A Voyage to India
“Incredible India”. That’s how it’s currently advertised—and to our delight, we found it to be true. India is a fascinating destination for the curious traveler. It pulses with life and vibrates with color. The people are hospitable and warm at every turn. January and February are particularly good months for touring in the North and North Central regions. On our recent journey, we enjoyed sunny bright blue skies, with temperatures in the seventies and low eighties, each of our eighteen days. Nary a cloud nor a drop of rain. We’d urge our readers who are seeking a mid-winter break from Europe or North America’s frigid state to consider a voyage to India. Forget the beach vacations. In India, you can stay at the most luxurious hotels in the world, enjoy fine cuisine and spa services, see fabulous sights from temples and tigers to the Taj Mahal, and learn about an ancient culture, with much wisdom and beauty to offer. You’ll visit palaces and fortresses—and find color everywhere. The rough roads traversed from city to city with driver and guide, while bumpy, teem with life: mopeds, bikes, camels, oxen, cows, dogs—and an occasional elephant. A major concern expressed by those we’ve spoken to contemplating a trip to India was staying healthy. This meant among other things, avoiding “Delhi belly,” India’s version of “Montezuma’s revenge”. I’m pleased to report that with considerable care about what we ate and drank and where we dined , we never had to reach for the antibiotics with which we had come amply prepared, or Immodium. The splendid weather contributed to healthy sinuses, even in the face of considerable air pollution here and there.
Flying from New York to Delhi direct was a daunting prospect so we opted to do so in stages. We flew Air France to Paris (seven hours), relaxed there for three days, then flew on to India (another eight and a half hours). We arrived in Delhi after midnight, on the eve of Independence (or Republic Day) and checked in to the Oberoi New Delhi, the first of five beautiful Oberoi hotels we would visit. Accommodations were superb. For the golfers among our readers, it should be noted that this hotel overlooks an 18-hole golf course, so if you can’t stay away from the links, tour, then play a round. Our first morning found us eager to tour New Delhi (Old Delhi would be saved for the return on the last days of our India sojourn), but were limited in doing so by the elaborate security for the Independence Day parades. India is an old nation, but a young Republic, first achieving Independence in 1947, released after World War II from long-standing colonization by the British Empire. Hermander Singh was our driver—and would be for nine of the eighteen days in India. Softspoken and kind, he was a superb driver. He joked that first day that to drive in India, one needed three things: good brakes, a good horn—and good luck. A few days later, I added, “good nerves.”
King George V sought a modern capital for his colony and in 1911, it was moved from Calcutta to Delhi. In 1931, the new capital was
inaugurated, with the Art Deco style in evidence in the designs of noted architects Luyten and Baker. On our drive, we viewed Parliament House and
the President’s Palace, as well as a beautiful sculptural monument to Ghandi’s Salt March, protesting the onerous tax on salt.
We had learned from our prior reading that the Moghul conquests (Persian Muslims) in India in the 15th and 16th centuries had left many examples of architecture characterized by symmetry and decoration. The Qutb Minar is a sandstone tower, five-storeys in height, begun in 1199 to commemorate a victory and inscribed with Koranic quotations. Moghul architecture used square gardens, fountains and marble domes within domes. The first World Heritage Site we viewed was Humayan’s Tomb built by the widow of Emperor Humayan and undergoing restoration currently. We would later see the apogee of this style in the magnificent and unforgettable Taj Mahal.
Our tour of Delhi proceeded with visits to a series of temples, a dramatic reminder us of the variety of faiths that live side by side (though at times uneasily) in India. We viewed the Bahai House of Worship, an exquisite temple shaped like a lotus flower and surrounded by nine pools. The lines were long and we never did get to visit its marble interior. The Sikh temple (Bangla Sahib Gurdwara) is massive and lively, with elements of both mosque and Hindu temple in its design. The water in the temple is sanctified, used to treat illness and people treat the contents of the pools as holy. A central pavilion holds Sikh scriptures (Granth Sahib) and we observed the devoted as they sat facing the holy book. Our afternoon concluded with visits to a Hindu temple dedicated by Mahatma Ghandi in 1947, followed by a tour of a beautiful Buddhist temple.
