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The Raj, the Taj and Goa at Large

Just how much of India did I want to see?

That was the question I asked myself when toying with the notion of visiting that vast sub-continent again, gather up-to-date information (after the awful terrorist attack in Mumbai) and – hopefully – write a decent report of my experiences.

Just how much of India could I afford to see?

That was another question altogether. If my desire to produce an informative article, one which could show how the majority of British Holidaymakers could maximise their tour within a budget similar to prices offered by UK High Street tour operators – then affordability would be an important factor.

So, planning began.

First, my ‘wish list’. Where, when and for how long? I narrowed it down to specific parts of Rajasthan – the cities of Agra (to see the Taj Mahal), Jaipur and Mumbai and combine those with a stay in Goa. My idea was to try and combine the splendours of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Mumbai, with some relaxing, tropical beach time in Goa as a very special ‘multi region’ tour, affordable to Mr & Mrs ‘Average’.

Why Goa and not Kerala or Tamil Nadu? For two reasons. First, Goa is popular with British tourists of many kinds and secondly, it is so very different from all other states of India, being predominantly Christian and steeped in Portuguese tradition and architecture.

Could such a tour be undertaken in a two week package offered by UK-based companies? Well, I suppose so but it wouldn’t be easy. Neither would such a time frame allow the sights, sounds and experiences to be fully appreciated.

With the two main factors of any holiday uppermost in my mind (experiences and appreciation) it seemed certain that I would have to stray somewhat from the norm of the ‘package holiday’ and arrange an itinerary (within budget) myself.

From the UK, Goa is almost entirely serviced by charter airlines and my experiences of travelling by that method had always been fairly dreadful. So, if I wanted to include Goa on my itinerary, I needed to find other ways of reaching it.

I did my basic homework, made my enquiries and sent my e-mails. It didn’t take long to finalise the necessary details for a 20 day tour – Delhi – Agra – Bharatpur – Jaipur – Goa – Mumbai. I contracted a reliable (did my research here) Delhi-based tour company, named Holidays to Treasure to look after most of my arrangements but for eight nights in Goa contacted my chosen beach resort direct. The owner of Holidays to Treasure, Sudhir Sachdeva, played for India as a spin bowler alongside the record-breaking Anil Kumble.

Note! The companies and hotels named in this report, have all be vetted and personally visited by myself and can be relied upon to deliver ‘exactly what’s on the label’.

Now to the tour itself.

I was met at Delhi airport by the representative of Holidays to Treasure and chauffeured in an air-conditioned car to my chosen hotel – the Crowne Plaza. It had been a good choice indeed. The room was immaculate, the staff always at hand and ready to serve and the public areas palatial, cool and a pleasure to be in. There was a mix of guests, the usual business types seen in all city hotels who blended easily with about the same proportion of tourists from many countries. Eating in any of its restaurants was pleasurable. Overall, the Crowne Plaza (3 star rated hotel) somewhat exceeded expectations. Its General Manager, Mr Tejpal Uberoi is always willing to receive suggestions and feedback from guests. I found that touch of personal involvement extremely refreshing.

For the next two days, my guide and the Company’s driver couldn’t do enough to ensure, that not only everything that they had been instructed to show me by Sudhir, but literally any other landmark or attraction I wished to visit, they would accommodate.

I found Delhi a juxtaposition of every kind of human activity imaginable. Around every corner there was something new (and often mind-boggling) to witness. Travelling the city by car was certainly a new experience. There is a rule for all who use the roads – only ONE as far as I could see…it was…’Get to wherever you are going to’. That meant a test of nerves, spirit and determination to become one of the rare breed of car owners, the bodywork of which still resembled that when driven from the showroom. Dents and scratches were second only to a million vehicles, whose drivers used the horn as a constant resting place for a hand.

But what a city! One of utter contrasts. The wide boulevards of New Delhi and its stately government buildings designed by Edwin Lutyens during the days of British rule are quite stunning, even today. Standing tall is India Gate, still a magnetic draw for tourists of all nationalities – often outnumbered by Indians.

Nearby is the beautiful tomb of Humayun, built in the Mogul era and the forerunner of the famous Taj Mahal. No visitor to Delhi should miss this wonder of artistic architecture.

In total contrast to this area is Old Delhi – the former centre of Mogul power. The entire city heaves with humanity. Impossibly narrow streets are crammed with bazaars offering everything from beautiful silverware to live chickens. Towering above the western edge of this labyrinth is the nearby Red Fort – its enormous proportions hard to absorb. It is still used by thousands of Muslims at prayer times.

After wandering around this sandstone marvel, I hopped aboard a cycle rickshaw, pedalled by an impossibly thin man, whose strength belied his physique. We twisted and turned, gave way to cattle and oxen; but not to the thousands of eager shoppers; and steered a mile-long square course back to where we started. My senses were bordering on overload by this time, having been infiltrated with a myriad of sights, sounds and smells. Would I have missed taking such a risk? Indeed I would! It’s impact has been deeply embedded.

