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India gears up for travel

In May I was invited to The Great Indian Travel Bazaar held in Jaipur, Rajasthan province. Representatives of the travel trade from more than 42 countries were invited, including a few travel writers, of which I was fortunate enough to be one. It was a glittering, well-organized affair – India’s first-ever Travel Bazaar – and was opened by the charismatic Ms Ambika Soni, Honourable Union Minister of Tourism and Culture, Government of India.

The following is taken from my broadcast on Believe it or Not; Talk Radio 702 and Cape talk 567 on Sunday May 31 2008.

The Great Indian Travel Bazaar, the first of its kind in India, was held in Jaipur – the pink city. Attendees included 163 tour operators from more than 42 countries, 200 exhibitors and a handful of travel writers, including me.

The opening address was made by the Honorable Minister of State for Tourism and Culture, Government of India – Sambika Soni – a woman. I was impressed by how many women hold top tourism positions, including the Minister of State for Tourism and the Chief Minister of Rajasthan.

Mrs Soni talks about how India is gearing up for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, with visas being expedited and 11 states having specially appointed tourist police recruited from retired members of the police and armed forces. India offers arts and crafts tourism, eco-tourism, rural tourism, religious tourism, festival tourism, medical tourism, adventure tourism, and yoga and wellness tourism.

Whoever thought up the marketing slogan “incredible India”, hit the proverbial nail on the head. I can’t think of another country, in a long lifetime of travel, which dazzles the mind, body and spirit in quite the way that India does. Yes, there are the stereotypes – poverty, millions of people, polluted cities, dirt, dust and desolation – but these are juxtaposed with images of extraordinary richness and beauty – the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Himalayas, the unbelievably brilliant, jewel-colored saris worn by even the poorest of women, the marigold-garlanded sacred cows, mooching serenely amid traffic jams, the life-giving and sacred Ganga-ganges River, calling more and more devotees to its banks as it makes its way from its source in the mountains on its long journey to the sea, the powerfully compelling monuments – sacred and secular – and none more beautiful in the world than the legendary Taj Mahal.

The Great Indian Travel Bazaar was held in the rich, romantic northwest province of Rajasthan – home of the far pavilions, princesses, maharajahs, forts, chivalry, palaces, painted elephants, the most gorgeous (and cheapest) handicrafts in the world, and the history and images of a world well lost for love. Jodphur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur – the names trip off the tongue – there’s the history, pageantry, and high romance of a former age, when kings and potentates heavy with emeralds and diamonds, battled for beautiful princesses; when silver trumpets resounded inside city walls to warn of invaders; when thousands of craftsmen inlaid marble palaces, tombs and monuments with lapis lazuli, agate, garnets, rubies and malachite, to honor both the living and the dead.

In Jaipur, as I ride a caparisoned elephant with scarlet toenails up a steep incline to where an ancient amber fort dominates the skyline, I buy a maharajah and maharani puppet.  Bargaining from the back of an elephant seems quite natural. That night I dine on solid silver plates under a full moon with a maharajah in an innermost courtyard of Jaipur’s city palace. I tell him about my husband, Alan and how he served in the British army, as had his father. In fact, Alan’s mother and father were here, serving in Rajasthan in the ’20s, and two of Alan’s brothers were born here.

There’s so much to tell, but I can only focus on some of the highlights…
The second evening we dine in another palace – a queen’s palace in the countryside outside of Jaipur. We drive along a narrow potholed road lined with crumbling ancient buildings, turrets, secret balconies, arches and parapets. A monkey watches us warily as we walk through narrow gates into the spectacular honey-colored palace set against the backdrop of a floodlit mountainside. Playing fountains and green lawns greet us. Dancers in scarlet, gold and orange-sequinned saris dance on a raised stage. A band of traditional musicians clad in white robes and scarlet turbans sit cross-legged with their traditional instruments – cymbals, drums and a wind instrument that sounds strangely like bagpipes.

