Bardic revelation states that some of the royal lines of the Rajputs, established some 2,000 years ago, were descended from the Sun, through the god Rama (‘Suryavanshis’). Other lines traced their heritage from the Moon through Krishna (‘Chandravanshis’); the ruling family of Udaipur and Mewar are of the former. More mundane historians, mostly Western ones, attempt to explain the emergence of the Rajputs as descendents of the Huns, who came pillaging the Indian subcontinent and Europe from out the depths of Asia. More likely, the Mewar dynasty is derived from royal families from the region known today as Kashmir, who established themselves in the Aravalli Ranges soon after the 1st Century CE. In the 6th Century the ruling family was almost wiped out by invaders, the chief Queen Pushpavati, pregnant with the heir to the royal house, alone fated to survive. Her son, Guhil, meaning ‘cave born’, grew to found Mewar in 566. The ruins of the first capital, Nagda, are to be found some 30 kilometres from Udaipur. The 7th founder of the line, Mahendra II, whilst hunting, was killed by tribal Bhils in 734. The heir to the throne, the 3 year old Bappa Rawal, was rescued from the threat of insurrection by a Brahmin woman who protected him in Nagda. It was Bappa Rawal who later moved the capital to the fortress city of Chittor, Chittorgarh, which was to remain the capital of Mewar for 800 years. Throughout much of this time Chittor was subject to repeated siege by Muslim emperors. The first of the family to use the designation ‘Maharana’ was the 43rd ruler, Hamir Singh (1326-1364). Chittor had earlier fallen to the Sultan of Delhi, but this was regained by Hamir Singh in 1326. He was at this time the only unhampered Hindu king left in northern India.
In 1559, facing defeat at the hands of the Mughal emperor Akbar, Udai Singh II began the building of a new centre on the shores of Lake Pichola, Udaipur. This was before the final attack on Chittor by Akbar in 1567. In 1576 his son Maharana Pratap Singh defeated Akbar in battle, and though this proved indecisive nevertheless it ushered in a period of relative peace and prosperity. Pratap was succeeded by his eldest son Amar, known as Maharana Amar Singh II (1597-1620) but Akbar’s son Jahangir renewed the war with Mewar launching 17 pitched battles over the ensuing 10 years, these finally wearing Amar Singh down and forcing him into a negotiated peace. Amar was succeeded by Karan Singh (1620-1628) who enjoyed a peaceful reign primarily thanks to the peace treaty that his father had arranged. Karan Singh constructed most of the ‘zenana mahal’, or ‘women’s quarters’, in the City Palace. He also further fortified Udaipur’s city walls, strengthened the dam which enclosed Lake Pichola, and began the construction of the pleasure palace, the Jag Mandir, that sits in the middle of the lake. The next ruler, Jagat Singh I, ruled from 1628 for 24 years. He is credited as being one of the greatest architects of the dynasty. To quote James Tod, British political agent and resident from 1818 to 1822, Jagat Singh “exchanged the din of arms for voluptuous inactivity”; warfare wise.
In the later reigns of Raj Singh I and Jai Singh, collectively the years from 1653 to 1698, court painting, carried forward from a tradition of religious manuscript painting, flourished and reached its zenith under the reign of Amar Singh II (1698-1710). But with the accession of the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb, undeniably the nastiest of the Moghul emperors, warfare erupted again and engulfed Raj Singh I and Mewar in years of conflict. Aurangzeb imposed a crippling tax on Mewar and proved deaf to the appeals of Raj Singh who sought the raising of the burden from his people. Only a later treaty in 1681, concluded with Raj Singh’s son Jai, gained exemption from the tax, however, this came at the price of ceding territory. It did result in the withdrawal of the Moghul army from Mewar and a period of peace for Udaipur which was to last 50 years. This was the peace that allowed the painters of Mewar to develop and perfect their art: and someone thought kindly enough of Aurangzeb, or was blissfully uncaring of his place in Indian history, to name a mosque in Varanasi after him!
The next ruler, Maharana Sangram Singh II (1710-1734), was the last to enjoy internal stability and freedom from outside interference. With his death commenced the Maratha Ascendency. The Marathas came from the region south of the Rajput states and were intent on plunder. With their arrival the monarchy at Udaipur entered a period of decay. The saddest aspect of the Marathas was that they were also Hindus, and so after centuries of resisting Muslim invaders, Mewar suddenly found itself defending its borders against a ruthless foe that were effectively brethren. The first Maratha invasion took place in 1736. James Tod described the Marathas as “associations of vampires, who drained the very life-blood wherever the scent of spoil attracted them”.
