Staying in some of Rajasthan's beautifully restored fort-palaces, now converted into luxury hotels, gives you a memorable chance to see India through the eyes of the maharajas
“Not everyone has a passport, but everyone in India has a horoscope. It’s our astrological road map to life. We consult it for everything.”
That’s according to Gaggs, our guide and walking wikipedia on all things Indian. Thankfully, my stars are very nicely aligned, as I find myself skimming across the clear, limpid waters of Lake Pichola to one of the most beautiful and luxurious hotels in the world – the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur.
Gaggs is a cheerful, chubby, 27-year-old computer graduate from Agra. Ask him anything and he’ll give you an answer. Not always the right one, but he’s likeably accommodating. Today we have nearly been killed by wayward tuk-tuks in the markets of Udaipur, bargained ourselves silly, and mingled with cows, kids and the locals. If nothing else, India is an eye-opener. We're exhausted, but our guide assures us we’ll be well looked after at our hotel.
He’s right. Famously featured in the 1983 Bond classic, Octopussy, the Lake Palace Hotel is a place where nothing is too much trouble and everyone is glad to see you. Leave the touting, begging and dust behind - this is a memorable experience, albeit a little cliché.
Built in the 18th century, it was the palace of the Maharana Jagat Singh II. In the 1970s, the place was salvaged, completely renovated and changed into what is arguably one of the most romantic hotels in the world. You can only get there by canopied motor boat from the City Palace jetty and its kilometre-long entrance. The white marble-walled hotel sits on four acres of land, but it is completely surrounded by water. In times of good monsoons, the lake’s waters literally lap into the entranceway. When things are really dry – as they were in 2004, when there was no monsoon – you can four-wheel drive to the hotel across the muddy lake bed.
Leaving the beauty of Udaipur behind, we head to the small village of Devigarh. The 40-minute journey is harrowing, to say the least. Our driver, Mr Vickram, has the skill of a Formula One driver, the patience of Job and the charm of a prince. “Don’t worry,” he chimes. “I know India like the back of your hand. You will never lose me.” Mr Vickram drives us through kilometres of haze and dust and poverty. Devigarh is in the midst of India’s marble mining belt. We drive past literally thousands of marble businesses – larger than anything Italy can muster - and precision-cut blocks of marble that Michelangelo would have wept over. The countryside is barren and dry. Over the years, the once tall mountains in the distance have been methodically chipped away, and mere hills remain.
But, as ever in India, patience is a virtue. No one seems to rush, no one seems to be rude and everyone gets on. Maybe it’s because India is the second most populated place on earth or maybe it’s just because rushing doesn’t get you anywhere. Either way, our patience is rewarded when we reach the Devigarh Palace.
Once the 18th-century palatial home of the region’s rulers, it was too costly to maintain and abandoned in the 1960s. Today, the fort-palace has been painstakingly and lovingly restored into luxury boutique accommodation. Ancient and fading murals of galloping horses still decorate the walls, and the grand stairways and gardens remain. There are only 39 suites and it is full of the beautiful people. The likes of Angelina Jolie and Liz Hurley have stayed here, our local guide boasts. There is something so decadently Bollywood-like about stretching out on a small mountain of pillows in the terrace bar with a tall, cool drink.
Off the beaten track, our last stop is arguably one of India’s best kept secrets: Nimaj, set in the heart of Rajasthan, 110kms from Jodhpur. Most of its 20,000 people are blissfully unaware about what the rest of India or, for that matter, the world, is up to. Our Mr Vickram eventually finds the hotel – the charming, and slightly ramshackle Nimaj Palace, with big rooms, no TV and no Internet. It’s delightful. We are welcomed by the usual marigold necklace, the auspicious red dot to the forehead and the eerie sounds of an old man playing a flute. Later, the hotel puts on a “sit-out” before dinner, complete with bonfire, traditional dancing and four-piece local band.
Nimaj is untainted by the big-city behaviour of the likes of Delhi or Mumbai. It is authentic India, probably what the place was like 50 years ago. There is no begging – they’ve never seen it and don’t know how to do it. There is no touting; there’s no scamming. The people are reserved, but a little curious. The bargaining is good-natured and fun, and there’s always a gaggle of kids in your shadow. They’ll pester you for pens, but don’t encourage them. The hotel would prefer to take your donations, pens, soaps, etc, and give that directly to the school. That’s a fairer deal for all the kids.
Within a 10-minute Jeep ride of Nimaj is one of India’s oldest Hindu temples. Built in the 9th century, Magar Mandi Mata Mandir was destroyed in the 13th century by the Moguls, who smashed all the faces on the intricate carvings of the temple. The place was deserted and covered in sand, then rediscovered about 25 years ago. Government money has somewhat restored it. Nearby there are mosques, Jain temples, village culture, and an old hunting reserve.
That night, we fall asleep to the distant music of the local Muslim festival, traffic sounds, incessant horn honking, more bells, drums and trumpets, and finally are woken by barking dogs as the sun starts to peep over the horizon. India is not a quiet escape, but it has a rich history and can be charmingly beautiful. Horoscopes or not, it is incredibly mesmerizing.
For travel within India, Jet Airways has new aircraft and a good network of flights to most parts of the country (www.jetairways.com).
The best time of year to travel is during the cooler, dry months of October to March. For more information about India visit www.incredibleindia.com