Image – Poolside at Shahpura Bagh
An overview of how to travel in India.
Growing up in Durban, my first experience of India was of course local. My grandfather and father both did brisk business with Indian traders; I shopped at Grey Street for eccentric retail fashion – blue diamond shirts, leopard print vests, brogues, and bought my barmitzvah gear at Just Japs. I sat next to Sanjay Naidoo in class and Mr Hyder attempted to teach me Physical Science. Indian cuisine was part of my gastronomy: lazy Sunday crab curries at the Salt Rock Hotel, Britannia bunny chows and Prem’s sweet Tugela litchis were all part of growing up in Durbs, renowned for having the largest Indian population outside of India. Being South African, our first experiences of India can be construed as a local derivative, yet nothing quite compares to the actual thing.
Image – Monastery roof detail, Ladakh
Image – Golden Buddha, Leh, Ladakh
Arriving at 3am in a stinking hot, humid Delhi, jumping into a head-nodding rickshaw taxi and snaking my way through dark, oiled, congested streets to a windowless room at a budget backpackers was my initial baptism. ‘Upgrading’ the next day to the travelers precinct of Pahar Ganj was the next immersion – a smorgasbord of budget transit options waiting for the next ride out ranging from dark $5 cells to $100 a night rooms with attached bath and a/c. It’s chaotic side streets and alleyways are saturated with pedestrians, vendors and their wares, animals, excrement and refuse, all begging the question – why does one travel to such places?
Back then, as a ‘round the world backpacker’ one can easily explain this away as a factor of budgetary constraints and long-term travel horizons. Similar-purposed people tend to congregate in hubs that vend similar necessary services, such as Kho San Road in Bangkok, or for that matter Long Street in Cape Town. And these places, sadly, are some of the first impressions of a country, of a people, its culture and its brand, but hopefully are not the lasting memories. Which is why I believe it is imperative to spend as little time in them as possible.
It wasn’t the multi-award winning Incredible India campaign that got me there in the first place. At that time the Indian Ministry of Tourism’s primary vehicle for communicating the wonders of India to the entire world didn’t even exist. India remains, as it currently does, and always will, the enigmatic, intrepid, spiritual, mysterious, mythological frontier. If you had backpacked around the world, or for that matter Asia, and had avoided India, you may as well have camped out on Clifton 4th, played beach bats and not even braved the water.
This perception of India being the travelers K2 or Everest is not unfounded, and is perhaps moreso than South America, and yet while it is challenging, exceptional and exotic it needn’t be a trip that you have to steel yourself for or against. The reality is it is all this and more, whatever you want it to be – hell, even take the kids, Gran and the In-Laws, there truly is something for everyone.
That said, however, there are certain approaches to adopt that can address this and make the journey one of your most rewarding, one which has real depth, authenticity and uniqueness, in every single one of hopefully many return trips.
India is diversity. With over a billion people it is undoubtedly noisy and chaotic, congested and polluted but if you know what you are looking for, and you research it well, cherry –picking your destinations and planning your mode of transport it can be immeasurably rewarding, peaceful and serene. It has the Himalayas, the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers, deserts, plains, forests, oceans, islands, and snow-capped ranges. Its history is ancient and its influences varied. There are four primary religions Hinduism, Jainism, Sikkism and Buddhism, and there are Muslims and Christians, even a small number of Jews. Then there are the caste divisions, which non-Indians find almost indecipherable. Its geography and climate are as varied as its cuisine and languages (of which there are over 17, excluding hundreds of different dialects).
Clearly one needs to plan well and understand what it is one is expecting to achieve on such a trip. If it’s spiritual window-shopping, meditation and yoga, then there are countless ashrams and dedicated courses, at varying levels. Rishikesh, Mysore and Pune should then be your destinations. If its hiking snow-capped peaks, river rafting or spotting the snow leopard, engaging with Tibetan Buddhism and having tea with the lamas at the worlds’ oldest monasteries then you simply must go to Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir and the Spiti Valley. For elegant luxury and sheer romance, unrivalled service, Rajput history, crenellated desert forts and majestic palaces, there is no better place than the magic of Rajasthan.
Within these choices one can increasingly choose a non-city based itinerary where one hires a reputable driver (this can be done at a reasonable cost) or takes advantage of the excellent and comprehensive rail network (very cheap) between cities. Indian cities are by definition crowded, congested and chaotic. The more time one spends in them the more stressed one is bound to feel, and the more money one will spend. Consequently if one is looking for a more restful, authentic experience, then one needs stay away from the madness and hustle of the cities. For instance a well-researched trip into Rajasthan can rather encompass wonderful heritage hotels, estates and palaces without dwelling too long in the major hubs.
