No problem madam; you VVVIP guest.’ An obliging wiggle of the head followed as the door opened to reveal the Sheesh Mahal suite, its walls and ceilings covered in tiny glass mirrors, cusped arches painted with delicately executed motifs. The accommodation upgrade to what was once the love pit of the Maharani of Samode was unsolicited – we had no complaint or problem to be fixed. The hotel suite was simply available and the manager had decided that this was where we should spend the night. That pretty much sums up one of the key aspects of India – a nation with an almost unparalleled sense of generosity and hospitality. Not that we knew this before that first research trip in 2001.
A terracotta potter at work in Shahjahanabad, Delhi
India had never featured on any bucket list of mine. If Namibia – with its enormous, painterly landscapes, almost entirely devoid of humanity and its associated detritus – was the ideal, then populous India was definitely never going to make the cut but the offer to write the first Frommer’s India for the US market came at that hideous time when the rand was trading weakly against the dollar so we signed and spent the next 20 months researching, travelling, writing and falling irreparably in love with India. Just over a year later we returned to do it again, and again, and again – every two years, months on the road doing up to 15 inspections a day – hotels, havelis and homestays; ruins, forts and temples; cities, villages and pilgrimages. We’d return home exhausted but within weeks start hankering for the sensual and sensory delights particular to India: the pungency of incense and ghee mingled with jasmine garlands twisted into dark plaits; delicately boned women in colours so intense they can make your eyes water; the rich complexity of spicing and flavours; even the ubiquitous temple music blaring distortedly from just about every corner – sometimes haunting and seductive or just jingle-jangle happy. From the calm serenity and welcome experienced in a Sikh gurdwara to listening to devotional prayers in Urdu sung at the shrine of a 14th-century Sufi mystic saint, India can make even the most secular spirit soar. Elephants in narrow lanes bestow blessings with a tap of the trunk; men in dhotis and bare torsos carry their temple deity aloft through the streets, firecrackers erupting and people singing and dancing in their wake. It’s such grand pageantry.
It was the people we met along the way that truly entranced, however; so interested, and interesting, with no problem conversing in impeccable English. Where else in the world can you have so many frank, in-depth conversations with people who lead such different lives?
Another quintessential Indian experience we came to love is the chauffeur-driven road trip – prior to the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s this was traditionally undertaken in a Hindustan Ambassador but the Toyota Innova A/C used today is a far more comfortable ride and the cost is still ridiculously cheap for the decadence of travelling off-piste and at your own pace. Every morning, at a time ordained by you, your driver – always courteous, neat and presenting a freshly buffed chariot – opens the door to a meditative space, the passing landscape a backdrop to unbidden thoughts that can provide a surprising clarity of purpose. There’s no rushing to catch a train or waiting for a bus and no haggling with taxi drivers or tedious airport security. It’s just a seamless transition from the minute you clear customs to your first hotel. If you’re lucky this will be The Imperial, our favourite Delhi hotel.
Set in its own garden oasis, The Imperial resembles something from a Merchant Ivory film – original artworks, antiques, indoor fountains, Bentleys in the driveway, staff in period uniforms, even a vintage swimming pool. It’s central so you can swing by the world’s largest presidential palace pre dawn on a Segway, then travel back in time to explore the medieval labyrinth and heady bazaars of Delhi’s Shahjahanabad before hurtling back to the present in cosmopolitan Hauz Khas, where glossy boutiques and edgy restaurants share premises with 14th-century ruins. That said, there’s no reason to dally in Delhi beyond a few days so the next stop is south in the sprawling metropolis of Agra, where three generations of Mughal rulers produced some of the world’s finest medieval architecture.
The Taj Mahal is a sight to behold
It’s not unusual to think you will be underwhelmed by what has become a visual cliché but nothing can really prepare you for the beauty of the Taj Mahal. It’s not just the perfect symmetry, the ethereal luminescence, the sheer scale and proportions of the mausoleum Shah Jahan built for his beloved Mumtaz, but the exquisite detailing – every inch of marble is covered in intricately carved floral bouquets inlaid with precious stones. It’s an astounding work of art, best experienced at dawn (both for the light and the lack of people) after which you could choose to visit Agra Fort, where Aurangzeb imprisoned his father Shah Jahan for eight years until he eventually died. (He also had his brother Dara Jahan – his father’s favourite son– killed while his father was imprisoned.)
Plenty tales of bloodthirsty warrior princes await in Rajasthan, the desert state that is, for many, the essence of India. To purchase safe passage to the seaports of Gujarat traders from as far afield as China and Persia filled the coffers of the royal Rajput who spent it on crenulated fortresses to repel invaders and opulent palaces to showcase their patronage of the arts. The most spectacular of these, still owned by India’s monarchs, have been turned into fabulous heritage hotels, such as Samode Haveli, the small city mansion the rulers of Samode chose to build in the best location in Jaipur almost 200 years ago.
A glimpse into a luxurious room at Taj Lake Palace
India’s first planned city, Jaipur was originally divided into nine geometrically proportioned chokris, each occupied by a caste specialising in a specific craft to serve the increasingly ostentatious Rajput. Samode Haveli’s central location is perfect to explore what is still one of the world’s great shopping meccas but it’s a pretty chaotic city with so much choice it can almost be overwhelming, which is why a two day hiatus in rural Rajasthan is just the ticket.
The 18-hectare wooded estate of Shahpura Bagh is one of our favourite destinations in the whole of North India. It’s very much a family run affair with just nine enormous suites, groomed grounds, highly personal attention from your hosts, and delicious home-cooked food. Arrangements can be made to decamp to romantic spots around the property, plus there are cookery lessons, bikes to explore the adjacent village, and binoculars to take to the perimeter dam to watch birds, or you can just spend days cooling off in the gorgeous pool. If you haven’t fallen completely in love with India yet, this is likely to turn you into a full convert.
A view of Mehrangarh Fort from boutique hotel RAAS Jodhpur
Then it’s onwards to the ‘blue city’ of Jodhpur, to overnight in the old city’s loveliest hotel, chic RAAS Jodhpur, sutured onto the restored bones of tumbledown 17th- and 18th-century buildings, with a full-frontal panorama of Mehrangarh (‘fort of the sun’) Fort. Famously described by Rudyard Kipling as ‘the work of angels, fairies and giants’, this looming 15th-century edifice is Rajasthan’s most impressive and impenetrable fort, with walls that are up to a sheer 120 metres high, literally dwarfing the city at its base. RAAS Jodhpur is perfectly positioned to explore the maze of narrow medieval streets and experience the sensory blitz of Sadar Market, which is always packed with produce, people, animals and carts, before returning to the pool-side oasis to witness the evening sky fill with kites flown by children from blue rooftops.
It’s a gentle meander south to view the intricately carved Ranakpur Temple – open at noon, and well worth the detour – before finally arriving in Udaipur in the embrace of the Aravalli hills. Established in 1559 by the Sisodia of Mewar, Udaipur is one of the most romantic cities in India. Aside from the serenity of the lakes it is home to the state’s biggest palace complex, the 300-year-old walls rising precipitously from the waters, and stretching almost 250 metres across its eastern bank, but the real jewel of Udaipur is the Lake Palace, which was built on the island of Jag Niwas in Lake Pichola as a summer idyll for the royal family in 1740 and reflects in the mirror still waters. Today it’s one of the world’s most iconic hotels, expertly managed and staffed by the Taj Group, and the perfect place to contemplate the good fortune that finds you here, waited on like a true Rajput, as pelicans slowly wing their way across the big blue sky.
Originally published in HL January 2016