Alison Lester and Myra Jones: Desert Highlights
Posted: 21 March 2016
With so many spectacular sights and incredible experiences, we have a kaleidoscope of colours and highlights to share with our clients. From the desert appeal of Jaisalmer and Jodphur, to the beauty of Jawai. We especially loved exploring the ancient fort of Jaisalmer, walking through its cobbled streets and taking in the scents and sounds from the hectic markets. Jawai was an incredible desert experience – seeking leopards, riding camels and dining under the spectacular starry skies. Then there was the extravagance of Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, and spiritual fervour of Varanasi — the crisp air and sounds of the temple bells, during our morning cruise along the sacred river Ganges, with remain with us forever; and of course, we felt privileged to be shown such warmth from everyone we met — the friendliness of the locals was humbling.
Having first visited India over eight years ago, we were both keen to witness, for ourselves, the immense development and changes which have taken place since. We were also excited to visit new locations and properties which are off the traditional touring map. Whilst the Golden Triangle is the perfect starting point for the majority of travellers — the north-west circuit connects the national capital Delhi, with Agra and Jaipur — we had previously explored the contrasts of Old and New Delhi, had witnessed the regal splendour of Jaipur and had appreciated the romance of Agra, so were keen to venture a little further this time. Whereas the Tiger safaris in Ranthambore and beautiful backwaters of southern India are also popular choices for our clients, we decided to experience modern Mumbai, the desert appeal of Jawai, the ancient fort at Jaisalmer, the colourful markets of Jodhpur, and visit the spiritual haven of Varanasi and sacred Ganges.
Formerly known as Bombay, and first developed by the East India Company, the vital port and island city of Mumbai is a thriving commercial capital heading to be the world’s largest metropolis after Tokyo. Home to the oldest Stock Exchange in India, the spirit of enterprise is alive and well in Mumbai, and The Taj Mahal Palace stands as an iconic symbol of success for the ‘city of fortune’. The perfect host to many Maharajas, Princes and Kings, Presidents, the stylish oasis boasts a mix of Moorish, Oriental and Florentine architectural styles, offers panoramic views of the Arabian Sea, and is very much seen as the ‘gateway to India.’ With an interior rich with hand-woven silk carpets, crystal chandeliers, dramatic cantilever stairway and magnificent art collection, it is a graceful landmark with beautiful suites in which to stay. Equally beautiful and located in the prime business and shopping district of Mumbai, is the elegant Oberoi Mumbai hotel. With an array of superb dining options, under the direction of a Michelin starred chef, a sublime spa and impeccable service, The Oberoi Mumbai also overlooks the Arabia Sea and provides another reassuring breath of luxury.
Leaving the bustle of Mumbai behind, we headed for Jodhpur, ‘The Blue City’ on the edge of the desert. Once the largest Rajput state, it retains a medieval character with a rich history including Sir Pratap Singh (a son of the Maharaja of Jodphur), the name behind the term for riding breeches. With an awesome, lonely beauty, the desert citadel of Jaisalmer is known as the ‘golden city’ and is perched high atop a hill, surrounded by miles of soft, fine, gleaming sand. A romantic desert fortress, straight out the tales of the Arabian nights, it was a significant trading post between India and Central Asia and the surrounding area boasts the houses and mansions of once wealthy merchants. Carved from wood and sandstone, these are impressive works of art. The imposing, majestic Fort within the city of Jaisalmer proved a must-see experience. Founded in the twelfth century by the Bhati Rajputs, it has ninety-nine bastions and houses a complete township, including a palace complex and Hindu temples. Built from vast blocks of honey-coloured stone blocks and carved to dovetail, this medieval township, with cobbled streets shaded from the heat of the sun, is a perfect time-warp. Ancient and mysterious and offering a magical desert sunset, with sand dunes all around, it is a breathtaking sight. Another fine morning, we ventured to the luxury desert camp and spa, The Serai. Comprising twenty-one large, canvas tents, set within thirty acres of a one-hundred acre estate, the camp is surrounded by indigenous desert scrub land in the Great Thar Desert. With a prized Relais & Chateaux accreditation, this traditional camp features a step-well, stunning cuisine and spa, plus is a harmony for the senses. A silent, traditional camel ride, in the style of the ancient desert caravans, was a truly unforgettable experience.
