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India: One, two, three
Is a week is enough time to cover India, the birthplace of three great faiths — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism? The answer, reasonably, is no. But for those with little time, it is possible to absorb the essence of India in CliffsNotes form.
The connection between travel and a Coco Chanel dictum may not be that obvious. The French designer once purportedly said that a woman should stop before leaving the house, gaze in the mirror and then remove one piece of jewelry. The operative principle was to simplify.
In travel it is seldom acknowledged how routinely people pile on excess. And while this may not hold true on cruises or Club Med, where the biggest daily challenge is finding the proper level of SPF, among independent travelers the tendency is to take on countries, regions, continents, galaxies.
From the placid vantage of a laptop, the world looks manageable. In real time, the degree of travel difficulty unfolds in agonizing increments. Did I really think I could fit all that into a week? I did.
Across almost three decades of travel I've often noted the general custom; I've inflicted it on myself. And it occurs to me that in few other places are Chanel's words of advice better applied than India, a country my passports inform me I have visited more than 20 times.
Assuming, perhaps, that the first trip to that compelling and bewildering country will be their only one, friends cram itineraries full to the point where misery is a guarantee. Thus my advice to pals heading to South Asia is to appraise the itinerary with a ruthless eye and then, long before heading to the airport, strike something off.
First-timers to India tend to be guided unvaryingly (and sensibly) around the so-called Golden Triangle (Delhi/Agra/Jaipur). This route, straightforward enough on paper, requires some discernment to get right. A policy of less is more is always sensible in India, in order to limit the shock the place inevitably delivers to an average Westerner's system.
A question often posed is whether a week is enough time to cover the birthplace of three great faiths — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The answer, reasonably, is no. But travelers are not reasonable people, and it is distinctly possible to absorb the essence of India in CliffsNotes form.
The one-week trip
It is useful to start in the capital. A city created, like great geological formations, of time-sculptured and overlapping strata, Delhi is seven cities at least and almost as many civilizations collapsed, accreted and jumbled into one.
Despite its shambolic beginnings and ambient tumult, Delhi is a pleasing city to visit, in part because it retains swaths of forest greenbelt — its broad avenues, its traffic roundabouts and other useful systems bequeathed by the imperial nannies of the British Raj. Compared with the horn-honking frenzy of industrial tech centers elsewhere in the country, Delhi remains notably civilized. It is, as is often noted, Washington, D.C., to Mumbai's New York.
A week in India, I tell friends, axiomatically begins with two days in the capital of Delhi (for simplicity's sake I am referring to time spent in-country; nearly a full day is lost traveling to India from the East Coast of the United States). And, if budget permits, I advise them to book into one of the city's fine, although pricey top-tier hotels. There is a reason for this. Delhi is ever sprawling, and the premium you pay at hotels like the Taj Mahal or the Oberoi for a central location and for "amenities" like potable tap water (even ice is safe in such places these days), knowledgeable concierges, well-trained staff and, yes, consistent electrical service is repaid a thousandfold by reduced time in traffic and a placid digestive tract.
Some intrepid types navigate the city on the newly extended and, from all accounts, efficient Metro. In the interest of timesaving, I just flag down a cab at the hotel taxi rank. In most Indian cities the beloved Hindustan Ambassador taxi, its buglike design little altered since 1958, has begun to vanish, replaced by more modern vehicles. In Delhi, though, the Ambassador remains a reassuringly constant presence. No less comforting is the off-meter flat rate many drivers remain willing to accept. While this rate is subject to change at any time, in my experience it has held surprisingly steady for more than a decade: 1,000 rupees (or about $21 at current exchange rates) hires a car for 50 miles or eight hours.
While every guidebook instructs visitors to start out by seeing the lanes of Old Delhi, the Mughal sites like the Red Fort and the colossal mosque known as Jama Masjid, I gave up on the noise and crowds and filth of Old Delhi long ago. I advise friends to save their awe instead for the next phase of the journey, for Agra and the Taj Mahal, for Emperor Akbar's little-visited tomb at nearby Sikandra, and for Fatehpur Sikri, the evanescent red sandstone city that lies about 20 miles down the road from the great and, in my impious view, overrated shrine to love.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Back in the capital on one's first day in the country, I recommend bypassing the old city to have a driver convey one instead in early morning to Rashtrapati Bhavan, now the presidential residence, although built for the British viceroy and thus a cornerstone of Sir Edwin Lutyens' New Delhi and symbolic centerpiece of the British Raj.
Heightened security has made it difficult to experience this complex of government buildings except at some distance or through gates. So I tend to have the car park on a side road while I stroll the broad Rajpath, which leads downhill from Raisina Hill to India Gate.
This may be the place to note the presence of animals in urban Indian settings, the cows that still turn up on New Delhi medians despite laws that ban their presence; the white stallions trotting through traffic on the way to a wedding ceremony; the goat flocks being herded along the four-lane blacktop in Tamil Nadu. At Rashtrapati Bhavan, the wildlife takes the form of impertinent monkeys that fling themselves across the facades of the red sandstone pavilions, tails looping from domed chhatris, prehensile thumbs hitched on to crevices of pierced-sandstone jali screens as they nonchalantly delouse themselves.
