Me, mid elephant, in India.
Story & photos by Cathie Arquilla
My son asked, “So, how was India?” I knew I had about two minutes to describe my trip, he was wolfing down Cheerios, about to be late for school. “It was a hot mess,” I said. Explaining further, it’s super busy and chaotic. Everyone is going and coming and doing a million different things in the span of fifty feet. No one seems to follow the rules, you’ll see trucks going down the wrong side of the highway. There doesn’t seem to be any zoning laws. It’s perfectly okay to paint your house bright orange, jerry-rig your electrical, and set up a shop (or home) on a street meridian. BUT there is something incredibly freeing about the whole place. The constant honking usually isn’t angry. It’s just a shout-out. Hey, I’m here, on your left, passing you now, hi there, here I come. Contrary to the, get the F out of my way MF, rage you can get and (sometimes) give here at home.
Underneath and on top of the mess, there is great beauty and creativity. It’s magical, happy and sad at the same time. Occasionally, I felt sensory overload. I would have to shut my eyes for a minute because I was seeing, smelling and hearing too much all at once. For that reason, it’s nice to have a quiet place to rest your head at the end of the day. And hospitality is just one of the things “Incredible India” does best. It’s not officious, rather it’s genuine and caring– ‘I really want to help you, it’s not just my job.’
We stayed at the Taj brand hotels with the exception of ITC Rajputana in Jaipur. My sister and I were doing a typical “first-timer” tour of India, The Golden Triangle– Delhi, Agra, Jaipur. Our add on was Lucknow, the capitol city of Utter Pradesh in the northeast.
Lucknow: Untouristed and Unsettling
Known as the Nawabi City, Lucknow is steeped in history, rich with culture and architecture of the Nawab era. If you are interested in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, it’s a rich place to explore, especially for an Anglophile. There are very few tourists and you’re free to roam the monuments at your own peril (tourism without regard to law suits). I did get an unsettling feeling of… was it anger, disapproval, or just a weird sense of fascination from some of the men?
I was looking for a silver jewelry box and my guide took me into a few small shops on a main commerce street in Old Town. I took off my shoes as instructed, but there was no welcome or smile from the proprietor, on the contrary, it was more like, what is SHE doing here? Also, while visiting the British Residency, the ruins of a large British township that was under siege during the Mutiny, we were openly learned at. I asked our guide, “Do they hate us? Or is it socially acceptable for men to stare?” He said it’s because we’re white, “They think you’re British and in this area, the British are not well liked.” Obviously there isn’t a factual answer, it’s a feeling, something you can’t exactly Google.
Vivanta by Taj
Vivanta by Taj – Gomit Nagar – Lucknow
What turns this whole story on it’s head was the very nice welcome and hospitality we received at the the Vivanta Gomti Nagar Lucknow, the Taj’s number two brand, followed by the Gateway and the Ginger hotels.
I met Sales Managers Alpana Singh and S. Shabahat Husain for tea and they told me that the hotel was rather new (15 years), and built in the colonial style of the British Residency, with influences of French and Mughal (Nowabi) architecture. They explained that while they would like Lucknow to attract more tourism, right now their clientele is mostly there to conduct business and the Vivanta Lucknow caters to that customer. Ms. Singh, who started working for the hotel one year before it opened, said the hotels biggest asset was being part of the Taj brand. Immediately, consumers know to expect excellence from the brand and that is what ultimately drives sales.
To best describe the excellent service we received, I have to tell a quick story about Swati, an on-duty service manager, I got to know.
My sister had purchased a sari from a popup store in the hotel with the idea that she would wear it at a gala the following night. The custom blouse that goes with the sari would not be completed in time, but she could wear a gold t-shirt instead. The next day we got back to the hotel with an hour to get ready for the gala and Bonnie, my sister, said she couldn’t wear the sari because she didn’t have a matching petticoat. This is a drawstring underskirt, that you tuck one end of the sari in to. I’m a fashion stylist and I wasn’t going to let Bonnie leave the hotel in nothing else but that sari!
