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An Indian Adventure …Classic Rajasthan

| 10 May 2017

India – where to begin? My brother and I booked Cox & Kings’ ‘Classic Rajasthan’ tour. It was an immersive experience that opened our eyes not only to the sights but to the colours of Indian culture as well. 

Over two weeks in January 2017, we travelled far and wide between the principal cities of north-west India. The landscape ranged from fields of wheat and mustard flowers, worked by women in saris the colours of bougainvillea, to the endless sands of the great Thar desert, dotted by scrub and occasional groups of camels. In between were towns and villages that seethed with activity and beyond them the brick fields, cement works and marble quarries.

Colourful Saris worn by Women in North-West India

Colourful Saris worn by the women of North-West India © Stella Beddoe

From Delhi we visited Alsisar and Mandawa, towns in the Shekhawati region whose villas, or havelis, are charmingly decorated with camels and elephants,  as well as new forms of transport such as cars, trains and planes. We visited extraordinary fortresses of the Mughal era: the towering Junagarh in Bikaner, the hilltop Mehrangarh in Jodhpur and Amber Fort outside Jaipur, which glowed pink and gold in the setting sun. Within their imposing walls were gorgeous palaces with intricately carved facades, whose courtyards and interiors were exquisitely painted and decorated with mirror tiles, mother of pearl and stained glass, or had rooftop gardens as at the City Palace in Udaipur.

Our travels were punctuated with visits to inspiring places of worship or memorial. In Delhi we marvelled at the scale of the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, and the beauty of Humayun’s tomb in the lush Charbagh gardens. Further south we wandered the quiet ruins of the twin temples at Nagda and queued with excited local visitors to enter the Shiva temple at Eklingji where pilgrims stroked and whispered prayers into the ears of a sculpted silver figure of Nandi, the Bull. The matchless Taj Mahal, modelled in marble, the colour of frost, needs no introduction, though the experience was marred by surging crowds. For me, the spiritual highlight was the spectacular Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, nestled among trees in the Aravalli Hills. Built in the 15th century, the silvery white complex has 72 elaborately carved shrines, like the interiors of wedding cakes, and accommodates an ancient Rayan tree growing through its marble floor.

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi © Toby Beddoe

But what I remember most vividly is the life of India – the people and wildlife of the Subcontinent. To our surprise and delight, Pradeep, our tour manager and guide, was an expert ornithologist with very sharp eyes. We made frequent stops on our travels in order to observe the birds and animals. In addition to the ubiquitous cows, camels and monkeys we saw a herd of skittish chital deer and smaller groups of nilgai or bluebucks. Black kites gathered over every city while steppe eagles were on look-out from fence posts or high rocky promontories out of town. We even witnessed two of them engage in a scuffle over prey with an Egyptian vulture. We saw stately demoiselle cranes on their annual migration, painted storks performed for us and the peaceful lake and nature reserve adjacent to the Jaswant Thada memorial near Jodhpur was full of water birds, many of them familiar in British wetland habitats. Occasionally we were treated to flashes of intense colour as a kingfisher or sunbird crossed our path. In addition, I shall never forget encounters with the onomatopoeic babblers, bulbuls, drongos and shrikes.

It was market day in every town and village with splendid displays of root vegetables, leafy greens and glowing mounds of spices. Nomad women, wearing nose rings and multiple bone bangles, sold homemade metal knives and kitchen utensils.

Street Market in Bikaner © Stella Beddoe

At major sites we were diverted by child acrobats and musicians, including a boy who sang Frère Jacques, and were besieged by souvenir vendors. Many forts and palaces undertake maintenance and renovation in the cool of the winter months; picturesque scaffolding of gnarled wooden poles or bamboo, lashed together with twine, swayed gently as workers, including women in multi-coloured saris, passed tools and building materials from one to another. Indians are extremely proud of their heritage and value education highly; we often met parties of elegant school students wearing the traditional shalwar kameez.

Building Workers, Jaisalmer © Toby Beddoe

Our tour also coincided with the season for weddings. There were huge, joyful parties at the hotels where we stayed and, from our coach, we witnessed processions where the prospective groom, resplendent on horseback, was attended by a female entourage. We came upon a spontaneous daytime street party in the countryside, complete with a throbbing disco van – the whole village had turned out to celebrate the birth of a baby boy. 

Celebrating a new birth

Celebrating a Birth, Rajasthan © Stella Beddoe

This was not a holiday for the faint-hearted, but the variety of landscapes, the majesty of the architecture, the astonishing wildlife and the compelling buzz of daily life left us both with enchanting memories that will last a lifetime.

 

Stella Beddoe travelled on the group tour Classic Rajasthan >



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