By Sandya Sagar
A historic journey via the longest-running travel company in the world, Cox & Kings. Through the arched windows of the Musamman Burj palace in Agra Fort, I saw the Taj Mahal amid the green fields in the distance, shining like a diamond in a sea of emeralds. The snaking Yamuna River in the foreground was calm under a bright cloudless sky, birds soared above and the wind gushed through the ventilated fort where Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ruled India 350 years ago. I was standing in the very room where the king spent his final days grieving his wife Mumtaz Mahal’s death and staring at the tomb he built for her as a testament to their love. The interior walls of the Agra fort, beautiful with carvings and marble inlay work, have witnessed history and I was fortunate to be in the space once occupied by royalty. Up close, the Taj Mahal, with its fine white marble is the most beautiful monument I ever laid my eyes on. It sparkled in the sunlight, its four pillars scraped the heavens and the tree-lined azure pools in the front reflected the arched domes. It was my first time in Northern India, a place steeped in history and vibrant with various cultures and languages.
I booked a 12-day tour with Cox & Kings (C&K), a luxury travel company that has more than 250 years experience in travel to India and worldwide. I wanted to ensure that I was able to experience authentic India without any hassle, and C&K is known for creating unforgettable getaways to the most exotic places. They take care of the all of the details, and provide knowledgeable local guides, allowing travelers to truly experience the destination.
After an afternoon enthralled by the beauty of Taj, my C&K guide Anil and I traveled to nearby Fatehpur Sikri, a far less touristy land lost in time full of palaces built by Shah Jahan’s legendary grandfather, Akbar the Great. The red sandstone buildings are a fusion of Persian and Hindu architectural elements. The area was never resettled after the king moved the capital to Agra, and thus remains well preserved and a sight to forever cherish.
The day before, after a long but comfortable journey from New York, I arrived in Delhi, capital of India. After a brief stop at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the residence of the Indian President, Anil took me to the Qutab Minar. Built in 1199 A.D., the red sandstone tower, with its striking carvings, stands 240ft high next to India’s first mosque. Upon our departure, Anil suggested a rickshaw ride through the streets of Old Delhi, which offered a fascinating glimpse into daily life in this bustling city. As a kaleidoscope of colors, scents and sights whizzed past, I began to realize this trip would be unlike any other I have taken. That night, as I wandered through the Mughal inspired lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel, where arrangements were made for my stay in Delhi, I couldn’t help but admire the attention to detail and the care taken to ensure the guests have a grand time.
From historic Delhi and Agra, I visited one of the most exotic places in India- Rajasthan, which is home to the Thar Desert and famous for its festivals, textile arts, colorfully decorated camels and spiced cuisine. It also has some of the most opulent hotels in the entire world. In the desert state, my first stop was Udaipur. Known for its lakes that make it an oasis in the desert, Udaipur is replete with palaces and exquisite temples. In the middle of Lake Pichola, The Taj Lake Palace hotel built on an island looks as if floating on the serene waters. After arriving by boat (the only way to get there), I was greeted with a shower of rose petals and champagne. The Sarva Shresth suite, which I occupied during my stay, was furnished with regal beds, hand painted walls, and oriental carpets. With exceptional service at every step of the way, I experienced what it must have been like for royalty.
The following day, Anil took me to the City Palace, a colossal white royal palace of uniform buildings set on a hill along the shores of Pichola. Built entirely in marble and granite, it looked gorgeous in the afternoon sunlight. Upon entering through the grand Elephant Gate, the Jagdish Temple worshiping Lord Vishnu came to view. With sculptures and perfectly manicured lawns, the palace was ethereal, and left me in utter reverence for the aesthetic tastes of the once upon a time Rajput Hindu rulers of India.
The highlight of my visit to Udaipur however, was an exclusive visit that Cox & Kings arranged with Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur. We enjoyed tea at the Shambhu Niwas Palace and discussed my visit to India thus far. It is these moments that set trips with Cox & Kings apart from the rest. Sitting on the terrace of the Lake Palace that evening, overlooking the beautiful Lake Pichola, I fell just a bit more in love with India, for all its natural and palatial beauty.
Traveling north, through the Aravalli Hills and villages, we went on an 8 hour drive arranged by C&K to the “Blue city” of Jodhpur. Aravalli are the range of mountains that dominate Rajasthan and separate the Thar Desert from the plains and plateaus of the eastern parts. It began to rain halfway through as it was monsoon season (July through September), and the green hillsides seemed even more verdant opposite the gray skies. I saw camel caravans and roadside markets as we entered Ranakpur, Rajasthan’s massive marble Jain temple can be found. Jainism is similar to Hinduism in that it shares the respect for the natural world, which is made clear by the pristine environs of the temple. I spent a few quiet moments just roaming around absorbing the spirit of the main temple, which is supported by 1440 uniquely designed marble pillars, and has floor to ceiling marble carvings, a feast for the eyes.
Upon entering the city of Jodhpur, the roads reminded me of those in Delhi, filled with honking cars, free ranging cows, motorbikes, rickshaws, etc. But what stood out was the pale blue light that emanated from indigo colored houses that lined the narrow streets. And of course how can one forget the sight of the commanding Mehrangarh Fort with its 100-foot walls set on top of an undulating hill overlooking the town.
