Delhi to Mumbai
Written by David Abram
Jewel-encrusted palaces, painted elephants, and elusive tigers...not the kind of wonders you’d expect to encounter travelling between Qatar Airways’ two main Indian hubs – Delhi and Mumbai. Not, that is, unless you take the back road.
Delhi, India’s effervescent capital, is on a roll. With its ritzy new Metro line, air-con mega-malls, and mountain ranges of glass-sided skyscrapers, the city has seen a dramatic transformation over the past couple of decades. Yet for all its futurism, the past is never far from the surface in this most ancient of metropolises. Medieval Afghan gateways crumble on intersections; onion-domed Sufi tombs huddle under flyovers; and stone walls from the age of the Mahabharata litter the fringes of parking lots.
Delhi’s present incarnation is merely the latest in a long evolution of seven successive cities spanning three-and-a-half millennia, from the implacable red sandstone seat of the British Raj to the semi-mythic Indraprashtra, founded in 1450 BC. The most resplendent of all of these, however, was the one constructed by the Mughals on the banks of the River Yamuna, where in the 1630s Emperor Shah Jahan erected the mighty Red Fort, or Lal Qila.
From the fort’s shield-shaped crenellations, you can gaze down the hectic thoroughfare immediately in front of it, Chandni Chowk, to the geometric carpet of flat, concrete rooftops where the Mughal city of Shahjahanabad once stood. A still more astounding view extends from the 40-metre minarets of the mosque dominating the skyline to the southwest, the mighty Jama Masjid, whose vast central courtyard accommodates 30,000 worshippers who gather for prayers at Eid.
The Mughals were ousted by the British, but their culinary legacy endures in the narrow streets radiating from the great mosque, where in winter local cognoscenti come in search of a dessert once served in the courts of the emperor – daulat-ki-chaat – a heavenly froth whipped from creamy buffalo milk, saffron, sticky raw sugar cane, and pistachio, wrapped in pounded silver and served in a leaf bowl.
Palaces and Tigers
Half a day’s journey southwest of Delhi is the flamboyant capital of the Mughal’s principal Hindu allies in India, Jaipur. Founded by the Rajput King Jai Singh in the 18th century, the ‘Pink City’, capital of modern-day Rajasthan, takes its nickname from the salmon-coloured hue of its old walled centre. The streets are no less frenetic than Delhi’s, but the city as a whole retains a more authentically Indian feel, with camels plodding through the traffic and flocks of parakeets wheeling above roofscapes of domed palaces. Its most photographed building is a graceful, seven-storeyed façade called the Hawa Mahal, or ‘Palace of Winds’, behind whose delicate, pierced-stone windows the ladies of the court used to observe life in the street market below.
On the northern outskirts, Amber is the jewel in the crown of the region’s royal abodes – a fantasy fortress-palace clinging to the rim of a sheer escarpment. Elephants painted in swirling pastels transport visitors uphill to the main gateway. Inside, a series of interlocking courtyards and apartments enclose ever more exquisite chambers, or mahals, plastered in elaborate mirror-work and murals, with cusp-arched windows opening onto dreamy vistas of hills and desert.
As many of the palace’s wall paintings illustrate, the Maharajas who built Amber were keen hunters, and one of their favourite tiger-stalking spots was a tract of low hills, grassland, lakes, and forest a day’s ride to the southeast, known as Ranthambore. Today, the former royal reserve is protected as a national park. It is one of the last places in India where you’re guaranteed a sighting of a wild tiger, and the only one where the big cats sprawl under domed cupolas on the lakeside, or splash after chital deer through lotus blooms in the shallows.
Another day’s drive south of Ranthambore takes you from the opium belt of southern Rajasthan to the fringes of the Deccan Plateau, a rocky upland cut by ravines and empty expanses of scrub. In the 14th century, a dynasty of Afghan warlords carved out a kingdom from this inhospitable terrain, founding a city high above the banks of the Narmada River at a place now known as Mandu, near Indore.
The weed-choked tombs, tumbledown palaces, and deserted mosques surviving today barely hint at the splendour of the former capital, Shadiabad, ‘City of Joy’. But few archaeological sites in India preserve as much mystique. One spot, in particular, stands out for its romantic setting. At the far southern edge of the ruined walls, Rupmati’s Palace was built in the 16th century by the last ruler of Mandu, Baz Bahadur – allegedly to entice into his harem a beautiful shepherdess who seduced him with her divine voice. The pair, it is said, loved to while away their evenings in the domed pavilions erected on the palace’s rear terrace, as the sun set over the chequerboard of mustard fields and mango orchards spread across the valley floor below.
