At least since Miss Quested and Mrs Moore landed on the sub-continent, novels, films and tourists have all been looking for the real India. On this classic itinerary you will see all the famous palaces, citadels and monuments, have your senses assaulted from all sides, and come away with so many talking-point experiences that you will feel you have at least an introductory insight into this vast and complex country.
We went in December, when temperatures in Delhi average about 20°C in the day and under 10°C in the evenings, though a bit higher in Rajasthan; these are much more sympathetic conditions for sightseeing than the 40°C that can be reached in the summer. Although this is therefore supposed to be high season in these parts, outside of Delhi/Agra/Jaipur there were in fact very few foreign tourists so nothing is crowded.
There is no doubt that India can be hard work. Be ready for frustrations: you are bound to be ripped off from time-to-time, though not by very much really; and you will probably be sick at some point, though it will be over in a day or two. Yet with some cash, patience and a positive namaste you can easily find your way through the blizzard of superficial barriers, from meaningless bureaucracy to interesting characters. For instance, we managed to book all our transport and hotels just a day or two before we needed them.
Until as recently as 2008, as many as 40,000 sacred cows freely roamed the streets of Old Delhi in the north of the city, blocking traffic and doorways into shops and cafes. While the narrow streets are still buzzing with chaotic activity – this is where you will find hundreds of rickshaws trundling the wrong way up very busy roads, for example – they are much cleaner than they were a decade ago. Apart from just soaking up the atmosphere, the two unmissable sights here are Lal Qila, or Red Fort, home of the seventeenth century Mughal rulers, and Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India.
New Delhi is just to the south of Old Delhi. These sweeping boulevards, home to the government, foreign embassies and business hotels, were built in the early twentieth century when Britain moved the capital of the Raj from Kolkata. The centrepiece is Connaught Place, a massive circular park planned by Edward Lutyens with a huge national flag in the middle and bordered by shops, bars and traffic. The rooftop cafes above the colonnades are worth a visit for the view back on this modern dystopia. (And Farzi is essential for its fabulous modern cuisine served by waiters in crisp white shirts and red braces – a sister outlet is coming to London soon.)
There is a constant soundtrack of honking horns as archetypal ancient Ambassador cars, black and yellow taxis, green and yellow tuk tuks, darting mopeds and hand-pulled carts are all snarling and fuming below. The congestion and pollution is drab and grey, quite the opposite of the colourful India of popular imagination. Even the private cars all seem to be black or white and what little colour that moves is smothered in thick smog.
The World Health Organisation categorises Delhi as the world’s most polluted city, with visibility often limited to little more than a hundred metres. Things are so bad that from 1 January 2016 the authorities began an experiment with odd/even number plates allowed to drive on alternate days, leading to a sub’s dream headline in the Hindustan Times: “New Year off to an odd start”.
Not far from Connaught Place is the main lung of the city, Lodi Gardens, the place for a run on its jogging track and around its maze of pathways, which you will share with the rich and powerful on their early morning constitutional and necking Delhiites in the early evening. Khan Market is close by too, a nest of alleys with high-end local boutiques on the ground floor, notably the marvellous homeware store Good Earth, while tucked away above are ramshackle old eateries reached by scaling slender spiralling staircases. Try Perch for coffee, Public Affair for cocktails, and the magnificently named Parsi place Sodabottleopenerwala for dinner.
Obviously, New Delhi is jammed with terrific restaurants. Standouts include the Imperial Hotel for classic colonial afternoon tea; Indian Accent in Nizamuddin West, Jamun in Lodi Colony and Moti Mahal in Chanakyapuri for contemporary classics; and of course Bukhara on the ground floor of the ITC Maurya Hotel where all visiting world leaders and international celebrities come to taste the dal.
The dominant artery in New Delhi is the imposing 2 kilometre Rajpath. At one end is the India Gate, swarmed by hawkers. At the other are the quieter parliament buildings and the presidential palace of Rashtrapati Bhavn, hidden behind a high fence and dense smog. There are two calming oases: the Safdarjung Tomb of the last Mughal king that dates from the mid-1700s; and the Humayun Tomb of the first Mughal king from the late-1500s.
The third area of the city, South Delhi, is essentially a collection of villages that have now been swallowed up to make a total population of 25 million, which has doubled since 1990 and is set to rise by another 10 million over the next 15 years. Here you will find the tower and ruins of the Qutb Minar Complex, the first monuments of Muslim India dating from the eleventh century. And of contemporary interest is Hauz Khas, more or less a pedestrianised strip where the young and wealthy go to play in the evenings among the fashion houses and fashionable bars and clubs. Down south is also where you will find the main shopping malls for international brands, in the Saket area, including DHL and Select City Walk.
Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker prize winner, The White Tiger, lifts the lid on Delhi today from the perspective of a rich man’s chauffer, and it captures nicely what you will see on the streets. “Our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.” The streets are alive with them, from one-chair barbers through to blokes you pay to shift cars that have parked in front of your waiting taxi.
The radical Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is clearly trying to drag the country through modern economic development, and despite the alleged corruption and human rights abuses that are not evident to tourists, there is an emerging middle class of consumers to support the technological engine of growth. But there is surprisingly little visible foreign investment even here in Delhi, and lacking the central control of China, as sure as Bombay duck is in fact a fish there is a huge cultural shift required before India takes its place at the top table as a fully developed BRIC nation.
The best way to move on is by hiring a car and driver. It is just three hours south-east down the Yamuna Expressway from Delhi, and another hour negotiating the traffic in Agra, to reach the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is of course every bit as beautiful as it is rumoured, though you are not going to get any Princess Diana-style solitary photos here. What you will get is a very good example of the apartheid queuing system common to the big-ticket attractions on this circuit: foreigners are charged quite a bit more, in return for which you get to jump to the front of what would otherwise be a 2-3 hour wait to get in.
Rajasthan, the most visited state in the country and lacking the smog of Delhi and Agra thanks to the desert landscape, is best known for the four major cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur, each with their own unique character and famous monuments. But heading west from Agra there are several outstanding stops en route.
It is just 45 minutes east from Agra to the deserted but immaculate complex at Fatahpur Sikri. Early in the morning you will be alone to soak up the atmosphere and take in the deep red buildings against the bright blue sky. In the late sixteenth century, the great Mughal emperor Akbar housed his royal palace at Fatahpur, which is short walk to Sikri, where he built a mosque and shrine to the local Muslim cleric Sheikh Salim Chishti, before abandoning the seat.
Another 20 minutes along the road is Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur for world class bird-watching.
A further 4-5 hour drive is the Ranthambore National Park, the best place in India to see wild tigers. There are sixty in the park, which is divided into half a dozen sectors, each of which is toured for four hours by open-top vehicles at 7.30am and again at 2pm every day. There are two kinds of trucks – a “gypsy” takes just six people and a “canter” is a 30-person bus – though they both cost about 1,000 rupees per person. Officially, you can book here though in reality most tickets are bought by the local hotels and touted on, which means you can just turn up and get a seat for about 5,000 rupees. We were told we had a one in four chance of seeing a tiger, and were lucky enough to see one sleeping not far away within an hour. What an awesome sight.
It is a 3 hour drive north from Ranthambore to Jaipur, known as the “pink city” thanks to the colour it was painted to impress Queen Victoria on her visit in 1876. On a ridge looking down on the city are the Nahargarh or Tiger Fort, the Amber Palace, and the Sisodia Rani-Ka-Bagh gardens on the way to the Galta monkey palace.
The landmark building is Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds, a gorgeous façade from 1799 right at the heart of the old town. Nearby is the City Palace, a large network of gates and buildings, and Jantar Mantar, a wonderful series of eighteen huge stone astronomical and astrological measuring devices, including the world’s largest sundial, all dating from the eighteenth century. The long streets of colonnaded bazaars surrounding these sights are among the most relaxed and entertaining in all of India.
There are plenty of good hotels, but the stand-out is the Taj Rambagh Palace Hotel.
Jaipur feels like a movie-set of text-book Indian chaos morning, noon and night. The streets are crammed with lone cows, families of pigs, feral children, women spitting and men urinating; there is literally piss and shit all over the place. There is a riot of colour, a fanfare of noise and a quiver of smells while the roads are an anarchy of me-first grid-lock. Of course, it is precisely this frantic energy that tourists come to imbibe; but it is also this same cultural lack of respect for rules that means India has a long way to go before it can release the potential of its 1.3 billion citizens, 17.5% of the world total.
Travelling by train is a highlight of any trip to India and the 4-5 hour journey west from Jaipur to Jodhpur is an ideal moment to experience it. There are seven classes, though foreign tourists are steered towards the upper ends, and it is best to go to the station to buy the tickets in person, usually available from 48 hours prior to departure. The chaos of people sitting in every cranny of the carriages, frequently plied by a chai wallah, is exactly as you would expect.
Jodhpur is not such an interesting city. By now there are so few non-Indian tourists that local villagers start to tap you on the shoulder to request you pose for selfies with them on their camera phones.
The Umaid Bhawan Palace, still home to the royal family of Jodhpur, is also part Taj Hotel, which is often ranked the world’s number one on Trip Advisor.
The centre-piece of Jodhpur is the fifteenth century Mehrangarh Fort, imposingly perched at the top of a 150 metre cliff in the old town. It is the least impressive of the forts on this tour, but there are great views over the “blue city”, so called because of the colour of the wash originally intended to camouflage the poor quality of the materials of its buildings.
