India

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in India.

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Trekking in Sikkim – Gangtok, Sikkim, India

Isolated Splendor No Longer Off-Bounds

One of the least touristed of India’s twenty-two states, Sikkim is bordered by Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. Sikkim is still regarded as one of the last Himalayan Shangri-las, a palace where ancient Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are perched on almost every out­crop of the awesome mountain landscape.

The last Namgyal Chogyal (king) made headlines in 1963 by marrying an American; their daughter, Hope, has chosen to return to the country she loves and to operate TrekSikkim out of Gangtok, the provincial capital.

Hope has trekked since the age of five and leads most of the trips through these foothills of the eastern Himalayas, where mountains aren’t even named unless they’re over 20,000 feet. Straddling the border of Nepal and Sikkim is the sacred Mount Kanchenjunga (its Tibetan name means “Five Treasure Houses of the Great Snow Mountain” for its five peaks), rising to 28,146 feet – the third highest mountain in the world and wor­shipped as a guardian deity.

The land is a botanist’s fantasy: during a typical trek, you can pass from subtropical jungle to alpine meadow within hours. There are 454 species of orchids and 46 varieties of rhododendrons here, and magnolias and luxuriant forests abound.

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The City Palace and the Lake Palace – Udaipur, Rajasthan, India

Twin Palaces in a City of Dreams

Udaipur has a profusion of palaces, temples, and cenotaphs, ranging from the modest to the extravagant. But nowhere are the power, pride, and wealth of the local maharanas (outside Udaipur called maharajas) more evident than at the immense City Palace.

Onetime residence of Udaipur’s princely ruler and the largest palace complex in Rajasthan, this is a conglomeration of elaborately deco­rated buildings and private apartments with additions by subsequent maharanas. Sitting high on the banks of artificial, mountain-ringed Lake Pichola, the palace’s balconies, towers, and cupolas offer excellent views. There is a small museum, but it is the rambling, honey-colored palace itself that is worth seeing; the present maharana still resides in a private cor­ner, but you can live royally in what once was the guesthouse, now the deluxe Shiv Niwas Hotel.

Spacious accommodations with views of the lake once welcomed the Shah of Iran, the King of Nepal, and Roger Moore, who lived here for several months while filming the James Bond movie Octopussy in 1982. The antique fixtures and furnishings in the imperial suites are from the maharana’s pri­vate collection, and the enormous beds match their scale within the pampering walls of this magical hotel.

The maharana of Udaipur’s summer resi­dence, the white marble Lake Palace, is now entirely leased out as a hotel, having been con­verted (so rumors say) at the suggestion of Jacqueline Kennedy. Other hotels may be grander and have flashier accoutrements, but none moves the spirit like this one.

Built in the 18th century on a small island in the middle of Lake Pichola, it’s one of the world’s most romantic escapes, decorated with multicolor mosaics, mirror work, and inlaid tiles, and embellished with gardens, lily ponds, court­yards, and fountains. The most romantic rooms are those facing the City Palace across the lake.

The location weaves its spell, whether at breakfast on an open veranda or while having a nightcap while the moon illuminates the water. A sunset cruise on one of the hotel’s pri­vate launches glides past another palace, the Jag Mandir. Built in 1624 for a young Shah Jahan, future emperor and creator of the Taj Mahal, it now sits uninhabited, hinting of past splendors and royal ghosts.

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Samode Hotels – Samode, Rajasthan, India

Country Palace, City Mansion

You won’t be the first to think the exquisite Samode Palace Hotel would make a perfect film set: Hollywood used it in The Far Pavilions and so have numerous Hindi movies. This jewel box of a palace was built in the 18th century as a luxurious country retreat in the farming village of Samode, outside Jaipur. The elaborately painted and enameled public rooms and sumptuous Diwan-i-Khas Hall may make you welcome the less opulent guest rooms for their comparatively plain decor.

Less palatial and overwhelming than its country sister, the stately Samode Haveli, tucked away in a quiet corner of bustling Jaipur, was built as a city residence for a prime minister of the royal court. Retreat to any of its three amazing suites, with their orig­inal colored windows, mirror inlay, archways, and frescoes of flowers and idle court life scenes, for a taste of the princely pleasures of Old Jaipur.

