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Intoxicating sights and sounds of India

PUBLISHED: 17:00 23 May 2013 | UPDATED: 17:01 23 May 2013

Taj Mahal at sunrise

Taj Mahal at sunrise

Archant

With jaw-dropping architecture and streets bursting with colour, a tour of the Golden Triangle leaves the senses overwhelmed

Dawn hadn’t even broken and a queue rife with anticipation had already started to snake around the imposing wall shielding the Taj Mahal from view.

Having left our hotel at 5.15am to be among the first in line, we pondered with bleary eyes whether this iconic mausoleum, built against a backdrop of love and loss, could possibly live up to expectations. It is, after all, widely revered as the world’s most beautiful building.

But as the sun nudged above the horizon and we walked through the gates into the sprawling grounds, it proved to be every bit as awe-inspiring as we had envisioned – and more.

In front of us, beyond the turquoise-blue waters of ornamental gardens, stood this vast, majestic white architectural masterpiece, glowing in a slight hue of orangey-red as the sun cast its first light. No photo could ever capture the sheer scale, detail – such as the hand-cut marble inlaid with semi-precious stones – beauty and symmetry of the monument and the temples either side of it.

Its creator, the Emperor Shah Jahan, said it made “the sun and moon shed tears from their eyes” and the magic of the visit, which formed part of a seven-night luxury tour with ITC hotels, was as much about knowing the heart-rending story behind the Taj Mahal as actually seeing it.

It was built – over 22 painstaking years from 1632 – in memory of the Mughal emperor’s third and favourite wife, whose death left him utterly heartbroken. Both are buried in tombs there – Emperor Jahan’s etched with weeping roses and his wife’s with blooming flowers.

Soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion in 1648, the emperor was overthrown by his son and imprisoned at nearby Agra Fort, where he died gazing across the Yamuna River at his masterpiece. Although it was hard to tear ourselves away from the Taj Mahal, the views of the mausoleum from the fort’s summer palace were magnificent, as were the grounds.

All our sightseeing in Agra was wrapped up by midday, leaving us the afternoon to return to our hotel – the ITC Mughal – for an afternoon of pampering and relaxation in its award-winning Kaya Kalp spa and a welcome chance to lap up some sunshine beside its gorgeous outdoor pool.

The hotel, which celebrates Agra’s 130-year tenure at the centre of the Mughal Empire in its modern-meets-traditional design, also offered sumptuous suites, top-notch food and a vantage point overlooking the Taj Mahal.

Our stop in Agra was the second of three during our trip around India’s Golden Triangle – which also takes in the Rajasthan capital of Jaipur, and the Indian capital of Delhi, where our journey had begun a few days earlier.

Arriving there was certainly a shock to the system. There’s an invasion of your senses at every turn – pungent spices, streets bursting with the colour of food, clothes and flowers, and the constant, piercing drone of car horns.

And, while all this chaos is energising and invigorating, we were glad to be staying in the tree-lined serenity of New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave at the flagship ITC Maurya – the choice of President Barack Obama. Its design reflects the golden age of the Mauryan dynasty and its art, culture and architecture – the hotel lobby, designed like a Buddhist hall, with a central dome displaying a vibrant 3,000 sq ft mural.

Concierge recommended we hired a driver for our sightseeing in Delhi and it cost just £18 for the day, leaving us quickly realising that this was the best way to get around the cities – and between them.

We cruised past the grand palaces and parliament buildings, stopped at India Gate, which commemorates the 90,000 fallen British Indian Army soldiers from the First World War, and explored the beautiful temples, gardens and artwork within the sprawling Red Fort site.

We also visited the Lotus Temple, the most modern of Delhi’s attractions, Qutub Minar – the world’s tallest minaret – and Humayun’s Tomb, which was the first garden-tomb in India and inspired the Taj Mahal.

Our second and last full day in Delhi gave us the chance to grab some bargains at the bazaars and markets, punctuated with a hair-raising rickshaw ride to the principal mosque of Old Delhi, Jama Masjid.

The hotel was, again, a welcome sanctuary from the frenetic Delhi streets with its pool area, spa and luxury rooms complete with iPad TV, music and we were assigned a “lady butler” who tended to our every need.

Food is also a big part of any trip to India and the hotel is home to, arguably, the country’s most famous restaurant – Bukhara, which serves traditional tandoor-oven cooked meat.

Our last destination was Jaipur, a five-hour car ride from Agra. The capital of Rajasthan, known for lashings of colour, it is also referred to as the Pink City due to the terracotta battle-scarred walls, which encompass the huge grid system of the old town. We enjoyed exploring the streets and architecture within these famous walls – and on one road alone our driver had to negotiate his way around a cow, a camel and an elephant.

We visited the Amber Fort on the outskirts of town on our first evening for a light show, which explores with stunning illuminations its history as the ancient citadel of the Kachwahas from the 11th to the 16th century.

But exploring this iconic site the following morning was the highlight. We took an elephant ride to the top of the fort, where the humanely-kept animals are limited to five trips a day.

At the top, there’s an explosion of colour – the honey-hued walls, the elephants with their matching red throws and painted trunks, traditional Indian dress, ornate trees, intricate stonework, mosaics and courtyards vibrant with purple and green plants.

The sprawling building and temples were stunning, as were the views across the green mountainous scenery and lake below, reflecting the beauty of this fort in its clear, glistening waters.

From there, we visited the City Palace and the nearby Jantar Mantar, a fascinating observatory with bizarre-looking instruments – “the Indian NASA”, as our guide put it.

Like the other hotels, the ITC Rajputana’s design reflected the regal history of its location, echoing a traditional haveli (private mansion) with an opulent white marble lobby and red brick exterior surrounding a courtyard with swimming pool and outdoor bar area. It was here the hotel’s head chef served us up a Rajasthan feast on our last night, celebrating all the culinary delights the region has to offer – a perfect way to end what was a trip of a lifetime.

For all its glorious history, culture and people, nobody can deny India is a frantic, sometimes intimidating place. And as two women travelling alone, in a week where India was hitting headlines for all the wrong reasons, we were grateful for the safety provided by touring with an established hotel chain, which prides itself on “responsible luxury” and is one of the greenest in the world. It was also thanks to the hotels’ seamless organisation that we were able to squeeze in so much of this incredible country in just over a week – with all its five-star luxury and comfort.

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