We follow a train of forts through India's tourist-friendly region
Time Out Dubai staff
Express train from Jodhpur It was time for tiffin. I’d risen in the dark to catch the 6.10am express from Jodhpur to Jaipur and, comfy in my ‘two-tier’ first-class seat, I’d had just about enough of staring at the scrub, stopping at nowhere stations and dreading the arrival of boarding passengers. In India a bit of peace and solitude is almost as welcome as a clean toilet, and I still had a compartment to myself.
My breakfast, a spread of vegetable curry, tangy pickles and greasy parathas, had been graciously provided for me by the lovely cooks at the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel. I’m a big fan of bacon and eggs, but the Full Rajasthani was better: subtly spiced, gorgeously fat-unfree and pungently nose-tickling. The first time I heard the word ‘tiffin’ was in Carry On Up the Khyber – a film made in 1968, which I watched in my school holidays a decade later. Sid James and co used the word as a sort of anti-aristo joke, so here I was, roughing it on a train but poncing it with my five-star food.
If I was half-backpacker, half-sahib, it was no accident. Travel in India, until relatively recently, took two main forms. There were the guidebook-hugging budgeteers, attempting to go native, wear robes and fit in (obviously failing). Then there were the grey nomads – rich middle-class, middle-aged, midriff-expanded men in panamas, navy blue polo shirts and chinos and women in ersatz ethnic dresses and big hats.
The maharajah’s Jodhpur I’d started out in Mumbai and taken a night train to Jodhpur – the first of three Js I’d be visiting in Rajasthan. I was met at the station by beturbaned reps from the Umaid Bhawan, a palace-turned-hotel managed by the Taj group. The current maharajah, Gaj Singh II, still lives in a wing of the huge building – an eclectic blend of renaissance, deco and Indian styles, designed by Henry Vaughan Lanchester – but most of it is given over to stately guest suites. I could have happily killed a day – not to mention a life – just hanging out in the building and moseying around its ample grounds, and I could see the advantages of being at the top of the pyramid in a country of hundreds of millions; 5,000 men worked for 15 years building this pile, and there seemed to be almost as many hanging around outside my suite door to bid me a genuflecting ‘How are you?’ every time I went out for a walk.
My two-day visit to Jodhpur revolved around the maharajah and his family’s achievements. First was the beautiful white-marble Jaswant Thada crematorium, built by Sardar Singh, the maharajah’s great, great grandfather, in 1899, in memory of his dead wife. Then came one of Rajasthan’s wonders: the Mehrangarh Fort. It’s cleaned-up and well managed, so visiting it is not unlike going to a major British gallery or museum (with the inevitable big shop and logo-splashed merchandise).
But none of that detracts from the impressiveness of its lofty position, impenetrably thick walls, stunning inner palaces, artwork or colourful collection of palanquins, howdahs, cradles, musical instruments, costumes and furniture. Built in the fifteenth century by another ancestor – too many greats for me to look up – it is an opulent, over-looming masterpiece. I clocked the fact there were lots of Indian tourists, a sign of the fort’s importance and also of the large Indian bourgeoisie that now has time and money to take cultural breaks at home.
Afterwards I popped into the market, but after the calm beauty of the Mehrangarh it was just a bit too manic, hot and beggar-filled. I slurped a cool malai lassi at the locally revered drink stall of the Shri Mishrilal Hotel and got back in the car to be returned to my palace-hotel.
Making tracks to the desert A short morning train ride took me to the fringes of the Thar Desert, a 77,000-square-mile expanse of stony, arid plains and hills – it is, in the main, a semi-desert with far more scrub than wavy dunes – and the town of Jaisalmer. Here I saw quite a large faction of the backpacker crowd, but the great thing about India is there are always more natives than travellers. Where Jodhpur’s fort was a museum, the town of Jaisalmer is a living fortress city – fantastic in that you can walk around real alleys, shops and temples; rubbish in that these are full of touts and trashy souvenirs. Fortunately I had a guide for a second visit and, as often happens, the hassles all stopped and I could really enjoy mooching and meeting folk. I became so relaxed I even allowed myself to be conned into buying a bedspread.
