Discovering off beat Rajasthan

On a previous, some thought controversial blog post, I bemoaned the Taj Mahal. Yes it is beautiful, yes it is synonymous with India but, and here’s a secret, it ruins rather than enhances the travel experience for a lot of people. Bear with me on this. Fair enough if you are coming to India with just the standard tick list:

Taj Mahal, tick
Tigers, tick
Jaipur, tick
Jodhpur, tick
Udaipur, tick

Then it of course must be included. But you see, I also have problems with this tick list and this is because, it is purely a tick list of the places and things people have heard about. Yes, there is a reason people have heard about them, mainly the success of the Rajasthan tourism board, but they do all have wonderful forts and palaces if you just want to follow the hordes and look at monuments, but India is so so so much more. It is a living and breathing country, and this aspect of it has to be experienced to be appreciated. It is so much more than dead monuments.
Speaking with a host of overseas agents at the recent GITB also showed that anyone can book a hotel on line these days and even a reasonable car and driver, so what is it that they can offer as a tour operator that a hotel booking engine can’t? Basically it is knowledge and experiences. Showcasing the country for what it can offer, which is so much more than 98% of people actually think that it can offer.
I often get asked for advice, particularly on more the unique experiences of India, and I get excited and delighted that people realise that India has such things to offer, but just before my imagination  can really run riot the disclaimer comes in.
Philippa, can you help with:
1. A horticultural tour of India, brilliant, fun, yes, I’d be delighted to help. Oh including Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, well that narrows down the choice of options considerably.  You have to do these destinations? Ok, but then you are missing out on………………….. yes, a true horticultural experience of India.
2.  A gourmet tour of India, excellent, my word the possibilities are endless, showcasing how Indian food is a reflection of the region, take Kerala where the influences are sea food and coconuts and………………… oh, you want to include Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and you only have nine days. Right, that narrows the options down then.
3.  A skiing tour of India, what fun, takes me back to my ski resort days and not many people consider India, right, there are three main ski areas and…………. Oh, you want to include Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and you only have eight days. Right then, that narrows it down somewhat.
You get the picture.
People are so focused on the bloody Taj Mahal, that they spend 6 – 7 days trawling around the Golden Triangle and miss out on far far far better experiences that would actually, and here is the thing, cater to their specific interests. Fortunately, such is my power of persuasion, that I am becoming quite adept at the email response along the lines of, yes, of course you can visit the friggin Golden Triangle, but did you know ……………………..and there follows an incredibly persuasive email outlining which particular destination/region would be a better place for them to visit. Most times, I am successful in persuading them to do it my way though on occasion an add-on night to the Taj Mahal has to be slotted in, despite difficult logistics, but people actually get what they are looking for and never knew was possible.  Unless that is that people truly believe that all of India lies in this small triangle. I think they do.
There was recently a bunch of overseas agents visiting India whom I went to meet and I had conversations as follows:
Well, we have come to see India and accepted this trip of the Golden Triangle but our main company focus is yoga. Is it possible to do yoga in India?
Unfortunately my facial expressions tell a thousand words, isn’t India the actual home of Yoga? But trying in vain to stem my eyebrows from going stratospheric and my chin from hitting the floor, not to mention putting to one side my own personal views on the evil evil practise that is yoga, I enlightened them that yes, yoga is possible in India and laid out some options for them.
 Well, we have come to see India and are doing a trip of the Golden Triangle but our main company focus is outdoor and adventure sports, you know, trekking and rafting and stuff so I doubt that we will be able to introduce India as a destination in our portfolio. 
Fighting to keeping a heavy dose of sarcasm out of my voice, I innocently asked if they had heard of a small mountain range at the top end of India, you know, the lesser known Himalayan mountain range……. Of course, I didn’t stop there, I threw in trekking not only in the Himalayas but also Rajasthan and Kerala, white water rafting was hinted at, my personal favourite of riding on India’s stunningly beautiful Marwari horses was expounded upon, add a dose of zip wiring and some sand dune bashing by jeep, with the odd tiger safari mentioned and he soon had not only an itinerary of India that he could sell, but a whole new brochure.
People not only aren’t made aware of the infinite possibilities of travel to a country such as India but, they also have the impression that to venture away from the cities is to be faced with poverty. This is simply not true.
I have just completed a trip around India with another agent and his friend, who was on a first time trip here.  We didn’t include the Taj Mahal at all, and instead I took them off to visit off beat, middle of nowhere places that neither of them had ever heard of.  I will try and keep it brief but the first was:
Ramathra Jacuzzi

1.  Ramathra Fort, between Agra and Jaipur (though on our itinerary it was between Delhi and Ranthambhore). A stunningly renovated fort with just 6 tents, 2 suites and 4 rooms. Location – middle of nowhere. Activities include boating on the lake, luxurious picnics in spectacular locations, walks into the village to meet the locals, and trust me, villages houses in India are immaculately clean, jeep safaris around the countryside to visit small, local temples and meet the local priest and at the end of it all, sitting on the ramparts with a fully stocked bar, sipping gin and tonics under a full moon with the owner chatting about family history, Indian life or whatever questions pop into your head. What a way to discover about life in India. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, this was after having soaked away the dust of the day sipping white wine in a Jacuzzi with one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.  Were we missing the Taj Mahal yet? Nope.

