Udaipur was once the capital of the powerful state of Mewar, and still takes great pride in being the only one of the seven major Rajput states to have upheld its Hindu allegiance in the face of Muslim invasions. The Mewar household is the longest-lasting of all the ruling powers in Rajasthan, and possibly the oldest surviving dynasty in the world. The current ruler is the seventy-sixth in an unbroken line of Mewar rulers dating back to 568 AD.
Undoubtedly the most romantic city in Rajasthan, and perhaps the whole of India, Udaipur is situated 200 miles (320km) southwest of Jaipur. The city is centred around Lake Pichola and has inevitably been dubbed the 'Venice of the East'. Two island palaces, Jagniwas and Jagmandir, sit on the lake, with the former now the luxurious Lake Palace Hotel. The majestic City Palace towers over the lake and is bedecked with balconies, turrets and cupolas.
Despite the many attractions in and around the city, the real joy of Udaipur lies in soaking up its atmosphere: taking in the view from a rooftop restaurant; wandering around the relatively hassle-free inner-city; enjoying a drink on the edge of the lake; or taking a boat to Jagmandir Palace past the ghats (riverside landings), where washerwomen congregate and a real 'slice of Indian life' unfurls before the eyes.
The white walls of Udaipur's Lake Palace soar above the peaceful waters of Lake Pichola, topped by ornamental battlements and turrets. The sprawling palace has been developed by successive maharanas since the foundation of Udaipur in 1559. These days, part of the palace is home to the current maharana, a section of it is a first-class hotel (with the best restaurant in the city), and the remainder is a museum.
The approach to the City Palace is through the Elephant Gate, Hati Pol. The Great Gate (Bara Pol) leads to the first court, where eight carved arches mark the spot where the rulers were once weighed against gold or silver, the equivalent value of which was then distributed among the poor. Beyond the Tripolia Gate is the arena where the elephant tug-of-war competitions were staged, past which are a series of courtyards, overlapping pavilions, terraces, corridors and hanging gardens.
The Krishna Vilas honours a 19th-century Udaipur princess, who poisoned herself to avoid the dilemma of choosing a husband from the two rival households of Jodhpur and Jaipur. Its walls display miniature paintings portraying royal processions, festivals and hunting parties. Further along, a glass mosaic gallery contains superb portraits and stained glass, and offers a wonderful panoramic view of the city below. Set into the walls of the 17th-century Mor Chowk are brilliant mosaics of three peacocks showing the three seasons: summer, winter and monsoon. Perhaps the most splendid rooms in the palace are the women's quarters, Zenana Mahal, with their ornate alcoves, balconies and coloured windows.
Udaipur's Lake Palace really does have a storybook quality to it - both in terms of its looks and its history - and it is rightly considered by all and sundry to be one of India's stellar tourist attractions.
Forty miles (60km) north of Udaipur are the Jain Temples of Ranakpur. It is the largest temple complex of its kind in India, and boasts some truly staggering marble work - easily on a par with any in Asia. The main temple was built in 1439, and is dedicated to the first tirthankara Adinath, whose image is enshrined in its central sanctuary. The temple is two or three storeys high in parts, and its roof, topped with five large shikharas, undulates with tiny spires that crown the small shrines to Jain saints lining the temple walls. Within are 1444 pillars, each sculpted with unique and intricate designs, and dissecting the 29 halls. The carving on the walls, columns and the domed ceilings is superb. Friezes depicting the life of the tirthankara are etched into the walls, while musicians and dancers have been modelled out of brackets between the pillars and the ceiling. While exploring the temples at Ranakpur, visitors may see Jain monks walking about with masks on their faces to avoid eating insects. The most important teaching of Jainism is 'Ahimsa', meaning non-violence, and this is applied to all sentient beings. Many monks also carry a brush to sweep surfaces to avoid standing on bugs. Ranakpur's isolated position means it is not on the major tourist trail, but it makes a good stop for those travelling between Jaipur and Udaipur.
Kumbhalgarh is a massive Mewar fortress built in the 15th century, with seven heavily fortified gateways and a perimeter wall that extends a staggering 22 miles (36km); possibly the second longest continuous wall in the world. Inside this intimidating complex there are more than 360 temples (300 ancient Jain and the rest Hindu) in addition to the main palace. The fortress has immense sentimental significance for local inhabitants because it is the birthplace of Mewar's legendary king, Maharana Pratap. Needless to say, one can spend hours exploring this architectural and historical playground, and those who enjoy climbing will find many opportunities. The views from the many vantage points of this fortress are astounding.
Legend has it that the maharana who built Kumbhalgarh encountered some construction difficulties and consulted a spiritual advisor who decreed that a voluntary human sacrifice would enable the project. A volunteer was eventually found and the position of the decapitated head and body signalled where building should go forward. A shrine to this unknown volunteer can still be found in the main gate.
Kumbhalgarh is situated about 50 miles (82km) to the northwest of Udaipur and the drive will take about one and a half hours, making it a manageable and rewarding excursion. The fort is extremely well-maintained and the fact that it is a little remote ensures that there are seldom crowds, despite how astounding an attraction it is. There is a sound and light show in the evenings but it is conducted in Hindi.
Known as the City of Lakes, or the Venice of the East, many of the attractions in Udaipur are centred around the city's beautiful lakes. Lake Pichola is a great starting point for sightseeing in Udaipur because it is enveloped by palaces, mansions and temples, and boasts several pretty islands. It is one of the largest and most picturesque lakes in the city. Attractions on the lakeside include the City Palace of Udaipur on the eastern bank, Mohan Mandir on the northeast corner, and the famous Lake Palace on Jag Island. Boat rides and sunset cruises are a treat and although it is surrounded by palatial architecture, Lake Pichola also has many bathing ghats (steps), where locals congregate to wash and socialise, adding colour and authenticity to the lovely scenery. Other beautiful lakes in the city include Fateh Sagar, Udai Sagar and Swaroop Sagar.
Those willing to venture beyond this picturesque city will find that there are many worthwhile excursions from Udaipur. The Jain Temples of Ranakpur are magnificent, showcasing some of the best marble work in India. The Ranakpur Temple complex is the largest of its kind in the world and a must-see for anybody visiting the area - it is conveniently located on the route between Udaipur and Jaipur. There are many other temples a short way out of the city, including the small but impressive Eklingji Temple, which draws rave reviews from tourists.
A bit further afield, but still within easy driving distance for a day-trip, the Kumbhalgarh Fort is a real adventure, promising hundreds of atmospheric 15th-century temples to explore, exhilarating views, and a perimeter wall second in length only to the Great Wall of China.
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