India – Jaipur

JaipurThis was the third time we’d been to Jaipur. The first was way back in 2006 on our first trip to India, when we crammed the Golden Triangle into six days of sheer excitement. The second was a fleeting drive through with Professor and Mrs Plum when we were both in India at the same time, in November 2015. That’s the thing about Jaipur, it gives great value for money. You only have to drive into the town and – bingo – you get an instant “pink hit”, with all the beautiful coloured buildings, the like of which you’re not going to find anywhere else in the world. Jaipur by nightIt’s such a vibrant, lively place, and it’s a pleasure to spend any time there. We thought we’d reacquaint ourselves with the big sights on a full day’s sightseeing on our second day. But for this first afternoon, we decided to try something completely different – a Bazaar, Crafts and Cuisine Walk through the old town that our travel agent arranged through Virasat Experiences.

Oberoi poolBut first – check in to the Oberoi in Jaipur. We stayed here in 2006 and it’s still a lovely hotel, although, to be super-critical, there are just one or two areas where it’s beginning to show its age. That’s inevitable, of course; the Oberoi in Delhi was closed at the time while it received a facelift to bring it back to the immaculate condition we’ve enjoyed there before. Maybe it’s time for the same to happen to the Rajvilas. We stayed in a Premier Room, with its amazing bath that appears to be open to the garden; we remembered from last time there’s Oberoi Raj Mahalno point having a bath unless you start running the water about two hours beforehand, because it’s so deep! We dined at the Surya Mahal on the first night but had the extra special treatment at the Raj Mahal on our last night. Absolutely stunning venue, superb food and service, and it was a real wrench to get up and leave our table at the end of the evening because we’d had such a lovely time. Our waiter Rakesh was absolutely the best.

Jaipur marketEnough food and drink memories, let’s get back to old Jaipur, and Pratik, our guide, who was a fun kinda guy who knew exactly when to be formal and polite and when to risk mixing it with a little matey banter. His itinerary was designed to show the heart of the people of the city; their way of life, their trades, their shops, their craftsmanship; and not to be afraid of trying a little to eat and drink on the way. So we spent the majority of our time in the old market area of Jaipur, around Tripolia Bazar Road. Jaipur market 2We saw the men who sold the big steel trunks – presumably very heavy but no airline is going to damage those in a hurry. We saw all the brassware, and the trinkets; we saw shrines, we saw the stores where they create the most elaborate wedding invitations (it’s de rigeuer for your invitations to be as sassy as possible in India).

DressmakerWe went inside an old haveli; we saw jewellers, and shoemakers, and dressmakers; we watched as a number of all-female parties bundled themselves into these tiny stores for one of them to try on wedding dresses and for the others to coo in approval. I tried some lassi (Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen) and it was absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t bother with the betel leaf. We pretty much took a look at every trade on offer and it was all fascinating. Pratik was both very knowledgeable and very humorous in his descriptions and the few hours we spent together passed extremely quickly.

Amber FortNext day – and the final full day of our trip. We started off, like most tourists would, visiting the Amber Fort. It takes about forty minutes to drive there from the Rajvilas, and when you get near it looms out at you from the top of the horizon, like the God of Forts, as it’s so impressive and huge. You’ve got two choices for reaching the top – Amber Fort elephantstake a landrover like our guide Seema (dull) or ascend by elephant (touristy). You have to do the elephant thing really. There’s absolutely no dignity to it whatsoever as you fall back into your howdah, legs flailing about in the sunlight, more moron than Maharaja.

elephantsYour Heffalump-wallah (there must be a technical term for the man who leads your elephant) occasionally shouts instructions at you, which often include parting with cash for some reason, but it’s very hard to hear and we just play the Stupid English Tourist. It can get you everywhere, that act. After a not very comfortable but rather funny twenty minutes or so, your elephant sidles up to a kind of docking station where you have to jump off rapido, Where you get off your elephantthereby losing any final vestiges of dignity you might still have had left. Then it’s down some steps, avoiding eye contact to prevent requests for bakshish from hangers-on who did absolutely nothing to deserve it, and you’re in the main square at the entrance to the fort.

Diwan-i-AamOnce you get inside the complex you’re greeted by the amazing Diwan-i-Aam, the space for public audience, and the Sattais Katcheri, a beautiful space dominated by dozens of pillars and arches, where the scribes would write the revenue records. From the arches at the side you have a stunning view of the Maotha Lake down below, with the endless lines of elephants trudging up and down. Go through another gateway Aram Baghand you reach the pleasure garden, the Aram Bagh, and on the left, maybe the fort’s most eye-catching sight, the Sheesh Mahal, made up of thousands and thousands of tiny mirrors, glittering across the ceilings and walls. It’s a truly awe-inspiring construction.

