also saw a board with directions to the temple but also that it would only open at 9AM so the sunrise was pretty much out of the question.IMG_4770

However, it was to our delight that we happened upon the pond Dudh Talai with almost no one around but us and the chirping birds flitting about the lake. We also joined the locals on their morning walk next door at the Lake Pichola for a jaunt of our own.IMG_4794

We had a heritage walk planned in the morning, so quickly went to a small stall that and wolfed down hot parathas and joined the group at the entrance of the Jagadish Temple from the 1600s with intricate hand-carved stonework dedicated to Lord Krishna. IMG_4808Entrance to the temple requires a climb up 32 steps- so this may not be the best place for folks with knee aches.

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After our time in Uttarakhand, Udaipur seemed to have plenty of Ghats mostly around the freshwater Lake Pichola that was built by a banjara(tribal) in the 14th century. Artificial lakes in cities are not new, but in this case, the city was intentionally built around the lake by Maharana Udai Singh who was impressed by it. All around the lake are hotels catering to both higher-end and budget travellers- the Lake Palace is one of the former and is built into the island of Jag Niwas within the Lake Pichola.

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We first headed to the Gangaur Ghat, named after the festival celebrated even today representing the Goddess Parvati’s return from her maternal home to her husband Lord Shiva. Today it’s celebrated by fasting- by both married and unmarried women for 18 days praying for the longevity of their husbands and to be blessed with a good husband respectively. It’s mind-boggling the number of festivals in several parts of India dedicated to just this noble cause! IMG_4823The festival celebrations also include processions of women decked up in their very best carrying idols of Gan(Shiva) and Gaur(Parvati) to be immersed in the Lake Pichola.

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While wandering around the old city on foot you’d pass through the Chandpole bridge one way or another. It lends itself to vantage views of the Lake Pichola and its surroundings.

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Our next stop was the Hanuman Ghat that seemed to be a favourite of photographers instructing couples on how to pose for the most candid images for their pre-wedding shoots.

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Udaipur is known for its miniature paintings made with colours from stones occurring in nature. The artwork is visibly demanding due to the level of perfection in such minute detail. If you plan your time accordingly you can even sign up for a class for everything from a few hours to a few weeks to learn to paint it too.

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