If, when you think of India, you imagine teeming crowds and blazing horn noise and filthy alleyways filled with cacophonous colour, then replace those images with white, empty space. Put aside every chaotic image you've ever collected from Slumdog Millionaire or Lion and, instead of shanty towns and heaps of rubbish, picture perfect white buildings, still water and clean, calm streets.
Now you're in something like Udaipur, India's "city of lakes", where we arrive on day two of our seven-night APT train journey from Mumbai to Delhi aboard the luxurious Deccan Odyssey.
From the moment we step out of the coach that has whisked us from our private train platform to inside Udaipur's old city walls, we feel at peace. This is an unexpected sensation in this usually frenzied country, to be sure – a combination of the calming effects of the five lakes on which Udaipur is set, the elegant all-white Rajasthani buildings that surround us and the serene streets weaving between them.
It's these elements that also make Udaipur the nation's most romantic city and, in recent years, India's destination wedding hot spot. An increasingly lengthy list of Indian celebrities are tying the knot in the city, including Bollywood star Neil Nitin Mukesh in 2017, Indian actress and model Shriya Saran in 2018, and billionaire Sanjay Hinduja in 2015, who had Jennifer Lopez perform at his $US20 million wedding. The day before our arrival, Isha Ambani, the daughter of India's wealthiest man (Mukesh Ambani, an oil and gas giant worth more than $40 billion), had her pre-wedding festivities in Udaipur, part of a week-long spectacle estimated to cost $US100 million, at which Beyonce performed for guests including Hillary Clinton and Arianna Huffington.
Our first stop of the morning is the location of the Ambani celebrations, Udaipur's City Palace, Rajasthan's largest palace where the royal family still lives. As we enter the gates, built wide enough for an elephant to pass through when the palace was constructed back in the mid-1500s, we immediately understand why someone to whom money is no object would choose this over anywhere else in the world to kick off a wedding.
Perched on a hill with spectacular views over the whitewashed city and the lake, and adorned with towers and archways and mosaic walls, the palace oozes royal splendour and romance. We spend hours exploring the grounds and various galleries, including the opulent crystal gallery which houses chairs, lounges and even beds crafted entirely from crystal. Every so often, we steal a glance down into the main courtyard where the Ambani wedding accoutrements – chandeliers the size of cars, faux marble columns, elaborate stages – are being packed away.
The essential ingredient for any romantic escapade has to be water, and this is where Udaipur really shines. Soon, we walk down to the waterfront and step into a small motorboat trimmed with crimson flags, to putter along the glossy waters of Lake Pichola, which was created in 1362 to provide irrigation and drinking water for the city. It's also the perfect vantage point from which to view the stunning architecture lining the shores – cream, white and light honey-coloured structures with Mughal archways and cupolas that spark daydreams of royal escapades past.
The lake's most iconic feature, though, is the Taj Lake Palace, the all-white marble palace that appears to float on the water. Built in 1743 by Maharana Jagat Singh II as a pleasure palace where he would consort privately with the women of his entourage, it was transformed into one of the world's most impressively located hotels in the '60s when the Maharana began accepting paying guests.
Today's disembarkation point, however, is Lake Pichola's other floating palace, the 17th-century yellow sandstone and marble Jagmandir Island Palace, which today functions as another of Udaipur's high-end wedding venues. We explore the palace's impeccably landscaped gardens, with lush lawns, cropped hedges and fountain pools.
It is quiet and cool, worlds away from India's usual chaotic honk and blare, and has 360-degree views over the lake to the Aravalli range, one of the oldest and longest mountain ranges in the world that wraps Udaipur in a protective embrace. From here we can also see across to the Oberoi Udaivilas, one of India's best hotels and another popular celebrity wedding venue, rising like a golden mirage on the lake's western shore.
We're loathe to leave, but our tour director tells us a surprise awaits back onboard the Deccan Odyssey. We embark to find the Prince of Udaipur, Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, waiting to greet us in the bar carriage.
After peppering him with the kinds of puerile questions one might expect to tumble out of the mouth when unexpectedly confronted with royalty (How do you spend your days? Do you like cricket? Do you have any pets?), the conversation turns to the Ambani wedding. Why, we ask, has Udaipur has become such a hot wedding destination? The prince talks about the increase in incoming flights to Udaipur in recent years, and about the fact the city is home to some of the best high-end hotels in the world. His main reasoning, however, is altogether more poetic.
"In Udaipur, we are very blessed in terms of natural beauty, and being surrounded by water certainly adds to the romance," he says. "And, like I always say, Udaipur is a place where you can actually hear silence."
Forget palaces and world-renowned hotels. That empty space, in a country so completely overloaded with sensory experiences, is the most romantic aspect of all.
FIVE INDIAN WEDDING ETIQUETTE TIPS
SAVE YOUR ENERGY
Indian weddings can last anywhere from three to seven days, including pre-wedding rituals such as the Mehndi henna ceremony. Since the auspicious time for the wedding is often chosen by an astrologer, they can also often be held around two or three in the morning, so make sure you rest up beforehand.
DRESS THE PART
Dressing modestly is a must: suits and sherwani (a long coat-like garment) for men, a traditional sari or long dress for women, with strictly no bare shoulders or knees. The brighter, the better; black and white symbolise mourning and red is reserved for the bride.
BRING A GIFT
Money is traditionally gifted, tucked inside a card or small bag with a heartfelt message. Denominations ending with one are considered auspicious, 5001 rupees (about $100), for example.
DON'T WEAR TIGHT CLOTHES
Attending a wedding shows your approval of the union and is said to bring the couple good luck, so no expense will be spared on the feast. Arrive hungry and keep an open mind; you just might discover your new favourite Indian dish here.
DON'T KISS THE BRIDE
Demure is the word of the day for Indian brides, so although ceremonies are followed by music and non-stop dancing, it isn't customary for male guests to kiss or dance with the bride.
Singapore Airlines has multiple daily flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and Mumbai, via Singapore. See singaporeair.com
APT's 17-day Spirit of India tour, which includes seven nights on the Deccan Odyssey, starts from $16,895 a person twin share. See aptouring.com.au
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of APT.