boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

India Made Easy

FOR the first-time visitor to India, the sheer vastness of the country — more than a million square miles — all but defeats the romantic notion of seeing all that this place has to offer in anything approaching the usual time frame of a normal vacation. Retirees no longer punching the clock, college students who want to take a couple of semesters off, backpackers on a global journey of exploration: these are the kinds of travelers that India seems made for.

But what about the rest of us who are limited to one or two weeks of vacation a year? Is India completely beyond our grasp?

In a word, no. Even sampling the tiniest geographical crumb of India over a period of 7 to 10 days can be a satisfying travel experience.

Quite rightly, no one wants to miss the Taj Mahal, especially on a first visit, so our suggested route pivots around that Platonic ideal of tourist attractions. Spending a couple of days first in the nearby capital of New Delhi — a strange patchwork of imperial Mughal monuments, bustling urban villages, leafy British Raj-era avenues and expanding middle-class housing colonies — is bound to give you a good taste of urban India. Still, some two-thirds of Indians live outside the nation's cities. With that in mind, this route, after passing through Agra, site of the Taj, and the ruins and palaces of Gwalior, culminates in Orchha, a riverside village well-stocked with palaces, tombs, Hindu temples and ordinary village life.

Rajasthan? That fascinating, tourist-infested merry-go-round has been deliberately omitted, though it is a place worth coming back to when you have time to explore its less overdeveloped pockets. The hiking trails of the Himalayas and the beaches of Goa? Next time.

Start your trip in New Delhi. Like a steaming bath, the city is best eased into slowly, and there are few sights more soothing than catching an advanced yoga practitioner holding a pose in the city's lush Lodi Gardens with the spooky, 15th-century domed tombs of the Lodi sultans looming in the background. Residents from the well-to-do neighborhoods nearby go there to picnic or jog it all off, while young couples still head there to coo discreetly, keeping alive the park's historic function as a romantic hideaway safe from conservative parents' horrified eyes.

The gardens are convenient to sites like Humayun's Tomb, a serene, enormous red sandstone monument dedicated to the second of India's Mughal emperors, who lost an empire, recaptured it, and died in 1556 in an unlucky tumble down a staircase. As you gaze at the pearly-white onion dome, you might wonder to yourself: how much nicer can the Taj Mahal possibly be?

Other interesting old monuments — the Kalan Masjid, Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb — are scattered about the surrounding neighborhoods, some primarily used as giant, priceless wickets for informal cricket matches. From Humayun's Tomb, a mad scamper across busy Mathura Road will get you to the shrine of the Sufi saint and mystic Nizamuddin Auliya. As with all the approaches to India's sacred pilgrimage sites, there is a gantlet of brazen commerce to be run, in this case mostly of men selling rose petals, just the kind Nizamuddin likes to be offered if he's even to think about answering your prayers. A defunct airport-style metal detector marks the edge of hallowed ground; it is here, and no sooner, regardless of the cries of the petal-sellers, that you must leave your shoes (here and anywhere else you go barefoot, storage for 5 to 10 rupees a pair, or less than 25 cents at 45 rupees to the U.S. dollar, is about right). Women are expected to cover their heads — shawls go for around 50 rupees.

Spend enough time watching the crowds flit around the chandeliered, prettily painted shrine, and sooner or later a small troupe of qawwali singers will shuffle into the marble courtyard. A crowd gathers around as they sit cross-legged with harmoniums and tablas, using their hands to almost physically fling their rhythmic, ever-escalating hymns through the shrine's open doorway. If the mood strikes, you are welcome to rise up and whirl like a dervish with arms outstretched in ecstasy.

The crowded, narrow lanes of the neighborhood surrounding the shrine are only a warm-up for a visit to Shahjahanabad, the walled city built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century and now usually called Old Delhi, though it is by no means the oldest part of the city. The obvious sights include the beautiful Jama Masjid, reputedly India's largest mosque (the view of the strangely cubic cityscape from the top of one of the minarets is more than worth the 20-rupee ticket), and the hulking Red Fort, its innards sorely vandalized by the British.

But aimlessly exploring the walled city's monstrously corroded grandeur is much more fun. Bazaars are often devoted to a single trade, thus a street given over to shops selling wedding stationery abuts another swimming in oily motor parts.

Much of Old Delhi life goes on unabashedly out in the open. Young men get facials in open-fronted male beauty parlors, or you might spot a gaggle of children getting bucket-washed in the courtyard of a haveli, a once-grand mansion sunk into decay. Some kind of encounter with goats is virtually guaranteed, many of them dressed attractively in ladies' sweaters during the winter. None of them seem even remotely alarmed at the sight of stalls piled high with severed goats' heads.

