Despite reports of horrors and hassles, Richard Alleman always dreamed of going to India. He finally did ‑and encountered surprising luxury and wonders at every turn.
Halfway around the world, constantly on the edge of political or social upheaval, frequently written off as one of the most backward, difficult, and impoverished places on earth, India cannot be entered into lightly. Even sophisticated travelers think twice before they consider going ‑and some come back with more horror stories than fond memories. When a travel‑editor colleague heard that I was finally making my first trip, she instructed me to regard every meal as an attempt to poison me. To make matters worse, after I plotted a dream itinerary through Rajasthan‑palace hotels, car and driver, a guide at every stop ‑and got all the shots, the political situation deteriorated and I almost backed out. This was last March; terrorist bombs had just rocked Bombay and Calcutta. New Delhi was next, according to a State Department advisory. It was not a good time to go to India. But then, is it ever? When a week passed and nothing else happened, I decided to go.
It takes two days to get there. I fly overnight from New York to London, overnight again to Bombay, where I change planes for the two-stop hop to Udaipur, my introduction to the state of Rajasthan. Forget about jetlag, forget about terrorists, forget about everything you've ever heard: My first impression of India is one of total wonder ‑and unexpected efficiency. The little airport is spotless and delightfully laid‑back. I am met by my guide, the first of many Mr. Singhs, the instant I'm off the plane. The desert air is crisp. The women in their red, orange, and mustard‑colored saris and their masses of jewelry are magnificent. Another pleasant surprise is the little car that's going to transport me a good 1,500 kilometers over the next ten days: a gleaming white Ambassador, the signature automobile of India, a 1990s model that still looks like the 1950s Morris Minor it's related to. It has four doors, high seats with blue quilted upholstery, white antimacassars, even curtains. Mohan, the driver, is a man of few words, almost none of them English.
Udaipur is one of Rajasthan's most beautiful cities. A tidy, prosperous town of white cube houses and a population of 300,000, it was once the capital of the princely state of Mewar. But like all such capitals, it was reduced to county‑seat status when Rajasthan became just another state in the Union of India after independence from Great Britain in 1947. But don't tell that to the maharana of Udaipur, who is still treated like a feudal lord by his countrymen and who still lives lavishly on the edge of Lake Pichola in Udaipur's stunning collection of semidetached city palaces. The palaces also house a major museum and one of the world's great hotels, the Shiv Niwas Palace.
The Shiv Niwas has no lobby ‑just a hole‑in-the‑the‑wall reception nook off an outer courtyard. From here to the guest rooms is a long walk ‑but one that could have been art‑directed by Cecil B. De Mile. A red‑turbaned bellhop escorts me up a cobbled drive to a great lawn where a couple of large monkeys eye us as we cross the grass. We pass through a massive carved archway into a mirrored throne room where the maharana still gives audiences. On the other side we come upon a blinding white‑marble swimming pool and patio. My room is at the far end of the patio, secured by an enormous brass padlock. Inside it's all Oriental carpets and Mogul arches, but the pièce de résistance ‑and there seems always to be a pièce de résistance in India‑ is the view. Shimmering like a mirage across the deep blue waters of Lake Pichola is Udaipur’s most famous landmark, the Lake Palace Hotel, star of scores of travel posters and several movies, including The Jewel in the Crown.
Over the next two days Udaipur frequently amazes me: the frescoed rooms, the life‑size mosaicked peacocks, the miniature Mewar paintings at the palace museum; the dancing fountains and spouting marble elephants of the Garden of the Maids of Honor; a sunset boat ride on the lake, when the city glows gold and the sky purple. The city also has its simple pleasures. I get up at sunrise one morning and take a solitary walk through town as it is waking up. People brush their teeth in the street and on rooftops. Big white cows sashay Mae West‑style down alleyways as if they own them. I spend fifteen minutes ogling a family of monkeys cavorting atop a temple wall. Teeming, impoverished India is not evident here. And the great surprise, the great joy, is that nobody hassles me, save for an occasional hello from a street kid.
I could stay forever, or at least a week, but alas, there's so much Rajasthan and so little time. Thus at 8:00 A.M. on my third day in India, Mr. Singh, Mohan, and I climb into the Ambassador for the all‑day drive to the village of Rohet. Driving in India is part travelogue ‑a flood of images of water buffalo, camels, men in white, women in red, bulls with tricolor horns, weird trees with buddy orange blooms on knobby, bare limbs. And part Indiana Jones ‑a constant gauntlet of cattle, ox carts, motor scooters, and, worst of all, the dreaded TATAs. These Indian big rigs, manufactured by Bombay billionaire J.R.D. Tata, come in all shapes and sizes, announcing their presence with a huge chrome TATA logo emblazoned on their grills, which are usually embellished with bulls' horns, flags, garlands, tinsel, evil eyes. They are colorful, but heaven help anyone who gets in their way. At first I think Mohan is playing chicken with these monsters, but I soon realize he is skillfully using the last inch of roadway before veering onto the shoulder to let the TATAs pass.