Sheesh MahalThere’s an area inside where we couldn’t go – but could look through a gap – and Seema told us the man sitting inside working on restoring the pieces of glass comes from a long line of people who have done the same work for generations; he’s now continuing the restoration and also teaching others how to do it. It’s very important for the long-term future of the palace! Elsewhere at the fort you can find a collection of weapons, Sheesh Mahal 2beautiful inlaid balconies, secret views through star-shaped windows, and many other stunning aspects. It’s a glorious place to wander around at your own pace and just drink in the artistry and the history.

Star viewOn the way back into Jaipur, we made the customary stop to look at the Jal Mahal Palace in the middle of the freshwater Man Sagar Lake. The palace was restored in 2008 and now looks stunning and triumphant, a serene island in the middle of all that water. It’s a popular viewpoint and is always crowded with ice-cream and trinket sellers, but it’s really worth taking the time to enjoy the view.

Jal MahalJaipur is very famous for its jewellery, and it is almost compulsory to take time to visit a factory shop. When Professor and Mrs Plum came in 2015, we witnessed her purchasing a beautiful ruby ring, with which she is still very pleased. Mrs C is surprisingly uninterested in expensive jewellery (phew!) but nevertheless you never know when you’re going to see Absolutely The Perfect Item That You Cannot Refuse. So we trooped around this factory, and were treated to a description of the process that takes a rough gem and makes it into a beautiful item of jewellery. Interesting terminology; the man described one process as taking the unfinished item and giving it a “blow job”. I think he meant cooling it down. But I’m not entirely sure.

Jantar MantarOne more major sight to see – and one we remembered fondly from our 2006 visit – the Jantar Mantar. Only in India could you find a place with such a singalong name. And it’s a memorable and extraordinary place. The largest and best preserved observatory built by Sawai Jai Singh II between 1728 and 1734, it has sixteen instruments which can still be used for forecasting summer heat and the monsoon conditions. One of them is made up of twelve pieces, each one representing a sign of the zodiac, which is used by astrologers to draw up horoscopes; and it is traditional for people to have a photograph taken next to their zodiac sign. Jantar Mantar 2I did the touristy thing, and posed next to Taurus; Mrs C pooh-poohed the idea when I suggested she stood next to Sagittarius. Honestly; typical Sagittarian! Although there are other Jantar Mantars in India, there’s nowhere quite like this. It’s like an astronomical theme park, and it’s enormous fun to check the sundials and measure the angles of the stars. Fantastic!

Driving backAnd that was the end of our final day in Jaipur. The next morning we drove back to Delhi, where Mr Singh had arranged for us to have a massage in a place he recommended. It was very good – we both opted for an Indian Head Massage combined with back and shoulders. As is always the case with me, I fell asleep during the massage, so relaxed did I feel. However, I was rudely awakened at the end when the man who had been pummelling me decided to wash my hair in the most boiling water you can imagine. I felt like my scalp was on fire. They obviously breed them tough in Delhi.

on the roadOne more night in Gurgaon before being transferred back to the airport for the flight home – another fantastic trip to India ticked off the list. Next year we’d be back again!

India – Ranthambhore

RanthambhoreThe drive from Agra to Ranthambhore is about 180 miles and including the odd comfort break and photo stop takes a good six hours. So it was no surprise when we arrived at the Oberoi Ranthambhore that we simply wanted to unpack and have a rest. However, we didn’t take into account just how beautiful Our roomthe hotel was going to be, and how friendly all the staff were, and how we wanted to explore the grounds, and how we just wanted to gawp in amazement and gratitude that this was where we were going to be spending the next two nights.

LakshmiOn arrival we were greeted by the hotel manager, a charmingly hearty lady named Ratna, whose enthusiasm for her job and her hotel spreads infectiously throughout all the staff. The next day we would meet her Customer Services Manager – Lakshmi, the elephant. Yes, this hotel has its own elephant, on duty for a couple of hours every morning to wave visitors off on their morning tiger safari, or to welcome them back safely afterwards. The hotel also has its own naturalist, The groundswho gives a different lecture every evening about the local flora and fauna. Normally that kind of thing strikes dread into the hearts of Mrs Chrisparkle and me, but he was actually a really interesting and funny presenter, and you wouldn’t want to miss his talks before going in for dinner or drinks every evening.

MusiciansA helpful, funny and friendly young lady by name TJ took us to our room. I say “room”; it was – as they almost all are – a luxury tent. I expect some are a little more luxurious than others, but ours had absolutely everything you could possibly wish – and all exquisitely furnished with that special Oberoi taste. Dinner could be taken in the restaurant or out in the sunken courtyard – outside was just too irresistible – and the wordsCampfire drinks “feast” and “veritable” come to mind. And whilst they have a comfortable looking old-fashioned Last Days of The Raj type bar, nothing could keep us away from having a drink outside round the campfire, listening to local musicians. It was simply heavenly. The Oberoi in Agra remains my favourite hotel in the world – but the Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore runs it a very, very close second.

