Joanna Lumley’s India, a recent travelogue on ITV is going down a storm with viewers. Why? Because the epic combination of this wonderfully stoic yet graceful, thoroughly exuberant yet refined character of Joanna Lumley combined with one of the most colourful, diverse and fascinating countries in the world just works so well. Her enthusiasm and passion shines through and it simply makes you want to get on a plane and fly to see India for yourself.
India boasts 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 410 species of mammals (including a unique and impressive population of tiger throughout the national parks and an astonishingly high diversity of wild cat species within one country), the mighty Himalayas in the far north, picturesque tea plantations in the northeast and south, desert in the west and the iconic backwaters of laid-back Kerala to name just a few of the reasons to go.
As Joanna says, ‘no matter how long one has lived here, one can never really know the whole of India’. This is very true! However to taste the essence of India, to get under her skin one should look to focus on one or two areas. Although there are flights that connect so much of the country now, unless you have months to play with (or a private charter everywhere) you won’t be able to do everything. Think about different means of transport to see the land from alternate perspectives.
If you are looking to do India in style, it doesn’t necessarily mean the most lavish arrangements in simply the grandest hotels. That would be far too easy! Carefully selected accommodations (especially small owner managed, boutique and heritage hotels), as well as amazing guides and drivers will provide you with the best opportunities to experience the local area in the most unique and authentic way possible, it is after all people that give places soul.
Often staying in places where one can enjoy a drink or meal with the owner, whose families, in many cases, have lived there for generations, will be a highlight of your Indian adventure. One can even request a private audience with the Dalai Lama, which would be utterly fascinating, as Joanna Lumley did, but of course be ready to state your credentials and reasons for doing so as he is a rather busy man!
Of course, most people fly in via Delhi or Mumbai and so it is important to know that there is more than one way to explore these fascinating cultural hubs than just by car. It is not as daunting as it seems! In Delhi, we love the concept of seeing Delhi on two wheels, by bicycle. A specialist cycling guide will lead you around an agreed area of the city and there is no better way. All your senses will be invigorated and you will definitely feel like a local! Or you may also like to enjoy the company of a scholar on Old and Mughal Delhi to bring the city to life through his sketches?
Another fantastic way are heritage walks with specialist guides, art historians and renowned architects. This is possible in many locations but particularly of interest from this perspective are Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Agra and Kolkata. Our clients are actually often surprised by how much they enjoy the thoroughly Bengali culture of Kolkata, a city that exudes character and has real soul. In Mumbai the city is teeming with Victorian buildings brimming with history standing proudly in this buzzing, ever expanding city.
Fly out from Mumbai a short way to Aurangabad, from which one accesses the incredible Ajanta and Ellora Caves. These sites are archeologically mind-blowing and best visited at the beginning of a tour in India. Along with Varanasi and Hampi, these are some of the few faces of ancient India. Ajanta should be visited in the morning to make the most of the natural light in the caves. At Ellora, revel in the sight of Kailasanatha Temple, quite simply an outstanding Neolithic structure which is a wonderful example of life in ancient India.
Venture north-east from Kolkata and you will be in for a real treat, whether gliding along on the mighty Brahmaputra, spotting one-horned rhino in Kaziranga National Park or staying in a plantation bungalows, where one can ride out on horseback and visit villages and areas completely untouched by tourism.
In the south, superb guides can explain the sights and bring places to life though colourful, local anecdotes that you won’t see or hear in any guide books. In Kerala, you may be lucky enough to come across one of the many local festivals at a temple, which simply cannot be planned but if it happens, will be entirely memorable.
In Rajasthan, walk with sheep or camel herders or meet with a Maharaja, enjoy a private dinner in the ruins of a fort or a picnic in the most incredible rural location such as Mandu.
If visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, why not take a few more days for a stay at Chambal Safari Lodge? Here, there is a huge variety of fascinating excursions on offer, but in October-November time the Bateshwar Fair takes place with a whole host of associated events, this is the second largest animal fair in the country.
One of our favourite areas of India, which is largely undiscovered outside of the wildlife parks is Madhya Pradesh. This is a state that is bursting with barely known cultural treasures such as Sanchi near Bhopal, authentic encounters with genuinely friendly people, some of whom have never or barely ever encountered ‘foreigners’. These are the sort of travel experiences that enrich and enhance people’s perspective.
No matter what your interest is, be it miniature paintings, tribal culture, textiles, architecture, fashion, jewellery, antiques, food, flora or fauna, India allows for a highly interesting and unusual itinerary, meeting people who will bring your particular passion to life.