From the ever-changing hues of the Pink City to leopard hunting in the verdant hills of Aravalli, Gill Charlton traverses the vibrant tapestry of Indian icons waiting to be discovered in Rajasthan
The romance, artistry and sheer magnificence of India’s cultural heritage is encapsulated by the Taj Mahal and the great forts and palaces of Rajasthan. Jaipur and Udaipur are stage sets that conjure up storybook India, a land where fabulously wealthy Hindu kings fought and loved and indulged their fondness for pomp and ceremony. Like Italian dukes, they vied with each other to build bigger and better, employing the finest artisans and eye-wateringly expensive materials.
A journey to these remarkable sights and cities is on almost every traveller’s wish list. But it needs to be planned with care and imagination. Not only is it vital that your visit to the Taj Mahal isn’t marred by the crowds, but for a rewarding holiday you also need to do more than dash from one highlight to another.
To see Rajasthan in the most relaxing and enjoyable way possible, I’ve set out a perfect itinerary based on travelling in your own chauffeured car. This is not as expensive an option as you might think and is by far the most flexible and comfortable way to travel. It also allows you to move at a sensible pace to avoid fort-and-temple fatigue and gives plenty of opportunities to escape the tourist hordes.
In villages deep in the green Aravalli Hills, life has barely changed in over a thousand years. Potters, carpenters, cobblers and silversmiths still ply their trades and farmers keep fine herds of cattle and goats. Visits to Chhatra Sagar and Narlai, where you can engage with traditional village life while staying in comfortable heritage hotels, are a must. There you’ll discover a modern India that is vibrant, spiritual, outgoing and perpetually fascinating.
I’ve hand-picked some of the best guides, too. Recently in Jaipur I walked out with Vineet Sharma, a former banker who loves his city and isn’t interested in taking you to be ripped off by local shopkeepers. On his walk I learned more about the practice of Hindu worship and its competing sects than in all the books I’ve ever read. Along the way we sampled the city’s best street food and watched carvers working on life-size statues in marble from the same quarry that was used to build the Taj Mahal. It’s experiences like these that you’ll remember long after the gem-encrusted ceiling of a maharajah’s palace has faded from your memory.
Start your adventure by checking into The Claridges, a small four-star hotel in the leafy heart of New Delhi. Stretch your legs post-flight in the neighbouring Lodi Gardens, landscaped around 16th-century royal cenotaphs.
Dancing with the Taj
Don’t rush Agra. Even with the new expressway, the journey from Delhi takes four hours door to door. Stay at The Trident for its superior service, pretty garden and excellent pastries.
Emperor Shah Jehan’s ethereal memorial to his beloved wife never fails to astonish. Guides are an unnecessary distraction
The Taj Mahal is ridiculously crowded in the afternoons. Instead cross the Yamuna River to Itmad-ud-Daulah’s tomb, a marble confection that predates the Taj. Afterwards take a 90-minute Mughal Heritage Walk through the farming community of Kachhpura, led by USAID-trained villagers. The walk ends at the peaceful Mehtab Bagh garden, which faces the Taj Mahal across the river and is the perfect place to watch the sun turn its marble pink.
The next morning, it’s time for the Taj, which opens at dawn. It’s worth getting to the East Gate around half an hour beforehand to be among the first to enter. Instead sit on the lawn and marvel at its peerless perfection.
Agra Fort has more architectural treats for later in the day: a set of 16th-century palaces, pleasure gardens and audience halls from where the Mughals ruled their empire. Shah Jehan spent his last years in a marble prison here with a framed view of the Taj Mahal.
Jaipur’s pink stone palaces
It’s a five-hour drive on a busy highway from Agra to Jaipur, the state capital of Rajasthan, but you get a break after only an hour at Akbar’s model palace in Fatehpur Sikri. It has astonishing verve and delicacy for a work in red sandstone. Don’t leave without visiting the elegant mosque and Sufi shrine across the way. Another extraordinary site nearer Jaipur is the 9th-century Chand Baori in Abhaneri, one of the largest stepwells in India. Jaipur has a plethora of good heritage hotels but the Samode Haveli gets my vote for its warm welcome, candlelit dining and large, characterful rooms (the glass-mosaic Shish Mahal suite is spectacular).