Later that same afternoon, the car took me to one of the greatest mosques in all of India, that named Jama Masid, completed in 1658 by Shah Jahan (he who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal). To end a quite memorable day before returning to the hotel, I spent an hour or so in quiet contemplation at the simple and serene memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.

After a fulfilling breakfast the next day, it was time to move on. The 126 mile drive to Agra gave me ample opportunity to take-in the ever changing landscape of this part of India. Of course, having made my booking in the way I had, meant that I could simply request my driver to stop at any time to take photographs of camels or Hindu temples (or for personal ‘convenience’ reasons!) Negotiating directly with the likes of Holidays to Treasure, had negated the use of the ubiquitous crowded coach method of transporting clients from place to place and having to endure rigid timetables and stiff kneecaps.

The journey had been relaxed and interesting, so when arriving in Agra by lunchtime, it gave me the rest of the day to become oriented to the immediate area and find time for a refreshing swim and a laze around the hotel pool, while I made notes of what I had seen en route.

Having chosen The Gateway Hotel for my two-night stay in Agra, (albeit rated a three star) it was somewhat disappointing. There was little doubt that it was geared to cater for large groups sent by many tour operators around the globe. The food was acceptable but lacked variation and inspiration, with much repetition of dishes – even over a short two-night stay. The staff were polite enough and accommodating, however, their often ‘bored’ demeanour seemed to underline the ‘group-style’ catering mentality that I suspected held preference over the individual traveller’s preferences.

With the sights and sounds of the previous day still buzzing around my mind, I was treated to a short ‘introduction’ to what lay ahead, as my guide, sitting alongside the car driver, outlined the factual details of the Taj Mahal – our first destination of the morning. His words (or anyone else’s for that matter) could never have done justice to the sight that confronted me a half-hour later.

Poets, authors, dignitaries, philosophers and persons of repute have ‘waxed lyrical’ when first setting eyes on this wondrous feat of engineering and design. That it was built in the memory of a beloved wife became crystal clear to me when I stepped through a sculptured archway and stared open-mouthed at a shimmering edifice of unrequited love. I felt the urge to completely ignore the throngs of camera-clicking tourists that jockeyed for what they thought was ‘the best angle’. I wandered off the beaten track, found secluded vantage points behind leafy trees, aimed my lenses – and – when my eyes registered a picture not seen on a million postcards, let my index finger press downwards. I leave it to readers to decide if I had made wise choices?

By noon, the sun was approaching its zenith and the number of tourists was reaching saturation point. Satiated with the magnificence of such a building, I prompted my guide to take me to Agra’s Red Fort, which lay on the bend of the river Yamuna in the heart of the city. Built by Akbar between 1563 and 1573 this immense structure and its imposing gates add to the sense of power this Mogul Emperor wielded. In total contrast to what I had seen earlier, I was finding it difficult to concentrate and assimilate.

I needed rest. I needed time to reflect. I needed what I had seen in those few short hours to nestle and eventually gel into my memory banks. The only answer was to get to my hotel, don bathing trunks, float in pool with temperatures in the mid 80s and genuflect.

All that did for me however, was to nag. Nag, nag, nag, until I succumbed to the nagging, phoned my driver to tell him that I wanted more. ‘Can you drive me to the other side of Agra, where, at the going-down of the sun, I could see the Taj Mahal from across the river’ I asked him. I sensed him smiling when he answered, congratulating me for my wise decision to take the trouble to go to a spot where such a view was almost always ignored by the majority of tourists.

Almost alone, I watched that golden orb lose its fiery corona and sink towards the horizon, its warming rays now slanting on the western corner of the Taj Mahal, reflecting ‘diamonds’ of minute crystals and hues of creamy pink from its marble. With the softly lit sky as a backdrop I began switching my trigger finger from camcorder to SLR, trying to capture those magical moments.

With the rapidly on-coming dusk, it was time to leave. The car doors clicked shut and we were off. I did twist my neck around for a last look at the spires, the tops of which, seemingly reluctant to release the sun’s final light.

There cannot be any doubt, that to see with ones own eyes and feel with ones fingers, the beautifully decorated, opalescent stone is far removed from merely viewing photographs. I can indeed say, that my day at the Taj Mahal, was the highlight of my entire tour. However, those memories in no way detracted from the pleasures and sights yet to come.

I had decided (when planning) to break the long car journey (161 miles) from Agra to Jaipur, into two, more manageable stages. I wanted to see at least some of the old city of Fatehpur, founded by Akbar in 1571 but abandoned later due to a lack of water. Now a World Heritage site, there are still buildings, the architecture and construction, at which can be marvelled.

Content with what I saw, I continued south west, soliciting endless bits of information from my guide and driver. On arriving at the outskirts of Bharatpur, I admit to have been a little apprehensive, as there was little of beauty or interest whichever window I looked through. That was until the car turned right and was stopped at a pair of ornate wrought-iron gates by two uniformed ‘sentries?’ Like when arriving at any important establishment in India, security is taken seriously. The ‘sentries’ pushed a mirror attached to a pole under all parts of our car and when satisfied, smiled widely, opened the gates and with a slight bow, waved us through.

