Monday, June 24, 2013

India Chronicles: Part Two

Come with me across the legendary Aravalli Hills to Narlai, and the enchannting Rawlai Narlai, a private hotel in an ancient, historic fort

Last week, we dreamed and drifted at the romantic and ultra-luxe Lake Palace, floating on Lake Pichola in Udaipur. I’m so pleased you all loved it so much. Thank you so much for comments and messages and posts and emails and reposts… I hope you will visit the hotel one day.

This week, my adventure and exploration in western Rajasthan, northwest India, takes us to pretty villages where time stopped decades ago. Cows and bullocks wander past bazaars that spill out onto dusty streets. 

Tribal women dressed in Paris couture-quality shocking pink chiffon ensembles shop for hand-made iron sickles and machetes for their farm work. Sacred cows step in front of rumbling buses and bicyclists pedal past.

I’m heading across the Aravalli Hills to a rare heritage hotel, the ultra-private Rawla Narlai set in a seventeenth-century former hunting lodge of the Maharajah of Jodhpur. It’s the twenty-year restoration project of two nephews of the Maharajah, one an interior designer and fashion stylist, the other a hotel entrepreneur. Rooms are designed and decorated in vintage Indian style, with charming hand-carved furniture, quirky architectural detail, authentic old paint hues, and hidden corners fragrant with frangipani for sunbathing or snoozing.

I depart from the Lake Palace and Udaipur around noon.

Days in India are vivid and every second is high-excitement.

Women’s costumes of hot pink, tangerine, indigo, neon lime green, turquoise silks and chiffon, are on the retina-dazzling end of the color scale. Sunlight is intense.

My camera can hardly get its mind around the intensity of shimmering daylight with deep dark contrasting and slanting shadows. The air is vivid with sounds of temple bells and flutes, and drums beat somewhere off in the distance. It’s seldom quiet. My eyes and ears tingle.

It’s as if I’ve tapped a tuning fork to my forehead, and amplified the frequencies of my senses. My brain is on high alert. It’s a very pleasant sensation, I must say. 

The Lake Palace kitchen packed a delicious lunch of whole-wheat grilled vegetable sandwiches, crusts trimmed, as well as bananas and cookies, bottles of water.

My driver expertly heads north to this morning’s destination, Rawla Narlai.

It’s in one of the most remote regions in India, in the far Northwest.

I stop at hidden villages, encounter a thronging annual gathering of tribal leaders at an ancient temple, in the village of Desuri, and criss-cross a patchwork of rice fields.

I encounter a rare and privileged insider perspective, exclusively here.

Please read along and scroll down to see rare village scenes, as if Indian village life existed in its own time warp. 

I arrived in Narlai, a farming village surrounded by mountains and lakes, late in the afternoon.

We drove through the town to a quiet corner beneath a granite mountain, its surface of cracked boulders seeming rather precarious in the sunshine.

We stopped at the twenty-foot high hand-carved gateway, and walked into the quiet retreat.

All is calm and tranquil, and I feel instantly at home.

The high walls wrap around. Rooms and suites are hidden behind archways, gates, walls, enclosed gardens, and drifts of white bougainvillea. Some rooms are perched on upper terraces, while others are accessed up stairs and beyond enclosed courtyards. It’s entrancing.

It’s a place for discovery, revealing itself in green-framed vignettes, overlooks and balconies. But behind closed doors, all is private, silent, and mysterious. I loved it.

Soon, a red-turbaned gentleman brought a tray with a teapot of Assam tea and a pretty flowered plate of house-made ginger cookies.

I sat on the terrace, sipping, and listening to distant bells.

Rawla Narlai: How did I discover it?
Two years ago, I stayed at Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar, Indore, central India. (Check the blog archives for that story.)

The owners are Prince Richard Holkar and his family.

Their private hotel, in a 15th century fort high above the river Narmada, is rare and beautiful and absolutely enchanting.

I asked Richard if he could recommend another heritage hotel in India, with the same feeling of integrity, history, and style he’d created at Ahilya Fort.

“Rawla Narlai in Jodhpur,” he proposed immediately. “It is very special.”

And so, two years later, I found myself at Rawla Narlai.

It’s a small private hotel built within the high limestone walls of a 15th century fort/hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Rawla means fortress.

Ajay, the manager, showed me a portfolio of images, including a black and white shot of the fort twenty years ago, a crumbling shambles.

