Enriching My Senses In Rajasthan
The Golden Triangle of India is one of the most popular tourist attractions in India. It is a circuit that includes the three cities of New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. Three years ago, I visited New Delhi and Agra (home of the Taj Mahal). I knew it was time to complete the triangle and visit the state of Rajasthan, where Jaipur is the capital. I contacted Vaibhav, my guide from my previous visit, and he was eager to show me the famous state of Rajasthan, the Land of Kings. It is the largest state in India, and was once ruled by many monarchs who lived in forts and palaces. After India gained its independence from the British in 1947, many of the palaces were converted into luxury hotels in order to fund the maintenance, although many are still partially occupied by royalty.
I was joined by my friend, Amber, who is well-traveled, and had only visited India once several years ago on a mission trip. Her previous experience was less than enjoyable, and she had decided not to return. I told her if she joined me in Rajasthan I would show her a different kind of Indian travel she was sure to enjoy. We started in Jaipur, where we stayed in the Rambagh Palace, built in the early 20th century for the Majarajah. It is now a Taj hotel, and we were treated as royalty for our two-night stay. When we arrived we were showered with rose petals, given a fresh jasmine necklace, and lychee fruit drink. We were given a ride in a vintage Ford convertible that was once owned by the royal family. Our suite had every amenity imaginable, and we had Indian earrings on our beds the last night of our stay.
I had the privilege of attending a cooking lesson in a private home where we prepared local masalas, dal, and potato cauliflower curry. We also made chicken curry with black cardamom and other local spices. Every housewife makes her own yogurt from fresh milk each day, and it is often flavored into raita with fruits, chiles, or vegetables.
Rajasthan is also known for the quarries where they mine marble and many precious and semi-precious stones. Vaibhav took me to a famous gem shop in Jaipur where I perused the rows of incredible jewels and gemstones. We also visited City Palace in Jaipur where we toured the world’s biggest observatory of time, astrology, and astronomy devices, including the world’s largest sundial built in 1719. It was really a spectacular exhibit! We visited the Amber Palace where we were happy to drive to the top (instead of walk), and were guided by Vaibhav’s cousin through the mazes of palace rooms, harems, meeting rooms, and bedrooms of royalty decades before. It was a magnificent place and we stayed for a couple hours taking photos, and walking up and down staircases with stunning views below.
Another highlight of Jaipur was visiting a wildlife refuge 40 minutes outside the city where locals maintain several acres of forest. They care for several elephants and camels that were domesticated their entire lives, and brought here to be cared for. Each elephant and camel gives one ride to guests per day on a 45 minute walk in the forest for its exercise. Amber and I were the elephant riders that evening, and although it was an experience we’ll never forget, neither of us thinks we need to do it again. It was quite bumpy and uncomfortable. After our ride, we were treated to a beautiful al fresco dinner under the stars with local musicians and a chef cooking from the outdoor tandoor oven.
We took a flight to our next city, Udaipur, known as the “Lake City” or “Venice of the East”. We stayed at Taj Lake Palace, which was an incredible property situated in the middle of a lake. The James Bond film, Octopussy was filmed there in 1983. We had to take a water taxi to the hotel where we were once again greeted as royalty.
The pure white hotel was absolutely stunning with open air gardens, terraces, and sitting areas with views of the City Palace across the lake. We took a private cooking lesson with three master chefs in the hotel restaurant, where we prepared laal maans, the most famous local dish of Rajasthan. It is traditionally made with mutton and red chiles in a dry curry method. We made roti (bread) in the tandoor and Murg Ka Soola, a chicken dish roasted in the tandoor. We also made urad dal with ghee, which needed to cook for many hours, so they served it with our dinner that night in the hotel. This cooking lesson was one of the best I’ve ever had. The chefs were so humble and informative. They answered our many questions and I learned so much about local cuisine.
We also took another private lesson in a local home where an Indian woman showed us more local dishes, including her own method for laal maans, Gatta curry made with fenugreek dumplings, Thikri ki dal, a delicious yellow lentil dish with ginger and chilies. Of course, we visited the famous City Palace in Udaipur where the royal family still resides, but much of the older part is open to the public. It is one of the largest palaces in Rajasthan, and took hours to walk through the stately rooms, bedrooms, harems, and banquet halls used centuries before. Many of the Belgium glass still glowed in the windows, and the mirrored rooms could be imagined as magnificent when hundreds of candles were lit for ceremonies.
