Udaipur: The city of
palaces & gardens
UDAIPUR, the city of lakes, marble places and beautiful laid out gardens was the first halt of my recent all-India trip. "God created maharajas so that mankind could witness a spectacle of jewels and marble palaces," so said Kipling once. An instance of such beauty and grandeur is Udaipur, one of the most romantic cities of India. Literally meaning, the city of Dawn, Udaipur looms up like vision in white, almost like a mirage in the desert of Rajasthan. Encircled by Aravalli hills and set on the edge of three serene lakes — Pichhola, Swaroop Sagar and Fateh Sagar — the city was founded by Maharana Udai Singh following the loss of Chittaurgarh to Akbar.
aquamarine expanse of lake Pichhola is a kaleidoscope of fairy tale
palaces, temples and gardens, particularly overwhelming in splendour
are Lake Palace and Jag Mandir, both emerging from an azure lake, a
marvellous example of traditional Rajput architecture. Of the original
eleven gates to the city, only five remain, the main being Suraj Pole,
the gate of the sun on the eastern side. The white, majestic and
imposing City Palace, several hundred metres long and towering
30-metre high, overlooks and immense esplanade edged by arcades. Being
the largest palace complex in Rajasthan, it is actually a
conglomeration of buildings added by various maharanas.
Surprisingly enough, it manages to retain uniformity of design. The
main part of the palace is preserved as museum. It is open daily from
9.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. and admission is by tickets and for camera, a
fee is charged before entry.
Further you come across the Suraj Gokhada, the balcony of the sun, where the rulers of Mewar presented themselves in times to trouble to the populace to restore confidence. As you move ahead you find yourself in Mor Chowk. The peacock courtyard gets its name from the tastefully laid out, vivid mosaics in glass decorating the walls. The Manak Mahal has finely carved glass and mirror work while Krishna Vilas has a remarkable collection of miniature paintings in thematic rows. The Chini Chitasala is noteworthy for its blue and white ceramics. In the Bari Mahal at the top, there are lovely hanging gardens. Its amazing to find fully-grown trees standing at the top of the palace. The guide tells me that the palace is built around a small hill, palace rooms surround the levelled top of the hill with trees. In one of these rooms is placed a finely carved chair and a true to life size well-dressed statue of a Mewar ruler Fateh Singh who upheld his honour and dignity refused to attend the Delhi Darbar of 1911. The chair is one of the exclusively made chairs for the Indian rulers, invited to the royal pageant. The chair remained unoccupied during the Darbar as it had name tag of the ruler of Udaipur. Later it was brought to Udaipur but no one has ever sat on it!
There is an armoury section downstairs. The personal armoury of Rana Partap is also on display which includes among others, his swords shield and extraordinarily heavy steel helmet. While moving inside the palace in various chambers, winding narrow passages leading in to cool courtyards and into rooms that are small are dingy, but tastefully decorated with Rajput and Mughal specimens of artwork. One is lost and cut off from the rest of the world. The 500 years of history comes alive before the eyes as the surroundings hill seems to be echoing the great deeds of chivalry, heroic fights, battles for the independence, honour and dignity. The spirit of Rajput valour seems all-pervasive as the guide recounts the heroic tale of Maharana Partap.
While on its wall the Moti Mahal has beautiful mirrorwork, the palace of Krishna has been a witness to the tragic death of Krishna, a princess of striking beauty who poisoned herself to avert a bloody battle of her hand by rival Rajput princes.
From the top of the palace, a panoramic view of the city of Udaipur with magnificent Lake Palace in lake Pichhola, against the backdrop of Aravalli hills is breathtaking. Looking down, the front courtyard looks impressive with its manicured green lawns and flowers blooming, adding fragrance to the aura and a rich feast to the eyes. A number of handicraft shops are located here. One can pick up souvenirs to carry back home.
A visit to the City Palace is doubly welcome as it also houses the government museum, that has a fine collection of sculptures. Some noteworthy are the samples of the typical 6th century sculpture in green schist. The part of the city palace kissing Pichhola lake has been partly converted into two luxury hotels — Shiv Niwas Palace and Fateh Parkash Palace.
