Udaipur is one of the India’s most beautiful and interesting cities. Known as the City of Lakes and the Venice of the East, the city, in India’s north west state of Rajasthan, is steeped in riveting history and glamour having played host to visits by the Queen and Jackie Onassis as well as being the setting for the James Bond film Octopussy. For the discerning British tourist seeking breath-taking scenery, spell-binding palaces, world-class museums and elegant traces of the British Raj Udaipur ranks with the Taj Mahal as one of India’s must-see destinations. IndiaGBnews.com’s Ben Pinnington visited the city and met with, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, 76th Custodian of the oldest serving royal dynasty in the world, who is carefully curating the City Palace his ancestors built over 400 years, turning it into the ultimate living heritage experience.
“Heritage is the pivot of Udaipur’s economic future,” Arvind Singh Mewar, tells IndiaGBnews in an exclusive interview in his study in the Shambu Niwas Palace within the towering City Palace sitting on the edge of Lake Pichola.
His voice is deep and sonorous and he chooses his words carefully pausing to give considered answers and expecting thoughtful responses. The Maharana, also known as Shriji, strikes one as a shrewd listener. Over the course of two conversations the Maharana that emerges is serious and business like, it is also possible to detect a guarded passion and drive to leave a legacy, an important consideration when reading the achievements of his ancestors like the energetic Kumbha (r. 1433-1468 AD) who built 32 fortresses including the immense must-see Kumbhalgarh. The Maharana has studied hospitality around the world as he sought to develop Udaipur’s offering from Chicago to Manchester, UK even spending a spell as a ‘struggling opening batsman’ for Lancashire 2nd XI at Old Trafford. But like the Queen he is effectively the CEO of the Mewar Royal Family, protector of its legacy for future generations. It is a custodian role which demands deep respect from visitors as we learn it is the spiritual duty of the Maharanas of Mewar dating back 1500 years and one which virtually all have had to fight for with foes ranging from the Moghuls and Akbar to Indira Gandhi.
“Heritage and our City Palace Museum can provide a direction and role model for the conservation of India’s iconic architecture, paintings, textiles, photographs, sculpture,” he says. “The potential of the museum is limitless across the arts, education and spirituality. We are the primary driving force behind Udaipur shaping its development as a city of excellence. We can take it to another level, acting as the tourism entrance point for the city and the area. We are under continuous development seeking ways to make our experience and collections better. The last 50 years have seen Udaipur firmly place itself as a heritage city on the global map. We are now reinventing ourselves for the future. The potential of the City Palace Museum is greater than any hospitality or commercial venture, therefore we have to raise awareness of the Museum to bring people to Udaipur.”
Shriji’s vision is working judging from the numbers, with 900,000 visitors in 2015 enabling the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF) and HRH Group of Hotels in total to employ 1500 people making it a prime employer. More widely the City Palace and its awesome museum, which date back to the 16th Century, has become the focal point for the Udaipur economy drawing in tourists from all over the world. And during our stay we see crowds of Indian school children all eager to learn bustling with energy mixed with mainly middle-aged tourists from the USA, Germany, the UK, France and Spain. In addition, many middle class Indian families and young couples on romantic breaks, join us in the restaurants in the evenings making for a wonderfully buoyant cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The first sight that hits the visitor emerging from a car at the Fateh Palace hotel, is Lake Pichola and the extraordinary setting of two palaces set in its centre, the Lake Palace, now also a hotel, and Jagmandir, also known as the Lake Garden Palace which also legend has it inspired the Taj Mahal. Then clustered around the lake are hotels and the city all set against the glorious Aravalli mountain range. However, Udaipur is much more than luxury hotels, this would be to fundamentally misunderstand its history and the mentality of Maharanas who created it and fought for it right up until the present day. And it is this heritage that the Maharana is so keen to conserve and champion to educated tourists from around the world.
“We know our target market; they are people who appreciate what we have to offer here. The British are great for us. They understand culture, history and the arts like many of our European and American visitors. We are not like Ibiza. People make a lot of effort to come here to experience the magic of India. We are as far away from the manufactured magic of resorts you can imagine. We offer the original authentic heritage experience. Our hotels are manned by people who care about hospitality we are not a bland hotel, where you could be anywhere in the world. This is about passion – for beauty, architecture, history, our museums, festivals and art collections. For the right person with the right tastes we can offer an unforgettable experience.”
