Article by : Alexandra Smith
India's Golden triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur makes a fascinating short break destination for the Gulf traveller looking for culture, colour and great cuisine.
The so-called Golden Triangle of India, takes in three of northern India's most famous sights: Delhi, the capital city of this vastly populated country, the majestic beauty of the Taj Mahal at Agra and the resplendent architecture of Jaipur - Rajasthan's colourful Pink City.
For first time visitors to India, Delhi can be a shock to the system. With its never ending traffic (consisting mainly of beaten up old Ambassador taxis and motor rickshaws), its persistent tourist touts and its intense and choking pollution. But it is the ideal base for a tour which takes in the beauty of the Taj Mahal at Agra and the famous Pink City of Jaipur.
Delhi is the capital of India, and with a population of over nine million, also its third largest city and like any major Indian city it does have the associated problems of poverty and over crowding. But the capital, which is split into the Old and New cities, does have a long and fascinating history and plenty to offer, so it is definitely worth scheduling a couple of days into your itinerary to explore the city before heading off to Agra.
For centuries, between the 17th and 19th centuries to be precise, Delhi was the capital of Muslim India and the centre of the Moghul empire. Today the history of the city lives on in the many mosques, forts and monuments of Old Delhi - and this is the area you should spend most time in. A must-see and a great starting point for any visitor to Delhi, is the Red Fort in Old Delhi. An impressive structure in the Old town, the fort's huge walls of red sandstone have given birth to its modern name, and extend for 2km reaching heights of 33m at some points.
Dating from the peak of the Mughal power, the fort took 10 years to build and was constructed between 1638 to 1648 under the reign of Shah Jahan (who later also constructed the Taj Mahal at Agra).
The fort covers a huge area and included in the complex is the magnificent entrance - the Lahore Gate, which takes its name from the fact it faces towards Lahore (now in Pakistan). If one spot could be said to be the emotional heart of modern India, it is this gate and after Independence many important political speeches were given by Nehru and Indira Gandhi from the gate. From the main entrance you walk along the Chatta Chowk (which used to be the old city's covered bazaar) which is now the approach to the beautiful halls of public and private audiences, the Diwan-i-Am and the Diwan-i-Khas. Next to the Diwan-i-Khas are the royal hammams and the Moti Masjid, the small, marble Pearl Mosque.
A great way to discover more about the history of the fort and the Mughals, if you are short of time, is by making an evening trip to the Red Fort for its Sound and Light show. Shows are run daily, in English and Hindi, in the pleasant gardens of the fort - but be warned make sure you spray on plenty of mosquito repellent - the marshy gardens are over run with the insects.
Another spectacle not to be missed in Old Delhi is a trip to its colourful bazaar, known as Chandni Chowk, which is also the main street of the old part of the city. Traffic blocks this main road constantly night and day. But the congestion adds to the carnival atmosphere around the bazaar, which offers food stalls, fresh flowers, clothing, carpets and fabrics, plus crafts from all over India.
You may be tempted by some of the goods on offer, but remember this is also a prime tourist spot and it may be worth waiting to make your purchases in Jaipur - as Rajasthan is renowned for its affordable and beautiful fabrics, carpets and crafts.
In sharp contrast to the bustling and somewhat decaying Old town, New Delhi has more relaxed, spacious streets and far less congestion, but arguably less to offer to tourists. A day is enough to explore it.
New Delhi was built as the Imperial capital of India by the British in 1931 (before that Calcutta was the country's capital) and it is a spacious open area of parks and also houses many embassies, government buildings and the wealthier residential - suburbs. New Delhi also houses many of the city's most upmarket hotels and eateries.
At the northern end of New Delhi, lies Connaught Place - a vast network of roads built in concentric circles, which is the city's main business and tourist hub, offering higher class shops, money exchanges, banks, and airline offices. A stroll around Connaught Place in the evening makes for an easy half-hour walk and there are some clean and cheap eateries along the way.
The only other must-see in New Delhi is India Gate, a 42m high stone arch (reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris). It bears the names of 85,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War One. Set in pleasant gardens, the arch is a popular place with families, and a stroll round the monument makes for a pleasant evening's entertainment.
Agra: Taj Mahal
Home to one of the world's most famous monuments, the Taj Mahal, Agra has little else to offer visitors, except perhaps a visit to its magnificent fort.
With careful planning, you could visit the Taj Mahal and the fort in a day trip from Delhi. However, if you wish to visit the Taj at dawn when the light is fantastic and there are fewer crowds to contend with, it may be worth staying over night.
The Taj Mahal, a resplendent Mughal mausoleum, is probably the most extravagant monument ever built for love and is without doubt India's most popular tourist attraction. It was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, whose death during childbirth in 1631 reportedly left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair turned white overnight.
Built entirely of white marble, the monument sits on a raised marble platform, at the end of the famous waterways, and has four decorative minarets at each corner. Perfectly symmetrical the mausoleum is a stunning sight from any distance, but viewed close up, the carvings and inlays on the marble are astounding. Tickets to enter the Taj are pricey for tourists but it is a sight not to be missed, and if you prefer entrance is free on Fridays but it tends to be impossibly crowded because of this.
Agra Fort is the only other place worth a visit in Agra, dating from 1565, the massive red sandstone fortress is located on the bank of the Yamuna River. Similar in scale to the Red Fort in Delhi, it is said to be even more impressive inside.
Jaipur: Pink City
Jaipur is located in India's desert state of Rajasthan, the so-called Land of the Kings, and arguably one of the country's most colourful and exotic destinations. It is a fairytale land offering battle scarred forts, breathtaking palaces and some great local handicrafts (in particular the region is famed for its fabric production).
The state is the home of the Rajputs, a group of warrior kings who controlled this part of India for centuries, and whose sense of bravery and courage is still renowned today. Rajasthan offers a wealth of interesting attractions to visitors and really requires a few weeks to be explored in full. But for the short break tourist, a trip to Jaipur, the vibrant capital of the region gives an insight into some of the treasures Rajasthan has to offer. Just hours from Delhi by train, car or bus, the famous Pink City (so-called because of its pink coloured buildings in the Old City) is a feast for the eyes and gives a glimpse of the colour and vibrancy of Rajasthan.
Founded in 1727, the city did not go pink until over a century later, when in 1876 the Maharaja Ram Singh had the entire old city painted pink (a colour traditionally associated with hospitality) to welcome the British Prince of Wales on his first visit.
Jaipur, was named after its founder Maharaja Jai Singh I, who was responsible for the lay out of the city with its surrounding walls - which enclose the area now known as the Old City. It is in this part of Jaipur that the major tourist sites can be found. Including the City Palace Complex in the heart of the old city, the fascinating Jantar Mantar observatory dating back to 1728 and the Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 and known as the Palace of the Winds, which is little more than a facade these days. Not to be missed in the City Palace complex is a museum which houses a collection of royal costumes and pashmina shawls.
Apart from sightseeing it is well worth setting aside a day to indulge in some shopping in Jaipur. A wander round the markets and shops of the old city reveals a fantastic display of the many crafts and goods on offer. Foremost are the precious gem and silver jewellery the town is famous for. In addition to this there are a plethora of stalls hawking carpets, textile prints, carved furniture and papier mache puppets at incredibly low prices.
Part of the enjoyment of a shopping day is soaking in the sights and sounds of streetlife in the city; Rajasthani's are famous for their bright saris and turbans in acid pinks, reds and flourescent greens. As well as the ubiquitous rickshaws and taxis, it is not unusual to see trains of camel carts ambling down the narrow streets of Jaipur laden with colourful fruits and vegetables. Viewed against the back drop of the bright pink and orange hued buildings, the city leaves a vibrant and lasting image.
Accommodation: There is a rather limited choice of top class hotels in Agra. Try the Taj View, a five-star member of the Taj Group, which offers distant views of the Taj Mahal and offers rooms from $150. Or the Mughal Sheraton, Agra's top hotel, with rooms from $175.
Places to eat: When in Agra, you must try its famous and delicious local delicacy, peitha - sweet candied pumpkin. The town also offers some great quality Mughlai cuisine, but avoid the lower end restaurants and stick with the eateries in the top end hotels, such as Clarks Shiraz Hotel and the Mughal Sheraton.
Getting around: There are plenty of taxis and auto-rickshaws on hand to take you to the Taj Mahal. You can also negotiate a price for a rickshaw to take you on a full or half-day sightseeing tour.
Accommodation: While in Rajasthan avoid standard five-star chains and instead indulge in a stay at one of the region's many beautiful converted palaces and havelis (country houses).
For five-star luxury with old world charm, try the Rambagh Palace, operated by Taj Group, it was once a Maharaja's palace now transformed into a stylish hotel. Doubles start from $220.
At the cheaper end, but with a charm of their own are the many converted havelis: the secluded Narain Niwas Palace Hotel and the lovely Alsisar Haveli (a gracious 19th century mansion set in well maintained gardens) are great value. Slightly more pricey but well worth the money is the lovely Samode Haveli in the Old City which is one of the most interesting places to stay. Over 200 years old it has beautiful air conditioned suites, including one decorated entirely in traditional mirror work.
Places to eat: For cheap and cheerful travellers' fare try the Jaipur Inn, it is distinguished by being the only rooftop cafe in the city and offers great views over Jaipur. For classier eateries check out any of the havelis or five-star hotels, which offer great traditional Indian food at very reasonable prices and in a pleasant, olde worlde atmosphere.
Getting there: Trains and buses run regularly to Jaipur and another luxury option is to rent a car and driver for the journey. For true luxury hop on the famous Palace on Wheels in Delhi and enjoy a sedate and air conditioned journey on this special tourist service. Be warned prices are very high and you must book well ahead.
Best time to visit: It is best to visit northern India between November and May, when temperatures are moderate and before the monsoons hit in summer bringing floods and widespread diseases.
Founded in 1727, the city did not go pink until over a century later, when in 1876 Maharaja Ram Singh had the entire old city of Jaipur painted pink to welcome the British Prince of Wales on his first visit.
Getting there: Emirates and Air India offer direct flights to Delhi.
Visas: GCC nationals need to purchase visas at their local embassy before departure.
Accommodation: There is no shortage of five-star hotels in Delhi to choose from. For those looking for comfort and a great location check out the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. It's a pleasantly old fashion hotel with pool and gardens, and reasonably priced with rooms from $200. For more deluxe accommodation the Taj Group, Hilton, Hyatt Regency and Le Meridien all have properties in Delhi with prices ranging from $325 to $400 per night.
Places to eat: There are plenty of great, very cheap eateries in Delhi, but it is advisable to pay a little more to ensure good hygiene and avoid the infamous Delhi-belly. For good Indian veg and non-veg dishes at affordable prices try The Host and Kovil, both on Connaught Place. For superlative views over Delhi (pollution smog allowing) and great Indian food at reasonable prices try the Perikrama - Delhi's only revolving restaurant. Or for something different try the Anglo-Indian cuisine at the Imperial Hotel's Tavern restaurant.
Getting around: Taxis and motorised rickshaws are plentiful and cheap.
Getting to Agra: Trains leave daily to Agra from New Delhi station, but make sure you get on an express train, as you journey time will be halved. Also try and book ahead as these trains get very busy all year round. Warning: many touts and con-artists hang around the station, offering unwanted assistance. They will tell you the booking office for tourists has been shut down and then take you to a travel agent instead to book expensive private touts.
Another option which may be more comfortable is air conditioned bus, and bus tours are organised by most reputable hotels. The downside being that due to heavy traffic and jams, the journey can be anywhere from five hours to a full day!
Courtesy: Arabian Woman