Democracy for India is an imported system of government derived from the British in the late Victorian period. Only with British withdrawal and even more with the abolition of the princely states in 1971 did a civilisation of courts finally come to an end. But the idea of the palace as a centre of power and culture is so strong in the Indian mind that even new hotels are designated palaces.
We shall be visiting some twenty of them covering several centuries, some now magnificent ruins, some still lived in by the former ruling families, some museums, some converted to lush hotels in which we will stay. They range from magnificent forts atop mountains to ones built down below in the main by British architects in the late Victorian era. This tour concentrates on visiting ones not on the normal tourist circuit.
We begin in Mumbai, the old East India Company trading station of Bombay, followed by a stay in a wonderful 18th century fort in the village of Maheshwar, and a visit to Mandu, a 15th century marvel of early Islamic architecture. We drive to Bhopal, our base from which to explore Sanchi, built in the third century BC, one of India’s most important – and oldest – Buddhist sites, famous for its superb sculpture.
We then travel to one of India’s best kept secrets – Orchha (which means hidden) – a remote collection of majestic abandoned cenotaphs, palace and fort stunningly located on an island in the boulder-strewn Betwa River. Next we drive north, via the magnificent 17th century Datia Palace, to Gwalior. This city is dominated by most impressive and least visited forts in India, approached through a canyon of mysterious giant rock sculptures of naked Jain deities. We continue, via the ruins of the 16th century city of Fatehpur Sikri to the ‘Rose City’ of Jaipur, with its colourful markets and eclectic blend of architecture including the Amber Fort.
Guest Lecturer, Sir Roy Strong, will enhance this remarkable journey with a series of fascinating lectures.
London / Mumbai
Evening departure from London Heathrow on a British Airways flight to Mumbai.
On arrival, transfer to the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel where one night is spent. Built in 1903, bringing together Moorish, Oriental and Florentine styles, the hotel has panoramic views of the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India, built to receive George V and Queen Mary for the 1911 Durbar and itself a city landmark. The renowned American architect, Melton Bekker, conceived the Tower wing in 1973 with its arched balconies topped by a jagged diadem.
Buffet lunch at the hotel’s Shamiana restaurant. Afternoon walking tour of Mumbai, the old East India Company trading station of Bombay. Dinner at the hotel’s Masala Craft restaurant.
Mumbai / Indore / Maheshwar
Transfer to Mumbai airport for a morning flight to Indore. On arrival transfer to the temple town of Maheshwar in the heart of Madhya Pradesh. Check in at Ahilya Fort where three nights are spent. Situated high above the banks of the sacred Narmada River, Ahilya Fort was the capital of one of India’s celebrated women rulers, Ahilya Bai Holkar. Her fortress has been converted into a hotel of discrete charm, with surroundings that still retain their 18th century traditions and an atmosphere of calm and repos.
Stay as a guest of Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, son of the last Maharajah of Indore, a chef of repute who personally oversees the kitchen serving food organically grown on the Prince’s nearby farm.
Lunch at the hotel. Afternoon at leisure. Drinks on the hotel’s ramparts overlooking the river followed by dinner.
Maheshwar & Mandu
The whole day will be spent at Mandu, the 14th century abandoned Islamic city, one of whose rulers expelled all men and peopled his city with 14,000 beautiful women. Perched along the Vindhya ranges at 600m, Mandu was fortified as early as the 6th century but gained prominence in the 10th century as Mandavgarh, the fort capital of the Paramara rulers of Malwa. Later, in the early 14th century it came under the sway of the Delhi Sultans under whom it was named Shadiabad (City of Joy). In the 16th century it was captured but the great Mughal Emperor, Humayun and it became a pleasure resort. By the end of the Mughal period it had, effectively, been abandoned and in 1732, it passed into Maratha hands.
The fine architecture of the buildings, spread over the naturally defensive plateau with a sheer drop towards the Namar plains, exude a grace and symmetry which is often described as being unique in India. Whilst here you will explore the exquisite palaces, ornamental canals, baths, pavilions and the outstanding Jama Masjid and Hoshang Shah’s Tomb. They represent the best of the provincial Islamic style and most of the structures were built between 1401 and 1526, initially using stone salvaged from desecrated local Hindu temples.
Picnic lunch. Dinner at the hotel.
Morning tour of temple town of Maheshwar, lying on the banks of the holy Narmada River, including the Fort, Ghats and some of the temples. Mentioned in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (then known as Mahissati) Maheshwar was the capital of the king Kartivarjun during ancient times and saw a resurgence in the 18th century under the reign of Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore. Its fort and temples are from this period and as one of the abodes of Shiva it attracts many pilgrims during its numerous festivals. See examples of local hand loom weaving, an ancient craft in Maheshwar, revived by the Holkars and now a famous and thriving cottage industry.
Return to the hotel for lunch. Afternoon at leisure with an optional walk through the local villages and farms. Dinner at the hotel.
Maheshwar / Bhopal
This morning drive to Bhopal (journey time 5 hrs) and check in at the Jehan Numa Palace hotel where two nights are spent. A 19th century palace, the Jehan Numa is nestled on the slopes of Shamla Hill in five acres of lush green lawns and splashes of colourful bougainvillea. The Palace is a superb example of a medley of British Colonial, Italian Renaissance and Classical Greek Architecture.
Lunch at the hotel on arrival. Afternoon at leisure. Dinner at the hotel.
Bhopal & Sanchi
Morning vist to Sanchi, one of most important Buddhist sites in India. Hidden for centuries by thick undergrowth until its chance discovery by British soldiers, the remains at Sanchi are most famous for their superb sculpture. Built by the Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, the site is one of the oldest in India. Visit the Sanchi Museum housing the sculptures from the site and the house of excavator Sir John Marshall.
Return to the hotel for lunch. Visit the excellent Tribal Museum dedicated to the tribal peoples of Madhya Pradesh with exhibits including tribal huts, tombs and pottery. Dinner at the hotel.
Bhopal / Bhojpur / Orchha
Morning excursion to Bhojpur to see the famous temple dedicated to Shiva believed to have been constructed by the 11th-century Paramara king Bhoja. The temple houses one of the largest lingas in India and it is crafted out of a single rock. The temple is unique because it was left unfinished. There are a series of large architectural parts still located in the nearby quarries where the stones were cut and fashioned. In addition, there are a significant number of architectural drawings engraved on the flat surfaces in the quarry showing mouldings, pillars, and the original temple plans. There is a large earthen ramp behind the temple which shows how the medieval craftsmen were able to raise the large blocks of stone into position.
Return to Bhopal for lunch at the hotel before departing by train to Jhansi. Continue by road to Orchha. Highly picturesque, in the middle of nowhere and somewhat neglected and abandoned on an island in the Betwa River, Orchha, literally meaning ‘Hidden’, was founded by the Bundela chief Raja Rudra Pratap in the 16th century.
Check-in to the Amar Mahal Palace Hotel, overlooking the magnificent cenotaphs and the River Betwa, where two nights are spent. Remainder of the afternoon at leisure before an optional sunset walk round the local temples. Dinner at the hotel.
Spend the morning exploring the gardens, gateways, pavilions, temples and frescoed walls which lie within the turreted walls of Orchha Fort. Visit the Royal Chattris which lie along the River Betwa. Also visit Ram Mandir where a path leads through the Muoghal-style Phool Bagh ornamental garden to Hardaul ka Baithak, a grand pavilion where Bir Singh Deo’s second son, Hardaul, once held court.
Lunch at the hotel. Visit the pink and gold domed hindu Ram Raja Temple, the only temple in India where Rama is worshipped as a king. End the afternoon with a visit the Jehangir Mahal Temple, a beautiful example of Mughal architecture.
Return to the hotel for dinner. Optional Son et Lumière.
Orchha / Datia / Gwalior
Depart for Datia to visit the splendid 17th century Shish Mahal Palace. Owned by the Maharajas of Datia, the seven storey palace of Raja Bir Singh Deo is one of the finest examples of Bundela architecture. Continue to Gwalior and check-in to the Taj Usha Kiran Palace Hotel where two nights are spent. Set amidst 9 acres of beautifully landscaped lawns, the Usha Kiran Palace was originally built 120 years ago as the Royal Guesthouse, playing host to the King of England and was later occupied by the Maharaja of Gwalior.
Lunch at the hotel. Afternoon at leisure. Dinner at the hotel.
Visit Gwalior Fort which was described by Cunningham as the ‘noblest specimen of Hindu architecture in North India’. The fort was built in the 8th century by the Rajputs and was later contested by the Tomars, Barbur, the Maratha and the British. Approaching the fort from the south-west, pass the colossal Jain statues and walls which are 10 metres high and thick. Inside the fort is Man Singh’s palace which is embellished with lapis tiles of ducks, elephants and palms, brackets of stone peacocks and beasts.
The palace has a natural air-conditioning system and the dark cool basements are in layers below the waiting room where the women would watch the flag for victory or defeat during battles. See the Karan, Shah Jahan and Jehangir palaces, the two 11th century Sasbahu temples and the 9th century Teli-ka-Mandir, a marriage temple. Also visit the Archaeological Museum housed in the Gujari Mahal Palace, housing a large collection of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist sculptures, and the tombs of the 16th century Sufi Saint, Muhammad Ghaus, and the famous musician at Akbar’s court, Tansen.
Lunch at the hotel followed by a visit to the Jai Vilas Palace. Part of the Palace is the present Maharaja’s residence and some 35 rooms house the Scindia Museum, an idiosyncratic collection of royal possessions and memorabilia. Designed by Lt Col Sir Michael Filose, the building resembles an Italian palazzo using painted sandstone to imitate marble. Inside the extraordinary Durbar Hall hang two of the world’s largest chandeliers each weighing 3 ½ tons and it is alleged that the strength of the roof was tested with the weight of 10 elephants.
Dinner at the hotel. Optional Son et Lumière at the Fort.
Gwalior / Jaipur
Morning at leisure with the possibility of joining the festivities of the Hindu Spring Festival of Colours, Holi.
Lunch at the hotel. Depart for the deserted Moghul city of Fatephur Sikri (journey time 3 hrs). The city was built in the late 16th century and in its heyday was the most important artistic centre in South Asia. One long bazaar connected the city to Agra and its wealth is reflected in the impressive buildings that remain today. Fatephur Sikri was abandoned after 15 years and stands in near perfect condition allowing the visitor an interesting glimpse into everyday life at the Moghul court.
Continue to the ‘Pink City’ Jaipur founded in 1727 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (journey time 3 hrs). Check in at the Taj Jai Mahal Palace where two nights are spent. The hotel, built in the Indo Saracenic style, is set close to the city centre amidst 18 acres of beautifully landscaped Moghul gardens and dates back to 1745 AD. Dinner under own arrangements.
Morning visit to the impressive Amber Fort which dates from the 16th / 17th centuries, where the majestic 18km ramparts rise steeply above its hilltop site and elephants carry visitors up to the entrance gate. Within, a series of courtyards lead to a rich interior of lavishly decorated pavilions, rooms and apartments – gold and silver, coloured and mirrored glass, carved marble, plaster and wood and exquisite wall paintings abound.
Lunch at the hotel. Visit the City Palace Complex, Jai Singh’s model palace, with its magnificent Hawa Mahal, known as the Palace of the Winds, an elaborate five storey façade of windows and tracery from where the ladies of the court used to sit and observe the outside world and enjoy the cooling breezes (hence the name). Visit the 18th century Royal Observatory with its monumental sundials and signs of the zodiac. Alternatively spend the afternoon at leisure exploring the bazaars which teem with people, camels, horses and a multitude of vehicles. Dinner at Samode Haveli.
Jaipur / Mumbai / London
Early morning transfer to Jaipur Airport for a flight to Mumbai International Airport connecting with a British Airways flight to London arriving in the early evening.