Spreading around the shores of the idyllic Lake Pichola and backdropped by a majestic ring of craggy green hills, UDAIPUR seems to encapsulate India at its most quintessentially romantic, with its intricate sequence of ornately turreted and balconied palaces, whitewashed havelis and bathing ghats clustered around the waters of the lake – or, in the case of the Lake Palace hotel and Jag Mandir, floating magically upon them. Not that the city is quite perfect. Insensitive lakeside development, appalling traffic and vast hordes of tourists mean that the city is far from unspoilt or undiscovered. Even so, Udaipur remains a richly rewarding place to visit, and although it’s possible to take in most of the sights in a few days, many people spend at least a week exploring the city and the various attractions scattered about the surrounding countryside.
The original settlement of Udaipur grew up around the grand City Palace, on the east shore of Lake Pichola and bounded to the north by the old city’s maze of tightly winding streets. North of here stretches the second of Udaipur’s two major lakes, Fateh Sagar.
Udaipur is a relatively young city by Indian standards, having been established in the mid-sixteenth century by Udai Singh II of the Sisodia family, rulers of the state of Mewar, which covered much of present-day southern Rajasthan. The Sisodias are traditionally considered the foremost of all the Rajput royal dynasties. The present Sisodia maharana is the seventy-sixth in the unbroken line of Mewar suzerains, which makes the Mewar household the longest lasting of all royal families of Rajasthan, and perhaps the oldest surviving dynasty in the world.
The state of Mewar was established by Guhil in 568 AD. His successors set up their capital first at Nagda and then, in 734, at the mighty fort of Chittaurgarh, from where they established control over much of present-day southern Rajasthan (for a brief history of the Sisodias at Chittaurgarh). By the time Udai Singh II inherited the throne of Mewar in 1537, however, it was clear that Chittaurgarh’s days were numbered. Udai began looking for a location for a new city, to be named Udaipur, eventually choosing a swampy site beside Lake Pichola, protected on all sides by outcrops of the Aravalli range. The Mughal emperor Akbar duly captured Chittaurgarh after a protracted seige in 1568, but by then Udai was firmly established in his new capital, where he remained unmolested until his death in 1572. His son, the heroic Pratap Singh, continued to defy Akbar and spent much of his reign doggedly defending his kingdom’s freedom against the overwhelming military muscle of the Mughal army.
Following Akbar’s death, peace finally ensued, and the city prospered until 1736, when Mewar suffered the first of repeated attacks by the Marathas, who gradually reduced the city to poverty until being finally driven off by the British in the early eighteenth century. The Sisodias thenceforth allied themselves to the British, while preserving their independence until 1947, when the famous old state of Mewar was finally merged into the newly created nation of India.Read More
Udaipur’s idyllic Lake Pichola provides the city’s most memorable views, a beautiful frame for the City Palace buildings, havelis, ghats, temple towers and other structures which crowd its eastern side – best seen from a boat trip around the lake. The lake’s two island palaces are among Udaipur’s most famous features. Jag Niwas, now the Lake Palace hotel, was built in amalgamated Rajput–Mughal style as a summer palace during the reign of Jagat Singh (1628–52), after whom it was named. Unfortunately, as a security measure following the 2008 gun attacks in Mumbai, non-guests can no longer visit the hotel. The Jag Mandir palace, on the island to the south, is arranged around a large garden guarded by stone elephants. The main building here is the Gol Mahal, which has detailed stone inlay work within its domed roof and houses a small exhibition on the history of the island. The young Shah Jahan once stayed here and was apparently so impressed by the building that he used it as one of the models for his own Taj Mahal, though it’s difficult to see the resemblance.
Boat rides around the lake depart from the jetty towards the south end of the City Palace complex, offering unforgettable views of the various palaces. Choose between a quick thirty-minute circuit of the lake or the same trip with an additional stop at the Jag Mandir. Both tours depart hourly on the hour from 10am to 6pm. To make the most of them, sit on the side of the boat facing the palace (they usually run anticlockwise around the lake). You can also hire your own boat (seating up to seven people). Alternatively, on the waterfront betweeen the Jaiwana and Kankarwa havelis, you can rent pedalos (two-seater) or motorboats, or take a sunset jaunt around the lake.
City Palace Museum
City Palace Museum
Udaipur’s fascinating City Palace stands moulded in soft yellow stone on the northeast side of Lake Pichola, its thick windowless base crowned with ornate turrets and cupolas. The largest royal complex in Rajasthan, it is made up of eleven different mahals (palaces) constructed by successive rulers over a period of three hundred years. Part of the palace is now a museum. Narrow low-roofed passages connect the different mahals and courtyards, creating a confusing, labyrinthine layout designed to prevent surprise intrusion by armed enemies – fortunately visitors are directed around a clearly signed one-way circuit, so your chances of getting lost are limited.
The entrance to the museum is on the far side of the Moti Chowk courtyard (look out for the large portable tiger trap in the middle of the courtyard), past the palace’s small armoury. Go in, past propitious statues of Ganesh and Lakshmi, and head upstairs to reach the first of the palace’s myriad courtyards, the Rajya Angan. A room off to one side is devoted to the exploits of Pratap Singh, one of Udaipur’s most famous military leaders. From here, steps lead up to pleasantly sylvan Badi Mahal (Garden Palace; also known as Amar Vilas after its creator, Amar Singh II, reigned 1695–1755), its main courtyard embellished with finely carved pillars and a marble pool and dotted with trees which flourish despite being built some 30m above ground level.
From the Badi Mahal, twisting steps lead down to the Dilkushal Mahal, whose rooms house a superb selection of paintings depicting festive events in the life of the Udaipur court and portraits of the maharanas, as well as the superb Kanch ki Burj, a tiny little chamber walled with red zigzag mirrors. Immediately past here, the courtyard of the Madan Vilas (built by Bhim Singh, reigned 1778–1828) offers fine lake and city views; the lakeside wall is decorated with quaint inlaid mirrorwork pictures.
Stairs lead down to the Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), another oddly futuristic-looking little mirrored chamber, its walls entirely covered in plain mirrors, the only colour supplied by its stained-glass windows. Steps lead around the top of the Mor Chowk courtyard to the Pitam Niwas (built by Jagat Singh II, reigned 1734–1790) and down to the small Surya Choupad, dominated by a striking image showing a kingly-looking Rajput face enclosed by a huge golden halo – a reference to the belief that the rulers of the house of Mewar are descended from the sun.
Next to here, the wall of the fine Mor Chowk courtyard is embellished with one of the palace’s most flamboyant artworks, a trio of superb mosaic peacocks (mor), commissioned by Sajjan Singh in 1874, each made from around five thousand pieces of glass and coloured stone. On the other side of the courtyard is the opulent little Manek Mahal (Ruby Palace), its walls mirrored in rich reds and greens.
From here a long corridor winds past the kitsch apartments of queen mother Shri Gulabkunwar (1928–73) and through the Zenana Mahal (Women’s Palace), whose long sequence of rooms now houses a huge array of paintings depicting royal fun and frolics in Mewar. Continue onwards to emerge, finally, into the last and largest of the palace’s courtyards, Lakshmi Chowk, the centrepiece of the Zenana Mahal. The exit is at the far end.