RAJPUT CHIVALRY, UDAIPUR
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all...” the nursery rhyme jingle runs through my mind as I stand in front of an angled mirror which reflects the scene of a lake and a little palace that lies beyond the room’s window. The present blurs and the image of Padmini, the fairest and most beautiful queen and wife of Rajput ruler Raja Ratan Singh of Mewar, appears briefly as a reflection in the mirror. And in my place, stands a burly king who draws in his breath with amazement and desire.
These are ghosts of the past of course, conjured up by my imagination. And easily so, for I’m in one of Rajasthan’s most iconic forts—Chittorgarh, whose crenellated battlements are the setting for the legend of Padmini and the Tuglak king of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji. It is a tale of lust, courage and tragedy.
Among the many versions of the story, Khilji, obsessed by desire for Padmini, lays seige to the fortress. Surrender is out of the question for a proud Rajput ruler, and Raja Ratan Singh, knowing full well that they face certain death, rides out to battle Khilji’s army. Inside the fortress, rather than submit to Khilji, Padmani and the ladies of the court commit ritual jauhar—immolation by fire. Khilji’s victory is hollow: Chittorgarh fort lies deserted, and the Rajput credo, “Death before Dishonour” is vindicated.
The Sisodia Rajput rulers of Mewar claim their legendary origins from the Sun god and their larger than life hero, Maharana Partap Singh’s exploits bear comparison with those of King Arthur of Camelot. Chittorgarh was eventually conquered by the Moghul emperor Akbar, and in the mid-1500s, the Sisodias moved to Udaipur where the clan’s descendents still live today.
Of the many spectacular Rajasthani cities, Udaipur is one of the loveliest, mainly due to the man-made Pichola Lake in the city’s centre. Two island palaces float on its surface – the white marble Lake Palace which appears like an enchanting mirage on the Lake, and the Jag Mandir Palace with its Arabian Nights cupolas and minarets silhouetted against the Aravalli Hills.
The opulent Lake Palace was built in 1746 and its guests have included Queen Elizabeth and Jacquie Kennedy; the James Bond thriller, Octopussy was filmed here, as were parts of the TV series, Jewel in the Crown.
Not being of VIP stature myself, I settle for visiting the nearby Jag Mandir Palace instead. Sitting under the cupolas of its marble terrace, I sip a mango lassi and gaze across the deep blue waters of the lake – and try to visualize a tale that once played out right here.
Picture if you will a drunken Maharana Jawan Singh offering half his kingdom to a famous natani (dancer), if she would dance on a tightrope strung from the west bank of the adjoining village to the City Palace on the east bank. As she commenced her dance, horrified courtiers begged the Maharana to withdraw his offer, but sober now, yet compelled to keep his word, Jawan Singh decided on another solution. He ordered that the rope be cut. As she plunged to her death the dancer cursed the Maharana’s family shrieking that they would have no male heirs for seven generations. Apparently the curse held true as six out of the seven succeeding rulers had to adopt sons to continue the Sisodia lineage. Powerful stuff...those curses!
Udaipur’s City Palace sprawls across a high ridge overlooking Lake Pichola and it houses some of Rajasthan’s most spectacular and priceless art objects. At the Palace’s entrance, eight marble Torana archways mark the spot where the ruler would be weighed against gold and silver coins which were then distributed to the poor on special occasions. As I stroll through the Palace, pausing before Rajput paintings and treasures, my guide regales me with tales of romantic dalliances, valorous deeds, clan wars, and even a gallant steed named Chetak.
Among the Palace’s most valuable objects is a solid gold bejeweled visage of a Rajput warrior set within the rays of the sun—a symbol of the clan’s mythological origins; among the quirkiest is a blue leather toilet seat imported from London. The piece de resistance however is the Mor Chowk gallery with its series of exquisite and intricate glass mosaic peacocks representing the seasons.
As I leave the City Palace, the setting sun turns the waters of Lake Pichola to flame. The Lake Palace is a-twinkle with lights and the distant shoreline is smudged with smoke rising wraithlike from cooking fires in villages tucked into the Aravalli hills.
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Lake Palace on Lake Pichola
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