India: Back to the future
More than 20 years after Susan Griffith last visited India as a backpacker, she returned to Jaipur on a luxury trip to find that a recognisably Indian way of life still prevailed
Saturday 07 June 2008
Twenty-two years, 11 months and 16 days: a nostalgic encounter with a dog-eared and long-expired passport told me that was how long it had been since last I travelled through India. The small business of motherhood had prevented an earlier return to the nation that provided such intense memories. On our many family travels to other places, I held up India as the paragon of travel experiences: however chaotic the traffic (Naples), or radiant the sunsets (Perth), however jaw-dropping the markets (Guangzhou) or hot the food (our local takeaway), I would always assure the children that these were as nothing compared with India.
My propaganda exercise proved futile: one of my sons is now on his gap year, and seems intent on visiting most countries of the world except India. My trip was to fill a different kind of gap: the gap of a generation since I last wandered through India to research Travellers' Survival Kit to the East.
The chance to return on a far more luxurious commission had prompted an orgy of travel memories – of an invitation to tea with Tibetan refugees in the Himalayas, of second-class rail journeys that seemed endless, of an overnight stay on a tree platform in a South Indian tiger reserve. I had only hazy memories of Jaipur and was curious to see if there would be an epiphany of recognition – not just of the city, but that far-off Country of Youth.
On my last visit I had flown in on the most dubious of bucket-shop tickets and stayed in dollar-a-night lodgings. This time, I had the chance to test the other side of India: five-star luxury in Jaipur. Would I still be able to soak up the colours and feel the pulse of India when jettisoned into paradise?
There was no mistaking paradise when we reached it, because our group of writers arrived to a trumpet fanfare, along with two decoratively chalked elephants and a troupe of Rajasthani dancers, one with a dummy horse round his middle. Stepping out of a fleet of air-conditioned cars, we were all greeted by a liveried manservant-cum-archangel bearing an umbrella to protect our delicate Western heads from the beating sun. Once past the water garden and sculpted elephants at the hotel entrance, we entered the cool reception hall where we were garlanded with necklaces of marigold blossom and offered iced watermelon juice.
At least that's what the staff said it was. I soon concluded that my companions appeared to have fallen under a spell of indolence, and I began to suspect that the welcoming cup had in fact contained lotus nectar, which sapped the will of Odysseus. Surely this accounted for the baffled stares from my fellow guests poolside when I mentioned my plans to step outside Lotusland to see what there was to see.
Lotusland in this case was the Oberoi Rajvilas, a luxury resort just outside Jaipur. This is a destination hotel – which I guess means the hotel is the destination. But this was not sub-continental travel as I remembered it. Indeed, this was not travel at all.
Within an hour of arriving, I had plotted my escape in pursuit of the unpredictable, secure in the knowledge that I would be coming back to an impossibly luxurious room with a button labelled "Butler", a sunken marble bathtub and a pillow menu.
One aspect of travel in India that hadn't changed was the need to overcome obstacles with patience and persistence. Rajvilas is 10km from the centre of the Pink City (actually more ochre than pink), so motorised transport is required for trips into town. The hotel provided a splendidly be-turbaned driver, with whom I set off into the mayhem of laneless Indian traffic, past signs warning that "Speed thrills but kills". Vikram explained that he had heard of road rage, but didn't think it existed in India.
My destination was the bottom of the Aravalli Hills that surround Jaipur on three sides so that I could walk up to the Nahargarh Fort and palace. The guidebook said the walk was straightforward and would save a 15km journey by road. A friend had also recommended it.
Vikram was dubious. He used his mobile phone to check on my proposal and reported that the route could be slippery, and furthermore was associated with Bad Acts. My curiosity piqued, I was told that it was the Rajasthani equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge, a magnet for suicides. I assured him that I would keep an eye out for bodies falling, and would turn back if it got dangerously slippery.
