Temples and torrents

Matt Warren marvels at the Taj Mahal, shoots the rapids of the mighty Indus river in a white-water raft, then takes a trip to Rajasthan and the historic city of Jaipur
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The Independent Travel

The golf buggy hums down the potholed streets, past the camels and the munching cows, through the crowds of tea sellers and out towards the rising sun. The sky is reddening above the gate to the Taj Mahal and the touts are gathering, clutching packets of postcards, T-shirts and, inexplicably, armfuls of stick-on beards.

The golf buggy hums down the potholed streets, past the camels and the munching cows, through the crowds of tea sellers and out towards the rising sun. The sky is reddening above the gate to the Taj Mahal and the touts are gathering, clutching packets of postcards, T-shirts and, inexplicably, armfuls of stick-on beards.

Driving through Agra in a golf buggy is like humping through London on the back of an elephant: people stare. As we draw up beside the ticket office, to be disgorged by a hotel driver decked out in a soda-white linen robe, the salesmen are circling - and they mean business. Luxury travel through India is a dreamy, but costly, enterprise. No sooner have we stepped off our ride than stick-on beard prices have doubled.

It is 6am outside the Taj Mahal and we are already drenched. The humidity is oppressive. Smells of baking chapati, sweet tea and cow manure hang in the air, as the hubbub of daily life slowly gains its whirlwind momentum. A couple of backpackers sit smoking and sweaty on the ticket office steps, but the crowds are still small. As the gates roll open and the soldiers, moustachioed and heavily armed, move into place, it looks like we will have the Taj Mahal all to ourselves.

No matter how many times you have seen the Taj Mahal - on the news as a backdrop to a melancholy Diana, translucent at sunrise on the cover of National Geographic, on the fading postcards sold outside the ticket office - nothing compares with the real thing. Turning the corner on to it is as startling as walking into a plate glass window. Even in the muggy white light of today, it hums with an eerie luminosity.

It is hard to comprehend that such a thing was built for love. Perhaps the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan didn't know what he had until it was gone - he built the Taj as a mausoleum for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died in childbirth in 1631. Either way, the Beckhams can keep their thrones.

Three days later we feel as though we are about to follow Mumtaz into the afterlife. As we are sucked down a tributary of the Indus river in a rubber raft, bouncing through the white water and drenched in spume, the wilder side of India begins to bear its fangs. In a corny Hammer House twist, a squall of dog-faced bats circle overhead.

But we are in safe hands. Shaukat Sikand of Raptor Adventure has made some of the wildest first ascents in the world, rafting the virgin northern stretches of the Brahmaputra and being shot at by tribesmen while he did it. Tiny in build but full of chutzpah, he makes daring look a doddle.

Himachal Pradesh is India's adventure playground. Cut through with rivers and jagged with the thrusting peaks of the Himalayas, the state juts out of the flat plains north of Chandigarh and vanishes into the high, otherworldy wilderness of Ladakh. We bed down in Shimla, the state's principal city and former winter capital of British India. Anchored along a precipitous ridge top by a string of "wild-west Tudor", British-era buildings, modern Shimla tips down the mountainside in a roller-coaster flow of houses, shops and roads. Huge peaks - wooded and filled with leopard - frame the city, and rivers rip through the valleys below. From the terrace of the Oberoi Wildflower Hall hotel, we knocked back a cocktail in the hot tub, while admiring views normally reserved for pilots and mountaineers.

The next day, we take out a pair of horses: beautiful thoroughbreds with light feet and big lungs. Riding through the cool woodland, a jigsaw puzzle of light and shade, we explore the trails across the mountains. "You must be careful," says our guide, "some of the tracks are very steep." And so they are. With the empty maw of the valley opening up on our right, it is like cantering along the edge of the world.

But the bigger peaks are best climbed on foot. After driving down spaghetti-string roads and hiking 3,000 metres up a stair-like face, we arrive at the summit of the peak opposite our hotel. A Hindu temple, surrounded by a herd of sacred cows, caps the rocky top and whisps of incense smoke catch the breeze before being sucked down into the baking valley 11,000 feet below. Standing here, with what looks like half the subcontinent stretched out on canvas below, I feel a million miles from the golf buggies of Agra but only one tiny step closer to sampling the whole, great space of India. That, it seems, would be a lifetime's work.

Time is tight in this vast country and we are soon on the road, heading towards Rajasthan and the historic city of Jaipur. Out west the monsoon is late, and the wild red earth is parched, like overcooked pastry. Camels amble down dusty streets and the gigantic forts of the Rajput warlords crown barren hilltops. We ascend the ramp to Jaipur's Amber fort on elephant back, each plodding stride sending us swaying one way, and then the other, like a pendulum. The driver tells us all about his elephant: how they wash together, how they eat together, how they sleep and work together. They sound like a happily married couple.

The fort stretches across the ridge-tops in a labyrinth of crenulated walls, dark, empty chambers and lofty walkways. As the Taj Mahal is a monument to absolute love, so the Amber fort is a monument to absolute power. Time passes, empires fade and the graffiti, peeling paint and crumbling walls are reminders that even the Amber Fort will one day go the same sad way as Keats's Ozymandias, but this magnificent castle has defied the centuries thus far. At the fort's summit, I am told I look like Australian cricket ace Shane Warne. "But perhaps you are not so fat," adds the tactful commentator. It is hard to escape cricket in India, it is the imperial hangover no amount of time, or aspirin, will shift. Across India, cricket balls bounce down bumpy wickets, past the cows and beggars, to be hit for six over tumbledown tin roofs.

Back in the hotel, cricket is on the television. India is in trouble against Sri Lanka and the mood across town is becoming thunderous, like the first fronts of the monsoon. Wallowing in the bubbling pool of the extravagant Oberoi Rajvilas hotel, however, sporting a stiff gin and a grin, it is rather hard to care. As the cicadas chirrup among the palms and the sun slides down below the rooftops, this is the place to see in the end of the world.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled to India with Raptor Adventures (0870 380 0516; www.raptoradventures.co.uk). A 10-night break staying in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Shimla costs from £1,225 per person including air fares, accommodation in five-star Oberoi hotels, transfers, sightseeing excursions and rafting on the Satluj River. Travelling independently, the closest international airport to Agra and Himachal Pradesh is Delhi. You can fly non-stop from London on Air India, British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, though seats are scarce and fares high - reckon on around £600 return. Lower fares, starting at around £500 return, are available for indirect flights such as KLM via Amsterdam.

RED TAPE

British passport holders need visas to visit India. Call the premium-rate visa information line on 0906 844 4544 or visit www.hcilondon.net.

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