Passage to India

Sitting atop the sprawl of a rocking elephant’s back as she lumbers smoothly up the long, steep ramp leading to Amber Fort I realize I have a huge smile on my face. This is why I came to India, I muse: to parade like a pasha in Rajasthan.

Sitting atop the sprawl of a rocking elephant’s back as she lumbers smoothly up the long, steep ramp leading to Amber Fort I realize I have a huge smile on my face.

This is why I came to India, I muse: to parade like a pasha in Rajasthan.

Women at Amber FortThe view down the valley to the outskirts of Jaipur is impressive, but as we pass through the huge gates of the palatial stronghold the soaring edifice rising above the courtyard awes me more. Named for the lustrous hue of its sandstone, Amber Fort is a highpoint of a visit to Rajasthan, its ridgetop location one of India’s most majestic settings. Jaipur itself, eight miles south of the massive fort, has even more to offer, from the ornate City Palace built in the 1720s, to an eerily advanced outdoor astronomical observatory. Then there’s the shopping, which lures expert bargain hunters on a quest for India’s crafts and jewelry.

It was this backdrop that Oberoi Hotels chose for its first resort, Rajvilās. The 71-room hotel sits on an old plantation, re-imagined as a Raj fort surrounding a green oasis. The fortified entrance gives way to a softer interior, where a traditional technique called araish — a mix of lime and eggshell — was used to create a marble-like finish on walls and floors. Jaipur’s famous blue pottery, gold-leaf murals, playful marble statues and handsome wooden doors decorate the common areas. It is ornate and elegant and feels nothing like buildings that sprang to life barely a decade ago.

Today’s visitors to India travel in high style.

At the center of the 32-acre property is a lotus-filled pond — in it is an island with a 250-year-old Hindu temple dedicated to the god Shiva. On my first morning here, before daybreak, I smell incense. Near the small temple’s entrance I hear a priest singing and peer in. He sees me, smiles broadly and motions for me to remove my shoes and enter. “Lord Shiva,” he says, pointing to the phallic-shaped stone lingam he is washing down with cloth and water. The priest offers me plate of rose petals, showing me how to sprinkle them onto the altar, then shares a bowl of Prasad — a blessed snack he tucks into my palm. The ceremony is repeated each dawn and dusk, and the priest rewards me each visit with a magenta string tied around my wrist.

This is also what a visit to India was supposed to be: a dance with another religion — or two or three.

With nearly three million inhabitants, Jaipur is the largest city in Rajasthan, and the noise and traffic in the city center clunk along somewhat mercilessly. But the short flight to Udaipur — a city less than one-tenth the size of Jaipur — rewards with an enchanting landscape of manmade lakes, gentle hills and fairy-tale palaces.Udaivilās, Lake Pichola, Udaipur

A day in Udaipur is a relaxed affair. The most prominent attraction is the city palace, home to the maharana of Mewar — as Udaipur was originally known. It’s also the largest palace in Rajasthan, sitting regally atop a hill overlooking Lake Pichola and the city. In fact there are several palaces snuggling up to one another here, a couple of which have been converted into tourist hotels (one is the famed Lake Palace, run by Taj Hotels).

What I don’t expect is that the street just outside the palace gates is filled with a jumble of enticing shops. One after another, I stop to investigate miniature paintings on paper lovingly stained with age, woven pieces encompassing everything from diaphanous saris to heavy-duty rugs, and folk art jewelry crafted from silver, the mineral for which Udaipur’s mines are so well-known. Before I know it I’m calling home to get dimensions on living room windows that are in need of new curtains.

The Oberoi resort here is Udaivilās, which welcomes guests with drummers, hornplayers and camels bedecked in colorful finery. The hotel rises above Pichola’s shores, a delirious fantasy of bulbous onion domes, accented inside by scalloped archways and candlelit foyers. Udaipur is known as the city of sunrise, and variations of a cheerful sun god motif appear throughout Udaivilās, along with pavilions and balconies, turrets and jalis (intricately carved marble screens).

