India is sound and color, chaos and peace, tradition and innovation. The subcontinent holds a variety of contrasting images, from Kipling-esque visions of spectacular, carved temples and gleaming marble palaces, to lonely Himalayan lamaseries and far-flung dusty villages where council meetings are held under the shade of a banyan tree. Nearly one sixth of all the human beings on earth live in India, making it the world’s most populous democracy. Within its borders live a huge variety of peoples, practicing most of the world’s major religions, speaking scores of different languages, belonging to numerous socially exclusive castes, and combining physical traits of several major racial groups. A civilized, urban society has existed in India for over 5,000 years, a time span marked by periods when its culture was as brilliant and creative as any in history. Join me as I share the spectacular journey I just lived on the spectacular Indian sub-continent:
Nearly one sixth of all the human beings on earth live in India, making it the world’s most populous democracy. Within its borders live a huge variety of peoples, practicing most of the world’s major religions, speaking scores of different languages, belonging to numerous socially exclusive castes, and combining physical traits of several major racial groups. A civilized, urban society has existed in India for over 5,000 years, a time span marked by periods when its culture was as brilliant and creative as any in history. Do I have your interest? Join me on my recent journey below with the luxurious Oberoi Hotel Group and our unflappable luxury ground operator, Ventours!
DELHI – Fun Fact: 23 million persons live in Delhi, second only to Tokyo
Arrival into the capital. Local partners of Resort to Laura Madrid insure that our guests are met at the aerobridge and are escorted and fast-tracked through immigration and customs.
The Oberoi Gurgaon – an impressive modern oasis just outside the city centre where weary travellers can enjoy 24 hour spa and a sumptuous pool and gardens in between jaunts to the bustling capital city.
Explore the historical part of the city known as Old Delhi, starting with `Shah Jehanabad’ which has some dramatic remnants of the Mughal Empire in the imposing Red Fort and Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, built by Emperor Shah Jehan, creator of the Taj Mahal.
“Trishaw’ through principal street, originally renowned throughout Asia with its tree-lined canal flowing down the center. These days it’s a bustling jumble of shops, temples, mosques and craftsmen workshops of goldsmiths, silversmiths, silk traders and embroiderers.
Raj Ghat on the banks of the Yamuna River, is a simple memorial that marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated in 1948. A pretty park has been created around the memorial.
This morning, we begin with a visit to the earliest surviving Islamic monument, the Qutb mosque and minar created by the founder of the sometimes-called Slave Dynasty, Qutb-ud-din-Aybak. 73 meters high and consisting of 5 storeys, the Qutb Minar construction started in 1199 on what was intended to be the most glorious tower of victory in the world.
Onward, drive around New Delhi with its majestic boulevards and grand government buildings. India Gate, Delhi’s triumphal arch, stands at one end of the Rajpath. At the other end of Rajpath stands the official residence of India’s President, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, a complex of buildings that mix Mughal and Western architectural styles. Prior to independence, this was the home of India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. Close by is Sansad Bhavan, the large, though less imposing Parliament building.
We then stop for a visit at the Tomb of Humayun. This Mughal Emperor’s senior wife, Haji Begum, commissioned the Tomb in the 16th century making it an early example of Mughal architecture. The design elements of this tomb – a squat building lighted by high arched entrances topped by a protuberant dome and surrounded by formal gardens, were to be refined over the years to the magnificence of the Taj Mahal.
Unforgettable – Feast at Oberoi Gurgaon showcasing cuisines from all of the resort chefs, personalized menus – I love when dinner is all about me!
Oberoi Amarvilas – what an incredible surprise to enter in to the gorgeous court yard to find fountains, music and the entire staff majestically placed around the perimiter welcoming our group.
The rooms & public areas afford uninterrupted views of the Taj Mahal and its classical architecture is complemented by elaborate mughul gardens, terraced lawns, fountains, reflection pools and pavilions. Amongst the muslim rulers, Emperor Akbar and his grandson Shah Jehan lifted the powerful mughul empire to unprecedented heights of cultural glory and aesthetic achievements. The grandeur of the Amarvilas reflects this.
The majestic and ravishingly beautiful Taj Mahal – The ivory gate through which all dreams pass. A lacy white grandeur, perhaps the most perfect architectural monument accomplished.
