By Rosie McKechnie
In a couple of hours Agra would be teeming with life, the streets choked with traffic, horns blaring and exhaust fumes belching into the air.But we beat the crowds to make a liaison with a local guide who promised to show us the other side of the city – quite literally.
It was only just starting to get light when Lal Khan picked us up and we glided through the empty streets on a cycle rickshaw, past the first stirrings of life. A sari-clad woman swept the dry, dusty road outside her house and a few doors along, a shopkeeper was washing down the counter, getting ready for business.
We passed the high red walls of Agra Fort then crossed the murky, slow-moving water of the Yamuna river. The mist gave it a ghostly feel, mingled with curls of grey smoke rising from the burning ghats.
With the city behind us, we drove alongside fields of corn, then walked the last few metres through tall grasses to reach the riverbank for the most incredible view of the Taj Mahal.
Perfectly timed, the sun appeared on the horizon a few minutes later and the changing shades of orange and pink shimmered on the water and dappled the glistening white walls of the Taj. The grumbles of the early morning rise were immediately forgotten and Lal Khan smiled with a smug, I-told-you-so grin.
Agra’s best-kept secret, this was the perfect way to escape the tourists and get uninterrupted views of the Taj Mahal all to ourselves.
We took a different route back to the city, through villages which had only just come to life with the arrival of the morning sun. Outside a thatched roof hut, a woman sat on a tiny stool, milking a cow. Her neighbour had a fire going and was making chapatis for breakfast, while her small children did the first of the day’s chores, collecting water from the pump in the village square.
A couple of miles away internet cafes were open and satellite TV stations exploding in the living rooms of kids getting ready for school. The extremes of day to day life in India never cease to amaze.
The views of the Taj from our guest house, Hotel Amar, were fantastic, but we wanted to see more and after breakfast joined the throng squeezing through the gates at the main entrance. It’s well worth grabbing a seat on one of the marble benches dotted around the gardens to just sit and take in the wonders of this beautiful building. Perfectly symmetrical, from the towering minarets to the bulbous domes and intricately carved archways, it really is a sight to behold.
Fortunately for us, there was plenty more stunning Mughal architecture to come on our tour of Rajasthan.
The Taj Mahal might be the most extravagant monument ever built for love, commissioned by Emperor Shan Jahan as a memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal. But the lake city of Udaipur has to be one of the most romantic spots on earth.
Crowned by creamy white cupolas and floating on mirror-glass water, it’s straight from a fairy tale. Even our journey here was beautiful, slowly moving south by train, it was the perfect way to watch the scenery unfold.
Go just after the monsoon when the water in lake Pichola is at its highest and the Lake Palace hotel sits like a sugar-coated cake at the centre. It was once the exclusive summer residence of Udaipur ’s maharajas, but these days it’s open to anyone who can afford the price of a room for the night.
To see how the other half used to live, we went to the City Palace , perched on the side of the lake. Rajasthan’s biggest palace, it has terraces overlooking the water and endless rooms lavishly decorated with mirrors, tiles, mosaics and paintings. A white pavilion sits in the middle of one courtyard and the museum has an intriguing collection of artefacts, from household items to lethal-looking weapons.
The maharajas knew all about bling and another gallery houses the crystal collection one leader bought – but didn’t live to see delivered. Everything from tiny trinkets to glittering chairs, tables and beds lay in their boxes for over 100 years before being unwrapped and put on display.
Not that we didn’t stay in the lap of luxury ourselves. Beneath the cupolas of the Udai Kothi hotel, there was a rooftop swimming pool and perfectly positioned sunset point to sit at the end of the day with a gin and tonic.
It’s easy to spend a few hours wandering around the jumble of narrow streets in the old town, shopping for miniature pieces of Moghul art and finding rooftop restaurants for a refreshing drink.
Better still is discovering the fantastic food in Rajasthan. When we arrived in the pink city of Jaipur , after a short flight, it was just in time to sit down to a feast fit for a king. Which seemed rather fitting considering the rich royal history of this region.
First our tastebuds were tantalised with urad, lentils cooked with hot spices, chilli, cumin and coriander. Then thick bakri rotis were brought out to soak up chicken and lamb smothered in a ginger, garlic and cardomon sauce. Endless vegetable dishes followed, from cauliflower and eggplant to spinach and peas, doused in cream and floating in cheese.
There’s much more to Jaipur than food, but it took a good night’s sleep at hip hotel Samode Haveli, with it’s antique furniture and original art on the walls, before we were ready to face the chaotic streets, with rickshaws and motorbikes careering at high speed past camel-drawn carts.
Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds, was what brought us here. Mesmerised by photographs of the elaborate pink sandstone façade, it had to be seen. It’s actually part of the east wall of the City Palace and was built for the ladies of the harem to watch goings on in the street below without being seen.
