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India's Golden Triangle
 
(2016 - Spring Issue)

Writer: Ilona Kauremszky



Plucked from the fray upon my arrival at a luxury hotel in India’s alluring Golden Triangle region, home of the Taj Mahal and the finest royal Mughal landmarks, I hear my private butler whisper, “Please follow me.”

He leads me through a labyrinth of marble halls at the ITC Hotel Mughal in Agra that spills onto an Indian Garden of Eden bursting in pomegranate trees. Amid the abundant fruit-bearing grove we walk past a perfect symmetrical Mughal-inspired fountain. He faces me and says, “You will not believe it until you see it.”

We ascend a low-lying observatory tower. “Now, close your eyes.” He takes my hand. I follow. “Please open them.”

Ahead stands the luminous imprint with its crowning glory: the Taj Mahal. Even in the distance, this Wonder of the World takes my breath away as so many images will on my trip to India.

Nowhere else in the world do vestiges of the past perfectly intermingle with contemporary life. This patchwork of past and present weaves a tapestry so natural as to be almost imperceptible. India entrances and seduces all into a world of the old and new in a country morphing before us.

The best way to scratch the surface of India is to join an escorted tour. All of the fine details in trip planning from arrivals and transfers to meals and accommodation including a knowledgeable local guide make a world of difference. I am able to explore countless sites that would have otherwise been impossible due to time limitations or tricky logistics. Over nine days, my world changes. It’s true what they say that India is life changing.

A fabulous introduction for first-timers and repeat travellers to India is on a luxury trip to the Golden Triangle to see the glorious hallmarks left by India’s greatest Mughals. This large and wealthy empire originally from Mongolia ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and was known for magnificent art and architecture. The Golden Triangle includes Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.

Delhi

The first stop is the capital of Delhi. A chaotic city, fully alive and constantly being reinvented, Delhi is where the medieval Mughals and later the colonial British made their fortunes and left enduring legacies.

One fabulous way to explore the striking contrast is to experience Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest markets in Old Delhi. Hop onto a rickshaw for a dizzying, mind-bending ride through a maze of crammed streets laden with commerce. Mounds of bright orange marigolds carpet the dusty road as shoppers oblivious to a resting sacred cow amble past the bustling shops, which are visual treats beyond compare. Ribbons of candy-coloured beads dangle off thresholds at wedding boutiques by the Kinari Bazaar. I poise my camera in this sensory overload and instinctively fire off photo after photo.

My exotic journey continues at the Jama Masjid. Constructed in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the same Mughal of Taj Mahal-fame, it is considered India’s largest mosque. Open daily, the house of worship does have a dress code. No shoes, no shorts for men, and gowns for women are available at the north gate entrance.

Rows of prayer carpets in beautiful bordeaux and wheat tones with mosque motifs line the courtyard. Persian and Islamic influences are reflected in the slender minarets, the onion-shaped domes and intricate stonework. Completed over six years with 6,000 labourers, this architectural feat was Shah Jahan’s final opus. Cool and quiet, the main prayer room, the mihrab, is adorned by a chandelier glittering above worshippers.

Agra

We leave behind the cacophony of Delhi with its incessant car horns and gyrating frenzy and head south toward the wheat basket of Uttar Pradesh. Fleeting scenes are a refreshing tonic. Brightly painted kilns pop against the golden crops as women thrash wheat by hand while legions of children run along the baked dirt roads.

The ancient city of Agra is all abuzz upon my arrival. More street vendors and women in flowing saffron saris majestically wander past vegetable stalls. Children play in the streets amid a Jungle Book of characters as monkeys survey the spectacle from high atop their walled thrones.

Agra is a traveller’s treasure chest of a fantasy come to life. By the hotel’s garden with its glorious backdrop of the Taj Mahal I take a morning Ashanti yoga class and give a sun salutation to the world’s greatest monument to love. Back at my suite, there’s fresh coffee, a token from Trevor my butler who later escorts me to the bus and gives me one final tip on the legendary Taj Mahal. “Remember to stay inside the gate before you enter the grounds. You’ll see why.”

At the main gate, tourists flutter about. In this swell of humanity, I take my butler’s advice and stand still in this darkened epicentre where a brilliant surrealist trick unfolds. Natural sunlight filtering into the gate’s portico turns the threshold into a magnificent telescope poetically aimed at the Taj. The wondrous site from this vantage point is indeed a tease.

