Neil Hennessy-Vass and his wife are captivated by this fascinating region
India is a mystery that is waiting for you to solve. It comes in many flavours, colours, aromas and sizes. It is a country that despite all this is impossible not to fall in love with. Yes there is poverty, dirt (lots of it) extreme temperatures and enormous distances to travel to see the country but these pale into the distance when you reap the rewards of visiting. If you plan where you are going, work out what you want to see and are prepared for the other world culture shock there is no reason at all why you shouldn’t have the time of your life. There is no country on earth like it.
We started our trip, as most will in New Delhi. The capital has much to offer with 18 million people going about their daily business it is busy, hot and dirty. It’s worth scheduling a few days here though to acclimatise and take in the Red Fort, Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque that can accommodate 26,000 people) and Humayun’s Tomb, the inspiration for the Taj Mahal are all worth seeing. The heat initially and the humidity can be overwhelming but you get used to it and it’s great fun zooming around in auto rickshaws. Always haggle on price by the way, it’s expected and no one is offended.
We drove out to Rajasthan but you could fly, we wanted to take in the scenery and watch the landscape change. The roads are variable so be prepared for bumps, holes and diversions along the route. Our driver took us to Jaipur in five hours. Watching families ride pillion is fun with the children and parents all smiling away.
A population of three million makes Jaipur very manageable compared to Delhi. Known as the pink city it has a couple of UNESCO World Heritage sites, Jantar Mantar and the Amer Fort and was once the capital of India. It is more accurately a shade of terracotta painted in 1876 for a visit from the Prince of Wales. A journalist didn’t know the name of the colour so called it ‘Pink’. The city is known for its rich heritage of precious stones especially emeralds, which, are mined locally and are available to buy everywhere.
We stayed at Shalpura House an historic hotel with plenty of charm and style. Marble floors and bathrooms, charming staff and quirky architecture were the order of the day, they also made a mean club sandwich.
The jewel of the city is really the Amer Fort, which is about 7 miles from the city. A hotel can organise transport and a guide which I’d recommend as you’ll get much more out of the visit. As you arrive there is a holding bay of jeeps at the foot of the hill the fort sits on and unless you want to walk or go by elephant (which is being phased out as it’s considered cruel to the animals) you’ll be getting a jeep up to the top for a small fee. Built in 1592 in red sandstone and marble it was constructed in the Hindu style during the reign of Raja Man Singh, the Kachwaha King of Amer. The scale of the place is vast. The main entrance is through the Suraj Pol the Sun Gate, which faces east to meet the rising sun. It opens out onto large courtyard (Jaleb Chowk which is Arabic meaning places for soldiers to assemble) where the returning army would muster with the spoils of battle watched on by the Royal women viewing through latticed windows. Then up through the Ganesh Gate into the private palaces of the Maharajas. This area was used from 16th century up until 1980’s for animal sacrifice. The building is full of intricately carved stone pillars and columns and marble inlay.
The Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds is also another photo opportunity worth taking in Jaipur. Built in the Rajput architectural style in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh It is just a facade with 953 small windows with lattice behind which women could watch the world outside. Best to catch it early in the morning when the rising sun adds to the drama.
After buying some precious jewels (an anniversary present for my wife, quite an experience in itself, set aside some time for anything like this) and exploring the rest of the city we headed off to Jodhpur the second largest city in Rajasthan and situated on the edge of the Thar Desert. The roads were variable on this leg of the journey with sheep, goats and lorries, camels and families on motorcycles to keep us company. The people are bright, friendly and delightfully happy and smiley. The traffic ebbs and flows this is something you have to get used to in India it moves at its own pace, you can’t influence it so you may as well just go with the flow.
Jodhpur is known as the Blue City due to numerous older dwellings painted a bright mid blue. With a population of around one million it is home to many palaces, forts and temples and a popular tourist destination. We checked out one of the largest in India, Meherangarth Fort. 5km long it sits up 125m on a hill overlooking the city. It’s full of wonderful carvings, panels and latticed windows known as jarokhas. Built around 1460 by Roa Jodha protected by incredibly thick walls it includes several palaces within. You get a sense of the ‘Blue City’ when looking down from the top as you can see hundreds of eponymous buildings glimmering in the strong light. Like many of the sights in India you will need to purchase a photography permit to take pictures. This isn’t very much and well worth it.
Onward to Udaipur via the incredible Jain temple complex of Ranakpur built in 15th century and located in the valley of Aravali. The main temple has 29 halls constructed with 1,444 pillars each one unique. This is a fantastic place to visit and you can even have a one to one with a monk and receive a blessing, for a price of course.
Udaipur rests on the side of Lake Pichola with the ethereal floating Lake Palace, once a royal summer retreat it is now a swanky hotel made famous in the James Bond film Octopussy.
Construction of the City Palace started 1533 and took over 400 years. It rests on the east bank on the lake and has 11 palaces within it. The magnificent facade is 844m long and over 30m high. It took 22 generations of the Sisodia Rajputs to complete.
Udaipur was my favourite of the three Rajasthan cities we visited. It was slightly calmer and cleaner. It’s a great place to wander around, shopping and eating the excellent local food. Nearly everything we tasted was sanitised for Western palates with no nasty surprises heat wise. There are plenty of roof top restaurants where the air is cooler with a view of the lake you’ll be treated like kings.
There are plenty of historic hotels in Rajasthan and these are worth seeking out but be aware that they are old buildings, sometimes without air conditioning but all have a charm not available in the big chains.
India is beguiling, infuriating, charming and hypnotically addictive, a wonderland where anything seems possible. Have clothes made to measure in a day, see palaces that look like movie sets, wonderful food and most of all brilliantly charming people. India is there to be discovered. Once you’ve seen it you’ll want to return.