Both hotels are privately owned and run by the Samode Royal family, descen­dants of the aristocrats who built the Samode Palace. Their two remarkable properties offer a complete town-and-country idyll.

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The Pushkar Camel Fair – Pushkar, Rajasthan, India

A Tribal Gathering Unlike Any Other

In Rajasthan, livestock breeding flourished under the maharajas, who main­tained legions of camels for warfare. The departure of those bellicose rulers and the arrival of the automobile largely sidelined the camel, but you can still see the legacy of those times at the annual Pushkar Camel Fair. It is one of the largest animal markets in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, and it’s unequaled for color, music, costume, and festivities.

Rajasthan has the largest concentration of tribal people in India, and they converge by the tens of thousands on the small town of Pushkar each November before the full moon (coinciding with the religious Kartik Poornima festival) to parade, race, trade, and sell their prized dromedaries, which have been groomed and festooned for the occasion.

Rajasthanis are known for their love of brilliant colors, so the human participants outshine the steeds with their jewelry and brilliantly colored saris and turbans, which helps to explain the festival’s popularity with foreign tourists, filmmakers, and photogra­phers. More like a nonstop carnival, with acrobats, bazaars, and dancing under the stars, it is one of the most important annual fairs in this desert state.

For Hindus, Pushkar is an important pilgrimage center; the lake is said to have sprung from the spot where the god Brahma dropped a sacred lotus, and more than 1,000 temples now line its banks. At dawn on the day of the full moon, pilgrims gather to bathe in the lake.

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Umaid Bhawan Palace – Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

A Mammoth Pink Monument to the Twilight Days of the Maharajas

India’s most colorful state, Rajasthan isn’t called the Land of Kings for nothing. Rambling palaces and forts are everywhere, most converted into intriguing hotels after the maharajas were stripped of their regal stipends but allowed to keep their real estate.

After a while many of them begin to blur together in the minds of travelers, so if you begin to feel a bit blasé – “another day, another palace” – refresh yourself by pulling up to the most imposing of them all: the Anglo-Indian Umaid Bhawan Palace, one of the largest private resi­dences ever built. This last of the royal palaces employed 3,000 artisans and laborers for fifteen years as a famine-relief project organized by Maharaja Umaid Singh for his subjects.

The current maharaja, grandson of Umaid Singh, keeps one extensive wing for his family, leaving the rest for a museum of glorious paintings and armor and setting aside 55 of the palace’s 347 grandest rooms as a deluxe hotel, opened in 1971. The building, extravagant even by maharaja standards, is unique for its Art Deco details, which reflect both the period and the British architect’s tastes. The pink buff sandstone was chiseled and interlocked without the use of mortar – something to ponder while standing beneath the palace’s lofty 135-foot-high central dome.

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Jaisalmer – Rajasthan, India

A Giant Sand Castle in the Heart of the Great Indian Desert

Known as the Golden City, this former caravan center on the route to the Khyber Pass rises from a sea of sand, its 30-foot crenellated walls and medieval sandstone fort sheltering carved spires and palaces that soar into the sapphire sky.

With its tiny winding lanes and hidden temples, Jaisalmer is straight out of The Arabian Nights, and so little has life changed here that it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the city’s early days, in the 13th cen­tury. It’s the only fortress city in India still functioning, with one quarter of its population living within the original walls, and it is just far enough off the beaten path to have been spared the worst ravages of tourism.

The city’s wealth originally came from the heavy levies it placed on camel caravans that passed through, and merchants and townspeople built hand­some havelis (Rajput mansions elaborately carved from the local golden stone). Stay in the Narayan Niwas Palace, a former caravansary built by the maharaja in 1840, and sign up for one of their camel safaris into the desert, a highlight for tourists who want the complete Jaisalmer experience.

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Palace of Winds – Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Where Royal Concubines Watched the World Go By

Pink is the Rajput color of hospitality, and Jaipur, India’s “Pink City,” is a worthy home for Hawa Mahal, the five-story, salmon-pink “palace of winds,” adorned with delicate floral motifs and filigree windows. It’s really nothing more than an elegant facade, just one room thick, from which the ladies of the royal household could enjoy the breeze while viewing state processions or the parade of everyday life below.

