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A Journey for the Senses – Delhi, Agra & Rajasthan

Susie Reynolds, in our India and Arabia department, recently travelled to northern India.  Here she tells us of her adventures in a country she says captivates the senses utterly.

Over the last five years, numerous members of my team have been lucky enough to visit this majestic part of Northern India, returning to tell colourful tales and enthuse about their experiences there.  So, this year, I seized the chance to head out before the end of the season and see it all for myself.

Landing in Delhi at the end of April, I was pleasantly surprised by the temperature, milder than I had anticipated, the air heady with the scents that pervade the city.  I headed straight to The Imperial, a fabulous art-deco hotel adorned with aptly placed classic cars at its entrance and the ideal spot from which to explore this city of contrasts.

Delhi was far greener than I had expected, living up to its reputation as one of the greenest capitals in the world – in terms of colour rather than ecologically!  The hustle and bustle of an average day’s traffic was not as claustrophobic as I had feared; my tour of Old Delhi was a real highlight, and included a rickshaw ride through the buzzing streets of Chandi Chowk, fringed on both sides with stalls displaying decorations which would not have looked out of place on the most eccentric of Christmas trees.

New Delhi is home to beautiful and impressive parliamentary buildings, left by the British, surrounded by classic ambassador’s cars which to this day remain the preferred mode of transport for the government’s officials.  I also visited Humayun’s Tomb, which is the first garden tomb in the Indian subcontinent, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.  An incredibly moving visit.

From Delhi I travelled to Agra by train, which was twice as quick as driving.  Pulling into the station, I was met outside my carriage by our team on the ground and transferred to the Oberoi Amarvilas.  A stunning place, and in my opinion the only place to stay in Agra, the Amarvilas has breathtaking views of the Taj Mahal and a wonderfully refreshing pool – very welcome in temperatures reaching 35’C!

A tour of the Taj Mahal with a private guide is a must (I recommend timing it early in the morning or later in the evening!) and really brings alive one of the most romantic gestures the world has ever seen.  While I declined the offer myself, ‘Diana’s bench’ is a firm photo opportunity favourite.  I was struck by the exquisite marble work of this elegant and harmonious building, flanked by its four surrounding gates, also intricate in design.

Whilst in Agra, I’d also highly recommend a visit to the red sandstone fort, which was converted into a palace during Shah Jahan’s time.  Amazingly, only a quarter of this is open to the public (the rest is used by the military).  I explored the pearl mosque and halls of public and private audience, and walked through the many sub-palaces – so much to see and learn, enough to keep even the most dedicated of history buffs busy for hours!

My next stop was Ranthambore and the opportunity to spot the elusive tiger.  After an early start and lengthy drive I arrived at Sher Bagh, a splendid tented camp, straight out of the Raj, comprising of delightfully British Colonial living and dining tents and beautiful tented bedrooms with en-suite shower rooms fit for royalty. For me this was a rare hotel which was a destination in itself.

The flow of vehicles into Ranthambore National Park can be a little complicated but thankfully I was in the more than capable hands of our ground handlers and the hotel who smoothly arranged two game drives for me.

As my father maintains with salmon fishing – ‘a sport in which to spend time in beautiful surroundings – if you catch a fish it’s simply a bonus’ – the same ethos might be applied to safaris in Ranthambore. Tiger viewings are never guaranteed – elusive in the dry season, and even shyer following the monsoon, when the forest turns a brilliant shade of emerald green providing lush cover for exotic creatures. It is, however, a stunning park, teeming with birds, mammals and reptiles. In terms of the tiger though, I was one of the lucky ones.

Travelling during this hot season makes tigers far easier to spot in the scrub and we were lucky enough to come across both T19, a female, and T24, a male with his kill. I stress, wishing to manage expectations, I was very lucky!

After spotting my tiger I was on the road again, heading for the rural town of Shapura and the charming home of the original ruler of the town.  This has now been converted into a boutique hotel, Shapura Bagh, by the ruling family.  This was one of the most delightful experiences of my trip. A homestay as opposed to a hotel experience, the rooms were alive with the character of a bygone era, the gardens home to the regal peacock.  The pool, large considering the small number of rooms, was flanked by elegant sun loungers and canopied day beds.

There are a number of excursions available to guests staying here; the locals are wonderfully hospitable and keen to show off their skills, trades and professions. I took a trip to the owners farm, home to cattle, goats and mango plantations, as well as the (currently dry) lake which was created by the local ruler in the early 20th century in order to help his loyal subjects following a long stint of famine.  As a result he was decorated by the British Raj and an impressive portrait now hangs in the formal dining room of the main house at Shapura Bagh.

Short on time, and still with plenty of ground to cover, I was soon on my way to India’s answer to Venice, the spellbinding city of Udaipur and the dreamlike Taj Lake Palace, the former summer residence of the Maharana of Udaipur who now resides across the lake in part of the City Palace.  For its fairy tale qualities, this was my favourite city in Rajasthan, blessed with enchanting views of Lake Pichola, with the flamboyant City Palace, deemed to be the largest of its type in Rajasthan, demonstrating a glorious fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal architectural styles.

One of the most special moments of my trip followed my tour of the City Palace when we moved on to Jagdish Temple, adorned with elaborate carvings in classic Hindu style and surrounded by ladies selling offerings for the gods.

While you cannot use your camera inside, the sight of hundreds of ladies (comparatively few gentlemen) in brilliantly coloured sari’s, squeezing in shoulder to shoulder, seated on the floor listening to the teachings of the High Priest, will not leave my memory quickly. Nor will the mesmerising singing which followed, accompanied only by the rhythmic clapping of the gathering.

