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 along the old city’s maze of tightly winding streets and vast hordes of tourists mean that Udaipur is far from unspoilt or undiscovered. Even so, it 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.
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 to be 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 . 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 – gradually emerging up around the city’s grand City Palace, on the east shore of the lake – 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.