Christmas doesn’t have to be all turkey and tinsel. Stephen McClarence heads to India for a very different festive break.
Towards the end of the fish curry, it suddenly struck us that it was Christmas Day. At an Indian mansion-turned-hotel in the foothills of the Himalayas, with the dining room to ourselves, it didn’t much feel like it.
Over the past 20 years, my wife and I have escaped from British turkey, tinsel and tired TV and spent a dozen or so “alternative Christmases” in India. We’ve sometimes stayed at old colonial hotels in hill stations, wrapping up warm to sit in freezing Victorian churches on Christmas morning and sing carols in slow motion.
We’ve had pizza or fish and chips for our festive dinner at busy cities in the south. And we’ve joined American friends in Delhi for Christmases more British than any we’ve ever had at home – crackers and party hats and presents round a 10ft tree glittering with decorations.
Outside, Santa would be careering round the streets on his motor scooter dispensing sweets and good cheer. Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would be blasting out of loudspeakers. Middle-class neighbours would be wishing each other hearty “Compliments of the season!” Delhi makes a big fat fuss about Christmas; Pragpur, a village 200 miles north, doesn’t.
We spent Christmas night and Boxing Day there last year, staying at the Judge’s Court, a century-old “heritage hotel” with scarlet-and-cream turrets and verandahs. Surrounded by mango, lemon and lychee orchards, it’s a stopping-off point on many organised tours, offering a change of pace, a chance to recharge.
The strong temptation is not to stray far. Let breakfast – at a table out on the lawn – merge into coffee, then lunch, tea and dinner. Then make your way upstairs to a plush bedroom, where time seems to have stood pleasantly still since 1947.
There’s another option, though. Pragpur, with a population of 4,000 and buildings dating back 300 years, is this month celebrating its 20th anniversary as India’s first designated “heritage village”. This might suggest something rather manufactured, a place where people who could otherwise be making a fortune in IT dress up as “villagers” to amuse tourists.
Not so. The great thing about Pragpur – the name means “full of pollen”, reflecting the area’s abundance of spring flowers – is that it’s a real, living village. Five minutes’ walk from the hotel, you can wander narrow cobbled lanes, passageways and courtyards and nose around shops and stalls without any “You buy my stuffed camel!” pressure from traders.
Christmas meant it was quieter than usual. Many of the shop shutters were down and there was no sign of the silversmiths and weavers who work in the market. But it was still fascinating.
Men in barbers’ shops were having their hair dyed black with a sort of gooey tar. Posters of Hindu gods shared wall space with bigger posters of hero-hunk Bollywood gods. Women swathed in shawls were knitting on their verandahs.
At the entrance to a brightly painted shrine, carvings of chubby gods did their best to look commanding. Leather-jacketed young men took selfies in front of the “tank”, the pool at the village heart. Bharat Bandu, a chemist with kindly eyes, sold us shampoo at his immaculately neat shop – here 45 years.
Tailors whirred away at ancient Singer sewing machines. On some stalls, small shrines to Ganesh, the elephant god, were draped with fairy lights.
Here and there, the village “heritage” was looking a bit frayed at the edges. Some buildings had crumbled into semi-dereliction, their balconies collapsing; others were heavily overgrown. But decay can have its own curious charm.
As dusk came down on Boxing Day, shrill music pierced the silence. A pink-turbaned musician with a bamboo flute was weaving local folk songs into intricate patterns. Iswar Das, who plays at weddings and parties, learnt the flute, he told us, in an army Home Guard band.
While we’d been out, an Australian couple, Chris and Julie Ritchie, had arrived. They joined us for dinner and, as a beaming waiter wearing white gloves hovered with trays of dishes, Chris mentioned that, before retirement, he had worked as a sailor. “What sort of sailor?” I asked. He looked at Julie. “He was Chief of Navy,” she said.
An hour or so later, the waiter appeared with hot water bottles. It was clearly time for bed. Back in our room, we checked out our new friend on Google. Yep. Vice Admiral Ritchie, former Maritime Commander Australia. We’ll salute him on Christmas Day.
Cox & Kings (0203 642 0861, coxandkings.co.uk) has a 13-day/ 11-night escorted tour (Journey through the Himalayan Foothills) which includes two nights at the Judge’s Court and visits to Amritsar, Dharamsala, Shimla and Chandigarh. It costs from £1,995 per person, including flights, transfers, excursions and accommodation with breakfasts.