Saturday 1 November 2014

Day 162: Udaipur - Visiting the Mewars

The gigantic city palace in Udaipur
The Mewars are certainly fond of themselves.  Every trend of art, music, and architecture in the city palace of Udaipur is entirely due to the greatness of the ruler who installed it.  Fact.  Broader social or cultural trends don't come into it, nor influences (domestic and foreign), or any other source of progress in the arts.  Most of the plaques in the city palace museum, our first port of call for the morning, spoke entirely of what x, y or z member of the Mewar dynasty achieved, usually accompanied by a smug portrait of said leader, with varying degrees of artistic value.

In a world of warring city states, the Mewars' achievements sometimes focused on the battlefields rather than the arts.  Of course, this means they achieved many great victories, never defeats.  When talking about the battle of Haldighati against the Mughals, for example, the exhibition text explained that Maharana Pratap Singh decided to make "a tactical retreat".  Now I'm no expert on Rajastani history and I don't know the details of the battle, but I take the words "tactical retreat" to mean: "he got beat".  Let's call a spade a spade.

One of the more tasteful thrones in the city palace
Whatever I thought of the commentary (and I'm being harsh; there were some more recent exhibits of musical instruments and Hindu gods that were informative and well-presented), the palace was enormous, speckled with courtyards, rooms of glass, thrones, paintings.  Many of the latter featured hunting scenes including tiger hunts aplenty and the occasional elephant fight under the lash of the whip.  One particularly unsavoury painting showed a tiger being hung up by its paw for sport.  Such, presumably, were the pursuits of the elite - British and Mewari alike, no doubt.

Susan enjoying her visit to the city palace
A far more enjoyable prospect was the view over Lake Pichola.  After our visit to the palace we took the ropeway cable car to one of the surrounding hills so we could spend a snap-happy half hour looking at blue water lapsing into the white turrets of the millionaires' Lake Palace Hotel then back into blue water and wooded hillsides again.

Our own hotel was a bit of a treat and had a huge bay window overlooking the lake, so we returned there at beer o' clock in the afternoon to relax in rather more sumptuous surroundings than we are used to.  Then we retraced our steps to the palace for the evening sound and light show.  The building looked its best, with soft lights cutting through the lacey-edged cupolas, while the turrets cut into the dark sky beyond.  At this time of the evening, Udaipur looked as romantic as all the guidebooks say it is.  Alas, the Mewar dynasty did not radiate quite the same soft light!

Did you know that, beyond doubt, the Mewars are the longest serving dynasty in the history of the world?  That "without the glorious history of the Mewars, the history of India would be but a history of slavery"?  That Maharana Pratap Singh was the world's first freedom fighter?  Did you not know these important facts?

The show was by turns informative, distasteful, shocking, interesting, tedious and enjoyable, in a whole range of different orders.  There was quite a lot of wife burning, a very tender treatment of the first English delegates to Udaipur (why be so tender when they were playing divide and rule for all they were worth?), a general disgust for the Mughals (are there any contemporary resonances here when passions run high on India's northern border, I wonder?) and great pride in Udaipur's long-standing independence and Mewari leadership.  There was a lot to be intrigued by, dubious about, and intrigued by again.

The city palace by night, Udaipur
When the lights went out, we took our last walk along the shores of Udaipur's beautiful lake.  It is flanked by a relentless parade of tourist shops selling pashminas, silk scarves, and leather shoes.  The cries of "hello, where are you from?", "please just look, not buy, just look", "hello, hello, (as we walk away the volume and urgency increases) hello, excuse me," were dying down for the night.  (Why are there thousands of shops and only a handful of tourists?)

I stopped to pick up a scarf to cover my head when we visit temples, and a pair of Indian sandals.  Then we returned to eat our final curry in the land of the Mewars.  From our vantage point on the hotel roof, the bridges cut a line across calm waters, the lamps on the palace gradually faded, so did the spices on our tongue.  The air cooled; candles flickered.  It did not seem to matter how highly the rulers of Udaipur regarded themselves after all.

The famed Lake Palace Hotel, Udaipur

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