Awake early the next day for an early-morning walk dipping into neighbourhood temples and havelis and meeting all kinds of artisans. Jaipur is a rare planned city, laid out in 1727 on a grid. At its heart is the City Palace, still home to the former royal rulers. It’s worth the extra USD30 to tour part of the maharajah’s private quarters with a personal guide. Employ him afterwards to explain the Jantar Mantar, a garden of giant astronomical instruments including the world’s largest stone sundial.
Finish the day at Narain Niwas Palace. Several of Jaipur’s most stylish shops – Hot Pink, Anantaya and Kanota, to name a few – trade in its grounds selling real pashminas, block prints and artisan homewares. The convivial Bar Palladio is here, too: open from 4pm for sundowners and supper.
Rural life and revered lakes in Chhatra Sagar
After such a big dose of heritage, it’s time to retreat to the countryside. Drop into Pushkar for lunch. It’s a mini Varanasi with shrines and hippie hangouts set around a revered lake. Two hours to the west lies the inimitable Chhatra Sagar, one of my top five places to stay in India. A luxury tented camp set above a lake, it’s impeccably run by brothers Harsh and Nandi Singh, their wives and cousins, who host campfire drinks and serve refreshingly light Indian home cooking.
The morning village tour from Chhatra Sagar is the best I’ve done in India. It’s led by cousin Raj, who introduces you to farmers, shepherds, potters and schoolchildren living in this deeply traditional community. In the afternoon, binoculars are provided for a nature walk around the lake, home to over 200 species of bird. The night sky is magnificent here.
Leopards and kingfishers of Narlai
Narlai is a small town deep in the Aravalli Hills where leopards still roam and Hindu priests blow conch shells to announce prayers. Check into Rawla Narlai, a 17th-century royal retreat run by Gareema Gautam, a rare female manager for whom nothing is too much trouble. Climb the 700 steps to the top of Elephant Hill for a big-sky sunset and to work up an appetite for the hotel’s magical lamplit stepwell dinner.
Join a dawn Jeep safari in search of the leopards that prowl the granite outcrops. Horse riding and guided town tours are also offered but most guests flop beside the pool before heading out for a lakeside tea with the storks, spoonbills and kingfishers.
Udaipur’s pretty palaces
Stay in a lake-facing room at Jagat Niwas Palace, the best of the ‘haveli’ hotels; its rooftop bar and restaurant overlook the Lake Palace.
Udaipur is the prettiest of Rajasthan’s cities and small enough to explore on foot. The rambling City Palace opens at 9.30am but wait an hour to avoid the tour-group crush in the exquisitely decorated smaller rooms. There’s a superb collection of Indian miniature paintings near the end of the tour. Have lunch at lakeside Ambrai, one of the city’s best restaurants (in the grounds of Amet Haveli), before taking a boat ride on Lake Pichola.
New Delhi and the British Raj
Tourists are often taken to Old Delhi for a whirl around Chandni Chowk in a rickshaw and visits to the Red Fort (similar to Agra Fort) and the Jama Masjid (similar in style to Fatehpur Sikri’s mosque). The crowds, the air quality and the horrendous traffic can make this a disappointing day. A spin around New Delhi is a more rewarding experience so take a morning flight back and get ready to drive around the monuments of New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the 1920s as the new capital of the British Raj, before turning the clock back 400 years at the tomb of the second Mughal emperor Humayun. Finish the day with a spot of shopping at Khan Market, a favourite with expats: try Anoukhi for block-print tunics, Full Circle for books and Good Earth for clothing and homewares. Bed down for your final night at The Claridges.
Gill Charlton/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing