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Living heritage is what Udaipur offers

Susheela Nair, Udaipur

Published: Oct. 13, 2015
Updated: Apr. 18, 2016

I watched an amber sun sink behind mountain tops as I sat in the Sunset Terrace of the Fateh Prakash Hotel in Udaipur, the fairytale city of lakes, havelis, marble palaces, impregnable forts and resplendent maharajas in Rajasthan.

As I savoured the restaurant’s Mewari delicacies, I could see in the distance the Taj Lake Palace Hotel glimmering in the aquamarine waters of Lake Pichola and gradually acquiring a spectacular glow with the illuminations at twilight.

The hotel is just a boat ride away. It has archways embellished with intricate carvings and scenic courtyards filled with lily ponds and fountains. Taj Palace was also one of the filming spots for the James Bond movie, Octopussy.

Encircled by temples, family mansions, bathing ghats and palaces, Lake Pichola is the star attraction of Udaipur. Equally fascinating is the Jag Mandir Palace, the first island palace of Lake Pichola and the inspiration behind the world- famous Taj Mahal in Agra.

I was in Udaipur to attend the World Heritage Living Traditions Festival, jointly organised by UNESCO in New Delhi and the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF) in Udaipur, at the City Palace Complex. Apart from thought-provoking talks by dignitaries from global and national organisations, NGOs, educational institutions and  foundations, there were craft workshops, music concerts, a photography exhibition, and a Heritage Walk through Unnoticed Udaipur.

After the conference I embarked on a tour of the City Palace Complex which is dotted with art galleries, museums and award-winning heritage hotels. Equally spectacular is the City Palace, a masterpiece in marble and granite with massive gates, a maze of corridors and inter-connected courtyards and rooms.  A quick tour of the City Palace Museum provided me with a sense of Mewar’s history. I saw rooms extravagantly decorated with mirrors, tiles and paintings and a large, myriad collection of artifacts.

The arched windows with coloured glass panes and sculptured bas relief embellishments held me spellbound. Other highlights include the Kaanch ki Burj which, as the name suggests, is decorated with glasswork from the floor to the ceiling. There is also a gallery here embellished with Dutch and Chinese tiles.

The palace, however, is best known for the Mor Chowk with its splendid blue-green convex mirror inlay and mosaic reliefs of dancing peacocks. Manek Chowk, the ornately landscaped palace grounds, comes alive during festivals, ceremonies and the breathtaking Holi ka Dahan ceremony when age-old rituals are performed and the holy bonfire lit.

The Crystal Gallery, located in the Fateh Prakash Palace, boasts of an exquisite collection of European crystal cut-glass furniture and vases and mirrors dating back to the 1870s. Many other items are also on display. The gallery houses dinner sets, perfume bottles, furniture and the only crystal bed in the world.

Don’t also miss seeing the imposing Surya Gokhda, the emblem of Surya, the Sun God.

The walls of the Moti Mahal are inlaid with bits of glass and mirrors, creating a magical interplay of reflections. Dilkush Mahal (Palace of Joy) is embellished with magnificent miniature frescoes and two splendid chambers – the Kaanch ki Burj (Turret of Glass) and the Chitran ki Burj (Painted Turret). Manek Mahal (Ruby Palace) has entire walls inlaid with ornate mirror work and coloured glass. The Music Gallery, where musical instruments belonging to the House of Mewar are on display, is worth a peek. The Sculpture Gallery is equally interesting.

During our Heritage Walk, we strolled down winding cobble-stoned streets lined with old crumbling havelis and passed art and handicraft shops spilling onto the street. We climbed up to the magnificent Jagdish Mandir which has a spire that is 80 feet high and is richly decorated with friezes of apsaras, dancers and elephants. From there, we headed to Jagdish Chowk, which is filled with dozens of small and colourful shops.

Another interesting stop in my itinerary was the Vintage & Classic Car Museum.  For automobile junkies it can be overwhelming to see the Maharaja’s gleaming collection of cars. There are grand limousines, automobiles, a magnificent Rolls Royce,  Cadillac open convertibles, rare Mercedes models, a 1936 Vauxhall and a 1937 Opel which belonged to the House of Mewar and are still in perfect running condition.

During our Udaipur sojourn, we learnt that this heritage city is globally renowned for promoting tourism, the visual and performing arts, education, sports and spirituality. It has emerged as a city with ‘centres of excellence’ exemplifying how powerful a catalyst living heritage can be in fuelling new ideas for the future.

Wherever we went, we could sense the pride the people of Udaipur took in their heritage. The painstaking efforts of the custodians of the City Palace and the MMCF in conserving their city is commendable.

Shrijji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur, the 76th Custodian of the House of Mewar, is passionate about heritage conservation. He says, “Heritage conservation is the heart and soul of our work in Udaipur through the MMCF. It is not about protecting buildings and monuments. Heritage is a much wider concept and it encompasses the ecology, way of life, cultural mores, language, cuisine, music and traditional crafts of the people. Architectural conservation, though demanding, is not the only facet of heritage conservation. That is why we have been propagating the concept of living heritage in the context of Mewar and Rajasthan.”

Explaining what he means by ‘living heritage’, Shrijji says, “It is a constantly evolving model of managing heritage and keeping it alive, dynamic and relevant to changing times and covers both the tangible and intangible forms of heritage. I firmly believe living heritage has the inherent dynamism to trigger development of modern facilities in ancient environments.”

In espousing ‘living heritage’, Shrijji has provided heritage management a contemporary perspective for contemporary audiences. “This sustains the ancient perennial values of the House of Mewar. Living heritage has the power to transform regional economies, inject pride in our heritage and enrich our societal fabric. This is a unique case of lateral thinking, of tradition remaining connected with the real world of today.”

The MMCF has remained committed to supporting the goals and objectives held sacred in the 1400-year history of the family tradition of custodianship. The ‘living heritage’ of the House of Mewar encompasses a wide range of activities: environmental protection through water resource management, extensive medical and healthcare aid, providing pension to ex-employees, promoting self-reliance among women and encouraging financial support to education and cultural endeavours. These have cumulatively transformed the ethos of Udaipur, the capital city of Mewar, to emerge as a centre of excellence in every aspect of present-day life.