Lake Pichola is located on the western edge of the city of Udaipur in the southern Indian state of Rajasthan. It is an artificial freshwater lake created by the construction of dams in the late 14th century to provide drinking and irrigation water for the city and its surroundings. The lake has several small islands. One of them, Jag Niwas Island, stands out from the others because on it rises, set like a gem, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city: the Lake Palace. Maharana Jagat Singh II, the 62nd “custodian” of the royal dynasty of Mewar, built it as a summer palace between 1743 and 1746. In 1963, Maharana Bhagwat Singh converted it into a heritage hotel, the first luxury hotel in Udaipur. Finally, in 1971, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces took over the management of the resort, which it maintains, after several extensions and restorations, to this day.
Maharana Jagat Singh II oriented the palace to the east during its construction in order to make it easier for its inhabitants to pray to Suria, the Hindu sun god, at dawn. According to some sources, Jagat Singh considered the city palace too indiscreet to invite the beautiful young women of Udaipur and hold royal feasts in the moonlight. Surely, a palace in the centre of Lake Pichola offered much more privacy. Later successive rulers, on the other hand, used the palace as a summer resort and also for royal gatherings.
When Maharana Bhagwat Singh decided to transform Jag Niwas Palace into a luxury hotel, he engaged the services of the famous American architect Delia Narayan “Didi” Contractor, known for her use of sustainable materials such as adobe, bamboo and stone in Indian construction. Her statements are a curious and interesting document of the time and the work she did:
“I worked from 1961 to 1969 and what an adventure! His Highness [Maharana Bhagwat Singh], you know, was a real monarch (…), so one had a sense of being one of the last people to be an artist for the king (…), the way one imagines it was like working in the courts of the Renaissance (…), going back in time to an entirely different era, a different world. His Highness was actually working on a shoestring (…), when he came to the throne he inherited big problems like what to do with the 300 dancing girls that belonged to his predecessor [Maharana Bhopal Singh]. He tried to offer them scholarships to become nurses but they didn’t want to move out of the palace so what could he do? He had to keep them. They were old crones by this time and on state occasions I remember they would come to sing and dance with their ghunghats [veils] down and occasionally one would lift hers to show a wizened old face underneath. [His Highness] had something like twelve state elephants. and he had all these properties which were deteriorating. The buildings on Jag Niwas were starting to fall down and basically the Lake Palace was turned into a hotel because it seemed the only viable way that it could be maintained… It was really a job of conservation”.
The fortunate result is “a jewel” floating in the middle of Lake Pichola, a building for the construction of which the finest marble was brought from Rajnagar on oxen carts over the 66 km distance. Its Mughal-influenced architecture features black and white marble walls adorned with semi-precious stones and ornate niches, gardens, fountains, pillared terraces and colonnaded courtyards. The Taj Lake Palace has 65 rooms and 18 grand suites, all decorated with beautifully carved wooden furniture and luxurious silk fabrics; it has several restaurants dedicated to various specialities, including local Udaipur cuisine; it also offers guests the benefits of a spa with treatments based on India’s ancient wellness heritage.
Finally, historic guests who have stayed at the Taj Lake Palace include Lord Curzon, Vivien Leigh, Queen Elizabeth, the Shah of Iran, the King of Nepal and American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. In addition, this spectacular palace became a movie set for the filming of the James Bond movie, Octopussy, as the hideout of the Bond girl in the film. The hotel is just 1 km from Udaipur city centre, 4 km from the railway station and 26 km from Maharana Pratap Airport.
(By the way, in parentheses, you should know that Maharana is a variation of the Indian royal title Rana, and means “king of kings” in Hindi, similar to the word “Maharaja”).
Sources: Taj Hotels, Wikipedia 1, Wikipedia 2, Indiasite via Web Archive, Booking. Images: Taj Hotels.