by Melissa Rimac
The lapis lazuli sky slowly morphed into a deep velvety mauve, the sun had just begun to slink in behind rippled dunes and, for what felt like an eternity, it was just me and the vast moonscape. But then the desert serenity was shattered by a blindingly bright bolt of lime green darting across the parched horizon. It was a turban which, combined with an enormous cantilevered handlebar moustache, threatened to topple its host - a tiny wizened man who pulled up on his camel, looked at me earnestly, and asked, “Do you know Steve Waugh?”
Incidents like this sum up India - colourful, spontaneous and surprising. “Expect the unexpected”, advise the locals, and they certainly have a point.
The big surprise for many visitors is that travel in India doesn’t have to be a struggle. In fact, you can travel in India with ease and in luxury, and best of all - it’s very affordable. And, in this land of stark contrasts and rapidly unfolding intrigues, there’s one constant throughout - the stunning array of vegetarian food that’s within arms reach of just about anywhere you go. There’s simply nowhere else on the planet where vegetarian travellers have it so good.
In India, vegetarians are spoilt for choice. Every eatery, from the tiniest roadside dhaba to a sumptuous silver service establishment, will have at least several vegetarian options which, due to the religious foundations of vegetarianism, will typically be scrupulously prepared so as to have had no contact with meat products. Then there’s the luxury of a plethora of ‘100% vegetarian’ restaurants.
India is a deeply religious country and, in their purest interpretation, both Hinduism and Buddhism uphold vegetarian as an ideal. Eating the right food is believed to be an integral tool in the quest for spiritual advancement; which renders a huge proportion of the population vegetarian - even if only for select periods of time. The bonus for vegetarian travellers is that it is almost impossible to go anywhere in India without being within easy reach of a delicious and hearty vegetarian feast.
India is a huge, hectic country which, prior to the arrival of the British, was an ensemble of independent princely states, each with its own distinct regional identity. Given this vastness and intensity, you could easily run yourself ragged by racing around trying to cram too much into one journey so, unless you have the luxury of a couple of months to roam around, a much more relaxing and satisfying strategy for a short journey is to pick a region and explore it at a more leisurely pace.
A excellent place to dip your toe into India is in the stunning desert state of Rajasthan. This is quintessential India - vividly colourful, wildly exotic and dazzlingly beautiful - a rugged , rarified landscape dotted with rambling, sumptuous palaces and imposing, crumbling forts, teeming with a dazzling array of intriguing, extremely friendly and hospitable inhabitants.
Having welcomed visitors of all persuasions since trading caravan days, Rajasthan has a well developed transport and tourism infrastructure, with all the major towns and sights being easily accessed by bus and, in many cases the preferable option, train. However, the best way to get the most out of this hypnotic landscape and explore beyond the main tourist trail is to savour it slowly by taking a road trip. Self drive isn’t an option unless you’re up to India’s kamikaze road etiquette, which makes hiring a car with a driver the way to go. But in India, even tasks as seemingly mundane as a cab ride take on the dimensions of a fully-fledged cultural experience!
Our adventure began when our driver, the affable Vinot, whisked us away from the New Delhi Oberoi hotel’s gleaming marble foyer and into his sparkling black ‘Ambassador’. I couldn’t have hoped for a smother transition. Vinot and his seriously slick vehicle certainly inspired confidence - garlands of marigolds draped the mirrors, the paisley curtains were freshly pressed and, most importantly, a pantheon of deities stood poised on the dashboard ready to bless us.
Prayers said and incense lit, we were off. Delhi’s ramshackle suburbia rapidly gave way to bleached desert vistas and intriguing roadside attractions like village fairs where dozens of camels, decked out in their best woolen and tinsel headgear, swagger into town as clouds of sheer tangerine, emerald and magenta silk veils waft towards us, and wedding messenger horses gallop by and tea stalls erupt into impromptu musical outbursts.
Rajasthan’s history is as colourful as its people. Originally comprised of fiercely independent, squabbling princely states, ‘Rajputana’ - as it was then known, became the playground of the fabulously wealthy, wildly eccentric maharajas - arguably the most ardent hedonists that the world has ever known. The good times live on in the whimsical, wondrous palaces that the Rajput rulers built after realising - with more than a little help from the British - that partying, polo and hunting was much more fun than war.