Perhaps the true cause of his reluctance was that he had no idea how to find the start of the path. Eventually he put his mobile phone away and wound down the window to ask locals sitting on their doorsteps for directions. The path came clearly into view, a broad cobbled track zigzagging up to a battlemented fort clinging to the hilltop. With a clouded brow, Vikram permitted an Oberoi guest to disembark and stride purposefully up a narrow lane paved with cowpats and rubbish.
Mindful that speed thrills but kills, I climbed at a very sedate pace in the afternoon heat, and declined the offer of a lift from a man on a motorbike. I reached the crumbling buildings within half an hour without encountering a single suicide.
Nahargarh palace was built in the early 18th century by the same maharajah, Jai Singh II, who built the planned city of Jaipur. The apartments and interconnecting courtyards served as a retreat for his three wives. Although the site was officially closed for the day by the time I arrived, it was possible to enter the complex along a ramp and explore by scrambling through arched windows. A Hindu temple has been tucked into a bulge in the retaining wall with tantalising keyhole views of the city below, radiating its roseate hue.
For a better view, the man in the mouldering cafeteria directed me to the ramparts, assuring me that "God is there". Word had not got out, judging from how deserted the area was, with just a sprinkling of middle-class couples, even on this night when a full moon would soon replace the blazing ball of sun.
On the way down, I was even less inclined to accept the offers of bike lifts, as a thousand lights in the populous city below began to twinkle or, in the case of wedding receptions, blaze. Besides, Vikram would surely have disapproved. When I described the pleasures of my little expedition, he graciously admitted that he would no longer believe every warning on the end of a mobile phone.
Back in paradise, the others in my party had had an Ayurvedic massage and a dip in the blue-tiled pool, eager candidates for the hotel's ambition to make its guests feel like Rajput princes and princesses. The worst-case ratio of staff to guest is five to one, assuming the 71 rooms are full; when fewer guests are staying, the odds are stacked even higher in your favour. It is seldom possible to feel the weight of the magnificent hand-crafted brass doors because someone always pops up to open them.
Guests are not expected to walk through the magnificent tropical gardens populated by peacocks and parakeets, but to be conveyed by golf cart over the 32-acre grounds. Every morning, staff sweep up the petals that fall overnight from the jacaranda and neem trees that fill the gardens. New blossoms are scattered on the fountains in the private walled courtyard outside every room and new mangoes and apples are brought to your room unbidden. The level of service is unimaginable, the staff impeccably courteous yet not in a mechanical or servile way. I believed the rumour that a university degree is a minimum requirement for each member of staff, and I secretly concluded that all must have passed a Bollywood screen test for good looks, too.
Quite early on, I decided I was not cut out to be a maharani. No self-respecting Rajput royal would arrive with a damaged suitcase handle, an embarrassment compounded by a subsequent broken sandal. Limping back from the City Palace, I met one of "my" staff. "Madam," he namasted, "I shall arrange for your shoe to be mended." A few hours later, a perfectly mended shoe appeared in a cloth bag in my room.
Re-shod, I set off early the next day for another excursion, this one to a holy place of pilgrimage for Hindus at Galta. A short drive from the hotel, a country road leads into a peaceful mountain u o fastness lined with temples, past goatherds tending their flocks. Today's driver was Ramesh, who had not visited Galta-ji since he had come as a boy to bathe in the kunds, or holy pools. He insisted on squiring me round the site, as a special treat for himself.
Galta is colloquially known as the Monkey Temple, not because the monkey god Hanuman is specially venerated but because the site is densely populated with monkeys. They were the only visitors on this particular morning, apart from a handful of devotees and temple minders – no rip-off palm readers, tawdry snake charmers or fake fakirs, as at the tourist magnets of Jaipur's City Palace and the old capital at Amber. The only commercial opportunity was to buy a bag of peanuts for feeding the monkeys, but I had learned my lesson circa 1982. I was not about to spend 10 rupees only to have the bag snatched away within seconds.