Blue bullIt may come as a surprise, but the reason we took two nights to stay in Ranthambhore was not simply to drink gin round the old campfire and be spoiled rotten in the restaurant. We were booked on two tiger safaris, one in the morning, and one in the afternoonStork. For a relatively tiny place, there’s a huge local industry that stems from the Ranthambhore National Park; home to much wildlife including the famous Bengal Tigers. The hotel lobbies are full of people recounting their “we saw a tiger! It came up right this close!” stories to anyone who will listen; the other people with whom you share your jeep will doubtless have been on other safarisOn the jeep and will explain precisely why the one you missed was the one you really should have been on. But do the maths; Ranthambhore National Park is home to (at the time) sixty tigers. It covers a vast area which is split into ten zones. That works out as 6 tigers per zone. The park advises each jeep which zone it will visit on each safari trip.Crocodile So you will only visit one zone at random. Each zone is large enough to drive around for hours on end, so in a two to three hour drive you’re probably only ever going to be in the vicinity of one tiger, two at a push. And your job, or your driver and guide’s job, is to go find him!

Out and aboutWe visited zone 6 in the morning, an area with a lot of open grassland, which, when you think about it, is probably not the kind of terrain a tiger is going to mooch around in. We saw plenty of blue bulls (Nilgai), deer, storks, antelope, and some extremely tame Rufous TreepiesRufous Treepie who will eat from your hand. But no tigers. It was a fascinating experience though, and after we popped back to the hotel for lunch, and to feed Lakshmi some apples, camera whore that she is, we went out again with renewed vigour for our afternoon safari. still watchingThis time we called on zone 4, which is much more stereotypically jungly; at times I thought we might bump into Mowgli. Again, plenty of nilgai, antelopes and crocodiles silently floating in the lakes, but no tigers.

JungleWe did all the right things – stayed silent whenever possible; watched for their tracks, signs of a kill, their faeces (sorry if you’re having lunch) – and we found all these. We were very hopeful at one stage because the peacocks had flown into the trees and were making nervous cries – a sure sign that they didn’t feel safe on the ground, so maybe a tiger is prowling and they’re getting the word around to all their peacock pals. But no tigers.

Safari companionsEven so, it was a magical experience. Just parking up your jeep in a jungle and silently observing all the life going on around you was absolutely brilliant. And as the light started to fade, and sunset started to loom, the views took on an exciting life all of their own. SunsetStaying late behind in the jungle, maybe being one of the last vehicles to leave, felt surprisingly daring. I really loved it. So did my chiropractor, when I returned to the UK a few days later. Spending six hours getting tossed around in a bumpy jeep isn’t great for your back, so please be careful! However, I’d do it again in an instant – and hopefully spot my first tiger.

The elusive tigers of RanthambhoreWhen we left the next morning, there was an apologetic letter for us to read on departure, personalised, and on Oberoi Vanyavilas notepaper: “Thank you for visiting Ranthambhore and staying at the Oberoi Vanyavilas. We are sorry we were unable to meet you in the jungle. But we hope to see you again soon. Warm regard, Tigers of Ranthambhore.” On the reverse was a splendid pen and ink drawing of a tiger, signed by the hotel’s naturalist. I suspect he might have something to do with it.

India – Agra, without visiting the Taj Mahal

Oberoi AmarvilasThere is nowhere more welcoming in the world than the Oberoi Hotel in Agra. After our journey from Gwalior, and a long day’s sightseeing, it was just bliss to be taken to our room, with its wonderful view of the Taj Mahal; to sit on the balcony with some chilled white wine purloined from the minibar, and to observe the immaculate gardens, the inviting pool, and of course Shah Jahan’s immortal temple to love on the horizon. Oberoi gardensOnce we were thoroughly relaxed, we headed down to the bar for a Tanqueray 10 and tonic in the best setting you can imagine, before going for a meal. Every time we’ve been to this hotel before, I’d always failed to get into the Esphahan restaurant for dinner – it had always been fully booked. I wasn’t taking any chances this time, having booked it a couple of weeks before we left the UK. It was as sumptuous as I’d hoped.

AgraThis time in Agra, we thought we’d try something different. We’d agreed with our travel agent that we would do a different kind of tour – a walking tour of old Agra, seeing some well-known sights from different angles; getting to see some of the places that tourists don’t always visit. It was called C The 4 is For Your Eyes, and our guide for this half-day experience was Meghan.

