Returning to India… 30 years later
After more than 30 years since my last holiday to India, I found the change surprising. Back then, we were the only car on the road, passed by just a few painted lorries. Long car journeys were on uneven, dirt roads and there were miles of desert and scrub. Now, India has exploded into a country of the new millennium.
I flew to Delhi alone and joined a small group, the ages of which ranged from a couple in their 40s up to 87. I think our guide, Daree, was possibly dismayed when he saw this! But ever resourceful and capable, he soon got us and our luggage onto a very new and modern bus. Later that evening, once we had settled into our rooms, we had a meeting where we eyed each other like children at a new school and tried to remember everyone’s names.
The following day we had our first experience of Indian traffic as we drove to Old Delhi. There were higgledy-piggledy narrow streets, an aroma of cooking with spices and terrifying electricity cables winding everywhere. Electricity is free in Old Delhi, so if you want power you just wire a cable in – the fire risk must be enormous! The noise of the traffic and the vast numbers of people working and living there made it feel manic. Our guide kept us close by him, and when crossing the fearful roads we had to get even closer; “like sticky rice” he said! With wide roads, large houses and Lutyens’ buildings, New Delhi was the complete opposite. Unfortunately, Mahatma Ghandi’s tomb was closed for a VIP visit, but our guide cleverly rearranged for us to see it on our final day in Delhi.
Red Fort, Delhi
Now begins our great journey, with early starts and lots of sightseeing. From Delhi we travelled to Alsisar where we stayed in the most beautiful heritage hotel, Alsisar Mahal. The small village had lovely painted havelis – Indian mansions – and peacocks. Arriving in Jaisalmer, I noticed the drastic change; there is now a great town that resembled a market as we climbed up to the fort. At night, the fort atop the hill looked like a ship lit up. The great houses are still there but the tuktuks and bicycles were too numerous, and in our eyes quite dangerous. We stayed in the desert outside the city in a modern fort that had been built as a hotel. As we were the only guests, we were very well looked after by numerous staff, making us feel like royalty. A highlight was the camel ride out in the desert to see the sunset. It was magical!
Alsisar Mahal, Alsisar
We only stayed one night in Jodhpur; this was enough time to walk around the blue city and to the great Mehran Fort on the hill. The following day, we set off to the beautiful city of Udaipur, stopping en route to see the magnificent Jain Temple at Ranakpur. Far off the main roads and in the mountains, these are the most amazing temples and are definitely worth a visit. In Udaipur, we stayed above the city, overlooking the Lake Pichola with its great, white palace. A short boat trip allowed us to see the famous palace, which is now a hotel, and the city from a different view. Our guide always booked the most interesting restaurants for us to dine at in the evenings.
Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur
We then drove to Jaipur – a city of gems – and the beautiful Palace of Winds. The wonderful markets were bursting with Indian crafts, jewellery, silver and silk. For me, I remember the traffic. The chock-a-block cars, lorries, people, bicycles, tuktuks and even a couple of camels. Then slowly and majestically, an elephant walks across, clearing the traffic in front of him.
Palace of Winds, Jaipur
Arriving in Agra, we were excited to see the Taj Mahal – the most beautiful and romantic building in the world – followed by the deserted red sandstone city of Fatehpur Sikri. We then flew back to Delhi where I said goodbye to my travelling companions. We knew each other so well by this point, and I could even remember their names! They knew I didn’t talk at breakfast and I knew who liked to party late at night. They were indeed a kind and charming group.
Taj Mahal, Agra
Now begins my great adventure of travelling alone to Shimla and Amritsar. I flew to Chandigarh where I was met and driven up the great road to Shimla with its numerous road works. I had wanted to come to Shimla for many years. My husband was a cousin of Rudyard Kipling and it was Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, who had designed the stained glass windows in Shimla’s Christ Church. However, I had to wait until the following day for that. I stayed at The Oberoi Cecil hotel, which is within walking distance of everything in old Shimla. It surprised me to see so many monkeys, as I expected it would be too cold for them. The next morning I was given a tour of the former Viceregal Lodge, which used to be the former residence of the British Viceroy of India and looks rather like a large Victorian house in England. Today it is the summer home of the President of India. It must be lovely in the summer, but it was cold and raining when I was there.
Viceregal Lodge, Shimla
I walked down Mall Road in the pouring rain, just like home, up to the Gaiety Theatre, where in the past the British who lived there – in houses called Kelvinside, Truro, Kendall or Corbridge – had taken part in amateur dramatics. The two windows were very like the Burne-Jones windows in English churches. It was hard to believe we were in the Himalaya.
I then went on to Amritsar, which completely lived up to my expectations. Visiting the Golden Temple, which was built around a man-made pool completed in 1577, was a great experience. Of all places I’ve visited, it really does have a holy and spiritual feeling. The kitchens feed thousands every day, which was a revelation: shining buckets of curry, rice and bread are all given out freely.
Golden Temple, Amritsar
I also visited the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Gardens where the British had opened fire on women and children in 1919. This reminder of such a terrible event was very sobering. That evening, I was taken to the Pakistan/India border to watch the Wagah: a military display two hours before sunset, where they lower the flags of the two countries. There were thousands of people on both sides, supporting with cheers and cries. It was the only place I felt lonely – an odd feeling among so many – but my guide could only come so far with me and I walked alone to find my seat.
The following day I flew to Delhi and then on to Goa for 10 days to meet friends, sit in the sun and swim in the sea. I have holidayed here many times: the climate is good, the people are charming and the Portuguese houses and white Catholic churches are still standing. I flew back to London having experienced the most wonderful few weeks of my life!
Beach in Goa
You can follow in Lady Huntington-Whiteley’s footsteps on Cox & Kings’ Classic Rajasthan group tour, with an extension to Shimla, Amritsar and Goa. To find out more, please speak to one of our India experts.