The ghostly silhouette of a cow appeared out of the gloom and ambled across the broad, tree-lined road stopping cars as it went. It was 2.00am and the traffic through Delhi was heavy, but the cow seemed hardly to notice. People were milling about in the dark, even at this hour. I watched as an elderly lady pulled the end of her sari over her head and curled up on the pavement to sleep.
The following morning, a dense cloak of pollution hung low over the city giving even the trees a sickly grey appearance. Within a couple of hours, my clothes felt grimy and my nostrils were coated in black.
In south Delhi, on the site of the ancient Rajput city of Lal Kot, in an area suffused with ancient ruins, you will find the Qutb Minar complex. Built in celebration of driving the Hindus from Delhi in 1192, the Qutb Minar is one of the tallest and most beautiful minarets in the world. It is a five-tiered, tapering sandstone and marble building, carved with Arabic passages from the Koran. To the south, is the lovely Ala’I-Darwaza gateway. With its horseshoe-shaped arch and fine proportions with beautiful, intricate carvings on bands of white marble, it is a striking example of Islamic architecture.
Through strong sunshine, made hazy by the permanent smog, we made our way towards Humayun’s Tomb, past a large open grassy wasteland. As we passed, I could see a small, neatly wrapped bundle, the size of a baby, wrapped in brown rags with two pi-dogs tearing at it.
The Delhi traffic always appears to be in the middle of the most intense rush hour and I was beginning to think that to drive successfully here, your hand needs to rest permanently on the car horn.
The second Mogul Emperor Humayun died after falling down the steps of his library and his tomb is the first of the great Mughal buildings in India. Built by his senior widow, nine years after his death, the design was an innovation, and the first example of a garden tomb.
Built of red sandstone with white marble inlay, and with graceful arches and domes, the tomb stands at the centre of a formal walled garden divided by water rills. It set the precedent for future Islamic garden tombs, and was to directly influence the design of the Taj Mahal.
Our last stop before heading back to the hotel was Raj Ghat. It was here that the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi took place.
Raj Ghat is on the banks of the sacred Yamuna River. In a grassed courtyard, bare but for a few trees, is an eternal flame and a plain, black marble slab inscribed with Gandhi’s last words. Each day, people come here and with hushed voices, scatter flowers on the marble, and pray.
That evening we watched a mesmerizing display of traditional dancing. The brightly coloured costumes, and the dancer’s flair, made for a truly memorable experience. The highlight of the evening was a dance in which one of the performers, dressed in red and gold, balanced seven pots on her head and danced on the rim of a small bowl. How she managed not to fall off is a complete mystery.
The following morning, we visited the Lakshmi Narayan Temple. Dedicated to the goddess of wealth and wife of Vishnu the temple, financed in 1938 by the industrialist Birla, is not at all what you can call minimalist. Built, in the Orissan style of red and yellow sandstone, it has tall curved towers capped by large amalakas. Inside is heavily decorated. There are small shrines to the lesser gods, while the large main shrine has images of Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi.
Next day, we awoke at the unearthly hour of 4.00am in order to catch the 6.00 o’clock Shatabdi Express to Agra. It seemed as if the whole of humanity had gathered on the road outside the railway station in the chill morning air. Clusters of rickshaws, people milling about and the obligatory cows jostled for position.
As we settled into the air-conditioned carriage for the 2-hour journey, I was looking forward to seeing some of the countryside. Small temples and shrines emerged from the early morning mist, and as the day began to warm, farmers headed to the fields. The land was flat, bare and dun-coloured, with only the occasional tree, pastel coloured building or small shrine for relief.
The city of Agra stands of the banks of the Yamuna River. It is large, dirty and frankly uninspiring. The heavy traffic forces its way, slowly, down narrow streets. Pigs, cows and dogs roam freely, while children in rags run alongside asking for money from passing tourists.
At the Red Fort, of the original buildings, only Jahangiri Mahal survives, featuring mainly Hindu design with a little Persian and Moghul thrown in for good measure. Shah Jahan decorated the fort in a symphony of marble – graceful, fluted pavilions and exquisite, intricate inlay work. The magnificent octagonal Musamman Burj with views of the Taj Mahal, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned until his death, is exquisite, its intricately painted designs on the white marble are true testimony to the Moguls love of design.
Shah Jahan also had the fabled Taj Mahal built as a tomb for his favourite wife, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. A red sandstone gateway, crowned by 22 small domes, one for each year it took to complete the construction, guards the entrance. From the outside, the tomb is hidden, until, as you walk through the archway, it is as if a veil slips away and it is revealed.
As you approach the tomb, you begin to see the glorious detail, and realise that far from being pure white it is set with semi-precious stones. The marble was quarried at Makrana in Rajasthan and is inlaid with red carnelian, red, yellow and brown jasper, green jade, dark blue lapis lazuli, turquoise, gold crysolite, crystal, amethyst, agate, malachite, diamonds and mother of pearl. The inlay work is beautiful, with sweeping floral patterns over the graceful arched doorways.
Inside, the inlay work is if anything more remarkable. There is a high central chamber housing replicas of the tombs of Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Surrounding these tombs is an octagonal latticed screen of inlaid semi-precious stones, each side carved from a single piece of marble.
I sat in the shade and watched two cream bullocks cutting grass, the sound of the crowd humming in my ears, and thought about this monument to love. Set in formal gardens, quartered by watercourses which reflect its splendour, the Taj Mahal is perfection set in stone, a uniquely beautiful building that more than lived up to my expectations.
