Travel to Udaipur, to get away from Udaipur, suggests Fiona Fernandez. Rana Kumbha's magnificent creations at Ranakpur and Kumbhalgarh make for inspiring day trips to a lesser-known Rajasthani landscape
Madam, agar aapko pasand na aaye, toh paisa vapas..." with this open challenge, Kaalu, our hotel guide in Udaipur, asked us to decide between Dilwara's world-famous Jain temples in Mount Abu or its relatively unknown counterpart in Ranakpur, with some time at the mighty Kumbhalgarh fort thrown in.
We opted for the lesser-trodden path, not in the mood to break tradition. Until then, we had managed to experience the lake city from an Indie-inspired lens: meals at Mediterranean-themed restaurants that whipped up a mean dish with local catch, after-peak hour boating trips on the Pichola and a delightful afternoon at a "ladies-only" fair near Fateh Sagar Lake.
On an overcast August morning, after a rushed muffin-and-toast breakfast from the French Caf � at Gangaur Ghat, we were speeding across surprisingly smooth highways in our Indica. A short, budgeted holiday meant we were to visit Kumbhalgarh and Ranakpur on the same day. The nearly two-hour drive cut across green (yes!) swathes of rugged landscape, gurgling streams, sun-kissed rocky hills and topography on par with scenes from Hollywood's curry westerns.
Throughout, our driver Raunak doubled up as worthy guide, peppering our journey with insightful trivia about the area, its people and their quirks.
Kumbhalgarh: The real fort Knox
A landscape change was on the cards as our car began to negotiate a zigzag climb. The flat terrain made way for steep ravines, thick forests and valleys created out of the Aravali range. As the thick smog began to clear, we spotted the first views of Kumbhalgarh's impregnable walls. Maharana Kumbha's 15th century fortress meant business.
Luckily, our early arrival meant we were spared the hordes of tourists. After buying our entry tickets at the main gate, we set out on our padyatra, the Rajput fort version. Soon we were to discover that brisk walking on Mumbai's potholed-laden roads or the occasional canter for a 10.25 CST doesn't boost endurance levels when faced with the real deal. Encircled by 13 elevated mountain peaks, the fort is built atop most ridges and rises up to 1,914 metres above sea level. It can knock the wind out of you, for more reasons than engineering mastery and architectural foresight.
This fort's builders attached serious importance to the number 36. Its fortifications extend to the length of 36 km -- and it is a contended fact that it might be the second longest continuous wall in Asia, and probably the world; the first being the Great Wall of China. Apart from the 360 temples of which the Shiva Temple is most popular, one can spot step wells (baolis), gardens, palaces and memorials inside its walls. Such is its size that the eastern walls form a loose boundary that separate the Mewar and Marwar regions of Rajasthan. The seven ramparts boast of curved bastions, watchtowers and fortifications that gave the fort its impregnable tag.
According to local legend, the walls are broad enough for eight horses to stand side by side! The highlight of our trip was reaching Badal Mahal (palace in the clouds), atop the main structure. Maharana Pratap's birthplace lies within this sections. This stunning palace that provides a wide-angle view of the fort's extent below, is bathed in hues of green, turquoise and white and evokes a magical contrast against the fort's earthy character.
Kumbhalgarh offered refuge during wartime to many of Mewar's rulers, including the infant king Udai Singh. As our trail crisscrossed parts of the western, central and eastern sections of Kumbhalgarh, we couldn't but take note that while the Mughals have walked away with the accolades mostly, the Rajputana eye for detail in its carvings and foresight in its constructions is equally remarkable.
After a four-hour trek that covered (much to our dismay) only one-tenth of this massive fort's walls, it was time to move ahead for upliftment of the spiritual kinds, in Ranakpur.
Ranakpur: Carve a niche
As we approached the main temple within the 15th century Ranakpur temple complex, the modest exteriors didn't prepare us for what lay inside. Considered one of the five holy places for Jains, thousands of devotees had thronged the site by the time we had arrived. We spotted huge signboards that told visitors to be appropriately clad before entering the temple. At the threshold of the temple, the head pujari greeted us in fluent English, informing us that a discourse would be held for first-time visitors. As we stepped inside the central Chaumukha dedicated to Adinathji, it seemed as if India's most stunning marble creations had been displayed inside a single space. The 48,000 sq ft basement was filled with subsidiary shrines across 29 pillared halls, with domes that rested on over 1,444 columns. By now, chants of "Om Namah Shiva" filled the air and a sizeable number of international tourists were clued in to the pujari's preaching about Ranakpur's origins.
It's easy to lose yourself inside the sacred space � each column has a story to tell about Jainism, its tenants and its Tirthankars. No two columns are carved alike. Khajuraho-inspired nymphs, dancing women, elephants and other mythical characters comprise this cluster of magnificent marble work. One of the most memorable experiences was when we heard the echo as two mammoth bells weighing 108 kg were rung inside the hushed interiors of the assembly hall. The nearby Sun Temple with carved horses and warriors is a must-visit. It was built during the reign of Rana Kumbha, and his workers ensured that its artistry and splendour stood the test of time.
You pay: Most mid and high-end hotels have travel desks that offer car rentals to Ranakpur and Kumbhalgarh. Typically, round trips will cost you in the range of Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 if you wish to combine both destinations. A bit of bargaining can help and most operators usually settle on a mutually agreed rate. Alternatively, daily (semi-luxury/ luxury) buses headed to both locations leave from town square (landmark: Jagdish Temple) every hour.