the world's smartest travel social network
It felt as though the day couldn’t get any hotter – but this is India, always ready to turn the tables on you after a cool morning. It had been a short drive from Jaipur in northern India to the sleepy village of Samode. We had cut away from the main highway. where the lanes were packed with a mass of humanity travelling by bike, cart, car, rickshaws and trucks all jostling for space in a relentless dance to get the wherever. There are many moments of ‘just shut your eyes and hope for the best’, and of course it worked in a strange, smooth way. Every mode of transport fitted this moveable jigsaw and there were no accidents.
As we trundled along a dusty backroad in this suddenly rural area, we stopped at a tiny local school. Our tour guide kept it casual and told us we could visit and say ‘Hi’. This wasn’t about giving money or gawking to take pictures – it was a quick hello.
The kids, from all ages up to 10 years, were happy to find out about us and we all talked a little about what they were learning. They were curious too. When some of the boys asked me where I came from, I said Australia and they politely congratulated me on the cricket win (this was in April when India lost to Oz). They kept on staring, so I said that I was star cricketer Ricky Ponting’s mother and this brought the house down – and some of them believed me! This particular out-of-the way visit was a "flourish" that happens on Insight Vacations escorted tours. You never know what will happen, and who you will meet, as it doesn’t appear on an itinerary.
The hot and dusty afternoon was ambling towards the end of a glorious seven-day regional tour of northern India. In fact, it was the essence of India that we were exploring.
Delhi was the starting place for the week in India – intimidating, frustrating, beautiful, amazing and totally confounding India. The economy has been booming and so the country’s growing affluence is a drawcard to the luxury traveller: see the mighty billboards advertising all manner of luxury goods; enter chic, polished restaurants; stay in modern hotels; and drive along new, smooth highways. And, on the same day, run the gauntlet of hawkers in the cheek-by-jowl shops of the cities, dodge the sick and maimed beggars beseeching you for a handout and be affronted by the sight that confirms there are few public toilets here.
A rickshaw ride through old Delhi sorts the men from the boys. We squeezed – really squeezed – through the back lanes of Chandni Chowk market where there was not a centimetre of space between the walls and the wheels of our rickety vehicle. Pushbikes laden with two-metre high, fat bundles of produce leaned towards us, but push through we did.
Delhi offers up a lot of attractions, and after a prompt start to the day, you can comfortably explore Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, where one of the faithful habitually spreads grain across the vast courtyard for the pigeons.
An early start with a quick snack and we’re off to take the train to Agra. Two hours pass swiftly, and it seems that all of humanity is on the other side of the carriage windows. The journey passes through towns and villages, through unbearable piles of trackside rubbish, shining, pristine temple surrounds, deformed beggars beginning their daily routine along the roads and beautifully groomed women, covered in brilliantly coloured saris, squatting in wheatfields and thrashing the grain stalks by hand. During a two-hour train trip witness medieval India and the new, built-up, car-crazy, middle-class India, and every step of the way is a surprise. Being escorted takes the pain out of scrabbling to find seats, getting around, cooling off, finding a toilet, joining long queues and negotiating the social mores of the locals.
On reaching Agra, we were picked up by (God bless air-conditioning) our slick coach, which had been driven down the night before with our luggage. A leisurely breakfast at a Radisson hotel, and then we were off to see the Taj Mahal.
The surrounding splendid buildings gave us a glimpse of the dome, and there was a hushed air amongst our small group as we walked towards the entrance. To come face to face with the shining glory of India’s Taj Mahal is a profound moment. Words can’t describe the feeling as this flawless architectural creation appeared. Here we walked to the area in front of the long, narrow pool of water with the reflection of Shah Jahan’s shining jewel dancing up at us as we gazed at the Taj Mahal. We took photos, learnt the history, the pain, the drama, the sadness and the mighty effort to bring it all together – stone by precious stone. We felt the coolness of the white marble in the baking sun – a sensation that will last long after the story of why it came about will disappear.
