We spent the next day enjoying some of the sights in Udaipur and the surrounding area. Our tour to the City Palace consumed most of the morning. The City Palace has been the home of the royal family since the 16th century. It’s a huge, sprawling complex of palaces constructed over 400 years and perched on a promontory on the shore of the lake, overlooking our hotel just a few hundred yards away. These days, while it is still partially occupied by the current royal family, most of the complex has been converted to a museum, 2 hotels, and a gallery displaying a huge collection of crystal purchased from England (everything from salt shakers to a king-sized bed made entirely from cut crystal glass). The royal family, not surprisingly, had quite a lifestyle, and a walk through the twisted, narrow corridors; beautiful courtyards; and glittering halls and rooms of the Palace is a walk through the golden age of Maharajas.
Speaking of Maharajas, a little historical context will be helpful now. Udaipur was the capitol city of the Mewar kingdom. The Mewars were unique in at least two important respects. First, the kings of the Mewar kingdom were not called Maharajas, like the other rulers of Rajasthan and some other parts of India were called. At the time of Indian Independence in 1947, there were 564 “princely” kingdoms in the areas that now encompass India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Some were strong and important, some not so strong and important. The rulers of the minor kingdoms were called Rajas; while the rulers of the larger and more powerful kingdoms were known as Maharajas. The king of Mewar alone carried the title of Maharana, which means King of Warriors. The Mewars were the only dynasty that was undefeated by the waves of Moghul invaders that began in the 8thcentury and continued into the 19th century. Thus the warrior accolade, Maharana. The second unique attribute of the Mewars is that they enjoyed an unbroken rule of 75 generations, stretching from about 600 AD to 1947. If you include the current Maharana, who enjoys no political power but retains the honorific position, the streak is 76 generations, believed to be the longest running current dynasty in the world. The Mewar rulers obviously had a lot to be proud about.
And the Maharanas, just like the other major Maharajas, kings, etc, were definitely not shy about letting everybody know just how powerful, rich, and macho they were. In their day, these kings were some of the richest families in the world. The British loved these guys and they loved the British (with some exceptions on both sides, of course). In the 19th and first half of the 20th century, the Maharajas, etc. had the best parties, played the best polo, gave the most extravagant gifts, hunted in the grandest style, and generally ruled with some of the greatest élan of any rulers in history. For most Indians, liberation from British rule in 1947 was a wonderful thing. Not for the Maharajas, etc. They had to give up all their property, which generally excluded anything they could squirrel away in Swiss banks but definitely did not exclude their magnificent palaces, forts, hunting lodges, forests, farmlands, holiday pleasure retreats and all the rest of their things that couldn’t easily be moved to a safety deposit box. Of course, the greatest of the kings had enough political skill to find a way to retain some of their properties. The Maharana, ruler of Mewar, had an enormous number of amazing places to hang out with his family and friends, from the Lake Palace where we were staying, to the Monsoon Palace at the top of a nearby mountain used as a hunting lodge, to the City Palace residence in Udaipur (which we visited the next day), to scores of others that dotted the countryside. These days, almost all of the palaces have either been converted into museums, “Heritage Hotels,” or nature preserves, and are usually managed by others. Many other former royal properties have been sold off by the government or are laying vacant awaiting money for restoration into yet another Heritage project. And many of them—like the Umaid Bhawan in Jodhpur, the Lake Palace in Udaipur, and the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur (our next stop after Udaipur)—are absolutely magnificent.
After our tour of the City Palace, we drove about an hour out of town to another fort/palace that had been converted to a Heritage hotel, the Devigarh Palace. The setting reminded us of medieval Italy, with a massive walled fort on a hill, overlooking farms sprawled across the hillsides and separated by low stone walls. We toured the hotel and had lunch, never seeing another paying customer the whole time.
We also visited the 1000-year-old Nagda Temples. The two main temples are small but very well preserved, and sit virtually unnoticed among plowed fields and water buffaloes wallowing in the mud. The temples are constructed of sandstone and feature elaborate carvings of various members of the Hindu pantheon.
On the drive back to Udaipur, Manoj gave us a little lesson in Hindu spirituality. He is a member of the Brahmin caste and is very knowledgeable on the subject. There are 3 major Hindu deities, Brahma the creator, Vishnu the protector, and Shiva the destroyer. Out of those 3, spring about 360 million other gods, all basically either relatives or reincarnations of the Big 3. Manoj assured us that all 360 million have actually been documented in Hindu texts, should one want to verify that headcount. The Brahmin priests, according to Manoj, now actually think of all of these gods as one, but use the multitude of reincarnations and forms to make the theology more accessible to the common man, whose main concerns throughout history have been to pray for rain, which makes all life possible, to ward off demons and other obstacles to good fortune, and to live life in a good way to assure their reward in the next life. It’s a wonderfully interesting and beautiful religion.