Over two decades, the nephews have restored, repaired and added to the original—all the while making it look as if it had never been touched. It’s artful, convincing.

My accommodations were a ‘suite’ with a sunny terrace, a sitting room, a bedroom with frescoed walls, and a large tiled bathroom. 

Windows are ornamented with colored glass. Historic portraits of the royal Jodhpur family gaze down. Textiles are handblocked cottons. Curtains are the color of turmeric, dotted with posies.

Each suite and room is different. I propose that a guest should take a look at several rooms before settling in, if possible. Among the highlights are #13, a pretty room with a private terrace; #9, the prettiest room, with 16th century frescoes; #6 with lovely colored windows and a terrace. Selection may depend on the season, the temperature. (There’s a new addition. I prefer the old.)

The View at Sunset — A High Climb
Narlai villa has grown up at the feet of a granite mountain that rises almost vertically, 1,500 meters, if I recall correctly.

The following day, Mr. Ajay, the friendly and helpful manager (a brilliant supervisor of the two-decade renovation and ongoing design of the hotel) proposed that I might like to climb the 750 steps to the top at sunset.

“You can view the whole region and see much of Rajasthan,” he noted. 

And so, around 5.30pm, I set off with Lala Ram, who carried water, a Thermos of tea, and a few cookies in his backpack.

Some years ago, concrete steps were laid, zigzagging across the east side of the mountain, past shrines to Durga (the goddess of destruction) and cave shrines to various local goddesses, as well as a temple near the top.

Up and ever upwards we climbed, until suddenly we were on the curved shimmering crest, with vistas in all directions. Over to the west a 14th century fort scrambled across a rocky hill, and far down below was the hotel, its swimming pool glinting in the late afternoon light.

The sun, glowing in a golden haze, cast shadows across the landscape. I sipped Earl Grey tea and gazed off into the distance. 

My guide suggested stopping at the temple on the way down. It was situated in a crevice, a natural catchment for fresh water.

I slipped off my shoes when we arrive there, just the two of us. My guide, who lives in Narlai, lit some tapers in a smoky niche of a Durga shrine. He passed his hands over the flames and then waved his palms over his head, across his chest and his body.

“Purification,” he said. “Here, do it.”

I quickly, without thinking, passed my hands over the leaping flames, palms down, and gestured over my head, my heart, and again above my head. 

Just at that point, the orange-garbed priest entered the shrine. He rang a ceiling bell (to awake the spirits), chanted, and banged on a large drum.

I stood quietly, taking it in, listening, seeing, smiling.

I asked my guide if I should leave some money for the priest. “It’s not necessary,” he said. I put my hand in my small shoulder bag and took out some rupees. I left them discreetly beside the drum.

We headed down the mountain as dusk fell on the hillside and arrived back at the hotel in darkness. A tribal group were singing of love and beauty, loss and longing, accompanied by flutes, table, and a harmonium. 

“Time and the Universe: Fundamental to Hindu concepts of time and space is the notion that the external world is a product of the creative play of illusion. Accordingly, the world as we know it is not solid and real but illusory. The universe is in constant flux. Time, past and present, is endless.” – Richard Waterstone, 'India The Cultural Companion’ published in 1985, MacMillan, London

An Evening Excursion

I travel very independently, and keep a very low profile. I have my own driver, find guides who are experts on the local culture, on architecture and history and the arts of the region. When I’m traveling, I love to see my friends and I arrange to visit academics, curator, and experts in fields relating to architecture and design. I seldom encounter non-Indian travelers when I’m traversing remote regions or walking, with no sense of déjà vu, into the painted rooms of moghuls or into a fusty palace that’s been closed up for fifty years.

But at Rawla Narlai, things were rather more impromptu. I happily accepted an invitation to take part in the hotel’s nightly Stepwell Dinner. We would travel beyond the village environs to a private garden preserve and the 17th-century stepwell. Stepwells are traditional Indian structure carved from the earth, like an inverted temple, to capture and save water in the rainy season. Stepwells, thanks to the importance of water, are also a place of powerful religious significance and have the formal architecture and significance of a temple. 

We had to wait for the bullock carts. It turns out that during the way, the hearty bullocks are working in the fields and they had to be fed and watered and groomed after a hard day.

At the portal of the hotel, we climbed up onto the hand-carved cart, folk art, really, arrayed in hand-woven cottons. Some guest wore saris and turbans.