This is precisely where India as a travel destination has matured and excelled. Increasingly there are heritage hotels, eco-estates, privately or family run estates and boutique hotels that will cater discerningly to guests. These can also be found in peaceful, unique areas, and although they may be a little ‘off the beaten track’ they are infinitely more rewarding for their personal attention and exclusivity, being more the preserve of independent travelers and their families then say large, noisy European sightseeing groups demanding all the modcons. More often than not these types of places are located close to areas of natural beauty or specific historical interest, or are simply neighbouring the most idyllic Indian rural villages where you are followed by giggling children, or where you find old men beating copper pots into perfect shape; tailors working with beautiful fabrics on ancient Singers and ironing garments with old coal-heated irons; huge mounds of orange, red, and yellow spices offset by purple aubergines, red tomatoes, and green peppers; women adorned in saris of saturated colors; and temples blaring live music—fresh and natural images that will have you grabbing for your camera.
One such example is Shahpura Bagh, located precisely midway between Jaipur and Udaipur in Rajasthan. This peaceful 45-acre wooded estate is beautifully appointed and set in a lush, verdant, estate, 800 square miles of which was originally gifted in 1630 to the present owners’ forebears by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan himself for success in battle against the Afghans. Against a backdrop of mango and lime trees, Neem, Acacia, Pepul and Date Palms, the buildings now used to lodge guests are ‘pukka’ colonial-era, a sense of which you’ll get, thanks to the sense of light and spaciousness. In a building that’s part bungalow and part flat-roofed cathedral, with a veranda lined by squat white pillars, most guest rooms are vast, double-volume affairs with tall, arched windows that make for plenty of light. This is a place for calm contemplation and serious relaxation, coupled with three primary distractions: boating (and canoeing, which are monsoon dependent), bird watching, and pool lounging. The large manmade dam along the perimeter of the north and west boundaries of the property is particularly lovely, and is a twitchers’ paradise (with an island heronry) attracting Sarus Cranes, Marsh Harriers, Eurasian Curlews, and a variety of storks, ducks and geese while the lush forested surrounds attract jungle cats, jackals, and peacocks and hosts a range of resident owls.
Outside the immaculate accommodations, Shahpura Bagh has an incredibly homely atmosphere, because it is still the family’s home and is run as such. Ask one of the family members for an anecdote about a particular photograph or picture, and do try challenge the congenial owner-host Sat to try list at least one thing that has changed since he grew up here. It’s run with hands-on enthusiasm and genuine concern for guest comfort and personal needs. Meals are of the home-cooked variety (pre-arrange authentic Rajasthani cooking lessons), and arrangements can be made to decamp to various romantic spots around the property (poolside is magical) if you tire of meals around the family table (just ask). The expansive new rimflowpool is one of the best in Rajasthan, presided over by a towering pepul tree and surrounded by peacocks and date palms, it is almost impossible to tear yourself away from its perfect water and luxuriant king size pergolas. Packed lunches for picnic walks and cycle tours make it easy to spend the day exploring the lush surrounds or the quaint adjacent villages.
The types of accommodations also vary greatly with some hotels not actually according to our concept of hotels, and some heritage hotels being majestic historical palaces fit for Maharaja’s and Maharani’s whilst others are run down and derelict with old toothless retainers dusting off mangy wall-mounted tigers. There are wonderful homestays (www.spitiecosphere.com), eco-lodges, resorts, guesthouses, old estates, palaces and luxury tented camps (www.sujanluxury.com). Which is again why one should research widely, or rely on an experienced travel consultant, to choose the type of Indian trip, and indeed the specific India that one would want to experience.
Increasingly becoming a differentiator is the notion of Ethical Tourism – being aware of the way we travel and why we choose certain holidays. In India it is an ever-present concern. The monsoon was extremely late last year and in some areas did not arrive at all. Overall the rainfall is erratic and declining, with the monsoon being highly unpredictable resulting in pressure on people and their resources, livestock and way of life. The increase of tourism in India exacerbates this and while contributing enormously to GDP and poor remote communities (as in the Himalaya or Rajasthan) it can also suck these scarce resources dry. In my inspections there were several new 100 plus roomed hotels in the deserts of Rajasthan with baths and showers, some of which even had televisions in the bathrooms! Again, it is your choice who and what you want to support.
Only a few years ago India was a place to avoid, or one that you’d be mad to visit, perceived to be risky, dirty and dirt-cheap. Today it is vibrant, magical and educational, easy to travel with excellent rail networks and low cost airlines, a range of different accommodations and levels of luxury. It has been acknowledged by prestigious awards, some of which include Conde Nast Traveller, UK in its Readers Travel Awards 2008 ranked India among the top 2 most favoured countries in the world consecutively for the second year. It also received the award for the leading destination at the Asia World Travel Awards 2008.
Ultimately India is extraordinary, on every level, in equal measure, it will challenge, reward, frustrate and delight. It is not an exaggeration to say it is the world in one country. Which of course means one should be well prepared, well researched and understand what experience one would want out of engaging with it. To plan an itinerary, hire a reputable driver and book a range of accommodations is to optimise your independence, minimize the hassle and to relish the small experiences. When these details are taken care of, it allows one the space to merely observe, with an open heart, which is of course the essence of travel.
Having previously backpacked for a year through Asia, this was David’s third trip to India, this time for the well-heeled U.S. Guide Frommers’ 4th Edition on India.
With a focus on unique places and premium accommodation, it was a more upmarket experience than staying in the windowless $10 rooms on his earlier trip but no more rewarding.
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