10 February 2020
Before we set out into the dusty mayhem of Udaipur there are a few facts about the Leela Palace Hotel worth mentioning. It has 80 rooms and a staff of 360. The imbalance becomes evident at dinner when we are beset by teams of waiters who can’t do enough for us. They stand around ready to applaud our every mouthful and mastication. Even the chef appears regularly to give a passionate account of what he is about to cook and then returns to see if we liked it. And they all want to converse. It is hard for Michelle and I to get through a two-way conversation without some helpful interjection from one of the folk-costumed team. Room service usually brings two helpers per task. The entire place is being continually swept, cleaned and tidied up. When we arrive or leave to take the HMS Leela across the lake to the city, a small band secreted in a nook to one side the main entrance door strikes up with wild enthusiasm.
While our room is a model of elegance, comfort and superlative lake-view, we are well down from the top level of opulence at the Leela. One of the many effusive house staff took us on a tour of the hotel and showed us the royal suite, comprising a giant bedroom, formal dining room, lounge, kitchen, multiple bathrooms – all enhanced by silver embellishments and works of art. Various serving persons are included. The price? A$12,000 a night. This room rate, reception reminded us, is ‘dynamic’ meaning that you can make a lower offer.
Every night in the internal courtyard there is a deafening Indian traditional song and dance show. I couldn’t relate to it, although when two lady dancers jumped onto the stage balancing flaming pots on their heads, and then gyrated at quite a speed, I was engaged by the danger.
Our first venture into town was to the Winter Palace, a sprawling series of grand buildings that used to be home to successive kings (called by the locals maharanas, and ranked higher than maharajahs). The royal family still existed after Indian independence from Britain in 1947 but has no political power. The current king lives in a more modest palace at the far end of the building chain, still very wealthy and revered.
The Winter Palace is the largest palace in Rajasthan and the second biggest in India. I sits on a lake hillside and is very cleverly fortified. In all the conflicts that India has endured, it has never been breached. I can understand why. The narrow stone staircases alone would deter attackers because the steps are of different heights and some quite steep. Thus, they are easier to defend. There are also myriad secret passages which are still being discovered today.
The former kings lived well and entertained themselves with shooting tigers from the safety of rifle towers and being carried around in elaborate carriages either borne by four hearty men or an elephant. And speaking of elephants one of the favourite games was to position two elephants either side of a wall, have them lock trunks and conduct a tug of war. Which ever elephant puled its opponent to touch the wall, won a palate of vegetables. Apart from games and physical work, elephants also went into war. Horses were no match for them until somebody thought of fitting horses with mock elephant trunks to trick opposing elephants into thinking they were attacking a baby elephant – which was against elephant ethics. One famous painting of a battle showed how the king escaped – even though his horse had one of its legs cut off by a sword wielding elephant. The horse continued on three legs, jumped a river, and saved the king before it died.
The Winter Palace (also called the City Palace) showed plenty of old household wares, many introduced by the Brits when they ran India. One was a fan – but driven by steam which needed heat to boil the water which heated up the room so that the fan could cool it. That didn’t appear to make a lot of sense, but looked impressive. While visitors were ogling in disbelief at old wind- up portable gramophones sitting in wooden cases, I remember them being earnestly used when I was a kid. Have I lived too long?
Meanwhile, out on the street, holy cows wander, dogs are fed for good luck and traffic demonstrates it was never meant to be in these narrow, dusty corridors. Local busses have ladders at the back to enable people access to ride on the roof, where there is nothing to stop them falling off except balance. Our guide commented: ‘the motor bikes have become minibuses and the busses have become trains.’