In the Land of Palaces and Kings

The many lives of India seem to converge at its capital, giving it a subtle, often overwhelming identity born of this mix. Delhi, in its museums, forts, old market spaces, and modern art centres, seems to straddle the many different periods passed in history and those to be held in the future. In the desert lands of Thar, the bustling cities seem to have risen from the shifting dunes, carefully preserving and flaunting their rich heritage and ways of life.

The journey begins in the olden capital of India, Delhi, from where it moves to Udaipur, the idyllic city of the moonlit lakes. The path then leads to the blue city of Jodhpur and then make its way to the land of opulence, Jaipur. The journey takes you to the forgotten city of Fatehpur Sikri, hidden amidst the present day Agra, an exemplary reminder of Mughal glory. 

A city of multiple identities, Delhi has seen empires rise and fall over centuries.  Walk through the narrow streets of the old city to witness customs long forgotten in its charming bazaars and ancient houses. Marvel at the splendid architecture built by various conquerors, or dig into some delicious Mughlai cuisine. Delhi holds a place for everyone and offers something new with every journey. 

Known as the City of Lakes, Udaipur is a place taken right out of fairy tales. With the undulating Aravalli hills as a backdrop, the charming palaces decorate the many lakes with their reflection. Mewar architecture gives Udaipur a distinct aesthetic, seen most impressively aboard a boat looking toward the east bank where a series of glorious palaces stand.

The city of Jodhpur is immortalised in time in varying hues of blue amid a sea of golden sand. Overlooked by a massive fort perched atop a hill, the city holds in it long traditions of crafts and folk art. Visit the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, or take a stroll through the old markets where you will find craftsmen making lac bangles in one and the strong whiff of spices in another.

Jaipur is a celebration of all things royal and glorious, represented in its exuberant forts and palaces. Admire the exquisite blend of Rajput and Islamic architecture in the Amber Fort and Palace. Walk through the lively markets of the old city taking in the monochromatic walls and savouring some local dishes along the way

The city of Agra, in the midst of modernisation, preserves its magnificent past in iconic mausoleums, elaborate forts, and narrow old-city lanes. Early morning, observe the changing colours of the Taj Mahal’s white marble façade. Retrace your steps in history as you walk in the compounds of the Agra Fort and examine the exquisite work of marble inlay in a Persian nobleman’s tomb. End your journey in this magnificent city before heading back to Delhi.

Journey into the Great Plains

Ganga is one of the major rivers in India which descends from the mighty Himalaya into the Northern Plains. The Indo-Gangetic plains have been the cradle of civilization for centuries and has sustained half a billion people and perhaps an even greater number of lives. The Ganges has been a boon to the nation’s earliest empires; in Indian mythology, the river purges the sins of believers upon the holy dip and festivals of religious pilgrimage are organised around its banks with immense fervour.

With Delhi as a touchpoint, this journey begins by tracing the course of the holy river along the foothills of the Himalaya, in Rishikesh and Haridwar. Descending onto the plains in Lucknow, we follow the Ganges as it meanders into Allahabad, the city of a sacred confluence and Varanasi, the holy town of Lord Shiva and a consuming spiritual flight. This journey concludes at the first colonial capital of India and the largest city on the banks of the Ganges, Kolkata.

Hailed as the capital city for more than a century, Delhi remains to be the seat of political power for modern day India. Protected by forts and ramparts, the walled old city throngs with stories of a wealthy past. The metropolis of New Delhi continues to develop exponentially retaining within it the charms of the olden days. The pink sun rises over the royal Mughal gardens and lights up the dewy sandstone forts and monuments from its various pasts.

Eventually, to be met with the Yamuna down the plains, the holy Ganges descends from the lofty Himalaya and courses into Haridwar and Rishikesh, offering immersion into the ancient art of meditation and yoga. Brought into the limelight with the arrival of the Beatles, this spiritual centre is filled with devotees, travellers, and locals meditating by the riverbanks. Also called the Yoga Capital of the World, the people of this land have mirrored their ancestors who once recited chants at the prayer service for the river in a spectacular ritual called the Ganga Aarti and performed ablutions in the flowing river water.

