The Sights & Smells of the Sub-Orient
A visual and audio riot, India assaults the senses but leaves indelible memories
No-one can prepare you for the extraordinary adventures when exploring the sights, smells and fleeting snapshots of life in India. The cities in this immensely populated country (more than 1.2 billion) provide a constant humdrum of noise and excitement, peppered with the aromas of food and spices. Combined with hooting Tuk Tuks and scooter horns, first impressions can be overwhelming.
Along the busy streets or in remote farming villages, you will catch glimpses of everyday life; an old man having his beard trimmed on the pavement, a mother washing her baby, colourfully-clothed women wearing saris pumping water from a well, garment-making with old- fashioned Singer sewing machines, people selling locally-grown fruit and vegetables, and street food being cooked and eaten.
Most holidaymakers visiting the north of the country for Rajasthan’s Golden Triangle route fly direct to New Delhi, and it’s certainly worth spending a couple of days there to settle into the Indian fast lane and to prepare for the assault on your senses.
The Shangri-La Eros hotel at Connought Place provides an excellent base as it is located close to the main sights including the vast and splendid Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace.
Ensure you also include the awesome Red Fort on your itinerary – a complex of museums which was originally coloured white, but which was painted red by the British. Built in 1639, it’s a world heritage site, whose garden provides a welcome respite from the city’s noise, dust and fumes. It is worth spending some time in both the old town area as well as the more modernised districts such as Connaught Place. India Gate and the Lodi Gardens are also well worth a visit.
As for the food, it is different and tasty. Real Indian food is nothing like the fare that is served in the UK. Forget chicken tikka masala, Peshwari naan, Bombay potatoes and onion bhajis – not every Indian dish is hot and spicy and those we tried were all cooked using fresh produce, spices and sauces. Beef does not appear on the menu. There is often a choice of chicken, goat or lamb with lentils, vegetables and potatoes, while most hotels have either an Indian restaurant or multi-cuisine options.
An hour’s flight away from New Delhi is Udaipur, one of the country’s most romantic destinations, whose star attraction is the gigantic City Palace overlooking the serene Lake Pichola.
We stayed at the Leela Palace whose staff greeted us at the lakeside jetty with a traditionally decorated wooden boat in which we glided across the sparkling water to the hotel. “Welcome to a world of grandeur and luxury,” they said on arrival and indeed it was.
Another magical hotel is the Taj Lake Palace on Lake Pichola, famous for its role in the James Bond film Octopussy. It’s definitely worth staying at this “floating” marble palace if only to marvel at the interior. Known as the city of dreams, Udaipur is an enchanting vista of white marble palaces, placid lakes and green hills – an oasis of colour in an otherwise stark and arid region.
Visit the magical Jagdish Hindu Temple, known for its elephant-motif carving, and the old town’s famous Clock Tower whose nearby network of roads accommodates all sorts of colourful bazaars. Crowded with pedestrians, traffic, passing cows, camels and even elephants, this is a fascinating place where you’ll see ladies wearing vibrant saris selling fresh herbs, onions, spices, oil and sugar cane, weaving baskets and sewing marigold garlands.
Booking a car and driver in India is easy, either on the internet or by speaking to your hotel’s concierge, and our five-hour drive from Udaipur to Nimaj near Pali to reach the remote luxury tented wildlife reserve Chhatra Sagar was fascinating. Passing over the Aravalli Hills, we diverted to Ranakpur to visit the spectacular white marble Jain Temple, and watched the monkeys sitting on the roadside walls, attracted there by tourists and the many thousands of pilgrims who visit each year.
Considered one of the best wildlife retreats in Rajasthan, Chhatra Sagar is located on top of a stone dam overlooking a large lake where the beautiful habitat attracts many different species of wild birds and animals. Visitors can also take a village tour for a privileged insight into rural Rajasthani life.