It fell to Jagat Singh II, coming to the throne in 1734, to preside over the tragedy. He was forced to pay an annual tribute which would ultimately destroy Mewar’s economy. Jagat Singh was unsuited to the occasion of stately rule for he seemed more interested in elephant fights than fighting the Marathas. He spent vast amounts of money patronising the arts, enlarging his palace and building villas, but remained motionless against his country’s oppressors. His idleness typified that of his three successors, Pratap Singh II, Raj Singh II and Ari Singh II, over the ensuing 20 years or so. Raj Singh II (1754-1761) was apparently so poor he had to borrow money from a tax collector to pay for his own marriage. Ari Singh II (1761-1773) can be credited with the vague fame of reigning when Captain James Cook happened upon the east coast of Australia, but otherwise, by reputation, was a vile tempered ruler, given to intrigue and bouts of suspicion of truly Byzantine proportion. He achieved the end of a six year siege of Udaipur only by payment of an enormous ransom, and met his end at the hands of an assassin. History does not record mourners.
Under his son Hamir Singh II (1773-1778) Mewar’s fortunes hit their nadir. Tod states that “the demoralisation of Mewar was complete; her fields were deluged in blood, and her soil was the prey of every paltry marauder”. His succeeding brother Bhim Singh (1778-1828) was reduced to borrowing money for his own wedding, but managed to sire numerous offspring; at least 95 by good account. It was the tragic fate of his daughter Krishna Kumari which looms large in the history of Mewar. Her hand was sought in marriage by both the rulers of Jaipur and Jodhpur. And his daughter, the victim of her father’s protracted prevarication in the affair, resolved the dilemma by taking poison in the privacy of her quarters in the City Palace. She was barely 16.
By the 19th Century Udaipur, for all intents, was under the hegemony of the Maratha general Ambaji. He accumulated vast wealth at the expense of the state, resulting in the abandonment of towns and the starvation of the inhabitants. Large tracts of the countryside went uncultivated and the Maharana reduced to poverty. This was the condition of Mewar and Udaipur when the British arrived in the person of James Tod. Tod found a realm that had reverted in its political administration to that of a 12th Century feudal state, its ruler weak and some of its nobles reduced by financial predators to conditions akin to that of beggary. It was the British that put an end to the ascendency of the Marathas, and for a time Tod was to become the ‘de facto’ ruler of Udaipur.
Though a city of lakes, Udaipur is also a city of palaces, these built about the shores of lakes, on islands within lakes, and on the summits of tall hills that overlook lakes. Chief among these are the City Palace on Lake Pichola, the main part of the palace now a museum, and Lake Palace on Jag Niwas Island and built by Maharana Jagat Singh in 1743, meant as a royal summer palace and now converted into a 5-star hotel. The massively intricate City Palace was commenced in 1559 by Udai Singh and over the ensuing 300 years was extended concurrently with the increasing expansion and establishment of the city. In reality it is an east-facing ‘palace complex’, not a single palace at all; a self-guided exploration of its myriad corridors, halls, rooms and galleries a veritable ‘magical mystery tour’. The Shiv Niwas Palace is the last addition to the City Palace complex, this begun in the later part of the 19th Century by Maharana Sajjan Shambhu Singh, and finished in the early years of the 20th Century by his successor Maharana Fateh Singh. The palace’s more famous visitors included George V of Great Britain, in 1905. The entire complex remains the property of the royal family of Mewar.
According to legend the selection of the City Palace site was due to Udai Singh, whilst out hunting, meeting a hermit meditating on a hill top there. Udai Singh sought the hermit’s blessings, upon which the hermit advised him to build a palace on that very spot, well protected by the elevated Aravalli Ranges. What Udai Singh commenced has now evolved into a fantastic blend of Rajasthani, Mughal, European and Chinese styled architecture, its upper terraces overlooking the lake and far beyond, haze permitting. The palace interior is one of delicate mirror and marble work, murals, wall paintings, inlay and coloured glass. Its endless warren-like caverns are linked by defensive zigzag corridors and open quadrangles.