Moving deeper into the plains, Lucknow greets a tributary of the Holy Ganges with its quintessential charm. The capital city of the empire of the Nawabs of Awadh, its contribution to the fields of literature, poetry, music and dance is unparalleled. Lucknow’s real charm lies not only in its monuments of Indo-Islamic architecture but also in the Tehzeeb-o-Saqafat or culture and sophistication of its people.

Further south in Allahabad, the sacred river of Yamuna, personified in Yami as the goddess of life, merges with the Ganges and the mythical Saraswati to form a holy confluence of absolution. In its cluster of Hindu temples along the confluence, attended to by learned priests and flocked with devotees, the city endures as a site of Hindu pilgrimage. In a smattering of exquisite Indo-Islamic heritage, the city prevails as a Mughal emperors' abode of the gods.

Changing course to head eastward, the holy river meanders to a city that has seen men, kingdoms and gods pass by. One of Hinduism’s seven holy cities, and an important Buddhist centre, Varanasi was once a fertile land of philosophy, theosophy, medicine and learning. The remnants still linger in its narrow lanes and the slippery ghats, inhabited by the locals, devotees, sadhus, aghoris and throngs of travellers who visit the city looking for salvation, religion, peace and whatever there is.

Further on, the holy river debouches into the plains of Bengal. It's capital Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is the largest city on the banks of River Ganges. The river is called the Hooghly here. Kolkata is the centre of Bengali culture and the cultural, commercial and the educational hub of Eastern India. Besides a glorious view of the Victoria Memorial, one of the many remnants of Kolkata’s colonial past, the St. Paul’s Cathedral stands as an excellent tribute to the ‘British Calcutta’ before it wisps into the cultural rituals of the Far East.

Of Domes and Arches

When cultures collide, cracks begin to appear, through which flows something newly born, an assimilation of the old seeping into the ground, manifesting itself in the words spoken, in the music made, in the books written and in all things built. Shaped through the hands of several dynasties, Indo-Islamic architecture is a result of centuries of cultural assimilation. Largely built under the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal dynasty, these structures reflect Central Asian influences, mostly comprising tombs, mosques, and forts. Indo-Islamic architecture is usually characterised by domes, minarets, and arches on stunningly larger than life structures. These architectural remnants are not just symbols of an architectural magnificence but also reminders of a glorious culture from the past.

The journey begins at the capital city of Delhi, where the influence of Islamic architecture took roots and proceeds to the city of Agra, the famed town resplendent with monuments from the Mughal era and leads to the city of Lucknow, where this confluence of styles culminated into a fresh school of architecture.

The olden seat of power, Delhi has seen the rise and fall of rulers and dynasties, growing with every event. Like the wrinkles of an old person, the narrow lanes of Delhi bear witness to the many influences that have shaped the city over centuries. Walk through the crowded alleys and be transported back to the Mughal era by the monuments and ruins that lay scattered amongst the modern.

From the capital, the journey takes you into the Royal city of Jaipur. The geometrical composition in Islam, combined with Indian traditional thought gave birth to this spectacular city. It houses the famous Amber Fort which is known to be one of the finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture.

As we travel further inwards, on the banks of river Yamuna lies Agra, a guardian land of Mughal heritage. Known widely for the magnificent Taj Mahal, Agra also holds within it the forgotten city of Fatehpur Sikri and monuments that are masterpieces of Indo-Islamic architecture.

The journey comes to an end in the marvel of a city known as Lucknow. Born out of the experimentation of Awadhi nawabs with different materials and styles is the Awadhi architectural style that decorates the city of Lucknow. Walk across the city filled with markets lively with native craft traditions and cuisine to come across ornate imambaras, durwazas, and other structures that are exemplars of Awadhi heritage.

Where Art is Made

An emperor’s embellished silk robe grazes the ground as he glides in view of his awaiting subjects. A coterie of housewives from the farming community work away on a heavily embroidered cotton veil for the bride-to-be. In the zenana, the women of a royal family await the news of the day, cooling themselves with a fan of stitched fabric tied to a sculpted wooden handle.

