India, it is often said, is not a country, but a continent. Stretching from the frozen summits of the Himalayas to the tropical greenery of Kerala, its expansive borders encompass an incomparable range of landscapes, cultures and people. Walk the streets of any Indian city and you’ll rub shoulders with representatives of several of the world’s great faiths, a multitude of castes and outcastes, fair-skinned, turbaned Punjabis and dark-skinned Tamils. You’ll also encounter temple rituals that have been performed since the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs, onion-domed mosques erected centuries before the Taj Mahal was built, and quirky echoes of the British Raj on virtually every corner.
Your grand India tour starts from Delhi, City of Djinns, and 25 million people. Like an eastern Rome, India’s capital is littered with the relics of lost empires. A succession of armies stormed across the Indo-Gangetic plain and imprinted their identity onto the vanquished city, before vanishing into rubble and ruin like the conquerors who preceded them. Modern Delhi is a chaotic tapestry of medieval fortifications, Mughal mausoleums, dusty bazaars, colonial-era town planning, and mega malls.
Wing onto Varanasi, also known as Banaras or Benares, stretches along the River Ganges, its waterfront dominated by long flights of stone ghats where thousands of pilgrims and residents come for their daily ritual ablutions. Known to the devout as Kashi, the Luminous – the City of Light, founded by Shiva – Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world.
Another flight will take you to Udaipur. Spreading around the shores of the idyllic Lake Pichola and back dropped by a majestic ring of craggy green hills, it seems to encapsulate India at its most quintessentially romantic, with its intricate sequence of ornately turreted and balconied palaces, whitewashed havelis and bathing ghats clustered around the waters of the lake – or, in the case of the Lake Palace Hotel and Jag Mandir, floating magically upon them.
Your next destination is Jodhpur, dubbed “the Blue City” after the color-wash of its old town houses, huddles below the mighty Mehrangarh Fort, the most spectacular citadel in Rajasthan, which dominates the cityscape from atop its huge sandstone plinth.
A flamboyant showcase of Rajasthani architecture, Jaipur has long been established on tourist itineraries as the third corner of India’s “Golden Triangle”. At the heart of Jaipur lies the Pink City, the old walled quarter, whose bazaars rank among the most vibrant in Asia, renowned for their textiles and jewelery.
Your last stop is Agra – India’s capital under the Mughals – remains undiminished, from the massive fort to the magnificent Taj Mahal. Along with Delhi, 204km northwest, and Jaipur in Rajasthan, Agra is the third apex of the “Golden Triangle”, India’s most popular tourist itinerary. Although it’s possible to see Agra on a day-trip from Delhi, the Taj alone deserves so much more – a fleeting visit would miss the subtleties of its many moods, as the light changes from sunrise to sunset – while the city’s other sights and Fatehpur Sikri can easily fill several days.
Drive back to Delhi for an overnight stay and fly home on the following day.