Visitors from around the world gathered at the famous 450-year-old City Palace of Udaipur, India this weekend to witness the historic Ashwa Poojan ‘worshipping the horse’ ceremony.
It is the Manek Chowk or the palace grounds where the Ashwa Poojan has been traditionally celebrated, marking the ninth day of the auspicious Hindu festival of Navratri.
Visitors had a spectacular view of the proceedings, seated as they were at the flower-decked Naharon ka Darikhana overlooking the landscaped palace grounds and others having the spectacular view of the five century old Palace façade.
Widely referred to as both the Venice of the East and the City of Lakes, Udaipur has strong cultural connections to Britain. The city has hosted Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten, while its photogenic landscape and unique palaces and skylines led to the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy being extensively shot in Udaipur. In addition, the city’s museum collections feature numerous British-made pieces, ranging from silver and crystal to vintage cars.
The Ashwa Poojan ceremonial event dates back centuries at the City Palace Udaipur when the Maharanas of Mewar honoured their horses and elephants with prayers and offerings. This year visitors witnessed the ceremony conducted with solemn piety by the Chairman and Managing Trustee of Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF) Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, who is the titular head and 76th Custodian of the House of Mewar, hailed as the world’s oldest-serving dynasty.
Among the first to arrive at Manek Chowk was Shriji’s son, Mr Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, in traditional Mewari regal attire wearing a pugree or turban and carrying a sword befitting the dignity of the religious occasion. He greeted those present and waited to receive his father at the ceremonial site.
The ceremony began with entry of the Palace Band, with its bagpipers and drummers, leading a procession through the gates of Chandra Chowk into the Manek Chowk palace grounds. The horses were led by an energetic nagara or drum beater. Surrounded by standard bearers, Shriji was seated in a 1905 English Royal Landau Four-in-Hand carriage. As he dismounted, he graciously took a traditional guard of honour.
Along with the senior priests, he then proceeded with the prayer ceremony of worshipping the horses amid chants and rituals. Each of the rare Marwari horses was dressed in robes, jewellery and guided to the prayer ceremony by their grooms.
The horses participating in the ceremony were Raj Swaroop, Ashwa Raj and Raj Mukut.
The Marwari horse is fundamental to the region’s history. Ballads and songs recount the beauty, bravery, loyalty of this breed over the last 1000 years. The Marwari breed with distinctive inward pointed ears has been revived, from virtual extinction, by the MMCF at its Shikarbadi stables in Udaipur. However, the number of horses is still very few all over the world. Equine experts put the number at 1000.
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar said: “The horse is an integral part of our living heritage. It is as important for us today to preserve the rare Marwari horse bloodlines as it is to preserve our palaces and temples. From time immemorial horse and man have evolved between them an affinity of not just true companionship but a great deal of trust, respect and deep love. Dedicated to this unique relationship, Ashwa Poojan or worshipping the horse ceremony is our way of paying homage to this bond of eternal loyalty, gratitude and friendship.”
Ashwa Poojan festival is a wonderful event for visitors to see how the living heritage of Mewar is being kept alive at the City Palace; it is a cherished opportunity for tourists to learn about Mewar’s culture while enjoying a heritage holiday.
In his inimitable way, Shriji bridges the past with the present as he said, “The magic of Udaipur is real and not manufactured. You can see it here today drawn from centuries old traditions, culture and civilizational ethos. For the discerning visitors, this is a unique unforgettable experience we offer. Our heritage is not a sculpture carved in the past, al dente and voiceless which time will inevitably grind down and turn to dust; it lives with us and as we live, constantly evolving and thriving to become even more burnished and beautiful with the passing of time.”
Mr Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar said the relationship between Rajputs and their horse dates back centuries. “We have grown up loving our horses in battle and peace,” he said. “The most famous Rajput horse is Chetak, who achieved immortality in Mewar when he saved the life of Maharana Pratap by carrying him to safety, despite being mortally wounded, at the Battle of Haldighati in 1576 CE. Chetak’s bravery is revered around Udaipur with his own statue, several roundabouts on the city roads carry his name. We remember Chetak today and how his great courage and loyalty is still reflected in the character our beloved Marwari horses.”
A guest from the UK said: “It is a treat to be here at The City Palace. The ceremony, impeccable security and the large-hearted hospitality makes it so special in Udaipur. I have rarely seen such palace events throughout my travels in India.”
The iconic City Palace in Udaipur is the premier attraction in the city drawing million visitors a year. In July 2017 readers of Travel & Leisure magazine voted Udaipur one of the top 15 destinations in the world. The poll was based on sights and landmarks, culture, cuisine, friendliness, shopping, and overall value. Udaipur was the only city in South Asia to make the list.