On our second morning in Rajasthan, we awoke to the sound of birds chattering, vendors barking and taxis beeping in the lane below our window. It was the merry din of an Indian city waking up to a busy day.
We rolled over, relished the cool serenity of our hotel room, and resolved to take the morning off from being tourists. And why not? Our “hotel’’ was a 16th-century Rajput palace — an elegant compound of shaded cloisters, winding stone passageways and domed turrets.
In short, a museum in itself.
Without realizing it, we had devised a strategy for coping with India. You visit this remarkable country knowing you are plunging into a maelstrom — birthplace of two great religions, home to countless temples and palaces, a society that throbs with the energy of 1.2 billion people.
But you also risk jet lag, malaria, dysentery, smog, sleep deprivation, dehydration and pure sensory overload from constant immersion in colors, smells, sounds and crowds.
Sometimes you just need a break. Fortunately, India offers these, too, in rich profusion. And so we soon fell into a comfortable rhythm: a morning foray into India’s pulsing markets, slums and historic sites followed by retreat into the tranquillity of a temple, mosque or garden.
In a wonderful book called “The Last Mughal,” historian William Dalrymple describes the royal procession that rode across Delhi on the evening of April 2, 1852. Elephants, camels, torchbearers, drummers and princes on horseback issued from the Lahore Gate of the great Red Fort to commemorate one of the last royal weddings of the Mogul dynasty.
Today you can walk that same historic route. You will share it with beggars and rickshaws rather than elephants and princes, but it’s still a riveting introduction to India past and present.
An essential starting point is Lal Qila, the Red Fort, whose imposing sandstone walls enclose the royal compound of Shah Jahan, who came to power in the 17th century as the fifth of the great Mogul emperors. The gardens and pavilions are a bit decrepit today — a hint that India’s Hindu majority lies uneasy with the great Muslim chapters of its past. But it nonetheless showcases Mogul architecture — the signature peaked archways, lace marble screens and floral inlay walls — and it conveys the splendor of an emperor who ruled 10 percent of the world’s population.
Leaving by the Lahore Gate, you cross a busy plaza and plunge into Chandni Chowk, a commercial artery that runs through the heart of Old Delhi. In this pulsing bazaar you can buy anything: silver bracelets, Persian slippers, Nike T-shirts, beaded necklaces, baby shoes, incense, chewing gum, Pashmina scarves, brass statues of Ganesh, a lamb kebab, a shave, a head massage, bumper stickers with Shiva.
On advice of our friend and host Grace Morgan, we hired bicycle rickshaws to navigate the throng. The lanes are so jammed with scooters, pushcarts, bicycles, donkey carts, pedestrians, panhandlers and other shoppers that you can’t take it in unless you leave the driving to someone else.
The ride was occasionally heart-stopping, but the experience was spellbinding.
Even after the relative luxury of a rickshaw, we were soon ready for some peace and quiet. We found it in Lodi Gardens, a quiet, stately park in south Delhi. Its winding paths, lined with magnolias and boxwoods, are popular with joggers and walkers in the morning mist, and soon you fall into their meditative pace.
But the park also opens another chapter of Indian history, for it is dotted with handsome tombs built by the Sayyid and Lodi sultanates, the royal families that preceded the Moguls. Though we sought Lodi Gardens as an antidote to urban hubbub, it was so beautiful that I would add it to my list of must-visit sights in Delhi.
On our last morning in Mumbai, I got up early to catch sunrise at the Gateway of India, a huge ceremonial arch overlooking the city’s harbor. The arch was built to commemorate the 1911 visit of England’s King George V and Queen Mary, but it also served as a departure point for the last troops of the British Raj, so it captures both the grandeur and the tragedy of British colonialism.
Rising early paid off: The vast plaza was empty but for a few pigeons, and the rising sun lit the basalt arch in tones of gold and pink.
Most guidebooks describe Mumbai as a city for eating and shopping, not high culture, and that was our experience. Still, the Fort District near the Gateway arch provides a magnificent walking tour of what has been called the world’s greatest collection of Victorian Gothic architecture.
Among the highlights: the Taj Mahal Hotel, a massive balconied facade that rivals New York’s Plaza Hotel for sheer splendor; the imposing but graceful Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum) where palm trees sway above the sweeping front lawn; and farther north, the Victoria Terminus, a massive railway station whose exterior bristles with cupolas, spires and gargoyles.
You can complete that tour in an hour or two, but it means navigating some of India’s busiest streets — broad avenues that swarm with taxis, lorries, motor-rickshaws, food vendors, cows and pedestrians. By the time we finished, we felt we had shared our morning with all of India’s 1.2 billion citizens, and we were ready for some approximation of solitude. We found it on the Oval Maidan, a huge lawn ringed by palm trees that serves as a public garden for this part of the city.
On weekdays the Oval provides a respite from the city and a spot to view some of Mumbai’s finest architecture. A row of enchanting Art Deco apartment buildings lines the west side and the University of Bombay’s Gothic towers rise above the trees on the east. On Sundays, Mumbai’s impassioned cricket players take over, and the vast lawn is bats and balls as far as the eye can see.
On the day we visited Jaipur’s great Amer Fort, our guide was in a hurry. The elephants go off duty at 11 a.m. — before the heat of the day — and if we wanted a ride we had to get there early. Assured that the elephants are not mistreated but feeling more than a little sheepish, we climbed aboard a great gray mount for a winding, swaying and unforgettable climb to the fort’s high ramparts.
Of all the palaces we saw during 18 days in India, this was the showstopper — a hilltop fortress that overlooks its own artificial lake and an abandoned medieval village below. It was in this palace, begun by Rajah Man Singh in 1592, where the Moguls’ signature architecture met Hindu motifs of lotuses and elephant heads, where royals cavorted in mirrored chambers and water-cooled gardens. From its upper towers you look down not just on ceremonial plazas and royal apartments, but on fortified walls that climb up and down the Aravali hills so far into the distance that you think you’re looking at the Great Wall of China.
Even a palace, however, can get crowded. When the tour was over, we retired to a palace of our own, two hours away in the village of Deogarh. The Deogarh Mahal, built in 1670 by one of the district’s 16 feudal families, today operates as one of India’s many “heritage hotels,” genuine royal palaces that have been converted for tourists. Others are more elegant — the Samode Haveli in Jaipur, for example, or the unforgettable Lake Palace in Udaipur.
But here you feel as if the royal family just left — you can imagine a young princess composing a letter at your writing desk or running a bath in the vast marble bathroom. In fact, they haven’t entirely left: Descendants of the Singh family still occupy one wing of the mahal and will share their history over afternoon tea if your timing is right.
As evening closed in, we sat on one of the mahal’s countless rooftop terraces, a fire burning in a caldron as two young women in saris and ankle bells swirled through a Rajasthani dance. The waiter came around with spicy snacks and cool drinks, the fire crackled and sparked, and by the time darkness fell, we felt recharged for the next day’s plunge.
Dave Hage • 612-673-7108