We bumped and jostled along the cobblestones, and finally disappeared into total darkness at the edge of the village. Above, in the dark sky, we could see the Pleiades, the sacred oxen, and I think I saw the Southern Cross (as you know, I grew up in New Zealand.) Orion? I'm traveling in the spheres.

It was a magical and charming evening. Two witty French couples and four adventurous English ladies, and Ellie, a young English student who was working as an intern at the hotel, settled in on four large sofas to listen to the flute.

We sipped white wine, and lime sodas, as the local musician seated in the stepwell created a mysterious atmosphere. I recall dinner, candles flickering, hours of laughter and delight. 

Narlai Village Encounters

One morning, I set out with the hotel’s assistant manager, who lived with his family in Narlai, for an impromptu Narlai ramble. 

While the community is primarily focused on farming arable fields surrounding the village, one of the locals told me that earlier generations had moved to Mumbai, become highly successful in business, and noq embellish their houses here and keep emotional ties to the town. They return for religious ceremonies and annual celebrations at the many Hindu temples that ornament the village with flag-draped shrines, turrets and spires. 

In Narlai, I walked over to the charming village school to offer boxes of pens and pencils and pens to the teachers and pupils.

When I arrived, the eight-year-olds were sitting on the verandah, all neatly scrubbed, hair gleaming, bright blue shirts neat and ship-shape.

One of the boys stood and gave a heart-felt rendering, a capella, of the Indian national anthem. Wonderful. 

The school, generously supported by Rawla Narlai, is very well-run, with maps and charts and images hung on walls, the teachers’ desks tidy and organized. I was happy to see the books, educational supplies and air of quiet and calm efficiency.

I always do a friendly talk with the children before I depart, reminding them how important education is, and especially urging the girls to stay in school.

“When the girls complete their education, you and your children will be healthier, and you will have a longer life,” I reminded them. It’s not unusual in traditional villages for girls to be married at fourteen. The girl, with a dowry, moves into the in-laws house, and her education ends. But times are changing. Girls now go to teacher training college or get a job in a nearby city (Jaipur, Jodhpur).

These school visits are always a highlight. 

My guide asked if I would like to see inside a private house in the village.

We arrived at a large hand-carved doorway, and knocked. As we entered, a herd of sheep was restlessly waiting in the courtyard. Bales of wool freshly piled on one side affirmed that the skinny creature had just been shorn.

At that moment, the shepherd, in a magnificent red turban (symbol of his livelihood) greeted us, rounding up the sheep. He was taking them out to pasture.

I quickly jumped through the doorway so that I could photograph this rare moment.

The shepherd followed and the sheep, perhaps fifty of them, pushed forward to escape. I marveled at the shepherd’s white tunic and dramatic traditional moustache.

I captured some shots, and they were gone. 

Turbans: different colors denote different livelihoods (red for shepherds), and family happenings (tie-dyed red and yellow for the arrival of a baby, yellow for a boy) and death (white). The basic fabric is 85 feet long. 

On the Road to Narlai: Rajasthan Encounters

Narlai village is mid-way between Jodhpur and Udaipur.

It’s 140 km north of Udaipur, and around a hundred kilometers north of the Jain temple complex in Ranakpur.

From Udaipur, we sped a brief few miles on the highway to Jodhpur, and then turned off into the forested region around Ranakpur. We drove past villages with roadside weaving workshops crafting wool rugs, and headed into even more remote territory.

As we left the world of road signs and bumped along one-way roads, we arrived at the junction town of Shilpi, with a market in full throng.

I jumped out of the car to capture the scene. Cities like Jaipur and Delhi are changing fast, and many of the old endearing aspects are lost (camel carts lumbering through the center of town, cows wandering, knife sharpeners, are no more)—but time has stood still here.

Farmers’ wives in shocking pink chiffon ensembles buy rice and rope. Like many women, they cover their heads with a ten-foot-long length of chiffon, an orhni, to shield their faces from the gaze of strangers. The effect is mysterious, beautiful. 

