Romance: In thrall to Udaipur

After their marriage next week, William Hague and Ffion Jenkins will honeymoon at the Lake Palace Hotel in Rajasthan. Philippa Scott thinks they may be so transfixed, they won't come back
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Fifty years ago, India proclaimed herself a democracy, free of all imperialism, where each individual is considered to have an equal voice in the community; in practice, as everywhere, some are more equal than others, and India lost no time in replacing one ruling family with another dynasty. Yet every Indian, whatever their political affiliation or sympathy, admires the history of Mewar, a region of Rajasthan, its city of Udaipur, and its Maharanas. There are Maharajahs aplenty in Rajasthan, but the title Maharana - "Great Warrior" - was declared in the fourteenth century and is unique to the head of Mewar. The Maharanas of Mewar are the senior representatives of the Sisodias, the sun Rajputs: Rajputs, historically the most predominant and powerful community in Rajasthan, divide into those who trace their ancestry to the sun and those who trace their ancestry to the moon.

Today, despite all odds, one of the great success stories of India is a scion of this ancient house: Arvind Singh Mewar, a thoroughly modern businessman with traditional values. Change rarely invalidates the past, it does not necessarily imply a rejection of the old, and in order to safeguard the values, customs and traditions in which he believes, Arvind Mewar has created his own style of business empire. Palace hotels are no longer new in India; what is news is that one of the so-called ex-royals has not only made his own palaces - the Lake Palace Hotel among them - self-sustaining, but is expanding, purchasing other properties in Rajasthan to turn around and make effective too. Where others have given up and sold up, he has leapt to accept the challenge, a "Great Warrior" for his time.

The State of Mewar was founded in the year 568, and Arvind Mewar is the seventy-sixth in line of descent: to Europeans and Americans on first hearing, a seemingly impossible-sounding exaggeration. The role of bards is to embellish history, but certain historical features are sufficiently recorded that they may be taken as fact. At the heart of Mewar's traditions is a concept of trusteeship to Shiva, manifest as Eklingji. The line destined to become the House of Mewar did not pronounce themselves monarchs, but were invested as hereditary guardians. The state was a temple holding, the people were the temple treasure.

Mewar's first stronghold was a hilltop fortress, Chittor. The Mughal Emperor Akbar was determined to crush this symbol of resistance and conducted a lengthy siege. Rajasthan is dotted with hilltop fortresses, and after the fall of Chittor in 1535, the Rajputs became skilled at guerrilla tactics. In time, successive Maharanas made treaties with the Mughals, and later with the British, always couched in the language of favourable terms, so that the Maharanas, unlike the Maharajahs, were never bound to attend either Mughal or British Durbars in Delhi.

History books frequently accuse Maharana Udal Singh of cowardice and running away from Chittor and then building his new city, but in fact eight years before the final sack of Chittor, Maharana Udai Singh looked for a new site and had already started works to expand natural water cachements below the Aravalli hills, forming today's Lake Pichola. In 1559 the first stones of what was to become Udaipur were laid on the banks of the lake. In the seventeenth century, Maharana Karan Singh strengthened the dam enclosing Lake Pichola and started building Jagmandir Palace in the lake, enlarging the City Palace on the shore, and then began building Jagniwas, now known as the Lake Palace. Jagniwas was built as a royal retreat during the stifling summer months, and is constructed to catch tiny breezes and waft them through the courtyards, fountains and gardens. This was the first Udaipur palace to be converted and has been a hotel since 1963.

No history or dynasty can be all glorious. The eighteenth century was another challenging era: the decline of the Mughals led to the rise in European mercenaries, entrepreneurs and opportunists, and the emergence of the rampant Maratha clan, who tore at the flanks of the dying Mughal Empire and snatched away what nourishment remained. Mewar has always been a tempting prospect for invaders, and by the early nineteenth century its coffers were empty and the state desperately crippled. Maharana Bhim Singh asked the British Government to intervene and help, and a treaty was drawn up on 13 January 1818. Amongst other points, it guaranteed him protection against all foreign enemies, and internal independence in his own country, into which British jurisdiction was not to be introduced. The first British Agent appointed was Colonel James Tod, whose enthusiasm for, and dedication to Udaipur resulted in his monumental works, The Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. Tod passionately loved Rajasthan, its people and their proud history; he felt they were kin in spirit to the Highland clansmen who were his forebears, and his Annals are a tribute to that love. Perhaps Tod's ghost wanders the palace ramparts still, when each evening at sunset the Udaipur pipers, in dapper white with tartan sashes, play Scots and Rajasthani marching songs and laments.

Witnessing the maelstrom of constitutional spring cleaning after the departure of the British, the late Bhagwat Singh Mewar moved to protect what his ancestors had fought and died for. Today's battles are most often fought on paper and in courtrooms, so by legal procedures he established a series of trusts and foundations with endowments, under the trustship of his appointed heir, and these operate an impressive range of charities and awards which are vital to the well-being of Udaipur and Mewar. Two ambitious schemes currently under way are a new modern school and the transformation of a huge space under the courtyard of the City Palace, once used for storing fodder for horses and elelephants, into a modern library and research facility, to house the valuable collection of books and maps from the various palaces.

The Jewel in the Crown was filmed here, as was Octopussy. Crowned by ivory palaces, garlanded by lakes, Udaipur without film crews is a tranquil paradise. Its Lake Palace has become a favourite destination for those romantically inclined, but the true romantics find it harder to leave. Udaipur seizes their souls and, like the most assiduous suitor, will not settle for distant friendship or mere fond memory. Real romantics fall in love with Udaipur, forever.

Comments