The Agra Fort, a World Heritage Site credited to the aforementioned emperor Akbar, India’s great visionary. His sons and theirs added to this imposing structure situated by the banks of the Yamuna River. The astonishing palaces, mosques and audience halls contained within its massive walls of red sandstone became once more a monumental mission of the Mughal empire, embellished by the artistic fusion of Islamic and Hindu tradition.
Shopping: Kohinoor, erstwhile jewelers to the mughal court, featured in National Geographic. Old emerald necklaces, enamel jewelry, silver, pocket watches in gold and silver, textiles and embroidery form part of their private collection. The Marble Inlay factories steeped in this decorative art culture are also a specialty of Agra.
Unforgettable: Finally seeing the Taj Mahal up close and personal!
The Drives in India are unforgettable – while long, truly a part of the experience:
The long drive from Agra to Ranthambhore is a mind-blowing experience of driving in a way best described as “functional anarchy” and an close look at humanity as it lives by the side of the road as we make our way through the desert lands of Rajanistan.
UNFORGETTABLE: People watching along the drive! Spotting the elusive tiger!
Ranthambore has for over a century been one of the most sought after hunting grounds for tiger on the Indian subcontinent. In more recent times and especially in the last decade this reserve has become internationally known as an exciting hub for research and conservation directed towards protecting the majestic Royal Bengal tiger and its total environment. Some individual tigers in the reserve that developed unique styles of hunting became the subjects of films and books that have won worldwide acclaim. The 10th century fort that overlooks the reserve provides a sense of grandeur and history that puts its diversity of wildlife (much of which continue to use the ancient ramparts!) in an unique perspective.At dawn, escorted by a naturalist, we drive in open jeeps into the Ranthambore reserve to look for a great diversity of birds and mammals and some major predators including leopards and tigers. Unlike in Africa, tracking the normally secretive tiger becomes an exciting experience, relying on alarm calls from other animals, and subtle tracks and signs.
The deep gorges of Ranthambore serve as hide outs for leopards, tigers and sloth bear. The park also provides a congenial habitat for the `chital’ or spotted deer and sambar, the largest of the Asiatic deer. Woodland, ground and water birds are also found in the area, including the uncommon red jungle fowl and eagle.
A visit to Dhonk (www.Dhonk.com) a community craft shop created by a brave activist name Divya Khandal who trains and mobilizes women in the area to make and sell their crafts at fair market pricing all while donating 10% of the proceeds to the Tiger preservation in the area. These women, married to desparately poor former tiger poachers, can now contribute to the family income while the community as a whole can focus on the tiger preservation rather than poaching.
Unforgettable: The warmth of the people, constantly being surprised with delightful treats along the way. Nothing overlooked!
Vanyavilas is designed as a `Jungle Camp’ and lies adjacent to the Tiger Reserve. The resort is set in nineteen acres with an emphasis on maintaining the natural environ with well established trees, flora and a large water body. There’s an orchard of lemon, guava and mango
Our accommodations are in spacious luxury air conditioned tents, beautifully appointed interiors, teak wood flooring, large bathrooms with free standing bath tubs, separate shower stalls and a private deck for sun bathing or private dining.
Oberoi Rajvilas, located in over thirty acres of beautiful gardens, pools and fountains. This exclusively styled oasis revives the gracious lifestyles of India’s legendary Rajput princes. For centuries, travelers from all over the world have been drawn to the majesty and color of Rajasthan, the land of Rajputs. With the heritage of Jaipur providing the backdrop, Rajvilas is the perfect embodiment of grace and grandeur.
The pink city of Jaipur, where the enduring charisma of the past blends with the throbbing vitality of today. Where a colorful cast of characters – from painters and potters to artists and antique dealers. Today, Jaipur has spread far beyond the pink crenellated walls that once defined its boundaries. It presents a fascinating picture of a city where growth, evolution and change are sustained by tradition.
In the afternoon, drive into old Jaipur stopping by the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds, a good example of Rajput artistry made of red and pink sand stone, beautifully outlined with white borders and motifs painted with quick lime.
Open air royal observatory “Jantar Mantar”. Maharaja Jai Singh, the creator of Jaipur loved mathematics and science, sending emissaries to the court of Mirza Beg in Samarkand who had built an observatory in 1425. Spending much of his time studying astronomy, he constructed masonry observatories at Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain, Mathura and most impressively the `Jantar Mantar’ at Jaipur, built between 1728 and 1734.