After the palace tour we walked a bit in the local marketplace, but were overwhelmed with all the activity and eager merchants, so we returned to our peaceful Lake Palace for the rest of the day. We called room service to bring us the DVD of the film “Octopussy”, and were brought warm popcorn, cokes, and the movie. It was actually such a bad film we fell asleep after we saw the scenes from our palace. Needless to say, we gave the film a D-.
Our final morning in Udaipur, we departed with our driver for the six hour drive to our final city, Jodhpur. On the way we stopped at the Ranakpur Temple, constructed from light-colored marble. It was in the middle of nowhere, and there were few other tourists there. Inside the massive structure, which had more than 1400 carved marble pillars, we walked around in silence while a group of Jain women stood in the center singing and chanting.
Although I don’t agree with the Jain or Hindu faith, it was a very spiritual place where I was able to worship the God whom I believe, even when a priest approached me and began praying for me with a meaningful stare. I returned the stare with my own prayer for him. After our visit we ate a delicious lunch nearby at an outdoor retreat center, where we ate millet roti bread lathered in ghee. It was delicious. The remaining four hours of driving was very bumpy and uncomfortable, so we were delighted to arrive at the Raad Hotel in Jodhpur, which had a fantastic view of the Mehrangarh Fort, many meters above.
We had dinner on the rooftop bar while looking at the lighted fort above. There was a Bollywood movie being filmed, and we could hear the music and see the bright film lights from our position. The next morning we were driven up to the fort, where our very informative guide took us through the entire structure. It housed the royal palace where royalty had dwelled for centuries before. Even though there were film sets at different locations, it was a spectacular preservation of ancient artifacts and structures. The view of the city below, known as the Blue City, was beautiful. The houses below were painted blue to denote where the Brahmins, the highest of the four Hindu castes, were living, but later many more buildings were painted blue to remain cool in the terrible summer heat. After several hours of walking around and eating lunch at the fort, we were driven to the Umbain Bhawan Palace, another Taj Hotel, where Amber and I were to spend our last night in India.
Again, we were welcomed like royalty and given Champagne and necklaces of fresh marigolds. Our suite was enormous and looked out onto the gardens to the pool and wedding gazebo. We were just in time for High Tea followed by a palace tour. After walking around the property we had dinner on the terrace and watched an incredible sunset before spending our last night sleeping like royalty. At dinner, the chef came out to meet us, and was delighted to hear that I was also a chef in the U.S. He told us to ask for him in the morning at breakfast because he wanted to prepare special dishes for us to try. It turned out to be quite a scene that morning as we were served dish after dish in front of the other guests.
Chef came out several times to make sure we were enjoying our food, but we were actually embarrassed because we couldn’t eat half of it. Vaubhav and our driver picked us up at noon to take us to the airport, but stopped at a textile wholesale warehouse called Maharani Textiles, near the Jodhpur airport. The owner gave us quite a show as he presented the most beautiful tablecloths, bed linens and scarves we had seen on the trip. And the prices were so good even Vaibhav couldn’t believe it.
It was a short flight from Jodhpur to Delhi, where we bid Vaubhav goodbye, and checked into the airport hotel for a few short hours to shower and nap before Amber and I went our separate ways on our 2 am flights out of Delhi.
This third visit to India was certainly the best yet, not only because I experienced it as a royal in the Taj hotels, but because I enjoyed the company of Amber and Vaibhav so much. The state of Rajasthan is absolutely incredible, and much slower paced than the busyness of Delhi and Agra. The people were so friendly, and the scenery was beautiful. The food was spectacular, and I felt like I graduated to a new level of Indian cooking. With all I learned in that short time, I cannot wait to practice all the new dishes using my new handi pot and spice bowls. I intend to experiment with different grains to make the regional breads of Rajisthan, and prepare my naan a bit differently than I have in the past. Before this trip I had said it would be my last time to visit India, but I think I’ll reconsider. There is is just so much more to see, do, and taste. Vaibhav is sure I will return, and he’s already planning our next adventure.