Next it was on to Jodhpur, renowned for its striking blue buildings. An hour’s drive from Nimaj, this is Rajasthan’s second largest city whose skyline is dominated by the spectacle of the Mehrangarh Fort, an architectural sandstone masterpiece created around 1400. We stayed at the boutique RAAS hotel in the heart of Jodhpur’s Old Walled City, next to the mosque with its constant calls to prayer.
The hotel is close to the famous Clock Tower and Sadar Market, whose Baba Art Emporium offers the most fabulous handmade textiles. If you fancy having clothes made for you, take a Tuk Tuk through the city’s cobbled streets to Pahnava on Circuit Road whose tailors will kit you out.
Our journey through this colourful country continued with a seven-hour car drive to the Pink City of Jaipur (it was painted pink in 1883 to welcome the arrival of Prince Albert).
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and the city’s hub buzzes with shopkeepers and souvenir sellers calling out for customers to buy things such as the popular bandhani stoles. On the busy shopping street you will see Hawa Mahal, the most photographed building in Jaipur. Also known as the ‘Palace of the Winds,’ this honey-comb, five-storey structure was built in 1799 so that the royal ladies could observe street festivities without being seen from one of its 953 tiny windows.
Another must-see place here is Anmer Fort. Perched on a natural ridge and dating back to the 16th Century, it’s now withered in places but that only adds to its character. Take an elephant ride to the main courtyard or ask your driver to head up the narrow streets to avoid a very long walk. Be prepared for the hordes of street vendors selling postcards and wooden elephants! You will see where the King housed his 250 concubines, his 12 wives and, interestingly, where his elephants were kept. The famous wall of mirrors and the Persian carpet gardens, along with a magnificent view of the Palace, provide all sorts of photo opportunities.
No trip to this city is complete without shopping at Bapu Bazaar. Quaint pink buildings line both sides of the road where great bargains are set to tempt you, whether fabrics, jewellery or jootis (slippers).
The Oberoi Rajvilas hotel is 30 minutes out of town and here you can escape the intensity of the city and relax. This magnificent hotel is an oasis of elegance and luxury traditionally built around an 18th Century Shiva temple. Rajvilas showcases many of the region’s traditional crafts including extensive use of lime plaster, Jaipur blue pottery tiles, marble carvings and elaborate brass doors.
In true Rajput style, it offers luxury tents with a personal butler at your service. Don’t be surprised to be awoken by the call of one of the many peacocks in the gardens: these are the national bird of India and, although shy, they like to strut around the swimming pool and breeze past the guests showing off their colours.
Travelling to this part of India without visiting the 360 year old Taj Mahal is not an option and so the city of Agra was definitely on our hit-list. We checked into the Oberio Amarvilas hotel which was built so that every bedroom has a view overlooking its landscaped gardens and, of course, The Taj.
Viewing the Taj Mahal is heart-warming for the soul. Built as a mausoleum in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj, often described as “poetry in marble” is considered the most beautiful monument in the world. It was built from white marble by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and inside you can see the replicas of Emperor Shah Jahan’s and Mumtaz Maha’s tombs (the original tombs are located below ground beneath them).
The Taj Mahal’s beauty is intensified by the sun, so visiting is popular at sunrise and sunset, and there are extensive gardens where its 13 million annual visitors can sit quietly to view this exquisite expression of love. While you’re in the city, visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Agra Fort, check out the famous white marble shops for souvenirs and see the mini Taj Mahal.
October and November (when we were there) are good months to visit Rajasthan, and the early part of the year is a great time to book ahead. The typical high temperature here is 48 degrees, but in the autumn months the temperature can vary from 16 to 35 degrees.
This was the end of our amazing Indian experience before our return home from Delhi. No “Delhi belly”, no bad experiences, just an eye- opening adventure witnessing and enjoying Indian life and culture. India offers sights, culture, religion, spiritual awareness and people who will remain long in your memory. Expect a royal welcome that will make you want to return again very soon.
To rent a car or 4×4 with a driver, visit: www.indiabycaranddriver.com.
More tourist information at: www.incredibleindia.org