City Palace which occupies the center of Jaipur, covers one seventh of its area and is surrounded by a high wall. It differs from conventional Rajput fort palaces in its separation of the palace from its fortifications, perhaps modeled on the Mughal architectural style with its main building scattered in “a fortified campus”. The Royal family occupies a portion of this Palace, with other areas converted to museums, displaying their vast collection of textiles and costumes, an array of armory, miniature paintings and carpets, the finest of which was displayed at the “Flowers Underfoot – Indian carpets of the Mughal Era” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Amber fort, the former seat of the Rajput rulers of Jaipur. Ascending the fortress seated in a jeep, wander around the beautiful palaces and visit the Shiladevi temple (which continues to be the private temple of the Royal family) with its exquisite marble carvings and silver door.
We then depart for Dera Amer, the estate of Udaijit Singh, grandson of the late Rao Chandra Pal Singh, Chief Secretary of Jaipur state and a close cousin of the Maharaja of Jaipur, Mansinghji. Udaijit’s vast estate is in the forested Kukas valley behind Amber Fort, once the big hunting ground of the Royal family. A fortified medieval monument and a traditional `Chatri’ are remnants of an era gone by. These days activities related to elephants and tiger rehabilitation are conducted. A manicured Elephant Polo field set dramatically against the hills is proof of Udaijit’s passion for both Elephant & Polo!
Shopping: this is the place for shopping – gems and jewelry are the number one attraction and world famous, but the bustling bazaars are laden with souvenirs, carpets, silks, the specialty being the traditional hand block printed fabric, antique textiles and handicrafts.
India is a mecca for foodies and no place better to spend some time in the kitchen with the chef:
Elephant Polo, a variant of polo was created by India’s Maharajahs and Princes as an ultimate royal experience. Participants sitting atop elephants, steered by mahouts use six to nine foot cane sticks with a polo mallet head playing on a pitch three quarters the length of a regular polo field. The standard polo ball is replaced by a mini football for the convenience of first timers.
Being in Jaipur during the kite festival. Every rooftop has children on it and a 1000 kites are in the sky.
Oberoi Udaivilas Resort and spa designed as a Rajasthan palace and recently voted `best in the world’. This award winning extravaganza is set in thirty acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and decorative fountains and pavilions overlooking Lake Pichola, giving it a surreal effect.
Udaipur, or the city of `sunrise’, combining real beauty with a picturesque association of a great and glorious past. Surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills and set on three beautiful lakes, Udaipur is perhaps the most romantic and picturesque place on the subcontinent. The city and its splendid palaces have a great and glorious past. Legendry Ranas or kings traced their ancestry back to the sun!
City Palace, crowning a ridge in which the city clusters along the lake. Begun in the 16th century the palace is a maze of reception halls, residential suites and internal courts built above the water. Most elaborate of the inner courts is `Mor Chowk’ or Peacock Court; On its walls are peacocks modeled in high relief and faced with colored glass mosaic. Similarly, brilliant glass mosaics adorn the upper level where male attendants are shown holding flywhisks and flags. Despite its lack of symmetry, due to more than two hundred years of building additions, architectural unity at the City Palace is achieved through the repeated use of `jharokas’ and domed `chatris’ that punctuate the upper part of the walls. A gilded sun-face emblem of the Udaipur rulers is prominently displayed.
At sunset, we have a boat ride. On little islands, from the waters edge, rise marble palaces of pure white that glisten like fairy castles. Lake Pichola was created in the 15th century by a wealthy gypsy merchant who built a small dam here to allow his grain carts to cross over during the monsoon. Sailing around, we pass slowly by the old hillside hunting Gazebo of the Udaipur kings and high towers and turrets of the fortified City Palace walls. Lakeside `havelis’ of old Udaipur with their cupolaed balconies reflect in the waters and the high triple arched Gangaur bank where women bathe and wash their clothes and where the colorful Gangaur festival is celebrated each year in spring.
After a leisurely breakfast, you may choose to drive around 2½ hours into the Rajasthani countryside to visit the amazing Jain temples at Ranakpur, situated in the remote and peaceful Aravali valley. Amongst five holy sites of the Jain religion this is one of the best temple complexes in the country. Most famous in Ranakpur is “Adinath” which has 29 halls supported by 1444 pillars – no two of which are alike.
