Inspiring India: textiles, artwork and homewares

Stay in a palace, soak up intriguing history, let your senses be dazzled, but be sure to scour the bazaars and markets for bargain textiles, artwork and homewares.
Europeans have been bringing back treasures from India since the late 16th century. Exotic artworks, ornate furniture, lavish silks - the country's rich heritage informs some of the most celebrated interiors around the world.

Today, India's export rules are tighter. Antiquities, anything more than 100 years old, cannot go abroad but if you are looking for bargain homeware, India will not disappoint. 

There is plenty you can fit into a suitcase - king-size bed linen and silken-soft cashmere blankets in the palest of pastels for £100, for example. Or find furniture for your home or garden and have it shipped back to Britain, surprisingly cheaply.

Discovering Delhi

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Dazzling variety: fabric shops in Udaipur

Amid India's new high-rise cities, Delhi with its classic Lutyens architecture and palatial monuments is the old master. There's history from the Red Fort to the elegant arches of the 15th-century tombs in tranquil Lodi Gardens.

There are shopping opportunities pretty much everywhere you look, but searching out quality is key. Beside Lodi Gardens is Khan Market, a U-shaped street of upmarket shops. Bypass western brands like Nike and Lacoste and head for Indian design. 

Fabindia works with more than 80,000 craftspeople selling contemporary home furnishings, fabrics and lighting, while Goodearth is a crammed treasure trove of delicate etched glassware, fine linens and colourful cushions, with a popular café on the top floor.

Khan Market also has jewellers laden with gold and silver, plus Dayal Optical - full of Europeans buying value spectacles. And the bookshops alone are worth an hour or two.

As India's costliest shopping street and the 21st most expensive worldwide, according to Cushman & Wakefield commercial property consultants, Khan Market is not the place for bargain hunters. If you want better value, brace yourself for the noise and crowds and head to the lanes around senses-heightening Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. Search for lace in Kanari Bazaar, fabrics in Katra Neel and hunt out treasures in Dariba Kalan, the antique silver market.

Back in New Delhi, Kamala, a small shop with a thoughtfully edited collection, is the main shop of the Crafts Council of India. There's linen from Lucknow, colourful ceramics from Jaipur and stone carved trays from Agra. Prices are good and you are supporting rural workers.

Hot tip - Sharma Farm: not to be missed in Delhi is Sharma Farm in Chattarpur. Don't be put off by the 50-minute car journey or the ramshackle warehouses and barns on arrival. It's a delightful hunting ground, and top of the shopping list.

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Sharma Farm: a 50-minute drive from Delhi, has barns full of reclaimed furniture for home and garden, mirrors, doors and wall panels all available to ship worldwide

Reclaimed furniture, etched mirrors, sandstone pillars, stone and marble carved peacock plinths (for holding a glass tabletop), super-size Buddhas and carved wooden door panels: the dusty warehouses of Sharma Farm have it all and will ship anywhere in the world. The US ambassador is a fan and on my visit an Indian high court judge was solemnly choosing a new wardrobe while his official car idled outside.


Udaipur, the treasure trove of Rajasthan 

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The Ganesh Emporium: sells top-quality textiles, furniture and artwork
One hour's flight from Delhi, Udaipur in the south of Rajasthan, India's largest state, is the City of Lakes whose beautiful Rajput-era palaces starred in the James Bond film, Octopussy. High above Lake Pichola the magnificent granite and marble City Palace is home to the Maharana, the latest in a continuous line of 76 princely rulers. 

His lakeside palace of sugarloaf-white walls, his private home, has a stunning collection of British crystal. To help fund the maintenance of such a fabulous edifice the Maharana has branched out into tourism. Two of the 10 hotels in his HRH Group are in the palace.

The City Palace Complex has good shops, too. Aashka has beautiful stock chosen by the Maharana's daughter, including traditional furniture inlaid with mosaic glass. Next door, Anokhi is a chain that sells textiles and clothes. Its fabrics are used by Stella McCartney and Oka. Look out for the block printing, an ancient Indian skill, and piled-high pashminas. 

Immediately outside the city walls, down a narrow, high-walled alley, visit Ganesh Handicraft Emporium, a mega Aladdin's cave with a fanbase including Sarah Burton, the creative director at Alexander McQueen, and the actors Bill Nighy and Dame Judi Dench when they filmed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel nearby. This family shop, established in 1970, is housed in a stunning, 350-year-old haveli, or mansion, with cool marble floors, intricate carved Gujarati doors and a jumble of inner courtyards.

Ganesh showcases antique textiles, pashminas, art, carvings and marble statues. The quality is exceptional, prices are good and they ship worldwide - in the UK they supply Graham & Green. Brothers Vipul and Vishal, grandsons of the founder, will serve you sweet chai and leave you alone to explore their wondrous shop.

Getting there: a seven-night trip to Delhi and Udaipur with Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk) costs from £2,023 per person, including three nights at The Leela Palace New Delhi in a deluxe room and four nights at The Leela Palace Udaipur in a lake view room, breakfast, flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow, private transfers and domestic flights with Jet Airways. For further information on The Leela Hotels, visit theleela.com.

When to go: October to March is best, when days are sunny and nights are cool. April to June is very hot. June to September is monsoon season. 

Visa: from vfsglobal.co.uk.


Wedding planner to Indian royalty: Londoner Laura's in charge 

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Wedding planner: Laura McGowan has arranged wedding celebrations for two of the Maharana's children

Events organiser Laura McGowan, 27, from Earls Court, has worked in London and New York but her greatest challenge so far was in Udaipur where she arranged wedding celebrations for two of the Maharana's children. His daughter married in 2010 and his son this month, each with a guest list of up to 5,000 VIPs. Staying at the City Palace and working closely with the Maharana's family has given Laura a unique insight into Indian life. "India is a happy place to live, its people carry such a special energy," she says. 

"No matter how tough things are for many of the country's inhabitants, people smile. I put this down to religion and strong sense of family." Laura's local top tips include a must-do shopping visit to Ganesh Emporium (see fact file) and lunch at Jagat Niwas Haveli (jagatniwaspalace.com) or Millets of Mewar (milletsofmewar.com). 


Steal the style: The Leela Palace Hotels

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Exceptional design: 
the stunning Leela Palace New Delhi

This hotel group - with awards including Condé Nast Traveller's favourite hotel spa and Best of the Best worldwide from Robb Report - mixes top hospitality with exceptional design. Its eight hotels in India include five-star palaces in New Delhi and on Lake Pichola in Udaipur, with direct views of the much-photographed Lake Palace.

The Leela Palace New Delhi is a modern take on how a Maharaja would live: everything is super-luxe and super-size. The 11-floor sandstone building with the city's largest bedrooms has Murano chandeliers, crystal Buddhas, handwoven Turkish carpets and jewelled miniature Rajasthan paintings. Gold is ingrained throughout. In Udaipur along with gold leaf ceilings, it is mixed with duck egg blue on fabrics and with silver and white.

The group was established in 1987 by Captain Nair, now 92 and still a hands-on team member. "India is famous for its palaces, so why wouldn't you want to celebrate this architecture?" he says.
theleela.com

Contacts and fact file:
Delhi: Khan Market (khan-market.com); Sharma Farm (sharma_farm@hotmail.com); Kamala (craftscouncil ofindia.org/craftretail.html); Fabindia (fabindia.com); Goodearth (goodearth.in). Udaipur: Ganesh Emporium (ganeshemporium.com; 00 910 294 252 3647); The City Palace and Aashka (eternalmewar. in). Anokhi (anokhi.com). 

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