British Raj churches litter the lanes and streets of Kolkata, ancient cemeteries house gigantic mausoleums, and the fabulous crumbling mansions of the old empire's mandarins dot the city. In various stages of disrepair, these nostalgic reminders of an earlier time are squeezed between twentieth century concrete and glass houses, offices and shops. Overlooking the BBD Bagh, the ornate Writers Building, home to the Secretariat of West Bengal Government, is one of the city's best. It was built in 1790 to house the clerks of the ubiquitous East India Company; now its heroic red and cream façade dominates the area, and is the office of current day paper pushers.
Biplabi Trailakya Sarani, BBD Bagh, Kolkata
Google map: bit.ly/TaF5at
Conceived by Lord Curzon, and built long after the British had already moved their capital to Delhi, the Victoria Memorial was opened in 1921. Some describe it as India's modern day rival to the Taj Mahal. The interior is bland (if you want to see inside, avoid Mondays) but for two rupees you can walk round the formal grounds in which it stands. It's an imposing piece of late Victoriana in white marble, extremely well tended – not a crisp packet or plastic bottle in sight – and cleverly showcased among the gardens and lakes. Although impressive, its voluptuous curves don't quite match the splendour of the Taj Mahal.
Built by King Thirumalai Nayak circa 1636, outside holds little promise: bland walls showing signs of endless neglect, surround the complex. But once inside, a vast rectangular quad is ringed by monumental decorative colonnades of palest peach, vanilla, apricot, and cream. Restoration has begun on the smooth-stoned floors, and the decorative ceilings are elaborately painted with intricate designs. Pale creamy backgrounds are picked out in maroon, blue and emerald green. Further inside is the even larger Swarga Vilasa (celestial pavilion). With a dome rising to 25m at its centre, the palace is a perfect blend of Islamic and Italianate architecture and taste.
The Archaeological Survey of India started restoration work when the local courts finally vacated the building in 2009 and has declared the complex a protected site.
Opening times: 9.00 AM to 5.00 PM
Sound & Light Show Time: 6.45 PM to 7.35 PM in Tamil. 8.00 PM to 8.50 PM in English
The enormous temple, stretching over 45 acres, is a sixteenth century homage to Dravidian architecture in all its rumbustious colour and form. Fourteen gopurams (towers) – the tallest of which is about 170ft – dominate the city skyline. Made of granite, wood and stucco, every inch of each structure is covered in brightly painted multicoloured representations of gods and heavenly bodies.
Shoes and socks must be removed before entering the incense-filled interior, but the ancient stone floor is warm underfoot. As a non Hindu I was not allowed into the inner sanctums of the two golden domed shrines of Meenakshi and Shiva, but there are plenty of deities, carvings and columns in the labyrinth of corridors and chambers open to the public. Get there early to avoid the worst of the crowds, although during festivals it is heaving all day.
In 1959 The Dalai Lama fled to India and eighty thousand of his countrymen came with him. Many ended up in Darjeeling where they set up this self help centre. Although the Tibetan diaspora has spread throughout India, refugees still live and go to school in the complex, where they also sell carpets and other hand made goods.
Stretching the full length of the building, thick hardwood beams support the walls of the spinning room, and a bank of windows maximises natural light. Rows of swaddled Tibetan women quietly work on both sides, using spinning machines cannibalised from old bicycle wheels. Mounds of lanolin-rich sheep's wool dot the floor in rough woven sacks. Next door, the carpet weaving room contains four rows of enormous weaving frames, made from polished ancient hardwood. Ateliers surround the main courtyard: a few wizened men work hand sewing machines in the tailoring section, cigarettes clamped between jaws; a woman paints intricate flower designs onto greetings cards with fine paint brushes; and there is a room full of jaunty ladies knitting woollen bags, mitts and hats. A small photographic exhibition reminds visitor of the on-going troubles in Tibet.
65 Gandhi Road, Darjeeling
+91(354)225 2552 (Factory), +91(354)225 5938 (Office)
Google map: bit.ly/UOfdhW
Aka the “Mini Taj”, “Baby Taj” or “Jewellery Box”, this marble tomb was the forerunner of the Taj Mahal. It too lies on the banks of the Yamuna in Agra, but far fewer tourists bother to make the short taxi journey. Which is a shame, because the pietra dura of this translucent marble tomb is even more intricate, and the ornamentation even more ornate, than its better known cousin.
Noor Jahan, wife of Jehangir, built the tomb between 1622 and 1628 for her father, Mirza Ghiyath Beg, “Itmad-ud-daula” (Pillar of the Empire). It is smaller than the Taj, but in its own way just as impressive.