The other attraction is Ghanta Ghar, the 1910 clock tower in the middle of Sardar Market, a small square where you can drink a masala chai or a mango lassi while watching the locals buy their spices, fruit and veg.
It is 4 more hours by car or train to Jaisalmer, heading west into the dusty sand, stone and bush. A popular activity is to drive another 50km further west to the edge of the Thar Desert that runs parallel to the Pakistan border, where the Indian army presence becomes increasingly visible. The epicentre is the sand-dunes around Sam, pronounced Cham, an over-exploited circus where you can hire a small jeep to bash the dunes or take a camel ride a few hundred metres from the main road to watch the sunset. We were there between Christmas and New Year, which is the main Indian holiday season; there were more than 300 camels servicing about 2,000 tourists, though we counted only three non-Indian faces in the crowd.
Jaisalmer, coined the “golden city” because of its sandstone buildings the colour of milky chai, is centred on the extremely impressive twelfth century fort. Inside the main gate and up a hill surrounded by perfect ramparts this is not just a monument but a whole living-breathing town, including as many as eighty tiny places to stay. The choice location right above the main gate, with just eight rooms in perfect condition and wide views right across the old town, is Killa Bhawan. (It is worth noting that there is controversy about the impact of tourists staying inside the fort because of high water use eroding the soft clay base; this concern is balanced by the essential economic benefit brought to the town of residing in its heart.)
The twisting streets are just wide enough for mopeds to pass the sleeping cows. There is a relaxed ambiance in the maze of shops selling fabrics, silverware and Ganeshes galore, especially in the evenings when the tour bus crowds have gone and the rooftop restaurants are almost deserted. The must-see buildings are the Palace of the Maharawa and the Jain Temple.
Outside the fort, Jaisalmer is famous for its beautiful havelis, delicately carved houses built by eighteenth and nineteenth century wealthy merchants, many of which are now guesthouses. The best examples are all within a five minute walk of the main gate at Patwa, Nathmalji and Salim Singh.
There is no train or easy road from Jaisalmer to Udaipur so you have to double back via Jodhpur. There are no trains from Jodhpur to Udaipur either, so you must drive the 4-5 hours south through a more interesting landscape of rocky hills to get to the lakes at the most beautiful city in Rajasthan.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Jewel in the Crown, Octopussy and many others were all filmed here for the simple reason that the vista across Lake Pichola, taking in tiny ghats where locals do their bathing and laundry, and including several palaces and islands, all overlooked by Monsoon Palace high up in the hills, is idyllic. You get a great view of the whole scene from the Ropeway cable car near the panoramic Deen Dayal Park.
The City Palace beside the lake is still home to the current local king, but he shares this impressive complex with a museum and two luxury hotels: the Fateh Prakash Palace – which benefits from a spectacular sunset terrace – and the Shiv Niwas Palace. You walk through this area to find the jetty to catch a relaxing 20-person boat to tour around the lake.
There are two main islands. The nearest is now the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, formerly a royal palace. And the furthest is Jag Mandir Palace, where you can get off the boat for a chai, a masala dosa and a look back.
Udaipur has the best shopping in Rajasthan, particularly leather goods, and especially along the tiny pathway parallel to the water’s edge approaching the City Palace complex.
It is just one and a half hours flight back from Udaipur to Delhi, by which time a few days on the beach in Goa or Lakshadweep might be calling.
A quick portrait of the temples to be bashed does not give a full flavour of the experiences to be had on this trip. And there is a lot to amuse.
There was comic idiocy. Like when the hotel bell hop waved to summon a taxi from the rank 30 metres away and the driver got out to run to us, only to be told with a weary shake of the head to go back and come again, this time with his car.
There was comic confusion. Like this:
Waiter: “Come in sir, welcome sir. Tonight we have an Indian buffet for just 800 rupees. Just 800 rupees and with that you also get a free beer.”
Me: “It looks good. And that sounds like a good deal too. 800 rupees for a buffet and a beer.”
Waiter. “Yes sir, welcome sir. Just 800 rupees for an Indian buffet and one free beer. Yes sir, welcome sir. Except that with a beer it will be 1,000 rupees.”
And there was comic cheek. Like when I was waiting patiently at the ATM and as the guy in front removed his card from the machine an old woman’s hand snaked around from behind me to stick her card into the slot to jump the queue.
When Mrs Moore departs, it is with much pain that she admits “I have not seen the right places”. I don’t know how much this tourist golden triangle offers of the real India, but I do know that when you leave you won’t agree with EM Forster’s heroin. This is a well-trodden path for a reason.