The Taj Mahal is both a mausoleum and a monument to eternal love built in the 17th century. The tombs in the basement are off-limits but on the main floor the pair of cenotaphs in stunning pietra dura (a stone inlay) are captivating as streams of visitors pay their respects. Often thought to be designed by giants and finished by jewellers, Shah Jahan built this flawless masterpiece to his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. She is laid to rest at this monument to undying love as is he.

The next stop in my Mughal odyssey occurs at the Red Fort of Agra, a palatial fortress on the Yamuna River. Akbar the Great (1556–1605), the third Mughal emperor, made Agra his capital and built this walled sandstone complex. Many consider this fort with Hindu and Islamic influences as the most important in India. It was the royal residence of many Mughals including Akbar’s grandson, the Shah Jahan who sadly later died there imprisoned for eight years by his son Aurangzeb. For the romantics, the Octagonal Tower, Musamman Burj is a must-see. The marble tower ironically was built by the Shah Jahan for his wife’s residence but, in a weird twist of fate, this beloved perch became Shah Jahan’s prison. Ironically, the deposed dying Moghul was able to catch a final glimpse of his wife’s shrine, the Taj Mahal, in the horizon.

Ranthambhore National Park

We leave behind lovelorn Agra and embark on a short train ride to Sawai Madhopur for the next Indian fantasy: a safari in search of the elusive rare Bengal tiger. 

The Nahargarh (meaning abode of the tiger) Ranthambhore hotel is a fitting stopover. This modern recreation of a royal private residence was the vision of Gaj Singh Alsisar, the son of Rajasthan’s last nobleman of Alsisar. The palatial hotel lies on the doorstep of the former royal hunting ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Hunting is banned and illegal and, thankfully, naturalists tell me there has been a revival of Bengal tigers. Still, you need to be on the ready to find one.

On my early-morning safari, our jeep enters the historic gate of the Ranthambhore National Park. The park, one of the largest in northern India, is home of the royal Bengal tiger and was the setting of many ancient battles; remnants of forts dot the isolated cliffs of the Aravali mountains (meaning line of peaks). Revered as India’s oldest plateau mountains they are themselves a sight to behold. We now head deeper into the reserve. Surrounded by centuries-old banyan trees and scrub bushes, the semi-arid terrain changes by a plateau of small lakes enveloped in vast green meadows. The jeep suddenly stops.

Binoculars propped, our park guide Nadim whispers, “Over there—the tiger is by the lake.” I crane my neck and peer into my binoculars afraid to blink. The jeep returns to the road and parks near a wall of tall grasses that scallop the lakefront. Then it happens. The magnificent royal Bengal tiger appears. A pair of perfect white circles behind each ear, its languid temperament appears regal. Oblivious to the paparazzi, the tiger sits casually by some green scrub then shifts into a gait crossing the trail we traversed earlier. The entire jeep of onlookers freezes as we watch this bucket-list thrill-of-a-lifetime. 

Jaipur

“Would you like to see inside the private palace?” are the words that strike me as we arrive in the Pink City known as Jaipur. My guide Rajeev, who doubles as a travelling concierge, is able to fulfill nearly every traveller’s wish in this India fantasy but this is an unattainable endeavour or so I think.

The stunning Rajasthan capital Jaipur bathes in the afternoon sunlight as we approach the palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The historic desert city that looms high above the ancient cliffs has been a royal symbol since the 1700s. “The flag is raised, which means the Maharaja is home,” he alerts.

A royal guard opens the wooden doors. I slink past the private doorway and make a stage left through a marbled columned corridor and then begin the ascent to the royal residence through a private passageway. A stairless serpentine route was installed for soldiers to protect the palace from brazen attack but now only the lucky ones are able to enter the otherwise off-limits area.

At the top of the tower, a splendid terrace overlooks the palace grounds immersed in the shadows of the ancient Aravali mountains. “Please follow me.”

I hear those precious words again. This time, unlike my view of the Taj Mahal, I don’t ponder the sight of the Royal Sitting Room, which appears before me. I walk in and never look back. My fantasy visit of the Golden Triangle has been fulfilled.

Travel Planner

A new Insight Vacations Luxury Gold Collection includes a nine-day India trip with a personal travelling concierge, luxury accommodation, fine dining and drinks, a spacious Wi-Fi-enabled bus with authentic experiences by local experts, and trip gratuities included. For more information, visit insightvacations.com.

I flew Air France with a connection in Paris. Canadians need a tourist visa to enter India. The Indian government has introduced a new tourist visa program (I received mine in less than 24 hours). For details, log onto indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa or visit IncredibleIndia.com.

 
 
 
 
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