We dined at one of the hotel’s several restaurants, opting for the Chinese cuisine at the Taipan. There, we enjoyed the view of India Gate and a delicious Chinese meal consisting of fried spinach, vegetable rolls, shrimp with black bean and Peking duck.
The next day we left Delhi for Udaipur, “The City of Lakes.” The flight was a comfortable ninety minutes, made forty-five minutes longer by an airport delay, not an unusual occurrence in India, as we would discover.
We were picked up at the Udaipur airport by the A&K agent and driver. On route to our hotel, along the road we encountered the first of many of India’s cows and learned from the agent how the bovine had achieved such revered status. For over a thousand years, if a mother was ill and unable to breast-feed her infant, “mother” cow would provide the milk (the same temperature as that of breast milk). Secondly, in an agricultural society, throughout the centuries, farmers depended upon cattle to pull the plow and as we saw in rural India, continue to do so today. We also became aware of local color, nowhere more evident than in the beautifully colored textiles worn by every woman and that includes those laboring in the fields. We made one stop at a fabulous tomb site on the outskirts of Udaipur where the royal families of Rajastan (the province) had been buried from the mid-16th century up to the present: beautifully built and sculpted, entirely from marble.
Twenty minutes later we reached our hotel, the Oberoi Udaivilas. Built four years ago, we found it to be the most exquisite hotel we had ever seen. The architecture by Patel, the design and details, the use of marble, glass and mirror were breathtaking. Beyond the lobby was a large gold dome done in mirror and by night, we discovered, the candlelight was reflect in the ceiling above the fountain. Our junior suite was spacious, beautifully appointed and the huge bathroom had both tub and stall shower, looking out on a private walled garden.
The hotel restaurant served Indian and continental cuisine, with a choice of dining indoors or outdoors. Traditional dances were performed on the terrace while we dined. Service was helpful and amiable. We dined on a tomato based soup with green chilies, coriander and mint; tandoor roasted potatoes stuffed with cashew and raisin, lightly spices (as requested) slightly sweet, with a hint of salt from the cashews. Delicious. Eggplant with zucchini and mozzarella in tomato sauce was our Indian “lasagna”, three stars and, thanks to the judicious use of Indian spices, a little different. A knowledgeable associate had touted Indian beer and the Kingfisher proved a first-rate accompaniment to the cuisine.
A good night’s sleep and a sturdy breakfast later, and we were raring to begin our exploration of the jewel of Mewar, Rajastan’s southernmost region-- Udaipur. The region, set in the green Aravalli Hills, is noted for the determined resistance to the Moghul invaders showed by the ruler Maharana Pratap (after whom the Udaipur airport is named). Udaipur’s history begins in 1567 when a holy man suggested to the Maharana that a city in this location would never be conquered. Our tour began with a pleasant boat ride across Lake Pichola and a visit to the City Palace, set high above the lake. Actually a group of palaces, connected by narrow passages, one is occupied by the current maharana, while others house museums and hotels. We saw beautiful decorative art, including furniture, glasswork and paintings. We stopped off at a shop for a demonstration by artists of miniature paintings, then went on to a textile shop where we ordered a sari for our twelve year old grand-daughter, Hillary. In the afternoon, a boat ride on the beautiful lake (which only last year was dry) gave us a chance to study the three-story Jag Mandir palace, built on an island in the 17th century, guarded by sculptures of the elephant god, Ganesha, protector of home and hearth. The hotel boat cruised by the Lake Palace, now a hotel. We would visit it the following night for a program of local dances and dinner. We concluded the day’s sightseeing with a ride into the Aravalli Hills to view the sunset from what was once The Monsoon Palace (on high ground) and is now an Indian army radio station. There wasn’t much of a sunset but the view of Udaipur and its lakes was quite special. Upon our return to the hotel, we found that the sari had been delivered—it was too small. The next morning, we returned it to the shop and by evening, we had received the beautiful outfit, properly executed.
