Considering the Indian reverence for color, why is its White City a perennial favorite? The serene, almost otherworldly beauty of Udaipur’s seven lakes makes a perfect foil to the riotous contrasts elsewhere on the subcontinent. Palacesbrimming with delicate lattices and squash-domed cupolas in pearly shades cluster along the shores, spilling over with balconies and terraces. Ornate temples peep out from behind massive trees. Just beyond the first row of buildings, all the sensory stimulation of an Indian city awaits – assuming one can resist the temptation to watch the play of light on the water for a bit longer.
If anyone out there doesn’t love Udaipur, we haven’t encountered them. We visited in November just after Diwali celebrations, so the city felt especially festive. Those planning a trip to Rajasthan should allow at least a few days in the White City, including some time for unwinding by the water as well as visiting its distinctive architecture. Udaipur alsomakes an ideal base for visiting some of India’s best forts and temples in the surrounding area. All sites are marked on our Google map.
Rajasthan is often associated with desert, but theAravalli Range shelters the southern region from the arid Thar. Seasonal rivers were dammed to create Udaipur’s seven lakes as the city was founded in the mid-16th century. That’s when Rajasthan’s most powerful dynasty, the Mewars, finally gave up on Chittorgarh, their capital of 800 years. The relocation only delayed the inevitable: Emperor Akbar arrived in 1577, and eventually the Mewars became Mughal vassals. However, the city founded by Udai Singh II thrived and the Mewar line continues today – centuries after the demise of the Mughals.
Udaipur’s center of gravity lies at the juncture of Lake Pichola and the canal-like Swaroop Singh Lake. The City Palace sprawls along the shoreline, anchoring the town geographically as well as historically. Below this mass, parks and docks line the waterfront. Inland, the tangled streets of the Old City brim with shops, temples, and food.
Just above the palace lies an absurdly congested area called Jagdish Chowk, named after the famous temple at its center. Along the upper shores of Lake Pichola and the edges of Swaroop Singh, terraced havelis (historic mansions) alternate with small temples and steps leading down to the water.
City Palace & Islands
22 generations of the Mewar dynasty contributed to the City Palace over nearly 400 years. Begun in 1559, the main façademeasures 244 meters (800 feet) in length and over 30 meters (100 feet) in height. Elevensmaller palaces plus assorted gateways and courtyards make it Rajasthan’s largest palace – no minor accomplishmentconsidering the competition from the region’s other dynasties.
Manek Chowk & the Palace Complex
One of the earliest parts of the complex is the Badi Pol, or Big Gate of 1600. It leads into a courtyard which originally served as a zone for elephant parking, grooming, feeding, and preparation for tug-of-war contests. The ground slopes up to pass under the Tripolia, an 18th century monumental triple-arched gateway, to the Manek Chowk beyond. Todayshops, and cafés line the periphery of the terrace running along the length of the main palace.
City Palace Museum
Only experts can keep track of all the spaces within the City Palace, from the Moti Mahal (Palace of Pearls) and Kanch ki Burj (Glass Tower) to the Mor Chowk (Peacock Court) and Dilkush Mahal (Heart’s Delight). In typical Rajasthani fashion, the floor plan favors complexity over order. Some say the confusing layout provided extra defense against enemies, or that it enabled clandestine trysts. We think the labyrinth of flexible-use spaces and mysterious sight lines creates a sense of enchantment. Plenty of signs make it relatively easy for modern visitors to navigate.
Besides its size, the City Palace stands out for the quantity and quality of its mirror work. Many monuments in Rajasthan have a Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) with shiny glass pieces embedded within dazzling patterns of inlaid stone, tile, or paint. But Udaipur’s palace features multiple disco-ball rooms, literally covered in tiny mirrors. Slightly convex surfaces turn any light source into a sparkling display by day and a constellation of stars at night. Elsewhere, mirrored pieces might cover the inside edge of an arch, reflecting light inside. Some spots in the palace are only visible when looking into a mirror at a particular angle. Occasionally mirrors masquerade as windows and vice-versa.
Other rooms showcase the royal family’s remarkable collection of art. In medieval times the Mewar dynasty traced its descent from the sun, inspiring the emblem of a golden orb sporting a luxuriant moustache.
Islands of Lake Pichola & Jag Mandir
No trip to Udaipur would be complete without a boat ride on Lake Pichola, ideally at sunset. From the docks below the City Palace, vessels pass a sparkling-white 18th-century palace now converted into the Taj Lake Palace Hotel. Beyond the Ambrai Ghat peninsula, the route circles around the mysterious remains of a smaller getaway. Its name, Natani ka Chabutara, presumably references a local legend about a tightrope-walker (natani) who drowned when the maharana ordered her rope cut to avoid losing a bet.
Construction of the island pleasure palace known as Jag Mandir started around the same time as the City Palace and spanned about a century. It began when Udai Singh expanded Lake Pichola (Udaipur’s lakes are all man-made), and grew to include several buildings, courtyards, and a garden. Local lore claims that the walls of the Gul Mahal, once inlaid with precious stones, inspired Agra’s Mughal mausoleums. Not all the structures are open to the public, and most of what remains has been converted into a restaurant. In the main courtyard, arcades topped with delicate arches frame views of the lake and surrounding hills, and a dramatic swooping bangla roof looms over the ensemble. Life-sized stone elephants line the jetty.
