From the time the first foundation stones of the City Palace were laid in 1559, in what came to be called ‘Udaipur’, through to the rituals and prayers offered every morning at the city’s temples and shrines in 2017, this historic ‘city of lakes’ has a sacred geography, often not discernible to visitors. Religious rituals, the location of statues of gods and goddesses are intrinsically linked to the daily life with just over half-a-million residents of this heritage city of Rajasthan.
India is not just an intensely spiritual country, where nothing is done without the element of religion. Whether a house is being built, a wedding is being planned, or a baby is being named, all of the details are decided according to different religious rituals. Diana Eck, in her magnum opus on India, realised that “the entire land of India is a great network of pilgrimage places – referential, inter-referential, ancient and modern, complex and ever-changing. As a whole, it constitutes what would have to be called a ‘sacred geography’ as vast and complex as the whole of the subcontinent…everything is a part of a living, storied and intricately connected landscape.”
It all rings so true when one hears about how the first stones of Udaipur were laid on the instruction of Udai Singh II, Maharana of Mewar and founder of one of India’s most picturesque and romantic cities.
Legend has it that when Maharana Udai Singh chose to build his city on the shores of the Lake Pichola, in the present-day state of Rajasthan, he did so on the advice of a holy sage living on the hill where the foundation stones of the Palace were laid. To this day, one of the first sights that greets visitors to Udaipur’s City Palace Museum is the Dhuni Mata shrine at the Rai Angan, built to honour where the sage worshipped. The central courtyard marks the oldest part of the palace and houses a flame that continues to burn in honour of the sage.
Had the City Palace been constructed in Europe, it would no doubt have been built overlooking beautiful Lake Pichola. The view today takes in the magical ‘floating palaces’ of Jagmandir and the Lake Palace, two of India’s most luxurious hotels. The entrance to the City Palace according to ‘ Vastu Shastra’ the ancient Hindu science of architecture, design and spatial geometry which brings together astronomy, astrology and the science of directions is correctly facing the North. Intricate sculptures, temples and shrines can be found throughout the City Palace a constant reminder of just how central are these sacred spaces to the lives of those who live, work or visit here. Every year a million or more tourists throng the streets and hundreds of thousands pass noisily through. The City Palace Museum’s 450-year-old gates. In direct contrast, a group of seven priests go about their business quietly and calmly, spending a few minutes each day visiting every holy site – praying and worshipping, leaving flowers and lighting incense and lamps, a timeless ritual wrapped in esoteric meanings.
Mr Bhupendra Singh Auwa is the administrator in Chief and Dr. Neeraja Poddar the Curator of Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation, a public charitable trust that has managed Udaipur’s City Palace Museum since 1969. He says while society has changed beyond recognition, the same traditions continue in the City Palace as part of the living heritage of Mewar.
“These religious practices have not changed but the involvement of ordinary citizens in these religious practices and customs may have decreased in recent years but the young are showing great interest which is most encouraging,” he said. “However, the Maharana and his family continue these practices. Many people look up to the family and maintaining these traditions sets a good example.”
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, 76th Custodian of the House of Mewar, is the Chairman and Managing Trustee of the MMCF. For centuries, his family has seen it as their moral responsibility to serve the people of Udaipur and preserve the heritage of Mewar. Like his ancestors before him, he worships on every Monday evening, when present in Udaipur, at the Shree Eklingji temple. Built from local stone and marble, the temple lies 22km to the north of the city and is famous for its 108 temples which are enclosed by a fortified wall. Shree Parmeshwaraji Maharaj, as Shree Eklingnath ji is referred to, is the personal family deity of the Maharanas of Mewar. He is the Supreme Lord of Mewar while the Maharanas as His Diwan ( Prime Minister) serving the people in His name and governing as Custodians not rulers. This is the source of the spiritual heritage of Mewar which has often not been explored nor understood by those visiting Udaipur and its iconic City Palace.
Temples and shrines can be found throughout the City Palace. By the Badi Pol, the main entrance gate, is the Annapurna temple. As the Goddess of providing food, she is worshipped so there will always be food for the population of Udaipur to eat.
A number of British connections can also be found throughout the City Palace Museum’s sacred sites. Just inside the main visitor entrance is a statue of the Hindu God, Lord Ganesh. Nearby lie Victorian-era tiles made in the UK during the 1930s. These tiles form part of artistic displays around a number of religious statues in the museum. Crystal from F&C Osler Birmingham, UK can also be seen at a number of places.
Maintaining the palace’s temples and sacred sites is no mean feat, and specialist temple architectural builders, known as shilpashastris (Sompuras), are brought in when a site needs to be reconstructed or altered. These temple architects are sourced from the surrounding areas and build in the traditional style using the conventional building materials. They are adept at building without mortar, by placing stone on top of stone and securing structures with a keystone.
Maintenance and decorative work is ongoing as part of Udaipur’s City Palace Museum are updated and restored. In 2005, work began to restore a section of the palace for family worship. A new marble floor was laid and work carried out to create three temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha and Shakti. Small statues and memorabilia with religious significance that belong to family members, alive and deceased, are preserved here for the purposes of continued worship (puja). Individuals will go to the temple to mark special occasions like birthdays and for wedding rituals.
Projects focused on maintaining Udaipur’s spectacular 200,000 sq ft City Palace Museum continue apace, alongside conservation work designed to provide visitors with the best possible experience and display the museum’s collection to its full potential. The city’s reputation as a prime heritage destination continues to grow and evolve, yet these sacred spaces continue to retain their significance, occupying a central role: just as it has since the first stones of the city of Udaipur were laid more than 450 years ago on a hill beside the Lake Pichola.