Louise Roddon and god-daughter enjoy a whistle-stop tour of the subcontinent

'You can kick me if I get too love-sick," said my niece with a faraway look in her eyes. We were at the Taj Mahal, and the monument to love had set 18-year-old Heather thinking about her boyfriend of two years' standing.

"Actually, I'll be fine," she said, not quite managing to disguise a little mistiness around the eyes. "It's not as if we see each other all the time."

Heather had gamely agreed to "do a Diana" for the camera, despite the fact that our luggage was stuck in Delhi, and this was day two of wearing the same clothes. Her pose was convincing enough to provoke some rivalry. A large American girl nudged a proprietory buttock on to "Lady Di's" bench, toppling Heather in the process.

We took in the growing number of tourists, backs turned resolutely away from the Taj, as they queued for their own go on Diana's seat. Behind them, the setting sun cloaked the monument in an ethereal pearly glow, and we envied the late Princess's solitary visit.

To be fair, it was the first time we had come across an excess of fellow Westerners during this half-term taster of the so-called jewels of northern India. Yet somehow, their presence, and inevitably our own - so hulking and graceless compared to the gentle sari-clad ladies of Agra and Udaipur - pulled us back to reality in a not altogether pleasing way. Heather and I agreed that to be jostled in an Indian town is one thing, and all part of the "Indian experience", but when a fellow tourist elbows you, your hackles rise.

This lightning trip to the subcontinent - just six days in total - represented something entirely out of the ordinary for both of us. Heather was new to India, and so was I, having skipped the post-university hippy trail in favour of starting my career. (I have since rather regretted it.) And Heather had reached the age where the appeal of the two-week family holiday had begun to pall.

Over the course of several family summers she had seen a fair bit of Europe. But apart from a brief visit to the States, she hadn't experienced long haul. And her ideal holiday? Either a city break or a beach resort: "not too much lying around, and as long as there are good bars with, you know, those cool wicker chairs". Essentially, the girl was up for a trip with a "wow" factor.

As well as being my niece, Heather is my god-daughter, and I wanted to get to know her better in an environment entirely different from the truncated get-togethers that annually chart our family calendars. As India regularly delights and challenges visitors, my hope was that our shared impressions would prove a bonding experience. We also rather liked the idea of doing a modern-day "travels with my aunt". My worry was that six days would be too short to leave a clear-cut impression of the subcontinent.

Unexpectedly, Agra was to prove memorable beyond merely the Taj Mahal. Up until our second evening here, we had remained baffled by the tour operator's decision to devote three nights to the place, since apart from the Taj, there is really only the red stone fort - an impressively preserved hulk hiding calm courtyards full of bright green parakeets.

In every other respect, the town was fast living up to my guide book's rather negative portrayal of it as an ugly, industrial backwater, though the peddlers outside both the fort and the Taj weren't quite the aggressive beasts painted by the author. As Heather wondered, "Should I feel insulted that they've ignored me?"

But happily our visit had coincided with the annual Taj Mahotsav festival of Indian arts, crafts and folk music, so that evening we joined the parade of families picking over pashminas from Kashmir and kurtas from Lucknow. We were the only Westerners, and apart from the odd stare, and the little children who tagged along in our wake, chorusing gap-toothed "hallos", we were largely left alone.

Over a delicious south Indian dosa, we listened to musicians from Simla, then tentatively attempted bartering, picking up kurtas for £2, bangles for 80p and numerous soft stoles at bargain prices. "I'm actually enjoying being the foreign one - being stared at," decided Heather.

If Agra itself lacked a certain picture-postcard charm, the same could not be said for Udaipur. This Rajasthani town bewitched us with its dazzling colours and noisy street life. Along the road from the airport, women sheltered under the tattered sackcloth roofs of makeshift stalls, selling garlands of marigolds that couldn't quite match the tonal intensity of their own vibrant saris. Lime greens, rich saffron, acid yellows and pomegranate - set against this dusty brick-red desert landscape, they pained our eyes as if we had stared too long into the sun.

There are two faces to Udaipur. The tranquillity of the old city facing the lakes, with its palace and shady public gardens blanketed with bougainvillea, contrasts with the hectic modern heart that radiates out to the bus and railway stations, and is feverish with shoppers, traffic, smoke and noise.

Along Clock Tower Street, we gingerly attempted to dodge the anarchic tidal wave of oncoming traffic, pulling each other back as motorbikes and gleaming Morris Oxfords missed us by a whisker, and buses bulging with home-going passengers - both inside and on top. In the midst of this mayhem, a cow settled on its bony haunches to snooze in the road.

"Ugh! Someone's just coughed up phlegm behind me!" groaned Heather, clutching my arm more tightly. The vegetable market seemed peaceful in comparison, but Heather's composure had been disturbed. The pushing, shoving, sleeve-tugging and choking air from braziers fuelled by cow dung were not helping. A vendor dripped syrup from a great height on to a brazier piled high with rasgulla sweets. A family of pigs - India's efficient street-cleaners - snuffled among the wicker panniers of bruised grapes and cauliflowers, and a stately woman in fuschia-pink robes picked over a pile of beans.

