Monday 13 July 2020

U is for Udaipur

Rajasthan is the Land of the Kings, homeland of the Rajputs. Elsewhere in India, where the Moghul influence had been strong, there was a balance between the temporal and spiritual; Islam proved a crucial ally to the expansionist ambitions of the emperors, but it also exacted homage as more than an equal. In Rajasthan, the warrior ethic was all.

This is visible in the massive forts which dominate the towns throughout the region, and in some cases wholly contain them. Like Chittorgarh, once the scene of numerous acts of suicidal chivalry according to the haughty Rajput code. Now the small modern town camps outside the broken walls surrounding the long low hill of the city, as if aware of the disparity between its glorious past and quiet, dusty present.

Most of the cities in Rajasthan have been touched by the Rajput vision; but one of them has been completely shaped by it, and remains its greatest achievement: Udaipur. It was founded in 1567, born of the third and last sack of Chittorgarh, and a monument to its people's indomitable spirit.

The magnificent city has grown up around the lakes and the palaces built by its successive rulers, As if conscious of their standing – the Maharana of Udaipur is the highest ranking of the Rajputs - each strove to enhance an already impressive city with new expressions of their majesty. First came the artificial Pichola Lake, a huge sheet of water which provides the centrepiece of the city's design. It must have seemed paradise for the erstwhile dwellers of the cramped and arid Chittorgarh.

Then, to match the lake, and use its incomparable setting, the huge City Palace was built, an Escher-like concoction of towers, arches, balconies and cupolas. Appropriately enough, it is the largest in Rajasthan. Today it is a museum; its collections are varied but curious in their scope. There are extensive memorials to the region's past, faded delicate miniatures, fragments of ancient stone inscriptions, and a pair of stuffed siamese-twin deer. All are displayed amidst genteelly run-down surroundings evocative of the passing of time. The overall effect is one of Udaipur as a forgotten oasis amidst the bustle of the outside world.

From the City Palace there are impressive views over Pichola Lake, set amidst the surrounding hills, and of the two island palaces. The later and more famous of these is the Lake Palace on Jagniwas, which covers the island entirely. It has been converted into a gleaming white hotel, and looks like nothing so much as a floating iced wedding cake. Less prettified, and more romantic, is the Jag Mandir island palace. It sits at the southern end of the lake, a little apart from the city, hovering like some unearthly vision in the still green water,

The rest of Udaipur has grown in response to these elements. Answering Pichola, another artificial lake was built to the north. The city itself clusters around the great palace on the banks of the lake. Its narrow twisting streets, many of which are steeply inclined, recall the stern hilltop forts of Chitttorgarh and the rest. For all its extravagant glories, Udaipur remains true to its origins.

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