Northwest India: a whirlwind tour

by Gareth Rose

In one trip, you can take in Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and the Taj Mahal. Be prepared for sensory overload as you explore the forts, temples and busy streets of Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle

Imagine a world with the vitality of Slumdog Millionaire and the bohemian spirituality of The Darjeeling Limited, surrounded by ancient forts and temples, in colourful little towns that pulsate with life…

Imagine the India of your dreams – and a picture of Rajasthan will start to appear.

This, the largest state in the Republic of India, spreads southward and westward from just beneath Delhi – the home of eight successive cities and the country's capital. That, in itself, is worth a visit. Then there is the small matter of the Taj Mahal, a marble tomb in Agra (just outside the boundary of Rajasthan, at its north-eats corner) which resembles an off-white palace that changes colour at sunrise and sunset.

These can all be visited in one holiday, taking you as far away from mundane normality as it is possible to go. Religious festivals, floating palaces, mountain forts, camel parades and abandoned cities – all are here. The only danger is that you will return more exhausted than when you left.

India also caters for all budgets. The cost of living is unsurprisingly cheap. Food bought on the street is delicious, if a little heavy and fattening – think samosas with double the amount of pastry – and should only be eaten if you have seen it cooked.

There are also plenty of guesthouses with wonderful rooftop restaurants serving traditional Indian food, which is often as good as you will find in any restaurant. Panorama (www.panoramaguesthouse.in) in Udaipur and the Blue House (http://jainbluehouse.tripod.com) in Jodhpur, for example, both have fantastic rooms and are set in ideal locations, with friendly staff and wonderful food. If you have more money to spend, the elegance and luxury of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi and the Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur, are hard to match anywhere in the world.

The gulf between rich and poor is pronounced in India, and you will never feel it more than when stepping out of one of these five-star hotels into the throng of Delhi or Jaipur. One minute people are ordering lifts for you, opening doors, smiling and wishing you a good day; the next they are begging, hawking and ushering unsuspecting tourists into auto rickshaws. Both experiences can be quite uncomfortable, but India is not for the faint-hearted.

If you do stay at one of these hotels, you may also want to book tours from within. The Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur is a well-trodden tourist route and many people will book private cars to take them between the three and to all major sights en route.

This may be the most comfortable way of travelling, but you will miss out on so much that makes India special. The chaos of train journeys has to be seen to be believed. I can describe the mad push at the ticket windows, like a crowd surging forward at a football match, or the confusion at the platforms, the boot-polishers and beggars inside the carriages, and the grinding poverty outside – such as whole communities living in shanty towns built under a single railway bridge, or half-naked children standing barefoot on mountains of rubble and broken glass – but my words don't do it justice.

One of the great clichés about India – but also one of the great truths – is that it is an assault on the senses. Everything is so intense, it feels like you are living 10 minutes every 60 seconds. The only way to deal with that is to immerse yourself completely – to live it, breathe it, taste it, smell it.

Having said that, I would not recommend staying in Agra for any longer than it takes to see the Taj Mahal – and maybe the Red Fort of Agra (not to be confused with the more impressive Red Fort of Delhi). The Taj Mahal is exquisite. Beautiful gardens and a man-made pool stretch to the marble building with its famous domed roof and four corner pillars. Identical temples were built on either side just for the sake of symmetry. It looks so fragile, yet it has stood unblemished for 500 years.

Also 500 years old, and one of India’s best-kept secrets, is nearby Fatehpur Sikri. Built to replace Agra as the capital of the former Mughal Empire, the city was abandoned after less than two decades. Walking around its pristine temples, courtyards and royal quarters is a haunting experience.

Rajasthan has a lovely balance to it – a method in the madness. Jaipur is the Pink City and Jodhpur is the Blue City – and the walls of their buildings are painted accordingly. There are pretty lakeside towns such as Udaipur and Pushkar, then mystical Jaisalmer which sits on the side of a desert.

Chittaurgarh Fort is another jewel that should not be missed. It is not so much the fort that is exceptional but the array of temples that stretch out beyond it, like a smaller version of Angkor Watt. They are the oldest buildings in this part of India, with intricate and unusual designs and galleries of monkeys, which sit on walls and watch the tourists – both Westerners and Indians on pilgrimage – as they explore.