Opening: Daily from sunrise to sunset
Location: Yamuna river – east side, Agra
Price: Rs 110 foreign tourists
Akbar’s ‘City of Victory’ stands alone on a rocky plateau overlooking fields of dust and rocks. In 1569, Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri close to the residence of Shaikh Salim Chisti, the Sufi saint who helped him produce a male heir. It remained the capital of Akbar's Mughal Empire until 1585. Today women still tie a length of wool to the marble lattice windows of the saint’s tomb, in the hope that they too will fall pregnant with a boy child.
Sculpted from blood-red sandstone, the audience halls, palaces, astronomer’s kiosk and Panch Mahal were a powerful reminder to his subjects of Akbar's strength. As masculine as the Taj is feminine, Fatehpur Sikri is an exquisite and unique example of Mughal architecture and enterprise.
Chand Baori is a 10th Century step well on 11 levels and 20 metres deep. Absolutely marvelous and the place to yourself. The village of Abhaneri has a has a small palace and a temple, the villagers live in mud huts, are very friendly and will proudly show you their home.
It's a detour off the road from Jaipur to Agra close to Fatehpur Sikri on the Golden Triangle route. Ignore driver resistance that its too far etc as most have never been there!
Set off from your hotel before dawn and join the seething throng surging down to the bank of the sacred River Ganges at Varanasi. You can take a small boat along the river past the ghats where people are bathing, praying and performing a variety of daily tasks in front of vividly coloured temples and pavilions. At the end white clad mourners are saying goodbye to their loved ones and the sweet smelling sandalwood smoke from the pyres drifts across the water.
As the sun rises over the opposite bank, whatever your faith, or even if you have none, you can cast a tiny banana leaf boat with a lighted candle on to the sacred stream representing your prayers or your meditation. In this way you can share a cultural and spiritual experience with millions of fellow-humans.
Varanasi, River Ganges
Amristar is the home of the Sikhs and a welcoming place to all travellers who take the trouble to go up to northern India. The famous Golden Temple is the main attraction, a real eye opening building that rises in the skyline of this affluent, bustling city. Eat with the locals at dahbas, informal tapas-like snack bars. The best is Brothers Dhaba in the small streets of the centre where delicious delicacies can be sampled for around 80 rupees - £1.50 - each.
Escape the madness of the city to a strange place, like an ancient lost city, damp and shaded, hidden on South Park Street in Kolkata. The gatekeeper to the British Cemetery will open the huge metal gates for a small donation and let you into a different world, a quiet tree filled oasis, where the huge graves themselves will tell the story of the Raj and The East India Company.
Here you will find Anglicised versions of Cenotaphs dating back to the 17th century. More than 800 old tombs remain of the original 2000, which will take your breath away. Wander through this eerie place and think about the many British who eventually succumbed to accidents, illness and disease, often at a very young age while the early Imperial outposts were being established.
Take time to ponder about how difficult their lives must have been before emerging back into the chaos of Kolkata.
65 Park Street, Park Street, Taltala, Kolkata, West Bengal 700016, India
+91 33 2217 2861
Google map: bit.ly/SDsIRn
This Hindu temple, dedicated to Meenakshi, is the centre of Tamil Nadu's city of Madurai, built between 1623 and 1655, attracting thousands of people each day. It contains 14 gopurams, the highest reaching 52m which are decorated with brightly coloured stone representations of gods, goddesses, animals and demons. It's enormous, about 45acres in size so you can spend a good few hours wandering around, taking in the sights, smells and sounds but I found it particularly tranquil late evenings. If you can handle large crowds then the Meenakshi Thirukalyanam(Chithirai) Festival which celebrates the marriage of Meenakshi and Shiva every April/May would be an incredible and unique experience as the Gods are led in procession blessing the devotees. The city is also home to an amazing tailor's market, the Ghandi Museum and Thirumalai Nayak Palace.
In 1948 'Bapu' was murdered at the Old Birla House. The beautiful building and gardens are now a museum and memorial to Gandhi. His spartan furniture is neatly displayed in his light-filled room. On the wall is a cabinet of his “worldly goods”, among them his specs and a spoon.
Following the concrete footsteps which trace the Mahatma's last walk is a moving experience. Before he reached his daily place of prayer he was shot, and today an unassuming memorial to the great man marks the exact spot.
Inside the house, his last days are documented by text and photography displayed on wall panels, including images from the great Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the last people to meet Gandhi before his death.
There is a multimedia museum on site, with plenty of exhibits to keep the children interested.