Spotlights enhance the beauty and symmetry of the architecture. The palace rises level-by-level up a slope in front of the mountain. One can imagine it 100 years ago, softly lit by oil lamps, when the queen who lived here was honored and best beloved. The music rises to a crescendo as the dancers whirl in a kaleidoscope of colour. One lone final dancer spins like a dazzling top – her skirts whirling around her in a blaze of color, to the clash of cymbals.

The next night there’s polo match. India leads the world in polo and we watch a contest the historic Rajasthan polo ground where royal princes have played for centuries, including Britain’s Prince Philip and Prince Charles. Tonight we watch the Thunderbolts playing the Polaros, while heat haze hangs over everything and the temperature hits a searing 40 degrees.

When the bazaar is over, I decide on a bus trip to Pushkar, Udaipur, Mtabu and Nimja. We travel over some pretty bad roads for up to eight hours a day – a cosmopolitan group of people from England, Bahrain, Portugal, Singapore, China, Malaysia, Belgium, Australia and South Africa (me).

I choose to go to Pushkar, which lies southwest of Jaipur, because it is a sacred place for Hindus. It came into being, so the story goes, when Lord Brahma, the creator, dropped his lotus flower to earth from his hand to kill a demon. At the three spots where the petals landed, water magically appeared in the desert to form three small blue lakes, and it was on the largest of these that Brahma subsequently convened a gathering of 900 000 celestial beings – the Hindu pantheon. Surrounded by white-washed temples and bathing gnats, today the lake is revered as one of India’s most sacred sites. In October/November, during the full moon, the biggest camel fair in the world is held here. The legendary colour of the camel fair, combined with the beautiful desert scenery and heady religious atmosphere of the temples and gnats have made Pushkar a prime tourist destination. There are 500 temples in and around Pushkar, and I choose to visit the most important of these, Brahma Mandir, where the only statue of Brahma is to be found.

We move on to Udaipur and the lake palaces – so beautiful they almost defy description…

Then it’s on to Mt Abu through steep, mountainous territory on terrible roads. The scenery is a mix of parched fields in shades of brown, set against ochre sand, since we’re here in pre-monsoon season. As we reach Mt Abu, there’s a welcome change in the landscape, to trees, greenery and sparse forests. Here we find the Brahma Kumaris university and the most beautiful carvings I have seen anywhere in the world at the Dilwara temples. These are not only the most beautiful carvings to be found in India, they’re possibly the most beautiful in the world. The oldest white marble temple is 1 000 years old, created in 1031 – the exterior is simple, but inside the walls, columns and ceilings have been carved into wonderful patterns and shapes – living, breathing lotus blossoms, gods and goddesses, animals, dancing maidens and elephants. It took 2 000 craftsmen 14 years to complete this work of art 1 000 years ago, yet the carving is as sharp and bright today as it was when first completed. We spent the night in yet another palace and I spent time chatting with the Maharajah of Bikaner.

On to Nimjar and another palace, where I stay in the queen’s suite, which is bigger than my house. We are taken on a tour by the noble family who has lived there since the 13th century. They drive us ‘on safari’ to the shepherd’s village where life has remained unchanged for centuries. Women still milk cows, children play in the dust and the men bring their flocks home from the fields. Everybody seems content and serene although there is no electricity and few, if any, luxuries.

My visit to India was a gruelling but exhilarating and wonderful trip. It was not always easy, given the heat and the many hours spent travelling on terrible roads each day, but I am not sorry to have taken advantage of this wonderful opportunity.
Never turn down an opportunity. You know my philosophy – we only have one life so live for and in the moment.

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Kate Turkington is one of South Africa’s best-known broadcasters, travellers and travel writers.

Her weekly Sunday night three-hour live Talk Radio 702 / CapeTalk talkshow, Believe It Or Not, which came to an end in early 2013 was South Africa’s longest-running radio talkshow with the same host in the same time slot. She continues to broadcast as a regular guest on travel shows where she talks about the when, where, why, what and how of travel both locally and internationally from her vast personal experience. She also blogs for several travel websites.

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