As part of the Shriji’s vision he is following the United Nations definition of living heritage and is seeking UN recognition. This takes the form of detailed planning of events and linking heritage to the sustainable development of society. “This is a stamp of recognition, not something we are trying on our own in our own time frame. We are doing it the right way.” The scope of the Maharana’s cultural operations are huge covering much more than the exhibitions within the palace. There is an abundance of trusts and initiatives that support scholarships and activities across education, healthcare, spirituality and heritage management. Moreover, within the City Palace there is a school, technical institute, a massive Maharana Mewar Special Library and the Maharana Mewar Research Institute.
The evening before our interview the Maharana hosts my wife and I for cocktails. As we wait to be received, we scan the pictures of British Royalty and Viceroys decorating the sitting room. On one mantel piece two black and white portraits are particularly striking of Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and Vicereine of India. It is a poignant and respectful reminder of the close friendship Britain shared with families like the House of Mewar. Though disparaged by some academics in Britain the affection and bond Britain held under the Raj with many Indians was very real. India was a country where Britons of all classes felt at home with so much in common from manners and customs to a love of team sports and the arts and culture. The bond is here in Udaipur in all its wonder for British tourists to explore and enjoy and it is a reminder to Britain that India is our natural friend a factor Theresa May was keen to champion on her recent visit to India. To learn more of the special relationship there are fewer better places to visit than the City Palace and Udaipur, where visitors can find the real magic of India.
Prior to our visit to India an experienced traveller said that India has the best hotels in the world. I treated this comment cautiously, but having now stayed at the City Palace in all its unique beauty, history and culture I can see what was meant. Udaipur is unmissable.
What can be seen at the Palace?
The palace itself is a complex built over a period of nearly 400 years, with contributions from 24 rulers of the Mewar dynasty. Construction of The City Palace began in 1559. It comprises a collection of structures, including 11 small separate palaces. The architectural design although built over centuries complements itself. The interiors of the palace with its balconies, towers and cupolas exhibit delicate mirror-work, marble-work, murals, wall paintings, silver-work, inlay-work and leftover of colored glass.
The palaces within the complex are interlinked through a number of chowks or quadrangles with zigzag corridors, planned to avoid surprise attacks by enemies. Erected in the complex, after entering through the main Tripoliya (triple) gate, are the Suraj Gokhda (public address facade), the Mor Chowk (Peacock courtyard), the Dilkhush Mahal (heart’s delight), the Surya Chopad, the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of glass and mirrors), the Moti Mahal (Palace of Pearls), the Krishna Vilas (named after Lord Krishna), Shambu Niwas Palace (royal residence now), the Bhim Vilas, the Amar Vilas (with a raised garden) that faces the Baadi Mahal (the big palace), the Fateh Prakash Palace and the Shiv Niwas Palace; the last two have been converted into heritage hotels.
The City Palace Museum
The City Palace Museum comprises the Mardana Mahal, palace for the royal men, and The Zenana Mahal, palace for the royal ladies. Since 1969 these two palaces have been preserved and developed as The City Palace Museum, which is open to the public.
The Museum is in fact a series of palaces, built from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, spatially divided into royal private areas and public zones. Each of the palaces represents unique architectural styles and materials. Rare murals on the walls and ceilings, glass inlay work, original paintings and artefacts are spread over 20,000 square metres. Weaponry, armaments and personal belongings of the rulers are on display in their original places.
Palace courtyards such as the Mor Chowk with peacocks, exquisitely created with glass inlay adorning the walls; Chini Chitrashali with 18h century Dutch and Chinese tile-work; Krishan Vilas, Bhim Vilas, Chandra Mahal and the palace garden of Baadi Mahal at the highest point of the ridge are the most frequently visited.
The Museum houses an incomparable collection of court paintings of the Mewar School that flourished from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. These rare paintings are displayed in the Dilkushal Mahal, Baadi Mahal and the west wing of the Zenana Mahal.