‘The children knew the bazaar intimately; they knew the kite shops where they bought kites and sheets of thin, exquisite bright paper. They knew the shops where a curious mixture of Indian tobacco and betel nut, and paan, done up in shiny green leaf bundles, was offered, and these with shelves of colored pajama strings and soda water. There were the grain shops, with sacks of wheat and rice and lentils, all spilling out, and the sweet shops, with their fragrance of sugary candies and cane sugar. They loved the glittering bangle shops, and the sari shops with cabinets full of sparkling saris trimmed with sequins and silvery fringe, as well as shops selling hand-forged farm tools, cans of oil, and bundles of ropes and wires. Some shops sold everything, in a vivid and dusty jumble.” — The River, by Rumer Godden, published 1946, London

Tall Rabari tribeswomen stalk about fearlessly, their pleated red embroidered skirts swinging, their mirrored and embroidered bodices glinting. These nomadic women wear dramatic traditional body ornaments—large gold old nose rings, cast gold earrings, stacks of carved bone arm bracelets up to their armpits, belts, rings, necklaces, and lacquered and jeweled wrist bracelets. They are stunning. They wear these chic ensembles every day, to herd goats, to craft knives and machetes, and to cut wood for their outdoor cooking fires. 

As we drove on through the countryside, I saw throngs gathering outside a painted temple. Police with batons stood at the side of the road keeping control (or perhaps protecting them).

I ran from the car, and asked a policeman if I could take photos. “Yes, but not in the temple,” he said.

With permission, I snapped a tribal group arriving for a weekend of prayer, meditation and homage to gods and goddesses. 

I entered the temple with the crowds (the only non-Indian person there) and was invited to meet the tribes three priests. Again, they invited me to hold my hands above the sacred flames, and wave them to purify my head and body, a kind of benediction.

It was such a privilege to be invited, to be welcomed, and to sit on the floor with a group of women, one of them holding my hand.

Finally, it was time to head to Narlai. 

“Beautiful were the moon and stars, beautiful were brook and bank, forest and rock, goat and rose beetle, flower and butterfly. It was beautiful and delightful to go through the world like this, so aware, so open to what was near, so without distrust. Now Siddhartha was there, he belonged to it. Light and shadow ran through his eyes, and star and moon ran through his heart.” from ‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). This translation by Joachim Neugroschel, 1999)

All images of Narlai village scenes, Rajasthan villages, and the thumbnail image of the hotel, and architecture by Diane Dorrans Saeks, exclusive to THE STYLE SALONISTE.

Images of the evening excursion to the step well, and interiors of the hotel courtesy Rawla Narlai, used with kind permission, exclusively on THE STYLE SALONISTE.

The website is currently being updated for the coming season.

Rawla Narlai is associated with India’s first heritage hotel, Ajit Bhawan, in Jodhpur.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Discovering a Dream Palace: Floating on a Lake in Northern India

Come with me to discover the cultural life of remote regions of India, and the enchanting Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur. I stayed at the Taj Lake Palace recently, and loved the elegance and exoticism of this hotel. It floats on Lake Pichola facing Udaipur, the legendary historic town in Rajasthan, northwest India. 

I encountered colorful and enchanting village celebrations en route. I found myself caught up in a surreal choreography of hot pink and orange saris, the jangle of hallucinogenic Bollywood-style music, and a moving celebration of centuries-old tribal life.

You’ll see my vivid impromptu photos below.

And I discovered that for this trip, staying close to the hotel was my ideal. Come with me to see why I never wanted to leave. 

Taj Lake Palace

There, in the middle of the silvery lake, surrounded by blue-haze hills, is the vision of the lovely Taj Lake Palace.

As elegant as a classic white yacht, it’s the former summer palace of the Maharana of Udaipur and his family and court. It was to this palace that the regal family escaped the summer heat.

Within a few minutes boat ride from their imposing palace, generations of the family whiled away their days with music, dancing, puppet shows, boat rides, fireworks displays (an India art), and lavish parties.

Now, the palace is an ultra-private hotel. Only registered guests can take a boat and arrive there. Security is extremely strict.

It’s a favorite of honeymoon couples from around the world. I’m always surprised how many young couples in Delhi or Jaipur or Tokyo tell me that they spent their honeymoon at the Lake Palace. 

International travelers (who may have spent 26 hours in transit to get there) and Indian residents love the privacy, the lake setting, and the hotel’s very low-key approach to quiet luxury.

It’s the kind of hotel where guests arrive by boat, and are escorted straight to their rooms and suites, never to be seen. There’s no lobby scene, just discreet staff greeting guests.

Except at the boat landing dock, in the evening at the roof terrace restaurant, or late in the evening after dinner, or at the nightly dance performance, I hardly saw anyone. Perfect.