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From Jodhpur to Jaipur
Our travel agent, Jenni Lipa (Spa Trek Travel, New York, 212-717-7666) had worked with Abercrombie and Kent to tailor-make our trip. The extra advantage provided by A&K’s agents in place became evident. They learned of a slowdown or threatened airline strike, and instead of flying to Delhi and being driven to Agra, we were up at four AM, picked up at 5:15AM, and driven to the railway station for the five-hour train ride to Jaipur. We entered the train station and witnessed a shocking sight. Hundreds of people were sleeping on the floor, most wrapped in light blankets. We learned that they had passed the night awaiting the morning trains that would take them to their destinations. They could not afford, what we taken for granted: a hotel room for the night.
The train arrived on time and the first-class car was comfortable, except for the toilet, which consisted of a hole in the floor, difficult for a woman to manage while the train rumbled toward Jaipur. My wife was quickly asleep to the rhythm of the rails, while I stared out of the window at the passing landscape, setting down on hotel stationary, what I was seeing.
“From the train window, I see India wake from somber shadows to the first light of dawn. The earth, tan and ochre, soft grass greens, hay yellow, tentacled trees, som deep-greened with leaves, others but beseeching branches, goddess forms with multi-hands lifted (to the sky) in prayer for watering of the earth; cement block-house arms, a solitary camel and one colorful Hindu temple, guarded by blue pigmented Ganesha; a single bicycle rider—and dogs.
Then, a station, Gegana Juratton. Cows. People lying under blankets, just as they had back in Jodhpur, awaiting a coach, transport to a village or a town, somewhere in vast India. The trainman comes through, he is offering Nescafe, grains shaken into a paper cup and watered. No thank you. The snoring man has awakened. With the press of several buttons on my cell phone, I am speaking to my daughter in New York. It is ten and a half hours earlier, roughly eight-thirty PM; then our son in Sea Cliff. All is well on both home fronts. He sounds tired. I observe it. He has worked particularly hard these past few days. How relative is “hard” I think to myself, when I’ve seen hundreds sleeping on the hard surface of the terminal and station, others in tents outside my window.
The light grows stronger now. There are thin clouds in the morning sky at 8:11AM. But I doubt that they carry rain. No, the women carry precious water fetched from wells to nourish their plots of vegetation. We are far from Jaipur but I’ve previewed its “pink” in a sole house in the semi-arid flatland. The haystacks, richly colored, would have delighted Monet’s eyes. I see a cow. I get the nickel (a game played long ago when our children were very young). A second Hindu temple—flag flying announces it is an active one.
“Ifolly gooba” or so the trainman’s chants sound, a Gunga Din carrying water bottles, reminding me to nourish my own soil with the water bottle that I carried from the hotel.
The baobab trees, each a sculptured work, each with its unique torsion, twists and turns, delights my eye. Some are feathered at a few tips with tender sprouts of green; others appear petrified, more than alive. Then a majestic poplar-like tree spreads a canopy of shade on the sun-baked earth.
In the center of the towns we pass through, the trees are larger, beneficiary of the water offerings of townspeople, eager for their green oasis.
India has wakened. We roll on toward Jaipur, and then the further journey by car to Agra—and the Taj Mahal at sunset.“
The road to Jaipur was colorful: sandstone cliffs, a tree, leaves sparkle, silvered by sun while its roots meander across the rock to find a bed in soil. Indian scarecrows wear turbans. Negotiating the difficult road, crowded villages and traffic, our driver joked: “To drive in India, you need good horn, good brakes, good luck”. To that I add, “good nerves.”
There are lines of camels along the road, pulling carts, beasts of burden. They hold their heads high though, as if remembering when they were kings of the desert. A white cow walks the center line of the two-lane road, serene in the assurance that he is “mother” to the Indian (provider of milk) and will not be harmed. There are fields of mustard, bright yellow. There is color everywhere—fabrics, on the trucks, cars, as if to brighten the drab reality of existence. We stop for a bite to eat at a motel restaurant. The cheese nan (a flour bread) and cottage cheese dumplings with curry were delicious.
