24 October 2013
Wexas Managing Director Steve Allen and his family decided to travel to India and immerse themselves in the sights and experiences they encountered there.
Here he shares his impressions of India over a series of five special blog posts. Having flown into Delhi and enjoyed the sensory overload of this vibrant city, the family travelled to Rajasthan...
The Taj Mahal beckons
After a delicious breakfast at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi we said goodbye to the solidity and colonial era elegance of the Imperial and its tall moustachioed and immaculately dressed doorman to board our minibus, ready to explore some of Rajasthan.
Travelling by minibus is a good way to see a snapshot of daily life, within the constraints of being somewhat cocooned from the reality. Travelling from Delhi to Agra was easy; the total journey time, largely on a new dual carriageway, was just under four hours with one stop. This new road wasn't busy, in contrast to the many workers we saw in the neighbouring fields, but we didn't see the like of it again in the days to follow.
The view from our nine-passenger bus (great for the six of us plus the guide when we visited a city or place of interest) was of many smallholdings with half acre fields of crops being harvested by hand by an array of women in bright sari's, bent low in the unremitting heat of the day. The impression was of a continuous stream of people, walking, on bikes, in cars and in buses, some looking like they were en route to the scrap yard.
Life in India is in perpetual motion. There would be small villages and towns along the road with shops and stalls, sharing their space with the odd dog, cow and even a wild pig or two. It amazed us how many people could travel on one bus, on one motorbike or in a pick-up. My crowded train and tube journeys to work are really second division in the Commuters League I now realise.
Agra is one of the most iconic places in the world, with the Taj Mahal a true wonder. Shah Jehan comissioned the Taj as a monument to undying love and as a mausoleum for his third queen, who had died during the birth of their fourteenth child. Construction began in 1631 although it took the 20,000 craftsmen some 18 years to complete the building, with stone taken from quarries 300 miles away. The Taj's perfect proportions and opulent marble exterior make it a very special place, the symmetry and scale is quite remarkable, with rose and golden tints at sunrise and sunset contrasting with the pure white in the midday sun, reflecting in the water features in the gardens.
Our first port of call in Agra was our hotel, the stunningly designed Oberoi Amarvilas, which is the only hotel to actually boast views of the Taj Mahal. The view from The Oberoi takes some getting used to, in spite of our 'familiarity' with the Taj Mahal. The hotel gardens are also rich in colour and refreshed each day. Our Creative guide joined us to share the stories around the making of Agra and to take us to the Fort, a palace fit for a king. We were able to walk around a large part of the Fort and took many pictures of the red-stoned buildings and of the views towards the Taj, a couple of miles away.
Walking into the Taj Mahal, and seeing the stunning creation appear as we went through an outer building and splendid archway, was a sight to behold. It really is quite beautiful and one of a kind (in spite of the best endeavours of Indian restaurant owners with properties that share the name!). We spent a couple of hours wandering around the gardens, the surrounding courtyards and then ventured into the mausoleum itself. We were all in awe. Quite simply, it was an 'honour' to be able to be there, and to marvel at one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World; a trip is surely an essential on anyone's bucket list!
We enjoyed a fine local Indian meal, with a variety of dishes that the chef Royston took time to explain at the table, and to then create with his team. A lovely touch as we reflected on our day. We slept well that night.
We discovered that, for the best experience, you had to rise early, grab a coffee and pastry in the lobby, and then take the hotel's private golf cart transfer to the Taj Mahal in time for sunrise. The concierge team can prearrange entry tickets, as well as a personal photographer to snap away. Afterwards, escape the heat with a swim in the hotel pool, followed by a fresh smoothie on one of the covered terraces. Altenatively, try out the spa.
As all of the guest rooms at the Amarvilas have the view, I suggest you choose a room with a balcony, just to add a little extra romance. If you fancy pulling out all the stops, check into the Kohinoor Suite (Number 503) with its handcrafted furnishings and a marble and granite bathroom, or stay in one of the Luxury Suites, with Burmese teak and Greek marble accents and open-air terraces. This is one of the Oberoi's most popular properties and it's well worth spending at least two nights here or, if on a more relaxed time frame, three.
Sadly though the joys of 'slow travel' weren't for us and so, after a hearty breakfast, we set out on the journey south to Ranthambore, albeit with a pretty immediate stop to see how the local craftsmen and women make the beautifully decorated plates and tables, some featuring the silicon carnelian stone which 'glows' red when lit from below. We bought a few souvenirs, including a little image of Ganesha, the Indian god of success and good fortune., but did manage to escape the glittering room of jewellery relatively unscathed, although it took some doing...