“I hesitate to describe the Bari Mahal, the Lake Palace in Udaipur, as I am frightened that I shall of accused of exaggerating. Even now, when trying to recapture it, I wonder if I have not imagined the whole thing. It is the poetry with which it has been conceived. Oscar Wilde might have stayed here, or Whistler. Rooms have bay windows that jut out over the lake. Fingers of sun creep in through shutters, and liquid sun ripples over the crystal drops of chandeliers. The most enchanting courtyard is planted with orange trees and jasmine.” – Roderick Cameron, ‘Time of the Mango Flowers’ published by Heinemann, London, 1958

“Udaipur…must lie, I think, within a magic circle, for it is a place of utter enchantment…it seems as if with every step we were being drawn into another world, a world imagined in an oriental fairy tale.” – Roderick Cameron, 1958

The indoor restaurant and the rooftop terrice offer views of the beautifully lit Palace of the King of Mewar and of Lake Pichola.

Restaurant features delicacies including seafood and meats including seasonal soft-shell crabs, Canadian wild salmon, Australian lamb, and Muscovy duck, as well as India classic dishes. Vegetarian specialties include a variety of fresh vegetables, rice dishes of the region, tofu, white asparagus, and the traditional tali selections.

I always eat Indian dishes. 

Lake Palace History

The palace was built in 1743- 1746 [under the direction of the Maharana Jagat Singh II] (the 62nd successor to the royal dynasty of Mewar) of Udaipur, Rajasthan as a royal summer palace and was initially called Jagniwas after its founder.

The palace is set on four acres, but floats on the water like a boat.

It was constructed facing east, allowing its inhabitants to pray to Surya (Hindu Sun god) as the sun came up over the surrounding hills.

Over the centuries the royal family held sway in the region, and the lake palace remained a private refuge.

My first evening, as I went out on a shikara for a sunset sail, we passed a fort-like stone structure on an island some distance from the hotel. This was where generations of maharanas kept munitions and explosives ready for battle (and a safe distance from the palace). It was also where fireworks for summer celebrations were kept.

That evening, from a palace balcony, I saw a fireworks display on a nearby island (also owned by the maharana) in celebration of a wedding. Lovely. I wanted more.

The Maharana owns the palaces and much of the land around the lake—and he has strictly controlled watercraft on the lake. Only the little boats that ferry guests back and forth are allowed. It’s silent. It’s tranquil. Early one morning, I saw some fishermen in a hand-carved wooden boat paddling just beyond the hotel, but otherwise, just as cruise ships do not allow craft to approach, the Lake Palace is off-limits to anyone but overnight guests. It’s not even possible to come across the water for dinner. 

Even after British rule ended in the forties, and princely states were abolished, the maharana and successive rulers used this cool haven as their summer resort, holding their regal meetings of leaders, and traditional religious ceremonies and observations, and weddings.

In 1971, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces took over management of the palace. The hotel now has just 73 rooms and suites, extensive sheltered gardens, a discreetly placed swimming pool with a view of the City Palace, and rooftops and terraces and niches and cupolas where guests can remain hidden and private.

Lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, drinks and refreshments can be served in the garden, on a roof terrace, or in a turret, depending on the time of day. 

The Taj Group was involved in the restoration of the original property, and has continued to restore and update it over the decades, always maintaining historic murals, mirror-work, ornate carvings, marble floors, and the mood and style of the original.

I admire the way the company has incorporated technology, while keeping the style and approach and look of a traditional palace. 

It feels residential and discreet, with a rare classic beauty.

Staff at the hotel is the crème de la crème of the Taj management training programs. The room service staff, concierges, and guest services staff all maintain a very polished and calm demeanor, and are entrusted to make decisions on the spot, to stop and chat to guests who engage them, and to take the initiative.

When my computer did not appear to be working one evening, a front desk manager quickly found a laptop that was ready for guest use and the hotel’s tech expert set it up. The hotel has wifi, of course, and every other amenity for modern world travelers.

Everyone on staff speaks clipped English, and several other languages. Many of them have worked in guest services roles at the Rambagh Palace, at Taj Delhi properties, and they intuitively understand how to expedite transactions.

One day a sari-clad guest services manager proposed that I might like to take a boat out one evening to watch sunset across the lake. Another suggested ideal times to take a private tour of the City Palace museum, with its regal crystal chairs, embroidered textiles, thrones and collections of bibelots and royal fantasies.

