Udaipur: the Heart of Royal India.
It is an oasis in the desert, its luxurious opulence presenting a startling contrast to the aggressive masculinity of the neighboring cities of Chittor and Kumbalgarh. A city of peace, its history carries little memory of the battles that scar most of Rajasthan, speaking, instead, about lovers, relationships, fulfillment and serenity. Each of these working with the other to shape the glorious celebration of life that is Udaipur.
Commanding attention as one enters the city, a riot of domes, arches, cupolas and turrets crown the steep fortress of the City Palace. Situated on a hill beside Lake Pichola, the four acre marvel is the largest palace structure in Rajasthan, housing luxurious royal pavilions replete with a profusion of coloured glass, fluted columns, marble, silver doors and intricate inlay work.
The visiting eye first gravitates to the privately marked off apartments within the City Palace. Then to Mor Chowk's intricately crafted blue-green peacock motifs. Then to Badal Mahal, built on a 90 feet high natural rock formation. And on to Manak Mahal's collection of glass and porcelain figures and Krishna Vilas's fine collection of miniatures. Not to be outdone by Moti Mahal's unmatched mirror work and Chini Mahal's quaint collection of Chinese porcelain.
The City Palace captures the attention of the historian and the aesthete alike. It's Durbar Hall is undoubtedly one of India's most impressive, with a sumptuous interior boasting some of the largest chandeliers in the country while numerous old paintings, weapons and grand portraits of former Maharanas of Mewar adorn its walls.
The top floor of the hall houses the sumptuous crystal collection ordered in 1877 by Maharana Sajjan Singh, who died before the shipment could arrive from England. The variety of crystal objet d'art includes fountains, vases, crockery and furniture. What is amazing about this collection is the ethnicity of the designs. There are objects in crystal that are distinctly Indian in conception like the lotas or drinking water vessels and chuskies or small decanters. Alongside this fascinating range of crystal are exhibited silver beds, chairs and brocade and velvet seating.
The piece de resistance of Udaipur, however, remains the 17th century Jag Niwas - Maharana Jagat Singh's symbol of rebellion etched in white marble, rising proudly from the waters of Lake Pichola.
Legend holds that the young prince Jagat was once refused permission to party with his friends at the idyllic Jag Mandir. Not only did his father - Amar Singh - forbid him from a rendezvous there, he also added insult to injury by retorting that Jagat Singh should build his own lake palace if he was so fascinated with the ambience.
And build Jagat Singh did - an architectural and aesthetic marvel that appears to float in the lake like an oriental vision of Xanadu. Today renown as one of the world's most romantic destinations, Jag Niwas, or Lake Palace as it is usually known, continues to baffle the senses with its magical interplay between nature's mountains and pools and Jagat Singh's profusely decorated royal suites and statuesque pavilions.
In the shadows of this magnificient structure rests the hauntingly beautiful Jag Mandir, built as a refuge for Shah Jehan. Jag Mandir refuses to compete with Jag Niwas, serene, instead, in its spacious courtyards whose walls were once inlaid with precious stones and fading frescoes that sight the formal gardens and arched pavilions that complete the vision.
Life here, however, turns around Lake Pichola. Known as the Venice of the East, Udaipur is a city of lakes set in one of the most formidable deserts of the world. Carefully built dams around the three artificial lakes - Pichola, Fatehsagar and Jassamand, the last being the second largest artificial lake in the world - are testimony to the loving care that nurtured and kept alive a dynasty beyond a course of 1,400 uninterrupted years.
Ironically, the water of the lakes belongs to the Government of India whilst the land under the water belongs to the royal family. But then Udaipur is a land of ironies -- a city that sets aflame the exuberant oasis of life in the harsh and monochromatic desert. A city that has stood through history as the most luminous symbol of a royal Rajasthan.
Published on 5/26/01