Classic India

Because I’ve always wanted to…

Issue 30 / December 2017

Happy pre-Christmas greetings to you all,

I expect that, like many of us, you are looking forward to a break later this month.  In between large intakes of food and wine your thoughts may also turn to exciting places to travel in the next year or so.  Everyone should have India on their bucket list and even if you’ve been before there is more than one India and you can always find a new one to explore on a second or subsequent visit.  Laura recently visited India for the first time and below is her report with some inspirational suggestions on where to go and stay.

Helen and I are just back from Colombia and I’ll be reporting on this fascinating and varied (and safe!) country in the near future.

Laterally yours,

The beginning of my Indian journey was two weeks in and around India’s princely state of Rajasthan.

Delhi

A city of two seemingly conflicted halves. On one side the landscaped and organised New Delhi with its wide boulevards and formal architecture. The design was concocted by British architects Lutyens and Baker and you can feel it. Delhi’s population is around 14 million but only about 300,000 people live in New Delhi.

In contrast Old Delhi is bursting at the seams. A seemingly endless procession of beeping rickshaws, lively hawkers, oblivious wandering cows, cheeky traders, tear inducing beggars and an overwhelming jumble of human traffic. The maze of winding alleyways is a riot of sights, sounds, colours and (sometimes awful!) smells of everyday life. Amongst the mayhem Hindu and Jain temples, mosques, a Baptist church and the imposing Red Fort stand proud. Surprisingly one of the best ways to explore Old Delhi is by bike!

Having an oasis to escape to here is crucial. Our favourite hotels are the classic and colonial Imperial, the nearby ever reliable Claridges or if you fancy splashing out the rather swish Lodhi where the majority of rooms have their own private pool.

Jodhpur

The city where many residents paint their houses in varying shades of blue, traditionally the colour associated with India’s highest caste, the Brahmins (priests). It is said that the Brahmins painted their houses blue to differentiate themselves but over time this backfired as many other non Brahmins followed suit.

Jodhpur is best explored on foot to soak up the atmosphere. If you are after any glass bangles or camel leather slippers the bazaar by the clocktower here is the place to buy them. Mehrangarh Fort dominates the skyline. While away an afternoon with your guide bringing the place to life before ziplining back down towards the city if you dare!

The fort views at night from our favourite city hotel Raas are the perfect backdrop to a scrumptious dinner.

Escape the City

Between Jodhpur and Udaipur you find the Thar desert and the Aravalli Hills. The rural communities here are interesting to visit and the open space and lack of people unlike so many other areas of Rajasthan make this a lovely place to stop and unwind for a couple of days. The desert wildlife makes for a good safari and the leopard sightings in particular are exciting. The best views of the hills are undoubtedly to be had from the heritage train which runs along a railway line carved into the hills between Deogarh and Phulad.

Experience a different side of India and spend a few days in a charming homestay such as Chanoud Garh or in the lap or luxury at Mihir Garh.

Udaipur

The Lake is the focus of this city and the famed ‘floating’ Taj Lake Palace the crown jewel. This former prince’s pleasure garden is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and luxurious places to stay in India. When you tire of being treated like royalty explore the City Palace and take a boat trip on the lake to enjoy sunset from the water. The Crystal Gallery is also well worth a visit. A lavish array of crystal items including chairs, tables and even a bed were ordered by Maharana Sajjan Singh from the UK in the late 1800s. However, the maharana died before the goods were delivered and when they eventually arrived they sat forgotten for over 100 years before being rediscovered and put out for display!

If the Lake Palace prices are too eye watering Jagat Niwas on the mainland is a beautiful converted haveli and the rooftop restaurant has possibly the best view in town.

Jaipur

Another city of colour – the Pink City! The largest sundial in the world plus a fascinating collection of astronomical instruments which form Jantar Mantar and the colourful City Palace are only to be outdone by the bustling markets of Jaipur which are best visited by rickshaw. If you can emerge empty handed it will be a miracle! Outside of the city visit majestic Amber Fort with its towering gateways designed with an arrival by elephant in mind. Thankfully this practice is now mainly resigned to the history books.

Our favourite place to stay in the old town is Samode Haveli in no small part because of its beautiful pool which is perfect for a refreshing afternoon dip.

