Udaipur. The very name is evocative of ethereal clear lakes and romantic palaces, encircled by a ring of lush hills.
Known by various monikers such as City of Lakes, White City, and Venice of the East—all equally valid—it is unlike any other city in the State, or even the country. It is also Rajasthan’s most popular tourist destination so be prepared for the crowds.
Udaipur was founded in 1553 by Maharana Udai Singh II, ruler of the Mewar Kingdom, who named it Udayapura. Chittorgarh, the old capital had been laid siege to by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. A new capital was needed. What better place than the hilly banks of a medieval freshwater lake in the midst of a fertile valley, separated from the Thar Desert by the Aravalli Range.
To protect his city, Udai Singh II built a six-kilometre-long wall punctuated with seven gates around it. Within were palaces, temples, havelis and courtyards, which still stand, largely intact. The precinct today is called the Old City.
Mewar has always stood apart from other Rajput States with its insistence to not bow down before the Mughals or for that matter any other kingdom. The few times treaties were signed, it was always on Mewar’s terms. Stories of its heroes’ bravery and sacrifices echo throughout the city. Maharana Kumbha, Maharana Sanga, and Maharana Pratap are household legends. But more of them in later posts.
For now, let me share with you the wonders of Rajasthan’s jewel. Have you been to Udaipur? If not, here are 11 reasons why it should be on every travel bucket list. ❤
1. Lake Pichola, Rajasthan’s most poetic lake
The raison d’etre for Udaipur, Lake Pichola predates the founding of the city by nearly two centuries. It is an artificial freshwater lake built in 1362, and if legends are to be believed it is the handiwork of a gypsy who named it after a nearby village. Maharana Udai Singh was so smitten by its beauty in 1553, he decided to establish his new capital on its shores. Subsequent rulers added more palaces, temples, havelis, and ghats on its banks and islands—Jag Niwas and Jag Mandir—to create Rajasthan’s loveliest lake. No trip to India can be deemed complete without a sunset cruise through its golden dappled waters surrounded by medieval strongholds and the ancient Aravalli hills.
Travel tip: Jag Mandir can only be accessed by boats from Rameshwar Ghat jetty.
2. Udaipur City Palace Museum, home of Udaipur’s rulers since 1553
Shrouded in royal mystery and fortified by towering 33-metre-high walls rising steeply from Lake Pichola, Udaipur City Palace was out of bounds for the general public for much of its existence. Till 1969 to be exact, which is when it opened its doors under the mantle of a museum. Inside the thick walls are a maze of decorated rooms, each ruler adding a chamber or palace of his own in the complex they called home. Steep stairs hidden inside the walls, to keep enemies at bay, connect the floors and courtyards.
There is much to see inside. Not to be missed is the main entrance Tripolia which leads into Manek Chowk, the site for festivities and processions. Eight 17th Century Torans inside mark the spots where the rulers weighed themselves in silver or gold which was then distributed to the needy on special occasions. In the adjoining Ganesh Chowk is a 1620 marble idol of the Hindu god Ganesha.
Leafy Baadi Mahal and Baadi Chitrashali Chowk stand on the palace’s highest point which is also ground level, since the palace is built around a hill. Its most spectacular courtyard, used for high-profile meetings, is Mor Chowk with peacocks in glass inlay-work. Other striking sections include Moti Mahal, Kanch Ki Burj, Rai Angan the oldest part of the palace, and Zenana Mahal or royal ladies’ quarters. The Toran Pol leading into the Zenana Mahal was, and still is, part of a centuries-old wedding ritual.
Travel tip: It is recommended one uses a guide as it can be confusing finding one’s way around and explanatory signage is limited.
3. Durbar Hall and Crystal Gallery of Udaipur City Palace Museum, a peek into a royal family’s extravagant lifestyle
Durbar Hall and Crystal Gallery, part of the Fateh Prakash Palace Hotel in the Udaipur City Palace, smack of royal excessiveness. The Durbar Hall is lined with portraits of the Maharanas amidst royal banners and seven crystal chandeliers, the central chandelier weighing a tonne. Meanwhile, the Crystal Gallery upstairs contains the largest private crystal collection in the world, including a crystal bed, sofa-set, and footrest. They form part of a custom-made collection for Maharana Sajjan Singh [r. 1874 – 84] by F&C Osler. The Maharana, however, had an untimely death aged just 25, and the crystal he’d ordered stayed in its packing till it was opened in 1994 for display in the museum.
PS. Top left: The last Maharana, Maharana Bhupal Singh [r. 1930 – 55]; Top right: Arvind Singh Mewar [1944 – ], from the House of Mewar. Above: Yours truly in the Durbar Hall.
Travel tip: The tickets to enter these two sections are pretty steep. Photography is strictly prohibited in the Crystal Gallery.
4. Jagdish Mandir, a temple in continuous use since 1651
In Udaipur, all roads lead to the Jagdish Temple. A focal point of local life since 1651, Udaipur’s largest temple, guarded by massive stone elephants, stands 79 feet tall in the Old City’s main square. It was built by Maharana Jagat Singh at a cost of Rs. 1.5 million back then. The three-storey-high hand-carved ornate temple, reached by 32 marble steps, is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Every day, at pre-fixed times, public prayers take place, just as they have for the past 350 years offering a unique opportunity to be part of the rhythm of the city and its history.
