The unknown secret of the Lake Palace is a jewel named Sardargarh. Hiding behind gigantic battlements overhanging the village of Lawa, Sardargarh is 95 km north of the White City, Udaipur, where the Lake Palace was elevated to international glory by the James Bond movie, Octopussy.
Built by Thakur Sardar Singh between 1738 and 1743, Sardargarh impressed Maharana Jagat Singh-II, the ruler of Udaipur, who chose to appoint Sardar Singh to supervise the construction of his magnificent Lake Palace.
In the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1832), the Oriental scholar, Lieutenant-Colonel J. Tod marvels at the beauty of the original fort: “Sardar Singh Dhodhia erected a Castle in his domain of Lawah, on which he built a splendid palace whose China and Mirror halls are still the theme of encomium. The castle of Lawah is one of the finest in Mewar.”
In the distance, the imposing fortress is outlined against the skies; white domes, symbols of prosperity and fertility, soften the military costume of a palace surrounded by thick multi-layered ramparts. The iron gate at the bottom of the hill opens, and a long lane climbs up to the top. The heavy and spiky black door blocks the entrance to powerful elephants, mounts of the brave warriors from another time. For the few who succeeded in climbing the hill under the flow of lethal arrows and passing through the unbreakable door, one first courtyard reveals the rough appearance of stones relinquished to centuries.
The man stands, strong and frank, unpretentious. Behind him, a beautiful woman unveils, door-by-door, corridor-by-corridor, a secret garden to the most privileged. In days gone by, only women could cross the threshold of the zenana. Inside, all whiteness; flawless marble cools down the bare feet as a carpet opened out to stroke the sole.
Domes and balconies offer desired shades, sometimes punctuated by a light breeze. In the uncluttered gardens, groves flirt with bright pink roses, a pure aesthetic pleasure. On the terrace and from any bow window on the village side, behind the few tall houses of Lawa, the green of trees dominates as far as the eye can see.
On the southern side is a small hill with a temple on top; in the opposite direction, the lake. By September, it reaches its highest level, then it progressively shrinks until the cycle starts all over again in a yearly routine. Villagers use the water collected in the lake during the rainy season for the irrigation of their land. For them, the lake means the wealth of the village. The simple beauty of water and the world reflected on its sheer surface is the traveller’s gift. Today, the amusing K.S. Mahipal Singh and his charming wife Dharitri Kumari reign over the forgotten palace and its nearby villages. Their lack of pretension and strict work ethic has gained them the respect of the villagers. A surprising complicity unites them. They care about each other and their motto has always been: “Work is thy duty, reward is not thy concern”.
The family put an end to the Purdah tradition years ago, after independence, and today, Dharitri moves in and outside the house with a delightful freedom. She speaks her mind, laughs frankly and is always curious to learn about other cultures. An educated woman, she offers a true home for her guests and plans to create a small library to share her passion for books.
In her house, she is proud to say that all the staff, despite the traditional caste system strictly respected in the village, drinks purified water from the same tap and eats fresh organic vegetables. Beyond Sardargarh’s rough masculine appearance, the inner world of women is full of surprises.