There are few buildings anywhere in the world that conjure up the romance and majesty of the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. The palace shimmers in the heat of the sun, rising serenely above Lake Pichola, its gleaming white walls reflected in the still water. Lazy speedboats chauffer guests to the palace steps and into the tranquillity of its 18th century courtyard.
The Lake Palace Udaipur was first brought to global attention as the location for Octopussy’s lair in the eponymous Bond film, and many local bars play the relevant scene – involving 007 disguised as a crocodile – on repeat. The palace’s illustrious guest list is even more impressive than its cinematic one, with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, the Shah of Iran and Lord Curzon all having stepped off the boat and onto the hotel’s private jetty.
The palace’s bleached marble columns and scalloped arches, standing in sharp relief to the Aravalli Mountains in the background and Lake Pichola in the fore, exude history and character. Built between 1743 and 1746 under the direction of the Maharana Jagat Singh II, it faced East so residents could pray to Surya, the Hindu sun god of dawn, and was used as a retreat for summer durbars (courts) all the way into the 20th century.
The palace’s history is hardly uninterrupted annals of joy, however. Home to the Maharajah of Udaipur for centuries, it played a dramatic role in the Indian Sepoy Revolt of 1857, when the lives of several hundred Europeans were saved by the actions of Maharana Swaroop Singh. Having taken fleeing colonialists under his protection on the island, he swiftly set about destroying all the rebel boats in order to guarantee their safety.
Guests of the palace today will have the chance to connect with those whose grandparents or great-grandparents experienced much of its colourful history first-hand when they meet the ‘Royal Butlers’, all of whom are directly descended from the original palace retainers. Further historical surprises await those who are lucky enough to stay in the Khush Mahal suite, where the foibles of past rulers disclose themselves at dawn. As the sun’s first rays hit the lake, coloured glass embedded in its Eastern wall turns the room into a riot of rainbows.
Despite such fireworks, the centrepiece of this four-acre island is undoubtedly the lily-pond courtyard. Surrounded by fountains, gilt mouldings, fine fretwork, bamboo trees and fronds, its only real competition is the swimming pool, bordered by mango trees and fringed by the lake.
Another acclaimed element of the Taj Lake Palace can be found in its dedicated Taj Jiva spa boat. The perfect place to replay the peace and pomp of Indian royalty, the ceremonial barge contains an outdoor soak bath, a deck to recline on and several treatment rooms specialising in Indian techniques such as Vishram, Pavithri and Sammardana.
The rooms in the main hotel aren’t too shabby, either. The 1,734 sq ft Shambhu suite, named after the reforming Maharana of the mid 19th century, blends the best elements of Indian and European design. But its highlight is not manmade – it’s the sunset views from the balcony that really stick in the mind.
Capitalising on the vista, the hotel’s four restaurants, based on Asian, Indian, contemporary Western and Italian cuisines, are situated by the lily pond, poolside and rooftop respectively. And if that’s not good enough, the Royal Butlers are more than happy to arrange a table wherever you desire.
If you spot another island nearby, that’s Jag Mandir. Effectively the Taj Palace’s younger brother, it’s a smaller island palace mostly used for weddings.
Not that you need a ring to enjoy the hotel. Every day feels like a wedding here. With petal-strewn paths, sitar players and impressively moustachioed men bearing jewel-encrusted umbrellas, it’s hard not to feel lost in a veda of your own.
To experience Udaipur and the Taj Lake Palace firsthand, check out the Grand India Tour.