A little piece I wrote for the Mail on Sunday a few years ago about a trip to India…along with Corsica and Morocco, it ranks as my all time favourite travel destination.Gleaming Morris Oxfords, Mogul palaces, the Taj Mahal by moonlight, painted elephants, desert forts, water skiing on the lakes of Kashmir, brilliant colour, unfamiliar noises and exotic smells — all for less than £5 a day.That was 1982 when, as a student, I backpacked alone and impecunious around India and still had the time of my life.Fifteen years on I revisited the tourist trail of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, expecting to find that my memories had been through rose-tinted spectacles.And in some respects they had. There is now a poluted haze over Delhi. Even the city elephants have suffered, developing skin diseases as a result of the foul air. As for sightseeing, it’s all a bit of a blur.Agra, close to the capital in Northern India, has come off worst of all. We sat for two very cold hours waiting to see the sun rise over the Taj, but were prevented by the ‘mist’ – a euphemism for smog.This world famous mausoleum is literally being dissolved by airborne chemicals. The government has reacted by introducing electric buses within the Taj complex and recently gave 292 local, coalbased industries an ultimatum either to close down or to convert to more environment- friendly gas. But many say the damage is done.Nor is life in India quite as relaxed as it used to be. Romantics can no longer watch the Taj by moonlight because it’s closed from dusk until dawn due to vandalism.The army now has an openair baraacks not 20 yards away from the entrance to the Taj complex to deter terrorist attacks.While it is still possible to visit the stunning scenery of Kashmir, it is impossible to ignore the signs of recent unrest in the terroritory still contested by India and Pakistan. For old divisions linger as India approaches the 50th anniversary on Friday of partition and its independence from Britain.But much else has changed, even in the past 15 years. You are now as likely to hear American rock music in the street as you are Indian ballads. Traditionally chaste Hindi films have become decidely more raunchy.Beefburgers are on the menu: even the sacred Indian cow has been compromised, although the beef does come from New Zealand.Yet despite all these changes, a great deal of India’s charm is still intact. The roads are wonderfully chaotic; those Morris Oxfords, rickshaws, motorised three-wheelers, sacred cows and overcrowded buses all jostle for position.But journeys are a matter of sheer bravado, on the part of both the driver and the passengers. But, as a piece of street theatre the scene is quite without equal.So are the crowds. India will soon overtake China as the most populated place on earth. There are people everywhere, day and night: stall holders, wandering holy men, pavement barbers, musicians, beggars, cricus acts and, for every person doing something, a small group looking on.India is still one of the best places in the world for a spot of retail therapy – silks, leather goods, silver, gold and gems, exquisite tailoring, wool and cashmere, papier mache work, carved wood. Perhaps the biggest thrill is knowing you can afford it all even without haggling for a discount. Many of the vibrant colours seen in the market place subsequently found their way into my designs for Alison at Home, in the ruby reds, lime greens and vibrant blues of our Chloe occasional chair and Botanical cushions.
In a country where one rupee notes are still in commmon use (there are 60 rupees to the pound), you quickly realise that the equivalent of one and a half British pence still has spending power. Tuk-tuks (motorised rickshaws) cost about 20 rupees an hour – 30p or so.
India is also home to some of the world’s greatest monuments and scenery. Quite apart from the Taj Mahal, India’s complex history has left a rich legacy of architecture in the north.There are the statuesque Lutyens government buildings of New Delhi; the ‘pink’ city of Jaipur, originally grey but painted from top to bottom in the traditional colour of welcome for the visit of Prince Albert in 1883; the perfectly preserved ‘ghost town’ of 16th Century Fatehpur Sikri, utopian capital of Akbar the Great, suddenly abandoned when the wells ran dry; and countless Hindu temples, mosques, and maharajas’ palaces.When you’ve tired of city life, there are huge expanses of desert dotted with old fortified towns, stupendous mountain ranges and perhaps more surprisingly, thick forests and gentle countryside.The marvellous wildlife sanctuary at Bharatpur occupies miles and miles of swamp and woodland and is home to the rare Siberian crane. In other parts of Rajasthan you can see tigers and leopards.But perhaps the msot appealing aspect of India is the people themselves- cheerful, dignified and kind.The Hindu religion, with its strong sense of spirituality and respect for all things living is in no small part responsible. ‘In your next incaration you might be an endangered species… please help the Siberian crane,’ read the signs at Bharatpur.Acceptance and patience are also virtues that the Indians have perfected- rick-shaw riders are prepared to wait all night outside your hotel so they can ambush you the next morning. Above all, Indian people have learnt to be resourceful. When our homeward-bound bus broke down, our guide Mr Lal commandeered a public bus to ferry his charges to the airport, while he stayed behind to guard our cases.My abiding memory of the trip is of a triumphant Mr Lal, careering into the terminal with minutes to spare, perched atop our mound of luggage in the back of a farm labouers’ truck, to the loud applause and quiet disbelief of the group.Still pukka in his blazer and cravat, he sat beaming on his makeshift throne. We were simply exhausted; India is in every respect an assault on the senses and not for the fainthearted.’Madam, looking is free’, is the mantra of the market traders. Just as well, since you could feast your eyes for a very long time and still only see a fraction of the vast and inspriring subcontinent.Tips for Success on the Spice RouteWhen To Go: Northern India from October to March, their winter but equivalent to our spring and perfect for sightseeing. Southern India is hot most of the time, but best between Novermber and February. April, May, June and July range from very warm to unbearable, but are good months to visit the cooler Himalayas. Away from the mountains, avoid May to September -the monsoon season.Food and Water: Delhi Belly needs no elaboration and can be completely debilitating. The culprit is undoubtedly water and the best way to avoid illness is to stick to the bottled variety, even for brushing teeth.Only ever accept bottles with their seals intact and in restaurants, insist that beer and water are opened at the table.Spicy food also updates delicate Western stomachs, so acclimatise gently and stick to yoghurts and rice- based dishes for the first few days. Never eat food from roadside stalls, however tempting.Begging: Either carry a wad of small notes (also useful for tipping) or buy a big pair of dark sunglasses and avoid all eye contact. As in most countries, the vast majority of citizens are honest, but nonetheless, keep all valuables in your hotel safe and take a moneybelt.Bargaining: Enter into the spirit of things and don’t worry about pinning down the vendor to the last rupee. It’s a game at which they are much more adept than we will ever be, and if it makes you feel any better, the money means a great deal more to them than it does to the average well-heeled tourist.