 2. Next onto Bhainsrorgarh, a fortified home in the south west of Rajasthan, sitting on top of a sheer rock cliff, looking down onto the river below. A stay here is to witness a home which the ruling family have owned and lived in for more than 10 generations, and still do. It is an opportunity to live with them as they live. OK, so modern bathrooms have been added, and the beds were definitely not the originals, mine was the comfiest bed I have ever slept in, and given my career, I have slept in the best – now that sounds suspect!  Ok, so the asthetics of the fort were a little shabby around the edges, but we had comfort, culture and company aplenty. Our trip to the remote, rural village took us to through the local town. The respect with which the Majarajah (our host) was held in was obvious as everyone, on seeing him stopped placed their hands together in the Namaste greeting and bowed to him. I had no idea local maharaja’s were still so not just respected, but almost revered.  This was also wedding season and virtually the whole town was in wedding mode. We witnessed the crowds gathered to see how much dowry was being handed over, in another location rows and rows of people were being fed, women and children separately from the men, and in another location, speakers being wired up that looked big enough to be able to blast the fort from its cliff top location. Amidst all this were beaming smiles and a plethora of invites for us to join in. A privilege missed by most. And to end the day, chatting with the Maharaja, gin and tonic in hand, on the roof top, with a well-stocked bar. There is a theme gathering momentum here.

3. Ranakpur: Stop number three took us to Ranakpur and its famous temples. Our accommodation for the night? Mountbatten Lodge, recreated colonial elegance at its best. Hunting trophies, family heirlooms, pictures of polo playing sons, leather sofas, a pool table. Four ridiculously large suites each with four poster beds and private gardens with plunge pools. A quick visit to the UNESCO world heritage site of the Ranakpur temples, and then a short ride took us to the hill top where, sitting with a gin and tonic in hand, perfectly poured and handed over chinking with ice, we watched the most beautiful sunset and the spectacle of the surrounding hills being lit up by an electric storm. In between storm bursts we chatted with the infamous Reggie Singh whose brainchild this lodge is. A larger than life character, bursting with ideas and the ultimate host and entertainer.  Back to the lodge, where a seven course meal was served, recreated from the menus from Lord Mountbatten’s day. Who had any idea that chilled mint and cucumber soup could be so delicious?

Sunset at Mountbatten Lodge
4. Of course, we couldn’t miss out Udaipur after all, it is the most romantic city of Rajasthan and we figured it was time to try out a ‘real’ five star hotel. A night in the Leela didn’t disappoint. Ok, so the bar wasn’t roof top, but it was well stocked and air-conditioned and having experienced this journey in May, that was very welcome! Our arrival by boat passing the City Palace en-route, was magical and with butler service in our sumptuous rooms over-looking the famous Lake Palace, what was not to enjoy?
View from our room at The Leela Palace, Udaipur

You see, I actually have no objection whatsoever to visiting the main cities or staying in fabulous five star hotels, after all, this is all what makes luxury travel to Rajasthan, just that! My travel companions agreed, Udaipur was magical, the subsequent visit to the Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur was awe inspiring, but the looks on their faces when we arrived to what looked to be a place in the middle of nowhere, to discover that their accommodation was a unique and fabulous boutique property was a picture. ‘I had no idea that places like this existed’ was the constant refrain.

Being given the opportunity to get into the heart of this country and meet with the landed gentry as well as the villagers and being able to interact with them all and ask any questions about their life (well almost) was such a wonderful experience.  To be invited into people’s simple yet pristine homes and witness true ‘guest is god’ hospitality was an honour and to realise that in visiting the rural areas rather than being confronted by poverty, one actually escapes it, was a discovery. People do want to visit the main sites, but don’t be blinded by feeling that you must only visit the places that you have heard of.  In and amongst, fit one or two of these destination hotels into a larger more conventional itinerary. I can guarantee that you will not only not be disappointed, you will actually be blown away. Oh, and if you have a specific interest, whether food or horses or wildlife or trekking or gardens or skiing or trains or whatever it may be, think beyond what you have heard of because it will be possible, somewhere in this fascinating land.
By the way, we never did get to the Taj Mahal.
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