Escape to Udaipur: The House of Royals

30 Sep 2016 by Akanksha Maker
City Palace, Udaipur

About five hours driving distance from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, lies the imperial city of Udaipur. Named after Maharana (king of kings) Udai Singh II who founded the city in 1559, the city breathes a sophistication that takes from its lineage of kings that had lived here. Udaipur was a part of the Mewar kingdom, a region in north-western India that was ruled by Maharanas of the Mori, Guhilot, Parihar and Sisodia dynasties. While all of Rajasthan exudes centuries worth of inherent culture, there’s something about Udaipur’s charm that draws.

An aficionado of traditional sojourns, I was happy to pick an early departure to make the most of my weekend here, before heading for some business travel to Rajasthan’s capital. A swift 40 minutes drive got me to the exclusive port of The Leela Palace (theleela.com). A stationed wooden-boat was waiting to transfer me across Lake Pichola to this luxury property that stands at its bank.

A warm white light shone on the calm, blue waters of the lake, as the boat made its way towards the hotel. A flag of The Leela Hotels, Palaces and Resorts adorned the head of the boat and subtly seemed to pilot the way. Upon arrival, a stub of vermillion was placed on my forehead, for a customary welcome into the Palace.

There is something royal yet luxurious about the lobby. Shades of gold blend with traditional artwork that embellish the imperial ambience. A large portrait of Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur, the current
and 76th custodian of the House of Mewar adds a majestic touch to the reception.

All 80 rooms and suites of The Leela Palace face Lake Pichola. Depending on the floor and wing it
is in (the Palace is divided into two wings: Lake Wing and Palace Wing), each room offers a slightly different perspective of the lake and the structures around. Checking into my Grand Heritage room, I was instantly drawn to its window that overlooks the outer courtyard that adjoins the mighty expanse of Lake Pichola, with City Palace on the left, Taj Lake Palace in front and Jag Mandir (Lake Garden Palace) just within the horizon of my vision. The sun was at its peak and the birds dipped into the lake after catching whiffs of the wind that provided them an occasional relief from the scorching heat.


The Leela Palace Udaipur

My eyes were pinned on City Palace that appeared to be a labyrinth of imperial structures. Heading to this historic complex, I was accompanied by a guide who helped me decode glorious folklore behind the intriguing lives of the royalty that had resided here. Built by Maharana Udai Singh II in 1567, City Palace served as the headquarters of the successive kings of the Mewar kingdom. The complex is divided into a hotels’ complex, quarters of the current royal family of Udaipur and City Palace Museum (₹115,₹225 with camera or video; open 9:30am-5:30pm). While the later can be accessed by the main entrance known as Badi Pol, there is an alternative south entrance as well. A fusion of Rajput and Mughal architecture can be seen on the facades that lead to various rooms of the museum. One of the most striking rooms is the Salehkhana that houses the famed 25kg armour of one of the most eminent kings of the empire and the eldest son of Maharana Udai Singh II, Maharana Pratap.

The royal haven was never graced by Maharana Pratap who spent most of his life within forests and on battlefields; however stories of his valour are embedded on the walls of the rooms through paintings that bring to life another era. Elephant fights, hunting sojourns, durbar (court) sessions and battles are expressed in watercolours by the work of celebrated Indian artist — Raja Ravi Verma.

Walking through the maze of art and heritage, I climbed narrow stairs and entered large rooms that were fitted with coloured glass windows that added substantial character to the panoramic views of Lake Pichola and Aravalli mountains. While dancing peacocks in mosaic can be found in a room called Mor Chowk, the room labelled Badi Chitrashali gives an insight into the recreational lives of the kings of Mewar. Private apartments of the queen, Rajmata Gulabkunwar, exhibit how she lived and the Chitrashali room displays a number of paintings that showcase the Mewar school of art. The proximate Vintage and Classic Car Collection Museum has some of the oldest models of Mercedes Benz and Rolls Royce that were once owned by the royalty of Udaipur — an interesting stopover for the automobile geek.

An extended Indian lunch at The Leela Palace’s all-day dining restaurant Dining Room followed, as I waited for the sun to depart before driving into the old part of Udaipur once again. On my way, a plethora of miniature art-galleries caught my eye, and my chauffeur insisted I stop by the B.G Sharma Art-Gallery. This atelier carries on the legacy of the painter who was known for his miniature style of artwork and is an excellent choice for some authentic Rajasthani mementos for your family back home.