Visitors can experience the architectural spaces and see breath taking views of Udaipur, the island-palaces on Lake Pichola and the mountains beyond. An optional Audio Service Guide (in English, German, French and Spanish) makes the museum tour memorable and filled with anecdotes.
Over the last five centuries, the City Palace has been welcoming visitors to its palaces, celebrating ancient Indian festivals with pomp and dignity, marking influences of the 1500-year-old royal family with the people of Mewar and the world.
This year three more galleries have been added with-out any charges.
The silver showcase at ‘Splendour of Silver’ celebrates the grandeur of Indian royal weddings with the exquisite ‘mandap’ to the daily rituals including royal transport. Several unique objects such as the ‘Ram Rewari’ and religious items from the collection will be shown here for the first time.
Symphony of Mewar, a royal collection of musical instruments is a tribute by Shriji to the Living Heritage of Mewar and is an insight into the musical instruments that once belonged to the Maharanas of Mewar and played by the renowned music artists. The 3rd gallery is Sculpture Gallery which marks the completion of yet another phase of The City Palace Museum’s revitalization, expansion and modernization in 2014.
Housed in the Fateh Prakash Palace is the world-famous Crystal Gallery, the biggest of its kind in the world. The collection is spread across the upper-gallery of the glittering The Durbar Hall
Crystal Gallery has been hailed as probably the single largest private collection of crystal anywhere in the world. Maharana Sajjan Singh (r. 1874-1884 AD) ordered the crystal collection from the Birmingham-based F&C Osler company. The collection includes a bewildering number of objects d’art, dinner sets, perfume bottles, decanters, glasses, washing bowls and even furniture. The Crystal Gallery also houses the only crystal bed in the world! The collection has been customised for the House of Mewar; the Crest of Mewar being delicately etched on the crystal, adding yet another amazing facet.
The Durbar Hall, which adorns the Fateh Prakash Palace, is of historical significance. In 1909, Lord Minto the Viceroy of India, laid its foundation stone and, in his honour, the hall was originally called Minto Hall. Its interior contains huge chandeliers and special lights, portraits of the Maharanas of Mewar, royal artefacts and the legendary armoury of the Mewar dynasty. The audio guide narrates the history and anecdotes about how the present Maharana, designed the gallery and how the crystal was unpacked after it had been in crates for over half a century.
The Vintage and Classic Car Collection
The Vintage and Classic Car Collection is a landmark in the city of Udaipur since it was inaugurated in February 2000. The grand limousines and cars showcased in the collection belong to the House of Mewar and are still in running condition. Visitors are privy to the display of the magnificent Rolls-Royce, 1939 Cadillac open convertibles, rare Mercedes models, 1936 Vauxhall and 1937 Opel models. The collection is housed in the original Palace Garage creating a pleasant hideaway from the bustle of the streets. One of the original Burmah Shell petrol pumps is not only still standing, but also in a usable condition. The garage was built at a time when the only cars in town belonged to the Royal Family. The bougainvillea-coated Garden Hotel and Restaurant, a Royal Retreat of HRH Group of Hotels is also housed within the elegant complex. The Garden Hotel derives its name from the near-by sprawling Sajjan Bagh gardens.
The Vintage & Classic Car Collection is a car collection with a difference including Ceremonial cars, Zenana cars and Sports cars. This collection allowed visitors to appreciate this prestigious collection of vintage cars for the first time in the year 2000. All the vehicles on show have belonged to the Maharanas of Mewar both past and present. Despite some vehicles being over 90 years old, each one has been painstakingly restored so that they are in working order.
Internationally famed James Bond film ‘Octopussy’ was shot in Udaipur in 1982-83 and The Rolls Royce 40-50 HP “Phantom II” Model -1934 Chassis No.181 RY Coach work by Windovers London was a part of the film.
1924 Rolls-Royce 20 hp, Barker Tourer (GLK 21) winner of Best of Class Category, Vintage Classic in the Cartier Travel with Style Concours in November 2008 held in Mumbai, India.
On the 19th August 2012, 1924 Rolls-Royce 20 hp, Barker Tourer (GLK 21), was awarded The Lucius Beebe Trophy at the 62nd edition of the Concours d’Elegance 2012 at Pebble Beach, California, USA.