10 Nov 2016
There’s no other word. India – the country that gave the world curry, the Mahatma Gandhi, the incomparable Taj Mahal and some of the planet’s most colourful festivals is incredible. Be forever touched by the vibrancy, gaiety and friendliness of India and the people you meet. And that’s just the start of it. Then there are the incredible sights, the food, the extraordinary hotels and the experiences that can be had in this magical land.
Where to start
It makes sense to start in Delhi or the charismatic city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Plan to spend around 2 weeks in India. It’s worth it. And be sure to avoid Monsoon, which sweeps up from the south around May, and rings out until late September. Don’t be swayed by impossibly priced deals that on closer inspection are for travel and touring in the months of June, July, August or September. At these times of the year, you’d be better touring the country in some places by boat or at least donning a pair of floaties. It rains like there is no tomorrow during Monsoon. The absolute best time to visit is between October and April. The weather gets progressively warmer between March and April, but importantly conditions remain dry.
Where to go
Be sure to visit the land of the Rajputs – the princely state of Rajasthan which boasts the state capital of Jaipur – a city painted a welcoming pink to welcome the future King George V and the idyllic and relaxing lake city of Udaipur. Just over the state border is the legendary Taj Mahal (more on that further below) and due east are the crazy Temples of Khajuraho and the beating heart of the Hindu universe – Benares, perhaps better known as Varanasi. These places make for an ideal first visit. Then there is Bikaner, Jaisalmer – a fabled fort city, the blue city of Jodhpur and the various national parks. Ranthambhore, Corbett’s (Rudyard Kipling penned his masterpiece ‘The Jungle Book’ here), Pench, Bandhavgarh and Kanha are the bastion of the Bengal tiger and other fauna and avifauna species.
Resting one’s weary head
India just about invented the concept of luxury. Brands such as TAJ and Oberoi hotels represent some of the most fabulous hostelries on earth. The TAJ Lake Palace, The Imperial in Delhi and Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan are three of India’s finest hotels. Right across the north, and in particular Rajasthan, it’s possible to stay in authentic palaces, castles, forts and havelis (courtyard mini palaces). The scope and breadth of accommodation will enchant even the most jaded of travellers.
It sounds worryingly exotic, but butter chicken, yes an unctuous mildly spiced curry mopped up with flaky, straight of the tandoor cheese naan will set your taste buds adrift on memory bliss.
Vindaloo and beef curry are European incarnations of curry. Except in South India where the marriage of chili and coconut creates a hot, yet tempered style, Indian curries are not served so hot as to burn a patchwork quilt through your palate. Think aromatic. And, under the tenets of Hinduism, the cow is sacred, so even McDonalds will not serve an all-beef patty. The Maharajah Mac is an all-chicken patty, with the same special sauce and double cut sesame seed bun. McHappy Meals comprise snacks that will float the boats of local kids – curry puffs or tandoori chicken bites! Lamb, chicken and vegetable curries are common in the north, whilst in coastal regions, fish is a welcome addition. Pork is also served in Goan Xacuti – a complex spiced curry popular in Goa, no less. It’s here in Goa, that around 19 million people are subscribers to the tenets of Catholicism.
Built for love
A grand measure of the bereft Shah Jahan’s enduring inconsolability for his beloved Mumtaz who died in childbirth, the mausoleum best known as the Taj Mahal is arguably India’s most famous attraction. Constructed by a workforce of more than 20,000 as an integrated complex of structures containing gardens, reflecting pools, gateways, inns and a mosque, the Taj Mahal represents the finest example of Mughal architecture. The mausoleum is constructed of solid white marble with fine pietra dura, panels featuring fine calligraphy and tiles. Legend has it, Shah Jahan has planned to construct just across the river a mausoleum for himself in precious black marble, but warring with his sons prevented this. The couple are interred for eternity in a relatively unadorned crypt below visitor level.