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India: A land of indiscreet beauty and intrigue


Mary O'Sullivan at the Taj Mahal, which Shah Jahan built for his wife

Mary O'Sullivan at the Taj Mahal, which Shah Jahan built for his wife

Mary O'Sullivan at the Taj Mahal, which Shah Jahan built for his wife

INDIANS don't do subtlety. They stare quite openly. So I wasn't unduly surprised when the waiter serving us on day two of our trip to Delhi kept staring at my husband. Then he could contain himself no longer. "Your husband is a very beautiful man," he told me as he served me spicy vegetables, cardamom rice and yellow dal.

What could I say, except "thanks, he is attractive"?

He went further -- he blurted it to my husband too: "You are a very beautiful man." Kevin didn't know where to look. The waiter told us again as we were leaving the restaurant. Not a word about me, despite the fact that it was obvious from the get-go that I held the wallet, paid for the meal and gave him a generous tip. He could have pretended.

I still don't know what was in the waiter's mind, but that's India for you -- fascinating, confusing, intriguing, exasperating.

It's also enormous and steeped in such a complicated history that only a tiny portion can be explored on your average holiday. The Travel Department offered a 12-day tour of Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan, and the itinerary took in iconic sites such as the Taj Mahal, so we decided it was the way to go. November was also a perfect time, as the temperature was just a little hotter than a good summer in Ireland, and we were reassured that we would be travelling in an air-conditioned bus and staying throughout in five-star hotels serving lovely Indian food.

So, with only minimal precautions -- vaccines and prescriptions for anti-malarial tablets before we left Ireland; using only bottled water throughout our trip and being careful about certain foods -- we knew unless we were to be very unlucky that we'd be OK, health-wise.

The only uncertainty was what would the other people on the bus be like.

Happily, the group members were very genial. A well travelled-lot, numbering 26, they ranged in age from mid-30s to mid-60s but despite, or maybe because of, the age differences, we bonded. It helped that we had a superb guide, a well-educated, elegantly dressed 40-something Indian called Regni, who could hold forth on any aspect of Indian history or culture, be it explaining the order of the Mughal emperors, the days of the British Raj, the intricacies of the Hindu gods, shopping, the dowry system, or the cost of modern-day weddings in India. She also kept the throngs of hawkers at bay.

One of the lovely things about Regni was her romantic soul, so she brought the monuments to life by regaling us with the minutiae of the lives and love stories of the maharajahs.

The first two days were spent in Delhi, visiting the highlights of this bustling city full of huge contrasts. The infrastructure of Old Delhi is all narrow streets and crumbling buildings with a frenzied street life, while New Delhi has elegant avenues and stylish residences, many of which were designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens. Bits of Old Delhi did stray into New Delhi -- as we were admiring India Gate, the National Monument commemorating the 90,000 Indians who died in the First World War, a couple of snake-charmers in dhotis and turbans appeared out of nowhere and began to work their magic on cobras with their music.

A highlight in New Delhi was a visit to Gandhi Smriti. Originally the home of a wealthy Indian industrialist who supported Mahatma Gandhi, it's now a memorial to the great leader. Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life in the house before being assassinated on January 30, 1948, in the grounds.

Gandhi's room is kept exactly as it was, with his few possessions -- his glasses, walking stick, watch, sandals, two spoons, two forks, one knife, prayer beads, a book, his spinning wheel. The path from his room to the spot where he died is marked with his footsteps, photographs of the events of his life and quotations of some of his many wise words. It's a place for remembering the many cruelties visited upon the Indian people, a place for quiet contemplation.

Old Delhi is not quiet. Particularly not Chandni Chowk, often called the backbone of Old Delhi. This is a wide, dilapidated street, lined on both sides by stalls selling everything under the sun. Side by side with hot-food stalls were those selling computers, tyres, car parts, fresh meat, fish, curtains, sheets, more hot foods, fruit, sweets, more car parts.

All human life mingles here, with random cows, water buffalo, goats, camels, horses, chickens and children. There was no way we could have negotiated the throngs and traffic on our own, and looking on from the bus the rickshaw drivers seemed like suicide merchants. However, Regni soon had us ensconced in rickshaws and the ride was exhilarating.

At the end of Chandni Chowk is the largest mosque in India, called Jama Masjid. Like all visitors to the mosque, we had to take off our shoes and respect those praying. The mosque, which dates from the 17th Century, was built by Moghul emperor called Shah Jahan. His was a name we heard a lot, as he not only built other great monuments we saw in Delhi, including the Red Fort, but also the one we were eagerly anticipating -- the Taj Mahal, a five-hour drive away in Agra. It did not disappoint.

It's well known that the best time to see Shah Jahan's memorial to his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is early morning, so Regni had us there at 6am. Against the early morning light, the white marble seemed ethereal and we were able to roam in peace, though it soon filled up with tourists. Mumtaz had died giving birth to their 14th child and Shah Jahan decided to build a peerless memorial to their love. It took him 20 years and 20,000 workers, using the best of marble, precious metals and jewels, but, almost 400 years later, the extraordinary monument with its unique geometric design, embellished carving, marble inlay, and black and white calligraphy, still has the power to captivate.

The Mughals were a bellicose lot and Shah Jahan ended his days imprisoned in his own fort by his eldest son. All he could see from his room was the Taj Mahal. At least it was a thing of beauty -- and, as I discovered, Indians are great appreciators of beauty, female and male.


The Travel Department tour, India — Splendours of Delhi, The Taj Mahal and Rajasthan, is available throughout spring and autumn 2011. The fully guided tour features five-star hotel accommodation, flights from Dublin (via London Heathrow) and luxury coach transfers. Prices start from €1,825 + tax. For further information visit www.thetraveldepartment.ie or contact The Travel Department on 01 637 1600.

Sunday Indo Living