By 5:45 am we are at the entrance to what is surely the greatest monument to love ever built. It is buzzing. Just for once, I’m not on a cruise but rather India’s Golden Triangle, a journey from Delhi to Agra and back that ticks off iconic sights such as the Taj Mahal, bazaars and mosques in Delhi and the Amber Fort in Jaipur. It is the perfect addition to cruises starting or ending in the region.
Delhi, the start point of the tour, is a vast city that’s home to some 23 million people. It’s full of contrasts, from gleaming high-rise call centres to elegant colonial buildings and scruffy street markets. Lutyens Delhi, built by the British when they moved their capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1911, has wide boulevards and monumental buildings; Chandri Chowk in Olde Delhi, on the other hand, is a rabbit warren of streets crammed with bikes and people and lined with stores selling colourful saris, aromatic spices and delicious-smelling street food.
“See all the wires,” our guide Sunil said, pointing to the tangle of electricity cables outside the shops. “If you lose power at home you call the electric company. If we lose power, we check next door.”
We inched our way through Chandri Chowk on rickshaws (think bicycle-powered taxis), stopped at the India Gate, built to remember the Indians who died fighting in the First World War and 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence and visited the tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun on which the Taj Mahal is modelled. We also stopped at Raj Ghat, where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated and visited Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh place of worship where each day volunteers prepare lunch for anyone, rich or poor, who wants to come and eat there.
It takes about three and a half hours to drive from Delhi to Agra on the motorway. Once there, we had a sneak peek of the Taj Mahal from the back, got stuck in a traffic jam caused by three cows that had decided to go for a stroll along the “fast lane,” had dinner in a local restaurant and turned in early in readiness for the 5 am alarm the next morning.
It is a very early start but well worth the effort. Even the crowds of people could not detract from the sheer beauty of this ivory-white mausoleum built between 1631 and 1653 by Shah Jahan in honour of his favourite wife. She died aged 38 giving birth to her 14th child, so it was a true labour of love in every sense of the word. Except, of course, he had his minions to do the labouring. Some 20,000 of them apparently worked day and night to get it finished.
After a late breakfast back at the hotel, we were on the road again, this time heading for the pink city of Jaipur, about a four-hour drive away. I always assumed it got that moniker due to the colour of the local stone. In fact, the city was painted pink by the then maharaja for a state visit by the future King Edward VII in 1876 (pink means welcome in Hindi) and the name stuck.
The main attraction is the Amber Fortress, a spectacular-looking place in the hills above the town that you can walk or drive up to but I arrived as every Maharani should - on the back of an elephant. She was called Sonja, aged 36 and so slow I wondered if she’d ever make it to the top. Thank goodness she did because the palace is really worth the effort it takes to get there. The colourful spices of India Gate are impressive, with vast courtyards, a beautiful room decorated with thousands of mirrored tiles and spectacular views over the rocky landscape.
Back at street level, I joined friends for a tuk-tuk ride around the city - great fun but you need nerves of steel - and toured the City Palace, where there are two 900 gallon water jugs that Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II filled with Ganges water and took to England for the coronation of Edward VII to get his own back on the king, who refused to drink the local water when he was in India.