Many of these pleasure palaces have since been transformed into luxury hotels. In the mammoth rooms filled with original furniture and walls lined with sepia family portraits, its hard not to feel like you’re a personal guest of the maharajas. The culture shock here is in learning the fine art of guilt-free self-indulgence.
By the time we rolled into Jaipur the magnificent old city walls cast their warm pink glow over the bustling streetscape. We passed camels carting produce, snake charmers, sadhus (holy men) and disarmingly elegant women threading their way through knots of cycle rickshaws and stalls that burst onto the footpath. The towering City Palace complex - a fantasy of carved pink sandstone, inlaid stone, stunning mosaics, wall to wall friezes and elegant arches - had to wait. We were on a mission to reach the nearby Amber Fort and Palace by sunset when it would be awash in golden light and we’d have the rambling, silent complex to ourselves.
Apart from their standout contribution to architectural finery, the maharajas were also passionate patrons of the arts and, like many cities in Rajasthan, Jaipur has enclaves of painters, jewelers, weavers, textile dyers, printers, leather workers, enamellers and furniture makers. The rich artistic traditions linger, making its almost impossible to visit Rajasthan without emerging weighed down with bargains.
There are also plenty of morsels for ‘culture vultures’, including traditional puppet shows, folk dancing and musicians and singers who’ll make your spine tingle, not to mention the constant flow of mesmerizing people-watching possibilities. The action really flares up at festival time, and if you can time your journey to catch one, the spectacle will more than compensate for the extra planning.
Rajasthan’s colour and life can become overwhelming, so it’s important to incorporate some recharging strategies into your itinerary. If ever you’re going to splurge on a hotel room, its pretty hard to beat the opulence, decadence and inimitable atmosphere of staying in a palace. That said, however, there’s plenty of smaller palaces where a room that you simply don’t want to leave won’t set you back too much more than bottom-end accommodation - especially when it’s converted to Australian dollars.
At Jaipur we lashed out and treated ourselves to staying at the sumptuous Rajvillas complex, which spills over 12 hectares of manicured, fragrant gardens. We couldn’t have hoped for a more ambient retreat, making our way dreamily over moats and ponds thick with bougainvillea and frangipani petals, then along the night-queen scented paths leading to our courtyard - we were relaxed and replenished before we got anywhere near the massive four-poster bed!
Between Jaipur and Jodhpur, an exotic tapestry unfolds - more fairytale palaces, fascinating bustling towns, lavish Hindu and Jain temple complexes and pilgrimage sites, and an endless stream of evocative scenes of daily life. The big advantage of exploring this fascinating region by private car is that you can stop wherever and whenever your curiosity is piqued - which is bound to be very often. Fortunately for us, Vinot was extremely knowledgeable about the area and determined to show us places and people we would never have found without him - like the many intriguing, rarely-visited small towns that lie off main roads.
Not to be missed is Pushkar, a dazzling, whitewashed string of houses and temples encircling a sacred lake who’s bathing ghats are visited by a constant procession of resplendent pilgrims. For Hindu’s, Puskar is a very important pilgrimage centre, and this status is taken very seriously with signs around town reminding visitors that alcohol, meat, eggs, smoking and public displays of affection are banned.
Pushar also takes its commitment to attracting the tourist dollar pretty seriously. Here the weary traveller can bask in all manner of earthly delights - fantastic food (including the perennial Asian travellers’ favourite - banana pancake), massages and fantastic shopping, such as tailor made clothing. For the more studious, there are yoga and classical Indian music schools. Commercialism aside, though, Pushkar is an infectiously mellow and relaxing place to chill out for a few days and a great base from which to take forays into the surrounding desert. Pushkar’s languor and its melodramatic sunsets are best lapped up from a roof-top terrace or lakeside balcony, so it’s best to take your time to find a hotel which combines views and atmosphere.
Rajahstan’s moonscape is dotted with smaller palaces, most of which were the seat of local rulers or hunting lodges of city maharajas. In many ways, the smaller, more remote, palace hotels have the edge. The Arabian Nights locations are unbeatable and, like their larger, more showy counterparts, these humbler palaces are marvelously romantic and ornate, but their atmosphere is more intimate and the decor of the rooms - an attraction in its own right - tends to be more individual and quirky. Chances are the erstwhile ruling family will sit you down to tea and regale you with tales about the good old days before dragging you off to play cricket with the locals.