This was the moment when my ‘apprehension’ turned to delight. At the end of a beautifully manicured driveway stood Laxmi Vilas Palace (a Heritage Hotel). Built in 1887 for Raja Raghunath Singh, the younger brother of the Maharajah of Bharatpur, it now stands in regal splendour, surrounded by acres of carefully tended gardens. The architecture is stunning and the detail of construction and style of layout, are simply delicious. The current owner, Deep Raj Singh (grandson of the last Maharajah) and his family, have not only maintained the original Palace but have built an entire ‘replica’ as an attachment. The result is an identical ‘twin’, so carefully designed and constructed, that one is hard pressed to realise that the two parts are more than a century apart.

Everything about this hotel (sorry, I have to use that title!) dovetails nicely between what was – and the luxuries of today. Its rooms transport you back a century or two, yet the added modernities do not intrude.

In the late afternoon, I, together with a local ornithologist of repute, Sanjeev Bhatt, sat side by side on a cycle rickshaw, as it made its way slowly and almost silently, along the narrow trails within the famous Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary where over 300 species find refuge. Of course, we didn’t espy that many in the two hours we’d allocated but were treated to the sights of huge, rare eagles, flashing, blue kingfishers, parrots with striking colours and squawking calls, water fowl, herons, storks and a host of wild boar and various kinds of deer. Fascinating – enchanting and a very welcome contrast to that of always being surrounded by multitudes of people.

That evening, I dined on the paved terrace under a canopy of stars as efficient waiters tempted appetites and while costumed musicians enchanted ones ears. Not to be missed is the eclectic puppet show that makes you laugh and cry at the same time.

I had booked for one night only but regretted that decision when breakfasting the next morning. But even my ‘flexible’ itinerary couldn’t cater for such a whim. This time, I had to move on. The Pink City of Jaipur awaited me.

I really loved this city. So different to Delhi or Agra, so steeped in history, so full of stupendous examples of Mogul and Hindu architecture, where enormity and toil had not inhibited the visions and purpose of its founders.

Before I relate some of the sights that befell me, I will tell you a little about the hotel I had chosen for my two night stay.

The Hotel Park Prime is a modern structure located near the city centre. Like the hotel in Delhi, it caters for business travellers as well as tourists in about equal numbers. Classed as a ‘Premium’ hotel, it fully qualifies. I couldn’t find fault and the many guests I engaged in conversation, all gave it praise. I concluded, after a meeting with the General Manager, Rajesh Rajpurohit, that it must have been his influence, which had permeated down to all levels of staff.

Spending a hour by the roof-top swimming pool, is not only relaxing (and refreshing) but its location allows a 360 degree panoramic view of the entire city and its surrounding mountains. Truly awe inspiring, especially through binoculars, when the miles and miles of sandstone fortification walls atop those mountains, make one gasp at the amount of labour used to construct them.

Around and about.

The Amber Fort was to be first. Completed in the early 1700s, after over one hundred years of toil, it stands solidly atop a high ridge on the edge of the city. It is almost impossible to describe the immensity of this fort, or the only means of reaching its enormous gates…by elephant! Even a half-hour wait to board the next caparisoned animal at the foot of the ridge passed quickly, as I observed the trumpeting and antics of the elephants and their mahouts.

Once on board, the climb began. Nothing like being on the back of a horse. This swaying (side-saddle) seat took some getting used to – but despite the sensation and the quite remarkable sure-footedness of the beast, the upward trek came to an end when it padded softly through an archway and into an enormous paved square. The fort itself defies description, so I won’t even try. Go see for yourself!

In the afternoon (after lunching at a local cafe, sharing a mixed thali with my guide) we made our way into the city proper. There are exquisite palaces to wonder at, collections of ancient weapons to awaken the horrors of hand-to-hand combat, the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) where wall decoration is displayed at its most artistic and the open-air Jantar Mantar Observatory.

This latter wonder of ‘time’ is quite phenomenal. Not trying to explain Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ but ways of knowing the time. Here you can see and touch many examples of how to measure that time by the sun’s shadows. Quite remarkable is it not? to be able to confirm the exact time to the nearest second – by looking at a shadow line. Be it GMT or BST or USA Eastern Standard Time or Pacific Time it matters not. These instruments of astronomical design just do it!

I just found some of my own ‘time’ (after leaving the observatory) to do a little souvenir shopping, before returning to the hotel, taking a cooling swim as the sun went down, to prepare myself for a hotel’s special roof-top buffet and barbecue followed by a good night’s sleep. The next day was going to be very different.

Having not been a passenger on any Indian Domestic Airline before, I, quite naturally, was at least a little tense. Holidays To Treasure, had reserved a seat for me on Spice Jet, a budget airline for the flight to Goa. What was it like? Just fine. No problems, nice clean Boeing 737, smiling cabin crew and prompt take-off and landing times as scheduled. The price? Would you believe me if I told you it was far less than the cost of a car rental? Well, it was!

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