Heading out of Udaipur city I had a short journey to the glorious Devi Garh, a ‘fusion property’ comprising of the old ruins of a former fort palace, which have been imaginatively restored to house this exquisite boutique hotel, perched on top of a hill, surveying the surrounding village. Private dinners in original bedrooms which have been rescued from collapse, are particularly special, lit only by candles and served on low tables surrounded by cushions and bolsters.

Following my arrival I set out for Ranakpur and its hypnotic Jain temple.  Here I was honoured to have the High Priest as my guide, who was only too keen to impart his knowledge on both the temple and Jain religion, a very precise offshoot of Hinduism.  Supported by more than 1400 exquisitely carved pillars, Ranakpur is acclaimed world-wide for its intricate and superb architectural style forming one of the five major pilgrimages of the Jains.

The journey between Delwara and Ranakpur was not without its own interest and provided countless photographic opportunities of its own. Such journeys were soon becoming one of my favoured parts of my trip in a country full of more colour than one can imagine.

Back to Rural Rajasthan, Rohet was next on my list. Rohet Garh, the simplest of three charming offerings from the historical ruling family, offers a wonderful and homely stay in its uniquely decorated rooms and suites, surrounded by gardens, courtyards or a pretty pool, some with views over the lake. For the equestrians among us, Rohet Garh is a must.

The owner has a glorious collection of beautiful Mawari horses and treks can range from a couple of hours, to days broken by evening camps and G&T’s served round a fire. I’m always a little nervous about riding abroad, both on the basis of the quality and welfare of the horses and the safety. The passion and care taken over Rohet’s selection is wonderfully reassuring, and my own mount, a surprisingly mature 4yr old dapple grey, behaved impeccably. My guide was quick to judge my ability and more than happy to let me ride on ahead, galloping across the desert sand.

Rohet also arrange fabulous excursions to local Bishnoi and Brahmin villages and offer the opportunity to witness an opium ceremony. Their charming guide was an excellent bridge over the language barrier and the families I met could not have been more hospitable, smiling and keen to have their photograph taken.

Jodhpur was my next stop and situated below the impressive Mehrangarh Fort was Raas, a unique and contemporary hotel in the heart of the walled city. The Mehrangarh Fort is the best maintained fort in Rajasthan, and the palace complex, with its network of courtyards and museum artefacts, was well worth exploring. It was also the most spectacular place from which to view the Blue City, thousands of Brahmin homes painted differing shades of blue, an incredible sight.

Jodhpur itself is definitely worth exploring by foot. The narrow streets hide charming surprises round every corner, you never know when you are going to come across a wedding and the markets are alive with local tradesmen and families going about their daily business.

Nearing the end of my trip I moved on to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, and the home of the infamous Rajasthan Royals as well as the hopelessly romantic Rambagh Palace, most famously the former home of Maharani Gayatri Devi, Rajmata of Jaipur and Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II, society favorites in late 1930’s London. Today, operating as a hotel, it offers its guests a taste of royal living with elegant rooms and majestic gardens, steeped in history from its previous life.

Jodhpur’s City Palace combines Mughal and Rajput architecture and also houses a museum, home to beautiful royal costumes and weapons, graceful paintings and impressive Mughal carpets providing an invaluable insight into Jaipur’s royal past. Next door, the Astronomical observatory holds an astonishing collection of the weird and wonderful, as well as extraordinarily accurate instruments, some of which are still used today.

The Amber Fort was the ancient citadel of the ruling Kachhawa clan of Amber before the capital was shifted to Jaipur 11km away. A fabulous example of Hindu and Muslim artistic style, this was certainly one of my favorites and the intricate mirror work in the Summer Palace took my breath away. My countless photos could never do it justice and if you are going to see just one fort during your trip I believe this should be it!

Just north of Jaipur, the Aravalli Hills surround the magnificent Samode Palace, a heritage hotel acting as a museum with some fabulous frescoes dotted around the property. The town below is wonderfully welcoming to visitors and as a hub of handicrafts it’s a great spot to collect some gifts in advance of your return home.

Early on in my trip I was quick to realise that a trip to Rajasthan was not essentially a ‘restful’ holiday. Instead it’s a journey for the senses and, without taking appropriate measures, could result in needing a further break on your return home. Happily, Amanbagh awaits – an oasis of calm in which to relax for a few days or even a few weeks. As you’d expect, exceptional service, spacious and stylish suites and fabulous food are on offer to welcome weary travellers, while fabulous excursions such as the Cowdust Tour, taking in the local villages and meeting the gloriously friendly residents, keep the restless occupied.

This was sadly my last stop before returning to Delhi and flying home, albeit with a far heavier suitcase, and a head full of more memories than my camera could possibly hold.

To anyone considering a holiday to Rajasthan, I would recommend it in a heartbeat. The bright colours of this many-faceted state and the sheer warmth and friendliness of its people alone would draw me back time and again.

My top tips:

  • The ease and comfort of having a car and driver with Scott Dunn cannot be underestimated. My driver Johnson was invaluable and his excellent English (not always common among drivers) made my trip a thousand times more enjoyable.

Traffic can be unpredictable.

If you’re keen to sleep on long car journeys, take ear plugs. No one uses indicators in India, instead relying on the blasting horns of fellow drivers to let them know they are there.

On a luxury tour hygiene is generally easy to maintain, but it’s still worth taking precautions, such as avoiding street food and carrying hand sanitizer to minimise the risk.

Last but not least, take a good camera. There are few other places I can think of with so much worth capturing at any given moment.

For more information on our tailor-made holidays to Rajasthan contact Susie and the team on 020 8682 5075.

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