I checked into the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel that night, and wondered if every palace in Jodhpur was built to compete with Mehrangarh fort. Umaid Bhawan is the largest private residential building in the world set amidst 26 acres of lush gardens. The golden hued sandstone monument has lavish interiors with gilt furniture and elegant artwork. After a game of billiards with my fellow travelers, I retreated (shall I say) to my “chambers”, and fantasized about donning an elegant Indian princess sari and riding off into the sunset on a horse-drawn carriage.
After a C&K arranged lunch with the Royal family of Rohet at Mihirgarh, known as the sun fortress, we embarked on a jeep safari to the nearby Bishnoi village. The Bishnoi people are a community of Rajasthani Hindus known for their love for nature and animals. Women dressed in colorful saris and men in white dhotis and shirts appeared so content, feeding and playing with their young. Living in modest thatched roof mud homes with rural paintings on their walls, the Bishnoi welcome deer and antelopes to graze in their fields. The men of the village welcomed us with a traditional (yet much diluted) opium ceremony. Being in a village was quite a contrast from the luxurious palaces I’d seen so far, but it was humbling and memorable.
Back on the dusty highways, we drove through the rolling Aravalli Hills to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital known for its historical legacy, colorful textiles and pink sandstone structures, earning it the nickname The Pink City. Before settling in to the Rambagh Palace Hotel, Anil arranged a stop in the city center where he led us to a rooftop perch for a bird’s eye view of the hustle and bustle of the city.
The following day, we visited some of Jaipur’s many architectural wonders including the Amber Fort, a breathtaking structure perched on a hill over Maota Lake featuring massive gardens along with elaborate gateways, pavilions, temples and palaces. The Sheesh Mahal within the fort stands out the most with thousands of tiny glittering mirrors on the walls that never cease to amuse. The Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds) is one of the most well-known landmarks in India. Its 953 beautifully carved semi-octagonal overhanging windows let the wind circulate and keep the palace cool in the summers. The palace was built for the purpose of letting the ladies of the royal household observe the daily bustle of the city life without being seen.
After a trip to the Shree Carpet & Textile Mahal for a block printing demonstration and a bit of shopping, Anil took me to the City Palace followed by Jantar Mantar (astronomical observatory) built 300 years ago for making cosmic observations that are hidden to the naked eye. The complex consisted of various geometric monuments that are used together to calculate eclipses, planetary positions, etc. I wasn’t sure what was in the heavens, but I knew what was in the stars for me, an evening of relaxation and indulgence at the Rambagh Palace Hotel. With opulent furnishings, exquisite art and grand chandeliers, my room was a royal sanctuary, but I didn’t retreat to it until after a few savory drinks to celebrate the successful and unforgettable tour of the three most beautiful Rajasthani jewels.
A short flight from the desert capital of Jaipur, I landed in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India’s seaside financial and film capital perched on the Arabian Sea. Mumbai is a world unto itself, reflecting both the affluence and the poverty of its 20 million people. Cars whizzed past shantytowns, and the rich seemed oblivious to the poor living in squalor right in front of their eyes. But Mumbai still remains the city of opportunity where everyone is living his or her dream.
Before checking in at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, we experienced two examples of fascinating organization amongst the chaos of Mumbai. The Dhobi Ghat is the world’s largest outdoor laundry, whereby local men (called dhobis) rent space within this maze of open-air concrete wash pens, and make a living handwashing clothes, bedding and linens form many of the city’s top hotels and businesses. Equally as impressive is the dabbawallahs of Victoria Station who collect freshly cooked lunches from the residences office workers in the suburbs, deliver them to their respective workplaces throughout Mumbai and return the empty boxes back to the customer’s residence, all using the intricate railway systems of the city.
Continuing my journey through spiritual sanctuaries, I visited the Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site, located on an island off the harbor 15 miles away from the Gateway of India. Hewn out of solid rock, the Elephanta caves date back to the 600 A.D. and consist of shrines for Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Nobody knows who built them. The most marveled at sculpture is the one of the Trimurti, the celebrated trinity: Lord Brahma the creator, Lord Vishnu, the preserver and Lord Shiva, the Destroyer.
Returning by boat back to the mainland, as the setting sun cast a golden glow over the city, I couldn’t help but feel exhilarated. I had gone back in time to witness a part of history that made India what it is today–a thriving, culturally rich country with an array of amazing sites and multitude of traditions, religions, languages and cuisines that continues to draw attention on the global stage. Cox & Kings allowed me to take in the majestic sights, sounds and spirit of this amazing country without a single worry about my next step. I was able to truly experience India.
The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi
Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur
Rambagh Palace, Jaipur
The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai
About Cox & Kings
Founded in 1758, Cox & Kings has over 250 years experience in creating unforgettable travel experiences throughout the world. With expertise throughout the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Middle East, the Indian Ocean islands, Asia & Pacific, Latin America and Europe, the brand offers unique opportunities to truly experience the cultures, landscapes and people of some of the most far flung destinations around the world. From Discovery and Luxury Group Journeys to Family, Private and Custom Designed adventures, Cox & Kings is the expert in experiential travel. Unique itineraries include “Treasures of Eastern Turkey,” “Indonesia: Bali to Borobudur” and “Heart of Central Asia: Uzbekistan.”
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