India, for me, is the most captivating, colourful, sometimes jarring, spiritual and life-affirming country in the world. It is a place that has etched itself on my memory like no other.
I have been visiting India for 16 years and I still find myself wanting more. It’s culturally rich, visually explosive, and an assault on all senses. I had the privilege of returning to India in October. My last visit was an opportunity to revisit some familiar places and to discover some new ones. Away from all the hustle and bustle of the larger cities, a journey from Punjab to Rajasthan offers a captivating insight into a gentler pace of life on the subcontinent.
Golden Times in Punjab
Amritsar, in the state of Punjab, is home to the spectacular Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine. At the centre of the walled old town, the gilded Golden Temple seems to almost float on the sacred lake, Amrit Sarovar. Every evening, throngs of devotees come to witness the colourful ‘putting to bed’ ceremony, which you absolutely shouldn’t miss it. This is when the Adi Granth, the holy book (considered the 10th prophet by Sikhs), is ‘put to bed’, carried by men on a palanquin, whilst chanting and praying.
As well as the Golden Temple, I’d recommend visiting the Guru Ka Langar, the largest community kitchen in the world. In keeping with the tenets of Sikhism, all barriers of religion, cast and social status are forgotten as diners share a meal as equals, sitting on the floor. On average 75,000 people eat a free meal here each day and dozens of volunteers work around the clock to make it all possible. The Sikh faith teaches the importance of community service and what an extraordinary feat the Temple upholds by achieving this every day.
Sundowners fit for a prince
Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan is one of the most magnificent in India. It was built around 1460 and rises straight up above the magnificent blue city of Jodhpur. Still run by the Jodhpur royal family, it is a place packed with history and legend, and has been beautifully preserved. By prior arrangement it is possible to enjoy a private walk with the museum curator as twilight descends. This experience gives an intimate insight into some of the period rooms as he shares tales of Indian courtly life…all enjoyed with a glass of bubbles in hand, of course.
Sailing like a Maharana
Enjoy the royal treatment in Udaipur and sail on Lake Pichola aboard the beautiful Gangaur, a 150-year old boat used by the Maharanas.
The Gangaur is a replica of the 18th-century barge that once carried Udaipur’s royal Singh family between their City Palace on the eastern shore and the Lake Palace. Sailing on Lake Pichola onboard this elegant vessel with the Lake Palace, City Palace and Aravalli Mountains as our backdrop was a very special experience.
The Gangaur can be chartered for a sunset sail or, if you wish to linger longer, you can enjoy dinner on board. It is available on a private charter basis for guests staying at the Taj Lake Palace, which is undoubtedly one of the most iconic hotels in the world.
Where wild things roam
Jawai, in the heart of the Aravalli Hills, lies half way between Jodhpur and Udaipur, and is a special place for many reasons. In this area of rural Rajasthan, temple priests and red-turbaned Rabari herdsmen have shared their rocky surroundings with leopards for centuries.
Here, leopards are regarded as the sacred guardians of the ancient temples that pepper the landscape. It is estimated that up to 50 of these elusive big cats reside here. A stay at Jawai Leopard Camp is a fantastic opportunity to immerse yourself in rural Rajasthani life, go on safari, enjoy spectacular scenery and do it all in style.
There is no denying that the chaotic madness and constant cacophony of beeping horns in India can be exhausting. It’s essential that you allow some down time in more rural areas to slow the pace, take a breath and smell the roses, so to speak. A fairy tale fortress, Raas Devigarh, the revamped 18th-century palace, an hour outside of Udaipur, was the most perfect escape for me.
This boutique hotel is housed in a lavishly restored heritage building and combines contemporary interiors, superb cuisine, a fabulous pool, indulgent spa and a rural escape all in one. In my short stay I explored the village by bicycle, drifted off into a divine state at the spa, took a yoga class, dined like royalty and slept like a princess. I only wish I could have stayed longer.