The sheer diversity in the tradition of handicrafts in India make it nearly impossible to document every style of handicraft that exists. Passed down over generations, each craft preserves a set of customs and rituals in its nurturing. Embark on this grand journey of the North to witness artisanry that has evolved with care and toil. Travel from the Sikh city of Amritsar to the ancient spiritual centre of Varanasi and explore the arts of the plains in Lucknow and Agra. Towards the end, arrive in Jaipur to interact with communities fostering centuries-old traditions.

Starting from Delhi, travel to the northern fields of Amritsar, a city named after the sacred waters of the iconic Golden Temple. Lying on the erstwhile Silk Route, Amritsar possesses a rich history in the trade of handcrafted products. Its vibrant markets still flourish through the presence of local artisans, weavers from Kashmir and ironsmiths from neighbouring Pakistan, producing textiles that feature delicate flower motifs known as phulkari, iron-tipped bamboo staves called khunda and woollen carpets interlaced with cotton, known as galeecha.

Moving deeper into the Gangetic plains, explore the markets that inhabit the shadowed, winding lanes of Varanasi. Wooden toys, lac-coated in bright colours, metal items embossed with intricate designs and hand-knotted carpets lie arranged in a baffling, colourful array. In the homes, hidden behind its towering mosques and temples, weavers of the Ansari community work to the rhythm of a foot handloom to create intricately designed silk textiles.

Travelling westwards, arrive at Lucknow, the former capital of the empire of the Nawabs. The rulers promoted the use of delicately embroidered muslin garments, founding a longstanding tradition of chikankari textiles that survives to this day. In the old city market, the echoes of iron hitting leather resound in small workshops, producing thin, edible foils of silver known as varaq. Silver and gold embroidery, carved animal-bone items, and terracotta pottery continue to breathe life into the market’s crumbling interiors.

Further ahead, the city of Agra brims with handicrafts influenced by the Mughals, as well as the devotional worship of Krishna, the popular Hindu god. Pacchikari or pietra dura, an exquisite craft in semi-precious stones, is inspired from the work done at the Taj Mahal. Agra is home to traditional craftsmen, who have mastered this art of laying slivers of coloured stones against black and white marble, to produce fine floral motifs. A walk in its lanes also unveils the artisans skilled at marble carving, glasswork and a traditional art of depicting Krishna’s life through finely cut paper stencils.

In the end, travel to the lively city of Jaipur, whose markets and villages nearby reveal a world of traditional art and handicraft techniques. While the exquisite blue pottery, gemstone jewellery and the textile tradition of tie-resist dyeing stand out in the city, the town of Bagru is known for its block printing technique, where motifs traditionally inspired by flora and fauna, are used in making textiles for various purposes.


Into the Dravidian Heartland

India’s deep south is a flourishing heartland of culture where ancient traditions meet modernity in a traveller’s paradise. This journey takes you into the land of exquisitely carved temples and quaint colonial towns. A land of coastal beauty flanked by backwaters and beaches, the South can be dramatic and serene at the same time.

This journey starts at Chennai, the cultural hub of Tamil Nadu before moving on to the temple city of Mahabalipuram on the eastern coast and trails the sandy beaches of the erstwhile French settlement of Pondicherry, spreading across the mainland into Thanjavur and Madurai, draining the Periyar basin in the forests of Thekkady. From here it emerges in the rustic backwaters of Alleppey before finally ending at the western coast, at the new port town of Cochin.  

The fourth largest metropolitan in the country, Chennai offers a glimpse into the intricate weaving of India's cultural past. The imposing stone temples, artefacts from a colonial era intertwined with the recent burst of modernity, Chennai is a world of its own. Visitors are offered a range of activities to pursue, from history and culture to the mouthwatering cuisine of the South.

From a bustling city, you move to the serene shores of Mahabalipuram. Surrounded by two beautiful lakes, the small strip of Mahabalipuram is home to some of the oldest architectural marvels in India. The famous Shore Temple overlooking the Bay of Bengal, with its large granite stone architecture perfectly encapsulates its essence. A huge monolithic rock, famously called the Krishna’s Butterball, hangs miraculously on a slope just so and has survived earthquakes through the ages.