The food, too, in these smaller palaces usually has more character and comes closer to resembling the doyen of Indian culinary experiences - a home-cooked meal. In Rajasthan, Punjabi cuisine - which has come to be widely regarded as ‘North Indian’ - with its signature complex dhals, spicy rich gravies, fluffy breads and layered flavours, dominates, but in the outlying regions meals typically take on a rustic regional twist.
The other bonus of staying in smaller settlements is the chance to get a glimpse into traditional lifestyles. At sunset, we’d watch timeless rituals from rooftop balconies and onion-domed turrets - like shepherds steering home flocks of goats and gauze, jewel-coloured veils being pulled down over shy, smiling faces as women make their way home from the well, bronze water vases balanced on their heads, and heavy silver bangles and anklets glistening in the last rays of afternoon sun.
Clinging onto the edge of the Thar desert is the ‘blue city’ of Jodhpur, which owes its dominant mauve-blue hue to the local custom of Brahmins (the highest, priestly caste) painting their houses so as to alert visitors to be on their best behaviour - no non-vegetarian food, smoking or unseemly conduct, thank you! The best way to explore it is to wander through the delightful maze of alleyways on foot. Head uphill, resist constant offers of tea and you will eventually end up at the awesome Meherangarh Fort where you’ll be serenaded by musicians as you stroll up the ramparts.
Home here was the jaw-dropping grandeur of the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel, where hunting trophies line the lofty stone walls and patrician men stride around in jodhpurs. Awe-inspiring stuff - so much so that I couldn’t help but feel naked if I walked out of my room sans jewelry (even if I was just wandering down to the garden to watch the peacocks).
From Jodhpur the very aptly named Krishna took over the driving of our vehicle. Apart from a steady hand, saintly patience towards bellicose truck drivers, and an amazing folk music collection - Krishna possessed a type of X-ray vision when it came to finding fascinating off-road villages. With his guidance, we visited the tribal heartlands that surround Jodhpur - including that of the opium-loving, nature conservationist, ultra-strict vegetarian Bishnoi tribe, whose villages are often surrounded by wildlife such as antelope, blue bull and colourful migratory birds.
As the landscape grew increasingly inhospitable, the people became warmer and friendlier. The universal greeting was, “First time in India?” and, the longer I lingered, I couldn’t help but add, “... but not the last.” And this came as no surprise. After several weeks I’d only just skimmed the surface of Rajasthan, let alone the wealth of other intriguing regions India has to explore.
Logistics - Visas are required. English is widely spoken.
Getting There - Singapore Airlines has daily flights to various ports in India, or alternatively, Air India code-shares with other airlines to provide flights which offer the option of stopovers in either Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok.
Best Times - October to March is the cool season (Indian summers are infernally hot) which coincides with the many festivals. It is essential to double (ideally triple) check all festival dates and pre-book accommodation at these times.
Activities - Camel and horse treks, jeep safaris, village tours, wildlife watching in national parks.
Accommodation - Oberoi Hotels operate many heritage properties in Rajasthan, including former hunting lodges in tiger reserves. Call 1800 554 176. The Welcome group also operate heritage properties throughout India, such as Umaid Bawan Palace and several smaller palace hotels. Go to www.welcomheritage.com
Smaller Palace Hotels - Rohet Garh, Kimser Fort and Fort Chanwa Luni are easily accessible from Jodhpur and feature great food, delightful rooms and spellbinding locations amid traditional villages.
Food - Good quality vegetarian food is ubiquitous in India. Veganism, however, is not so well understood, in which case you may need to ensure that your meal does not include dairy products.
Hiring a Driver - Clearly negotiate the price (quoted prices typically include ‘waiting time’ at sights and your driver’s food and lodging) and your route. For instance, it may be a lot more interesting, scenic and relaxing to follow routes which avoid major highways. You will get a lot more insight if your driver speaks a little English. Cars and drivers can be booked in Australia through Travel Corporation India on 02 9679 1504.
Further Information - Call India Tourist Office on 02 9264 4855. Especially to find out about festivals and their dates. Go to www.tourisminindia.com
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