Udaipur – capitalising on tradition in the face of internationalism

We were in Udaipur during the kid’s Easter school break. Udaipur is the most beautiful city in India that I have seen so far. It is clean, uniformly built in a traditional fashion and this reflects in their architecture, artefacts, clothing and culture of the local people. As is seen in so much of North India, there is such an amalgamation of locals and foreigners who have settled here and made it their home. Either by marriage or by migration, they have decided to come here and not go to back to wherever used to be home. Many women have chosen Indian husbands. The same cannot be seen in reverse, probably due to the traditional and conservative culture of Indians overall – I cant yet see a white, hispanic or black man easily marrying a Rajasthani female and settling down here.

What I love most about the place is to see local art flourishing in painting and sketching form. There are independent artists who can make a decent living painting animals on silk and paper, teaching art and maintaining the culture of traditional Rajasthan through their paintings. They are not painting contemporary ideas much, rather, they stick to tradition and it sells. They don’t need to remodel themselves to suit internationalism, rather, the tourists love the local touch and feel of everything.

Forget the locals, it has a lot of appeal to Indians visiting from other states too. We met Rajesh, who is an artist. He has a small shop where he paints and makes prints of his paintings for tourists. His passion is to collect old bikes and remodel them. He then uses them as props for his next painting. He is also a photographer and showed us his most recent work – a stunning series of photos of the Rajasthani woman at work, at home, taking care of animals, collecting water, relaxing, sipping tea and celebrating. His pictures are black and white with a splurge of colour only reserved for the woman in the picture.

Udaipur is tiny. It appeared on the world map as a hot tourist destination in India in 2010, when James Bond’s Octopussy was shot here and the movie gave it overnight international fame.

The entire city can be covered on foot over less than 4-5 kilometres. For a traditional Rajasthani city designed for tourists, it serves amazing coffee! From espressos, to macchiatos, it’s café culture ensures that foreigners feel comfortable here, and not only those indulging in the luxuries of the 5-star Taj and Oberoi properties, but even those backpacking or on respectable budgets travelling through Asia.

Being a coffee lover, I can say with complete conviction that good coffee is fundamental to the happiness of a tourist in a new city, like no other consumable. I enter a new city and if I see a few nice looking cafes promising me freshly brewed coffee, I immediately relax and feel at home there. It doesn’t have to be exotic coffee, even a decent South Indian brand is enough to get this unquestionable loyalty from a devoted coffee lover like me.

Something else that fascinates me about the Rajasthani culture is the tradition of kings and queens and Indian royalty that persists here. There is a prince and princess who still visit the city (from London) and people still come out to invite them for special openings, first days,celebrations and inaugurations.

To me, kings are kings if they have a kingdom to rule. What’s the point of a king without a kingdom? However, Rajasthan and Rajasthani people have shown that tradition and history overrules the need for a current princely status quo. Feelings of loyalty, honour and royal blood seem to cross current political situations and governments. They are so ingrained in the Rajasthani culture and maybe the people also realise that its good for tourism to offer a USP of a place that still respects and adulates over their king and queen, that this ‘pratha’ persists. Much like the London’s royal family though, this one also prefers to spend much of their time between London and India.

We met a friend from my husband’s school-going days who currently lives in Udaipur. He lives hardly 8 kms away from the city and yet he almost never visits the touristy city centre and the lake areas. He lives off the main highway, near the bare mountains and the area as well as its people look sparse there. But he prefers his predictable, routine life here and has no interest or desire to benefit from the tourism that is taking Udaipur’s city centre by a storm. Instead, he prefers to focus on the other growing reputation of this city – that of an education hub. With 5 medical and 5 technical colleges propping up in the outskirts of the city within just a few years, the influx of students from Gujarat give him a great business opportunity. He works for a bank in a desk job during the day and in the mornings and evenings, he and his wife supply home-made tiffins of Indian meals to students who live in nearby hostels. He also offer boarding and lodging to students in his duplex home.

I am proud of Udaipur and of Rajasthani’s for keeping it this way. The government seems to have regulations on who can build, how can they build, who can own and who can buy or sell property here. There are strict architectural rules and guidelines to be followed for buildings that continues to give the city centre a uniform look – much like a European city. The streets are clean and I even saw segregated rubbish bins for bio and non-biodegradable waste at Fateh Sagar Lake.

There is a lot to learn from Udaipur’s example for the rest of India. But of all the lessons, the most memorable one is that of valuing tradition in the face of the reality of internationalism and capitalising the strength of both for longevity.

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