All-nighter to Jaipur My last train – another all-nighter – took me to Jaipur, the main city of Rajasthan, which felt massive and messy after a week in the hinterland. One last fort proved almost too much. I’ve never been a ‘ruin-bibber’ (as Philip Larkin said of church-tourists) and the vastness of Jaipur’s Amber Fort – combined with crowds of visitors, blinding light and intense heat, and a guide with a robotic delivery style, was testing. Though most of what you see now was built in the 16th century, the fort, like all Rajasthan’s mega-buildings, was a reminder of an earlier time when the region lay on the silk road between China and eastern Europe. The fort is a complex of courtyards that separate out all the functions of society – military, mercantile, spiritual, social – as well as men and women and Brahmins and Untouchables.
Before returning to the hotel, we popped into the Unesco-listed observatory in the city centre. Known as the Jantar Mantar (meaning ‘calculation instrument’), this remarkable assemblage of stone and marble sundials, intricate charts and god-sized measuring devices, built in the 1720s and 1730s, is the sort of ‘sight’ that would have UK TV presenter Brian Cox gasping more than usual. Even I panted quietly at the sight of the Samrat Yantra: at 27-metres tall, it’s the world’s largest sundial, and so big you can see the seconds pass as shifting shadows.
Driving to Delhi I hired a car to go to Delhi. A train-lover and completist, my spotter self wanted to do only trains. But I’d listened to experienced Indiaphiles and was advised to use four wheels so I could see some of small-town India, as well as village and agricultural life – the part of India that is disappearing faster now even than during the great agricultural ‘green revolution’ of the ’60s and ’70s.
The car proved a hit. For one, it had clean windows. None of the three trains had afforded clear views of the landscape – one had purple-tinted windows, all had smallish, low panes and, in any case, Indian trains are filthy unless you happen to catch one after a (rare) wash.
At last I saw sacred cows, elegant elephants, working camels. I took in the battle of Indian traffic: pedestrian versus bike versus rickshaw versus car versus bus versus moped versus fate. I ate street food. And I got to stop over at Mandawa, a town full of havelis: old mansions, the walls of which are decorated with colourful, distressed frescoes. The tradition goes back to the 1830s and all Indian life is daubed there, from gods and goddesses to vignettes of the British Raj, to Kama Sutra positions to scenes from the life story of Krishna. It was nearly evening when I was led around the small town centre, and the façades glowed warmly. Haveli owners leave their doors open so you can go in and admire the art – and maybe buy a postcard.
The Mandawa Palace belonged to my favourite class of hotel. Where the Taj-run palace conversions were grand and formal, this was more like a very upscale backpacker place. It looked lived in, full of stories. I stayed in the turret suite, a two-storey garret occupying a circular tower. I rose to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer and to the pigeons cooing amorously.
Sights, sensations, some clichés too Rajasthan was my second trip to India. My first was Kerala. Both are referred to as India lite – tourist-friendly, often tourist-packed, but also full of sights, sensations, some clichés too. I couldn’t fault either as introductions to this vast, dynamic, scintillating land and culture.
India is on the rise, and on the move, and the best way to experience it involves movement too. Mix the high with the low, eat on the platform and in the palace, and try to trick your way round all the obstacles, annoyances, castes and mess-ups.
The train is still the very meaning of life in India and the communal eating, sleeping, chatting and the conviviality make a change from commuting on the packed, plastic commuter wagons we put up with elsewhere; Indians don’t drink, so they’re safe and polite to be among, and they keep the compartments clean and orderly. And the platform pakoras are heavenly.
Dubai to India Flight time to Delhi: About two and a half hours. Time difference: one and a half hours ahead of Dubai. Dhs1 = 15 rupees. Note: monsoon season lasts from April to June, and the weather is humid until August.