We were saddened by the condition of the national road, Jaipur to Agra. We learned that there were 40 million unemployed. In a time of great economic growth, we wished that the Indian government learned the lesson of our Great Depression and put people to work (the WPA) building roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, etc.
We felt great excitement upon arrival in Agra. Our hotel, The Oberoi Amarvilas, had been sited in such a way that all the rooms overlooked the Taj Mahal, a wonder of the world. Our beautiful, luxuriously appointed room (314), had a terrace looking out on beautiful gardens—and in the near distance, the Taj Mahal. Of course, we stepped outside at once, and gasped at the sight. We watched the sunset and the play of color, as the magnificent white marble marvel turned a softy, rosy pink. We used the spa facility, then dined on grilled prawns with mint, citrus and yogurt and vegetable spring rolls at the hotel’s continental restaurant.
We were up at 5AM for our sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal, and it truly took our breath away as we marveled at this poetic tomb to lost love.. We learned from our guide that the Moghul king Akbar had moved the capital for the Mughal empire to the village of Agra., located 120 miles from Delhi. His grandson, Shah Jahan (after apparently murdering those who stood in the way of his coming to power) would build the Taj Mahal here, to commemorate his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after her premature death. Determined to build a tomb that would surpass any that the world had known, he recruited the finest artists and architects in India,as well as highly skilled craftsmen from Iran, Turkey, even France and Italy. Work began in 1631. 20,000 artisans and laborers worked until 1653 to complete the mausoleum. What appeared to us from our terrace as a gorgeous white marble study in symmetry and proportion, turned out on closer inspection to be far more intricate and yet more dazzling. Imagine this: pietra dura adorning both the exterior and interior with intricately carved “bouquets” that are exquisitely inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, splendid calligraphy inlaid with black marble, filigree screens carved from a single slab of marble—and more.
We went on from the Taj Mahal to tour the great Agra Fort (aka the Red Fort). Built by Akbar in the last decades of the 16th century and continued by Shah Jahan, it is an imposing structure. Constructed of red sandstone, the fort is surrounded by a moat. We also toured the “Baby Taj”, an earlier monument to loss which inspired the creation of the Taj Mahal. We crossed the Yamuna River at mid-day for another view of the Taj Mahal. After touring the marble and red sandstone town, we returned to the hotel to relax before a final visit to the Taj Mahal at sunset. You might say we couldn’t get enough of it.
Next morning, it was on to Jaipur. with a stop en route to visit the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, built by Akbar (renowned for his religious tolerance) in honor of a Sufi saint. You will wander through ghostly buildings, courtyards, arches and mosques, beautifully carved of sandstone. Be sure to see the white marble tomb of Salim Chisti and its remarkably carved screens.
Jaipur was planned and built by Maharaja Jai Singh, renowned warrior and astronomer. It is known as “the pink city” as pink colored sandstone was the dominant construction material. Again, our accommodations were at an Oberoi hotel, this time the Rajvilas. With its beautiful gardens, pools and fountains, it is the height of luxury. In Jaipur, we visited the remarkable Amber Fort, a superb fortified palace. Within the ramparts, you’ll discover forts and palaces, built between the 12th and 18th centuries. Accessible only by jeep or elephant, the waiting line for an elephant ride was too long and we settled for a jeep. We later visited an elephant farm and experienced that ride after all. Next day, we toured the astonishing Jantar Manter, an 18th century observatory built by the Maharajah, translating the principles of Euclid into Sanskrit. The various observatory posts resemble modern sculptures. Adjoining the observatory is the City palace, now principally a museum. Inspired by our tour of the miniature paintings, we visited the gift shop and purchased one done by a contemporary artist, now a treasured memory of our voyage to India.