The next part of our journey was to fly north, to Dehradun, which is the gateway to the sacred town of Rishikesh – Lord of the Senses. It was a picturesque drive through the winding foothills of the lower Himalayas, the higher altitude, cooler air and stark scenery was an attractive contrast to the frenetic cities. Lying at the convergence of the scared river Ganges and Chandrabhaga, in the State of Uttaranchal, the Holy city of Rishikesh attracts thousands of pilgrims throughout the year. As an important religious centre, Hindu devotees visit to offer prayers and take to the holy water of the Ganges.
Our home for the night was the impressive Ananda In The Himalayas resort. Taking its name from the Sanskrit word for ‘Health and Self-Contentment’ the resort is located on a hilltop and all rooms, restaurants and spa, overlook the sacred Ganges river. An established and multi-award-winning Destination Spa and Health Resort, Ananda is the former palace of the Maharaja of Tehri Gharwal and was built in 1895, and extended in 1910 to provide guest quarters for the Viceroy of India. The Royal Suite is quite a spectacle — a suite where guests can truly step back in time! Set within one hundred acres of forests and valleys, with dominant mountain backdrops, the resort boasts walkways, cycle paths, hiking excursions, forest trekking and white-water rafting. With elite health programmes, coveted art collections and sculptures, plus its majestic natural setting, a stay here really is an enlightening experience!
From the clean air and lofty heights of the spectacular Himalayan foothills, we travelled south again, to ‘The Soul of India’ and another important spiritual city. Following the flow of the holy Himalayan water, the river Ganges is coveted again at one of the oldest living cities in the world, Varanasi. Described as ‘Kashi’ meaning ‘resplendent with divine light’ it is a contemporary Babylon or Thebes. Every devout Hindu wishes to visit Varanasi once in their lifetime to purify their body and soul in the sacred Ganges river. Believing that the water holds the power to release a Hindu from the cycle of re-birth, it carries the mystical powers of the Himalayan peaks.
Even to the non-Hindu, visiting Varanasi is a special experience. The religious fervour alongside the river, the bathing within, the temple bells and burning incense — it is a colourful and engaging sight to witness. We were fortunate enough to take an early morning boat cruise along the river – it was a chilly start, however the morning light, temple bells, conch shells, being blown to announce the arrival of a new day, the yoga being practiced – it was an invigorating assault on the senses. The large stone steps down to the river, known as ‘ghats’ were a hive of activity. Pilgrims performed rituals to their ancestors, people were sitting in the lotus position, others were meditating in deep contemplation, Brahmin priests were offering prayers and further down the river, we could see smoke from funeral pyres. Locals too, bathed and washed their clothes amongst the wafting scents of burning camphor and incense, sharing ‘The ‘miracle of the Ganges.’ With two thousand temples and shrines, plus towers and palaces dominating the sacred left bank of the river, it is a remarkable place to visit. We also recommend leaving the boat and taking a walk through the throngs of people within the city itself. It is a must-do experience, as it gives visitors a true insight for the anticipation of the pilgrims and feel for daily life around the river. An equally mesmerising excursion is a twilight boat cruise along the Ganges — watching the mellowing sun slip to the horizon, after the oppressive heat of the day, admiring the twinkling tea-lights and absorbing the calming essence of evening prayer along the Ganges — it is an incredibly emotive experience, one which proved the perfect ending to our Indian Adventure.
To learn more about our trip to India and the sights of Jaisalmer, Jawai, Jodhpur, Varanasi and Ananda in the Himalayas, or to create your own bespoke journey to this incredible land, please call Alison Lester or Myra Jones on 01244 897 555.