I’m fascinated with history and conquests and kingdoms and palaces. In India, there are several places where you will find ruins with interesting stories. But none as beautifully maintained or preserved as in Udaipur.
Udaipur is a beautiful, romantic city bordering the Thar desert in Rajasthan. Surrounded by the Aravalli hills, it is a valley dotted with fresh water lakes, greenery and…Palaces! By itself, Udaipur offers a lot to do. Within the city, there are museums such as the vintage car lineup, the city palace and the crystal palace to go visit by day. And at night, all of the heritage hotels on Lake Pichola light up beautifully.
This time my visit to Udaipur had more than just tourist interest. We had an invitation to the City Palace to attend the annual Ashwa Poojan ceremony conducted by the House of Mewar, one of the longest serving dynasties. The Maharanas are the highest authority at the House of Mewar. They are considered custodians, and not rulers of the kingdom on behalf of Sri Eklingji (Lord Shiva).
The Ashwa Poojan Ceremony
“Ashwa” refers to the horses of the Mewar kingdom. The indigenous breed of the Mewar empire, Marwari horses are known for their inward turning ear tips. The Royal family has a long history with these horses, considered the loyal companions of King and his army. “Ashwa Poojan” is an annual event, where the horses are honored. This ceremony is more than a thousand years old, and is something that the royal family takes very seriously.
The celebration is nothing short of a mini wedding. The City palace is cordoned off from public, and the entire palace façade is decorated with flowers and drapes. We are a small group of people in the audience, and as the sun slowly begins to set, the ceremony opens.
The ceremony is no more than an hour, the experience seems surreal. I feel transported back in time hundreds of years ago. I think of Chetak, the Mewari horse who was Maharana Pratap’s trusted companion. Chetak’s heroic story is legendary. During the battle of Haldighati in 1576 AD, this horse was severely wounded, and despite that, carried the Maharana to safety, only to ultimately collapse and die. The King & his men trusted these horses with their life.
And now, in 2014, I watch a tradition live on. First the royal guards march in and take position. The horses are led by their escorts. Only five horses are represented at this event. The Royal family has more than forty in their stables, but getting all of them here is not practical. The Maharana’s horse – a brown & white beauty decked in gold leads the pack, followed by the rest who are dressed in silver.
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the 76th Custodian of the House of Mewar, is away on an overseas appointment. He is represented by his sword which arrives in a 1905 vintage buggy. His son, Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, arrives next dressed in his Royal finery. He is flanked by guards. It’s interesting how the escorts first lace the entry with water and brooms – an age old tradition when dusty paths were washed and cleared, to make way.
The ceremony itself is short comprising a felicitation for each horse which is taken up to the Maharana, who is aided by a priest. There’s a quick ‘tilak’ and ‘aarti’. Followed by ‘om jai jagdish’ which is played on the bagpipes, indicating strong influence of the British on the Mewari Army and its’ bands. You can sense the deep gratitude and respect there is for these horses. As the evening ends, the horses are taken away to their stables, and we are invited into the City Palace for cocktails and dinner.
A lovely evening spent on cultural immersion into the House of Mewar, and most importantly – new respect and understanding of the beautiful Marwari equestrian breed.