By 4 pm I am booked into my hotel, a modern multi-suited assemblage of rooms and connecting corridors several floors or so in height. But as is often the case it is sited far from the central city area. Thus there is little of interest on the streets outside. I am in the suburbs. Nevertheless I venture out onto the laneways immediately behind the hotel. I chance this as a better option than the bland walls of my hotel room and the lure of the television screen. The lanes are quiet and clean, but sterile, reminiscent of the more patrician back lanes of Sydney’s Paddington and Potts Point. The houses are all distinctly affluent. There were no indigenous pedestrians of any caste or status, the few cars that passed being of the expensive imported kind, their drivers eyeing me with obvious curiosity as to my purpose, my presence on the street unexpected. But equally my presence here was misplaced, and I became aware that perhaps my wandering might be misinterpreted as loitering with intent to conduct mischief, to misappropriate things that did not belong to me. I could assure each set of quizzing eyes that their suspicions were unfounded, for in the gardens of these houses there were no statues of deities light enough to carry, and this was apparently a suburb uninhabited by painted cement garden gnomes. Consequently I left empty-handed.
The hotel fronted a main road, but I crossed this, though with some trepidation, safely to the other side. I was in search of sellers of sustenance, my exploration of the back streets finding no shopkeepers of any species. There was not a ‘corner shop’ to be found. On the far side of the road I locate a mall, admittedly a small one, but a mall just the same. They had lots of merchandise on their shelves, most of which I did not need, and they even had a young staff member who fulfilled the role of security officer, his responsibility that of double checking your shopping carry-bags when you left. I purchased honey, crispy pre-toasted bread, and jam made from a fruit whose name I did not know though I had seen something like it piled by the countless thousands on stall counters in Ujjain and Puri. My choice of food proved to be overly sweet, particularly the jam. The check-out attendant should have warned me, but I guess he was just too busy tallying up my shopping items on his cash register. The security guard checked the number of my purchased items against that of the tally listed on the cash register receipt. There were none too many, and none too less.
I receive emails from those of my family back home, and remind that I have begun the mental exercise of counting the days until I see them again. Today I have also begun to cough. It is likely due to the persistent dust of the highways and streets. I had almost forgotten about the dust, for like several other ever-present Indian phenomena that were no longer novel or confronting, it had faded from its prior position of concern, now being swamped within a plethora of competing daily experiences. Dust had fallen off the radar screen of recognition, relegated to the status of ‘background noise’. I had become a victim of my own complacency.
Dust is funny stuff. It can be the cause of the irritating grit between your teeth or the even finer particles that dry out you hair and make you wish for a supermarket and rows of rejuvenating hair conditioners therein; who cares which brand. It can also be the clouds of pollen-laden air that each year descends on the good folk of Europe making the life and lungs of a proportion of its inhabitants profoundly miserable. Nastier clouds carry dust of the nuclear variety. I was certain my offending kind was that of particulate dust mixed with a cocktail of miscellaneous organic and inorganic constituents swept up off the street; many streets actually. My normal remedy for offending and repetitive coughing was based on lots of complaining on any ears unfortunate enough to be in hearing distance, timely imbibing of vodka or brandy, oily chemicals extracted from eucalyptus leaves, and liquids distilled from dead reptiles found on the sides of Australian highways and sold in chemist shops at a modest financial return to the pharmacist; bottles of senega and ammonia being my preferred pharmaceutical derivative of this sort, or a spoonful of ‘Goanna Oil’ (containing no goanna derivatives at all) on a teaspoon of raw sugar. None of which were, here and now, readily at hand.
In the 1860s the French chemist Louis Pasteur argued the role of microbes, such as bacteria and fungal spores, in the processes of fermentation and putrefaction. By culturing and introducing some of these into host animals it was shown that certain infectious diseases were caused by specific microbes, some of which could be successfully countered by antiseptics and antibiotics. Sadly, antibiotics killed the good with the bad. In his experiments Pasteur deployed glass flasks of a peculiar swan-necked design, the drawn out and bent necks of which were intended to capture ‘dust’ from air passing into the flasks. This would then reach a broth in the bowl of the flask, and there any little creatures or microscopic plants so caught would happily breed and multiply. By this road of experimentation Pasteur was able to demonstrate that clean air was unable to cause fermentation but ‘dust’ could; one outcome of which was disease, potentially fatal, and a second the production of several kinds of intoxicating liquids, conveniently available under a multiplicity of names in culturally liberal countries. Though I was not quite swan-necked, I suspected my throat and lungs were fulfilling a surrogate function to that of Pasteur’s glass flasks. Unfortunately no sensation of fermentation-induced stupefaction accompanied the slowly more frequent convulsive raking of my lungs.