The journey continues southwards and into Pondicherry, a city caught in a time-warp, which tells the tale of French influence and Tamil sensibilities. Walking through the cobbled streets, the romance of the old French town comes alive with sprightly shades of yellow on its chic buildings and colonial churches. Merchants sell country-made glass bangles in front of chic designer boutiques and the pleasures of coconut-based cuisine can be had in cafes with sophisticated French names.

The city of Thanjavur, south of Pondicherry, gleams with one of the oldest temples in the county. Once the cultural seat of the Chola empire, its splendour is visible in the many majestic temples in and around town. The epitome of the Dravidian style of architecture, the Bhrihadeeswara temple is situated in the heart of the city with a wealth of art, painting, sculpting.

The journey moves towards the mainland, and into the city of Madurai. The prime centre of Tamil culture, literature, art, music, and dance, Madurai has flourished through the centuries and has preserved its tradition of celebrating culture through the confluence of poets and artists, even today. The Meenakshi temple with its towering gopurams, sculpted brightly from stories of the past, stands tall in the proud blue sky.

In the Periyar basin, the deep jungles of Thekkady are home to a variety of species of indigenous flora and fauna including the mighty Indian tiger, elephants, deer, and langur to name a few. The Periyar National Park has sounds of local birds and gurgles of streams which can be explored by walks, treks, and the cradling bamboo rafts on the river.

Trail through thick forests to the pristine backwaters of Kerala in the little town of Alleppey. The lush and graceful backwaters of Alappuzha, anglicised as ‘Alleppey’, provide a rare respite from the bustle of cities. Cruise through the backwaters in the unique houseboats, or visit the temple by the lake known for its beautiful architecture. Unwind on the untouched beaches of the town before continuing to the busy city of Cochin.

The journey concludes at the western coast of India at the port town of Cochin. Popular for Dutch and Jewish influences, Cochin is the land of spices and Chinese fishing nets. Home to Kerala’s fabled backwaters, the roots of history run even deeper in Cochin to support the skyscrapers of modernity, much like the tallest of coconut palms that tirelessly line the coastal city.   

Where Desert Meets the Sea

As the crusty plateau softens at the edge of the Arabian sea, the undulating Western Ghats brace the gusting winds. The first showers awaken the tropical birds. The ancient temple rocks are moistened black for weeks at a stretch, and the age-old stepwells hold within them a hundred stories of the women who once roamed their stairways.  

This journey is the gateway into the western fringe of India, right up to the edge of the mainland, across the many rivers that drain the tropical forests. The marks of civilisation fade in and out of view, as they slip into caves of history, Mughal monuments, UNESCO world heritage sites and relics from India’s colonial past.

We will begin in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, or the more romanticised ‘Bombay’ -  a cluster of seven islands that are home to 21 million people who identify themselves as citizens of the metropolitan world. Built from 450 AD, the cave temples of Elephanta are the evidence of a glorious past that is dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction and regeneration. A visit to the Victoria Terminus is a perfect introduction to the Gothic architecture introduced by the British in the subcontinent. The journey will segue from the flamboyant station to the corniche lined with Art Deco buildings to the Malabar Hill, into the hanging gardens and Parsi cafes.

From the city of dreams, we will move on towards the interiors of Aurangabad. An imitation of the grand Taj Mahal in limestone and marble stands at Aurangabad. Often referred to as the ‘Baby Taj’, this mausoleum is known as Bibi ka Maqbara and was built by one of the last Mughal kings. Close to the city are the famous rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora. A tour of these cave temples reveals intricate interiors and ornamental facades carved and sculpted on ancient basalt rocks.

A provincial Indo-Saracenic style of architecture can be seen in the minarets, domes, and latticework in the mosques in the city of Ahmedabad. Prosperity, that followed trade with the affluent western countries, is reflected in the havelis and courtyard houses of the merchants. It was from Ahmedabad that Mahatma Gandhi orchestrated India’s struggle for freedom. It is now a city that is home to some of the most iconic contemporary architecture in India.

As we travel towards the west of Ahmedabad, we enter the region of Kutch. Colour and design stand out as the most salient features found in the handicrafts of Kutch as expressions of the State ’s rich heritage. The highlights of our visit to the tribal villages would be the different forms of embroidery, block printing and tie and dye.  As we take a safari into the wild west of the Gir National Park - a breeding ground of flamingo, pelican, and home of the rare Indian Wild Ass, we will also sight the great Asiatic lion along with leopards and antelopes.

