Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Travel to India - Udaipur, India's Most Romantic City

Note . . ..  this is continuation of my India trip with my sister Paty and friends Jani and Kathryn. 

Jagmandir Island Palace
Udaipur lays claim to being the most romantic city in India. It is a tranquil beauty of ornately turreted palaces elegantly floating like gleaming jewels on Lake Pichola. The lush dark-green Aravilli hills surround the city in a protective embrace. All are watched over by the Maharana’sCity Palace regally sitting on a hill lake side. I sense the peaceful graciousness that has such a long tradition here.

While in Udaipur we visit the City Palace, the “Crystal Palace” and on the outskirts of town, the Sahelion Ki Bari – Garden of the Maids. We take a sunset boat cruise to visit the enchanting Jagmandir IslandPalace floating on the North end of Lake Pichola. Our guide Suryaaveer (Sunni) is an art expert who travels all over the world lecturing about Indian art and introduces us to the beauty of “Indian Miniature Art.”

Arvind Singh Mewar 
Udaipur, the capital of the state of Mewar, is founded in the mid-sixteenth century by Uddai Singh II (means lion) when he moves the capital,  from the no longer defensible fort city of Chittaurgarh,  to a swampy lake area guarded by the Aravilli Hills. The current Maharana of Udaipur, ArvindSingh Mewar, is the 77th ruler in an unbroken line for 1400 years that is said to represent the oldest dynasty in the world. 
Mewar Coat of Arms

Grounded in the principle of humble service, the Mewar dynasty touts a glorious history known for its valor and chivalry and spirit of sacrifice. It is the only state in India that, resisting all conquerors, has never compromised her honor and thus her rulers are Maharanas vs. Maharajahs.

From humble beginnings in 566 AD Guhil, the father of the dynasty, sets down the Kshatriya (the ruling elite of the social orders in Hinduism) principles of honor, gratitude, discipline, courage and pious humility. Even today, these ruling values guide the Maharana exemplifying the tenet that the ruler is a trustee whose responsibility is to protect and serve the people who depend upon him.

Rising like an elaborately decorated multi-tiered confection, City Palace is regally enthroned on the east side of Lake Pichola. Originally designed as a fortress, the palace has been softened by the addition a cornucopia of canopies, kiosks, turrets, balconies and towers looking much like delicate icing on an elegant tiered cake. Inside, the beautiful artwork and mosaics celebrate all that was beauty and life in ancient Udaipur.
City Palace Complex
Construction was started in the 17th century by Maharana Udai Singh II, and additions and renovations were made over the following years by more than 22 Maharanis. This created an elegant meandering testament to the Mewar dynasty. Built of granite and marble, there are many palaces in the complex and is the largest palace in all of Rahjastan.

Percy Brown, renowned British scholar and author of Indian architecture, describes Udaipur palaces. “There is something more than architecture in these palaces. Every stone is touched with the spirit of romance.”

Not only was the palace stunning in its elaborate and intricate design but its interior was purposefully designed with steep winding staircases and passage ways so any intruder would certainly find it impossible to find his way around.

The passage ways are too narrow for an attacker to draw his saber or raise his rifle. As we moved from room to room through these corridors we understood the brilliance of this design. We did not let Sunni out of our sight for fear of being eternally lost.

Many rooms are not rectangular but built in a dizzy array of shapes that do not allow you to see the entire room at one glance. Add to this interior surfaces smothered in a artistically planned chaos of mirrors, precious stones, gold and silver and you have an astonishing maze-like effect.

Hati Pol (Elephant Doors)
You enter the palace complex through the Hati Pol (Elephant Gates).

Note the spikes on the door. They were to make charging elephants, used as beasts of war, think twice before crashing through the gates.

Maharana Arvind Singh Mewar Residence

The current Maharana, Arvind Singh Mewar, lives in the northern potion of the complex.

Other sections of the palace are now hotels, government offices, research institutes and the Rajasthani State Archives that contains 1,000 documents from the Mewar dynasty beginning with the reign of Maharana Kumbha (1433-1469). These documents are inscribed on copper. Unfortunately this treasure eludes us as it is only made available to selected scholars.

Jani, Kathryn, Katie & Paty at Mank Chowk
Mank Chowk (chowk means courtyard) was the site within the palace where public meetings, ceremonial processions and festivals were traditionally conducted. 

Sacred cows used to roam at will alongside tethered horses and elephants waiting for their riders. It is now dotted with shops and a small restaurant.  

As we wait in the mid-day sun, Jani and I are very appreciative of Kathryn and Paty’s sensible umbrellas. Facing the Manek Chowk is another Palace called the Mardana Mahal, which was the Male Quarters. 

The  Mor Chowk, Peacock Courtyard, was built by Karan Singh in 17th century. 200 years later inlaid glass mosaic work depicting peacocks were added by Sajjan Singh. 
Sunni in the Badal Mahal

Badal Mahal is a hilltop garden palace complex built on a 90 foot high natural rock formation. It has a gracious shady courtyard with shrubs, trees, ponds, fountains and an arched pavilion surrounded by verandas on three sides and offers a scenic view of Lake Pichola. It was a favorite sanctuary of the royals. We take a brief rest in its cool canopy as Sunni gives us a history lesson.

Paty, Kathry & Jani
in the Mardana Mahal 

Rai Angan was the most important chowk of the Mardana Mahal because it was the ceremonial site for Maharanas to be anointed as Rulers of Mewar.