After two days in Jaipur, we headed on to Ranthambore, with a one-night stopover in the tiny town of Alwar. En route, we stopped at a local elementary school, met the kids and teachers (class was being conducted outdoors) and introduced ourselves. They were delightfully responsive. We resumed our journey to Alwar, where we were to spend the night at a brand new Aman hotel, the Amanbagh, recently opened.. The setting was a touch of paradise. In the midst of the countryside (where ancient ruins had been discovered), we had our own house, private swimming pool and a chef who cooked for us (the cuisine was excellent). Offered the use of a jeep and driver to tour the local countryside (villages), we did so. The children were beautiful, the villagers welcoming. The Aman hotels have recently provided Alwar with its first elementary school.
Next day it was on to Ranthambore. The forests of Ranthambore, now a national “park” and a World Heritage Site, are known for its tigers., though there are few remaining in India owing to poachers. We had scheduled two game drives, one upon arrival and another the next morning. We learned that many who came left disappointed, never seeing a tiger, including a friend’s son who is a wildlife conservator at a major US zoo. The Oberoi Vanyavilas, the group’s new luxury resort, is designated a “Jungle Camp,” located adjacent to the Ranthambore Reserve. Luxury air-conditioned “tents” are scattered amidst acres of trees and natural flora. Each tent features 750 square feet of living quarters and large marble bathrooms with separate shower. There is also a swimming pool and spa on the property.
We dropped our bags and headed off eagerly on a jeep safari. During the next four hours we would see a variety of deer, antelope, a sloth bear, monkeys, birds (bird-lovers take note, there are 264 specie) including herons and peacocks, wild boar, even a mongoose. But no tigers. Then, at 6:10PM, our driver, alerted by radio, took off like the proverbial bat out of hell—over hill and bumpy road, to join several other jeeps on a knoll above a glade. There, slouching through the jungle was a magnificent female tiger along with her nearly full-grown tiger cub. We observed the immense, beautiful animals, in silence and awe. We returned to the hotel, weary but exhilarated. Our companions in the jeep joined us at dinner where we relived the afternoon. Ardjun, the Vanyavilas chef and Bhep, his sous-chef prepared a special meal topped off with a chocolate desseert —and it proved to be the finest dining on the trip.
Next day, having spotted our tigers, we passed on safari and, with our guide, toured Ranthambore. As it turned out we made a fortunate choice, because neither the morning n or afternoon groups spotted tigers that day. We visited the Ranthambore Fort, and then shopped for tiger T-shirts as gifts at the “New Look” shop. We noticed that preparations were being made for an outdoor wedding in the town and asked our guide if we might attend. He said yes, and after dinner, that’s where we headed. It was quite an experience. We were greeted by the groom’s father, the village pediatrician, and the brides brother. We waited with the crowd until the wedding procession arrived. As the turbaned groom arrived on horseback, there was a barrage of firecrackers, drum beats and lovely music played on a variety of instruments. The bride, we learned, had arrived earlier. We wandered the field, crowded with guest of all ages, entranced by the color everywhere. The bride and groom sat on the stage, along with their entourage. It was a remarkable evening.
In the morning, Hermander Singh picked us up for the six-hour drive to Gwalior and a one-night stay at the Usha Kiran Palace Gwalior. Once a palace built by the Maharaja 120 years ago to host the King of England, now it is a luxury hotel. We spent the afternoon sightseeing. On our way up to the great Fort and Palace, 300 feet above the plain, we experienced a wave of sadness as we saw beautifully carved in the cliffs, a series of Jain Buddha figures. These 5th century carvings were reminiscent of similar magnificent Buddhas, destroyed years ago by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Palace and Fort were built in the 5th century before the Moghul invasion and its details are intact. We visited the archeology museum and the temple with its 82 pillars. Dinner at the hotel was simple but delicious—cottage cheese and spinach, potatoes, nuts and peas and eggplant.
