Amazing place, India. Take the streets. Can you imagine a dual carriageway, say 3 lanes each side with a centre barrier? No-one drives to lane but drives to the nearest point of most progress. Not just cars but bikes, scooters, cars, rickshaw bikes, rickshaw scooters, camels/donkeys and trap, buses, trucks…all fighting it out, horns blowing to warn approach. Then add in cows, buffaloes, bulls, dogs, goats, pigs and piglets, pedestrians in endless numbers, some of them sleeping in the inside lane, cattle eating the foliage on the centre barrier. Then add in the drivers who drive the wrong way down the wrong side because they can’t be bothered to find the gap in the intersection further on. Even on the motorways out of town it is just the same but with bigger gaps in the crowd.
Flight went to plan and we were picked up at the airport. Stayed at the Lutyens designed art-deco Imperial Hotel, Delhi, the history of the English Raj on the walls. Over 4000 old prints. Great room, great food. There you realise just how closely the Brits and the Indians work together, the level of mutual respect.
There in Delhi the first temples and the first palaces/forts: a tomb built for the second Mughal Humayun by his wife Mumtaz; the Lutyens designed new city with its magnificent government offices.
Two days later, a short flight to Varanasi and the Nadesar Palace Hotel where the Maharaja put his guests. Again good food, fine room and wonderful service.
Varanasi. You have seen nothing yet. The street scenes above and halve the road sizes. Varanasi, on the Ganges, the home of the Hindu religion – ritual washing in the Ganges for all Hindus, cows and fakirs everywhere, bodies burning on pyres on the banks, mourners running thru the streets chanting, bearing their loved ones on stretchers, cymbals clashing, the new arrivals dressed in bright shrouds, faces bare, heading to the final journey.
Walk behind these stepped banks (ghats) and you find two metre wide streets, vendors sitting in cave openings either side selling all sorts from ready snacks to a haircut. Dogs, cows. bulls, buffaloes again abound – you push on past them, dancing between the shit that lies everywhere.
We were there during the festival when Shiva in his various forms is taken to the Ganges and thrown in – adorned Shiva trucks, crowds dancing behind them, traffic to a standstill – destination abandoned; but how do you get out of this meelee? Here too, a visit to Sarnath where Buddha preached his first sermon and set in motion the Wheel of Law. Buddhist groups from Shri Lanka winding a cloth band around the commemorative massive while other buddhists from other countries looked on
Second flight to Khajuraho. Lalit hotel good but disfunctional. Never mind. We are here to see the Hindu temples. 13th & 14th centuries exquisitely carved in stone and still perfect. Karma Sutra too. Conjoining of man and woman creates the ecstatic state on the road to Nirvana. ‘There are 85 positions’, says the guide. ‘This is number 69.’
Now a drive to Orchha where the magnificent palace was built over 20 years for a one day visit by the Murghal Jehangir, then a 2.5 hour train ride to Agra made one hour longer by delay. The whole world on the platform. We are sitting on our bags watching the rats busily at home between the rails, waiting for the train with a first class the whole Western world would not choose to travel in! On the platform, waiting with us, an American architect and his wife who live in Mexico City, dressed in flowing while cotton robes; and an tweedy English solicitor and wife from Northwood Hills. Agra we are here.
Agra is the Mughal town of Akbar and Shah Jehan, both liberal Mughals who embraced religious and cultural tolerance. Akbar we hear had three wives, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish (plus a 300+ strong harem just in case) but his influence on art and building is there to be seen. We stayed at the Oberoi, a super hotel in every way, every room with a view of the Taj Mahal. Magnificent. ‘A tear on the cheek of love’, the Taj is a ‘must-see’ in your lfe at some time. Absolutely beautiful, pure white, hard marble, perfect symmetry, finely carved as wood and inlaid with semi precious stones. It seems to float.
Then forts and palaces in abundance, clearly an amazing wealth and culture – beautful design and finish on a grand, grand scale. People, beggars, hawkers everywhere.
Now for the nightmare car journey to Sawai Madhopur to see the tigers at Ranthambhore National Park, much of the road as bad as a farm track, the best bits with vehicles coming in every direction; and the usual crowd of dogs, cattle, bikes, dogs, etc. Long and exhausting.
