When my wife Gill asked me earlier this year if there was anything I wanted for my 40th birthday, I surprised her by saying yes. Normally I say no, either because I genuinely don’t want any more stuff, or out of fear that she’ll make me come shopping.
“Wow,” she said, excited at the prospect of finally having something to give me on the big day. “What is it?”
“Promise you’ll get it for me?”
“It’s a trip to India. You and me.”
Fell right into my trap. As a cricket fanatic and someone who would happily eat vindaloo for breakfast (and has), I’ve always wanted to go to India. But it’s never been at the top of Gill’s list.
A promise is a promise, though, so when I boarded the Jet Airways flight for Delhi, there she was sitting dutifully beside me.
The good news is that it turned out to be the best present she’d ever given anyone: an amazing trip, with surprises at every turn. Below are just six of the moments that will stay in our memory banks for a long time to come.
Our itinerary – the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is a well-worn tourist route – and with good reason. In this small wedge of arid land stretching southwest from the capital Delhi into Rajasthan, you’ll find some of India’s best sights, including enough Mughal mausoleums, palaces and forts to make your head spin. Singapore-based agents Country Holidays are India experts. They offer the following journeys in and around Rajasthan (we did the six-day one) and a dozen more to other parts of India.
Rajasthan and Heart of India
Other parts of India
Trip prices start from $1,690 per person, including not just accommodation, guides, entry fees, certain meals, private air-con vehicle tours and transfers, but return flights from Singapore. For itineraries and other information, visit www.countryholidays.com.sg or call 6334 6120.
1. Anything Goes
Because our flight touched down in India at 2am, it was a sleepy ride to our first hotel, The Oberoi, New Delhi. But we weren’t bleary-eyed enough to miss the sight of an elephant heaving its colossal sphere along dimly lit Lodhi Road, just a few hundred metres before the gated entranceway to The Oberoi.
This was just the first of a menagerie of animals we would encounter on India’s major roads in the coming days. Cows are ubiquitous, of course, but on the four-hour drive from Delhi to Jaipur alone, we also saw more camels, pigs, monkeys and water buffaloes than we could count; plenty more elephants, too – even a mongoose.
As Nirveen, our guide in Jaipur said later, “It’s like a zoo, right there on the highway!” His words were confirmed by a local newspaper story I saw involving a python that had to be rescued from a roadside near Delhi after it had tried to swallow a goat but couldn’t finish the job.
Driving in India can be slow and bumpy (and occasionally scary), but it’s always fascinating. In the words of Raju, our brilliantly calm and skilful driver: “Anything goes!”
|Warding off the Evil Spirits|
With so much honking, it’s a wonder that evil spirits even bother to lurk on Indian roads. But apparently they do. When I asked our driver Raju why he had a string of chillies and lemons tied to the front bumper of his car, he told us, “It’s for good luck. I replace them every Saturday.” Apparently the spirits don’t like the combo of spicy chilli and sour lemon.
2. Escher Steps
Our Country Holidays schedule included heritage walks, palace tours, visits to ancient observatories, dinners under the stars, a song-and-dance spectacular and other exciting activities.
The only thing that didn’t get my heart racing, to be honest, was the “visit to a step well” that had been pencilled in for day four of our trip. How interesting could a well be?
I was too quick to judge. Chand Baori, in the tiny, dusty village of Abhaneri between Jaipur and Agra, is an astonishing piece of architecture. Over a thousand years old and one of the deepest step wells in India, it’s a pyramid-shaped hole gouged out of the earth and lined with 3,500 steps in an eye-grabbing geometric formation – the kind of thing M.C. Escher would have loved to draw. Highly recommended. And, because it’s very difficult to reach using public transport, Chand Baori has the added advantage of being virtually tourist-free. (Unlike the next place I’m going to mention.)
3. Photo Opportunity
To store every photo ever taken of the Taj Mahal in Agra, I reckon you’d need a memory card the size of a house. I certainly contributed plenty of gigabytes to the total over the course of our early morning visit to India’s most iconic landmark.
In fact, the Taj is so photogenic that it potentially makes for a nerve-wracking experience for a camera enthusiast. You can end up spending far too long worrying about the best angles and effects, leaving less time for absorbing the splendour of the building itself.
Luckily, we had the effervescent Sunil as a guide. Aside from being incredibly knowledgeable about every aspect of Indian history, including the Mughals (the Taj was built by the fifth Mughal emperor in memory of his wife), Sunil also knew all the best angles for taking photos. Whether it was capturing the mausoleum’s reflection in a pool of water or taking cheesy novelty shots such as the ubiquitous “Pretending to hold the Taj between your fingers”, Sunil had the scoop.
And full marks to my wife for being such a patient model.
4. Impromptu Puja
For “newbies”, the chaos of India is enthralling. After a few days, though, enthralling can teeter towards exhausting. That’s when the serenity of The Oberoi Rajvilas comes in handy. Lying a few kilometres southeast of Jaipur, India’s famous “pink city”, it’s hard even to call this place a hotel. More like a palatial estate. The exterior is an exquisite replica of a Rajasthani fort; the interior is all Italian marble and teak flooring.
Tucked away in the middle of the verdant grounds, surrounded by a lotus pond, sits a 280-year-old temple to Shiva. Early one morning as I was nosing about with my camera, I heard a low meditative hum coming from the inner chamber of the temple. Walking through the entrance to investigate, I ran slap bang into a moustachioed pundit (local priest).
With a grin, he beckoned me in. Before I knew it, I was receiving a personal blessing from the priest in the form of a puja ceremony, a common Hindu ritual involving incense, flowers, lamps, food and chanting.
And then, 10 minutes later, it was out into the bright sunshine and over to Rajvilas’ beautiful Surya Mahal restaurant for a double espresso.
