Henna Nights: India with the girls

by Judith.Baker

Shopping, massage, henna tattoos, restaurants, yoga, romantic views… Rajasthan has it all for a group of women travellers – and a homestay, living with locals, is a safe and friendly way to see it

When the girls started to talk about a holiday, I knew immediately where to suggest. Over a takeaway curry we imagined ourselves eating real Indian food, trying on silky bright saris, wearing lots of kohl and henna and starring in Bollywood weepies. None of us had been to India before, but we had developed a keen interest in all things Indian. Not the Slumdog angle, but the glamorous Bollywood stuff. Our fantasy was to ride off into the sunset on the back of an elephant.

We headed for Rajasthan, where we were captivated by the romantic palaces of Jaipur and Udaipur. We opted for homestays rather than hotels to make the experience more authentic and, we hoped, more comfortable. Homestays, like the good old British b&b, offer holiday accommodation in private homes, ranging in India from grand colonial houses to city-centre apartments. Hosts at homestays will also arrange local drivers, taxis and airport pick-ups.

We booked our accomodation through Mahindra Homestays (www.mahindrahomestays.com), launched last year to develop the homestay industry in India which is becoming an increasingly popular way to see the country. The company has a stringent quality inspection system to ensure the homes meet the needs of discerning travellers – and we were not disappointed. 

In Udaipur, we stayed with a retired Indian Army major and his wife in their lovely home in the mountains. From the veranda we could see The City Palace shimmering in the hazy yellow sun. Our hosts immediately took us to their hearts – and at tiffin time, as soon as we were served dainty pastries and delicacies more suited in size to a dolls’ tea party, we were won over like little girls visiting favourite aunts. In the evening an enormous home-cooked feast, flavoured with delicious spices, filled the table. Only Natalie made it to the early-morning yoga session on the roof terrace.

We caught a glimpse of some fabulous hotels, many of which we vowed to visit on our return.The Taj Lake Palace shimmers over the serene waters of Lake Pichola, overlooking fountain pavilions, hilltop fortresses, ancient temples and medieval gardens. The hotel seems to float almost magically on the lake's surface, and guests arrive via water transport. We had a fabulous evening at the Ambrai – the garden restaurant at the Hotel Amet Ki Haveli, overlooking the lake – where there is music and dancing under shady trees.

From Udaipur we flew to The Pink City of Jaipur, famous for its Amber Fort and Palace, where we stayed with Smriti, a beautiful 37-year-old woman who runs a homestay called Palm Court. Originally from a wealthy family, she had entered into an arranged marriage at the age of 16. Smriti uses most of the money she makes from her homestay to fund a local orphanage for children with HIV/AIDs, many of whom she rescued as street children. 

While the home cooking was out-of-this-world, we were tempted to try some of the local restaurants, including the romantic rooftop Sheesha (+91 141 403 3668) in Khasa Kothi, MI Road. Here we also took that elephant ride, arranged for us by our hostess when we told her of our fantasy. Had we been more organised, we could have pre-booked a tour of The Amber Fort with an elephant ride included, through the company Aathitya (www.aathitya.com).

On our dusty sightseeing trips, we quickly came to understand that India – like us girls – can go from serene and calm to noisy and dirty in a matter of minutes. However, we did make time for indulging all our senses, from tasting delicious food and enjoying Indian head massage to having henna tattoos on our hands and feet – and, of course, shopping.

We came back laden with pashminas, jewellery and fabulous embroidered tops. The famed Johari Bazaar jewellery market is one of the most famous in central Jaipur City, but the souvenir market in Jaipur doubled as a stage for puppet shows and dancing displays, and the carefully ordered bazaars sell fabulous textiles.

We ended our trip in Delhi, which we were amazed to find is one of the world's great shopping cities. There are markets such as Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar but our favourite shopping district was Connaught Place, or CP as it is known, which has its own take on designer chic. Built in 1932, it is based on Victorian architecture and modelled on the Royal Cresent in Bath. It can be found in the Janpath Marg, close to New Delhi railway station.

There, Vicki came into her own haggling over silver bracelets. She ended up with hoops all the way up her arm, from wrist to shoulder, which played havoc with the security equipment at Delhi airport. Thanks to the local people we met, who gave us invaluable advice about travel, sightseeing and shopping, this proved to be an affordable and safe way to see Mother India – an ideal trip for a group of women.