A rare collection of Oster’s crystal which includes chairs, tables and even crystal beds is stunning. The same was imported from UK in 1877. The Durbar Hall, overlooking the crystal gallery, has massive chandeliers which reminds one of a similar collection of chandeliers owned by the ruler of the erstwhile Patiala State. Here one can see a lavish interior boasting some of the largest chandeliers in India. The top floor of this high-ceiling Darbar hall has exclusive viewing galleries of the royal ladies to watch in seclusion.
As one comes out of the City Palace, hardly at a distance of 100m in the bazaar, one comes across the 1651 built, Jagdish temple, dedicated to Vishnu. A steep staircase flanked by stone elephants ushers one into a double storey mandapa. It has another storey tucked within its pyramidal samavarna that is, bell roof. Its external wall and plinth are covered with bas-relief friezes of alligators, elephants, horsemen and divine musicians. It took 25 years to complete the construction.
Set on a 1.5 hectare island in lake Pichhola, the Lake Palace was built by Maharana Jagat Singh in 1754, as a summer palace. Sitting on the entire island, today it has been converted into a luxury hotel. It enables one to get a glimpse of pleasures that once were the sole preserve of kings. All its eight suites boast of regal splendour and lavish opulence.
The walls are frescoed with age old watercolours, inlaid with miniature paintings and intricately mirrored mosaic. The extraordinary view of the soaring, sunbathed palaces from the lake is one of the most arresting views to be had. Seen from the city palace, the major attraction, the Lake Palace looks afloat. Accessed by boats, non-guests are welcome here for lunch or dinner only if the seats are available. Interestingly, the Lake Palace, Shiv Niwas Palace and Monsoon Palace were used for shooting the James Bond film, Octopussy in the early 80s.
Another island palace, Jagmandir in the lake is said to have given inspiration to Shah Jahan for the Taj Mahal after he stayed here in 1623-24. The view of the city and the palace is simply enchanting as the calm water reflects the city image.
Just imagine a row of palanquins having damsels in them wading its way down to a beautiful garden, having fun, play, swings and gossip. Visit the Sahelion-ki-bari, (the garden of maids of honour) to have a feel of the place and the bygone times. Built in the mid-18th century, to fulfil the demand of royal ladies for an outing, the garden has shaded walls with marble fountains embellished with delicately chiselled kiosks and elephants adding to the romance. The fountains play by taking advantage of the gravitational force of the nearby Fateh Sagar lake. The garden appears discreet and in impeccable taste with four pools and similar number of flowerbeds spreading fragrance all around. Many a Hindi film song has been pictured here over the years.
A trip to Udaipur will be incomplete without visiting Shilpgram. Created in 1989, about 3 km away from Udaipur it is a living ethnographic museum set amidst natural surroundings of Aravalli hills. The artefacts and cultural life of states in the western zone is depicted here in real-life situations. One can enter the display of huts and examine the household objects used by people of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa, Maharashtra, Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli. It gives a peep into the life of villagers. A few have been re-erected stone by stone and brick by brick after carting the material of those houses from the original locations to give complete authenticity to structures. The traditional artisans work on their products while the folk singers and musicians belt out folk music for the entertainment to the visitors. Camel rides are great fun here with kids and adults alike.
Coming back to the city, one can hang out at Fateh Sagar lake which is a favourite tryst with the young lovers. The Nehru Park in the middle of the lake is accessible by boats. The park also houses the only observatory in the region. As the lake is overlooked by a number of hills, the serene waters present a refreshing reflection as one sips coffee at the boat shaped cafe in part island.
Other places worth visit are Moti
Magri, Monsoon Palace, Sajjan Niwas gardens, Rose garden, Sunset point
and Badi ka Talab which is 5 km beyond Shilpgram. Haldighati, 40 km
north of Udaipur, is the battlefield where Rana Partap and Akbar’s
forces fought in 1576. Chhatri of Chetak, Rana’s royal charger is
just a few kms away.