A good night’s sleep and the journey continued, with a transfer from the hotel to the railway station and the Shatabdi Express to Jhansi. From there, we continued by car to Khajuraho, with a lunch stop at Orcha. Orcha’s rulers stayed on good terms with the Mughals and produced marvelous palaces and temples. We enjoyed the visit and eagerly looked ahead to our stay in Khajuraho, where the temples and carvings are considered one of India’s main attractions. We checked in to the Radisson Jain, a modern hotel with modest rooms, sorry to report, and mediocre food.. But any disappointment in our lodgings quickly disappeared as we began our tour of the temples. They are, in a word, extraordinary. Twenty-two of the eighty-five temples constructed between the 10th and llth centuries survive, exceptional examples of Indo-Aryan architecture. The temples are an homage to beauty and passionate love, inspired by the myth of the Moon God falling in love with a maiden—and the subsequent birth of the first of the Chandela kings. The amazing carvings depict erotic subjects, joyful men and women engaged in intimate acts. They are such beautiful and accomplished sculptural reliefs that UNESCO named these temples a World Heritage Monument. They are a ‘do not miss’ on a tour of Northern India.
We watched with interest as a newlywed couple were blessed at a a still active Hindu temple. We expect that they were studying the reliefs with great interest. The priest blessed us with long life and no accidents (flowers tossed on us represented the latter blessing). You’ll need no less than two half days to do justice to the Western and Eastern temples, their distinctive architecture, soaring spires and fabulous carvings, depicting other aspects daily life besides that of sexual intimacy.
By afternoon, we were at the airport. Our flight was delayed four hours and we did not arrive in Varanasi at the Taj Ganges Benares until after 6:30PM, missing dusk at the Ghat (the steps along the Ganges River) and the ceremonial invocation of Shiva. e dined at the hotel on a meal of excellent appetizers ,vegetable spring roll, potato, cheese and mint on wheat chips, followed by Hakka noodles with prawns, chives, onions and peppers, a ‘three yum’ dish. We washed it down with a first-rate Indian beer (Kingfisher).
Next morning, at 5AM we made our way through the maze of narrow lanes to the banks of the Ganges, India’s sacred river. Varanasi is India’s “eternal city.” the holiest of Hindu pilgrimage sites. It is believed that in Varanasi the eternal light of Shiva intersects the earth. The devout seek to bathe in the Ganges and wash away their sins; the devout who are able, come to die in Varanasi. and in doing so, save themselves from a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. We cruised along the waterfront as the sun rose over the Ganges, observing devotees ritually greet the sun, meditate and bathe in the River, as well as perform cremations along the river bank. Back wandering the town, we came upon, then paused respectfully as a grieving family carried the corpse of a loved one to the river bank.
Moved by the experience, we returned to the hotel. Later that morning, we were driven to nearby Sarnath, a buried Buddhist city, where the Buddha lived and, after Enlightenment, is said to have preached his firsts sermon. Excavations of the Buddhist temple were underway and the imposing Dhamekh Stupa, (circa 500 AD and over 100 feet in height) is said to mark the site where Buddha revealed the eight steps leading to nirvana.. In a Buddhist temple (circa 1930) a display of well-executed frescoes depict the Buddhas life. The Archeological Museum possesses amazing sculptures dating from the 5th-12th centuries AD.
In the afternoon, we departed Varanasi on a flight to Delhi and the last leg of this incredible journey. This time we sampled the hospitality at the elegant Hotel Imperial, built in 1931, during the Raj, in a mix of Colonial and Victorian styles. Centrally located, its guest rooms are lovely and the public spaces impressive. A collection of 18th and 19th century art is to be found in both corridors and public spaces.
Next morning, our final touring day in India, we paid a visit to the 17th century Jama Masjid, the great Mosque of Old Delhi and the largest in India. Built by Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame) it is an impressive structure. From there, we continued on to the Red Fort, and from there, to the Chandni Chowk bazaar. But for us, the powerful and moving climax of our voyage came when with our afternoon visit to the house (now a museum) in which Mahatma Ghandi lived and in the garden of which, he was assassinated. We traced his remarkable history and paid our respects to this saintly man who led India to a peaceful overthrow of colonialism and on the path to democracy and independence.
A voyage to India is an incredible journey. We urge the reader to place it on the list of must-visit destinations.
We recommend Abercrombie and Kent without hesitation. Their managers, drivers and guides were superbly informed and reliable every step of the way. You can contact them directly or, as we did, through our travel agent (Jenni Lipa, Spa Trek Travel, New York, 212-717-7666).
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