Other trips I could have taken includes a trip in one of the Maharana’s vintage cars (those of you who’ve read my reports on the Rambagh Palace hotel know how much I love riding in vintage Daimlers and Plymouths and historic roadsters.) I was tempted but will have to do that next time.

There’s a spa boat, and a royal barge I could have sailed on. You know I’m adventurous and curious, and love new experiences. Next time.

A Hotel, An Escape

Before departing for India, I did weeks of research on Udaipur and the region in out-of-print travel books, and new books for updated information.

I planned elaborately detailed day trips to historic palaces to the south, scheduled visits to restored noble forts with painted walls from the 17th century, and made lists of palatial residences with beautifully maintained gardens, as well as remote and unknown tribal villages near the Gujarat border. I had every day scheduled to go and find the history and mysteries of Rajasthan. It would be a week of exploration, adventures, and discovery of India’s cultural traditions, Moghul arts and culture and people living just as they have for centuries, with no Western influence, and few signs of the 21st century.

I did not leave Udaipur. (But follow me next week, as I travel into a remote region of Rajasthan and discover authentic villages, markets vivid with saris and tribal costumes, and discover a dream world.)

The Lake Palace setting is hypnotic. I did not want to leave.

The run rises over the cream sandstone City Palace, and illuminates its wedding cake confection of turrets, crenellations, balconies, towers, fretwork, terraces and moon-watching pavilions. 

Early morning light ripples like silk satin across the water. In the afternoon, the light turns golden and surrounding hills topped with ancient forts seem to melt into a soft haze, like a Turner painting. It’s so mesmerizing, I would request another lime soda, or take afternoon tea to a terrace, and read fitfully and stay. 

One early morning, I took the boat across to the City Palace to wander silently through the viewing pavilions and mirrored rooms.

I stopped in at the adjacent stamp-sized Udaipur palace post office, its one-man operation and jumbled inefficiency endearingly familiar.

I wrote messages and addressed some vintage post cards I’d found at a nearby art gallery, and then hand-cancelled the stamps using the lumpy and dried out stamp pad. “Madam, please place the cards on the windowsill,” said the cheerful elderly official, his eyeglasses askew.

I placed them on the dusty window sill alongside random bundles of string-tied mail , and I crossed my fingers. Good fortune smiled. All five cards arrived at their destinations ten days later.

I was back at the Lake Palace in time for a late lunch of biryani rice and a light piquant salad, on a shaded cupola. Indian vegetarian dishes are my favorites. 


Udaipur is the key city of Rajasthan’s historic southern region of Mewar, a land of dramatic hills and remote villages.

This kingdom was one of the most powerful, traditionally, in India. The leader, the great Maharana, had to defend the region from invaders, and protect the Hindu religion from marauders from the north. He was expected to have a standing army, and to protect and provide for his people. He was the most senior of all the Rajput kings.

The Mewar rulers claim direct descent from the sun. In 1599, the Maharana, defeated by the Mughal army in Chittorgarh, was advised by a hermit priest to found his new city on the banks of Lake Pichola. Thus Udaipur was born. Today it’s a city of around 300,000 people, growing fast, but still retaining a sense of old India.

With its tangle of bazaars and towering palace buildings, Udaipur today also houses artist workshops crafting woven textiles, pottery, and tie-dye fabrics. 

“Streets plunge lakewards or soar to the palace, fretted with flights of steps or escalating to temple-crowned heights. Lanes are drenched in sunlight and bright dust, and loud with chattering voices. The marvelous streets of Udaipur where now as ever, for a thousand years, the daily pageant of Rajputana is enacted.” – Baron Jean Pellenc, ‘Diamonds and Dust’ published by John Murray Ltd., London 1936

Thanks to the benevolence of the elderly and revered royal leader who carefully protects historic havelis and regal buildings, the view around the lake is harmonious.

Folkloric silver jewelry, miniature paintings of the Mewar School, and natural cashmere (undyed) shawls are among elegant treasures to take home.

I highly recommend a visit to the City Palace and perhaps you will be fortunate, as I was, to be invited to an awards ceremony the Maharana was conducting one evening.

Otherwise, the best viewing is from the Lake Palace, from sunrise to sunset.

