Howard Borrell visited India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ recently – and shares some of his experiences with us.
WHAT an experience! We’d visited the south of India thirty years earlier and decided it was time to experience the north, focusing on ‘The Golden Triangle’ – which links Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
A 2am arrival in Delhi and the smog created by industry and 33 million people was there to greet us; it immediately attacked the back of your throat and stayed there until you were indoors. It was to be a frequent companion for the rest of our visit, generally surrendering to the sun around lunchtime.
Delhi was a mad mix of poverty, elegance that comes from being the capital city, incessant and chaotic traffic, a never-ending array of verbal scams and a colourful vibrancy that hooked you after just a few hours in its company.
Jaipur followed. Locally brewed Thornbridge beer doesn’t prepare you for the attack on the senses that 7-million people bring. Maybe it was that indefinable edginess they set out to achieve with their award-winning brew? Crossing the road was an act of bravery that deserved a medal, but both cities warranted the effort in seeking out their cultural highlights. Palaces and forts harked back to pre-British rule when it was the norm for invaders to take it in turns to burst through the Khyber Pass, sometimes they rushed back with their spoils, other times they lingered long enough to build alliances and add some influence to India’s fascinating past. Delhi’s impressive Red Fort became the main residence of Mogul emperor Shah Mahal when he moved the capital from Agra to Delhi in 1639 and began immediate construction.
Pushkar – a hippy destination in the 60s and still so today – was a breathtaking surprise. We stayed overnight, on the way to Udapuir, in rooms straight from a Rudyard Kipling novel, overlooking the sacred lake that I’m sure has been the backdrop for several well-known movies. Surrounding the lake was an exciting blend of commercial activity that sold everything from spiritual happiness to a Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Temples catered for every belief – including playing home to the most famous Brahma temple in India – and wedding celebrations ensured the decibels stayed high until the early hours (Hindu weddings are always held at night), with the accompanying bands often not finishing their wedding duties until after 10pm. Alcohol is officially not allowed in this base for so many religions but the occasional restaurant may discreetly offer you a beer, if you’re lucky.
Our next destination was Udapuir. On the map it looks an easy route, but getting from A to B in India is more an attack on the senses than a journey. A distance that would take two hours in the UK becomes anywhere from four to six in India. Tolls are frequent (every 50km) but, unlike in Europe, do not guarantee anything. Surfaces vary from potholed to pristine but invariably border an eclectic mix of debris and wildlife that will choose to cross at will. Honestly, we regularly witnessed traffic jams caused solely by sacred cows deciding to rest in a couple of lanes; deer and wild boar get in on the act too but only the cows are shown real respect.
“Rajahstan seems so full of treasures that you rapidly become immune to the beauty of each new sight.”
Udapuir, now a conurbation of over 3 million, is known as the “city of lakes” – over twenty impressive man-made lakes that draw huge numbers of visitors. The first, Lake Pichola, was created in 1362 by a Banjara tribesman, Pichhu Banjara, who used to transport grain during the reign of Maharana Lakha. The captivating lake so attracted Maharana Udai Singh that he established the city of Udaipur on the banks of the lake; the second lake took another three hundred years to arrive but triggered a burst of building that created a linked network that eventually joined up with the river system. Udapuir is also well connected by rail, which many more visitors use to gain access to its treasures.
Rajahstan seems so full of treasures that you rapidly become immune to the beauty of each new sight. We next moved on to Bundi (a district and a city in the Hadoti region but formerly a state in its own right) and were actually stunned at the beauty of the Taragarh Fort. The setting is dramatic and the condition of something built almost 700 years ago is just unbelievable. It’s a long uphill walk to get to the entrance but worth the effort; sadly the heavens opened as we were about to leave and our entire party were saturated on the return walk and with no easy access to change facilities that meant a very uncomfortable onward journey.
Next, a relatively short drive as we went in search of tigers in the Ranthambore National Park (one of the largest national parks in north India that, in the early days of British rule, was a leisure area for the local maharajahs and the British of high rank who hunted the creatures almost to extinction) but, despite two lengthy forays into the jungle, none came out to play. The official line was that the rain the previous day had deterred them but with just seventy tigers in an area the size of Derbyshire, the group view was that the odds had never been in our favour. We saw plenty of deer, sloth and wild boar plus an interesting selection of bird life but the tigers had other plans that didn’t involve entertaining visitors.
We started to make our way to Agra but a stop at Fatehpur Sikri, just 25 miles before Agra, was an absolute must. The town was founded as the capital of the Mughal (also spelt as Moghul or Mogul) empire in 1571 by Emperor Akbar, in recognition of his successful military campaign in Gujarat. He remained emperor until 1585 but had previously abandoned the location due to the failure of the water supply and the difficulties associated with his campaign in Punjab.
If it hadn’t been for the East India Company, the location wouldn’t now be a World Heritage site; they first occupied Agra in 1803 and soon used Fatehpur Sikri as an administrative centre. Early in that period, the Marquess of Hastings ordered the repair of the all the monuments.
Agra is so much more than the Taj Mahal. We spent the remainder of the day (after Sikri) visiting the stunning Agra Fort (two thirds of the site is unavailable to visit as it’s still used by the Indian military) and Akbar’s Mausoleum.
Everyone always says you must visit the Taj at dawn – the consensus, nowadays, is that around 8am provides a superb smog-free view without too many visitors. They were right!
Seriously, nothing prepares you for the Taj Mahal – it really is a special moment when your eyes feast on its beauty. Its setting creates the splendour but the building itself is such a masterpiece of craftmanship. The 5th Moghul Emperor, Shah Jahan, commissioned the structure to commemorate his fifth wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631. They’d been inseparable since their marriage in 1612 and Jahan was later buried alongside her.
India is complicated. If the Taj Mahal is at one end of the scale; the slums that exist everywhere are at the other end. The world’s biggest middle class spend like the wealthy would in the UK; but the poor are held back by the constraints that the wrong religion or caste imposes on their life prospects. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!