A Seaplane Base in the Aravallis!
It was a chance discovery. In 2003, during a particularly dry spell in the otherwise water rich area around Rajasthan’s lake city Udaipur, villagers found a heavy iron chain anchor on the lake bed, of the famous Rajsamand lake nearby. The discovery caused a fair bit of flutter and also brought back long forgotten memories. For by now few remembered, how this lake was once an important stop over for seaplanes plying between London and Sydney!
It is hard to imagine that the Rajsamand lake, 66 kms from Udaipur in the southern tip of Rajasthan, hundreds of kms away from the nearest sea shore was an aero-marine-drome’ or seaplane airport used by the British. And, it also played an important role as a military base during the war years.
Rajsamand is a lake that was built by the ruler of Mewar, Maharana Raj Singh (1629-1680) in the 1660s for irrigation and as a contingency measure in case of droughts. Fed by the rivers Gomti, Taali and Kelwa, this is one of the largest lakes in the region. On the bank of the lake, are a set of 25 marble slabs with etchings of a text known as the ‘Raj Prashasti’, the chronicle of Mewar rulers from the 7th to 17th centuries. This is considered the longest chronicle of its kind and it was commissioned by Maharana Raj Singh, to commemorate the construction of the lake. A royal pleasure palace was also built nearby.
– Rajsamand lake of Udaipur and Madhosagar lake at Gwalior were identified as ‘Aero-Marine-dromes’ for the Seaplanes.
Technological advances and the British attempt to link up its sprawling empire in the years after the first World War saw the otherwise laid-back and idyllic setting of the Rajsamand lake area, change. In the 1920’s the British launched the Imperial Airways Seaplane Service headquartered in Croydon, England. On 27 December 1926, an Imperial Airways seaplane left its Croydon headquarters for a survey flight to India, arriving at Karachi and then Delhi in January 1927. The London-Karachi service was then launched in 1929, and this was then extended to Calcutta, then Singapore and further to Sydney and Brisbane. Convenient, as they could land anywhere, provided there was a strip of water - river or lake, the ‘Flying Boats’ made hopping across the empire quicker, though it took quite an effort. While It took just 16 days to fly from London to Sydney, it took 31 stopovers to fuel the seaplane!
Given the sheer breadth of the Indian subcontinent, the Karachi to Calcutta leg also needed many stops. Lakes across central and North India such as Jodhpur and Jhansi were considered. However finally, it was the Rajsamand lake of Udaipur and Madhosagar lake at Gwalior, which were identified as ‘Aero-Marine-dromes’ for these Seaplanes.
– In 1938, a seaplane after taking off from Rajsamand made an emergency landing at Dingari lake and got struck in the crocodile infested mudbanks of the lake.
Rajsamand lake also became an important night halt for passengers on their way to Singapore and Australia. Surprisingly, this floating airport at Rajsamand, was comparable to any other airport on land. Author Charles Woodley in his book ‘Flying Boats: Air Travel in the Golden Age’ writes how the facilities at Rajsamand included ‘a station superintendent’s office, a meteorological station, a passenger lounge, petrol and oil storage depots, a wireless station and two residential bungalows’. Arriving from Karachi, passengers were taken onshore, by boats and then by rail to Udaipur where they would spend the night. Next morning, they would continue their journey to their next refuelling halt, Gwalior.
Sometimes, seaplanes and their passengers faced unexpected situations. For example, in 1938, a seaplane after taking off from Rajsamand faced turbulent weather and had to make an emergency landing at the Dingari lake, 40 kms south of Jaipur. While landing, it got struck in the crocodile infested mudbanks of the lake! With loss of radio control, the passengers had to wait the whole night inside the flight, surrounded by hungry crocodiles, until help arrived in the morning.
The beginning of World War II in 1939 and the entry of Japan in 1941 on the Eastern front, made India play a pivotal role in the war effort. The Rajsamand Aero-Marine-Drome was now taken over by the Royal Air Force (RAF). With fighting taking place in North Africa on the Western Front and in Burma on the Eastern front, troops and supplies were constantly being transported back and forth between Karachi and Calcutta. The seaplanes began to be used for quick transportation of troops as well as for mail coming from England to Calcutta. Rajsamand thus became an important auxiliary base.
– During World War II, the seaplanes began to be used for quick transportation of troops as well as for mail coming from England to Calcutta.
The hectic activity on the Rajsamand lake came to an end as the war ended and seaplanes lost out and airplanes became more prominent and economical. It was only a matter of time before Rajasamand’s aero-marine-drome fell into disrepair. Its buildings, over time, were taken over by the Rajasthan PWD department.
Today, far away from the busy international airports, the Rajsamand lake is back to what it was long before the flutter of planes… a pleasant, quite retreat.
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