India’s alternative Golden Triangle
The magnificent fortified ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri is located just 40km west of Agra's Taj Mahal. (Keren Su/LPI)
Ever-increasing numbers of travellers come to India to experience the unique blend of headiness that the subcontinent so effortlessly brews, and the “Golden Triangle” route between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur in northern India has, for many years, been a classic introduction to the country. Although the trail is undeniably well-trodden, there are plenty of lesser-known attractions that are well worth seeking out.
Agra: Experience the Mughal legacy
From Delhi, head southeast by car (about four hours) or by train (about two hours) to Agra, Uttar Pradesh, home of the wondrous Taj Mahal – a resounding tribute to a lost love and undoubtedly the most brilliant manifestation of the Mughal dynasty’s design aesthetic. The glistening white marble and the swirling, minaret-like towers never fail to impress.
While the Taj Mahal was built to honour the dead, the magnificent fortified ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri, located just 40km west of Agra, was once very much a place for the living. This was the short-lived capital of the Mughal empire during the reign of Emperor Akbar between 1571 and 1585, and the grand human scale is captivating. It is impossible not to feel haunted by the ghosts of the emperor, princesses, valets and concubines that once roamed the hallowed courtyards.
Once you have finished exploring the forts and palaces, take some time to relax at the exquisite Kaya Kalp, a 99,000sqft spa located in the ITC Mughal hotel, which takes guests on a sensorial journey back to an era of excess and conquest. The Mughal elite enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, with gardens, feasts, harems, sweeping palaces and many other ostentatious manifestations of wealth. At the ITC Mughal you will find a sumptuous reproduction of that bygone era – in fact, the hotel is so precise and true to the Mughal period that it received the Aga Khan Award for architecture.
After pushing through the massive wooden doors, the spa’s cardinal design element becomes immediately apparent: a ruby red pomegranate. It is commonly believed that Babur – the first Mughal emperor – came to India from Ferghana (in present-day Afghanistan), a lush kingdom with plenty of fruit trees. When Babur decided to stay, he instructed his architects to recreate his elaborate gardens and plant a variety of orchards, including the pomegranate – his favourite. The coveted pomegranate also features in the spa’s signature treatment, an exfoliating scrub made from pomegranate peel, orange rind, pomegranate seeds and brown sugar.
Jaipur: Hidden temples in the city of forts
From Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, head westward to Jaipur (about three hours by car), where further Mughal spoils await. Known as the Pink City for its ribbon of walls (the city does not actually look particularly pink), Jaipur is the gateway to Rajasthan’s cache of rugged landscapes, photogenic cities and elaborate palaces.
Most visitors make a beeline for Jaipur’s surrounding hills dotted with parched trees – a hint that the great Thar desert sits not too far beyond. Here lies one of the city’s great attractions, the Amber Fort; yet another great legacy of a long-lost empire. While most tourists mount the ramparts on a regal-robed elephant, try driving around to the back of the fortress and start your journey in the simple hamlet of Amber, which dates back to the 11th Century. Here you will find the Shri Jagatshironmani Temple, built between 1599 and 1608, and a particularly rare specimen as the Hindu deity Krishna is not depicted with his usual consort Radha. He is instead accompanied by Mira Bai, a princess who became a mystic and Krishna’s lover. During your visit you may spot the groundskeeper watering the plants and gently sweeping the stairs – his family has been caring for the temple for more than 20 generations.
A second and equally fascinating temple sits just a short walk from the popular City Palace Museum within Jaipur’s city centre. Shri Govind Dev Ji Temple, also a place for worship for Lord Krishna, houses an image of the deity that is believed to be more than 5,000 years old. The temple is unusual because it is only open for seven jhankis, or glimpses, per day. During each viewing, devotees gather in front of the gates to sing preparatory hymns, and then pray before statues that are fastidiously decorated in different clothing for each viewing.
From Jaipur, it is about a four-and-a-half hour drive back to Delhi by private vehicle; domestic flights are also available on Air India.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named the first Mughal emporer as Barbur. This has been corrected to Babur.