Rajasthan… the Jewel in India's Crown

| August 30, 2018

I have waited half my life to visit India and it was rather surreal when I finally arrived in Delhi.  My partner and I joined the 14-day Classic Rajasthan group tour and added a five day extension in Shimla – the cool bolthole in the Himalayan foothills, once a hill station of the British Raj.

As a young, working mother 35 years ago, I stumbled upon the novel sequence Raj Quartet, written by Paul Scott. I devoured these in record speed and was delighted when ITV decided to serialise them as The Jewel in the Crown in the early 80s. I was mesmerised by India and started to read more and more books on this fascinating country.

Work, children, lack of time and money kept me away. As soon as I persuaded my partner, I dashed away to my guidebooks. I had been plotting this for a long time! I chose Cox & Kings because they offered the exact itinerary that I had been looking for. I was fortunate to speak to Jayant, who made the reservation process easy with his extensive knowledge of India.

Nothing prepares you for Rajasthan, which translates to ‘Land of the Kings’. The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 by Babur, who became the first Emperor. We visited both Old and New Delhi, which was a fascinating contrast. In Old Delhi we saw the Mughal-built Red Fort, the vast Jama Masjid Mosque built by Shah Jahan, the Raj Ghat memorial of Ghandi’s cremation and much more. We then drove to Alsisar, visiting the beautiful havelis – Indian town houses – of Mandawa on the way, whose decorations have lasted for more than 400 years.

Bikaner Architecture

Bikaner architecture

The city of Bikaner was founded by Rao Bika, the son of Rao Jodha, who was the founder of Jodhpur. Here we visited the impressive Junagarh Fort, built in 1588 by Raja Rai Singh, who was a general in Emperor Akbar’s army. It is unusual that it is not built on a hill, but in a location where the town swirls around its gates.

The following day we ventured into the Thar Desert to Jaisalmer. Built within fortified walls, you can see the golden battlements of the town rising as a mirage through the sandy desert long before you arrive. Here I bought the most exquisite handmade textiles.

Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer Fort

In Jodhpur, we visited the huge Mehrangarh Fort that dominates the city. The scale of the architecture was impressive and it has been described as the most magnificent fort in India. We had such a wonderful afternoon exploring this monolith while listening to our knowledgeable tour leader.

Set at the foot of the Aravalli Hills, Ranakpur is one of the largest and most important Jain temples in India. We explored the four-faced Chaumukha Temple, which houses a series of 29 halls, 80 domes and 1,444 individually engraved pillars. Arriving into Udaipur, we had a spectacular evening meal overlooking the city at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant.

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Udaipur stands on the shores of Lake Pichola with the Aravalli Hills stretching away in every direction. It is one of the most romantic settings in India and possibly my favourite destination; I definitely could have stayed longer. We visited the exquisite gardens of Saheliyon-ki-Bari, created by King Rana Sangram Singh for his wife who, as part of her dowry, was accompanied by 48 female attendants. Here the women could spend time away from prying eyes and the intrigue of the court politics. It was stunningly beautiful.

After a visit to the City Palace, we had a short boat ride across Lake Pichola to the Jagmandir Island Resort where we had sundowners. Watching the sun set over the lake was an extremely memorable moment. We had time to collect our thoughts while gazing at the beautiful city.

City Palace, Udaipur

City Palace, Udaipur

Jaipur did not disappoint. We visited the majestic Amber Fort and had an obligatory photo stop at the Palace of the Winds, where we were entertained by snake charmers and drummers. In the afternoon we visited Jaipur’s City Palace and watched traditional dancers whirling in a myriad of colour.

Our last stop on this outstanding journey was Agra, and we had saved the best until last. The Taj Mahal lived up to its reputation and, for me, it had the WOW factor! I’ve seen so many pictures of this building, the icon of India. Let me assure you, nothing prepares you. We soaked up the atmosphere and as the sun began to dip, it took on a rosy glow.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

We returned to Delhi the next day, said goodbye to our group and the tour leader before departing to Shimla. We had chosen this extension as we wanted a contrast to the desert plains of Rajasthan. We flew to Chandigarh and were driven to Shimla. Our hotel, like all the others on our journey, was fabulous. We had a couple of days exploring and this part of India certainly didn’t disappoint. On our return to Delhi, we took the Toy Train from Shimla to Solan, a car to Chandigarh and then the Shatabdi Express to Delhi.

Shimla Toy Train

Shimla Toy Train

Some noteworthy points:

All the hotels were great – some were heritage hotels that were converted palaces and forts and others were more modern. The beds were huge, there were big immaculate bathrooms and all had tea making facilities. Yes, you’ve guessed it, we packed our kettle and two mugs to make ourselves tea... in the nation of tea drinkers!

There is a lot of travelling on this tour and the roads contain all manner of traffic, including cows! All the travel arrangements worked without a hitch and our drivers and guides on the Shimla extension were excellent.

We had a strict hygiene routine and thankfully weren’t ill. We both took probiotics and had hand sanitiser too. We avoided ice and drank bottled water, even using it to clean our teeth. I went meatless for the whole holiday and there is a fantastic choice of vegetarian food. Master had some delicious meat dishes and lived to tell the tale! Most of the hotels offered international cuisine too.

Amber Palace, Jaipur

Amber Palace, Jaipur

Our tour leader Abhimanyu made our holiday for us. He was professional, punctual, kind, patient, interesting and interested. He had recently got married, so we learned a lot about Hindu weddings. He came from Alwar in Rajasthan and brought the history, culture and traditions of this beautiful part of India alive for us. He was an excellent example of all the Cox & Kings staff with whom we came into contact. We shall never forget him.

Would we go back to India? YES! In a heartbeat!

Cox & Kings’ client Jayne Roberts travelled on our Classic Rajasthan group tour. To find out more about holidays to India, please speak to our India experts.

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