Fatehpur Sikri was built by Emperor Akbar in thanks for the birth of his first son, Jehangir, but was deserted after just 16 years. Intricate carvings, fretwork screens, beautiful pavilions, palaces, mosques, domes and fountains are found here in what must once have been a beautiful and vibrant city.
Fatehpur Sikri is a haunting, eerie place, seeming as if it is sleeping and will awaken at any moment. The state of preservation is remarkable, and the decorations that are left give an indication of how beautiful the city once was. You could almost smell the sandalwood, and Attar of Roses, hear the music and see the dancing girls swathed in colourful fabrics, and you could imagine beautiful Persian carpets strewn on the floors, the courtyards filled with flowers and the sound of splashing water from the cooling fountains.
We were staying at the Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel in Bharatpur. Built as a hunting lodge for the younger brother of the Maharaja of Bharatpur, it has great charm and character and beautifully decorated rooms. This is a taste of the real Rajasthan. Green Parakeets make their homes under the rafters, the large bedrooms open on to an inner courtyard with a marble fountain, the walls are painted with colourful frescos, and you are greeted at the door with garlands of marigolds.
Visitors come here to visit the Keoladeo National Park, a world heritage site. Once the hunting estate of the Maharajas of Bharatpur, 360 species of birds to be found here together with chital deer, sambar, wild cats, hyenas and a lone tigress.
Here I have to make a confession. I was not particularly interested in visiting the bird sanctuary and had thought it to be a bit of a waste of time, but this is one of the most tranquil places on earth.
We climbed gingerly into a small boat, and it was not long before everyone fell silent. We spent a couple of blissful hours punting along, soaking up the peace. The only sounds were the gentle splash of the pole hitting the water, and the call of birds as they settled for the evening. All too soon, we clambered back on to dry land again, and went back to the hotel.
There is a distinct change in dress visible on the way to Jaipur. The saris become more vibrant. Reds, pinks and oranges predominate, making the fields look as though they have been scattered with jewels. The closer we got to Jaipur and the Thar Desert, the more camels we saw. Camel carts were the everywhere, loaded with goods or overloaded with people.
As soon as we entered Jaipur, I knew I was going to like it. Once beautiful Havelis in desperate need of renovation lined the roads, the air and the streets were cleaner than in Delhi. Bright saris could be seen everywhere; bicycles, some carrying whole families weaved in and out of the traffic; horn honking was every bit as evident as in Delhi; and the poverty if anything more obvious. Beggars and shantytowns co-exist with large and beautiful houses, the two sides of the same coin in an incongruous tableau.
The Palace of the Winds is a one-room façade, painted in the pink of Jaipur, and built to enable the ladies of the harem to watch the outside world without being seen. Its name comes from the constant cool breeze that blows through the lattice screens on the windows.
The City Palace in the heart of Jaipur is now a wonderful museum with textiles, weapons, manuscripts and paintings. In the Hall of the Private Audience, there are two silver urns each able to hold 9000 litres of water, made for the Maharaja to carry Ganges water to London in 1902. In the Dancing Courtyard are four stunningly beautiful fluted Peacock Doorways, each representing a season, painted in gold and fabulous jewel-like colours.
That evening, we took a rickshaw ride around the city. An interesting experience, that involves placing your life into the hands of your driver and holding on very tightly, especially if as I was, you are the only person on the rickshaw. If you are lucky enough to be one of two people wedged in to the seat, it is easier to avoid falling off.
We followed this frenetic experience by visiting the Lakshmi Narayan Temple. Built by the same industrialist who built the temple in Delhi, this could not be more different. With two high, intricately carved domes and built completely of cool white marble, the only colour came from three beautiful stained glass windows set in each side wall.
The Amber Fort is best reached on elephant back. I was a little worried about climbing on to the beasts, but they have a lovely way of crossing their back legs and leaning towards the mounting platform. Rocking from side-to-side up the steep hill, we got a wonderful view of this huge fort, and the surrounding countryside.
The Elephant Gate separating the private and public areas of the Fort is a kaleidoscope of colourful mosaic tiles, a true tour de force. In the private areas, delicate carvings, stained glass windows and painted walls combine in a breathtaking display of Mogul design.
Our final hotel was the Samode Palace, about an hour and a half from Jaipur, along a rutted road little more than a dirt track. The village of Samode was like a scene from Dickens, artisans hammering metal in dingy hovels, open sewers running through the streets, children playing in the dust, pigs and dogs roaming freely. There were the remains of once beautiful Havelis painted in lovely shades of blue with what had been ornate decoration. Suddenly, there was the hotel, nestling in a valley amid the rugged Aravalli Mountains.
Built of cream coloured sandstone, it is a maze of shady courtyards filled with palms, and with corridors leading off in all directions. On the upper floor is the Sultan Mahal, a covered area richly painted in blue and white with scenes from Indian mythology, flora and fauna, and with sumptuous silver furniture with dark blue velvet cushions. The most beautiful room at the Hotel is the Durbar Hall. This lavishly painted ballroom with its crystal chandelier is breathtaking.
I think it is fair to say India has cast its spell on me. It is a country that you will either love or hate. It is a land of stark contrasts – riches and poverty, life and death, beauty and ugliness, old and new, all side-by-side jostling for position. Cows, considered sacred, wander freely, stopping traffic. I cannot wait to go back.