“Here they listened to the tale of the bard and slept off their noonday opiates amidst the cool breezes of the lake, wafting delicious odors of jasmine and myriads of lotus flowers which covered the surface of the lake waters.” – Lieutenant-Colonel James Todd (1782-1815) an English historian who wrote of the culture of the Rajputs, their valor, their lives and traditions and their romance in ‘Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan’, London, 1829-1832

On the Road to Udaipur: A Village Celebration

To travel from the Rambagh Palace hotel in Jaipur (watch for my report in upcoming weeks) to the Lake Palace in Udaipur, I hired a car and driver. There are no direct flights from Jaipur to Udaipur.

Udaipur is located in a southern corner of Rajasthan, not far from the border of the adjacent state of Gujarat.

The drive west, on a fine new highway, takes around six hours, with a stop at a wayside hotel/restaurant for a refreshing lime soda, and a wander in the pretty garden. 

“Pink is the navy blue of India.” – Diana Vreeland, Vogue

Two hours before attaining Udaipur, in the middle of nowhere, with green rice fields to the left and to the right, I heard loud drums, flutes, and arpeggios of horns, the captivating over-amped sounds of celebratory Indian music.

I asked my driver to stop. I jumped from the car, and dashed across the road into the swirl of village women dressed in their finest saris and gold jewelry, dancing and singing and following the procession. 

I followed, and was pelted with red dye by one of the younger girls who was dressed in a bright orange silk chiffon sari trimmed with gold sequins. The bright crimson dye, a symbol of joy and life and vitality, found its way all over my long white gauze scarf and white cotton blouse. Smudges of pinkish red looked perfectly in keeping for arriving at the hotel.

It turned out that the celebration was in honor of a grand and handsome and somewhat tottery gentleman who was retiring from his lifelong railroad service, finally as head of the regional railways. 

As he (and his wife, in a orange sari) walked at the head of the procession, village friends added garlands of marigold flowers, layers of yellow floral tributes around his shoulders.

The tradition is also to add layers of orange and red turbans to crown his head with glory. More and more were circled in an increasingly giant turban that threatened to topple him.

The music blared, the girls danced, I chatted to the local school teachers, and I admired plump sleeping babies held aloft by young mothers. I was swept along in the colorful group. I loved the spontaneous joyful bursts of singing. I was the only non-Indian person there.

Eventually, the delirious group headed into the village. It was time for me to head on to the Lake Palace, through miles of marble factories, and swathes of green rice fields. 

I adored the Lake Palace. It was effortless, it was serene.

But eventually it was time to depart.

I had one request.

From the hotel boat landing and from the library, I had watched sunset shadowing a temple across the water. All day, pilgrims arrived, ladies washed clothing in the lake, men sat patiently fishing, and one afternoon an elephant was visible beneath a tree.

It was an ancient Indian scene, viewed as if through some magical time travel.

As my bags were loaded on board, I asked the boatman if we could divert across the water to get a closer look at the temples 

We smoothly curved around to the north, and slowed down as I watched children playing on the steps, women with their saris hitched about their waists washing clothes in the lake water, and, indeed, over beyond the tree, an elephant standing placidly in the sun.

The lake water was dark green at this point, with reflections of the temple rippling and shimmering. It was a scene from the sixteenth-century or the nineteenth century, or perhaps the fifth, but really, a scene from the early twenty-first century, today. Magical.

On my next visit to Udaipur, I’ll add this vantage point of land to my list of places to explore.

And then I headed across the lake to the jetty.

My visit (my third) to the Taj Lake Palace had been so much more relaxing and compelling than I anticipated.

I’d arrived with black Moleskine notebooks full of lists of Jain temples and Mewar palaces and muraled old rooms to visit in the region. I thought I would set out early in the day to see hilltop forts, Rajput palaces, and authentic Indian village life, far from the 21st century.

Instead, I embraced the peace and quiet of the water palace.

It was one of the most memorable hotel visits I’ve made. 


Images of the Taj Lake Palace hotel, courtesy Taj Hotels and Resorts. Used here with express permission.

Photographs of the City Palace and the village celebration by Diane Dorrans Saeks. 

Taj Lake Palace:
Lake Pichola, Udaipur, Rajasthan, 313001, India
+91 294 242 8800.

About Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces:

Established in 1901, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces is one of Asia's largest groups of hotels, comprising 100 hotels and resorts in 58 locations across India with an additional 17 international hotels in the Maldives, Malaysia, Australia, UK, USA, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Africa and the Middle East.