Agra FortWe’d been to Agra Fort before but this time we started at the “back entrance” – the Army gate, built in 1080. It’s still formed from that familiar red stonework, but is a much less impressive and formal entrance, used only by the army. Nevertheless, you still get a good impression of the fort’s grandeur Dr. B.R. Ambedkarand size. From there we walked a little way to see a monument to the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He stands halfway up a spiral staircase, as if to portray his rise to success from a humble background.

Jami Masjid MosqueNext we took a bicycle rickshaw into the depths of the old city. The strength of these old men who carry portly westerners about is extraordinary! We ended up at the Jami Masjid Mosque, built in 1648 by Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara. It has a grand, imposing frontage, but once you walk inside it’s surprisingly plain; it’s primary reason is to act as the Friday Mosque, so it is designed to be able toMarket accommodate the largest number of worshippers as easily as possible. From there we headed into the market streets, where we saw a wide range of products on sale; primarily fabrics and clothes, but also sweets, flowers and jewellery. It was fun to just dawdle and learn from Meghan all about the fabrics, the sweets and so on.

money garlandsThere was a fascinating shop by Daresi Road that sold garlands made from rupee notes that are worn by a bridegroom for good luck – and for the fortune that they contain, of course. Naturally I had to try one on. They’re quite bulky, because they contain so many notes, that you would find it difficult to Mankameshwar Mandirdo much else whilst wearing one! We walked past Mankameshwar Mandir, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, but we didn’t go in – can’t quite remember why. I think it may simply have been too busy. We stopped off and had a delicious cup of marsala chai instead.

Mehtab BargOur bicycle rickshaw man was waiting for us and conveyed us out of the market area back on to the main streets and towards one final sight – the Taj Mahal – but from the other side of the River Yamuna. There’s a large garden, almost meadow area there, called the Mehtab Bagh, where you can wonder round freely and enjoy superb views of the Taj Mahal without having to wrestle with all the other tourists.

Taj MahalWe spent ages just idling around, taking in the views and the peace, and generally relaxing before Meghan finally called us and arranged for Mr Singh to collect us. It was a very enjoyable and different way of seeing the city and we’d definitely recommend it. Not that you should avoid the Taj Mahal if you haven’t properly visited it yet – it’s a must.

Where next? Mr Singh took us due south-west to visit the tigers of Ranthambhore.

India – Datia, Sonagiri and Gwalior

DatiaThe drive from Orchha to Gwalior takes a good five hours so Sachun had plans for breaking up the day with some more interesting sights en route. 30 miles north of Orchha is the town of Datia, with a population of around 100,000; and I confess I hadn’t heard of it. But at the centre of the town is the Birsingh Deo Palace.Birsingh Deo Palace Birsingh Deo was a Bundela Rajput chief and the ruler of the Kingdom of Orchha from 1605 to 1626. It was built in 1620, and, having been to the Jahangir Mahal in Orchha the previous day, the palace is exactly the same style and layout, although perhaps not quite as large, but certainly not in as good condition.

TerracesSachun called for a man from one of the local houses to open it up for us so we could have a look around. I don’t think the man was best pleased, and he hung around waiting for us to finish so that he could go back home. “Leave him a good tip”, suggested Sachun. We did. Comparisons are odious, and it’s not as breathtaking as the Jahangir Mahal, but it’s still a lot of fun and has the added benefit of being very rarely visited, so we didn’t bump into anyone Overlooks lakeelse as we wandered around, and there aren’t many places in India where you can say that. Despite the size of its population, Datia is a sleepy little place and all the streets are very narrow and steep. It took all Mr Singh’s driving skills to get us to the front gate of the palace. I wished I’d had one fewer course at dinner the previous night.

SonagiriAfter an hour or so wandering around Datia, we got back in the car and drove another eleven miles to reach the extraordinary collection of Jain temples at Sonagiri. After walking beneath a welcoming archway you ascend a path and on the way there are 77 Jain temples of all shapes and sizes, built in the 9th and 10th centuries, and all in superbly maintained condition. They’re all painted white, elephantalthough some have some other coloured decoration, and each one bears a number in a circle, denoting which temple it is – the temples don’t otherwise have names. These are extremely holy in the Jain religion and I believe all Jains should visit here at least once. You have to walk barefoot throughout insidethe whole complex and on a hot day, which this was, you have to be very careful where you step because it’s easy to burn your feet. You can end up hopping from temple to temple which is hardly the dignified spirit that the complex deserves.

Sonagiri templesTemple No 57 is the most important and has an elephant outside, to welcome you in. It’s round, like an amphitheatre, and full of beautiful and delicate images of God. I didn’t discover until the end that you weren’t meant to take photos in there – sorry about that. At the top of the hill is a small square with a school and some memorials, where a young Indian family were taking a look around. Sonagiri boyThe boy was very keen to have his picture taken with me, and after his father snapped his shot, son and I bonded. I kept on turning corners and finding him there. The last photo I took at the top was of him looking back at me as we left. I gave him a wave, and he waved back.

