Uncovering Udaipur, India's Magical, Marble City of Lakes

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By John O'Ceallaigh, The Daily Telegraph, May 10, 2017

Should you undertake the half-hour drive from the centre of Udaipur, India’s ‘City of the Lakes’, to the 8th-century Eklingji temple you’ll pass a 4-mile-long marble bazaar where one roadside shop after another sells slabs of pristine white marble. So abundant remains the resource that Italians come here in droves to pick it up from about £3 a square foot, and so ubiquitous was it in times past that the 108 temples and stupas found in that ancient spiritual complex are largely made of the material.

Greyed now, after baking through well over 1,000 scorching Rajasthani summers, and with its innumerable intricate carvings softened by time and damaged by attack, this place of worship nonetheless remains a remarkable sight, invigorated by vivid flashes of colour and activity. A wall of perfume greets rises from the entryway, where women sell the devout 10-rupee garlands of flowers as offerings; inside, an effigy to Shiva is encased in a shrine of gleaming silver. Most tourists come during the morning, but visiting on a sunny March afternoon I was the only foreign guest to admire as a cacophonous local procession gathered to celebrate yet another religious festival – with millions of gods, Hinduism provides inexhaustible opportunity for piety and thanksgiving – with song and music.

It was a joyous occasion for celebrants and another privilege for me, but then Udaipur had laid the charm on thick from the moment of my arrival. About an hour’s flight from Delhi, it is regarded by Indians as a sophisticated, calm, clean and – with a core population of about 500,000 – small city. For international travellers, it is perhaps best recognised as home to one of the world’s most beautifully positioned hotels, the Taj Lake Palace .

The Taj Lake Palace Hotel

Dating from the 1740s and again generously bedecked in white marble, the property sits alone on a rocky enclave in the centre of Lake Pichola. Once a pleasure palace for the city’s royalty and later a guesthouse for visiting dignitaries such as the Queen, the private island retreat became part of the Taj Hotels portfolio in 1971; despite a spate of other luxury hotels opening in its wake it remains the quintessential place for first-time visitors to stay and an enduring favourite for returning European guests (Americans and Middle Eastern guests, I was told, often apparently favour the lake-facing Oberoi and Leela properties).

Though the competition has intensified, daily heritage tours provide a compelling reminder of why the property is such a uniquely special place in which to stay. Deftly resuscitating the palace’s past, our guide pointed out original Persian mosaic work, recounted the tribulations of the grandly dressed individuals depicted in the hotel’s portraiture and explained that a marble viewing platform above an internal courtyard was originally a pew from which the king would throw pearls or jewels to performers who caught his favour. Later, after a sunset cruise from which we could observe as the palace exterior progressed from gleaming white to golden-hue to soft blue, an unexpectedly exciting recital saw a succession of lavishly clad dancers swirl and dazzle through routines that incorporated surprising tests of balance and strength.

Happily marooned on my first evening in Udaipur in this Rajasthani palace on a minute island, I felt I’d arrived somewhere magical, though that reverie was broken at daybreak the next morning when the hundreds of birds that perch around the property broke into a raucous dawn chorus – bring ear plugs.

Directly across from the hotel is Udaipur’s other palace, the City Palace. Dating from 1559 and still home to the local royal family, it is also an exceptional museum and so bountifully laden with examples of exquisite Rajasthani craftsmanship that hiring a guide should be considered an imperative. Mine, Kamal Mehta, recounted further decadent times past. On one upper level, a now often-overlooked marble tub was once used to hold 100,000 silver coins; other rooms revealed typically colourful Indian tiles that, it transpired, actually came from Staffordshire; a chamber covered in mosaics; and five preening peacocks, finished in coloured glass and dating from 1870. Elsewhere we admired an exceptional example of Rajasthani miniature painting, so intricately detailed that a magnifying glass revealed each indvidiaul blade of grass and strand of hair deftly inscribed by the artist so long ago with a squirrel-hair paint brush. 

Miniature paintings of variable quality and at times questionable authenticity can still be bought throughout Udaipur today; for visitors who wish to purchase high-quality artworks, Om Arts & Crafts (45 New Fatehpura, near Sukhadia Circle) is one of the city’s most trustworthy addresses. Representing a number of artists throughout the city and himself from a long line of painters, gallerist Dinesh C. Sharma led me through a collection stemming from accessible amateur works to exquisite Mughal masterpieces hidden in velvet cases and revealed to only the most serious buyers. Though a basic work by a novice student might cost £10, a high-quality piece might cost between £3,000 and £5,000; for the most laboriously produced and beautifully detailed paintings, finished in 24 karat gold, “the sky’s the limit”.

More modern Rajasthani artworks are available at Bougainvillaea Art Gallery (Bill Gates and Middle Eastern royalty are clients), but it was again the enduring links to Udaipur’s ancient past that (for me) made the greatest impression. After our visit to Eklingji Temple we continued to Nagda's 11th-century Sas Bahu (or Sahasra-Bahu) Temples. Another marble complex intricately decorated with carvings of innumerable deities, it was largely devoid of tourists; the only notable activity I noticed when ambling through the ruins was a clamour of young boys jumping into a nearby lake and a couple taking wedding photos by a stupa generously decorated with Kama Sutra-style erotic figures.

Lunch afterwards was at the nearby Raas Devigarh, a 250-year-old palace that has undergone a 16-year renovation to become of Rajasthan’s most beautiful resort-style hotels. About an hour’s drive from Udaipur, its unexpectedly minimalist Ibiza-meets-India aesthetic sees bone-white rooms balanced by original murals and former royal bedrooms transformed into intimate private-dining enclaves.

It’s a fusion that works well and the property makes a popular pitstop for travellers in need of a few days’ rest during extended India itineraries, but with only two nights in Udaipur I was happy to return to the Taj Lake Palace. Embedded in the centre of the city, with the illuminated City Palace on one side, the setting sun to admire on the other and calm, still water all around, it is indisputably one of India’s most impressive hotels and remains an enduring gem in one of the country’s most beautiful cities.

Ampersand Travel (+44 (0)20 7819 9770) offers seven nights in Udaipur with prices starting from £2450 per person for three nights at Taj Lake Palace and four nights at RAAS Devigarh, both on a bed and basis, including private transfers, international and domestic flights, private city sightseeing, sunset boat ride on Lake Pichola and an excursion to the Nagda Temples.

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This article was written by Telegraph Luxury Travel Editor and John O'Ceallaigh from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].