From Raisina Hill and the presidential residence, I typically have my taxi drive on to the National Museum, whose survey collection provides a fine grounding for visitors in need of a playbook to India's cultural and religious multiplicities. After this, I have a late lunch at one of several downtown outposts of a restaurant called Nathu's Sweets, a Delhi institution noted for its Bengali home-cooking and unctuous desserts.
On Day Two, I tend to set out early for South Delhi and for the austere and distinctly phallic minaret at Qutb Minar, or else spend time at the seldom-visited Sikh Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, or at an obscure ruins near the woodlands of Mehrauli known as Jamali Kamali Masjid.
Few locals even know of this mosque complex named for a Sufi saint interred beside his male lover. I'd never heard of it before being taken there by Bim Bissell, the irrepressible matriarch of the family behind the Indian handicrafts emporium chain Fabindia.
On our visit, Bim mentioned to me offhandedly that when her children were young, the family customarily packed food for al fresco meals at Jamali Kamali. It seemed somehow characteristic of both Bim and her city that it was a natural thing to picnic with your children at a tomb.
After my morning outings, I tend to make my way to Basil and Thyme for lunch. This simple and surprisingly inexpensive cafe is in a bungalow in Santushti Shopping Complex, itself set behind the walls of New Wellington Camp, Air Force Station, a shopping complex much favored by Delhi's retail-mad leisure class.
Here, the chef, Bhicoo J. Manekshaw — now closing in on 90 and retired from the stove — continues to devise menus offering fresh, unfussy fare best categorized under the rubric of what was once called "butler food" in India.
Over lunch of cold-poached salmon or roast chicken with black mushroom stuffing, washed down with fresh lime soda, it is easy to forget that outside Santushti's gated walls is a tumultuous city of 14 million and that one is not just passing time before catching the 5:05 to Cos Cob.
Fortified by lunch, and as a preparation for the journey to Agra, I urge friends to head straight for Humayun's Tomb. For decades this monument was a travesty — its fountains and watercourses barren, its lawns moth-eaten, its ancient palisades in peril of imminent collapse. Wasps had built vast bulbous nests in the pointed Mughal archways; shanty dwellers had built their own improvised nests in crevices of the monument walls.
Although evocative in decay, Humayun's Tomb is no less so today, restored with funds from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and in all of Delhi or even of India, there can be few places lovelier than Humayun's Tomb at sunset, when the waning light of day outlines the tiled dome and eagles hang in the thermals above the nearby Yamuna River.
On to the Taj Mahal
From Delhi, I typically hire a car and driver through the hotel travel desk and head to Agra. And while I would prefer not to spend a night in this shamefully polluted city, this is the only proper way to visit the Taj Mahal.
What I mean is that the Taj Mahal seen in the glaring sun of an Indian midday, as happens when you reach it after arriving from Delhi, can seem as ghostly blank as an overexposed photo. Seen at dusk or dawn, however, the structure's marmoreal surface magically absorbs and reflects the ambient colors of sky and clouds and even a hint of the orangy pollution belched out by nearby industries.
Upon arrival at Agra on one's third day in India and having risen to see the great monument near dawn, it is usual to press on to Jaipur on a route that takes you first to Fatehpur Sikri, among the most evocative ruins in India.
Unlike the Taj Mahal, which impresses but rarely moves me, this city abandoned in the 16th century is a deeply atmospheric place, rising as it does from farm fields in the middle of seemingly nowhere. From there I continue on to Jaipur, the fabled Pink City, which is, by Indian standards, not that old (17th century) and by any reasonable estimate, not so roseate, either. Still, Jaipur must be seen for at least three reasons: the City Palace; a hilltop redoubt outside town called Amber (pronounced Amer) Fort; and Gem Palace, which is not a palace at all.
Even an hourlong tour of City Palace, a multistory ancestral home of the high-living Anglophile Maharajahs of Jaipur, provides a tantalizing peek into the voluptuary lives of the acquisitive royals, who collected miniatures by the yard, silver by the ton, carpets seemingly by the mile.
At Amber Fort, the ruling Kachhawa clan lived and ruled from a hilltop redoubt of red sandstone and white marble, where the fused influences of Hindu and Muslim architecture are only part of the pleasure of place. The fort is best reached on elephant back (a bit of tourist hokum that is well worth it) and is notable both for interiors that feature the latest technological innovations of earlier ages — cascading water running down marble ramps provided an early form of air-conditioning — and views of the barren Aravalli range.
The following itineraries can be managed in chunks of two to three days and accordingly the first stop after Jaipur is Jodhpur, my favorite among the cities of Rajasthan.
Two weeks is better
Dive into Rajasthan.
Jodhpur, like the other cities noted below, can probably be adequately enjoyed in two days and is an easy hop by plane from Jaipur via Delhi or Mumbai and an easy place, as well, in which to find hotels at every price. I have tested them all, from the funky stucco pavilions of Ajit Bhawan to the businesslike Hari Mahal. There is, though, only one ideal place to lay one's head in this desert outpost, and that is the Indo-Saracenic pile called Umaid Bhawan Palace.
