Royal India – The Golden Triangle
The cultural and architectural treasures of the Golden Triangle are best experienced in autumn, but be prepared for the highs and lows of travel in India
Getting up before 6am on holiday might seem unnecessary, but when one has the chance to see the sunrise over India’s most iconic building, the poignantly beautiful Taj Mahal, then maybe there was some sense in it. Though little did I know that the sunrise would be somewhat eclipsed by the harsh reality of life in the shadow of this vast 17th century marble mausoleum.
Three most visited
India’s Golden Triangle is made up of three of India’s most visited cities, Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. They showcase India’s most iconic sights, and the circuit is one of the most popular introductions to this extraordinary, incredible subcontinent. Most people start in Delhi, the sophisticated and dynamic capital, but once you leave this wealthy, urban metropolis you need to be prepared; not just in practical terms like inoculations, but ready emotionally for the intensity and extremes of life in India, from palatial wealth to heart-wrenching poverty.
Agra, one of the points of this notional triangle, is home to the graceful Taj Mahal, with its beautifully crafted marble walls, inlaid with semi-precious and at one time precious stones, and surrounded by gardens designed in perfect harmony and symmetry. It is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Golden Triangle experience.
One is frequently told that the best view of this majestic memorial is in the morning from the other side of the Yamuna River; where one has a privileged panorama of the changing colour of the domes and minarets as the sun ignites the sky, starting from a delicate rose pink through to dazzling gold.
It’s a short taxi ride from a city hotel to the river bank, yet like everything in India, it is a powerful experience. Passing people sleeping in the street, or jostling around a standpipe for water, the huge gap between rich and poor in India is suddenly no longer a guidebook cliché but a sad truth.
It’s inevitable to have expectations when travelling. Everyone has an idea of how a place will be. Yet upon arrival, it’s rarely like that and then begins the process of reconciling the expectation with the reality: that happens a lot in India. The marketing images of woman in exquisitely detailed saris, dancing people, laughing children, decorated elephants, and awesome architecture are regularly fed to a hungry travelling public eager to taste the exotic. But of course the reality of a vastly over populated nation without enough jobs and near-to-no welfare means day to day life on the street doesn’t always mirror the marketers’ dream.
It was almost six in the morning by the time we arrived at the litter strewn banks of the muddy Yamuna River. Rolled barbed wire ran along the edge, stopping you from walking further out to get a closer view of the Taj Mahal. Despite this, beyond the barrier on the grubby, dry edges of the river, was a group of young boys playing cricket with an old bat and improvised wickets made from salvaged pieces of wood. Before long an armed guard forced the children off to the other side of the barbed wire. We were told the area was closed for security reasons, to prevent possible terrorist attacks on visitors to the Taj Mahal and also because the river is badly contaminated from the nearby heavy industry. The kids pause their game and run towards us, with the guard striding purposefully behind.
The boys come up to talk us, excited to meet visitors, wanting to look at our camera, smart phone and talk about cricket and football. Their clothes are stained, their hands and feet dark with grime, but their faces are illuminated by smiles. Despite living with little and unable to find a quiet place to play, they convey an enthusiasm and energy that seems to transcend their reality. There’s a poignancy to the scene that feels more powerful than that of the Taj Mahal. Each day India delivers plenty of these simple yet impactful stories of daily life.
Jaipur, an eventful five hour drive from Agra (expect wandering cattle and speeding traffic on the wrong side of the road) is the capital of Rajasthan, the rose-coloured kingdom of the once unimaginably rich Maharajas.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jaipur was the epitome of style, luxury and extravagance on the subcontinent. Viceroys, European aristocracy, polo players and artists were the guests of the Maharaja; enjoying the unprecedented luxury of palaces in the ‘Pink City’. As one of India’s first planned and designed cities, it was a marvel of northern India.
A flavour of this golden era remains, but don’t expect a Bollywood movie experience. Most of the palaces are crumbling, and a sort of romantic dilapidation pervades everything. The exceptional carved detail of the Hawa Mahal, ‘Palace of the Winds’ façade is breath-taking, but so are the fumes and intoxicating smells of the overcrowded main thoroughfare that runs directly in front it.
Unlike the majority of people living in the hugely populated cities that define the Golden Triangle, international visitors can look forward to an indulgent dinner and restful sleep at the end of each day. Many of the Royal residences, like the Ramburgh Palace, have been converted under license into high-end hotels. Guest suites are more like large apartments, appointed with extravagant fabrics and handmade furniture. Upon arrival, rose petals are thrown over one’s head, and a traditional bindi or tilak red mark is painted on the forehead. But just before one can be seduced by this royal welcome, one is ushered by uniformed guards through a metal detector gate and your luggage is security scanned by X-ray; such is the reality of modern day hotels in India.
There are plenty of firms that whisk international visitors through organised Golden Triangle circuit tours, but as an independent traveller one has more time and freedom to wonder, amble and discover. This the chance to meet the people of India, the locals that against all odds remain dynamic and welcoming. Venture into Jaipur’s bazaar and before long one is immersed into a dizzyingly frenetic world of colour, from the bright orange of marigolds to the gaudy gold of cheap jewellery; the noise of people, traffic and animals; and the battling smells of the street filth and the concentrated perfumes of sandalwood and roses.
India is incredible, intoxicating and overwhelming. It is impossible not be changed after visiting the subcontinent. It will no doubt be both a joyous and poignant reference point for future travel abroad.
Copyright: ANDREW FORBES