At nightfall, my tired feet sought solace as I rested in the inner-courtyard of The Leela Palace. Women dressed in Rajasthani finery broke into a performance on a raised platform as the space came alive with folk music. Muted candle-lighting added a sense of romance to the area as guests joined the dancers. Monochrome flooring complemented the thekri (Rajasthani art form) work on the walls adding some contemporary splendour to the traditional ambience.

Dinner at the al fresco, fine-dining restaurant Sheesh Mahal was indeed a royal experience. Sitting at the table by the edge of the property, overlooking Lake Pichola, I was engulfed by the magic of this city of lakes (popular name for Udaipur because of its many lakes).

A celebration was underway at City Palace, perhaps a wedding. Revelry filled the air at a distance as golden hues of the brightly-lit structures poetically reflected on the lake. A sombre silence on the other side emulated the tranquillity of the dark blanket of water and the mountains. The alluring view was accompanied by some quintessential Rajasthani cuisine that included laal maans, a delectable red-meat preparation. Some jaggery bread (gur ki roti) complemented the powerful flavours of the kebabs, as kings and their bygone regalities became the subject of conversation at the dinner table.


City Palace Musuem: Udaipur

The next day was dedicated to visiting two temples that had been on my bucket-list for a while. Legend has it that a statue of Lord Krishna was moved from Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) to Nathdwara (a town 48km from Udaipur) in the 17th century, to protect it from Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor of India. When the idol reached a certain spot in the village of Nathdwara, the wheels of the cart mysteriously sank deep into the mud and stopped moving. The priests believed it was a sign from the gods, and built a temple on that very spot with protection and support from the then Maharana Raj Singh of Mewar. Today, this temple, also known as Shrinathji, is a highly revered place for the Gujarati and Rajasthani communities.

Visiting this temple at dawn, I was accompanied by a priest who escorted me through shorter queues. Of course, this fast-track experience comes at a cost and can be facilitated by the hotel you’re staying at. Not an experience for the faint-hearted, the temple lanes are flooded with hawkers and priests selling offerings to be kept at the idol’s feet. Being mobbed by sellers is a possibility and it is best to keep belongings safe inside your vehicle.

On the way back to the city, I stopped to visit the notable Eklingji temple that’s considered to be one of the most important religious sites of Udaipur. The shrine was erected to pay homage to Eklingji, an avatar of Lord Shiva. The complex houses 108 smaller prayer halls constructed in marble, granite and sandstone. Its detailed carvings are a testament to architectural excellence of the Solanki style that finds its roots in the state of Gujarat. The main hall dates back to the 15th century when it was built on the ruins of a prehistoric temple. It holds the  intriguing four-faced idol of Lord Shiva, carved in black marble symbolising four other Hindu gods. The intricate work on its tall, dilapidated facades are worth some substantial time and admiration.

Back at The Leela Palace, some cardamon infused tea appeased my senses as I sailed across Lake Pichola on a wooden-boat to observe the mighty structures at dusk. It was beautiful: twilight lasted a few minutes during which structures lit up one after the other in a rhythmic order. The luminescent buildings radiated on that starry night as the boat sailed closer to the Jag Mandir. This time a celebration was underway here and my guide explained how this venue was once a summer resort of the governing kings. Built by three Maharanas of the Sisodia dynasty of the Mewar kingdom, Jag Mandir is named after the last titled Maharana — Jagat Singh. Reminiscing the scenes of 1983-James Bond film Octopussy that were shot at this imperial resort, my boat sailed on the tranquil waters back to the Palace.

I spent my last evening in Udaipur strolling through the by-lanes of this majestic city that I accessed from the back-entrance of The Leela Palace. Walking through its bustling alleys, I reached the banks of Lake Pichola after inquiring for directions from some locals. Sitting on the stairs of the platform, I amusingly watched the denizens casually walk into the waters for their evening swim. And that’s when I realised: this royal city had taken over me. Its amalgamation of luxury and heritage — an unparalleled charm stayed with me as I departed towards Jaipur, with tales of kings, queens and gods etched upon my mind. ■

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