These days, visitors peek out of the 900 tiny windows and watch the light play on the scalloped walkways and domed canopies, imagining what life must have been like all those years ago.
Don’t be surprised if you think you’re walking among a collection of bizarre sculptures at nearby Jantar Mantar. It’s actually an observatory, built nearly 300 years ago by the warrior and astronomer Jal Singh. It’s best to find a guide to explain how the instruments were once used to measure time by the sun’s shadow falling on huge sundials and chart the progress of the moon through the zodiac.
We didn’t need a guide to take us around the laid-back desert town of Pushkar . We’d learnt enough about the town from our driver after hiring a car to take us to Ajmer and across the hills to Pushkar. A place of pilgrimage for Hindus, it has a truly magical feel with hundreds of temples, a holy lake and priests carrying out pujas to the sound of chanting prayers and ringing bells.
Pilgrims come here to bathe in the holy waters of the lake and we walked to the ghats to watch the ritual. You don’t have to be religious to feel how spiritual this place is, even a walk into the surrounding desert to watch sunset is enough to touch even the hardest heart. The out of town location of our hotel, Pushkar Bagh Resort, was just perfect for late afternoon walks when the heat of the day had died down.
Rajasthan is a kaleidoscope of colours, best reflected in the names of its cities. If Jaipur is the Pink City , the desert trading gateway of Jodhpur is the Blue City , a reference to the hyacinth-toned buildings tumbling down the hill from the Meherangarh, or Mighty Fort.
After a long overnight bus journey, we only had a day in this spectacular city, but it was just enough time to explore the fort, with towering walls nearly 40 metres high. The oppressive desert heat made even the shortest walk an arduous task, so we took a rickshaw up the winding path to the gateway.
The maharaja of Jodhpur still runs the fort but we didn’t get the chance to meet him. Instead we got a peek inside his home, from the Singar Choki Chow, which was used for royal ceremonies with all the pomp and glory of lines of elephants, marching soldiers and waving banners, to the columned halls of the armoury.
Another day would have been perfect, just to enjoy the sumptuousness of the Fort Chanwa Luni hotel. But we were running out of time.
In India ’s Thar desert, the mesmerizing city of Jaisalmer really is the end of the line. It’s so close to the border with Pakistan , there’s a constant army presence.
Once a staging post for caravans carrying silks, spices and precious stones on the trade route from India to the west, it was a very prosperous city. You can still see that today in the beautiful havelis, or mansions, built by well off merchants in the 13th century.
A quarter of the population still live within the walls of the fort – shimmering like a mirage, its turrets and thick walls rise out of the desert and are straight from the tale of Arabian Nights. It was well worth the bus journey to see the early morning light glittering in the sand.
Take the time to look around the narrow, winding lanes inside, with wandering cows, goats and chickens. The intricately carved doors of havelis open onto secret courtyards overlooked by mural-covered walls and opulent, decorated wooden balconies.
We stayed inside the fort at Hotel Killa Bhawan and it proved a good choice with fantastic rooftop views and low tables with silk cushions to rest our weary legs after a day’s sightseeing.
We flew back to Delhi , but arranged in advance for a car to meet us and take us on a detour to Fatehpur Sikri. A ghost town these days, it was a former capital of the Moghul empire and is a fascinating collection of palace buildings. They’re still in amazing condition, despite being more than 400 years old. Now a World Heritage Site, the imposing victory gate, mosque, palaces and pavilions have been carefully preserved.
After dropping our bags off at the Taj Palace Hotel, I couldn’t concentrate on shopping in the wonderful bazaars and street markets of Delhi without one last culture fix – back in time to the days of the very peak of Mughal power at the Red Fort in Old Delhi. Inside the main gate, the covered bazaar sells tourist trinkets. But 350 years ago, this arcade of shops once supplied silks and jewellery to the royal household.
We arrived at the Diwani-I-Am or Hall of Public Audience in time to see the afternoon light filter through the columns and could easily imagine the emperor sitting to settle disputes among his subjects. Then we got a bird’s eye view of the straight lines of the streets of New Delhi designed by architect Edward Lutyens from the southern minaret at the Jama Masjid. Connaught Place , the Parliament House and the mosque all stand in a line.
But what about the shopping? For an Indian-style assault on the senses, we walked around the markets of Old Delhi with stalls piled high with spices, fresh fruit, exotic-coloured silk saris, endless rows of glass bangles and the sweet smell of incense wafting in the air.
It was a world away from the solitude of that unforgettable sunrise over the Taj Mahal, but that’s what makes India such a bewitching country. And draws visitors back time and time again…
Best time to go: Temperatures making sightseeing more comfortable in the winter months, from November to March. It’s warm and sunny during the day, in the low 30s, and a little cooler at night.