My wife took one look at my forehead, now colourfully streaked with a bindi of red paste, and the white strings tied around my wrists, and asked, “What happened to you?”
“I got puja’d by a barefoot priest,” I said.
It seemed India was rubbing off on her already, because she just gave an understanding nod and continued with her breakfast.
5. Sufi Songs
Delhi is different at every turn, from the vast boulevards around India Gate to the tree-lined elegance of the embassy area (the work of renowned British architect Lutyens), and from the eye-opening bedlam of Paharganj (the backpacker ghetto) to the city’s oldest and busiest market district, Chandni Chowk.
My highlight was Nizamuddin, a neighbourhood in the south of the city that is a centre of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Our visit to Nizamuddin’s busy dargah (mausoleum) coincided with a performance of devotional music known as qawwali, with its signature acrobatic chanting and use of the harmonium (a bit like a piano accordion).
Sadly, Nizamuddin is also terribly impoverished. Country Holidays can facilitate a special visit to Project Arman, whose aim is to educate the children of local rag-pickers. It wasn’t operating on the Sunday we were there, though we did find its headquarters in a twisting warren of back alleys, where a few friendly locals emerged from their cramped homes to chat to us about life in Nizamuddin.
|Travel tip: While exploring Delhi, visit India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid, and pay the extra 100Rp (S$2.30) to climb the tower in the south corner for an excellent bird’s eye view of the city.|
6. Souvenir Seller
On a scrubby ridge about 35km west of Agra lie the remains of a former Mughal capital, Fatehpur Sikri. It was built in the 16th century by the emperor Akbar the Great. Akbar means “great” in Arabic: so, “Great the Great”.
Less great was his choice of location for the city. Quite simply, the place didn’t have enough water. After 10 years of parched occupation, Akbar scarpered, never to return.
While wandering around the colossal red-stone complex (similar in style to the equally impressive Red Fort in Agra), I was tailed by a 10-year-old souvenir seller. He was breathtakingly multilingual: after first trying to get my attention in Spanish (it must have been my Rafael Nadal looks), he then switched to French, German and – I think – Russian, before finally clicking his fingers and saying, “You’re an Aussie, aren’t you!”
“Good guess,” I said.
The inevitable haggling began, and the boy energetically waved a succession of objects in front of my face, offering each one for a “special price”. Finally I said, “Sorry, but I can’t buy any of this stuff. They won’t let me take it into Australia.”
“Because it’s made of wood, right?”
Smart fellow. “Exactly,” I said.
Then he asked me for a blow-by-blow description of Australian customs and the reasons behind the ban on the importation of wooden items.
When I finished speaking, he pulled one final object from his bag of tricks – a backgammon set. “Made of metal!” he announced in triumph. Then: “Special price, just for you!”
WHERE TO STAY
With Country Holidays, you can choose from a variety of accommodation styles and price points, including some of India’s most famous properties. Among the latter are various Oberoi hotels, frequently voted among the best in the world. We stayed at the following four during our exploration of the Golden Triangle.
The Oberoi, New Delhi
This is the stately old dame of the Oberoi group and was India’s first contemporary five-star, world-class hotel; but with its swish refurbished suites and new temperature-controlled pool, it still feels cutting edge. And when the electronic curtain rolls back in the morning to reveal a view over Delhi’s golf course to the historic buildings beyond, it’s hard to ask for a better way to kick-start an Indian adventure.
The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur
I’ve mentioned this superb hotel already, with its perfectly manicured grounds and active temple to Shiva. This was perhaps our favourite Oberoi, from the alfresco dining experience beside the pool (we ate plenty of veg and non-veg thali in India, but this was the best) to the cheeky peacocks chasing each other around one of the lobby’s stone minarets.
The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra
No accommodation in Agra comes close to matching Amarvilas. The rooms have balcony views straight onto the Taj Mahal; I stayed out there for an hour at sunset, watching the most perfect building in the world change colour from dazzling white to muted gold and finally to a soft purple. Unforgettable.
The Oberoi, Gurgaon
Not hard to see why this new hotel in Delhi’s burgeoning satellite city of Gurgaon was named the World’s Leading Luxury Hotel for 2011. The Premium Suites, for example, are over 3,000 square feet in size; some have their own lap pools. And the food is dazzling, whether it’s dinner at seafood restaurant Amaranta (a blackboard tells you the exact time that your lobster was plucked from the waters off Goa) or breakfast at 361, where I recommend the stuffed cauliflower paratha with wild berry pickle or the banana, saffron and toasted almond porridge.
We took the Jet Airways flight from Singapore to Delhi departing at 11.10pm and arriving at 2.15am. One advantage of the early morning arrival is that the capital’s notorious roads are blissfully empty of traffic. We were at our hotel in no time.
If you’re not much of a night traveller, the good news is that Jet Airways has recently launched a second daily flight from Singapore, departing at 8.05am and arriving 11.05am.
Jet Airways also has a huge domestic network, covering 52 cities in India with 400 flights a day. There are easy transfers from Delhi to places like Leh in India’s far north, the southern states of Goa and Kerala, Udaipur (“City of Lakes”) in Rajasthan, or even to Jaipur if you’d like to cut down on the amount road travel within the Golden Triangle.
Meanwhile, daily flights from Singapore to Mumbai are on the new Airbus A330 whose Première class features a lie-flat bed and 15.4-inch flat TVs.
Speaking of TV, while you can watch the latest Hollywood hits on Jet Airways, I recommend getting in the mood for your India trip by taking in some Bollywood films. I particularly enjoyed Delhi Belly (an awesome Guy Ritchie-style crime caper) and my wife raved about Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (“You don’t get life a second time”).
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