Arrived at the Maharaja’s Shooting Lodge later in the evening. Hold it. This is’nt a Maharaja’s shooting lodge. This must be where he kept the tigers. Now, as you can imagine, Maggie is not one to be ‘penned up’ in a place like this. Her Beloved springs into action. Only the Oberoi Vanyavilas would do.
You should put these hotels up on Google. Look at this one. Elephants on guard at the gate, awaiting intrepid tourists. We slept in a beautifully coutured, tent-designed bungalow, the daylight washing pale through a roof fabric embroidered with tigers in gold thread. What a bijou experience! Dining in a luxurious courtyard with staff falling over themselves to serve; a chef who took us under his wing to introduce the different foods of India. And we even saw a tiger on one of the drives. And a kill!
A shorter journey by car again and on to Jaipur, the pink city home of the Man and Jai Singhs. Another huge culture of forts and palaces. And the Rambagh Palace (now) Hotel. How can you describe it? Fit for a Maharaja with a huge, internal square of formal gardens. Again, it is run by the Taj Group and, perhaps because of the lodge fiasco, they have upgraded us to a suite. A woman’s paradise too of fine cotton, embroidered chemises and finer Himalayan mountain goat pashminas. Fine jewellery too. The only test in acquiring them: the negotiation. The choice will be yours: either ‘really quite expensive but good value’ or ‘amazingly cheap’.
So here we are. One more week to go, Jodpur and Udaipur in our sights. Two more palaces to stay in, then on to the Oberoi, Delhi to recover in time for the trip home. This is approaching a trip of a lifetime. We are both well, though Maggie has been struggling with a bit of a cold. Delhi belly is so far held at bay. Seems Indians understand this problem. Bottled water in abundance, everywhere. Care taken on what we eat and, with wine 30 quid a bottle at least, you are not tempted to drink two. The vegetarian Hindus make their Western visitors pay for their meat, in fact generally slaughtered by Muslims.
As we turned into Jodpur, a cupola reminiscent of St Paul’s Cathedral rose in front of us. “I suppose you’re going to tell us this is our hotel”. “Yes” came the reply. The Taj Umaid Bhawan Hotel. Luxurious again, the finest marbles and service. And, just to make us feel quite at home, a squadron of vintage Rolls Royce and Bentleys, sitting gently on the manicured lawns, mostly delivered from England in containers and rallied by ancient English gentlemen and their wives. Jodpur is the blue city, painted blue apparently to discourage mosquitoes; and a major trading centre in history. As if magically, we are escorted on a journey to the town, passing through doorways and ante-rooms and into larger rooms piled high with fabrics of every shape, size and brilliant colouring, many, it was said, shared with Gucci and Chanel. We had now entered a world of finely woven silk fabrics, far too beautiful to leave behind.
A pleasant drive to Udaipur, in the land of the Rajput warrior caste. We stayed at the City Palace Hotel on Lake Pichola, built by the Maharana to house his harem. The ladies had left; so the hotel took a little time to understand. But it had great charm, including small, modest turrets on the walls, ideal for the ladies to use for their make-up; and a grassy square for a courtyard where we met an English gentleman, recently recovered from dengue fever but still determined to throw his pennies building his own palace overlooking the lake. Udaipur must be the target finale for any Indian visit. Meandering down the stone paved, sloping hill from the palace, through the walled city gate, past the temple on the left swarming noisily in prayer and offerings, on to narrow painted streets and through small doorways: suddenly an emporium of fine cotton and worsted fabrics with fine tailors ready to reinvent any lady’s wardrobe, almost while she waits.
A perfect ending for our visit to Rajasthan: a land of forts, the Taj Mahal, and palaces you can stay in, imbued with India’s deep Hindu culture finely carved in well preserved stone, without a moment’s discomfort in terms of food or living conditions; and leaving dressed in elegant clothes, with bags full of presents for the families. A husband’s dream come true. A short plane ride and we were back in Delhi for a fine meal at the Oberoi’s Italian restaurant, before a good night’s sleep and the flight back to London Heathrow.