I called Swati. I told her not only did we need the petticoat, but she had to come back to put the sari on because I didn’t know how to do it. She said she needed the sari to match the fabric of the petticoat and that once she had it in hand, she would bring it to the room and put the sari on Bonnie. With 45 minutes left, I had my doubts about pulling the sari mission off (honestly, I wouldn’t have bet a rupee on it). It’s India, just thinking of the traffic and craziness outside, I felt defeated. Not only did Swati arrive in time to put the sari on, but the petticoat was the absolute perfect match to the sari fabric. Swati, duty manager and valet too.
Oudhyana Restaurant, Taj Vivanta
Oudhyana Restaurant – Nowab Splendor, The Taj Stamp
I’m sure there is amazing, adventurous, eating in local markets and city restaurants in India, but Anthony Bourdain I am not. Taking advice from my sister and friends who have been to India, I stuck mostly to hotel dining. Yes, I wanted to be more authentic in my food choices, but like forgoing train travel, I didn’t want to take chances with the timing of our trip, being sequestered sick in bed or stuck on a train, was not an option. However the Taj Hotels offer such fantastic dining, there is no compromising to be done.
Vivanta Gomti Nagar Lucknow has a one-of-a-kind restaurant called Oudhyana. The dining room was like being in a Tiffany jewelry box. Despite the fact that I was wearing a sequined gold skirt with a gold silk charmeuse top and jeweled sandals, I felt under dressed. In this dining room you should bathe yourself in silk and jewels and finery from head to toe!
If ever you need to indulge a Nowab fantasy, this is the place to do it. The cuisine type is Awadhi, a northern India cuisine specific to Lucknow, but similar to Central Asia and the Middle East. Think slow fire stews, kebabs, korma–a big spread of small plates set before Nowabi princes during the Moghal era. Sous Chef Harish Chand Sharma makes this fantasy come to your table. A small selection of dishes worth remembering and mentioning here include: mustard fish, mutton kabab, and a vermicelli dessert.
Old Town, Delhi
The Golden Triangle – A Typical Itinerary for Atypical India
If you find yourself in Delhi, and anyone on a Rajistan Golden Triangle tour will, make sure you hire a bike rickshaw and take a ride through Old Delhi, this slice of India gave me a sense of place like no other. The rickshaw driver who weighed at least 35 pounds less than me (okay I’m 145) was managing with a bike chain that kept quitting on him. So he ran half the time. My sister was next to me (I’m not going to tell her weight). The driver was undaunted!
Our guide Pushkar, a young man with fashionably saggy pants, took us through the spice market and to a Sikh temple where we also toured the adjoining kitchen. The kitchen had wok-like pots big enough for three four-year-olds. The ladies, patting, balling, and tossing dough seemed as chatty and comfortable as any feminine DIY gossip group the world over. They were getting ready to feed 100 plus, free of charge.
I asked Pushkar what he wanted to do after being a tour guide. He said his plan was to retire at 35 and open an ashram in his home village up north, a lofty aspiration and rather different form western 20 somethings!
The stand out meal in Delhi was at the Taj Mahal New Delhi (The Taj Mansingh). Surprisingly, it was Chinese food. Dining at the House of Ming felt like being in a James Bond movie. One of those scenes where he is somewhere in the world being totally handsome, smart, international, glamorous and well fed. The House of Ming prides itself on being a favorite of Delhi’s elite and while I didn’t recognize any Bollywood film stars, I bet they were there! Celebs aside, it was a tantalizing meal with tastes twisting and turning in my mouth – hot counteracted by sweet, soft in opposition to crunchy. Order the lotus stems tossed in seasonal honey and dried red chilis. I’m not sure you can get them anywhere else.
Me at the Baby Taj.
Home to the Taj Mahal, Agra is probably one of the most touristed spots in central Asia. My neighbor Surendra Shah gave me some excellent advice before my trip. He said to see the “Baby Taj” before visiting the Taj Mahal. Did we follow said advice, no, our schedule was turned around so we visited I’timad-ud-Daula (the Baby Taj) after seeing the Taj Mahal, but at sunset, and it was precious in comparison, like hearing flutes instead of drums. Like the Taj Mahal, I’timad-ud-Daula is a tomb. It is a precursor to the Taj, the first Mughal monument to use white marble and inlay. I’m not a Moghal scholar, but to me the architecture and inlay work was every bit as artistically jaw dropping as the Taj.