The UNESCO world heritage site of Champaner Pavagadh near Vadodara is a living cultural heritage beginning from the Chalcolithic period. The ancient shrine on the top of a hill is an important place for Hindu pilgrimage. Excavations have also revealed precincts of cities with various places of worship and primitive water tanks. Besides this, Vadodara also houses the royal family of Baroda in the Laxmi Vilas Palace, a unique blend of different schools of architecture.

Journey of A Faith

The land of five rivers ‘Punjab’ has a turbulent history. Straddling India and neighbouring Pakistan, Punjab had wealth that was blessed with prosperity that is reflected in all aspects of its culture. Songs of harvest, mansions that held entire communities, festivals that involve horse riders and holy swords, tales and folklore that outlived generations to shape popular traditions.

This journey will take you to this hallowed land and into the hearts of people who call it their home. The journey starts at Amritsar, a city that never ceases to amaze the visitor with its resilience. The city takes its name from the tank that surrounds the famed Golden Temple, meaning the ‘pool of the nectar of immortality’. Amritsar holds the distinction of being the spiritual heart of the Sikh faith and millions visit the city each day to get a glimpse of the sanctum at the temple.

In Kapurthala, the erstwhile capital of a princely state, we will visit an opulent palace that was converted into a centre of education. The imposing edifice, faithful to the French Renaissance style of architecture, vies with the nearby mosque that boasts a resemblance to buildings in Marrakesh. The city is sprinkled with gardens and studded with temples and gurudwaras that sing paeans of courage and wisdom of the Sikh Gurus.

'Jalandhar’ or the land that lies between the two life-giving rivers, Satluj and Beas, is one of the most prominent sites of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation. The excavations have dated Jalandhar as an inhabited city since the dawn of the Harrapan times. The Grand Trunk Road, a 2700-km long highway built by the Mughals, runs through the heart of the city, reiterating Jalandhar’s prominent position on a historical trade route. The city also assumed an important role in the relatively recent history during the freedom struggle, when it became the seat of the Khilafat movement.

Patiala has a fragile blend of tradition and modernity, much like the famous attire, the Patiala salwar-kameez, which the women of the city are often identified by. Established in the middle of the eighteenth century, the city’s culture is replete with Punjabi, Mughal, and Rajput characteristics. A city synonymous with mouth-watering delicacies and pegs of country brew, Patiala celebrates festivals of North India with fervour and ferocity.

A city of conflicting philosophies, Chandigarh is distinctly modern and minimalist. The city was spontaneously created after India gained her independence in 1947 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. A masterpiece of urban design, the city was planned by Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier and is divided into blocks and sectors, embellished with beautiful gardens, giving it an unparalleled position in the urban architecture of India.

End this journey in the enchanting city of DelhiA fascinating amalgamation of cultures, Delhi has something for everyone. Visit the magnificent shrine that is the Bangla Saheb Gurudwara built in 1783. This place of solace is flocked by more than a thousand people in one single day. Take a stroll through the sprawling Lodhi Gardens, or indulge in the mouth-watering cuisines that the city has to offer. Delhi is a city rich in history and transformed through modernity.

A Wondrous Moonland

A land of varying landscapes, from white sands to blue lakes, snow-capped mountains to lush valleys, Ladakh, like a dream captured in a snow globe, is a wildly beautiful milieu set between the Kunlun Mountains and the Himalayas. The cold mountain deserts of Ladakh nurture life in their own unique way. The desolate landscape holds some very promising secrets of life with its numerous isolated lakes. The indescribable beauty of it all must be seen to be experienced.

Fly into the capital city of Delhi, where the confluence of old and new has produced some of the most marvellous architecture, delectable cuisine, and most importantly timeless stories. From here travel to the lofty terrains of the Himalayas through the little town of Leh.

The elevated magical landscapes of Leh,  the city in the sky, is the gateway to the surrounding Ladakh region. This cold, arid, remote, mountainous region has enchanted travellers with its sheer rugged beauty. The region lies directly in Tibet’s sphere of influence and its culture. Tibetan Buddhism and its unique philosophy have thrived here for centuries. Most of Ladakh outside of Leh is either very sparsely populated or is just a seemingly endless expanse of lofty mountains and valleys with the occasional Buddhist monastery.

In these remote arid lands, the cultural vibrancy of its people has survived the harshness of their surroundings. After exploring the grand palace and the monasteries in Leh, travellers head out into the lofty wilderness. Several secluded monasteries dot the spectacular landscape which stand out like jewels amid the cold desert. They drive, hike and walk to some of the abbeys and monasteries in Uletokpo and other remote hamlets and settlements; meet with the locals, the abbots, the Lamas and the students of the monasteries, letting the barren expanse of Ladakh charm them with its unspoiled allure.

Amidst the mountain ranges of Ladakh lies the spectacular Tso Moriri. Pass through barley fields and charming white houses to enter the wetland sanctuary, and amidst the snow-capped peaks and lush green fields lies the emerald blue Tso Moriri, untouched by modernity.

While in the mountains, there is a cycling tour for sightings of one of the loftiest mountain passes in the Himalayas. The locals eat hearty meals by gushing rivulets and walk into the enchanted old city. Ladakh offers bird watching experiences around River Indus and local people love to invite travellers to share a meal with them at their home.

An Aromatic Trail

It was the 17th century when a Sufi saint smuggled the ferociously guarded coffee beans all the way from Yemen to India through the Arabian Sea, planting the seeds in the hills of Chandragiri. With time, it spread along the hills of the western ghats, grown on a large scale and consumed by the newly emerging urban centres under the colonial rule. Today, coffee has rooted itself firmly in south Indian culture and an average individual’s morning routine.

This journey follows the exotic aroma of coffee, trailing through the slopes of the undulating Western Ghats where South India's tryst with coffee began, to the urban centres where coffee drinking evolved into a culture of its own.  It will begin in the city of Bangalore moving South to the scenic landscapes of Chikmangalur also known as as the Coffee House of India. The Journey will then take you towards the tranquil hill station of Coorg, before descending into the untouched Wayanad forests. The trail will continue into the more urban environment of Mysore, before coming to an end in the streets of Chennai

Begin your journey in the urban centre of Bangalore - the city that has metamorphosed from a sleepy cantonment to a bustling cosmopolitan. With coffee shops around every corner, the city will serve as the perfect fix for your caffeine cravings before moving on to the source of South India’s favourite beverage.

From the busy streets of Bangalore, move Southward towards the lofty landscapes of Chikmagalur, where the first coffee beans were planted in India. With pristine waterfalls, hill temples, and untrodden trekking trails lined with panoramic coffee plantations, Chikmagalur is a haven for those seeking respite from the two-dimensional cities. The fruits vegetables and meat available in the mountain ranges have, over the years, shaped the Malanad cuisine of the region characterised by less usage of oil and heavy influence of spices.

The aroma then leads you to the picturesque landscapes of Coorg, a serene hill region eluding the grasps of urbanity, nestled within verdant rainforests, and the hill slopes carved into coffee plantations. These rugged hills that were inaccessible bore within them a community known for its unique culture and way of life. Secluded from the rest of the region for most of its history, their Kodavu culinary tradition has been preserved with minimal external influence.  

Inhale the rich aroma of coffee with the occasional winds, while the air of Wayanad is smooth and a raspy confluence of green spices and the mountain soil. A spread of towns, villages and wilderness, the Wayanad region allows one to slow down and revel in its charms. Protected from outside influence by the guardian mountains, this region offers a wide range of dishes that form the cuisine of indigenous tribes.

Travel all the way to the fragrant city of Mysore to share a by-two coffee’ with a friend.  The pleasant tree-lined boulevards and well-spaced buildings welcome one to a city with a vibrant culture. Influenced by the Udupi cuisine and the Malanad cuisine, Mysore has carved a place for itself in the famed culinary traditions of India.

Fly down to the city of Chennai, where the early morning streets fill with the robust aroma of the coffee decoction that drips down the special filter in every house. A city that rose to prominence under the colonial rule, Chennai and it's crowded cacophonous streets offer to the travellers a quick glimpse into the myriad cultures of Tamil Nadu and has over time given rise to cultures and traditions of its own.