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.
Boat rides around Lake Pichola depart from the jetty towards the south end of the City Palace complex, offering unforgettable views of the various palaces. Circuits of the lake take 45 minutes. All trips stop at the Jag Mandir. 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 rent your own boat (seating up to seven people) here. Alternatively, on the waterfront between the Jaiwana and Kankarwa havelis, you can take a thirty-minute boat ride or rent a private boat for up to ten people.
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; the entrance is on the far side of the Moti Chowk courtyard (look out for the large portable tiger trap in the middle of the courtyard), just beyond the palace’s small armoury.
Begin your circuit of the museum by wandering past propitious statues of Ganesh and Lakshmi, and winding 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, who reigned 1695–1755), its main courtyard embellished with finely carved pillars and a marble pool, and dotted with trees that 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 beyond 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 descend from the Madan Vilas courtyard 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 1734–90) 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 Surya Choupad, 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 the Manek Mahal, a long corridor winds past the kitsch apartments of the 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 museum exit is at the far end of the chowk, back where you came in.
The small Government Museum, opposite the entrance to the City Palace Museum, is of interest for its impressive sculpture gallery of pieces from Kumbhalgarh, including some outstanding works in black marble.
More interesting than the Government Museum in many ways – and certainly far more atmospheric – is the vast Durbar Hall in the Fateh Prakash Palace (the building immediately behind the main City Palace building, which now houses the Fateh Prakash Palace hotel). This huge, wonderfully time-warped Edwardian-era ballroom was built to host state banquets, royal functions and the like, and remains full of period character, complete with huge chandeliers, creaky old furniture and fusty portraits. In a gallery overlooking the hall is the eccentric Crystal Gallery, housing an array of fine British crystal ordered by Sajjan Singh in the 1880s and featuring outlandishly kitsch items including crystal chairs, tables and lamps – there’s even a crystal hookah and a crystal bed. The extortionate entrance charge is a bit of a turn-off, though it does include an audioguide and non-alcoholic refreshments at the hotel’s Surya Dharshan Bar.
Every evening, fifteen years of history is revived at the palace, as special effects and commentary recount stories from the Kingdom of Mewar in a show called The Legacy of Honour (Yash ki Dharohar in Hindi). The Mewar sound-and-light show is held in Manek Chowk, and commentary is in English between September and April, and in Hindi for the rest of the year.
North of the city are the historic temples of Nagada, Eklingji, Nathdwara and Kankroli, while to the northwest, en route to Jodhpur, lie the superb Jain temples of Ranakpur and the rambling fort at Kumbhalgarh. Renting a car or motorcycle saves time, though local buses serve both routes.
Top image: City Palace and tourist boat on lake Pichola. Udaipur, Rajasthan, India © Sean Hsu/Shutterstock