En route to Rohet we stop at two spectacular sites. The first is Kumbhalgarh, a fifteenth‑century hilltop fortress surrounded by 36 kilometers of crenellated walls broken up with fat round gates that look like nuclear reactors. Inside are the ruins of 360 temples, cenotaphs (memorials to the dead), and palaces. It was from here that the Mewar rulers defended their land; Mr. Singh and I make the assault by crawling through a tiny trapdoor in one of the gates, taking care to avoid the great spikes intended to repel elephants. We then climb to the cloud palace at the top, from which, Mr. Singh tells me, "on a clear day, you can see Jodhpur." As we wander through a maze of courtyards, terraces, and rooms with fading frescoes, I find it hard to believe that up until the late 1940s, the maharana's family spent part of the year in residence at this lonely spot. It's also hard to believe that we are the only sightseers.
This is not the case later at the Jain Temples complex at Ranakpur. It is swarming with tourists and with followers of the Jain religion, an offshoot of Hinduism so nonviolent that some of the faithful carry brooms to brush away insects in their path rather than risk stepping on them. At the same time, the Jains have been supersuccessful in business and have invested much of their wealth in their temples. The most spectacular one here has 29 halls and is a virtual forest of sculpted white‑marble pillars, 1,444 in all, each of them different. Dating back to the mid‑fifteenth century, the temple looks as though it were built yesterday.
The sun is setting and the land has turned to sand by the time we reach Rohet, a dusty town of 4,500 people, highlighted by a fortress frescoed with elephants, camels, and warriors. Mohan drives through the fortress gate and we are met by Siddharth Singh, an attractive young man in a black polo shirt, and by his beautiful wife, Rashnmi. Siddharth, like many Indian aristocrats faced with rising costs and heavy taxes, saw that the best way to maintain his family's estate was to turn it into a hotel. But Rohetgarh is no ordinary hotel. Here Siddharth does his best to provide his guests, who have included Lord Snowdon and the late Bruce Chatwin, with "an authentic Indian experience." For instance, we eat the fancy dinner with our hands.
After dinner Siddharth's father, Thakur Mahendra Singh, who is the titular head of 384 villages in the area, casually suggests we repair to the courtyard next door to watch a little dancing in connection with the Hindu festival of Gangaur, celebrating the marriage of the god Shiva to the goddess Parvati. "A little dancing" turns out to mean that virtually every child in the village has come for the event. There is a hush when our party enters and sits in the only chairs. The music starts, but it is not the villagers who perform; it is Singh's mother, wife, and sister, dressed in red and gold saris, who rise and begin a sensual, twirling dance called the ghoomer. Soon other women join in, and ultimately a few men ‑including me‑ are called on for the ger‑ghoomer, a kind of rhythmic, stick‑striking square dance.
At a village engagement party the next morning, I have yet another authentic Indian experience when I am offered a hit of opium. "Opium is illegal," Siddharth tells me as we enter the tented foyer of a simple house, where several dozen men in white are reclining on carpets around an old man who is diluting liquefied opium with sugar water. "But this is a thousand‑year‑old part of our culture, so the government ignores it." As I imbibe a tiny bit of the drug, proffered from the old man's cupped hand, I am more concerned with hygiene than legality.
The engagement party is the first stop on Siddharth's "safari," which takes us into the desert for a couple of hours. We fly through the sands in Siddharth's black four‑by‑four. The area is home to a tribe called the Bishnoi. "Born environmentalists," they cut down no trees, kill no animals. Thanks to them, India's endangered black buck has been saved. Siddharth then points out, off in the distance, one of these Indian antelope with delicate spiral horns. Before long we have closed in on an entire family; the adolescents don't just jump, they levitate. Siddharth maneuvers the Jeep among the cavorting creatures; I nickname him Dances With Black Buck. Deeper in the desert, we stop at a walled Bishnoi compound of round cocoa‑colored adobe huts. The head of the extended family that lives here shows us around his pristine home and offers us some sweet milky tea. I drink it cautiously, hoping it's hot enough to kill off anything that might make me sick. Ultimately, eating in India is a bit like safe sex: Even when you follow the rules, you're never really sure.
