India // Rajasthan //

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.