There is chaos and there is Delhi. My cycle rickshaw is weaving between cars, tuk-tuks, bicycles and scooters, seemingly hundreds of scooters. The driver is pointing out the sights of the Old Town between yelling what I assume to be directives for people to get out of his way. Occasionally a cow wanders on to the road, adding another element to the madness.
“Temple,” says the driver, pointing off into a mass of buildings. “Mosque.” He tries to add some element of explanation, but it’s impossible to hear him over the cacophany of horns. He smiles and gestures off to his right: “McDonald’s!”
Finally we turn down a lane and into Chandni Chowk, the city’s oldest market. The thoroughfares get narrower the deeper we go. In places you could grab at a beautiful sari or marigold garland hanging from a shop door. There’s a danger of the traders selling vegetables in doorways losing a toe to the rickshaw’s tyres. Overhead, the cables that light these tiny shops seem to be fashioned into an elaborate, teetering macramé. Occasionally a monkey looks down from an awning into the crowds of people filing through.
Less than 12 hours after arriving in the city, this is a lot to absorb. Certainly such an endeavour would have been far too much for a jetlag-addled brain to organise. My travel buddies are in rickshaws in front and behind and we finally arrive at Fatehpuri Masjid, a 17th-century red-sandstone mosque bathed in dusty sunlight. Some, like us, are here to admire its creation, others to worship. In the huge central courtyard, children chase pigeons and one another.
This is day one and stop three of the Imperial Rajasthan tour [with Insight Vacations?]. Delhi, of course, is not part of Rajasthan, but there are a number of reasons for beginning here, not least because it’s home to one of the country’s major airports. Between it and Jaipur also stands one of India’s – possibly the world’s – most famous monuments, the Taj Mahal. Regardless of how many times you’ve admired this marble dedication to one man’s love in photographs or on the television, you’ll probably still audibly gasp when you catch a first glimpse. No trip to the north of India is complete without spending hours viewing its pearlescent domes from every possible angle.
Rajasthan is the largest state in India and the tour will cover vast areas of it in an air-conditioned bus. During the long drives our guide, Devender Singh, a local who has been leading tours around the world for 20 years, will fill our heads with the involved history of the region and its many sights, stories from his travels, and tidbits about the country we’re passing through. (Out of the bus, he fills a similar role while also ensuring no one gets lost, eats something they shouldn’t or pays more than they should for a trinket.)
The tour’s focus is the heritage of the region, and it’s a fascinating prism through which to see the country. Rajasthan was once home to the Indus Valley Civilisation, who lived in these parts as long ago as 3300BC. Tales abound of Mughul princes making politically astute marriages to women from adjacent dynasties, eagles placing curses on maharajahs who built forts on sacred land, and rabbits determining the site of ancient cities. Few people realise that during the English colonisation Rajasthan remained autonomous. Hearing these stories as you’re exploring adds another dimension to the travel experience. Because while Jaipur’s Amber Fort and Palace are simply awe-inspiring – from the lines of elephants carrying visitors up the hill to the majestic Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) – standing in the middle of a covered courtyard and being told about Man Singh’s 12 wives, all of them princesses from neighbouring states, brings the ancient building to life. We then climb the secret stairs leading to each of their chambers, built to avoid jealousy between the women and any subsequent political disaster.
As well as its spectacular creations, Rajasthan is also known for its cultural diversity and artistic traditions. At each of the major cities we visit – Jaipur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Udaipur – there’s an opportunity to become more closely acquainted with these and also to buy exquisite souvenirs. In Jaipur, it’s gemstones and jewellery at Bandihar Jewellers. At Jodhpur we meet Chitranjan Jain, the owner of Maharani Textiles & Handicrafts, who buys fabrics from local communities as well as employing almost 9000 people in his factory making scarves, throws and homewares for designer labels including Donna Karan Home and Kenzo. If, for instance, Hermès orders a thousand cashmere throws and his factory makes 1005, those extra five go into the huge amount of stock in his warehouse. You’ll pay about AU$250 for something that would cost many thousands of Euros with a label attached. Richard Gere is said to have bought everything he could lay his hands on during one visit. Miniature paintings – so called because of their detail rather than size – are on view (and for sale, of course) at the Rajasthan Art School in Udaipur. For those looking for less pricey souvenirs, there are stops at various markets along the way.
Before arriving in Delhi I considered travelling on a group tour something of a cheat. Surely half the fun of any adventure is working out how to get there, what to do while you’re there and where to stay. And what if you end up stuck with a group who are, well, awful? Of course, you can travel the country independently and many thousands of tourists do, but you’d have to remain calm, take everything in your stride, and have an equally Zen travel buddy. This tour, however, is the perfect toe-dipper, especially at those times when the sheer humanity – after all, Delhi alone is home to about 14 million people – starts to make your head spin. I am quickly and thoroughly convinced by the luxury of having all the legwork done for you.
On this tour everything is organised from taking a camel ride in dunes and attending an opium tea ceremony in a Bishnoi village outside Jodhpur (there appeared to be no effects, although the gentlemen attending the brew looked as though they’d been sipping all day) to lunches along the way. The hotels range from luxurious and contemporary (the Suryagarh in Jaisalmer is a glorious replica of a desert castle complete with peacocks roaming the gardens) to more character-filled former palaces and grand family estates. The Laxmi Niwas Palace outside Bikaner, for example, was built in 1904. Its rooms are all different and its bar and reading room decorated with antique furniture and dusty taxidermy animals.
Equally welcome, however, is the chance to – and this may sound like a cop-out – remove oneself from some of the realities of what’s going on outside the bus. Everything you’ve heard about the poverty here is true and it is confronting. But there is also great beauty.
The long days spent driving through the desert could be boring to some, but I find the motion almost meditative. The Rajasthani desert isn’t typically defined by sand dunes. Tufts of dry grass are picked over by varieties of skinny livestock and thousands of hawks circle in the sky. By the road, tiny children wave from rough gypsy camps and harnessed cows walk in endless circles to drive the mill that extracts oil from mustard seed. Women dressed in vivid orange saris crouch in emerald fields tending crops, while nearby teenagers fly a kite made from plastic bags. One minute, you’ll see a stork picking over the bones of a dead dog, the next dogs picking over the carcass of a camel. It’s ruthless and it’s captivating and it’s one of the many reasons India captures the hearts and imaginations of travellers like no other place in the world.