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The House of Mewar

The `Venice of the East' is home to one of the oldest dynasties in the world, says KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.


The City Palace ... grand proportions

"HIS HIGHNESS wants to know whether you will join him and his guests for cocktails at eight?" asks the polite ADC to Sri Arvind Singh of Mewar when you ring up to confirm the time for the interview. What better way to meet the scion of one of the oldest dynasties in the world who has cannily made Udaipur, "the Venice of the East" a favoured international tourist destination providing the visitor a heady mix of history and hospitality?

A couple of hours later you are in a fairytale setting. The walls of the sprawling City Palace rise clouds-high behind you while in the sheet of serene, glass like waters in front float two of the loveliest palaces outlined in lights. Situated in the middle of the Pichola, the milk white Lake Palace, converted into one of the best hotels in the country and the last word in luxury, was all the buzz for being the chosen location spot of the James Bond film "Octopussy" a few years ago. Jag Mandir, its companion, which is also a hotel, derives its fame from the fact that it was built to shelter Shahjehan from his father Emperor Jehangir's wrath.

The crowd at the cocktails is eclectic and comprises tourists from all over the world. A Belgian ambassador at the United Nations, an Indian doctor from Britain, a lovely young stage actress from the West End who specialises in comedy and the stunning wife of a famous British golfer are your fellow guests.

Urbane and regal in his bearing, the bearded Arvind Singh poses indefatigably with his visitors who evidently can't have enough of royalty. "Isn't this place beautiful?" gushed the lovely English woman. "What a pity more people in England don't know such a heavenly place exists."

With the canopy of a star-spangled sky, the frozen stillness of stone entrapping centuries of history, and the soft sound of the waters, it is truly an experience that belongs to the realm of the unforgettable.

Soon, goodbyes are said, the regal host effusively thanked and you accompany Arvind Singh, 76th custodian of the ancient House of Mewar, to the sitting room of the richly decorated palace. Majestic-looking Maharanas on gorgeous steeds look down on you impassively from huge portraits while stuffed tigers snarl in impotent rage as you pass by.

Shriji — "leader" — as Arvind Singh is addressed respectfully by those around him, waves assent to the photographer before settling down on a sofa. He turns an inquiring eye on you and it is obvious he has gone through the drill many times before.


Arvind Singh Mewar

So much has been written about him that he seems weary of it all. Still, his impeccable discipline (despite his enormous wealth, he has a punishing 14 hour schedule) and his business sense (which has made tourism in Udaipur a multi-crore enterprise), make him turn to you with a polite "Yes, ma'am?" He listens with concentration and then asks, "Did you know that `Cho' Ramaswamy was one of the first to receive the Maharana Mewar Foundation awards?" He is evidently very happy to talk to you of this Foundation set up by his father Bhagwat Singh in 1971 and which he has since expanded to spot and honour some of the best talents in the country in the field of journalism, sports, social service and leadership. In 1980, Bhagwat Singh bequeathed the entire State properties to a private Trust, which he called The Maharana Mewar Institutional Trust in order to conserve heritage and promote philanthropic and development activities.

How does it feel to be the scion of a dynasty that is said to go back by 1,400 years? "It is an awesome inheritance", he acknowledges. "And I want to be worthy of it." Among the glittering personalities associated with the House is the famed daughter-in-law, the saint singer Meera who married the son of the Maharana of Chittor in the 1500's.

"Can I see the image of Krishna which Meera worshipped and which you recently showed film star Hemamalini when she visited the palace?"

"I'm afraid that's not possible," he replies. "It is in the private Puja." You can't press royalty further and you let it drop. And go on to more mundane matters.

"I cannot talk of how other rulers adjusted to change. But my father acted with great foresight and wisdom and this contributed a great deal to the financial stability of the House," says Arvind Singh who has followed up his father's initiative with dynamism. The tourism industry Bhagwat Singh began with a single royal residence (the Lake Palace) turned into a hotel in 1963 is now the Historic Resort Hotels Group which includes the magnificent Kumbhalgarh Fort that boasts of the second longest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China and numerous palaces.The Shiv Niwas palace of Udaipur received the Heritage Award for Excellence in January 1999 from the Prime Minister.

