Letter from Asia… India’s Golden Triangle
I’m living a fairytale in India. I followed an elephant down the road, and stopped to chat with his mahout.In a palace I was greeted by a genuine princess, and we drank tea on the terrace while peacocks strutted by. Priests garlanded with marigolds set tea lights adrift on the lake after dark, and on the surface of the water their dancing mirrors the twinkling of stars overhead.
Travelling in India’s Golden Triangle, between the historic cities of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, assaults and excites every sense simultaneously. It seems as if a paintbox has exploded, spraying its rainbow of pigments everywhere I go. There’s the vermillion red of the ladies’ sindur, and the terracotta colored henna painting spiders web like patterns on their hands. Climbing the walls is a hot pink bougainvillea, and the girl who just sashayed past me in an electrifying orange shalwar kameez suit. I’ve bought shawls in every shade of blue, purple, and green, and the mango lassi I’m sipping on as I write is a golden yellow.
The past few days have been a whirl, and I’m grateful for the chance to sit awhile in the calm, quiet garden of Oberoi Amarvilas. I need time to process the magical moment I set eyes on the Taj Mahal — the world’s most iconic monument to love — and watched as the early morning rays of light cast a blush rose glow on the marble dome. I posed, of course, like Princess Diana alone on that bench, but for me there was no feeling of melancholy. Rather, there was excitement to explore the Taj Mahal’s UNESCO gardens, admire the decorative floral inlay with its precious stones, and to listen as the mullah called the faithful to pray in the mosque. It’s a sound which has echoed around these walls five times a day, every day, for the best part of 400 years.
Oberoi Amarvilas feels like a palace: I can easily imagine an Emperor or Maharaja standing and admiring the fountains, looking out from his balcony at the Taj Mahal, or swimming in the idyllic pool. Being able to retreat to a haven such as this is much needed: there’s an exhausting noise and chaos to the streets of Agra, which I’ve fought through on my way to the Agra Fort and the magnificent tomb of Akbar the Great at Sikandra.
There are so many monuments packed into the Golden Triangle that it would take a lifetime to visit and fully appreciate them all. I can therefore only tell you about a few of my favourites, places well worth a few hours of your time as a first time visitor to India, or as someone like myself who for a while made the country my home.
In Delhi, seven cities have been built on the same site, each one more impressive than the last. You can peel back thousands of years of history, making your way back in time as you walk through Lodhi Gardens, visit Humayun’s Tomb, or stroll through the bazaars of Chandni Chowk. In Jaipur, the most splendid sites are the royal palaces and the pink painted Old City, which in 2019 was finally named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I love the City Palace and the Jantar Mantar astronomical observatory, the imposing Amber Fort, and the white wedding cake temple that is the Birla Mandir. Every other day there seems to be a festival: dancers, musicians, incense, and fireworks stimulate every sense.
Home from home in Jaipur is the Rambagh Palace, a former royal residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur which has been converted into a five star heritage hotel by the Taj Hotels group. The historic suites are the epitome of opulence with their silk furnishings, fine artworks, and antiques. Having watched a high stakes polo match at the nearby Rajasthan Polo Club, this is where I come to sip a gin and tonic at Steam, the royal train turned bar which is parked permanently in the grounds. Invariably I stay for dinner, either in the Suvarna Mahal (the Rambagh’s Renaissance style dining room), or outside, enveloped by the balmy evening air in the manicured gardens. The Dahi ke
kebab is marinated in yoghurt flavoured with fragrant saffron and cardamom, and the memory of the Dhundar murgh — slow cooked chicken with raw mango and mint — will stay a long time on my mind.I’m waiting for you to join me in the Golden Triangle. When can I expect you to come?