thali time

 Welcome to Rajasthan, a desert state south of Delhi, but still in the north of India. This is a land famous for its ancient network of kings, forts, princes, palaces, and, of course, delicious cuisine.
One ubiquitous offering found all over India, but especially here in Rajasthan is the thali. Rather than one dish, thali is a predetermined collection of dishes served with chutneys, chapatti (flat bread), rice, dahi (Indian yogurt) and garnishes. It usually includes a couple of dahls (lentil dishes), mixed vegetables and some other tasty treat.
We have been enjoying a variety of thalis, as this is a good way to sample several dishes in one meal, and because sometimes we find ourselves in a restaurant that offers nothing but thali. This was the case with Natraj Hotel in Udaipur, which was voted “the best city in the world to travel to in 2009” by some authority or another.
temple

I agree that Udaipuris a lovely place. Lakes, palaces, temples and forts abound in this relatively quiet city in southern Rajasthan, as do touristy hotels and restaurants that serve sub-par food and overpriced clothing to swarms of inappropriately dressed tourists. It is also where the James Bond film Octopussy was filmed, a fact you cannot miss from the multiple hotels screening it nightly, for several decades now. (Can you think of a better recipe for insanity?) We were here on the tail end of the tourist season during a 3 day festival that among other things, celebrates married ladies. Not speaking Hindi myself (yet), I am still hazy on the intricacies of this celebration. Suffice it to say that it was colorful, spiritual, and refreshing to be in a crowd and not be oogled by dozens of sexually repressed men.

gaungar: festival for women
A couple of years ago I did a mosaic for a lady from Udaipur. When I found out that there is a mosaic tradition in her home town, I was keen to create a piece that echoed the works found in the palace: exquisite 14thcentury mosaics depicting three-dimensional peacocks using deep, rich stained glass and mirror. We naturally made a beeline to the palace museum to check out the wonders within, and were not disappointed. After visiting multiple forts and palaces in this area, all of which are unique in their own right but pretty much similar to one another, I can say that that this was our favorite one. It was also the cheapest to get into, ironically. Filled with stained glass windows, mirror and glass mosaics, elaborate carvings and delicate, intricate stone carved pillars, archways and walls, this palace must have been one heck of a fancy place to live in its heyday. I am impressed at the level of preservation that has been maintained. Kudos to the Indian government and the citizens of Udaipur for recognizing that what they have is special and keeping it that way!
animals and art of Udaipur

One evening we set out from our hotel with no real plan in mind. We walked towards the city gardens in the hope of finding something interesting to do. After gaping at a tree full of long tailed, black faced monkeys, and a spell of sliding around in a nifty playground, we followed the sound of music to a small Hindu temple where festival activities were in play. Seated on the ground were men, women and children, clapping, drumming and singing into a highly amplified sound system. When they noticed us leaning on the wall listening to them, they beckoned us in and sat us down, placed tambourines in our hands, marked us with bindis and fed us…you guessed it, thali! We were told that we must eat every morsel of food on our plate lest we anger the god(s) from which it was sent. (We did, of course.) It was special to feel welcome in this small celebration. Ryan even got draped with a silky orange scarf around his neck, another detail that is lost on me due to my ignorance of the religion and language. (Hindi lessons…here I come!) We capped the evening off with a gondola ride up to the top of a hill which houses a small Karni Mata temple. This is a temple which reveres rats. Being close to the city, however, I think that it pales next to its sister temple in Bikaner (our next destination). The two dozen or so white rats here are contained in an enclosure full of fresh fruit and vegetables. In Bikaner, I hear that the Karni Mata temple is an altogether different affair…

 

night time fun in Udaipur: ropeways, hindu festivals, and city lights.

 

in the city palace

Anyhow, in order to get tasty food in Udaipur, (unless you want a real cup of espresso and a slice of pie, in which case park yourself in Café Namaste right there in the tourist quarter) you must hop in a rickshaw and go another neighborhood. We were directed to the Old Hotel Natraj by a friendly Indian fellow as a famous thali joint. It was a tasty and fast paced experienced, in which we were seated and served, and never asked what we’d like or offered a menu. The whole time we sat there, there was a steady stream of servers coming around to refill our bowls, or to add rice and chapatti to our plates for what amounts to an all-you-can-eat dining experience. This is what makes thali the best bang for your buck if you are a hungry hippo. Even if you are only hungry enough for the initial serving, at 80 rupees (about $1.50), it’s not a bad deal at all.

Natraj Hotel and Dining Hall
22-24 City Station Road (Raj)

Phone 0294-2487488, 94147 57893


 

monkey business
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