Making sugarWe retraced our steps back down the hill, through the archway and back to the car for the onward journey to Gwalior. There was only one more stop to make before we got there – and that was at a roadside farm where they grew sugar cane and converted it into sugar – or, rather, jaggery. It’s fascinating to watch the process as they feed the huge stalks of sugar cane into a mill – it looks rather like an enormous old-fashioned food blender – and at the bottom out comes this juice and mixture that gets boiled up in huge pans over open fire and eventually cooled into blocks. It’s incredibly sweet, really delicious and is great for restoring an upset tummy.

Taj Usha Kiran Palace We snoozed the rest of the way to Gwalior but we woke up in time to enjoy the sight of the Hotel Taj Usha Kiran Palace coming into view. This is a sensationally beautiful place to stay, with a fabulous fountain outside that lights up at night, and so many beautiful courtyards scattered all over the hotel. We had a deluxe room, which totally spoiled us, and dined at the Silver Saloon, which was also jolly nice. The Bada Bar, which looks superb, was sadly closed when we there, but I’m sure it would be worth your while popping in for a gin and tonic.

Man MandirWe were only there for one night though, so the next morning we had to check out and leave our bags safely in Mr Singh’s boot before going off to explore Gwalior. We had said goodbye to Sachun the night before, so our guide for Gwalior, Pawan, met us at the hotel and took us into town. Gwalior is blessed with some stunning sights but none more than the amazing multi-storeyed Man Mandir Palace, Man Mandir duckswhich dominates the city and takes up the majority of the northern end of Gwalior Fort. It was built in 1508 by Raja Man Singh of the Tomar dynasty, and is decorated with blue, yellow and green tiles depicting parrots and peacocks, ducks, elephants, banana trees and crocodiles.

Sas BahuInside it’s in such good condition, it takes your breath away. At one time it was used as a prison, and the subterranean floors beneath the central courtyard were used as dungeons. There is so much ornate decoration, so many exquisite tiles, so many sudden surprise views to the valley below from unexpected balconies, that you wander around it with a silly grin on your face. Once you’ve explored the Man Mandir palace, there is also the Jain SculpturesGujari Mahal, built for the queen, which now houses an archaeological museum, and the Sas Bahu temples, 11th century Vishnu temples covered with brilliant carvings. At the foot of the fort, best seen from outside, are some very tall Jain sculptures lining the side of the road into the old town. You can appreciate their size best when you see people standing in the same photo!

Mohammed GhausAmongst the other must-see sights in Gwalior are the two Islamic tombs, one of Mohammed Ghaus, a Mughal nobleman, and one of Tansen, the famous singer. The lattice work in the windows is absolutely lattice workstunning and suggests true craftsmanship on behalf of those who created them. It’s worth spending some time here and just appreciating the glorious result of their hard work. We also visited the Jai Vilas Palace, Jai Vilas Palacebuilt in the late 19th century in the Italianate style for the Maharaja of Gwalior. The ex-royal family still live there, but part of the palace has been turned into a museum, showing some of the Maharaja’s toy trainmore eclectic interests. Bewitching chandeliers, elaborate vases, and, most fun of all, a toy train on the long dining table that was used to carry liqueurs around to all his dining guests. How the other half lived.

on the road againAfter that, our tour of Gwalior was done. It just remained for us to bid a quick goodbye to Pawan and to get into Mr Singh’s car for the 75 mile journey north to Agra. The Oberoi hotel in Agra, my favourite hotel in the whole wide world, was waiting for us.

India – Dhubela Museum and Orchha

BananasAfter breakfast, we had to tear ourselves away from the luxury that was the Hotel Lalit in Khajuraho; and it was a rift, I can tell you. But Sachun was very keen to get going, and he was right, because we had a lot to cover over the course of the day. The route to Orchha took us first through the town of Chhatarpur, which Sachun wanted to show us because it was where he was born and still lived. He waxed lyrical about it, but as far as I could make out, it was just another town.Chhatarpur Apologies to anyone proud of their relationship with Chhatarpur. We stopped for some bananas from a man with a banana stall, and I agree they were delicious. I’m sure Sachun could have made a case for the finest bananas in the world coming from Chhatarpur, but he stopped short. He pointed out the road where he lived. For an awful moment I thought we were going to have to take tea with his mum, but we continued on.

Shani TempleI’m being unfair, because Sachun’s local knowledge was excellent and he took us to a few places off the beaten track that I expect few tourists get to see. About ten miles north west of Chhatarpur, on the road to Nowgong, we stopped off at a lake. Mr Singh took the car a short way down towards a causeway that led to a little island on which perched the Shani Temple. We walked towards it as far as we could without getting our feet wet. As we got closer, I could see that a priest on the island had decided to wade out to greet us. Would we like to cross the water to see the temple? Not really, to be honest. CausewayWe were happy enough seeing it from afar. The priest seemed a little disgruntled, having got wet for nothing. It is, however, an extremely picturesque location. There were a group of boys wandering down the causeway too. Sachun suggested we had a chat with them, although he thought they would probably be quite embarrassed and tongue-tied. As expected, they were supremely polite, but got very animated when we mentioned cricket.