+91 11 2301 2843
Hours: Tues.-Sun., and 2nd Sat. of every month, 10-5
Google map: bit.ly/S9hxiK
Where else in the world would you find religious monuments adorned with sculptures so boldly erotic that they have earned the moniker The ‘Kama Sutra’ Temples? Constructed in 950-1050AD, these Hindu and Jain temples honour deities while prominently displaying striking scenes of an erotic nature worthy of an ‘18’ certificate. Aside from the erotica, these UNESCO World Heritage temples are worthy of a visit as wonderful examples of well preserved monuments of antiquity in a town that feels like something of a haven from the rest of manic India. As with the rest of the country, go with open eyes and an open mind, but whatever you do just go – you will not be disappointed.
Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India
Google map: bit.ly/Q4wrM2
In Rajasthan we took private trips by both camel cart and jeep to explore the timeless culture of the villages on the fringes of the Thar desert. We had lunch with a farmer and his 13 daughters, who shared their simple home and invited us to join them in an opium ceremony; then travelled to a Bishnoi village across scrubland and shallow dunes dotted with khejri trees and graceful chinkara gazelle. Both the chinkara and the trees are revered by the Bishnoi tribe, who are even known to bury dead gazelles and mark their graves. Bishnoi translates as ‘twenty-niners’, which refers to the number of principles they live by, two of which are to protect trees and ‘all living beings’. Their fierce affinity with nature, and their aggression in its protection since 1485, has led them to be thought of a the first environmentalists.
Varanasi, Benares or Kashi, the holy Hindu city on the banks of the sacred Ganges. The last stop before release from the endless cycle of birth and death. We arrived at sunrise from the overnight train, making sense of the sounds and sights that swarm the mind. The river is full of wooden rowing boats and candles floating in lotus leaves for the dawn puja. We stayed in an old building overlooking the ghats. As we walked by the river we were reminded of the sacredness of life and death, as it was played out around us, we could not remain separate. The next morning before dawn we too took a boat down the Ganges and once ashore again played the violin to the rising sun and Mother Ganga!
Uttar Pradesh, Northern India. Main station Varanasi Junction. Also airport 15 miles to the west.
If you are looking for a smooth, polished performance, don't go to the Cultural Centre. But if you want a fascinating evening watching the dancers put on their make up, don fantastical costumes and perform scenes from the Ramayana, then the Cochin Cultural Centre is the place to be. It takes over an hour for the principal dancers to apply their makeup and change into the costumes. It is also excellent for people-watching the groups of European tourists in the audience who have their own cultural norms and practices!
Opposite the RDO office, near Fort Kochi Police Station, K.B.Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, 682 001, Kerala, India
+91 484 2216911
The quality of service in this breezy rooftop restaurant is second to none. While every other householder in the village has slung up a bamboo roof on top of their building and declared themselves a restaurateur, the Franco-Indian couple who own "Le Yogi" really know their business: the waiter takes your order quickly, with no fuss; he brings your (cold) drink immediately; finally, he places in front of you the exact dishes you ordered, at the same time as those of your partner. The food is fresh and the atmosphere is laid back and informal. The decor, although similar to the de rigeur paper-lantern school of interiors beloved by exotic backpacker destinations, is just that little bit more chic and tasteful. With shelves full of books and games, you could easily spend all day here.
The only thing that lets it down is the rather basic squat lavatory with no flush system except a dripping tap.
They also run "La Pizzeria de Mama", on the opposite corner. But you can have your pizza delivered to "Le Yogi" if you can't be bothered to move away from this friendly, chilled place.
19, Othavadai St, Fishermen Colony, Mamallapuram, 603104, Tamil Nadu
Mamallapuram: surfer paradise, backpacker loungeville, and home to Unesco-listed 7th-8th century rock carvings.
The Arujuna Penance is set back from the road, unreachable to greasy, corroding tourist hands (a good thing when you consider that the Five Rathas and Shore Temples have become play parks for many tourists, and in the case of the furthest shore temple, a lavatory). You can stand and gaze at this terrific scene of gods and animals and make up your own stories for ages, or read the Archaeological Survey of India's website.
Although carved thirteen hundred years ago, the figures are still fresh, like naive art. I loved the monkeys sitting off to one side, as well as the cat lecturing his mice and the snake (gods?) falling through the Ganges. Ignore the touts and "guides' and just enjoy it for its own sake.
The other great thing? It's free.
Considering they were built over fourteen hundred years ago, and are situated on the shore of the feisty Bay of Bengal, it's an achievement that the temples are still here at all. (I wonder how many tsunamis have washed over them?) Ignore the moaning ninnies who go on about the carvings being indistinct and badly eroded: yes, they are to an extent, but they are still beautiful structures with a stunning backdrop.
The Shore Temples cost a non-Indian 250 rupees to visit (10 rupees to Indians), but this gets you into the Five Rathas too (make sure you go on the same day). The surrounding area is reasonably clean and free of litter, but why is the guard more concerned with people walking on the grass, than peeing in the shrine at the back of the furthest monument?
Go early to avoid the relentless heat and crowds.
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