India is a world in itself; it is too vast, too diverse for any complete description. The colour, light and shade, the throngs of people, the smells of spice and poverty fill the hot air; with mesmerising sights and sounds, time passes like a mirage in the desert.
For a month my two friends and I, both lovers of India which they had visited for sixteen years, criss-crossed part of central northern India, so utterly different from life on our tiny island. It seemed to me, although I had been to India many times before, as if like Alice, I had fallen down a rabbit hole and everything was upside down. Haggling, bargaining, eating, shopping, in a world of glorious colour.
Outside Delhi we stayed with English friends for a short time, who have made India their home in an improbably named village Tinkly Bottom. Here they built a beautiful house around a courtyard, which they run for part of the year as a guest house. It is like a home from home. Wonderful food, cooked by their Nepalese staff. The interior of the house, more like an English country house but more so, added to which are lovely Indian objects.
Here, Martin and Annie Howard started a school in the village for poor Indian children, funded entirely by charitable donations. Our former Prime Minister John Major, stayed with Martin and Annie and is one of their major benefactors. From a small beginning, the school now has 300 children and part of the curriculum is to teach forgotten skills which in later life will earn them a living. It brought tears to my eyes when early one morning I went to assembly, where the children sang the Indian National Anthem “Our India is best in the world.” The children, so beautiful and enthusiastic, kept rushing up to me to show off their English. Whilst I was there Prince Charles came to Delhi, where Martin was presented with the much-deserved MBE.
We flew to Calcutta, staying in an old world hotel painted entirely green. In its heyday it was visited by the great and the good, when it was run by an eccentric English Lady; sadly now it has become rundown. In Calcutta we visited Mother Teresa’s tomb and went round a small museum. Anyone with half a heart must surely feel her saintliness, people gathered around her tomb to pray. Calcutta is still agonisingly poor, the streets littered with rubbish, but due to Mother Teresa and her sisterhood, the beggars and the sick are now cared for by her foundation, lovingly given a dignified end to their troubled lives. We also visited The Monument, which was erected by Lord Curzon in 1902 in memory of those who died in 1756 in what is known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. One hundred and twenty three person perished that night in old Fort William on the Hooghly River.
In the state of Maharashtra, we went to Araniabag, visiting the many temples of Ellora and Ajanta, the largest collection of temples in the world, now protected by World Heritage. They are the most amazing structures built into the mountain range, Buddhist, Hindu and Jainism. After the decline of Buddhism, the caves were completely abandoned and forgotten. Their amazing rediscovery was by accident and dramatic. In 1819 a British hunting party were visiting the Crescent Valley of the Sahyadri Ranges and reported to the Nizam of Hyderabad, the hidden treasures of majestic fine art, were unveiled to the world. These caves are cut into the steep face of a deep rock gorge, hewn out by Buddhist monks from generation to generation, starting before Christ. The caves, with their uninterrupted sequence of monuments, bring the civilisation if ancient India to life. Its sanctuaries devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism illustrate the spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India.
Onwards to Rajastan, unlike the rest of India, the people are not Arian; quite recently it has been discovered that they came from Ancient Egypt thousands of years ago. They are a fine-looking people, known as a warrior race. In 1916 Jaipur, which is the capital of Rajastan, was painted pink for the durbar to celebrate the visit of the King.
Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur are my three favourite cities; wonderful palaces and of course, amazing shopping. The pearl wallah with his room stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes of pearls. One of my favourite dream places. In these three lovely cities we shopped and shopped, hours spent sitting on the floor looking at precious and semi-precious stones, bargaining and drinking chie. I bought cashmere throws, silk scarves, ring and nicknacks to sell in my little shop. What more can you ask of life?
Amongst other places, we stayed at the Maharaja’s hunting lodge Sedasamum; miles from anywhere, built by the present Maharaja’s grandfather in the 1930’s, Ona Lake. Then onwards to stay at another palace at Chanandar. The Maharajas, when all their lands were confiscated by Indira Gandi, turned their palaces into hotels or guest houses. Here the family run the enchanting fairy-like palace as a hotel – The Maharaja’s daughter Swartzi is a wonderful hostess. In late afternoon we went by jeep to a salt lake where pelicans, flamingos and water birds waded. I saw an Indian kingfisher twice the size of its English cousin fishing in the lake and just as dusk began to settle, a huge Steppe eagle. We sat and drank tea and ate cake by the side of the lake – what an amazing evening.
I could write more, but I have tried to pick out some of the highlights of my wonderful month.
The India we have read about and may have been misled about lingers in the mind, like one unending dream.