Passage to India: Reflecting on the past

Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.
Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.
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Combining sightseeing with super spas, Nilima Marshall explores the delights of busy Delhi and peaceful Udaipur.

Aside from the sound of our boat gently gliding through the water, the peaceful lake is completely still. The glimmering water is a mirror to the rolling hills, stone-carved temples and grand palaces glowing beneath a beautiful sunset.

Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.

Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.

Nestled among plump, comfy cushions on the bow of our little boat, I nibble canapes and sip iced tea.

I am in the middle of Lake Pichola in Udaipur on a serene sunset boat ride, watching the pelicans and cormorants fly.

Roger Moore found his way to this captivating city 30 years ago as James Bond in Octopussy. But this evening there are no blazing guns to disturb the peace.

It’s hard to believe I’m a world away from the bustling chaos, noise and pollution that characterizes India.

I arrived in Udaipur a few days ago expecting to find some of the old-world allure that seems to be fast disappearing from India’s urban cities. And I must say, I am not disappointed.

I’ve only seen glimpses of this picturesque city on cinema screens – most recently in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – but am already charmed by the decadent palaces and narrow gallis (lanes) lined with havelis (houses), bazaars and temples.

Located in western Rajasthan, Udaipur is also known as the ‘City of Lakes’ and the ‘Venice of the East’, thanks to its seven large lakes. The City Palace complex, home to the present king of Udaipur, Arvind Singh Mewar, overlooks Lake Pichola.

Our tour guide Rohan tells us the architectural grandeur of the palace is the result of “a harmonious blend of local Rajasthani and Afghan-inspired Mughal styles”, symbolic of the co-existing cultures in Udaipur.

Built on a hilltop in the 16th-century, the royal complex offers stunning panoramic views of the city, Aravalli hills and its surrounding historic monuments that include Jag Mandir, Jag Niwas (now known as the Taj Lake Palace), Jagdish Temple and Monsoon Palace.

Rohan explains that unlike Delhi and neighbouring cities, Udaipur never fell into the hands of the Mughals and other invaders.

“Our king remains unconquered, and hence he is a Maharana (title of the highest of hereditary monarchs) and not a Maharaja, like the rulers in other cities,” says Rohan proudly.

The Monsoon Palace, which was the Maharana’s hilltop residence in the Aravalli mountains during the monsoon season in the 19th-century, is currently empty and a great vantage point.

We take a bright yellow and black tuk tuk to City Palace Road, with camels and cows appearing out of nowhere to greet us. We pass through shops filled with bright saris, embroidered sandals, colourful Rajasthani marionettes and silver jewellery.

The explosion of colour continues at Ganesh Handicraft Emporium.

Located behind Temple Square, the 350-year-old haveli looks unassuming on the outside but transforms into an Aladdin’s cave, becoming a treasure trove of 16 galleries brimming with vibrant Rajasthani textiles, wooden and stone-carved crafts and traditional paintings.

Happy customers have included fashion designer Sarah Burton and actresses Joely Richardson and Dame Judi Dench.

Further down the road is the Jagdish Temple, a large 17th-century Hindu monument. We make our way to an art school nearby where I admire exquisite traditional Rajasthani miniature paintings.

I follow Rohan’s recommendation and head over to Eklingji, a large Hindu temple complex on the outskirts. I arrive just in time for aarti (evening prayers) and receive blessings from the priest.

Afterwards, I unwind at the luxurious Leela Palace hotel in Udaipur, admiring the spectacular view of the Aravalli mountains and Lake Pichola.

I opt for a soothing ayurvedic massage at the hotel’s spa, where my therapist uses aromatic oils to stimulate the body, mind and spirit. I feel myself drifting away on the table and emerge totally rejuvenated.

My wellbeing programme continues with a pre-dawn yoga session the following morning.

Now I’ve got my mojo back I’m ready to brave the bustling streets of Delhi.

When I arrive in the capital, the beeping horns and noisy traffic are a shock to my system. I nearly take a tumble as our driver slams the brakes to let a small boy cross a busy street, his arms laden with popular Bollywood magazines.

Our guide, Aanchal, reassures us that we are in capable hands. “There are three things anyone driving in India needs to have,” she tells us. “Patience, a bit of good luck and excellent brakes!”

Sure enough, I begin to see her point as we weave through the traffic to overtake tuk tuks, rickshaws and bicycles, which share the dual carriageway with Bentleys, Mercedes and Tata Nanos. Not far ahead, I can see a white cow crossing the carriageway, oblivious of the chaos.

We get off the coach for a rickshaw ride through the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk, one of the country’s oldest and busiest markets.

Set up in the 17th-century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who also built the Taj Mahal), Chandni Chowk bazaar is known for its vibrant and colourful wedding wear, ornate jewellery, silverware and bespoke furniture.

Asia’s largest spice market, Khari Baoli, can also be found here, along with a Baptist church, a Sikh temple and two mosques.

We head towards nearby Red Fort, or the Lal Quila, which takes its name from its burnt-red sandstone walls. We drive past the India Gate and Humayun’s Tomb, then on to Qutub Minar.

Standing 73 metres tall, I imagine views from the top of Qutub Minar to be spectacular. Unfortunately, though, the gates to the tower have been closed since a power failure in 1981 plunged the staircase into darkness, killing 45 people.

Despite the tragedy, the Minar is still a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the second most visited monument in India, after the Taj Mahal .

The busy markets and crowded monuments seem like a very different India to the spas and peaceful lakes of Udaipur. But in one way or another, both cities stimulate the senses.