Explore a slice of India’s regal heritage in the charming city of lakes and palaces
By Namita Gupta
Royal Rajasthan is full of many wonders. Each city is more magical than the other. Udaipur wins it over for its many resplendent lakes and plush palaces. No wonder then this spectacular and surreal White City remains every tourist’s must-do on their visit to the Venice of the East. The erstwhile capital of the Mewar kingdom retains its royal fervour, rich culture and traditions even to this day.
With the Supermoon shining right above us welcoming the Spring Equinox, the Shiv Niwas Palace and Manek Chowk was lit up beautifully, as I witnessed the Holika Dahan alongside the royal family and a few hundred guests from the world over. There possibly couldn’t be a better way to bring in the festival of colours, Holi, than being in the royal company of the Maharana Of Mewar, Arvind Singh Mewar celebrating the triumph of good over evil and participating in the time-honoured festivities that preserve artistic, religious and historic interest for cultural conservation of heritage. The festivities began with Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar arriving at The Manek Chowk in a vintage horse carriage, led by a procession of folk dancers, drummers on horseback and security force doing the march past. There was a Daang, a traditional dance performance by the tribal and folk artists of Gujarat post the puja performed by the priests and the Holika Dahan, lighting of the bonfire. The rituals were followed by a lavish royal dinner and drinks under the full moon light.
There’s a strong sense of history and time which distinguishes Arvind Singh Mewar, who is conscious of the legacies he has inherited as the 76th Custodian of the House of Mewar. Under Shriji’s (as he’s popularly referred to) leadership the House of Mewar, the oldest-serving dynasty in the world dating back to 734 CE, has made one of the most successful transitions in modern India: from a Royal House to one that has clearly defined commercial and non-commercial enterprises, comprehensively preserving its values, legacies and heritage under the laws of India’s democratic republic. His efforts as the Chairman and Managing Trustee of the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF) reveal his commitment to the pursuit of excellence. Now in its fifth decade of operations, the MMCF is the umbrella organisation under which the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Udaipur and Rajasthan is being preserved.
The House of Mewar represents the longest serving, unbroken custodianship in the world. A custodianship that transcends all boundaries of kingship, democracy and everything in between. Founded on the teacher-pupil principles by the Guru of the founding father Bappa Rawal, Maharishi Harit Rashi, this custodianship continues to manifest the cardinal rules for governance through the concept of values and precedence yet providing for flexibility of action. Eternal Mewar is thus iconic of centuries of custodianship and protection of the core values of the House of Mewar, which has stood the test of time.
What’s not to love about hotels that lift the spirit of the place and weave them through their identity so that you truly experience the destination in its entirety while you’re there. Shiv Niwas Palace is one such hidden gem that celebrates the royal era gone by with great love and respect. Architecture buffs will be bowled over by the magnificence of the architectural finesse, that is a heady concoction of Rajasthani, Mughal, Medieval, European and Oriental architecture. Its alfresco spaces lead to open courtyards that hark back to the city’s rich past with its sprawling lawns, beautiful bougainvillea’s, havelis, jharokhas and kothis. Once India became a democracy, the descendants of the royal family found ways to keep the rich heritage alive by introducing people to a taste of the royal life through their commercial properties like Fateh Prakash Palace and Shiv Niwas Palace (within the City Palace Complex) overlooking the famed Lake Palace Hotel, Taj Group’s property in the center of Lake Pichola, and Udai Vilas. Even today they continue to give us a taste of their royalty by inviting a select few to be a part of their endearing royal Holi celebrations at Manek Chowk, adjacent to the Shiv Niwas Palace.
The crescent-shaped palace was built in the early 20th century, in the reign of Maharana Fateh Singh and has been meticulously maintained and preserved. The palace was reserved exclusively for visiting dignitaries and guests of the House of Mewar. Today it is a Grand Heritage Palace for guests, combining the elegance of the last century with modern 21st century amenities. Shiv Niwas Palace offers beautiful, yet differing suites and rooms to choose from 17 individually decorated suites that carry original furniture and portraits that have been with the royal family for generations. All the suites look out onto the natural panorama of Udaipur.
Udaipur has not only attracted tourists from the world over, but also many Hollywood and Bollywood movie directors for its royal legacy, exotic locales and serene beauty of lakes and palaces. Some movies that were shot here include Guide, Mirzya, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, Octopussy, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Dhamaal, Dhadak, The Fall and many others. After a taste of royalty, you can visit some of the popular temples like the Eklingji Temple, Jagdish Temple and the Nathdwara. Don’t miss the boat ride at Lake Pichola for its magical panoramic views. Also take some time to walk around the City Palace famed for its intricate peacock mosaics and a Crystal Gallery.
When you’re in Udaipur a dinner at The Taj Lake Palace is a must. Thanks to Seema Jaising who runs Travel with Che, I was invited to join her group of like-minded travellers and food connoisseurs for a memorable meal curated by Che Experiences at Jharokha, the Indian restaurant inside the Taj Lake Palace with the view of the Lake Pichola. The Lal Maas here is perfectly cooked, infused with rich flavours yet not fiery and tastes divine. This palace built in the middle of a lake was the summer palace of the Maharana of Udaipur. After many years when this palace which was also known as the Jag Niwas Palace started deteriorating, the Taj group took over its management and restored it and also added rooms. This was the secluded lair of the Bond film Octopussy’s eponymous Bond Girl and many celebrities have dined here till date including Queen Elizabeth II, the Shah of Iran, Lord Curzon besides many Hollywood and Bollywood stars.
My Che Experiences got a few notches higher as I continued my stay in Udaipur at the spanking new Taj Aravalli Resort & Spa spread over 27 acres, surrounded by the rugged Aravali Ranges on all sides. It is in close proximity to Fateh Sagar, one of the five major names that make up the city’s sophisticated lake system. A complete contrast to my stay at the Shiv Niwas Palace, this property is sleek, contemporary, rugged and romantic, with spots that are inspired by Rajasthani architecture and its famed nomadic culture, like the single-pole desert tent as leitmotif, décor elements such as the gokhra – a low seating area by the window – and furnishings inspired by Mewar’s world-class equestrian heritage that add a local flavour to a minimalist luxury ethos. A destination in itself, the resort has 92 well-appointed rooms, suites and luxury tents staggered over different levels across an undulating landscape. Dining options here include the all-day diner – Tiri, a specialty pure vegetarian restaurant – Javitri, an alfresco grill – Ridgeview, and an outstanding bar – Odeypore Lounge overlooking the swimming pool and manicured gardens. It was the night after the full moon night and we couldn’t stop admiring the views as we sipped on our cocktails mixed to perfection by the bartenders at the Odeypore Lounge. I turned in for the night and slept like a baby after a couple of drinks, waking up bright and chirpy for a hearty breakfast the next morning.
If you have some spare time at hand, head to the HathiPole Market and Bada Bazaar for some retail therapy. You can also walk around the Jagmandir or the Lake Garden Palace. Also visit the Royal Vintage Car Museum, touted to be a paradise for every motor enthusiast and if you love gardens, then head to the Saheliyon ki Bari for a walk through some beautiful lush green lawns flanked by tall trees.
How to reach: Udaipur is connected to most cities in South India by air, rail and road route.