The Western Ghats
After a day’s bumpy drive southwest from Mandu, the great, flat-topped ramparts of the Western Ghat mountains loom into view on the western horizon, tracking the limits of the Deccan Plateau. Over the past decade, an unlikely cash crop has been introduced to this wild country. It may be an exaggeration to call it the subcontinent’s Napa Valley, but grapes thrive in the tropical climate of the countryside around the city of Nashik, in Maharashtra state, and a handful of pioneering vineyards have sprung up in the area to supply the burgeoning demand among India’s affluent classes for wine. Production in the 40 or so wineries established here doubles every three years, and quality is increasing with every vintage. One prominent brand, Sula, even boasts its own California-style tasting complex, concert amphitheatre, and boutique spa, where ‘beautiful people’ from the city come for weekend tasting trips.
The phenomenon is symptomatic of a country whose economic rise over the past 15 years has been meteoric – a boom spearheaded by the megalopolis sprawling along the coast on the far side of the mountains from Nashik. India’s largest city and financial centre, Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), is a city often bypassed by visitors, but it’s worth bracing the heat and fast-paced traffic for a glimpse of its grandiloquent British buildings to watch a Bollywood blockbuster in one of its splendid Art-Deco cinemas, or mingle with the rivers of commuters streaming through the city’s awesome 19th century railway stations.
Moreover, although it has become a byword for modernity, Mumbai holds one of the great treasures of ancient India. On Elephanta Island, an hour’s boat ride across the harbour, long-forgotten Hindu kings hollowed cave temples from cliffs of solid basalt, decorating them with sensuous deities, demons, and mythical beasts.
Elephanta’s pièce de résistance is a spellbinding triple-headed Shiva. Chubby-lipped, heavy-eyed, and fierce, the sculpture represents the three aspects of Hinduism’s wrathful god. It is an image that stays with you long after you leave it, and whose essential power somehow encapsulates the boundless drive that has always defined this gloriously multi-faceted country, from ancient times until the cyber era.
South of Mandu on the banks of the Narmada River at Maheshwar, the warrior-princess Ahilya Bai founded a fortress in the 18th century. One of her descendants still lives in the sandstone citadel and has transformed the building into a heritage guest house.
The Ahilya Fort is a masterpiece of understatement and traditional style. Antique doors open on to plant-filled courtyards festooned with scented creepers. Exposed beams, distempered walls, and locally woven textiles lend an earthy feel to the rooms, some of which have wonderful jharokha balconies suspended over the water – the perfect vantage point for watching life on the waterfront, where Hindu pilgrims take cleansing dips in the river at dawn and dusk.
By The Numbers
The number of tigers believed to have been killed by poachers in India in 2010.
The current population of Mumbai, India’s largest city.
Estimated worth (in US$) of gold owned by households in India (the world’s largest consumer of the precious metal).
Drive In Style
The classic car for any pukka Indian road trip has to be the Hindustan Ambassador, a home-made version of the British 1950s-era Morris Oxford. For longer journeys, however, Indian-made ‘land cruisers’ such as the Chevrolet Tavera or Toyota Qualis can be hired from Kalka Travels (www.carrental delhi.com), and Avis (www.avis.co.in). Opt for a package with a driver – Indian roads are not for the uninitiated.
If you really feel like splashing out, rent one of the Maharaja of Udaipur’s classic or vintage cars for the trip, such as a 1947 Buick or 1955 Cadillac, available though Sarthi Travels and Tours, Udaipur (www.sarthit ravels.com).
Hauz Khas Village
Set deep in the leafy green belt of affluent south Delhi, Hauz Khas Village (HKV) offers a typically Indian mix of ancient ruins and top-drawer shopping. The enclave, built around the 14th and 15th century remains of the Second Delhi Sultanate, holds a fascinating collection of medieval tombs, madrasas, and a large water tank. But it’s the chic boutiques and café stores that most Delhi-wallas come for, many of them housed in characterful old period buildings. This is also one of the best places in the city to shop for antiques, ethnic jewellery, and the latest salwar kameez (tunic-and-trousers garment) made from traditional block-printed textiles.