5. Jagat Shiromani Temple, a 19th Century forgotten masterpiece
Flanked on one side by the historical Jagdish Temple and on the other by Udaipur’s top attraction, the City Palace Museum, Jagat Shiromani Temple  tends to get sidelined. But make your way up the steep flight of grey stone steps, past a monumental carved gateway, and you would be rewarded with a magnificent marble temple in the Nagara [north Indian] style dedicated to the deities Radha and Krishna. The temple facades are an art connoisseur’s delight with their rows of intricate carvings comprising caparisoned elephants, warring horses, and scenes from Indian mythology. In all likelihood, you would be the only tourist here as well. This is the Udaipur before the City of Lakes became touristy!
6. Inside Udaipur City Palace at night, bathed in golden light
Come night-time, Udaipur turns into a magical fantasy land. Whilst most tourists and locals alike flock to Lake Pichola for the spurt of palace lights reflected in its still waters, the City Palace itself lies deserted. Though one cannot enter the inner rooms or galleries, Tripolia Gate, Manek Chowk, Ganesh Chowk, Zenana Mahal and Chowmukha, and Toran Pol remain open, along with the winding road leading to Rameshwar Ghat. An added bonus is the sound and light show in Manek Chowk at 7:00 pm which recreates Mewar’s 1,300-year-old history from the 8th Century to-date.
7. Ahar Cenotaphs, a marble jungle of memorials dedicated to medieval kings
Three-hundred-and-seventy-two cenotaphs vie for space in Ahar, the royal crematorium 3 kilometres east of Udaipur. Kings, queens, their children and relatives, as well as favoured employees were all cremated here, the cenotaph marking the exact cremation spot. Of the 19 Maharanas or kings cremated, the most splendid structure belongs to Maharana Sangram Singh [r. 1710 – 34]. The oldest commemorates Udaipur’s 3rd ruler Maharana Amar Singh [r. 1597 – 1620], whilst the most recent belongs to the titular Maharana Bhagwat Singh [r. 1955 – 84].
Look out for the four-faced shivlings in the Maharanas’ cenotaphs. These sculptures represent Eklingji [Shiva], the patron deity of Udaipur’s royal family. The Maharanas considered themselves simply as custodians of Mewar, ruling on behalf of Eklingji.
8. Sajjangarh aka Monsoon Palace, an observatory for clouds and lakes
When Maharana Sajjan Singh laid the foundation stone for Sajjangarh aka Monsoon Palace on 18 August, 1883 on Udaipur’s highest and steepest hill, he intended it to be a 11-storeyed building to track the monsoon clouds. His ambitious project, unfortunately, never got completed. The Maharana died aged 25 from a stomach ailment in 1884.
A visionary in the truest sense, he modernised Udaipur’s infrastructure, administration and education in his short life, and received the ‘Grand Commander of the Star of India’ honour from Queen Victoria in 1881. After his demise, his successor Maharana Fateh Singh completed the current modest structure. Monsoon Palace could not get to track the monsoon clouds, but it sure offers the finest aerial views of Udaipur and its lakes.
Travel tip: Shared jeeps leave from the gate of Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary taking visitors up the monstrous path to the palace and back.
9. Saheliyon Ki Bari, a garden made specially for 48 young women attendants
It is not often that a king decides to have a garden especially made for his queen’s attendants. And when he does, in keeping with Rajput traditions, it is bound to be grand. Saheliyon Ki Bari, literally meaning Garden of the Maidens, is laid out on the banks of Lake Fateh Sagar, one of Udaipur’s seven man-made lakes. Fountains, lotus pools, pavilions, marble elephants, and small garden enclosures are neatly laid out in the grounds. It was Maharana Sangram Singh’s personal gift, one he designed himself, for the 48 young women attendants who accompanied his queen as part of her dowry in the early-18th Century.
10. Bagore Ki Haveli, a museum of Rajasthan’s tangible and intangible heritage
On the banks of Lake Pichola, by Gangaur Ghat, is Bagore Ki Haveli, Udaipur’s grandest haveli. Entered by a seemingly nondescript entrance in a quiet lane, it has 138 rooms, balconies, courtyards, terraces, and countless corridors. The haveli was built by the Prime Minister of Mewar [1751 – 78] as his home. Today, it is a museum of Rajasthan’s cultural heritage, set in the midst of carefully conserved rooms reflecting Udaipur’s past royal life. In the evenings, one of the courtyards transforms into the venue of Rajasthan’s finest cultural program showcasing a rich variety of folk dances and puppet shows. Oh, and the views from the rooftop are the cherry on the cake.
11. Ambrai Ghat, front seat views of Udaipur’s picturesque best
Did I mention the front seat views are also for free? Ok, almost. There is a Rs. 10 entry charge. While many high-end restaurants lining Lake Pichola do a great spiel on the views they offer of the lake and palaces, Ambrai Ghat allows you to enjoy Udaipur’s picturesque best to the fullest without emptying your wallet. Surrounded by the lake on three sides, timing is all important here though. Don’t expect much if you visit it in broad daylight. For those priceless bucket-list moments, make sure you reach just before sunset, find yourself a quiet spot, and thereafter gaze into the lake as dusk falls, the palace lights are turned on and the lake turns into a riot of light against the dark night.
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Convinced of Udaipur’s charms? There is a reason why it is listed high on bucket lists of travellers and tourists alike. 🙂
- Staying there: I stayed at the lovely Madri Haveli in the heart of the Old City through Booking.com.
- Getting to Udaipur: I used Rajputana Cabs for an intercity drop from Jodhpur.
- Getting around in Udaipur: I walked or took a tuk-tuk.
- How many days?: I stayed for 5 days.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan from 17 October to 20 November, 2021. To read more posts in my Rajasthan series, click here.]