Hridayashah PalaceWe got back to the car and then just a mile or two later we arrived at a village that Sachun called Mahusanian, but in maps appears to be called Mau-Sahaniya. It’s just on the other side of the National Highway 75. It’s a sleepy little place that leads to another lake, but just before you reach it you find the remains (and I use the word wisely) of the Hridayashah Palace. It was originally built in 1733 for the eldest son of Maharaja Chhatrasal, and work is underway to restore it to some of its former glory. It might take some time – the workmen we saw there were definitely operating at an unhurried pace.

Dhubela MuseumJust a little beyond the palace, you reach yet another lake; a couple of guys had parked up their motorbikes and were having a bit of a wash and a splash, as you do. Adjacent to the lake is the austerely named Maharaja Chhatrasal Interpretation Center. This is nothing to do with language skills, but a museum, which our travel agents referred to as Dhubela Museum. It contains the Maharaja’s cenotaph; and many other interesting artefacts of days gone by. It was opened in 1955 by none other than Prime Minister Nehru. It’s a good displayHall of mirrors of locally found carvings, Jain statues, pillar inscriptions, Nandi bulls and yet more erotic sculptures, a la Khajuraho. There’s a collection of weapons and instruments of torture; and, totally unexpectedly and out of place, a hall of mirrors like you used to get at the funfair that distort your image, making you short and fat, or long and tall, and all other combinations in between. I guess the Maharaja had a sense of humour after all.

Amar MahalAnother drive, and 66 miles later we arrived at Orchha. We checked into our hotel, the Amar Mahal, which our travel agent said was the best they could provide in the town but it “was only 3-star”. You only have to look at the homepage of their website to understand that 3-star can encompass a whole new world of luxury. We were booked into a Luxury Deluxe Room, that offered us more comfort than you could imagine. It’s true – the wifi was patchy, and the restaurant was a little… agricultural in its service, but it was such a splendid setting that you could forgive them anything. Although, I have to say – at breakfast, they offered the most disgusting croissants I have ever had the misfortune to leave on a plate. Don’t go anywhere near them. view from our hotel room doorThere’s a shop outside with an A-board in front of it that genuinely reads: “Ladakhi handicrafts, Tibetan jewellery, Pashmina Yak wool, shawl’s and scarf’s (sic), Cashmere pullovers – visit for more junk”. Well you can’t say fairer than that. We did indeed visit, and Mrs Chrisparkle came away with three more scarves, because she really doesn’t have enough scarves (there are drawers and drawers of the damn things at home.) Always room for more scarves.

Jahangir Mahal PalaceOrchha is a charming town, attractively positioned on a rocky island, enclosed by a loop of the Betwa river. Its main sight is the extravagant Jahangir Mahal Palace, built by the Bundela king Bir Singh Deo, and named after the Mughal emperor Jahangir who overnighted there. It’s right in the centre of the old fortified town and dominates the view. The decorations, including the glazed tilework, are stillInside the palace in outstanding condition, and it’s a very beautiful, as well as intimidatingly grand, palace. Wandering around, there are so many little archways, and tiny rooms and nooks and crannies where you can get lost thinking about how it would have looked almost 300 years ago. One side overlooks the river, and gives you stunning natural views all around.Arches It’s noticeable that there are many wild vultures all around, perched at the top of domes, on window ledges, and so on – a little more interesting than the pigeons we’d have in the UK. The vultures are encouraged, as vulture conservation is very important in this area.

River roadOutside the old town, we dropped down to the road level and where it crosses the river. The road, from one side of the river to the other, is extremely perilous and you really wouldn’t want to cross it at night. Even walking across by day was scary, especially if you had to move to the sides to let a car or, even worse, a bus go past. It was getting late too – and by the time we’d walked across the river and back again, Orchha by nightand headed towards the town centre, the lights were coming on and Orchha was moving into night mode. That meant lots of activity at the temple, and Sachun encouraged us to stay out – or go back to the hotel and come out again – to witness what I understood to be some kind of “extreme worship” at this one particular temple. It sounded genuinely fascinating, but we were too tired. A return to the Amar Mahal was a must.