Agra

Almost a rite of passage when visiting India but in our opinion not somewhere to linger. The Taj Mahal is the main event and is arguably worth a visit at both sunrise and sunset. Any building which has taken 20,000 men over 20 years to build all for one single lady is well worth it in our book. The love Shah Jehan reserved for his wife will be forever remembered!

If you are only ever going to come to Agra once then splash out at the Oberoi Amarvilas on a room with a view of the Taj.

Beyond Rajasthan India has many lesser known gems. Starting in West Bengal in Kolkata I worked my way back east towards Delhi stopping off in Kolkata, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Orchaa and Gwalior en route and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Kolkata

Coming from Delhi this felt like arriving in a different country. The language, people and cuisine are all completely different! British influence abounds from the cathedral modelled on Canterbury Cathedral through to the history of the East India Trading Company. The local Governors residence is even modelled on an 18th century National Trust property in Derbyshire! But dig deeper you find a very Indian base to this city apparent in areas like the bustling flower market under Howrah Bridge and in Kumatuli in the historic quarter where potters continuously hand craft idols of Hindu gods for a myriad of religious festivals. During my visit it was the festival of the god of mechanical engineering (what else!) and essentially anything with an engine was adorned in flowers and carrying an effigy.

Kolkata’s finest hotel is the Oberoi Grand fusing Victorian and Indian style however one to watch is the new Glenburn Penthouse opening next year and providing Kolkata with its first boutique hotel.

Varanasi

India at its most raw! Possibly the holiest city in Hinduism and certainly one of the oldest cities in the world. Pilgrims arrive in their thousands to bathe away sins in the holy Ganges, cremate their nearest and dearest and more disturbingly to simply wait for death. Varanasi is the ultimate place for any Hindu to pass away as it is believed that dying here guarantees ‘moksha’, a release from the death and rebirth cycle sought as an ultimate goal.

Both sunrise and sunset on the Ganges are magical times to drift by boat and watch the hive of activity taking place on the ghats. Holy cremation ceremonies take place in just two of the ghats and pyres burn throughout the day and night. Everyday hundreds of Hindus take their final journey towards nirvana and every evening an elaborate blessing ceremony of ‘Mother Ganges’ is undertaken with offerings being made to the river.

Staying anywhere other than right on the riverbank would seem a shame. Beautifully restored Brijrama Palace on Darbanga Ghat fits the bill. Beware that because the main access to the hotel is by boat on the holy Ganges no meat or alcohol is served here.

Khajuraho

The remarkable temple complex at Khajuraho is this small town’s major attraction. Originally 85 temples were to be found but today only 25 survive. Of these the most famed are the few depicting rather graphic erotic carvings. The theories behind why these carvings exist are many but the most popular is that the Chandelas who originally built the temples between 950 and 1050 AD were followers of a Tantric cult who believed that the gratification of earthly desires was a step towards a higher level of existence called ‘moksha’.

One thing that is for sure is that watching some of the often quite serious and detail driven guides explaining the erotic scenes to their guests can be part of the fun!

Accommodation here could be more inspiring but the Lalit Temple View is perfectly comfortable.

Orchaa

The small town of Orchaa is certainly one of India’s more laid back places to visit. There is an elaborate fort, palace and temple complex to explore far away from any crowds but you may prefer to take a temple break and just enjoy the countryside and slower pace of life. Walking or cycling in the local wildlife sanctuary make for a pleasant escape and white water rafting on the Betwa River is another way to explore.

The Amar Mahal hotel is well located to explore.

Gwalior

The last stop on the trip was Gwalior which was a surprising highlight after having seen so much of India! The imposing fort is well maintained and you can even venture down into the bowels of the building through tight underground passageways. Here you find a subterranean swimming pool frequented by the ladies in purdah who would never have left the palace and an intriguing ancient communication system of carved ‘speaking tubes’.

Back in town Jai Vilas Palace is well worth a visit. The Maharajah of Gwalior is still in residence but has opened up some sectors of the palace as a museum. Legend has it that 8 elephants were marched onto the palace roof to test its strength before the 2 largest crystal chandeliers in the world were suspended in the palace’s Durbar Hall. The miniature crystal train used to transport food and drinks around the huge dining tables at the palace are further evidence of the eccentric nature of the residents!

The Taj Usha Kiran Palace is the best pad in town.

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