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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An Exotic Labyrinth of Canals and Lagoons
Isolated, peaceful, and staggeringly beautiful, the southern coastal state of Kerala is one of India’s unpromoted treasures, a gentle, floral alternative to the harsher Himalayas or the Rajasthan desert in the north. The twisting kayals, the jungle-shrouded backwater canals and lagoons that lie inland, connect sheltered villages and are often just wide enough for your canoe.
They’re the only way to reach secluded Coconut Lagoon Village, an enclave of thirty gracious tarawads (traditional carved wooden bungalows made without nails, some of them more than 400 years old) that were painstakingly dismantled and moved here along the cool banks of the backwaters. This is a place for lazy R&R in the shade of a nutmeg tree.
Few cultural sites demand your attention, and the Ayurvedic health clinic offers restorative treatments and massages incorporating herbal oils made from the exotic spices that first drew Vasco da Gama to Kerala’s shores in 1498.
A stopover in Cochin is a must. The fascinating capital has been a trading port for more than 1,000 years, and is composed of a cluster of islands surrounded by a network of rivers, lakes, and estuaries. It is home to a unique culture and courteous people. Be sure to have dinner at the Fort Cochin Restaurant in the Casino Hotel, considered one of the finest eateries in southern India.
A Glimpse of Tibet Against a Lunar Landscape
Also known as Little Tibet and Moon Land, the awe-inspiring high-altitude plateau of Ladakh is tucked between the world’s two highest mountain ranges, the Karakoram and the Great Himalayas.
Politically Indian but geographically Tibetan, it shares age-old cultural and religious ties with the latter, and though it was closed to tourism until 1974, it’s now attracting visitors who are drawn to the region but put off by the troubles in Tibet to the north and east and in the Kashmir Valley to the west.
The flight to Leh, the region’s capital, is one of the most spectacular in the world of aviation sightseeing, and graphically illustrates the area’s otherworldly remoteness. Likewise the 305-mile ride from Leh south to Manali, in the state of Himachal Pradesh, is a hard-to-forget trip that crosses four mountain passes on the world’s second-highest motorable road.
This can only be topped (literally) by the newly opened Nubra Valley, Ladakh’s “Valley of Flowers,” which requires a journey over Khardungla Pass – at 18,383 feet, it is the world’s highest drivable road.
In a Former Summer Capital, a Relic of the Raj
In the 19th century, the British may have ruled India, but the real arbiter of day-to-day life, even for them, was the heat, which Kipling called “the central fact of India.” To carry on business during the summer months, British officials would take to the northern hills of Simla, where melting snows kept the temperature tolerable and Victorian architecture, gardens, and entertainment re-created the sceptered isle they’d left behind.
Chapslee, a stately, decidedly British ivory-colored manor house, was built in 1835, in the lap of the Himalayas at 7,000 feet. From the start, it offered the kind of princely living and grand hospitality demanded by the sahibs of yore and still found today, and a decor of Gobelin tapestries, Venetian chandeliers, Persian carpets, and an imposing portrait of the present owner’s great-grandfather, the former maharaja of the state of Kapurthala.
Today, Simla is one of India’s most venerated British-built hill stations, and provides an imperial starting point for visitors exploring one of India’s most beautiful states, Himachal Pradesh, a rural landscape dotted with remote Hindu and Buddhist temples and communities whose ceremonies, fairs, and festivals liven the summer months.
For the Palates of Princes and Peasants
India has one of the world’s great cuisines, and the country’s luxury hotel restaurants have become social hubs and gastronomic destinations for local businessmen and families as well as visiting foreigners.
New Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton has no rivals, offering the day-and-night selection of two of India’s best-known restaurants. Dum Pukht’s elegant and airy decor reflects the cuisine’s royal origins as the refined court food of the 18th-century nawabs of Avadh. This little-known, delicate cuisine uses steam to slowly cook sealed vessels of finely cut meats and vegetables until they’re ready to melt in your mouth.
The Bukhara restaurant is radically different, offering robust and informal food and a hunting-camp atmosphere of stone walls, wooden-trestle tables, and a glassed-in kitchen that’s always good for a show. The food is no less exquisite, but the emphasis is on perfectly prepared tandoori – originally made for peasants but fit for a king.