India – Khajuraho

KhajurahoThe flight from Varanasi to Khajuraho takes barely an hour and it was shortly before 2pm that we emerged from the airport with our bags packed in the back of the car by our regular driver Mr Singh, and were met by our new guide, Sachun. the sight that greets youSachun was a younger man, ambitious, well-fed; but without the usual carefree attitude that would normally accompany his age. He took excellent care of us, but sometimes you wondered precisely how accurate some of his facts were.

elephantsKhajuraho is a strange place. An entire resort has grown up, with airport, shops, and a large number of hotels, just because of this extraordinary complex of temples that have stayed remarkably intact over a thousand years. Hidden in dense forest for 700 years or more, they were rediscovered by Captain T S Burt of the Bengalmenage a quatre Engineers in 1838, and were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1986. 25 temples have been brought back to life; but local tradition has it that originally there were 85 temples, so ongoing excavations continue in the hope of finding more and more.

more elephantsThere was no point checking in to the hotel, we drove straight to the main sight – the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. When you first see it, it takes your breath away, as it’s so huge, so intricate and so perfect. Visitors flock to beautiful carvingsKhajuraho to see the amazing sculpture work on the walls of the temples and when you finally get to see them, they do not disappoint. It may be the erotic sculptures that are the most famous – and when you look at them you realise quite how uninhibited life must have been in India a thousand years ago – big horsebut they all tell a story, make you laugh, bring wonderment, cause admiration. If you had the time, and weren’t concerned about getting sunstroke, you could stand outside these buildings for days just admiring the carvings.

a bit intimateTake a look at these photographs, they explain what you can see here much better than words can. Observe the clothing which depicts people of higher standing, or the voluminous breasts of some of even more intimatethe women; the musicians, the warriors, the lovers, the animals, the servants, the gods. There are a few instances where men get so carried away with their sexual prowess that they get it on with animals – poor horselook away if you don’t want to see a horse surprised from behind. There’s a brilliant carving that depicts that – and an onlooker has to hide their eyes through embarrassment (or horror).

golden raysAs the sun starts to fall a little lower in the sky, the golden rays make the outside surface of the temples even more beautiful. There’s a true richness to the warmth of the colour that really creates a stunning effect. The temples certainly have a different an armylook about them at different times of the day. The majority of the main sights are in the Western group of temples but we were also taken to the Eastern group, where the Jain Parsvanatha Temple is considered one of the most remarkable.

stunningTime defeated us, and we didn’t get a chance to see the Southern group of temples. Instead we drove to our hotel, the Lalit Temple View. It’s a beautiful, elegant, smart but friendly place, with a very attractive bar – the Mahua – and an excellent restaurant, with superb service. Our room was a Luxury Suite; it had a comfortable living room, a lovely bedroom and a really fantastic bathroom. We were made to feel welcome, and special, and it’s a hotel I’d go back to in an instant. The perfect place to while away a relaxing evening and to remember the extraordinary sights of the day.

India – Varanasi

Rush hour in VaranasiThe next morning we were back on the road for the relatively short journey to Varanasi; once more we were with our guide Sapan, with whom we got on famously, and our skilful driver Mr Ashish, who smiled a lot. The journey was uneventful apart from some friendly encounters with a few elephants. I was pleased to get the picture ofDo you have any apples, perchance?the elephant in the rear view windscreen – it suggested a lazier type of rush hour – but when another just sidled up to have a chat with Mr Ashish, it was too good an opportunity to miss, and the happy elephant enjoyed a few apples through the window whilst we snapped away with our cameras.

Sarnath - Wheel of lawTo make the best use of time in our next two days, when we were on the outskirts of Varanasi we started off by visiting Sarnath. This is a very sacred and significant site in Buddhism, for this was where the Buddha gave his first sermon after gaining enlightenment. An attractive path leads up to an impressive gateway which opens up to the complex as a whole. The highlight is the fifth century Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath - Dhamekh Stupawhich dominates the skyline – its position is meant to be where the Buddha gave his sermons. You can also see the Wheel of Law, and many people spent a long time there reading the translations and literally spinning the wheels. Buddhist monks sat on the grass with their learned books; we didn’t do that, but instead enjoyed close inspections of the carvings on the stupa. It’s a serene, spiritual place; there were many visitors but even so it felt quiet and sacred.

bar snacksVaranasi itself is a vibrant, hectic, haphazard sort of place; full of shops that opened all day and night – or so it seemed to me – as you wandered down to the Ghats and back. We stayed at the Taj Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi, which was comfortable without being exceedingly grand. The Princep Bar is quite small but makes a pleasant port of call en route to the restaurant, to which you can gain access through a door at the back of the bar. Firmly entrenched in the 1970s, their bar snacks include cheese, pineapple and glacé cherries on a stick, the like of which haven’t been seen since Abigail’s Party. We stayed in an executive suite which was functional and a good size. We had a nice bedroom and a slightly austere living room. There was nothing about this hotel that made you feel really special, like some Indian hotels do. But we had absolutely no complaints.

