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 Kennedy (Later 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’ Ben Pinnington reflects here on just some of the awesome history of the Maharanas who have led the House of Mewar, the oldest royal dynasty in the world, since 566 AD continuing to the present day under the visionary leadership of 76th Maharana Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the driving force behind Udaipur’s transformation into one of the world’s greatest heritage destinations.
In June Udaipur was back in the international news following the sad passing of British actor Sir Roger Moore, who famously filmed the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy in the city. Paying tribute to Moore Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the 76th custodian of the House of Mewar, said Moore had single-handedly raised the quality of life in, and transformed the economy of, Udaipur.
“The passing away of Sir Roger Moore was received in Udaipur with deep shock, sadness and disbelief,” said Shriji. “The only James Bond Udaipur recognises is Sir Roger Moore and there was an astonishing reaction in the city 35 years after the filming of ‘Octopussy’. Since that time the population of the city has risen from 250,000 to 800,000. Today people here watch just one Bond Movie ‘Octopussy’ with one immortalised James Bond.”
It is was a typically generous tribute from the Maharana on behalf of a family and city that has for centuries celebrated art and heritage and remains deeply loyal to those who have helped it.
Although the history of Mewar is a very long one, and impossible to do justice to in a short article, it is worth recounting some important facts that start to paint the picture of why heritage is so important to the city and its royal family.
A divine intervention
The Maharana’s have immense religious significance to Hindus to the point where Maharanas have been seen as leaders of Hindus as well as all Rajputs. The Maharanas of Mewar can trace their roots back to the first century AD when their ancestors are believed moved to the Aravalli Hills from Kashmir. In the sixth century AD invaders wiped out the entire royal family save for the Queen Pushpavati who was pregnant with the sole heir to the house. In the kind of heart wrenching story that would be repeated in the Mewar’s dramatic history Pushpavati was given sanctuary in the Aravilli Hills by priests. When she gave birth she named her son Guhil but as was the custom the Queen performed johar, self-immolation, by throwing herself onto a funeral pyre to preserve herself dishonour or captivity, leaving her son to temple priests. Guhil was a natural leader and founded the State of Mewar in 566 developing a spirit of iron discipline and resolve, characteristics which have come to define the Maharanas and their followers. Two hundred years later their first great ruler emerged Bappa Rawal, who was just three years old when the then ruler died. Bappa met a holy sage who educated him in Hindu morality and taught him to recognise the local deity Shree Eklingnath ji, a manifestation of Shiva. It is from this point that the Maharanas of Mewar have considered themselves to be earthly representatives of Shiva and whatever power they had was due to being appointed by Ekling Ji. For hundreds of years every Monday the Maharanas have made the pilgrimage to the beautiful temple of Ekling Ji, just half an hour from the Palace, to seek guidance and counsel. This is a key sight for culture tourists in Udaipur and an important place to grow understanding of the history of the Custodians of House of Mewar as ‘Maharanas’.
The religious ethos is central to the story of Mewar. The Maharanas see it as their solemn duty to protect and serve the people of Mewar, in a way that is different to European royalty which is based on superiority and that of the Rajputs which is more based on family ties between the ruler and the subjects as all descend from the same family.
The leadership the Maharana’s have shown in times of conflict is another key element for tourists to explore. Mewar’s history flies into some of India’s most epic moments. The City Palace Museum does great justice to the Maharana’s at war with a fantastic collection of paintings, armoury and artefacts spanning hundreds of years. Visitors to the museum will also learn that religion dictated that the wars in Mewar were defensive in obedience to vows of honour, decency and hospitality made to the deity Ekling Ji. But the immense courage with which the Maharanas fought the invaders is on a par with Churchill or Wellington to a British understanding.
Rana Kumbha ‘the fortress-king’
One such Maharana visitors can learn of is Kumbha who reigned from 1433 to 1468. At this time many states had been overcome by Muslim Sultans invaders and Mewar was attacked many times and always vigorously defended by Kumbha. After one victory Kumbha built a triumphant column at Chittor 120 feet high called the Tower of Victory, five hundred years later it is believed to be as impressive now as then. Kumbha was a relentless builder constructing 32 of the 84 fortresses in Mewar including the monumental Kumbhalgarh which is an essential trip for visitors. Brian Masters who has written a definitive book on Mewar ‘Maharana -the story of the rulers of Udaipur’ says the majestic sight is akin to ‘first gawping the Grand Canyon in Arizona’, 36 kms of wall long and 20 feet thick protecting a palace elevated to the summit of a hill. As with today’s Maharana creativity flourished under Kumbha with schools of architecture and art being established giving rise to stone masons who would be of considerable use to the Moghul emperors. Music and Literature also flourished and it is of great interest to tourists to see how the arts are encouraged within Mewar through the museum, scholarships and festivals.
Udai – city founder
Another prominent Maharana was Udai Singh II who gave the city its name after he realised that Chittor was indefensible and was forced to relocate after being attacked in 1568 by the Moghul emperor Akbar. Maharana Udai had identified the area around Lake Pichola in 1553 and to this day a shrine in the Lake Palace burns a flame in perpetual gratitude and marks the oldest point of the City Palace.
Rana Pratap – the greatest warrior
When Maharana Udai Singh II died, the era of the greatest of all Mewar warriors Rana Pratap began. Visitors will find epic paintings within the City Palace Museum depicting the famous battles with Emperor Akbar. At the time Mewar was one tiny region of resistance in the huge Moghul Empire and Pratap’s truculent resistance became, and has remained, an inspiration not only to Mewar and Udaipur but the whole of India. For the last ten years of his life after repelling Akbar he ruled without interference and when he died in 1597 Akbar was said to have cried. Today Pratap is known as an inspiration to Gandhi and the ‘light and life the Hindu’ community.
The fight for the title
In 1971 the Indian Government passed the Constitution Amendment Act of 1971 which put an end to the lineage of Maharanas. The Maharana’s of Mewar were once again fighting for their survival from aggressors like Akbar who were determined to strip away their power and their role as spiritual custodians of their people, not to mention their fundamental value to heritage, education and tourism. The present Maharana’s father Bhagwat resolved to fight and after reflecting for many years devised a legally and socially acceptable solution. Bhagwat recreated the institution of the Maharana in his will directing that all his assets including the palace be donated to a new Trust to be called the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation. Institution Trust of which his son the present Maharana would be managing trustee. This ensured the name Maharana continued in perpetuity and not terminate with the 75th generation.
Coming soon, IndiaGBnews looks at the impact of the present Maharana and 76th Custodian of the House of Mewar, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar.