My Ten Favourite Places in India
I’d always dreamt of going to India, but being saddled with a job and a mortgage had held me back from any kind of lengthy travel. Getting made redundant (this was in 1991) was the best thing that could have happened to me, and I’m jolly grateful to Rupert Murdoch for it. While my colleagues all fretted about job security, the recession and an upcoming war, I sat at my desk poring over an atlas, planning my round-the-world trip. There was no doubt in my mind as to where I’d go first: India.
I flew into Bombay, as it was then, and promptly caught a flight down to Goa. I use the word ‘promptly’ in the loosest of senses, of course, because nothing’s ever prompt in India, but having arrived at six in the morning, I was on a flight by the afternoon, which was really very good going. Oh, how I loved Goa. The endless beach, the simple restaurants perched on the sand, my sparse but clean hotel room, the jewellery shops on the strip. It’ll all be unrecognisable now, I know – far more developed and mainstream – and so in many ways I don’t want to go back, but would rather hang on to my somewhat romanticised memories.
From Goa I took a train to Mysore before venturing down to Kerala, where I took the inevitable backwater trip and had my bottom pinched in Cochin. Then, with some sense of trepidation, I flew up to Udaipur, and The Real India . I did a relatively standard tour of Rajasthan, going from Udaipur to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, Pushkar, Jaipur, and then on to Agra, and the Taj Mahal. A four night camel safari in Jaisalmer was a highlight, losing my camera in Jaipur was a downer. But India is full of highs and lows – it’s part of the adventure. I got as far as Varanasi before being distracted and venturing into Nepal for a two week trek – possibly the subject of another hub. Then down to Calcutta – which was much nicer than I’d been expecting, and on to Madras, from where I caught the flight out to Singapore – a world apart.
Three months that little trip lasted, and I’d always wanted to go back. A business trip from Hong Kong took me to Delhi, but that didn’t seem to count. Then three years ago two things happened: I began writing an Indian-based novel I knew I couldn’t finish without another visit, and I got a windfall from an insurance company. This time I was travelling in the company of my boyfriend, which I thought would make life easier, and I was able to prepare ahead with the help of the internet. We stayed for a month, and spent all that time in the north. Despite my beloved one being ill and grumpy most of the time, it was a fabulous trip. A year later my mother requested a post-Christmas trip, and I caught myself escorting two septuagenarian ladies around Rajasthan, on my budget, not theirs.
There’s nowhere on earth like India – no matter how much of a cliché that sounds, it’s true. The colours, the smells, the sounds, the images – once you’ve experienced India, the rest of the world seems muted. Booking a train in five minutes in Thailand, I felt almost cheated – in India I’d have allowed an entire morning. And India’s chaos is part of her charm.
This is of course a subjective view, and it doesn’t include the south, but here are some of my favourite spots, in alphabetical order:
OK, let’s get this over with. If it weren’t for the Taj Mahal Agra just wouldn't be on the tourist map. It’s a dirty, polluted industrial city which just happens to host arguably the most beautiful monument in the world – and because of its popularity the city’s horrible – aggressive, overpriced, unattractive and, did I mention the pollution? It’s the one place where it’s worth paying extra for your hotel, because the cheap ones are terrible. The Lonely Planet even warns of food poisoning scams going on in restaurants, with crooked doctors sharing the spoils of customers’ travel insurance policies. But there’s the Taj Mahal, shimmering ethereally in the smog. If you’re a sucker, like I was with my mother, you spend around fifteen dollars each to go in; if you’re smart, like I was with my boyfriend, you nip round the back, and get much better photos for free. (You could always do both.)
A short drive from Jaipur, which, along with Agra, ranks as one of my least enjoyable Indian cities. Too touristy and aggressive by half, and I hate to say it, but the famed Palace of Winds is a terrible letdown. Eleven kilometres away, Amber feels like an oasis of calm by comparison. Imagine a rocky mountainside, on which sits a magnificent Rajput fort in a delicate shade of pink; a dreamy, romantic sort of place complete with mosaics, carved marble relief panels and intricate, elegant archways. Indulge in your Far Pavilions fantasies and enjoy.
A five hour journey north of Delhi, Amritsar is gloriously untouristy, but its Golden Temple – the holiest of Sikh shrines – is stunning enough, in my opinion, anyway, to rival the Taj Mahal. Here, you can walk, unbothered, around the Parkarma , or marble walkway, taking in the tranquillity and a genuine sense of reverence you don’t seem to find in other holy sites. It’s absolutely breathtaking in all lights, and the round-the-clock singing from the temple is mesmerizing. The architecture is a mix of Hindu and Islamic styles, and the dome is said to be made of 750 kg pure gold. Representing an inverted lotus flower, this is a symbol of the Sikhs’ aim to lead a pure life. For its beauty and elegance alone, it should be up there with the Taj Mahal.
A small Brahmin-blue town in Rajasthan, it takes a little work to get there (five-hour bus from Jaipur) but is well worth the effort. Built around a man-made lake, it’s the sort of place where children fly kites and monkeys bound across rooftops, pinching shoes and any washing left out by unsuspecting travellers. Not many shops, but plenty of temples and an extravagant old fort, slowly going to ruin. Rudyard Kipling spent some time here, and you can go and visit his lakeside house. Bundi is one of those places where not very much happens, and when you’re travelling for a few weeks, you need spots like that. Our hotel had installed solar-heated plumbing to be proud of – all the water in our bathroom came out scalding hot, even in the loo. One flush and the next occupant would get a nicely steamed butt.
A gorgeous sandstone desert fortress town, where it’s possible to take four-day camel treks if you feel inclined, Jaisalmer is mesmerizing – the whole city, not just the fort. Sadly, having allowed guesthouses and restaurants to establish themselves within the fort’s walls, the place is gradually crumbling away under the pressure of the requisite drainage system, a victim of its own popularity. Walk around the back streets and you’ll come across incredibly beautiful havelis – smart traders’ houses – a reminder of the old camel routes between India and Central Asia. And everything is coloured in a soft golden hue, and there are some gorgeous shops. It takes some effort (an overnight train) to get there, but it’s definitely worth it.
Jaipur’s lesser-known neighbour, but so much nicer! When I first went, I got off the train, took one look at the place and got the next train out. Going back three years ago, I totally fell in-love, and realised, to my embarrassment, that I’d simply been in the wrong bit. The medieval part of town is Brahmin blue with labyrinthine streets and alleyways, and is fascinating, even if the children relish hassling you. The vast Meherangarh Fort is fantastic, and with a brilliant audio guide, the place really comes alive. Whatever you do, don’t choose a hotel in the ‘modern’ part, which is soulless and dull.
Home to a collection of erotic temples, and an extraordinary spot. Built by the Chandelas between 950 – 1050 AD, they are a celebration of life, love and sexual pleasure. Khajuraho was abandoned while under threat from Afghan invaders, and fell into ruin, until discovered in 1838 by a certain TS Burt, a British Officer, who described the erotica as ‘a little warmer than was any absolute necessity for.’
One of those lovely, smaller places where you can relax a little, Orchha boasts a wonderful complex of palaces and temples, and is charmingly untouristy. We took the train from Agra to Jhansi, and got a car from there, and from Orchha it was about a four and a half hour drive to Khajuraho. Well worth the visit, and the smart hotel near ours served gin and tonics, which were highly appreciated by my oldies (not to mention, me). If I remember rightly, the tonic cost more than the gin.
When I first went to Pushkar it felt like an oasis of calm, a stunning white town built around a lake so holy Gandhi’s ashes were scattered there. These days it’s a lot busier, but as it’s essentially a pedestrian town, it’s still a lovely place to visit. There are temples aplenty, including one of the few Brahma temples in the world. Today the shopping area is really bustling and somewhat aggressive, but the lake itself remains tranquil, if you can avoid the monkeys and the pushy priests, who want you to pray with them (at enormous expense). There are some fantastic book shops and cafes, but for some reason Pushkar’s strict vegetarianism forbids eggs, so the bakeries are full of innovative egg-free cakes, pastries and brownies. We spent New Year's Eve here, and our host laid on fireworks and cans of 'special tea' (otherwise known as beer), which we had to hide under the table whenever his devout father appeared. The perfect place to stop off for a few days when you’re ready to put your feet up, read a good book and eat cake.
I’ve saved the best for last. The most extraordinary, evocative, mysterious, fascinating place on earth, unless you’re my boyfriend, who couldn’t get over the dirt and shit everywhere he looked or touched. Think of Don’t Look Now’s Venice and you’re kind of in Varanasi – the whole town’s built upon the banks of the Ganges, and lies shrouded in mist and mystery. Everyday life continues on the river – women washing their babies, men getting shaved, holy men performing contortions, packs of dogs splashing about – it all happens here. And most eerily there are the cremation ghats, or steps, where bodies are burned on funeral pyres, and dogs nurse their puppies in the cinders. Away from the river, the narrow medieval streets are fascinating, and the silk is renowned. There’s a slight edge to Varanasi so as dusk falls you don’t want to hang about, but that could be my imagination running wild. I can highly recommend the Open Hand Café on the Assi ghat, which sells stunning silks for the home and does a fine cafetière coffee with delicious cakes.
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So if you’re thinking of going to India, all I can say is go, go, GO, and have the time of your life!
With thanks to the Lonely Planet guide, for some of the historical details, and for refreshing my memory.