Guests at AartiAfter we checked in, on our first evening Sapan walked us down to the Ghats to experience the famous Aarti ceremony. This ceremony takes place every evening at Dashashwamedh Ghat, and people take their seats early to witness it. Many people watch it from a boat out on the water, but Sapan had secured us a roof terrace over a shop, and we soon realised we had a very privileged position. Hawkers sell drinks and food, well-to-do locals have their servants bring chairs for them to sitAarti in full swing on which they position halfway down the steps to the Ghat. India being India, of course, the grand locals still had to contend with the occasional cow that came and sat down right in front of them. When the ceremony finally got underway, there were six platforms, jutting out into the water under flickering lights, where novice priests sang mantras, blew conch horns, rang bells, and lit incense and flaming torches. Aarti with fireIt’s a fascinating sight, and I would imagine if it was your religion you would be able to understand all kinds of finer points about what the priests were doing. After it was all over, everyone made their way back up the steps and along that major shopping road to the city centre. We returned to the Taj Gateway for dinner and I enjoyed the most scrummy Vegetarian Thali.

Morning boat rideWe couldn’t stay up late because we had an early morning start for a boat trip along the Ghats to see what the locals got up to at the crack of dawn. We returned back to the same Dashashwamedh Ghat, now much less busy than it had been the night before; Sapan established on which boat the three of us would venture, and it was a question of hopping from boat to boat to boat to boat before finally settling on le bateau juste. It was remarkably chilly first thing in the morning, so wrapped up in our fleeces, Ghatswe were rowed down the river and watched as the morning worshippers came to wash themselves in the holy Ganges. Past Munshi Ghat, Rana Mahal Ghat, Chousati Ghat, Babua Pandey Ghat, Raja Ghat, Mansarowar Ghat; individually the Ghats are not particularly attractive, but the cumulative effect of seeing them all is fascinating, and of course seeing how alive they are with people, even at ridiculous o’clock in the morning.

Keda GhatAt the red lined steps of Keda Ghat, we turned around and retraced our steps. Sunrise was taking hold of Varanasi and absolutely stunning it was too – you couldn’t decide which direction to look in, as each was more beautiful than the last. We went past Dashashwamedh Ghat again and continued in the opposite direction until we reached the funeral pyres of Manikarnika Ghat.Manikarnika Ghat We were a little alarmed at the prospect of visiting this Ghat, but there’s really no need. For the locals, death is very much part of life and, although it’s an honour for a family member to be involved in preparing the body for cremation, and to take it down to the Ghat and actually burn it, it’s also a very commonplace sight. Bodies are cremated here on a continuous basis – Boatswainit’s almost a conveyor belt of the dead. There is no smell, and you simply observe the final journey on earth of the dead from a respectful distance; you are not allowed to take photos too close. A remarkably peaceful and strangely unshocking experience.

Old VaranasiIt was at this point that we disembarked our boat and accompanied Sapan on a walking tour of old Varanasi town. We explored extremely narrow lanes where you have to dodge not only other pedestrians but also plenty of motorbikes, a considerable number of cows – and you have to be careful, obviously, what you step into. Hindu temples, mosques, a school;Narrow lanes deceptively spacious townhouses, elegant front doors, intricate shrines; they’re all there. It’s hard to linger and take photographs because if you stop, someone else is bound to walk/drive/moo straight into you. The overwhelming assault on the senses is typical of why I love India so much.

UniversityBack inside the comfort of our car, it was time for a quick drive to visit the Benares Hindu University, another highly regarded establishment. I was fascinated to see endless hoardings encouraging the students not to engage in ragging. In the United Kingdom we think of Rag Week as being a bit of fun (and somewhat outdated). TempleIn India, and particularly at this university, they have taken the practice a little further and some students have been killed because of stupid and dangerous pranks; or have taken their own lives due to bullying. The University is also the home to the Shree Vishwanath Temple. It’s very beautiful, very crowded, and you’re not allowed to take photographs.

Bharat Mata TempleOur final stop-off was at the Bharat Mata Temple. This was constructed in 1936 and has one of those wonderful Indian signs outside welcoming you in painful English: “Relevent (sic) visitors are requested with folded hands to take off their shoes down below the stair outside the temple in deefrance (sic) to the founder’s holy sentiments only there after take trouble to enter the same”. However, once you get inside you find virtually all holy sentiments have been removed to create an homage to Mother India. The centre contains a fascinating relief map of the country, and it’s fun spotting where you are and where you’ve been. The brainchild of Shiv Prasad Gupta, and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, it’s certainly a Hindu temple with a difference.

Shopping streetsAnd that concluded our two days in Varanasi, and our five days being looked after by Sapan – who was fantastic. We saw Mr Ashish one more time, the next day, as he drove us to Varanasi airport for the next stage of our adventure – the flight to Khajuraho.