It pays to be friendly to any sweaty, orange-glowing man you see perched over the fire-filled manhole of a bakery's tandoori oven. He may reach in and fish out a free naan for you, carefully trying to avoid burning yet another scar into his forearm. Even the most nervous of street-food eaters should try the fresh-baked sweet potato, dusted with some delicious species of sneezing powder.

Karim's restaurant, near the Jama Masjid, remains one of the best places to sample rich, if rather oily, Mughlai food. Try the mutton qormas with romali rotis and seekh kebabs, or, if you are adventurous, the mutton brain, if only to look at it sitting eerily in the middle of the table.

A tour of the neighborhood wouldn't be complete without a cycle rickshaw ride down the traffic-choked Chandni Chowk, the area's — if not all of India's — main shopping thoroughfare, lined with shops selling drippingly sweet candies, lurid textiles, perfumes and jewelry, with an anomalous branch of McDonald's thrown in for good measure.

You can see Delhi's more contemporary face by taking a chasmic leap up the city's class hierarchy and hanging out with the moneyed middle class, for whom life has never been so good, at the poolside bar of the Park Hotel, which opened in 1987. The hotel's curvy retro-futuristic interior was redesigned by Conran & Partners, perhaps immediately after watching “Barbarella.”

When you're ready to dance, move inside to the Agni bar. Delhi nightlife is rarely hip, but it can be fun, providing you have a taste for the bhangra beats and warbly vocals of a lot of Hindi pop music. Ask the D.J. to play the addictive megahit “Kajra Re,” assuming he hasn't played it three times already.

TWO days gone, and it is time to venture out of Delhi to Agra, a trip best taken by train, at least in part for the inevitable encounters with locals.

The most convenient train is the 7:15 a.m. Taj Express, which leaves from Hazrat Nizamuddin station, not too far from Lodi Gardens, and arrives in Agra two and a half hours later. It's an impressive feat for a foreigner to not make some new friends on an Indian train, whether sitting with the bureaucrats and retired majors in the air-conditioned carriages, or the farmers and migrant laborers squeezing into the cheap seats. Though not even an astrologer would rush into making generalizations about an entire sixth of humanity, it seems fair to say that Indians are mostly a gregarious bunch, always ready to submit strangers to a cheerful interview.

Between Delhi and Agra lies a strange, never quite fully rural hinterland, into which countless trains excrete a steady stream of litter through their windows. The novelty of waving at the trains happily never wears off for children living near the tracks.

In Agra, it's worth hiring a taxi for the duration of a stay. Most hotels can sort this out, and it sidesteps the hassle of rickshaw drivers trying to score commissions by herding you into a souvenir shop. You can expect to pay 500 to 900 rupees a day for the taxi, depending on whether it is air-conditioned or not.

As a kind of Agra appetizer, drive out to Akbar's mausoleum (entrance 110 rupees) in Sikandra, a little over five miles northwest of the city center. The perfectly named Gateway of Magnificence is the real highlight here, spiced up with some jazzy geometric tile work. The gardens, where blackbuck antelope with perfectly helical horns socialize with friendly yellow butterflies, are a soothing retreat from Agra's ugly bustle.

Deep inside the tomb is the utterly bare, high-ceilinged inner sanctum, musty and echoing, where lies the petal-strewn grave of Akbar the Great, the third and most revered of the Mughal emperors. But it's his grandson's final resting place that you've really come all this way for.

Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal (entrance 750 rupees) in the 17th century as the mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died soon after giving birth to her 14th child. Tourist etiquette seems to demand that a visitor swoon in a dead faint at every mention of the sheer romance of Shah Jahan's enterprise.

Shah Jahan, megalomaniacal even by Mughal standards, knew how to make a bombastic first impression. A red sandstone gateway blocks off all sight of the Taj until the very last, sudden moment, and the cymbal crash that is the first real-life glimpse of its absurd beauty tends to reverberate. Up close, interior marble surfaces still glow with flowers made of inlaid precious stones, while the lovely giant squiggles of stylized Persian calligraphy on the outside walls put the letters of our dowdy Roman alphabet to shame.

As transcendent as the Taj may be, it's hard not to notice that all of touristdom is here. Yet almost none of them will bother to drive across the Yamuna River over a knackered bridge, through a village and past some eggplant fields to come to Mehtab Bagh (100 rupees), a recently spruced-up riverside park believed to have been laid out by Shah Jahan himself specifically for Taj-gazing. The tourists milling about on the Taj's platform are just a stone's throw away, and yet you have the view pretty much to yourself. For much of the year the Yamuna all but dries up, and you can crawl down below some barbed wire to the riverbed to hang out with kids herding their buffaloes and women doing the laundry in the Yamuna's murky trickle, a far more authentic Indian foreground than the faintly incongruous English-style formal gardens within the Taj grounds.