Moti Mahal

Moti Mahal, Palace of Pearls, was the private residential palace of Maharana Rana Karan Singhji (1620-1628). He was responsible for extensive and elaborate restoration of the palace including many rooms decorated in intricate mirror work.

Photo courtesy of

“This looks like the crystal on the Titanic,” observed Jani as we enter the very warm un-air-conditioned rooms holding the extensive crystal collection known as the “Crystal Palace”.

The rumor is that crystal is bad luck so when the Maharana Sajjan Singh who bought it in 1877 dies the collection remains packed away for 110 years. They didn’t even open it to see what was there.  No photographs here – had to borrow photo from the web - the crystal bed was amazing.

What a beautiful peaceful garden in the middle of such bustling. It has beautiful lotus pools, marble pavilions and elephant- shaped fountains.

This sanctuary was built for the forty-eight young female attendants who accompanied a princess to Udaipur as part of her dowry when she wed Maharana Sangram Singh II (1710 -1734).

Sunni tells us the story that the Princess asks the Maharana to build her a garden so she and her ladies could have pleasant relaxing place outside of the city. When it was finished she said it was perfect but a garden needs rain. The Maharana replied that he cannot make rain. “Oh, but the king can do anything!” she exclaimed. The result is a system of hand operated fountains that “rain” on cue.

We are particular enamored with Sunni’s explanation of “Indian Miniature Art” when we visit the cooperative that includes a school to train people in this ancient art. The school insures the preservation of this art form and provides income for the student artists through the sale of their work. 

The intricate colorful style of Indian Miniature Art portrays the rich history and culture of India taking its themes from epic tales, poetry, nature, attitude and love. Small in size, the delicate brushwork technique creates impeccable details for every subject in the picture. This demands highly skilled artists.

The paints are made from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, gold and silver and are applied with brushes of single and double bristles. Human subjects are generally shown in profile with no two faces in the painting being the same. Handmade paper, leaves and bones are common canvases. I purchase three paintings – an elephant symbolizing strength, a camel, symbolizing property and a horse, symbolizing luck, all painted on camel bone. 

As we are looking at the art work one artist offers us some additional pieces.  Jani looks at it with a quizzical look trying to decipher the image. Paty and I look over her shoulder and start to giggle when we make out the figures.

The images are of various positions for copulation taken from the Kama Sutra, an ancient Indian Hindu text on human sexual behavior.  Some of these positions are rather imaginative. We all graciously decline the invitation to purchase. Can’t imagine how they would clear customs in Dubai or where I could hang them in my home with lots of grandchildren around.  

We take a late afternoon private cruise glimpsing a small portion of the lake edge areas of Udaipur where we luckily catch a religious ceremony in progress. Women in multicolored saris gather on the steps leading to the lake.

Sunni points out the brass pots covered with red cloths that are likely filled with sacred water brought back from a pilgrimage to the Ganges. We are not sure what is happening but the radiance of the colors and the beauty of the moment is awesome.

We go on to lake Pichola to capture the beautiful sunset as we visit the Jagmandir Island Palace built by Maharana Jagat Singh in 1620At this island palace the Maharana and his children could enjoy their lives away from the prying eyes of the ordinary people.

It was the beauty of this white palace that gave Mughal emperor Shah Jahan the inspiration to build the Taj Mahal of white marble.

The palace is a favorite place for destination weddings.  Elizabeth Hurley was married here. 

Udaipur lives up to it claim as the most romantic city in India. It is my favorite place we visit in India and I highly recommend it. If you plan your wedding here could you please invite me!

Postscripts . . .
Arvind Singh Mewar (1984 – present . . .  the current ruler, carries out the family traditions through the administration of numerous charitable foundations benefiting Mewar and creating India’s only chain of heritage palace-hotels and resorts under private ownership. The HRH Group of Hotels offers regal experiences in such places as island palaces, museums and galleries. Thanks to my friend Durriyah Vasi I was offered an invitation to meet with the Maharana but unfortunately our scheduled were in conflict. I did receive a nice letter from him which I  cherish.   

Rajasthani Turbans . . . I was fascinated by the turbans worn throughout India. Called saf, paag or pagri, unwound they average 9 meters in length. Saffron colored turbans denote chivalry and are worn at weddings and  white, dark blue, khaki, maroon, and black ones are worn during periods of mourning.  

Practically speaking they are worn as protection from the sun but they have come to symbolize honor – knocked over it is a grave insult; placed at another man’s feet it suggest surrender; the exchange of turbans signifies deep friendship; When a man carries a turban in his hands to present to a woman it proclaims her husband’s death. So sorry we missed learning how to wrap up one of these.

Elephant sighting . . . we see an elephant walking down the middle of the road. Just like a bunch of typical tourists we have our driver Manoj stop the van and we all jump out to take pictures. We learn that the temple owns the elephants. They go out each day roaming the streets with a little old man perched on top to collect donations. Only female elephants are used because males are lazy and can be sour dispositions and nasty. Imagine that! 

Jani gives the elephant a donation of India Rupees which the elephant in turn raises his truck to hand it to the little old man sitting on top. What a fund-raising system. 

Photo Gallery . . . . some of my favorite photos. Thanks Jani for sharing yours!

Sunni & Pati
The Royal Barge
Katie learning Indian bloc printing


  1. Breathtaking pictures. India looks so beautiful and exotic. I know I'll return to look at these pictures again.

    1. Stay tuned . . still to come . . . Jaipur, Ranthambore Tiger Preserve and the Taj Mahal! Glad you are enjoying.

  2. Replies
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