We enter Jodhpur, Rajasthan's second‑largest city and an hour from Rohet, via a suburb of posh pink sandstone villas, a prologue to what is probably the poshest pink sandstone structure on earth: the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Built between 1929 and 1942, this Art Deco aberration of Hindu architecture is 700 feet long, almost 350 feet wide, and has a 150‑foot‑high rotunda, 347 rooms, an enormous underground swimming pool, and 26 acres of lawns and gardens. It's the kind of place that only a William Randolph Hearst ‑or a maharaja‑‑ could have conceived. While having drinks under stuffed tiger and leopard heads in the Trophy Bar of the 94‑room hotel within the palace, the current maharaja of Jodhpur's great aunt, Baiji, gives me the official line on the Umaid Bhawan. Supposedly, it was started by Maharaja Umaid Singh in order to give work to his subjects after a devastating drought in the 1920s. Why not just give them money? According to Baiji, who does public relations for the palace, the pride of the Rajput people precluded handouts.
Staying at the Umaid Bhawan is a surreal experience. I am struck by odd things: the echo of my footsteps on the marble floors, breakfast on the colonnaded veranda with a pride of peacocks, the weird clock collection in the palace museum, the Radio City Music Hall interiors of the maharaja and the maharani suites. Ultimately the Umaid Bhawan is so big, so grand, so overwhelming that it puts you in your place rather than making you feel at home ‑yet you wouldn't want to miss it.
In Jodhpur, you also don't want to miss the city's other great attraction, Meherangarh Fort, home to the maharajas before the Umaid Bhawan was built. Kipling called it "one of the grandest sights in India. Lit with the glory of the morning sun, it stands on a cliff over the town, like some great Leviathan left high and dry by a subsiding flood." Set above the blue‑washed houses of Jodhpur's old city, this fifteenth‑century skyscraper, with its 120‑foot walls rising to clusters of delicately sculpted latticed balconies, has been a museum since 1972. Its treasures range from royal cradles to jewel‑studded robes that Diana Vreeland brought to New York for her Indian costume show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985. What I love most are the howdahs (elephant saddles), which look like the cars of some royal amusement‑park ride; they are silver, gold, mirrored, quilted, tented; some even have built‑in umbrellas. A sign in the howdah hail says: WE ARE THE RELICS OF YOUR CULTURE; PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. Most of the museumgoers, here and everywhere else in Rajasthan, are Indian families.
A boy and his monkey
It's a long drive on mostly narrow, tertiary roads from Jodhpur to Mandawa, a town in a region of north Rajasthan known as Shekhavati. I get a headache from too many bumps and too many TATAs, but Mohan seems unfazed. From time to time he points out sights he thinks might interest me: giant vultures, peacocks, green lentil fields ("Here‑good water").
Shekhavati guards what is perhaps India's best‑kept secret: whole villages of wildly frescoed havelis (town houses). These outrageous works of art were actually status symbols, commissioned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a frenzy of one‑upmanship by nouveau riche local merchants, most of whom made their money in other parts of India. Themes and styles differ enormously ‑from psychedelic renderings of Hindu religious epics to proper portraits of Queen Victoria. Some of the later frescoes depict motorcars, gramophones, and airplanes; there are erotic scenes, too, usually relegated to hard‑to‑see spots.
The fortress hotel in Mandawa is similar to, but much grander than, Rohet. Converted in 1978, Castle Mandawa is known to adventuresome French and German tourists, but not to Americans. The general manager, Arvind Shanna, a Shekhavati native, has lived in Paris and London and has collaborated on a book on the painted havelis. He is the ideal guide, and after a theatrical dinner ‑complete with a procession of flame carriers and musicians ‑in a grassy castle courtyard, we go for a walk. There are few people; it's very quiet; the frescoes are hauntingly beautiful in the full‑moon light. At the end of the walk we stop at a stall and buy some paan, the ubiquitous Indian digestive made of crushed coconut, betel nuts, and various spices wrapped in a betel leaf, which men on the street are constantly chewing and spitting out. "It will help your digestion and freshen your breath," Sharma says.
I don't know about my digestion or breath, but something certainly spices up my sleep. Holed up in my columned castle bedroom, I have some of the most intense dreams I've ever experienced ‑dreams of earthquakes, of flying, of being able to move objects with my mind, of walking through walls and doors; dreams within dreams, a few of them X‑rated. Is it the full moon, I wonder upon waking up, or is the place haunted? The next morning Mr. Sharma seems amused when I tell him about my fantastic night. I later learn that sometimes one of the ingredients that make up paan is hashish.
After Mandawa I'm not sure if I dare risk another palace in a remote part of India. But as we pass through the main gate of Samode, I am happy to find myself suddenly in a pretty mountain village of cobbled streets and awninged houses. High above the town, pale yellow Samode Palace, now a 30‑room hotel, is another incredible vision of grand stairways, vast courtyards, and lavish interiors. The only problem is that the night of my visit, the palace is stormed by a busload of European tourists, here from Jaipur for an evening of red carpets, snake charmers, and endless photo opportunities. They're gone by ten o'clock, however, and I spend a blissful, dreamless night in a beautiful suite.