Although Rajasthan is perhaps India’s biggest drawing card, no one visits the region without a side trip to nearby Agra, for two vital monuments. The Taj Mahal I knew of, of course, and I approached my first visit with the enthusiasm of a dowager looking to cross a monument off a life list. But the second site, Fatehpur Sikri, was new to me.Entrance guard at Udaivilās

Located about 25 miles west of Agra, Fawtehpur Sikri proved revelatory. In 1570 Emperor Akbar decided to transfer the capital of the Mughal Empire from Agra to this spot, building elegant palaces from white marble and red sandstone. But he quickly abandoned Fatehpur Sikri after just 15 years of habitation, for lack of water. The result is a ghost town so beautifully preserved it’s as if, just prior to our arrival, it had been deposited by helicopter, or as though its inhabitants had mysteriously vanished.

Fatehpur Sikri has two sections, residential and religious. One side opens onto the dry lakebed that proved to be the city’s doom. The palaces, mosques and tombs are finely carved and lack the wear and tear of some of India’s monuments. Of note is Diwan-i Khas, a small private audience hall dominated by a remarkable carved column that leads up to a balcony with four bridges extending out to an upper gallery. This one-of-a-kind building might alone have been justification for Fatehpur Sikri’s inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Following a gentle surprise like Fatehpur Sikri, could the Taj Mahal, The World’s Most Beautiful Monument, be anything but anticlimactic?

Well, it helps to have a first-class vantage point, and here again, Oberoi delivers. In 2001 the company built Amarvilās, a resort that boasts the important distinction of being the closest tourist-class hotel to the Taj Mahal, less than 2000 feet from the monument. The hotel’s bar has an unimpeded view of the elegant tomb (the only one in the city with such a position).

The architecture of the seven-story hotel is ingenious, maximizing a compact site by burying the lowest three floors — where the pool, spa and restaurants are found below ground level, creating a sunken garden effect. The décor makes the most of Agra’s famed craftsmen, with liberal use of Florentine pietra dura, the inlay of precious and semi-precious stones in floral patterns set within a marble base. But they key selling point is that every single room has a view of the Taj Mahal — an asset no other can claim.

The poignant story of the monument itself was famously called “a tear-drop on the cheek of time” (by poet Rabindranath Tagore). The Emperor Shah Jahan conceived the Taj Mahal as the ultimate monument to love for his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who had died during childbirth. Twenty thousand laborers constructed the buildings over a period of 12 years. But after its completion, the emperor’s son, Aurangzeb, deposed Shah Jahan and imprisoned him barely a mile away in Agra Fort, leaving the overthrown emperor to spend the rest of his years gazing past the river at his wife’s tomb.

Taj Mahal in Agra

I visit the Taj Mahal in late in the afternoon and after the expected clamor of bodies and outstretched palms, I pass through the main gates and immediately encounter the monument’s exquisitely symmetrical arrangement. A block of visitors angle patiently for photos of loved ones against the scene.

A plaintive water channel lined with cypress trees focuses eyes on the monument, the pool reflecting the domes and minarets with a shimmer. As I make my slow approach to the mausoleum, the light begins to soften, the pearlescent buildings still gleam against the graying sky. Closer still and the detail of carving and exacting inlay work begin to appear — ebony, coral, carnelian and semi-precious stones, with 43 different gems alone adorning Mumtaz’s tomb.

By the time I reach her resting place I realize the Taj Mahal is beyond words, ultimately stunning me to reverence. The notion that I arrived with — that it might be some mere touristo pit stop — becomes absurd.

The transcendence of the Taj Mahal lies in the sum of its parts: a sweetly sad tale, an architectural masterpiece, and the theatre of its visitors interacting with the monument.

Yes, this is why I came to India.

Rates at Oberois’s vilās properties start at $615; or 800-562-3764.

As at all of Oberoi’s vilās — a Hindi word that means abode—butlers, 24-hour in-room dining, a full-service spa, a fitness room and yoga lessons are standard offerings. Live music and dance accompanies most meals in the hotel restaurants and cooking demonstrations are available.

Recommended Reading for India:

By Gregory David Roberts
A convicted Australian thief escapes prison and flees to the slums of Bombay and begins a new life.

A Fine Balance
By Rohinton Mistry
Four characters from different backgrounds form a bond during tumultuous times in recent Indian history.

A Traveller’s History of India
By Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda
A window into the philosophies and movements of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.


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