I see the lone speedboat snake its way through the lake, it’s engine almost inaudible. The telltale ripples briefly break the morning calm as I try to jot down some thoughts for my next blog post. The tea that had just been poured for me is steaming hot. I take a tentative sip and look around. Across the lake, things are quiet — too early for tourists and the buses that bring them. As the fog dissipates, I can see the silhouette of the expansive building that straddles the mountain behind me. I lean back enjoying the magnificence of what surrounds me.
For a fleeting moment, William Cooper’s lines — though written in another context — come to mind.
I feel like a king!
After all I am sitting in a palace — the Lake Palace — in Udaipur, India. The palace, built in the early 18th century as the “the pleasure palace” of Maharana Jagat Singh II, is now a hotel run under the Taj Hotels brand. Its past guest list includes Queen Elizabeth, the Shah of Iran, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy among others. And now, me!
It is not everyday that I sit sipping tea in one palace as I look at another one across the lake.
The Lake Palace, as the name would imply is surrounded by water and can be accessed only by boats that transport guests to and from the property. It is clearly a palace converted to a hotel, not a hotel constructed to look like a palace. With its lily ponds, and marble structures that change hue, the hotel does feel like a palace — not that I am an expert on palaces. The City Palace across the lake is a complex of palaces and is bigger than the one I am in. But when it comes to palaces, size is only one of its measures. The legend and lore that surround them add to their charm.
For instance, it is rumoured that one of the Maharanas had every boat in the town destroyed to prevent the enemy from reaching the Lake Palace.
I have never been to Udaipur before; but I sort of have a connection to this palace.
My grandmother was a medical doctor who worked as a physician to the royalty of Udaipur. I wondered if she had ever made house calls to see patients in this palace before it became a hotel. I should have paid more attention to her stories, especially the one centred around the leopard skin — a gift from one of the royals — that ended up on a wall in our childhood home.
Rajasthan, the state where Udaipur is located, is the largest state in India by size. As one of the most visited states in India, it boasts a plethora of palaces and forts scattered over a few cities like Jaipur and Udaipur. And like every country or state ruled by kings, its history is filled with stories of valour, strife, sacrifice, and betrayal.
It is famous — or infamous — for one of the earliest Jauhars documented by historians. Until I visited Udaipur, I had not heard the terms “jauhar and saka.”
Jauhar and saka summarize the Rajputs’ (the royalty of Rajasthan) “death over defeat” approach to war against foreign invaders. It is believed that In the face of certain defeat at the hands of their enemies, the Rajput women chose to commit “jauhar” (self-immolation) by jumping into a fire pit to avoid capture by the enemy. The men would then commit “saka” by riding out and engaging the enemy in a war from which they knew they will not come out alive.
An Indian version of “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”
The Chittorgarh Fort is rumoured to have witnessed one of the largest jauhars, with the queen of Mewar and over 300 other noble women choosing death over dishonour in the face of certain capture by the invading Moghuls.
As I watch the media, it is clear that the people of Rajasthan are not yet ready to give up on their royalty and their honour. The release of a high-budget Bollywood movie titled “Padmavati,” depicting the story of the queen who committed jauhar in Chittorgarh, has been delayed due to widespread protests from groups of people who feel that their queen is being portrayed in poor moral light!
“More tea sir?” the ever-attentive server had noticed that my cup was half full.
As I nodded my appreciation, I reminded myself: better not get used to this.
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