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Custodians of A Royal Past

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Udaipur, famous for its many lake side palace, embraces centuries of history that often seems more real than the present.

Take away its palaces and Udaipur is like most other Indian cities – feverish traffic, dust, smoke and a lot of atmosphere. Camel carts pass in stately convoys, aimless cows saunter amidst the crazy chaos of cycle rickshaws, buses, trucks and two and three wheeler scooters. The city has far more vegetation and greenery than most other parts of the parched desert state of Rajasthan. With three major lakes; Pichola, Fateh Sagar and Swaroop Sagar it is often referred to as the lake city. And right in the tourist heart of Lake Pichola is Jag Niwas also known as the Lake Palace.

The origins of this gleaming white building marooned in splendid isolation in the middle of the lake, go back to the time when the young prince Maharana Jagat Singh II, heir apparent to the throne of Udaipur, was hurt when his father forbade him from hosting moonlight picnics with the ladies of his zenana at Jag Mandir, the other island palace in the middle of Lake Pichola. ‘Build your own palace,’ the ruler taunted his son. And that was exactly what he did. In 1746, he built the exquisite and stunning structure which, after the Taj Mahal in Agra, is the second most recognized monument in India.

The best way to explore the monuments in and around Lake Pichola up close is by taking a pleasant little sunset cruise. It lets visitors sail by the Lake Palace and equally enchanting Jug Mandir, the imposing City Palace Complex that rises like a fortress across the eastern banks and the row of quaint waterfront havelis along the southern banks.

And a little monument that is associated with the curse of the dancing girl. According to local folklore, one of the rulers of Udaipur had promised the girl half his kingdom if she walked across a rope strung across the lake. The young lass readily accepted the challenge and the following day the entire city gathered to witness her effort. As it became increasingly apparent that she was going to accomplish the task one of the courtiers drew his sword and cut the rope.

As the girl sank to a watery grave, she cursed the king: the day any ruler of Udaipur gave birth to a male heir, the dynasty would come to an end. Ever since, the Maharanas of Udaipur have been all adopted sons. When, finally, a male heir was born, the kingdom was absorbed into the Indian Union.

But the legacy of the royal family survives and nowhere is it more apparent than at the City Palace Museum. Browsing through this building is akin to journeying into the past; back to the time when one of the oldest dynasties in the world was founded by Bapa Rawal (734 to 753 AD) at Chittor.

Chittor, however, was sacked three times: in 1303 by Allauddin Khilji; 1535 by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat and then again in 1567 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Soon after this Maharana Udai Singh (1537 to 1572 AD) shifted his capital to the banks of Lake Pichola and named it after himself: Udaipur.

On the other side of town is Fateh Sagar Lake with the famous Nehru Gardens which appeared to float upon its waters. From here one can catch a glimpse of the garden dedicated to Maharana Pratap Singh, the warrior king who was seriously wounded when he personally led his men against the mighty Mughal army of Akbar. Realizing that his master was in grave danger, his horse Chetak galloped away, carrying the Maharana to safety and himself into Rajput lore.

Indeed, the main town square is named after the legendary horse whose statue dominates the traffic circle. Yet, the city that has come to be synonymous with Rajput valor has a gentler side that is captured in its famous Sahelion-ki-Bari or Fountain Gardens. Maharana Sangram Singh built these unique gardens in the mid-eighteenth century for his daughter who pleaded with him to make it rain so that she could hear the sound of raindrops. The ruler responded by building five fountains which re-created the different pitter-patter of rain from light showers to torrential downpours.

Fact File
Udaipur’s airport is 25 km from the city centre.
The city is also well connected by road and rail to the rest of the country. By way of accommodation the city offers a full range from palace and five star hotels to hawali and budget units, including one run by Rajasthan Tourism.

Popular excursions out of Udaipur are to the Jain temples of Ranakpur (98 km), Kumbhalgarh Fort (84 km) and Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary.

Other places worth visiting are Eklingji (22 km), a 8th century complex of 108 Shiv temples; Haldighati (40 km), the battlefield where the armies of Maharana Pratap Singh and the Mughal Emperor Akbar clashed in 1576; Nathdwara (48 km), a17th century shrine dedicated to Shrinathji or Lord Krishna; Kankroli (65 km) site of the important Vaishnava temple Dwarkadhish and Rajsamand Lake and Jagat (58 km), the Khajuraho of Rajasthan renowned for its carving on the 10th century Ambika Mata temple.