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Lost in the magic of Mewar

String Kathputli Darbar (puppet darbar) at Bagore ki Haveli in Udaipur Photo: Rohit Jain Paras  

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Forgotten battlefields, formidable forts and pretty palaces... We have our fill of Udaipur, the Venice of the subcontinent.

The sun sets. The Aravallis turn pink, then purple, before a dark mantle covers them.

The car crunches on loose gravel and rolls to a stop in front of a signboard that reads ‘Panther Crossing’. The moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. Gaunt herons nestle in the trees and a lone slate-roofed house stands in a clearing by the undulating road. We are clearly lost — this is what comes of trusting an app for the route, and a man who won’t ask for directions. Uninclined to spend the night in the borderlands between the Rajsamand and Udaipur districts, I ask the shepherd grazing his flock the name of the place. “Haldighati,” he answers.

Haldighati — the yellow vale. The winds whisper the memory of what is perhaps Rajputana’s most valiant battle fought between its legendary warrior Maharana Pratap and the Mughal forces in 1576. A battle so fabled that all of Rajput valour is distilled in the never-say-die spirit of Pratap and his beloved steed, Chetak. Labelled the ‘Thermopile of Mewar’ by Oriental scholar and historian, Lt. Col. James Todd, Haldighati’s rocky outcrops, parched grasslands and yellow soil gleam peacefully in the moonlight, the voices of cavaliers and cannon silenced by the passage of time.

Through the late afternoon, we had travelled through the picturesque MDR 36, with its homespun vignettes of rural India — ancient wells where bulls drew water and women loped past gracefully with wheat-sheaves balanced on their heads — to the formidable hill fort of Kumbhalgarh that stands among forests and ravines. Seat of the Sisodias of Mewar in the intervening years between the sack of Chittaurgarh and the founding of the resplendent city of Udaipur, the 15th Century UNESCO World Heritage Site, strung across 13 peaks of the Aravallis, was virtually impregnable in its day.

Built by Rana Kumbha, the fort has seven imposing gates — Arait Pol from where signals flashed warning of approaching enemies, Hulla Pol where the mark of Mughal cannon is still seen, and Hanuman Pol that stands beside a shrine, among them. Its crenellated grey walls are the second largest in the world, and, from them, the distant sands of the Thar are visible.

I beat a reluctant camel carrying water uphill, past the many-spiked gates to the pastel Badal Mahal. It was here, in the jewel-like rooms of the Palace of the Clouds, that Maharana Pratap was born, although the present structure was built by Rana Fateh Singh in the 19th Century. From this vantage point, picket upon picket of walls snakes around the 300 and more Jain and Hindu temples, still revered by the people who live inside the fort.

Sixty-odd kilometres to the south stands the stunning city of the sun, Udaipur, where lakes court palaces, and Bagheera was born in  The Jungle Book. The limpid blue Pichola, carved out by the founder of the city, Udai Singh II, is punctuated by the Jag Mandir and the Lake Palace — their pristine reflections pouring charm on the waters. In the evenings, the stone-elephant colonnaded Jag Mandir twinkles like a galaxy of stars, and its beauty is said to have inspired Shah Jahan, who once sought refuge here from his father Jahangir. The Lake Palace, now a luxury hotel, is where James Bond grappled with the villain, Octopussy. But, at the moment, a newly-married couple poses for a wedding portrait. As the boat chugs past the Gangaur ghat, famed for its scenes of women in leheriya saris celebrating the festival, sunlight dances through the latticed balconies that hang low over the waters.

On the other side, lording over Fateh Sagar Lake is Moti Magri, with the Maharana Pratap Smarak atop it. It’s a gentle ramble to the peak, through a wooded path filled with the plaintive calls of peacocks and prancing monkeys. A beautifully carved statue of the Rajput warrior astride Chetak, flanked by engravings of the Battle of Haldighati, looks over the city.

At the museum, school children saunter past paintings of the Sisodia royals, the lone commoner Panna Dai whose unswerving loyalty saved the infant Udai Singh II, armoury and wicked daggers from centuries ago.

The City Palace, built over years, overlooks Lake Pichola, and is accessed through the exquisite lamp-lit Daiji bridge and a warren of streets that sells knick-knacks. The Tripolia Gate opens into a magnificent courtyard where, every evening, an impressive sound and light show throws the spotlight on the history of Mewar. Inside stands a host of palaces, museums and splendid courtyards, such as the Mor Chowk with its inlay of coloured mosaic.

Morning finds me at the Monsoon Palace perched on Bansdara hill. A fine mist of rain veils the city. Ahead lie the lakes sparkling like diamonds, behind stands the imposing Kumbhalgarh. Between the two, they define the spirit of Udaipur — forged by blood, beauty and the stuff of legend.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2017 4:01:55 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/lost-in-the-magic-of-mewar-at-udaipur-the-venice-of-the-subcontinent/article8198215.ece