It isn’t everyday that one rubs shoulders with royalty. On a warm afternoon in March, we had the pleasure of Udaipur’s Maharana Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar’s company at his opulent Shambhu Niwas Palace. The 69 year-old king is the 76th custodian of the unbroken Mewar dynasty (Maharanas believe they are custodians of the kingdom on behalf of the family deity Lord Shiva or Shri Eklingji).
For several decades, the Maharana has brought about significant changes in the managing of palaces (he converted the City Palace into a museum and certain palaces into hotels, hosted festive celebrations on a grand scale and implemented eco-friendly measures across various properties).
Old and new
Sitting in his study room surrounded by sculptures, traditional artworks and massive tomes, the Maharana was busy at work on his laptop and smartphone. It was the day of Holika Dahan (first day of Holi) or when the city celebrates the victory of good over evil (demoness Holika burnt to death as she tried to harm the child devotee Prahlad).
As part of the Eternal Mewar festivals at his palace, the Maharana, a stickler for tradition, has been organising special Holi celebrations over the last few years. “Being a spring festival, Holi has a lot of significance. But lately, it has become more about throwing colour; it has turned into a base celebration, moving away from its original purpose.
Epics and books narrate the story of Holika but few know of it in India. So, we host celebrations of traditional festivals to explain their deep-rooted meaning,” shares the Maharana, adding that it has been a traditional celebration at the Palace for hundreds of years.
The four-day long music and craft festival held at the City Palace during Holi becomes a must-watch if one is in Udaipur around the time. You can catch a mix of dance dramas, Hori sangeet and thumri performances that celebrate spring-specific ragas, traditional dance forms as well as a showcase of local craft forms.
“It’s all about preserving the living heritage of the city. There is an agricultural and cultural significance to spring, and we are trying to showcase this. Holi has always been about the Holika Dahan in Udaipur. We hope to inspire people to similarly understand and preserve traditional celebrations of other cultural festivities. Ultimately, these elements are markers of our unique identity and way of life,” he believes.
The Palace also celebrates Ashwa Puja or worship of horses — an ancient ceremony that salutes the important role played by the mare in battle. With environmental issues being a pressing concern, the Maharana also set an example by following eco-friendly practices across his hotels and palaces, including solar energy heating panels, solar powered vehicles and sewage recycling lines.
“As responsible citizens we must look after the environment. After all, we are stakeholders in this venture. We don’t need to be placard-carrying demonstrators but we can make a difference, individually. We hope to inspire people and businesses to go green.”
The Maharana has a personal collection of 30 car models from around the world on display (his prized possession at the moment is a Rolls Royce Phantom 2 model). But at the end of the day, he observes that life as a royal is not much different from that of the common man. “We don’t chew on gold biscuits,” he jokes, adding, “Our perceptions, emotions, and the challenges are similar to the common man. It’s about balancing our responsibilities with the demands of royalty,” he reasons.
That evening, we watched the royal family, decked up in finery and seated in antique buggies that were ushered into Manek Chowk Palace courtyard. As we witnessed the religious ceremonies that culminated with lighting the traditional sacred fire by royal family members, it drove home the importance to preserve living tradition, in Udaipur or any other part of India.
> In 1562, Udai Singh (the ruler after whom Udaipur is named) built a dam across the River Ahar (known as the Udai Sagar) that represents the first-ever attempt in the world in watershed area planning.
> Later Maharanas created smaller lakes and dams to control the region’s water supply including the diversion of a river to feed the lake known as Jana Sagar by Rana Raj Singh. He is considered the father of river diversion.
> Maharana Fateh Singh created the Fateh Sagar Lake in 1678 by building a dam across the River Ahar to divert rainwater into this lake. It involved construction of artificial canals and waterways of various designs to link all the rivers and lakes in the basin.
Holika Dahan: Held for four days prior to Holi and featuring music, art, dance and crafts. Kartik Poornima: Held in November, the festival is held on the day believed to be the only day of the year when Lord Brahma (the creator) is worshipped. Ashwa poojan: Held in October, it is dedicated to horses and celebrates their loyalty and has a special connect with warriors (like Rana Pratap’s horse Chetak).
How to get there
Udaipur is 723 km from Mumbai.
By air: Fly in to the Maharana Pratap Airport which is close to Dabok, 22 km from Udaipur. Domestic airlines have flights from Mumbai.
By train: You can travel by the Palace of Wheels or take a train connecting Jaipur, Mumbai and Delhi. From Mumbai, you can board the Udaipur Mumbai Settigunta Express.
By Road: There are buses to Udaipur from neighbouring cities of Delhi and Jaipur.
Log on to: www.eternalmewar.in