Last of the mega-palaces built over a century-long building spree by Indian maharajahs, Umaid Bhawan is sometimes likened to a Victorian railway station and invariably said to have been built as a charitable work-relief program for a region beset by a prolonged and killing drought. Believe what you like, the place can be reliably said to belong to its resident owner, the Oxford-educated Gaj Singh II, 64, the Maharajah of Jodhpur, who inherited the immense pile at age 4.
A vast and haunting palace, replete with Bohemian chandeliers, gilt tete-a-tetes and taxidermied trophies bagged during ancient shikars, Umaid Bhawan sits atop a low hill and overlooks another of Gaj Singh's properties, the great citadel of Mehrangarh Fort.
Umaid Bhawan is now operated in partnership with Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces, and it must be said that a certain amount of its quiddity was lost in hotel-chain translation. Still, the palace retains its time-stopped aura and, perhaps alone among the great Rajasthan palaces, easily conjures an era when palace ladies led segregated, gossipy lives in the secluded zenana, when the gallants of the legendary Jodhpur polo teams played fierce chukkers and returned to drink stiff whiskeys in a bar where, to this day, a stuffed black bear stands upright with a drinks tray balanced in its paws.
A visit to Jodhpur logically starts with a trip to the hilltop citadel of Mehrangarh Fort, where, up a series of ramps and past the studded elephant gates is a historical fortress museum almost without parallel in India.
Gaj Singh II was an early adopter of Western-style curatorial practices, a welcome anomaly in a country so stuffed with antiquities that treasures are often carelessly left by their owners to be devoured by white ants or to rot in the dust. The Mehrangarh collection includes silver elephant howdahs, Jodhpur school miniatures, arms and armor, and textiles. The fort itself, although massive, stupendous and ominous when seen from afar, is surprisingly intimate and homey within: a series of mirrored chambers of pleasure and rest.
From the sinuous ramparts of Mehrangarh there are fine, expansive views of the surrounding Thar Desert and — barnacled to the flanks of the fortress — the traditional houses of the city's Brahmins, all painted Krishna blue.
Take a drive to Udaipur
From Jodhpur I go on to Udaipur, again booking a driver and car for a road trip that Google Maps pegs at precisely five hours and 20 minutes. At a guess, the geniuses at Google Maps have never actually seen an Indian road. I myself find a useful rule of thumb when in India to double the estimated road time and average things out.
Winding slowly uphill through sere desert and a region inhabited by a pacifist tribe called the Bhils, the drive from Jodhpur eventually crests the Aravallis before descending into a startlingly verdant landscape of cultivated fields.
Only by traveling overland are you able to visit the Jain Adinatha Temple at Ranakpur, an ineffable monument of marble whose hall contains either hundreds or thousands of intricately carved columns, depending upon whom you ask.
It is an austere place, one whose ecstatic carvings create an atmosphere of quietly humming spiritual intensity, something like a fission lab for souls.
The end point of this particular road trip is Udaipur, a lovely though to my mind essentially dull spot whose chief points of interest are the finely conserved City Palace of Maharana Udai Singh II, the renowned Taj Lake Palace hotel and the ritzy Oberoi Udaivilas overlooking Lake Pichola from shoreside just outside of town. Udaipur is a great place to unwind, though. For those lucky enough to put up at Lake Palace, there is a ready excuse for enforced idleness, since the only way to reach the hotel or leave it is by boat.
Three weeks is divine
Head to the desert. For more leisured travelers, and bucket list types, I advise a longer journey, one that heads from Udaipur, by road, for the majestic destination of Jaisalmer, a desert city that is among the oldest of Rajasthan's fortress citadels, a once sleepy place whose tourist potential has been exploited as ruthlessly as its conservation has been sadly allowed to decline.
Conservation groups are actively working to preserve this fragile monument, where ancient havelis, or merchants' houses, with lacelike screen walls of wood or stone crowd narrow lanes. Their main task is to keep the fortress walls from outright collapse. In doing so, however, they hope to preserve the ineffable stillness of this golden walled island surrounded by the sand sea that is the Thar Desert, historically known as the Land of Death.
One can easily spend two days or more wandering the narrow lanes, where buildings crowd in on one another (and where pedestrians used to have to yield to cows). Time has a funny way of seeming to stretch infinitely before one in Jaisalmer, during days spent visiting the jewel-box Jain temples dedicated to Rishabhdevji, Sambhavanathji and Ashtapadi, idling on rooftop cafes drinking lassi or scanning the desert from the fortress walls.
And when you have had enough of that, you can move on to other and even more obscure desert cities, my favorite among them being the rough-and-tumble city of Nagaur, home to a fine citadel complex known as Ahhichatragarh-Nagaur Fort.
A 200-mile overland journey from Jaisalmer, Nagaur is a challenge to take up only after getting your travel legs in India. The drive is rough and dusty, and when years ago a woman friend and I first fetched up there, dust caked our clothes and filled every uncovered orifice, and our fillings had nearly shaken loose from our teeth.