The graceful temples, adorned with delicate wall paintings, line a picturesque gorge leading up to stepped bathing pools and a temple of the sun god hewn from the solid rock of the hill. Water from the steep surrounding hills mysteriously fills the tanks, and devout Hindus believe that it has its source in the Ganges 800km away. A wild-looking holy man was chanting from the Ramayana. We were invited into an inner temple and shown a flame flickering inside a glass case which, we were told, hasn't been allowed to go out since the reign of King Akbar, a contemporary of Elizabeth I.
There was no time to ponder the likely truth of this claim: it seemed that the Westerner who thought she had the measure of naughty monkeys had lost one of her sandals, left outside the temple. A young man clambered up a wall in hot pursuit of the errant primate and soon returned with the sandal, now ripped through. Ramesh was astonished when I produced a spare pair of shoes, a precaution in case the mended ones proved uncomfortable. When I returned to base later and happened upon my personal genie disguised as a cobbler liaison officer, I couldn't resist showing him my inauspicious shoe. Again he insisted it could be mended, and again he was true to his word.
One evening a party of French people who had arrived in their patron's private jet commandeered the pool area for an outdoor buffet. Fairy lights and lanterns bedecked the trees around the pool, like a James Bond film set. Indian classical music drifted over the fragrant air. Who could carp at such loveliness, even if it is the stuff of fantasy? This was not the India I had known, but it was still distinctively Indian. The jasmine and marigold garlands presented to guests were on a continuum with the flowers adorning a dust cart in the Chandni Chowk bazaar of Old Delhi; the hand-stitched quilts and linen were possible only because of centuries of Rajasthani craftsmanship. With relief, I realised that this luxury hotel had not been sanitised to the point of international blandness. The grace and manners of the staff cannot be equalled in the West – and certainly not by some of the pampered guests. (Westerners in Bollywood flicks are often typecast as drunken and foul-mouthed buffoons in contrast to the civilised Indians.)
Eventually the time came to leave paradise and proceed to Mumbai. Here there would be a chance of coming across a professional ear cleaner, a street sculptor who could create a bicycle from a single piece of copper wire, a seller of spicy milky masala chai or crushed sugar-cane juice. I set off to sample as many modes of transport as I could: a battered old bus to a mystery destination, the ladies' compartment of a commuter train and a Fiat taxi (fare of 20 rupees or 25p). I knew that this was not how the average Oberoi guest was expected to comport herself. But I didn't care. I had discovered India's magic in a new place but been reassured that it hadn't disappeared from the old. My only regret was not mentioning my broken suitcase to my genie.
The writer travelled with Kuoni Travel (01306 747 008; www.kuoni.co.uk). A seven-night trip, including accommodation with breakfast at the Oberoi New Delhi, Oberoi Rajvilas (Jaipur) and Oberoi Mumbai starts from £1,536. This includes return flights on British Airways to Delhi, domestic flights and transfers.
Flights from Heathrow to Delhi are operated by BA (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Air India (020-8560 9996; www.ba.com), Jet Airways (0870 910 1000; www.jetairways.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com). The trip by road to Jaipur takes about five hours.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur (00 91 141 268 0101; www.oberoirajvilas.com). Double rooms start at 16,500 rupees (£201) per night, room only.
Red tape and more information
On 13 May, there was a series of bomb blasts in Jaipur. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) advises: "You should exercise particular caution when in the vicinity of key government installations and tourist sites, attending public events (including religious events), and in public places including hotels, airports, shopping malls, and on public transport."
British passport-holders require a visa to visit India, which is available from the High Commission of India in London (020-7836 8484; www.hcilondon.net); or the Consulate General of India in Birmingham (0121-212 2782) or Edinburgh (0131-229 2144). A short-term tourist visa costs £30. You are advised to apply well in advance of travel in case of processing delays.
Rajasthan State Tourism Authority: 00 91 141 237 2200; www.rajasthantourism.gov.in.
Indian Ministry of Tourism: 020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org
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