The other bit of advice from Mr. Shah was to see the Taj Mahal from the Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden) before visiting. This advice we did follow and it was a perfect build up to seeing the Taj Mahal the next morning at sunrise. Mehtab Bagh is situated along the Yamuna River just opposite the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. It was the last Mughal-built gardens along the Yamuna and was said to be the chosen site of a black marble mausoleum (identical to the Taj Mahal) that Mughal Shah Jahan wanted to build for himself. However, in typical Mughal dynastic fashion, excellent fodder for a dramatic TV mini-series, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb and the black Taj was never to be.
Peshawri restaurant at ITC Mughal, was our favorite meal in Agra. Riffing again on a movie reference, here I thought of Omar Sharif in Laurence of Arabia. Picture an exotic caravan tent set from a 50s MGM movie, except without the tent, the walls with their jagged tiles say cave more than ten, add lots of orange, green and red cushions and rugs, beaded screens, low lights, no dancers but a serious yet friendly waitstaff with oversized turbans… and you’re there. The food is inspired by the North-West Frontier Province, which encompasses parts of Afghanistan and Northwest pre-independence India. It’s a tradition of clay ovens and tandoor, it’s not saucy. We had some huge prawns fire cooked on a yard long skewer, a sword really. The method for marinating the prawns was to use a big butter drenched rag (or cheese cloth?) and squeezed it over the prawns. Delicious.
On the Way to Jaipur
The lower left point on the Golden Triangle tour is the city of Jaipur home to the stupendous Amber Fort, but there are two stops on your way there from Agra that should be made. They are Fatehpur Sikri and the Chand Baori step wall in Abhaneri.
Fatehpur Sikri is an imperial palace city built by Mughal emperor Akbar. Visiting the complex gives you a frame of reference for the whole Mughal dynasty and it especially emphasizes the splendor and brilliance of Akbar’s court. If I had to choose to run away with any one Mughal emperor, it would be Akbar! His ability to assimilate different cultural influences and religions in the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri is unparalleled. His courts became the center of arts, literature and learning and he championed an Indo-Persian culture, which thrived on religious acceptance. There is so much history and lore to garnish from this magnificent palace city that you should be very particular about your guide and read up on Akbar The Great before you go!
Hindu Goddess, at Chand Baori Stepwell
Steps, steps and more steps.
Maybe it’s because Bonnie and I were the only ones there, but The Chand Baori Stepwell did feel mystical. A local guide took us around the top most part of the well describing the Hindi gods and goddess on various stone pieces lying about. Looking down into the giant hole that is the well, one could get vertigo. The name “stepwell” both describes how it works and what it is. You step down stairs to get to the water accumulated at the bottom. Women were most often associated with the wells, because they collected water while offering prayers. The Chand Baori stepwell has something like observation rooms overlooking the well with ornate architectural details now in semi-ruin. Being there, you could almost hear the laugher, gossip and chatter of the women seeking water and refuge on a hot summer day.
Note: The Golden Triangle sites are a lot about the Islamic Mughal Dynasty of the 16th century. The Chand Baori stepwell was built between 800 and 900AD and it is Hindu, dedicated to Hashat Mata, the Goddess of Joy and Happiness.
In Jaipur there are several requisite tourism sites, but the one that was stand out for us and most any visitor, is Amber Fort. I knew we would be riding a “Amber Fort Elephant” up the access road to the fort, a rather hokey way to get there (not to mentioned probably unsanctioned by animal rights activists) but I couldn’t wait to get on that elephant! I had a big agenda to recreate the picture of my fashion idols Lee Radziwill and Jackie Kennedy on an elephant in India, sans the white gloves, and I did it!
Amber Fort also known as Amber Palace has a layered history with many medieval structures destroyed or replaced, but today the palace complex of the Rajput Maharajas still stands. Like India itself it is enigmatic. So dramatic in form, grace and intricacy, one doesn’t know where to look first.
Glimpse a reflexion of yourself in Shesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors), your face is cut into bits, your image is reflected a million times over, it is both disconcerting and awe-inspiring.
Disconcerting and awe-inspiring. That is the hot mess that is India.