It's good that I am well rested because I have only 48 hours left in India ‑and there's still much to see. I can only allot three hours for Jaipur, the largest city in Rajasthan, but my guide rises to the challenge and we dart through the wonders of this pleasing pink city. We begin at the open‑air observatory, built in 1728 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Sing II, which with its gigantic sundials and astral clocks looks like a futuristic sculpture garden. Next we zip through the city palace of the polo‑playing, high‑living current maharaja of Jaipur, known to jet‑setters as Bubbles, with its collections of costumes, weapons, carpets, and illuminated manuscripts. Finally there's the famous Amber Fort outside the city, which we approach by hopping on board an elephant piloted by a twelve‑year‑old Sabu who seems to be in training for the Ganges Grand Prix. We pass five other tourist‑laden pachyderms on our ascent. The bad news is that our elephant has a cold; I am soaked by the time I dismount.
The point of all this rushing about is to get to Agra before nightfall. I have saved the best for last: the Taj Mahal. I knew that for security reasons the Taj was no longer open at night. I didn't realize, however, that because of Hindu‑Muslim violence in Agra earlier in the year, it is no longer illuminated. Thus my first view of the Taj, from my room in the Taj‑View Hotel, is rather disappointing: just a hazy gray silhouette that matches the cloudy, late‑sunset sky. I close the curtains and try to erase the image from my mind. In the back of my mind, though, I am ready to be let down by the thing I have most wanted to see.
Happily, the Taj is still open for sunrise sight‑seeing, and the next morning I meet Mohan and M.A. Khan, my final guide, in the lobby at 6:00A.M. Khan is an erudite Muslim in his sixties; he wears a red baseball cap over his gray hair. The VIPs he has escorted include presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon; Queen Elizabeth II; Tito; and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. If I am to be disappointed, at least it will be in good hands.
We get to the Taj compound at 6:20. A handful of other sightseers are waiting outside the red walls. At 6:25 we are allowed inside, and we walk down a long red arcade, which used to be a caravansary and which now houses souvenir and postcard stalls. Beyond is the main Taj gate, an enormous structure with eleven cupolas that could be a tourist attraction in its own right. The gate is closed, however ‑security again. My first proper view of the Taj is when we pass through the checkpoint of a tiny side entrance.
And there it is. Bathed in fragile morning light, backed by a pale blue sky filled with wispy black and white clouds, fronted by its lineup of reflecting pools, the great white marble landmark doesn't bowl me over. Instead, it fills me with a sense of peace ‑the way a Zen garden does. And even though it is, if anything, much larger than I had imagined, it impresses not so much with its size as with its proportion... its perfection. Initially Khan remains silent, allowing me to savor this long‑awaited rendezvous. Later, as we walk along the reflecting pools, he starts pointing out the many architectural influences ‑Persian, Moorish, Turkish, even Greek, French, and Italian‑ that come together here. Close up, we zero in on details ‑the inlaid semiprecious stone work, the trompe l'oeil sidewalks; and surprises‑the fleurs‑de‑lis motifs, the twisting, Bernini‑like columns.
And, of course, he retells the romantic, heart‑wrenching story of Mogul emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj as a memorial to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died in childbirth in 1629. Deposed by his son in 1658, Jahan, who never remarried, spent his last years imprisoned in the Agra Fort looking up the river at the great monument he had constructed. Legend has it that Jahan planned to build and be buried in a twin black marble Taj across the Yamuna River; this seems unlikely. His raised marble tomb is to the left of that of his wife's, deep in the heart of the Taj. It is the only asymmetrical element in the entire complex.
By the time we make our exit it is 8:30 and our conversation has turned to politics. Khan is appalled by the current wave of Hindu fundamentalism that is overtaking his country and threatening many of its Muslim monuments. But he is equally hard on Muslim fundamentalist extremists in other parts of the world such as Egypt. "Akbar [the sixteenth‑century Mogul emperor] had the right idea," Khan says. "He tried to bring religions together‑Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Jams‑but he was 800 years ahead of his time, because I'm afraid it will take another 400 years before we reach that point again." As we approach the armed guards at the security check, Khan points back to the Taj. "Can you imagine," he asks, "how anyone would want to do harm to anything as beautiful as this?".
The passage to India
I planned my India trip through a company in New York called Our Personal Guest, which is headed by Pallavi Shah, a savvy Indian woman with some 25 years of experience with Air India, much of it spent in Its U.S. marketing and public relations office. Shah started her travel agency in 1989, and between her drive and her contacts‑ she is on a nickname basis with most of India's maharajas and maharanis he can put together the Itinerary of your dreams. In addition to room reservations, Our Personal Guest can set you up with a chauffeured car, top‑notch guides, even an audience with a maharaja or two. For further Information, call: (212) 319.4521, or see page 244.