Our driver arrived to pick us up around 4.30am at the Jaypee Palace hotel in Agra. We were about to make the highly anticipated journey for sunrise at one of the most iconic buildings in the world. As we made the short drive through the deserted streets, the dark chill of the early morning mist hung drowsily over the city. Once the car was parked we were led down a dusty street, lined with early morning hawkers, to the main tourist gate of our destination. The Taj Mahal was described by the famous Indian artist Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the cheek of time”, and is one of the world’s greatest legacies, created by one lover as a memorial and eternal gift to another. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan constructed the magnificent white marble mausoleum to express his undying love to his second and favourite wife Mumtaz. The Taj Mahal is nothing less than the crown of India, lavishly created, extraordinarily unique, awe-striking, an irresistible beauty, luring millions of visitors every year, thousands daily.
If beautiful sunsets are your thing, Kovalam Beach in south west India is a sunset paradise. Every afternoon sit back in one of the small beachside cafes, order a ‘Kingfisher’, the local beer, and watch a ball of fire sink slowly over the Arabian Sea. Sunset brings on a host of activities. Local fishermen in old wooden boats float across the pink and orange soaked horizon like migrating Siberian cranes. The sound of piercing whistles break the still evening calmness along with red flag waving by beach patrol officers to remove people from the water after 6pm. The local sun weathered beach sellers become more desperate to offload a coral carving, an elephant embroidered table cloth or a brilliantly coloured sarong.
Cochin is in the Indian state of Kerala where the local language of Malayalam is spoken. Cochin has been a port since 1341, when a flood carved out its harbour and opened it to Arab, Chinese and European merchants. Today the city is rapidly modernising with new-fashioned malls, five star hotels and a brand new rail system. As a tourist in the city of Cochin the place to be is the old Dutch quarter known as Fort Cochin (Fort Kochi). Take a step back to colonial times with place names like Vasco-de-Gama Square, the Dutch Palace and Santa Cruz Basilica, all representing European influences of a bygone era. This is a calm and revitalizing sojourn with friendly people, fine food, abundant shopping and a laid back vibe. Drink in this measured pace before moving on to your next frenetic Indian city encounter.
Our destination for this part of our trip was the city of Jaipur but after a long five hour drive from Delhi we turned off at the 2000 year old town of Khandela in the state of Rajasthan. From the moment we arrived at our accommodation, the divine and regal Castle Khandela, we were given the royal treatment. A small band of drummers welcomed us. We were presented with fresh flower garlands, our foreheads dabbed with orange saffron and, as we walked through the main gate of the hotel, red rose petals rained from the ramparts above. Castle Khandela is a royal destination redefined. It is still the home of Dr Raisal Singh, the eighth Raja of Khandela, if titles were still held, but he has turned the castle into a boutique fifteen bedroom hotel, most suitable for one or two night stopovers.
Your first encounter with this vibrant country may involve surreal scenes like swarming crowds lining the airport arrival area, a lone cow wandering through chaotic traffic, the persistent blaring of car horns, hard working farm women in their brilliant coloured saris or trucks so overloaded they look like they might tumble on their side. Wherever you look in amazing India it is a feast of sights, colours, sounds and smells. Delhi the capital of India is a city of 19 million people. The city is choked with smog and plastic waste but there are efforts to improve air quality with natural gas-powered Tuk Tuks. Traffic is a nightmare and it takes a lot of careful planning to get anywhere on time, an hour to get from the airport to the city centre. Delhi is made up of two parts, Old Delhi and New Delhi. Our tour would include some of the highlights of both cities but we were aware we would only be scratching the surface of this vast metropolis.