New Delhi, the nation’s capital, represents the two faces of India – its rich ancient history and its constantly evolving, modern future. The city was built and rebuilt a number of times, starting in the 13th century. Remains of this 700-year history are evident in some of the stunning monuments and structures that dot the city’s landscape. In the extreme south is the 14th century settlement of Tughlaqabad built by the Afghans which includes their beautiful 12th century victory tower, the Qutab Minar. Then see the remnants of the glorious Mughal Empire which ruled India for over 400-years in Shahjahanabad in Old Delhi. Here, the vast Red Fort and the Jama Masjid Mosque, one of the largest in India, remain central to the old city’s structure and are a wonderful introduction to the architectural splendour of northern India. Between the two run the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk, where spice traders continue to ply their pungent wares in a scene unchanged for centuries.
In contrast, the designation of New Delhi as the British capital in 1911 heralded the construction of wide tree-lined streets and colonial architecture designed by Lutyens. Open parkland and imposing colonial buildings are connected by a series of vast boulevards that contrast markedly with the winding alleys of Old Delhi. Here in New Delhi are community markets crammed with boutiques, art galleries, and stylish restaurants whetting Delhi’s inexhaustible appetite for culture and cuisine. The two districts can be explored in one or two days.
With shimmering marble domes and towers reflecting in landscaped pools, the Taj Mahal is Agra’s highlight and the world’s greatest monument to love. Cool and white by moonlight (if you are lucky to be in Agra during full moon nights), its elegant façade is at its best glowing pearlescent pink at dawn, but at any time of day this iconic building never fails to take your breath away. The Taj is inlaid with black marble and semi precious stones, on both the inside and the outside, while the entire Koran is inscribed on the exterior of the main dome. Thousands upon thousands of flowers constructed in inlaid mosaics of varied stones decorate the floors and interior walls, along with an incredible finely carved screen.
Along with the Taj Mahal, also see Akbar’s impressive Agra Fort, built in the 16th century and housing a large collection of buildings that served various purposes through three generations of the empire. Also visit the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah, the tomb of the Empress Nur Jahan’s father. The tomb built in radiant white marble is considered the trigger of the shift in building materials from sandstone to marble, and from the heaviness of early Mughal architecture to the more delicate style of Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal. These masterpieces of architecture throughout Agra convey the power and sensitive aesthetics of the great Mughal Empire.
Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is one of the country’s most atmospheric and evocative destinations. This is where all the clichés (that we love!) of Rajasthan and India collide together in chaotic splendour. As in most of India’s big cities, Jaipur has two identities. One is the Pink City, the old quarter that houses the City Palace and the Palace of Winds set amidst roads lined with low-rise buildings made from pink-sandstone. Here you will jostle with spice and gram-laden camels, dodge festooned cycle rickshaws with a death wish, and speed-breakers disguised as cows with a homing instinct to herd that dates back centuries, but end up in the middle of roads. Row after row of shops (filled with footwear, jewellery, curiosities and spices) and street eateries that tempt you with the rich craft heritage and delicious cuisine of Rajasthan. The enormous City Palace lies at its heart and houses a museum containing intricately woven costumes, weaponry and vintage vehicles, while the impressive façade of the Palace of the Winds and the Jantar Mantar observatory are only a short stroll away.
And there is a new Jaipur, built with new money – from shaded upmarket residential colonies with large villas, glitzy malls that herald new-age consumerism and some very smart boutiques selling the finest apparel and furnishings that Rajasthan’s artisans have to offer.
Close to Jaipur is the striking 17th century hilltop Amber Fort built by the Kacchwaha Rajputs. The impressive gateway leads into the fortified palace and the Maharaja’s apartments, richly decorated with elaborate mosaics, ornate murals and a glittering mirrored ceiling. And getting to the top of the Fort is half the fun – riding atop a caparisoned elephant! However, if you feel that the elephants don’t seem to enjoy being sat upon, then you can always drive up in your car – it’s that easy!