We went our separate ways and walked towards the masterpiece. After an hour or so we found each other and shared benches distanced from the immediate beauty then sat in quiet contemplation of the ethereal luminescence – made all the more beautiful with its blue-sky aura in the bright, clear sunny day.
Leaving the Taj Mahal behind was a slow walk away from the divine. As we drove off in our coach, I glimpsed through a rickety street filled with cows, people, boxes – (endless boxes…of what?), food stalls frying up lunch and the noise of all humanity resounding. Peeping over the hubbub of this piece of India was the white, shining dome of the Taj Mahal – ever serene, ever watchful and ever part of the day-to-day India.
If you think anything after that is a letdown, it’s not true. The next two stops were the Agra Fort, a powerful construction of red sandstone, and then a gentle tour through the palatial Royal Pavilions and gardens. This collection of habitats for royalty and all the drama of family dynasties opened its doors to us and exuded tales told in hushed voices.
Each night we enjoyed aromatic food in a variety of interesting and quirky restaurants – nothing was run-of-the-mill.
Heading south to Jaipur we visited Fatehpur Sikri, an amazing, deserted and beautifully preserved city full of architectural splendour. Founded in 1569 by the Mughal emperor Akbar, the city served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. This is where legends of Akbar and his famed courtiers, the nine jewels or Navaratnas, were born.
Lunch followed at the pretty Laxmi Vilas Palace in Bharatpur. This palace and heritage hotel has been the home of the Baroda royal family for 120 years.
Then on to Jaipur, the "pink city", to witness the glorious colour as the sun sets - which is almost as wonderful as seeing the old city in the early morning with the white hot sun hitting the famous facades. The overwhelmingly startling pink Hawa Mahla (The Palace of the Winds) puts all postcards and photographs to shame. Hawa Mahla is so named because it was a high screen wall built so the women of the royal household could observe street festivities but remain unseen from the outside. Constructed from red and pink sandstone, the palace sits on the edge of the City Palace. Every moment in India (except for perhaps a little snooze on the coach) is dazzling!
And then to Rajasthan. After the visit to the modest little school, we continued through the early afternoon hot haze until we emerged from the fields near Samode, a neat village tied together with narrow lanes. In a world away from the noise of urban India, at the top of the village, we drove through the entrance into Samode Palace. Modelled on the Mughal style of architecture, this wondrous hotel is set in an expanse of lush gardens.
Our first stop, after squealing in delight at our beautiful rooms, was to take a dip in the huge pool. Floating along on our backs, we were silent and smiling quietly to ourselves – this is heaven! This evening, the last event of the "Essence of India" tour, is another of many highlights and we are honoured guests in the ancestral residence of the royal family of the region. We wander through corridors with walls covered in exquisite frescoes and carved timber. The superbly preserved mirror work and paintings are reflected throughout the buildings, which offer a privileged glimpse of the royal heritage here.
Before dinner, drummers and dancers appear to entertain us with the folk dances of Rajasthan and invite us to join in. A celebration dinner completes the evening – but not quite. I wander through the garden to the front of the building where the facade is illuminated by lights covering all edges. What a sight – bright and shiny on a moonless night.
Tomorrow we head back to Delhi. I reflect on the past seven days of visions of palaces, medieval forts, blindingly beautiful coloured silks and saris and kindness and hospitality splashed with a cheeky sense of humour. The highlights include a night bazaar walk, quality dining, discovering local tidbits and the joy of being looked after in luxury and having everything handled for us. India is not the easiest place in the world but travelling and being escorted by the experts puts the jewel in this Maharani’s crown!
Sacrilege I know, but my only wish is that India had won the cricket – I’m imagining the celebrations!
Be prepared to be gawked at and to star in photographs with families and groups of schoolchildren.
Be amused by the sight of the holy cows sleeping on the footpaths of an evening, and on an island in the middle of a highway.
Be prepared to eat the best dhosa for breakfast at local takeaway stalls (street food).
Be prepared to be driven mad by sellers and hawkers – endure, endure, endure – then give in and buy something.