An ethnic Rajasthani lunch is served at the `King’s Abode’ resort, before returning to Udaipur.
This morning, we may choose to take a brief drive to the Titardi Village for an easy horse safari along the Aravalli hills, the oldest range on the planet, passing small tribal villages where traditional farming practices continue. We stop at one such tribe called Jogi Talab for refreshments at their mountain lake before returning back to the Udaivilas.
In the evening, explore Udaipur; many believe India’s museums are in their streets and the colorful by-lanes, narrow and twisting, behind the City Palace are no different. Take a walk through this buzz, amongst stalls selling spices to local studios of miniature artists, keeping alive fine traditions. Old white washed houses are painted over with brightly colored folk murals of elephants, horsemen, peacocks – auspicious motifs for the occasion of festivals.
Stay: Oberoi Mumbai
With a population exceeding 18 million, this one time group of low lying mud flats is now India’s economic power base and her most industrialized city, bustling with activity of incredible diversity and complexity, her color and elegance, her wealth corresponding with her historic struggle against poverty.
See:`Dhobi Ghat’ (or laundrymen’s river bank), the city’s open air laundry! where “Dhobis’ (washermen) attend to an astounding quantity of washing in small open air cubicles rented out each day. An itemized account is logged in a notebook and clothes collected from households are returned a week later. Through the apparent chaos, incredibly nothing gets lost from a countless number of pieces, somehow surviving the beating on washing stones.
Mani Bhawan was Mahatma Gandhi’s home between 1917 and 1934. It contains a research library of more than 20,000 volumes, and a series of tiny dioramas depicting his life story in an interesting fashion. The walls are covered with photos of historic events and noteworthy people. We see a number of personal artifacts, including a letter to Hitler asking him not to go to war, along with correspondence with Roosevelt, Tolstoy and Einstein.
A unique facet, extensively investigated from the Harvard Business School to French Television and several documentaries. At the Churchgate Railway Terminus, we meet this community of Dabbawallahs, members of the Bombay Union of Tiffin Box Carriers. Each morning, around 4000 dabbawallahs call on suburban housewives who pack a freshly cooked lunch into small circular aluminum or stainless steel containers – `dabbas’. Typically each dabbawallah collects 30-40 boxes, ranges them out on long poles, bicycle handlebars or decorated handcarts to the nearest railway station. Here, he passes his lot to a fellow dabbawallah for an onward journey into the city and delivery to the consumer. Over 100,000 lunches of maybe sabze (vegetable curry), chapattis (Indian bread), dal (lentils) and pickle, make their way daily across town to the breadwinner and back again. The service which costs a few rupees a week, is a good example of the fine division of labor in India, reliable and efficient, for the dabbawallahs pride themselves on never losing a lunch box.
Lunch is reserved at `Trishna’ located within the heritage section of the city. The restaurant is noted for its seafood and prepares authentic recipes from the West coast of India.
The most admirable features of Bombay’s cityscape are the Gothic revival buildings raised in the last century after its original fortifications were removed. Indeed it is because of these buildings that Bombay is often cited as a `unique Victorian city’. We take a drive past many such relics including Asiatic Library, Horniman Circle, General Post Office, Victoria Terminus and Bombay Municipality.
We then go to where much of the story of this commercial capital began…where a spirit of commerce and a tide of human life rolls down the center of the street, unruffled by vehicles from all quarters ploughing their way through it. Too bold for the regular tourist trail, but for an adherent Bombayite, no visit could be complete without a foray into the bazaars of Bhuleshwar. The city’s densest concentration of lifestyle and retail jewelry stores is a crush of shop-fronts, street stalls, hawkers and handicrafts and a seething mass of people. It may look like absolute chaos but the areas are closely knit, and cohesively built around a traditional residential complex, temples, flower markets, community halls & cow shelters. Within a few square kilometers there are a dozen bazaars and more commodities for sale than you will see probably anywhere else in a lifetime.
Drinks at the spectacular roof top bar at Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai.
Being in this massive and vibrant city of contrasts and seeing first hand how life happens at so many levels.
THE HARDEST PART WAS SAYING GOOD-BYE TO THIS BEAUTIFUL LAND AND FASCINATING PEOPLE. FAREWELL ONLY FOR NOW, INDIA! YOU NEVER LEAVE!