Tom Otley discovers a mix of history and modernity on the stage set of Udaipur.

First impressions can be lasting ones in Udaipur. The journey from the airport was along an anonymous two-lane road we took at speed, flashing past colourful lorries with painted signs encouraging us to blow our horn as we passed, then a tight crawl through afternoon traffic.

As we took the last few turns, we saw our first lake – the Dudh Talai, where former mahahranas had kept their milk cool. A little while later we stopped and the majestic Lake Pichola stretched before us, with Jagmandir island and the forerunner of the Taj Mahal – the Gol Mahal – clearly visible in the middle distance. Surrounding the lake were hills and mountains, some with the silhouette of castles or temples on their peaks.

We completed a few formalities – always paperwork to deal with in India – and walked down a slanting wooden jetty to a floating pontoon draped with thin cotton sheets, from where we would depart for our hotel, the Leela Palace Kempinski Udaipur (see overleaf). Within a couple of minutes, we were on the lake, just as the sun’s glare dimmed and the water became electric with the evening, the colour draining from the sky into the lake, which darkened to ink.

It’s all staged, of course – from the boat ride helmed by staff in traditional costume and the welcome of live Indian music, to the petals floating in the ankle-deep pools of water and the elaborate dress of the employees, who outnumber guests several times over.

But, then, Udaipur is one big stage set. The lakes, the fabulous palaces, the whole scene is a backdrop well planned by the rulers from previous centuries. It’s India as we like to imagine it, and it’s no coincidence that so many great writers have been inspired by it – take the first line of Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence: “In the day’s last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold.” There’s no better way to introduce a loved one to the magic of India.

Such observations of this City of Lakes, located in the western state of Rajasthan, might have seemed a little extravagant in recent years, when a drought evaporated the water and children played cricket on the lake bed, but not today. Rajasthan is blessed with landscapes of sublime beauty, and has both deserts and green swathes, nowhere more so than in Udaipur.

Founded almost 500 years ago by Maharana Udai Singh, the splendour of its mountain-framed setting was augmented by the creation of further lagoons, including Lake Pichola, and the building of fairy-tale palaces on its shores. This area has always been fertile – the Aravalli Hills are still home to what locally are called panthers (but are, in fact, leopards), which prowl its forests of khejri, teak and acacia trees. Today, wealth also comes from underground in the form of zinc, marble and limestone.

The Leela is a new-build hotel built on a spot at the northern end of Lake Pichola, just over the footbridge from the more crowded eastern side. A ten-minute stroll takes you into the centre of the city and up to the City Palace, where there are various combinations of tickets for viewing its rooms (definitely worth a half-day) and museums. The palace is home to Shriji Arvind Singh, the 76th ruler of Mewar (the region around Udaipur), and from conversations with locals, he seems widely respected, not least since he supports many charitable institutions in the city.

As with anywhere in India, the contrasts are startling – constant horns from mopeds, motorbikes and battered rickshaws, entire families perched on one seat of a scooter, dusty vegetables being sold from dirty wooden palettes at the side of the road, children bathing delightedly in water you wouldn’t wade through wearing full protective gear, and smartly-dressed school kids walking arm in arm. It’s more than a few worlds apart from the Leela’s five-star luxury.

Walk beyond its gates and strangers will approach you, trying to sell you things. Crippled beggars will drag themselves across the road to ask for a few rupees, while a smartly dressed gentleman will enquire where you live, telling you that his cousin lives in Birmingham NEC. “A strange place to live”, you’ll say, and then he’ll ask if you’d like to come and watch local craftsmen at work, but won’t have to buy anything…

Whether you follow every adventure or ignore them all and keep your eyes ahead, there’s little doubt that Udaipur is a gentle introduction to the contradictions of India. Yes, there is real poverty in this city of more than half a million, but there is also wealth. You are an obvious target for those wanting to redistribute money from the West, but the hassle is nothing like you might experience elsewhere in the world and, at least for us, was nothing that caused any alarm.

One of the islands is home to the Jag Niwas palace, built in the 17th century and now the luxury Lake Palace hotel run by the Taj group ( Viewed from the Leela, at first glance its white marble façade gives it the appearance of an ocean liner moving slowly into view.

Aware that we ought to break the hypnotism of lying by the pool and watching the sun make its way across the lake, we took cars to Ranakpur, a two-hour drive away and worth it not only for the eventual destination – a peaceful spot with some of the most outstanding Jain temples, exquisitely carved from marble – but also the countryside we passed through. On one stop we saw a bullock driving a waterwheel; at another, children playing in a stream while their mothers washed brightly coloured clothes.

Another day we visited ruined temples at Nagda – a gorgeous town by a small lake 23km northwest of Udaipur, dating back to the sixth century – as well as the temple complex of Eklingi, 1km away, with marble and granite edifices dating from the 15th century.

Still, for all the venerable history, there’s no getting away from the progress India is making, from the cafés offering high-speed internet access to the ease with which Udaipur can be reached from Delhi or Mumbai by several carriers offering superb levels of service and punctuality – we took Jet Airways ( The choice of hotels now stretches from backpacker hostels right the way up to top-end luxury, and there are even signs that the lakes will never be allowed to run dry again, with a complicated system of water harvesting promising continual supply even during droughts.

Meanwhile, under the benign and charitable authority of custodian Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the House of Mewar ( still governs, as it has done for centuries, ensuring the show goes on.

To read a review of the Leela Palace Kempinski Udaipur, click here.