Even if you can't afford to stay in one of the deluxe Taj-view rooms, at least head to the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel for dinner and for a sense of what it might look like if you had a Mughal emperor's budget to spend on interior design. You'll have to dress up in your finest to look even half as great as the staff swaddled in traditional textiles as you join the other tourists in raptures over its fine Mughlai food served in opulent surroundings to live Hindustani classical music.

It's easy to spend at least a day exploring the palaces, gardens and mosques of the 16th-century Agra Fort, which offers perhaps the dreamiest view of the Taj yet from the ornate tower in which Shah Jahan was imprisoned for the final eight years of his life by his son, with whom he did not get on so well. Fatehpur Sikri (entry to restricted part 20 rupees), the whimsical city built by Akbar in 1571 and abandoned to the parakeets 15 years later because it was too far from the nearest water source, is no more than an hour's drive from Agra, though, again, it receives only a small fraction of the Taj's tourists. The mosque, still in use, is the architectural climax here: you can fall over backward gawking at the Victory Arch. If you're up to the task, it's possible to have a conversation consisting entirely of cricketers' names with the boys from the ramshackle Muslim neighborhoods nearby who loiter on the steps.

NEXT morning, say goodbye to the Jaipur-bound package-tour crowd and take the two-hour train down to the cliff-top fortress at Gwalior (entry 100 rupees). The highlight here is the Mansingh Palace, decorated with a strangely pre-school aesthetic: the massive outer ramparts are tiled with patterns of giant green beanstalks and friezes of cartoonish yellow ducklings. The unathletic should note that the ruins are a painfully steep hike up from the main bazaar.

Back down in the town, Gwalior's former royal family still live in the grand white 19th-century Jai Vilas Palace (their smaller spare palace next door has been converted into a luxury hotel by the Taj Group). A portion of it has been opened to the public (200 rupees) as a kind of tribute to the former maharajah's groovy playboy taste in home interiors, encompassing psychedelically painted walls, mirrored bars and, in the banquet hall, a cut-glass toy train designed to chug around the room towing after-dinner brandy and cigars. I particularly liked the displays of snapshots, some showing the maharajah shaking hands with notables such as Saddam Hussein, another showing the royal couple posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, him in sports casuals, her in a green sari, with her trademark feline eyeliner and bouffant hairdo. Taking me to be a connoisseur, a sniggering guard pointed out some of his favorites from the palace's collection of erotic art. The tour ends up a grand staircase in the gold-drenched assembly hall. Its two colossal chandeliers weigh 3.5 tons each, a guard, who was slumped in the doorway, told me after I woke him up.

About 90 minutes south of Gwalior by train, Orchha was once the grand capital city of the powerful Bundela clan, but is now, as per the usual laws of Indian entropy, a cheerful farming village. The main 17th-century, semi-ruined palace complex sits on what amounts to an island in the Betwa, an implausibly clean and pretty river. For a little baksheesh, one of the guards will unlock a couple of the royal bedrooms leading off the main quadrangle in the Raj Mahal to reveal some well-preserved murals of hunting scenes.

A 20-minute walk south along the river bank leads to the cenotaphs of Orchha's former rulers, each a large mansion-size hunk of spire-topped stone. You can hunt around the walls for the deathly slippery stone staircases to the roofs, where you can sit among the spires enjoying the river views alongside the resident vultures.

Orchha village itself is dominated by its lively market-lined square, where bedraggled, dreadlocked and saffron-robed sadhus — ascetic Hindu holy men — wander around in a kind of daze, detached from the more pedestrian plane of reality through a precise combination of religious devotion and cannabis. Sometimes a few of them will sing very long songs.

On one side of the square stands the cavernous Chaturbhuj Mandir, looking as much like a hollowed-out European cathedral as a Hindu temple; nearby is the gaudy Ram Raja Temple, a magnet for Hindu pilgrims and wedding parties.

There's also some good temple-hopping in the opposite direction to the cenotaphs, where temple spires — sikharas — recede into the soggy horizon spanned with flooded rice paddies. The occasional child might come galloping over from three fields away in the certain knowledge you'll want her posing in your photograph, but by and large so few tourists bother to come here that the local women have taken to drying their laundry on the information boards.

After the six-hour train ride back to Delhi, if there's still some time to kill, ink drawings on parchment, handmade Himalayan shawls, mirrored fabrics and other souvenirs can be gathered at the Crafts Museum (free entry, closed Monday) near the Purana Qila on Mathura Road. There are often live demonstrations by craftsmen, and the museum itself has an absorbing array of exhibits, including an artisan's entire wooden house stuffed into the back of a room.

