Travel review: India - a jewel in the crown

The famous Tiger's Nest monastery clings to a mountain side.
The famous Tiger's Nest monastery clings to a mountain side.
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With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge about to embark on a Royal tour of India, Stephen McClarence takes a look at what they can expect.

Princess Diana at the Taj Mahal was the ultimate royal photo-shoot. On tour in 1992, she famously sat on a marble bench with the vast white dome of the Taj ballooning behind her.

She had the place to herself, apart from three tiny figures in the background. It became a symbol of Diana’s loneliness and vulnerability, paving the way for her separation from Prince Charles a few months later.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be visiting the Taj at the close of their forthcoming tour of India. Whatever else they do, you can be pretty sure that Kate won’t, like a zillion tourists over the past quarter-century, have herself photographed on that bench.

The Cambridges’ week-long tour will be a whistle-stop affair covering a challenging swathe of this vast country: a day or two in Mumbai, a stay in Delhi, then up to Kaziranga, the national park in the North Eastern state of Assam, a quick trip across to the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, back down to Agra for the Taj, and then home.

It’s more than I’d care to pack into a week and, after more than 20 trips to India over the years, I wonder how representative it will be of the realities of life in the host nation.

India isn’t about monuments being decluttered of people, after all; it’s about crowds. The Taj in particular can seethe with visitors. During my most recent visit, I sometimes had to hack my way through forests of selfie-sticks.

No matter. The Taj, mesmerisingly ethereal at dawn and dusk, is a highlight of most first-timers’ trips to India. Many tackle it as part of a Golden Triangle tour, also taking in the “pink city” of Jaipur, and, like the royal couple, Delhi.

As he tours the capital, William might like to reflect on the impact his great great grandfather had on it. George V came here in 1911 for his Coronation Durbar. On a warm December afternoon, the grandest of grand imperial spectacles was staged on a specially built site in the north of the city.

All but smothered by ermine, the King-Emperor announced the creation of New Delhi, replacing Calcutta as India’s capital. It took 20 years to build and the contrast between its tree-lined boulevards and the medieval mayhem of Old Delhi, home of the Red Fort, couldn’t be greater.

New Delhi, with the 16th century Humayun’s Tomb and the glorious Lodi Gardens among its highlights, still retains its elegance, though it has sidelined the towering statue of the king that once dominated its main avenue.

After India won independence in 1947, the statue was trundled up to Coronation Park, the site of the Durbar, and joined by a crescent of statues of 20 or so other imperial worthies: “the Britishers’ Graveyard”, Delhi-ites call it. With squirrels scurrying around him, and the other statues in various stages of crumbling decay, George gazes across at an obelisk marking the place where his throne had been erected.

The royal couple will arrive in India in Mumbai (Bombay) – just as George V did. The huge Gateway of India commemorates where he came ashore and makes an impressive scene alongside the old wing of the superb Taj Mahal Hotel.

Mumbai, Delhi and Agra are mainstream tourist India. Kaziranga is more of a collector’s item. It offers 400 bird species and two-thirds of the world’s 3,500 one-horned rhinos; they appear armour-plated but trot with surprising athletic grace.

Most visitors view them on elephant safaris: a beguiling way to spend the early morning. With the rising sun filtering through the trees and a deep misty calm pervading the park, it’s easy to see why so many Brits fell in love with India during the Raj and were reluctant to return home to neat bungalows in Eastbourne.

The royals will venture out of India for two days – to Bhutan, a country the size of Switzerland. Bordered by India and China, the Land of the Lost Horizon, as it’s sometimes called, may still lack traffic lights, but it now has television (since 1999) and tourist numbers are no longer limited to 4,000 a year. There were 133,000 of them two years ago, lured by the spectacular landscape, the fortress-like monasteries (with the famous Tiger’s Nest monastery clinging to a mountain side), and a pace of life as unhurried as the ox-ploughs.

With its fluttering prayer flags and chiming prayer wheels, it has a Shangri-La sense of the exotic and “the other”, despite discreet modernisation. Even 20 years ago you could buy Barbie dolls and men were wearing trainers with their dressing-gown-like robes.

It still maintains many of its traditional values, however. Its output is measured not by Gross National Product but by Gross National Happiness. Something there perhaps for the second in line to the British throne to contemplate.

GETTING THERE

Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861, coxandkings.co.uk) offer a 13-day/11-night Golden Triangle & Shimla escorted group tour costs from £1,795 pp, twin share. It includes visits to Delhi, Jaipur, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Shimla, international flights, airport transfers and 4 or 5 star half-board accommodation.

Thje picturesque hamlet of Les Cleves 
Schweiz. PIC: swiss-image.ch/Jan Geerk

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