Perhaps it was the cow's insouciance, or these intriguing market scenes, but I felt unusually calm, troubled only by an insistent cough and the worry that I would miss some colourful element of street life.

By the time we reached Lake Pichola, the largest of the three lakes that flank the city, Heather was back to her old self.

"I've got this strange feeling we're about to board a Disney ride," she whispered, stepping down into a polished and upholstered hotel launch, "and any minute now we'll have to click our safety catches down."

I knew what she meant. After the market, the lake's serenity and this luxurious vessel seemed surreal.

Given the brevity of this adventure, it was a huge advantage that our hotels had been picked not just for their location - Agra's Amarvilas, for example, has bedrooms that give unrivalled views of the Taj Mahal - but for the benefits of a comfortable retreat from the heat and noise. Here, we were put up at the Oberoi Udaivilas, a recently constructed resort built to mirror the region's grand Mewari style, and a rival to the town's better known Lake Palace Hotel, the white marble confection made famous in the James Bond film Octopussy.

Udaivilas has a pretty much perfect setting, not in the middle of the lake like its rival, but further across the water and directly opposite the 16th-century City Palace. During our two nights here, we interspersed town visits with spa treatments - a first for Heather, who confessed to wanting to giggle during her massage. We rose early for outdoor yoga, and at the end of the day enjoyed torch-lit thalis on the lake-facing terrace.

Heather was a newcomer to this degree of comfort, and appeared bemused by the over-attentive staff. Shuffling back from the spa in our towelling hotel slippers, she likened the resort to an extremely well run sanatorium: "You're looked after - and there are nice grounds to walk in."

Balancing this were our reality checks in Udaipur itself, a city we grew to love. We used a guide on our first morning to show us the main sights, and charming Mr Singh's clear explanations helped us understand something of the Hindu religion, brought vividly to life during the service we witnessed in the 17th-century Jagdish Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

At the City Palace, we marvelled at mirrored Maharani bedrooms, mosaics of peacocks and intricate miniatures of Moghul battles, later following up on Mr Singh's recommendation with a visit to the Royal Arts and Crafts co-operative in Devali village.

As an art student, Heather found it interesting to watch the delicate handiwork of two brothers as they worked on miniatures, with the sparest of squirrel hairs. They dipped into intense reds, blues and yellows extracted from local stones and showed us shimmering slivers of gold and silver leaf, fixing them on to the painting with camel fat.

The miniaturist's skill, we learnt, is passed down through generations. And in this particular co-operative, all profits get shared among the families of the 150-odd artists. It all looked incredibly eye-straining, especially when you're told the artists work six-hour shifts for 25 days in order to complete a medium-sized miniature. Peering at a painting of palace life, Heather remarked that it reminded her of an Indian version of Where's Wally?

Downstairs, block printers transformed sheets of white cotton into gorgeous swaths of colour. The dyes culled from tea leaves, henna, sugar cane, turmeric and chilli helped us understand just why those Rajasthani saris dazzle the eye.

Our last day, with just a few hours in Delhi, left us nostalgic for Udaipur's gentler ways. A quick stop for souvenirs at Chandi Chowk bazaar, and we were assailed by noisy auto-rickshaws, sounding and looking like so many mechanical wasps, and a percussion of car horns that set our ears buzzing. The pressure was now on to buy and barter, and that came as a shock - for during our week we had encountered almost no pressure from vendors. More surprisingly perhaps, there was less begging than I see on the streets of my home town, Brighton.

"I expected much more hustling," reflected Heather later. "But most Indians seemed more interested in practising their English. I'll never forget this trip - the smiling faces and the colours. That's what will stay in my mind."

A survival guide to travelling in India with a teenager

Opt for comfort and leave those back-packing hostels for your teenager to experience on another occasion. India has a wealth of wonderful hotels, spanning converted palaces and luxury resorts to boutique town houses and colonial bungalows. Well placed for sight-seeing and a haven if Delhi Belly strikes, the best also have swimming pools - a saving grace in warmer months.

At each city stop, consider employing a guide. A couple of hours is enough for most teenagers' attention spans. Guides are affordable and your hotel can arrange the details.

Teenage girls will want to snap up trendy Bollywood-style sari material, cheap silver jewellery, such as toe rings and bangles, and attractive hand-made paper notebooks in embroidered bindings. Visit the local government-run cottage industries to gauge quality and price, then head for the bazaars and barter.

Dress conservatively at temples and mausoleums - footwear should be removed and shorts are not really acceptable. In general, outside a hotel, steer your teenager off midriff-skimming tops, ragged jeans or short skirts, unless they enjoy being stared at. LR

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Louise Roddon was a guest of Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com ) which offers seven-night in Delhi, Udaipur and Agra, staying in Oberoi properties, from £1,425 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights, transfers, b&b and guide. All visitors to India must have a visa, which costs £30 from the High Commission (020-7836 8484; www.hcilondon.net) in London, Birmingham and Edinburgh.

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