Tranquil India

The ‘City of Hills’ is a highlight of Rajasthan

By: Rachel Reid Holbrook

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The magnificent Hindu temple
at Udai Bilas Palace
Endowed with natural beauty and an exotic history, Rajasthan, the largest state in India, is a hotbed of tourism. But in the tours of the larger cities, most travelers miss the peaceful city of Dungarpur and the main attraction that puts it on the map: Udai Bilas Palace Hotel.

Though not phonetically pleasing, Dungarpur’s translation, “City of Hills,” is an apt description of its austere, rolling farmland. The open space provides a mental respite for travelers who come from Delhi or Mumbai, while the picturesque image of farmers tending their fields provides a glimpse into their lifestyle.

Easily accessible from Udaipur Airport, which is serviced by India’s main domestic airlines (Jet Airways, Indian Airlines, Kingfisher and Air Deccan), Dungarpur is a 75-mile drive (about one hour and 45 minutes) on a well-paved highway. Tour operators in Udaipur, such as Heritage Journey, can arrange for airport pickups and drop-offs in a range of vehicles from taxis to passenger vans.

I arrived to Udai Bilas Palace in the evening, which is perhaps the most opportune time to first experience its splendid peculiarity. Greeting me in the lobby, behind a large desk on which sat a leather-bound book in place of a computer, was Kelly the manager. Next to him hung a six-foot-tall portrait of a maharaja, flanked on either side by stuffed tiger heads. Several maharajas’ portraits adorn the palace, which was built in the mid-19th century and converted to a hotel in 1940. The property sits on the shore of the narrow Gaibsagar Lake, a natural barrier between it and the town.

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The pool at Udai Bilas Palace
tempts guests to lounge all day.
I was shown to my room, which, interestingly, did not come equipped with a lock until I asked for one, at which time Kelly was happy to oblige. There are 20 air-conditioned, comfortable guestrooms that range in size (singles, doubles and suites). Every night, cocktails are served in a garden facing the lake and, as I approached, my eyes adjusted to an ethereal scene. The magnificent Hindu temple that served the palace is situated in the lake, 50 feet from the shore. Glowing like a beacon against the night sky, it was the backdrop for a circle of guests sitting around a bonfire enjoying cocktails. Guests can request a visit to the temple, which is accessible by rowboat and open only in the morning from 9-10 a.m.

Dinner is an equally otherworldly experience. The centerpiece of the dining room is a long marble table with an inlaid mosaic table and a pool of water down the center. Two-story walls are adorned with river-stone mosaics, which lead upwards to an open, starry ceiling. Every night, the staff at Udai Bilas Palace serves a buffet-style Indian dinner that is toned down in spice to appease a Western tongue; in the entire city of Dungarpur, this is the best dining option.

Guests wake in the morning to the sound of several species of birds that, according to the management, take a migratory path right over the property. Breakfast is served either in the main dining room or a secondary dining room that is akin to a British hunting lodge with more African animal heads mounted on the walls and a mild, yet forgivable, odor of formaldehyde.

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A sitting room at the hotel is reminiscent of
a classic British hunting lodge.
There are a few cultural sights to see in Dungarpur, though most guests choose to spend their day relaxing on the property. The palace boasts a spectacular and peaceful pool that has every variety of poolside lounger including hammocks and swings. Tennis on the grass court, bird watching and boating are other options. Lunch is served poolside or by picnic off the property if one so chooses.

Venturing off the property is easy with the help of Kelly and his staff. They can arrange for a taxi and the $2.50 entrance ticket to the Juna Mahal, an ancient palace that is a worthwhile excursion and located about three miles down a bumpy road. This 13th-century, seven-story palace has impressive frescoes and intricate mirrored mosaics. The maharaja’s private suite boasts a closet that features 50 painted scenes from the Kama Sutra hidden inside.

A most intriguing excursion, however, is a simple drive through the farmland where the open, hilly landscape radiates vibrant colors and undulating patterns of crops. The villages of Charwada and Annpura typify the rural beauty of this region.

Visitors to Rajasthan will appreciate the charming oddities and unhurried serenity that Udai Bilas Palace can provide and two to three days is ample time to relish in it. What may at first seem like a side trip from Udaipur just may become the highlight of the whole Rajasthan experience.


Heritage Journey

Udai Bilas Palace