In the winter of 1980 we at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) were required under the Advanced Professional programme in Public Administration to conduct a field study for the dissertation that had to be submitted before the end of the Programme. I was asked to study the problem of rural indebtedness in the district of Udaipur in Rajasthan. Half a dozen other participants were also given different subjects the studies for which were to be conducted in the Udaipur district. All of us, therefore, went to Udaipur for a stay of around 15 days. The IIPA had already carried out the administrative work and organized our stay at the Circuit House in Udaipur and arranged vehicles for us to be ferried to and from the villages that would come under the studies.
This was my first visit to a city of Rajasthan that was then considered to be colourful yet pretty poor. This was the land of valour as exemplified by the legendary Maharana Pratap of Mewar who reportedly never accepted defeated at the hands of the Mogul Emperor Akbar. Udaipur was laid as a city by Maharana Patap’s father, Udai Singh and hence the name Udaipur. It has quite a few lakes and is, therefore, also known as “City of Lakes”. The half a dozen or so lakes of the city have so far never been in good condition. Like many other cities with lakes like Bhopal and Bangalore the lakes have become repositories of the sewage from surrounding urban developments.
The village studies were most revealing about the working of our lower bureaucracy in the governments and banks. Indebtedness was built into the system that was perhaps made to evolve in the way the vested interests desired. In order to eliminate the scourge of the village money lender and his usurious rates of interest the government had persuaded many public sector banks to open branches in villages. And yet the villagers were thrown at the mercy of the predatory money lender.
If, for example, a villager had to buy a buffalo and had to have a loan from a bank he had to complete a number of formalities. Among the numerous formalities the villager had to first get a recommendation from some government outfit and then approach the bank for a loan. In order to get the recommendation he had to bribe the government official and to get the loan from the bank even the bank official would take his cut. If the bribes were paid the villager wouldn’t be left with enough to buy his buffalo. It was a system steeped in corruption in which the villager had no other alternative but to fall at the mercy of the usurious money lender whom the government intended to liquidate. No wonder the money lenders continued to operate and even thrived.
Be that as it may, our programme was such that we had little time for sight-seeing – which was not the purpose of the visit, anyway. Nonetheless, we did visit the two most important sights – the City Palace and the Pichola Lake. The City Palace may have been restored now and the place in front cleared but when we visited it was not so impressive. Perhaps, we entered through a wrong gate – the palace seems to have a number of entry points. It may have been at one time a little removed from the city but when we visited it seemed to be choking with constructions all around. It is reported to have been built over a long period of around four hundred years and hence it gives that claustrophobic feeling. As the palace grew over centuries so did the city, which now is too close for comfort – for a monumental structure like the City Palace.
There are supposed to be 11 palaces inside this huge complex which all are additions over centuries and generations that are claimed to be 70-odd in number. The palaces within are interlinked through corridors and quadrangles. One would have to have sufficient energy to see the entire complex as one may have to walk a few miles inside – for which again one had to have enough time. Both, unfortunately, were in short supply. But what perhaps was the outstanding feature of the Palace was that though it was built section by section over centuries the style was kept homogeneous.
During our brief visit I remember to have seen some beautiful pieces of European furniture, some European and Chinese porcelains, some exquisite miniatures and sundry curios. A part of the Palace was under repairs and hence was out of bounds. Anyway, I do not seem to remember having seen the Palace from its front. The view from here, apparently, is stunning.
Pichola Lake is also a more than six centuries old artificial lake designed to bring water close to Udaipur for the use of the citizens. Rajasthan is an arid land and water is scarce. Whoever ruled over the land, therefore, had to have water for the people. Pichola Lake is one that was artificially created to start with to make provision for water. Later other interconnected lakes came up. Lake Pichola pre-dates the city of Udaipur by at least a century and a half. When Maharana of Mewar decided to shift his capital from Chittorgarh to Udaipur it was on the banks of the Pichola Lake that he built his palace. A number of islands in the Lake have some beautiful structures one of which is the Lake Palace Hotel. Some others have temples from where one gets incredibly beautiful views of the Lake. It is for its Lakes and Palaces that Udaipur has been the location of Hollywood and Bollywood films.
On the two Sundays that we had we had two excursions – to Nathdwara temple and to Chittorgarh. The latter is about a couple of hours drive from Udaipur located on the ancient Aravali Hills. It has one of the most important forts that figured in various battles over the centuries with the Mugal invaders. A massive fort by all reckonings, it has some fabulous specimens of architecture – of both Rajput and Jain varieties. The Vijai Stambh (Victory Tower) is a remarkable architectural feature of the Fort that dominates it. It was erected by Rana Kumbh more than 500 years ago in commemoration of the victory against the forces mustered by Mahmood Khiji. The tower is richly worked that is representative of Rajpiut expertise in cutting rocks and chiselling them.
While Chittorgarh is famous for Rajput bravery and valour, it is also well-known for two of its queens, one, Meera, a devotee of Krishna whose devotional songs are sung till this day and the other a brave and captivating queen, Padmini, who did not fall in the trap set by the Mugal warrior who had captured the fort and was smitten by her beauty so much so that he wanted her to be added to his well populated harem. Repulsing all his attempts she preferred to self-immolate herself in true traditions of a Rajput queen. The part of the Palace where she did that is still around and is an object of curiosity for the
The other excursion we went on was to the famous temple of Nathdwara about fifty miles away from Udaipur in the midst of the hills of Aravali. We had to go through the famous pass of Haldighati where a fierce battle took Place between Maharana Pratap and the forces of Akbar. A small memorial for Maharana Pratap’s horse Chetak has been erected here. The favourite horse of the Maharana, although wounded, carried his mount safely away before succumbing to his grievous wounds
According to legends, the temple came up where the bullock cart carrying it away from Mathura got bogged down in the mud. The image of Lord Krishna or Shrinath-ji – a 14th Century 7 years old infant - was being brought away from Govardhan near Mathura for fear of the evil eye of the Mugal Emperor Aurangzeb. The shrine was built in the 17th Century.
It has always been known to be a very rich temple. We could not get a view of the infant Shrinath as we were hustled away by the minders. There was a big crowd for what is known as “darshan” – a glimpse of the deity. In any case in the darkness of the sanctum the black figure of the infant Shrinathji did not quite make itself visible. I, however, still remember the jewels that glittered in the darkness on the infant deity’s ornaments.
An incredibly huge amount of ‘prasad” (religious offering) was being prepared. These are generally edible sweets in which ghee (clarified butter) is the cooking medium. In view of the amount of Prasad the temple authorities have to have enormous quantities of ghee. We were shown four wells about three feet in diameter and twenty feet deep where ghee is stored. By any stretch of imagination, that is enormous quantity of ghee. They gave us huge packs of Prasad soaked in ghee but it solidified as soon as it was exposed to the cool ambient temperature.
Rajasthan is well-known for its miniature paintings. Nathdwara, however, is famous for it “pichwais” that are not miniature and are used for decorating the wall behind the deity. The paintings depict Lord Krishna in various moods and basically are meant to educate the lay worshipper about His life. The “pichwais” have become very popular and there are numerous artists who make them. Some of them are so good that they get orders from abroad. We saw some of them at work – downright ordinary folk who have king-sized imagination and a very keen eye for details.