Arvind Singh is certainly a king among hoteliers today and nobody can accuse him of not knowing the job for he is a royal who has hands-on experience. A graduate of the Mayo College, he did a hotel management course in the U.K. and then went on to Chicago where he learnt the job thoroughly even washing dishes, changing linen and serving the guests. His business instincts have seen the wonderful crystal collection in the palace as well as its fantastic fleet of antique cars opened to the public for a considerable fee.

Arvind Singh is unhappy that bureaucratic hurdles are placed in his path when he wants to contribute to the welfare of the State and a distorted image of the royals presented to the people. "Even many politicians and government officers are corrupt and debauched but only we are targeted. As for the books, written, on the royals I wish they were well researched. People dash off whatever they want to."

He is a typical blue blood in his love and encouragement of sport. An avid cricketer when young, he has now turned his attention to polo. Son Lakshyaraj is studying at the Mayo College while elder daughter Bhargavi Kumari, married to Lokhendra Singh, an expert polo player, also promotes the sport. Younger daughter, Padmaja, is pursuing her higher studies abroad and Shriji's wife, Vijaya Kumari, Princess of Kutch, helps him in his tourism business.

Despite the apparently halcyon scene, clouds mar the royal picture of Mewar. A rift has split this ancient House. Arvind Singh's older brother, Mahendra Singh, having lost the favour of his father, found himself disinherited and his younger brother got almost the entire fabulous property. The matter is now pending in the courts.

In contrast to the opulent City Palace is the relatively modest Samore Bagh where Mahendra Singh resides and where he readily agrees to meet you. "I feel thwarted that I cannot do much for the people. I try not to be bitter but I am very angry and feel confident that justice will prevail," he says with feeling.

Mahendra Singh, a former Member of Parliament, has a grown up son and daughter, and grandchildren. His wife Nirupama Kumari is the daughter of the ex- ruler of Garhwal. "She is busy in the garden as she has a passion for gardening," he tells you. Nirupama Kumari comes in a few minutes later clad in a flowered chiffon sari. And they both obligingly pose for photographs.

In the evening as you make your way up the steps of the Jagdish Mandir located at the foot of the Palace and where successive rulers of Udaipur have offered worship, the present discord in the glorious House of Mewar mars the feeling of well being. But as the voices of the devotees chant "Jai Jagdish Hare" in ragged unison, the mind is calmed by the faith of the simple people who are gathered there and who have made the royalty what it is. And when you leave for the nearly 30 km. drive to the airport, you can't resist throwing backward glances at a city so beautifully preserved that neither feuds nor factionalism can destroy its charm.

Spirit of freedom

UDAIPUR is a perfect example of how beauty is born of catastrophe. In 1556, when Maharana Udai Singh (whose nurse Panna saved him as a child from his would be assassin by substituting and sacrificing her infant son instead) lost Chittorgarh, the fortress capital of Mewar, to Akbar, he founded the city of Udaipur with its lovely man-made lakes.

The Maharanas are considered not rulers but custodians of the kingdom on behalf of Sri Eklingji (Lord Siva).

The "Venice of the East" grew more attractive through the centuries with the nurturing touch of the rulers, many of whom were great builders, warriors, poets and administrators, famous among them being Rana Pratap who fought so courageously against Akbar. Col. James Tod was offered a position in the court by Maharana Bhim Singh in 1878 and it was here that he stayed, conducted surveys and wrote his definitive work The Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan.

But what set these rulers apart and won them the title of Maharana, the first among the Rajputs, was their indomitable spirit, a passion for independence which the might of the Mughals could not subdue. Despite the passage of centuries, the permanent image of Udaipur is of Maharana Pratap astride his beloved white stallion Chetak, symbolising all that freedom stands for.

K.S.

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