Visitors today can climb to the top for a view of the Old City’s main street from any of Hawa Mahal’s myriad honeycombed windows. In the late afternoon light, variations of pinks, oranges, and the salmon-rust color of the sand­stone palace take on a special glow, comple­mented by the colorfully dressed Rajasthanis. It is part of the City Palace complex, a rambling, exotic blend of Rajasthani and Mughal archi­tecture executed by master craftsmen, and is a fascinating place to wander, made all the more evocative by the presence of the former maharaja, who lives on a high floor.

To escape the teeming carnival of street life, repair to the exquisite Rajvilas hotel, where the fantasy of Rajasthan’s princely life lives on. This 30-acre oasis of exotic pavil­ions, gardens, pools, and fountains with a pink fortress at its heart looks as if it has always been here, although it only opened in 1998. The use of ancient crafts and skilled work­manship supports the illusion of India as it was. Try one of the teak-floored, ultra-luxury desert tents.

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Taj Mahal Hotel – Bombay (Mumbai), Maharashtra, India

A Bewitching Landmark

A Bombay (now Mumbai) landmark since 1903, the Taj Mahal Hotel is India’s most famous and probably its best, a Victorian extravaganza that faces the Arabian Sea and was in its day a rival of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, welcoming luminaries such as Mark Twain. (“A bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place,” he wrote.)

The Bombay elite tend to use the Taj as a private club, with splendidly uniformed doormen ushering locals and guests into the deliciously cool, gleaming white marbled interior of the elegant Old Wing. The high staff-to-guest ratio and white-glove service make this an ideal escape from the throbbing, whirling realities of the hot and humid city, with its population of 12 million.

Balconied rooms on the high floors of the Old Wing are the place to stay, with calming views of the sea, the Gateway of India (the arched monument built by the British to welcome King George V in 1911), the bay, and the hills beyond. The Tanjore Restaurant may offer the best tradi­tional Indian meal in town, accompanied by sitar music and classical dance.

This was the first hotel in the Taj Group, which now owns more than sixty hotels in India and abroad. An adjoining thirty-story modern wing built in 1972 lacks the historical ambience but offers the same views.

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The Cave Temples of Northern Maharashtra – Ajanta and Ellora, Maharashtra, India

An Architectural Achievement of Mysterious Power

Bombay (Mumbai) may be the pulsating commercial heart of Maharashtra, but its soul lies in the interior around Aurangabad and its astonishing hand-hewn cave temples, which offer riches comparable to those of the Taj Mahal.

Dozens of chaityas (temples) and viharas (monasteries) were carved from solid rock faces; some were decorated with lavishly painted frescoes and statues, others with breathtaking architectural intricacy and detail.

The thirty Buddhist temples of Ajanta date from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 650 but were virtually forgotten until the 19th century, which probably accounts for their excellent state of preservation.

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The interior of The Ajanta Cave Temple

Whereas the Ajanta caves are known for their paintings, the thirty-four rock-cut temples of nearby Ellora are sculptural masterpieces. Their creation was a feat equivalent to carving an entire cathedral – interior and exterior, roof to roof – out of solid rock.

It is believed that the Buddhist creators of Ajanta moved here after their work was finished there: of Ellora’s thirty-four caves, the twelve earliest, begun in A.D. 600, are Buddhist. They are followed by seventeen Hindu and five Jain temples.

The pièce de résistance is the Kailash Temple, whose dimensions and complexity astound: At almost 10,000 square feet, it covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens and is half again as tall. It has been estimated that approximately 200,000 tons of rock were removed to create this single cave temple.

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The Temples of Khajuraho – Madhya Pradesh, India

Erotic Tableaux in the Middle of Nowhere

In this sleepy little town a long way from anywhere, a century-long burst of creativity during the dynasty of the Chandela kings (around A.D. 1000) resulted in the construction of more than eighty-five temples, of which twenty-two remain, decorated with long run­ning friezes that intersperse day-to-day scenes with military processions.

Khajuraho is most renowned, however, for its profusion of sensual and erotic friezes and sculptures, in which celestial maidens pout and pose while other figures engage in every imaginable position of the Kama Sutra. These sculptures are great jubilant paeans to life, with an extraordinary explicitness that makes them as remarkable today as they must have been when they were first unveiled.