Udaipur builds, Udaipur cuts marble, Udaipur welds. Udaipur roasts chickpeas and fries sweets, Udaipur sells vegetables and weaves baskets. Udaipur serves dinner and massages feet. Udaipur hosts weddings and directs traffic. Udaipur drives minibuses and motorcycles. Udaipur gathers firewood and fetches water. Udaipur studies. Udaipur works.
The small city of Udaipur in North-western India bustles with activity. Nestled between steep hills and around a set of pretty lakes, it is a favourite tourist destination. A splendid white sprawling palace complex looks west over Lake Pichola. Most of it is open to the
public, who flock in great numbers to marvel at its rich decorations (the wall paintings at the small entrance stairway alone will make you swoon, especially if you like the Arts and Crafts movement). Beneath it, the Lake Palace swims like a marble water lily on the calm lake surface – a hotel-island that a genius location scout made famous in the James Bond “Octopussy” movie in the 1980s. The city is called the Venice of India, and not for nothing. It is a beautiful, romantic spot and very welcoming to the many tourists.
But Udaipur impressed me beyond its natural beauty. Besides a remarkable portfolio of luxury hotels, the city also has six universities, zinc and silver mines and marble quarries, including the largest deposit worldwide of green marble. These provide a variety of incomes and attract different people. Villagers from surrounding tribal villages gather at crossroads in the morning to get a day’s labour on the many construction sites – private and corporate – around town. The mines and quarries produce not only fantastic white and green marble, but also offshoot industries of crafts. Stonemasons for example carve sinks, bowls, elephant statues and decorative tiling out of the white stone.
Udaipur has all levels of industry – production, refining and services. It also seems to have an enlightened government, by the king of Udaipur, as our tour guide explained. The palace, which the king inhabits a corner of, carries solar panels on the roof and has won awards for its environmental design and sustainable work environment. The tourist environment is not so bearable, major crowds everywhere! Interestingly, there are many domestic tourists, Indians traveling in their own country. There seem to be no beggars. That is, there are some unfortunate people here too, but they go around to the market traders with an alms box, collecting skinny carrots, broken pieces of ginger, a dented potato, a blemished banana. Everyone gives a little. The alms boxes are full. The old white-robed widow does not even glance at us tourists. Udaipur also recycles – 70% of its waste, apparently. Small shops buy back old newspapers, bottles and plastic containers.
With all its activity, Udaipur seems a healthy city. It is dusty, yes, and there is a veritable zoo ambling about its streets – cows, goats, pigs and donkeys, camels and elephants too. But the people of Udaipur are working, and importantly, they are trading and talking with each other. There are more snack stalls at the lakeside curve where the local youths hang out than at the landing dock for the tourist boats. Everyone seems busy, whether they are cycle repair shops, vegetable traders or jewellers – and their customers are by and large locals, it seems. Locals sit down for their lunch on low stools around street lunch carts. They take the minibuses and treat themselves to freshly fried desserts wrapped in newspaper squares.
The great majority of shop signs and street signs are in what I presume is Hindi. English signs are rare, and particularly those clearly aimed at tourists. The sight of cow patties drying in the sun on the traffic island in the middle of the road is unusual to me. But at the next roundabout, there are modern art sculptures of gleaming marble.
Maybe it also helps that Udaipur has only half a million inhabitants and is not too crowded. In any case, it is a pleasant town that I would be happy to visit again.
I am also waiting for a delivery of some stunning marble crafts items from Udaipur – but I’ll tell you all about shopping in India another time!