City Palace, Saheliyon-ki-Bari, Lake Pichola, Jagmandir—I’d seen all the popular tourist attractions on my first trip to Udaipur as an overenthusiastic 14-year-old. Years later, I had no expectations of coming across anything novel in sightseeing. Still, I found myself standing at the gates of the Ahar cenotaphs, a site that I—like many others—was yet to explore.
The cenotaphs at Ahar are only a few minutes away from the city centre. The area does not seem very large at first glance, but is home to 372 memorials, according to the caretaker. It is essentially the cremation ground for the rulers of the city. The large tombs visible from the streets are those of the maharanas. Maharana Amar Singh II was the first to have been memorialised in the year 550.The marble structures are rather well built, and I wondered—as one often does—how such creations were even possible in a time period with no technology. Four sets of steps on all sides of the structure lead to the inside of the cenotaph that features the sculpture of Nandi (a gate-guardian deity in Hindu mythology) on one side and a prominent shivling in the middle. I had to remove my shoes at the bottom of the steps. And while my attention should have been on avoiding the dirt accumulated on certain parts of the floor, I couldn’t help but gaze at the minute engraving on the posts surrounding the shivling. Tiny images of the king with his wives and scenes of royal lifestyle were beautifully carved into stone.
The caretaker of the lot, who was showing me around, informed me of the distinction in the structures. Behind the large tombs are smaller memorials dutifully standing in rows. These belong to the late maharanis of the city. A peculiar one even hosted two domes, one tinier than the other. This, I was told, was for the son of a maharana who had passed away at a very young age. The size of the memorial made me instantly think of a young boy, a rather heartbreaking thought.
A wall divides the entire area into two—the other side is reserved for smaller memorials for those who had served the king. The caretaker even mentioned that a family member of an employee of the royal family was recently cremated there.
The simple monochromatic colour of the cenotaphs bring out the grandeur of the architecture. And the sombre off-white hue seems very respectful of the purpose the structure serves.
Amidst a sea of cenotaphs is a stepwell, better known as baoli in Rajasthan. Bright-coloured fish can be seen slithering in the dark water. A water filtration system keeps the quality in check, when required to be used. Apparently, maharanas step in to take a bath in this baoli after a cremation takes place.
This stimulating look into the royal lifestyle is not the only history refresher in the area. Ahar also boasts an archaeological museum merely a short walk away from the cenotaphs. The museum has an impressive collection of local finds, and antiques that date back to the 10th century. From earthen pots and iron objects to sculptures, toys and necklaces, there is a lot to revisit the evolution of civilisation. Many things on display have been excavated and collected by the archeological department of Rajasthan. Some items were even found in their backyard. Literally! I skipped on to a worker at the museum and pleaded to be shown the excavation site. The gates were locked and I was grateful that they opened it simply to humour my interest. The excavation site was unfortunately not much more than rough terrain and trees. Nevertheless, it was rather amusing to see where the artefacts were found. With a snapshot of these historic stories stored in my memory, I left to find the next hidden gem in Udaipur’s clutches.
This article was published in March 2020 and updated in February 2021.