That should still leave time to head for the Atrium, the tea room at the 1930's Imperial Hotel on central Delhi's Janpath. Take a seat near the fountain in this most opulent of Raj-era relics, order tea and cakes, pull out your guidebook, and begin plotting your return to India.

VISITOR INFORMATION

Continental Airlines (www.continental.com) is selling round-trip flights from Newark airport to New Delhi from about $1,150 through its Web site. The number of Indian domestic airlines — which include Spice Jet and Air Deccan — has grown to about a dozen, and the competition means that extending your itinerary to explore other parts of India need not be expensive. With suitably advanced booking it is possible to fly halfway across the country from about 2,000 rupees (about $45 at 45 rupees to the U.S. dollar) if you book through one of the budget airlines' Web sites. (See www.flyairdeccan.net; www.goindigo.in; www.spicejet.com.)

Besides taking along the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, check out the friendly online forum at www.indiamike.com: it effectively puts the collective wisdom of all backpackers in India at your disposal, which is even more useful than it sounds.

DELHI

Reserve your train ticket to Agra as soon as you can unless you want to spend the journey standing; Naveen Anand at Sea India Tourist Information Bureau (91-11-2374-6568 and 91-98100-41722) is always helpful, and can deliver tickets to most hotels. Auto-rickshaws are the cheapest way of getting around Delhi, though most drivers refuse to use the meter. Bear in mind that a 10-kilometer trip (about six miles) should be about 40 rupees — it's rare you'll be traveling much farther than this. The graceful white Imperial Hotel (91-11-2334-1234; www.theimperialindia.com) on Janpath in central Delhi remains the city's swankiest address. Double rooms start at $480.

For a homier stay, check into Ahuja Residency (193 Golf Links, New Delhi; 91-11-2462-2255; www.ahujaresidency.com), a guesthouse in one of Delhi's most elegant residential colonies. Double rooms start at 3,150 rupees, including taxes.

Karim's (91-11-2326-9880; Gali Kababian, near Jama Masjid). Seekh kebabs are 18 rupees each; qormas go for about 110. For the classic middle-class Delhi resident's dinner, head to Swagath (91-11-2433-0930) in the typically shabby Defense Colony market complex. Even if the décor is somewhat forgettable, it serves some of the best seafood in landlocked Delhi, and its spicy south Indian Chettinad curries are especially good. Expect to pay about 800 to 1,000 rupees, without alcohol.

At the Park Hotel's Fire restaurant (91-11-2374-3000; www.theparkhotels.com) modern pan-Indian food, distinguished mostly by the quality of its ingredients, is served under artful clusters of bare light bulbs. Dinner should run about 1,500 rupees.

AGRA

Rooms at Oberoi Amarvilas (91-562-223-1515; www.oberoiamarvilas.com) start from $600, while the fanciest suite goes for $3,300 (not including 5 percent tax).

Quite a bit cheaper is the Hotel Yamuna View, formerly the Hotel Agra Ashok (91-562-236-1223; www.hotelagraashok.com), about a 10-minute drive from the Taj; its clean rooms are cozy enough, with doubles from 3,900 rupees plus tax.

Main courses at the Oberoi's Esphahan restaurant — including chicken cooked with almond milk, saffron and rose petals — are between 500 and 1,000 rupees.

If you can't eat at the Oberoi for every meal, and can't face another backpacker joint, Zorba the Buddha (91-562-222-6091) does fresh and light Indian dishes, each going for about 100 rupees. It's near the Yamuna View in the Shopping Arcade at Sadar Bazaar.

GWALIOR

Allow yourself some extra time to stand in line for tickets before catching the lunchtime train to Jhansi for Orchha; tickets in standard class are about 50 rupees.

At the Usha Kiran Palace (91-751-244-4000; www.tajhotels.com), airy rooms in this pretty white palace usually go from $195, plus tax, but a call to the reservations desk turned up a room for $130.

Those on a tighter budget will be happy at the recently renovated Tansen Residency (91-751-234-0370; www.mptourism.com), where air-conditioned rooms begin at 1,200 rupees including taxes. Stick to the hotels for dinner.

ORCHHA

The Madhya Pradesh state tourism department has done a great job converting part of the palace complex into the Hotel Sheesh Mahal (91-07680-252-624), which has the best location in town. A suite (there are two) goes for 4,990 rupees; rooms start at 1,190 rupees. It's a shame the restaurant's food is so bland.

Betwa Tarang (91-07680-252-101), which has an upstairs outdoor terrace with palace views, is one of the better backpacker joints. It's just before the palace complex bridge, and most dishes are not much more than 100 rupees.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES