Why you should try a bucket-list India holiday this year

It was 9.21pm when I stepped into the light. Gurbani (hymns) rang in my ears and the heat of the day clung to my skin. The gold of the temple’s gilded domes was reflected in the Amrit Sarovar tank.

At 9.58pm, a little boy of around seven, wearing a patka – a piece of cloth wrapped around the head – stood next to me at the railings and sang. The toots of a narsinga, an s-shaped trumpet-like instrument, shook me awake.

Men in yellow, orange and purple turbans passed by. They propped up a carriage that was crowned with flower garlands. Inside was the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib.
This was the “putting to bed ceremony” at the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) in Amritsar – when the scripture is moved from the temple to the Akal Takht (Timeless Throne) – and day one of a tour with Jules Verne.

This pic shows busy and Chaotic streets of Old Delhi in India. Traffic, people and auto rickshaw can been seen in the pic. The pic is taken in day time and in February 2020.
The streets of Old Delhi are a photographer’s dream (Photo: Getty)

India is among the company’s top-five best-selling destinations for the first six months of 2024. And now is an opportune time to visit the country of 1.4 billion people, the world’s most populous. Sterling is near its five-year high against the rupee and the average cost of direct economy flights from the UK fell by 35 per cent between 2022 and 2023, according to travel management company ATPI.

My route followed some of Jules Verne’s 11-night “Sikhs and Exiles” itinerary. It includes Amritsar, Dharamshala, Shimla, and Delhi, the capital.

While the tour only touches one point of the classic Golden Triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur), many of the sites are well trodden by Britons – ideal for first-time visitors. Less obvious highlights were listening for bird calls piercing through the buzz of cicadas in Rakh Ghamrota village (where we stayed at the Rakkh Resort), visiting Kangra Fort, which dates to 400BC, and sipping G&Ts around a campfire at The Kikar Lodge forest retreat in Punjab.

shimla hills himachal pradesh india
Drivers tackled winding roads, including those around Shimla in Himachal Pradesh state (Photo: Getty)

I was glad to leave the logistics to someone else. We were joined throughout by a guide, Surendra Rajawat. At each stop, we also met an expert from that area. Skilled drivers – including Amrit, who introduced me to Punjabi rap – took us most of the way. Our convoy covered around 700 miles. En-route, I collected a Kodak carousel full of mental snapshots.

We passed trucks decorated with paisley patterns, swerved lounging cows, dodged motorcyclists with towers of boxes strapped to their backseats, slowed for on-foot funeral processions, and waved at a group dressed in pinks, reds, and gold for Mahalaya, a day in the Hindu calendar that marks the start of the Durga Puja festival.

“This is India,” replied Surendra, when one guest mentioned the chaotic roads.

Both the busiest and most orderly scenes of the trip, however, were back in the Golden Temple Complex – at its dining room, Guru Ka Langar.

As we headed towards the kitchen, our expert guide in Amritsar, Jagroop Singh, explained the five Ks of Sikhism, including the uncut hair of devotees immersing themselves in sacred water. Excavated by the fourth Sikh guru in 1577, the tank surrounding the temple is the main focus of pilgrims to the site.

Meanwhile, at Guru Ka Langar, volunteers performing the act of sewa can feed up to 100,000 people a day.

Here, the scent of garlic was pungent. Women sat cross-legged, in circles, peeling thousands of cloves. Tables were filled with volunteers hand rolling roti, then using a stick, topped with a ball of fabric, to coat them with ghee. Men walked past, at pace, balancing steaming vats of dhal.

This spectacle prepared me for the start of a 10-day-long feast. On a walk-through of Amritsar, we sampled chaat (including ingredients such as chickpeas, yoghurt, tamarind and coriander chutneys; chaat is a catch-all term for many street foods, which means “to lick”), jalebi (deep–fried flour soaked in syrup) and Amritsar Kulcha (stuffed bread).

The vague etchings of my, at times, romanticised, understanding of India were contoured with their first layer of shading.

I watched Tibetan Buddhist monks in training at Namgyal Monastery in Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. The trainees answered philosophical questions that were delivered with fervour by fellow students.

At Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, bullet marks in a wall of the courtyard recalled the 1,500 Indians killed or injured when troops, directed by a British officer, shot unarmed protesters in 1919. In the city’s Partition Museum, the recorded accounts from survivors of 1947 (up to one million people were killed in the violence) were a reminder of the ongoing legacy of that act. Later, we visited Shimla’s Mall Road, with its markers of a British high street: the mock Tudor Town Hall and the neo-gothic tower of Christ Church were uncanny.

At sunset in the town, where rhesus macaques swung along telephone wires as the day faded behind the Himalayan Foothills, it was clear why the British Raj chose this as a summer retreat.

From here, we drove to Kalka where we caught a Shatabdi Express train to Delhi. An executive class ticket (usually around £16) included evening tea and dinner.

With just one full day in the capital, a “five senses” tour with an operator called No Footprints was welcome. It began at Humayun’s Tomb. Co-founder Eesha Singh joined us in the Unesco-listed complex. The building that holds the tomb of Mughal emperor Mirza Nasir al-Din Muhammad, commonly known as Humayun, dates to the 1560s. This structure was a precursor to the Taj Mahal.

People stand in front of the most famous mosque in Delhii.
Jama Masjid is one of the largest mosques in India (Photo: Getty)

Afterwards, we rode cycle-and-battery rickshaws to a women’s group (Insha-e-noor) to learn the art of paper cutting, mixed fragrances in a perfumery, tried street food, drove through the old town and visited the Jama Masjid – one of India’s largest mosques, made of red sandstone and marble.

During a bleak January, life feels as thick as the air on that first night in Amritsar. I think back to my time in India.

The oily crispness of garlic butter naans is still imprinted on my taste buds. The call to prayer reverberates around me.

I may lack religion, but those once-in-a-lifetime memories offer me light.

Booking it
Jules Verne’s 11-night Sikhs and Exiles itinerary includes air travel, transfers, 10 nights’ accommodation, breakfast daily, one lunch and six dinners, and the services of guides and local representatives. Departures Feb–Nov 2024 from £2,195pp, based on two people sharing, vjv.com.

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