Udaipur’s Historic Center
Jagdish Temple & Jagat Shiromani Temple
Jagdish Temple is impossible to miss: it looms over a convergence of roads topped by a network of tinsel garlands, funneling the pulse of the entire city. Like many larger Hindu temples, access is via a series of steep steps – a nod to the legendary abode of the gods in the Himalayas.
The temple has been used continuously since its completion in 1651. Four smaller shrines to Ganesha, Surya, Shakti, and Shiva circle the main structure. This consists of a two-story mandapa (gathering hall) connecting to the sacred central space housing the primary deity. The elaborate curved pyramid on top (called a shikara) measures 24 meters, or 80 feet. When we visited,music and hymns from the mandapa resounded off the stone, and the sheer number of worshippers made it difficult to see the statue of Lord Jagannath (associated with Vishnu) in black stone.
Nearby, the also-astounding Jagat Shiromani (1846) offers a chance to study the architecture without as many distractions. Considering its location, the structure remains surprisingly under-the-radar. The only other person we saw was a security guard who made a few attempts to act as our guide. “Cat,” he intoned while pointing to the row of guardian monster heads – which tells you something about many Indians’ feelings towards felines.
Both temples are late examples of the regional style known to historians as Solaṅkī or Māru-Gurjara architecture, which developed at Mount Abu and Chittorg and culminated in the Jain temples of Ranakpur. The style takes the intricacy of a classical Hindu temple to extremes: every surface features bands of carving or other adornments. The outer surface folds in and out so many times that the angles become sharp.
Bagore ki Haveli & Gangour Ghat
Bagore ki Havelifeatures much of the same architecture as the City Palace, in a more intimate setting. Originally built by the Mewars’ prime minister from 1751-78, the property was taken over by the royal family after his death. 138 rooms include features directly modeled on the main palace, such as glass-mosaic peacock reliefs and rooms plastered in mirror work. Nonetheless, the organization of daily life is much clearer in the haveli than in the palace – particularly the distinction between public, male-dominated spaces at the front and private, female-dominated spaces in back.
Collections of paintings, weapons, and everyday objects are featured throughout, includingan entire wing on turbans. Every evening, the haveli hosts popular performances of folk dancing and puppetry in the evenings.
Ghats, or steps leading down into the water, feature prominently in Udaipur. One of the largest and most scenic is the Gangour Ghat. A massive triple-arch gateway, topped by two levels of intricate windows and screens, provides access to the ghat from the landward side. When it’s not hosting festivals, the large terrace is ideal for feeding animals, posing for pictures, or just soaking up the atmosphere.
The best views of the City Palace and Old City might be from across the narrow lake, at Ambrai Ghat. Steps and a kiosk cap the tip of a small peninsula, with massive trees behind providing shade.
We had drinks on the terrace of the adjacent heritage hotel, which also has lovely grounds. The neighborhood stretching back to the footbridge is much calmer than across the way, and makes a great place to stroll.
Greater Udaipur & Environs
Sahelion ki Bari Palace and Gardens
A short tuk-tuk ride from the City Palace lies a set of gardens known as the Courtyard of the Maidens. Legend says that the maharana designed the property himself, gifting it to his bride’s 48 maiden attendants as a place to get away from the intrigues of the main court. An atmosphere of revelrycontinues to dominate today, and the property feels more like a park than a formal garden.The small palace in the garden’s center now holds a science center.
No matter the number of palaces in town, the Mewars needed one in the hills as well. In the 19th century, the maharana commissioned the Monsoon Palace to serve during torrential rains and hunting expeditions. Apparently he wanted to add an astronomical center – perhaps to compete with the Jantar Mantar observatories in Jaipur and elsewhere – but successors abandoned the idea.
For most of the year, the Monsoon Palace provides prime views of Udaipur. Our winter visit coincided with a seasonal haze, reducing visibility.
Udaipur Day Trips
Today the Mewar dynasty continues to worship at the Eklingji Temple complex, which dates back to the eighth century. Of the 108 temples, most were remodeled in the 15th century, including the main structure with its 15 meter (50 foot) statue of Shiva.
Tales of heroism and tragedy abound in Chittorgarh, an epic source of Rajasthani history. The Mewars’ former capital is a UNESCO-listed fort spanning a staggering 700 acres with multiple palaces and temples. It also features a pair of proto-skyscraper towers, built with metal rods hidden beneath layers of Jain sculpture.
In case of an attack on Udaipur, the Mewars built another fort nearby – this time with a massive wall system, topped only by the Great Wall of China in length. Along with more than 360 temples, Kumbhalgarh features the Badal Mahal, or Cloud Palace, with dramatic views.
Ranakpur’s 15th-century Jain temple complex is arguably the most exquisite religious architecture in Rajasthan. 1,444 distinct pillars support dozens and dozens of shikharas, domes, cupolas, and turrets, all carved in pristine white marble. Every minute detail has a particular place within the whole.
Further Reading & Viewing
For more architecture in Rajasthan, see our posts on Jaipur and Jodhpur.
Films & television series shot in Udaipur are too numerous to list. Our favorite is probably The Jewel in the Crown, the 1984British miniseries adaptation of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet books.