I am just back from one of the most amazing trips of my life. India, to my mind, is not just another country but a realm between reality (at times shockingly harsh) and fantasy (we did, after all, stay in palaces still inhabited by maharajahs and ride on royal horses and painted elephants). India is massive and has massive contrasts—beauty and brutality, poverty and pageantry—that force a traveler’s senses into overdrive. And yet a deep spirituality also pervades daily life, making a trip personal, emotional and meaningful.
Here are the highlights of our week-long journey. Anyone inspired to go should consider joining our next India Insider trip (contact our Insider Trips Team).
Our group of eight women convened in Delhi at Oberoi Gurgaon hotel, a gleaming glass structure in the middle of a thriving business district near the airport. With a 24-hour spa and one of the city’s trendiest restaurants, it was the perfect place to overnight and adjust after a long flight. We continued on to Jodhpur, known as the Blue City for its cobalt-painted facades, where we checked into the Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, still home to the maharajah and one of the largest residences ever built. With peacocks parading in its garden, our palace home was not just a luxury hotel, but a place where we could step back in time and slip into the richness of India. Highlights of Jodhpur included an after-hours tour of the legendary Mehrangarh Fort, where the curator led us through the former home of the royal family. One night, as we dined under the stars on a candlelit terrace in the Chowkelao Garden, our guide, a descendant of the maharajahs, told us tales of his life growing up in a fast-changing Rajasthan, where marriages are still arranged and yet “untouchables” now carry cell-phones as they dust altars.
Most of our days began with a yoga class. In Jodhpur we moved from asanas and guided meditation to the madness of the market, where women carried wares on their heads and monks—and cows—wandered among the traders’ stalls. As our shopping began, one of the group reminded us of the saying that Americans abroad don’t shop, they pillage, and certainly we savaged the eight-story emporium of scarves and textiles. Sufi musicians played in the gardens of our guide’s house where we went to lunch. We feasted on his mother’s home cooking, surrounded by family memorabilia, including polo and hunting trophies, and in the company of his parents and young wife. Some spent the afternoon shopping in Jodhpur’s vast warehouses filled with antiques and curios and others retired to the spa.
From Jodhpur we drove on into the countryside of Rajasthan and checked into a former royal hunting lodge. Tucked into the Aravalli Hills in a town that has attracted seers and monks for centuries, the place has been lovingly transformed into a boutique hotel with bougainvillea-filled courtyards and rooms decked out in the exquisite hand-block linens of Brigitte Singh. (And though it feels well off the well-trodden tourist track, the village has lured sophisticated India-philes like Mick Jagger and Angelina Jolie.) When I opened my terrace doors on the first morning, I found two wild monkeys plucking purple flowers and popping them into their mouths like candy. Some of us began that day with a horseback ride on Marwari horses, passing farmers and women doing wash in the river. Later, we explored the village on foot, visiting a temple to Shiva, stopping at a shepherd’s home and shopping at sandal and bangles shops. Hindu women, who are not considered dressed until they are wearing at least sixteen adornments, came to our rooms that afternoon to apply henna and dress us in saris. We rode in bullock carts pulled by oxen to an ancient stone well that was lit up with oil lamps, where tables set around a bonfire. Once again we ate beneath the stars.
On our last day in the Aravalli Hills, many of us made a sunrise trek up the giant granite rock that looms over Narlai. We climbed 750 steps to reach the top, where an elephant statue overlooks the surrounding lands and we made our morning wishes. Later, en route to Udaipur, we stopped at the famous Jain temples of Ranakpur. A monk brought us into one of the intricately carved alcoves for a blessing, transforming us with his chanting from sightseers into sacred participants. In Udaipur, Rajasthan’s famous lake city, we stayed at the stunning Udaivilas, a modern Oberoi palace with its own nature preserve. The current maharajah was in residence as we toured his mammoth city palace (really eleven palaces in one). One hall was filled with crystal furniture (everything from beds and thrones to clocks and hookah pipes in gleaming cut crystal) that had sat in crates unopened in a basement for more than a hundred years because the maharana who ordered them had died before they arrived. We ate lunch by the Vintage Car Museum, where the royal collection included a Rolls-Royce safari jeep and a 1939 Cadillac convertible that Queen Elizabeth and Jackie O. had used for touring. Other highlights were a boat ride on Lake Pichola, passing bathers and palaces; a guided visit of the gardens of Jagmandir Island; and an afternoon shopping spree (one tailor shop took measurements and silk jackets were designed overnight). A private boat ferried us to dinner at Udaipur’s best restaurant.
From Udaipur, we flew to Jaipur, the “pink city” and ground zero for crafts and commerce in Rajasthan. Our home was another royal palace, the Taj Rambagh, surrounded by forty-seven acres of gardens. As polo originated in India, some of us decided to give it a try and the Rajasthan Polo Club hosted us for a few chukkas. Their top players scored all the goals but our girls played the role of team patron (or patroness) with flair. Over the next few days we toured the City Palace and its collections of armaments and royal robes as well as the Amber Fort with its hall of mirrors. And, of course, we shopped—for everything from house wares to shoes and cashmere shawls and diamonds and rubies and sapphires. Jaipur is the gem-cutting center of the world, so we had an excuse.
On our last night we celebrated with matches of elephant polo. Yes, we all wielded mallets from atop pachyderms, something none of us had tried before. And we celebrated with dancing and dinner at a safari-style camp. Some traveled on to Agra and to the Taj Mahal and others of us returned home, but all of us would agree with Rudyard Kipling who wrote that “India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously.” And a place to which we would all like to return.
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