It has been 70 years since India gained its independence from the British Empire. In that time, the nation has risen to become one of the most dynamic and successful countries on the planet. However, the last seven decades is only a small chapter of a much larger narrative
I met my old school friend Soumithri outside The Park Hotel Hyderabad, immediately sweating on the ten-step journey from the comfortable, air-conditioned hallways of Hyderabad’s most recent luxury hotel to his car. The 43-degree heat was “unusually warm” for the time of year, according to most people I met who had noticed the internal struggle written in my eyes and across my shirt.
I’d been in Hyderabad, and India, for ten hours, arriving on the 6am red-eye flight. As we effortlessly weaved between seven-door Mercedes, chai hawkers on frail bicycles, nippy auto rickshaws with Miles Davis playing through their speakers, it almost became too much for my British sensibilities. Already paranoid about the notorious stomach problems everyone said I would inevitably develop, I stuck to water and wine when we finally arrived at 10 Downing Street, a pub plucked directly from Victorian England and plonked into a shopping mall in India’s sixth largest metropolis. Soumithri immediately ordered a plate of nachos.
The effortless hybridity of my first morning in India goes some way towards characterising a country that is still three decades shy of celebrating the centenary of its independence, but has developed at a rate almost unseen in human history. Britain’s role in this, for better or worse, cannot be overlooked.
Through the struggle for independence, the various regions on the Indian subcontinent found a common goal, and the normalisation of a dual culture arguably made it easier, and almost natural, for the Indian population to embrace difference in order to develop. This has filtered down into everyday life to an inescapable extent. Hence the Italian wine, the Mexican nachos and the English local.
After an afternoon catching-up, we said goodbye and I returned to the hotel. The Park Hotels chain is headed by Priya Paul, of the family-run Apeejay Surrendra Group, which owns companies as varied as shipyards, boutique hotels and Typhoo. I would be staying in its hotels in Hyderabad, New Delhi and Jaipur, and bowing to the staff’s local expertise.
Hyderabad is an oddly placed city in the scheme of India. Not much is known about it on the international stage, with Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore bearing most of the attention. However, from the ancient Golkonda Fort to Hyderabad’s technology quarter, aptly called Cyberabad, the city has carved the fate of Telangana state, and central India in general, since its founding in 1591.
For all its forward-looking, Hyderabad’s treasures lie in its past. Charminar, an English amalgamation of the Urdu Chār and Minar (literally ‘Four Pillars’), is possibly the most widely-known of all Hyderabad’s buildings (Lindt created a scale model from 50kg of chocolate, which is any level-headed person’s litmus test for iconography). Hyderabad was designed with Charminar at the centre, as it lies at the intersection of historical trade routes between Golkonda and the port city of Machilipatnam. The interior, especially as you climb the stairs for a closer look at the ceiling, is stuccoed to the nines, the lavish ornamentation of the Qutb Shahi dynasty at its very best. It was, however, a struggle to absorb, due to the number of locals requesting photographs with the tourists that had jumped the line, of which I was one. Not that this wasn’t met with enthusiasm – the unearned feeling of stardom was most welcome.
Speaking of which, while in Hyderabad, it would have been remiss not to visit India’s answer to Universal Film Studios, Ramoji Film City. For any Bollywood enthusiast, Ramoji is a dream – at 2,000 acres, it’s the world’s largest studio complex, where streets of three-storey houses neighbour a fully reproduced train station, complete with stationary train (the back of which is kindly open for the perfect picture). A palace with its own gardens lies close to rides for visitors who have paid the Rs.1050 (approx. £12) entry fee, and the day tour takes in a park full to the brim with exotic birds, a maze of caves with an underground Buddhist temple, and a series of wedding sets, each more resplendent than the last.
Ramoji serves as a handy symbol for the Indian approach to life. The show is in technicolour, the atmosphere intoxicating, each human interaction permeated with a poetic quality. Even the ruckus of practically any road larger than a pavement sometimes, almost abruptly, gives way to a serene hum.
This serenity was experienced more than anywhere in India’s capital, New Delhi, a city of extremes. The 25,000-capacity Jama Masjid of Delhi is one of India’s largest mosques, and was built between 1644 and 1656 as one of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s final contributions during his rule. It almost went the same way as the Mughal Empire, when the British considered destroying it in retaliation for the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Widespread opposition from all sides thankfully stopped that idea in its tracks, as walking into the courtyard as worshippers file out from afternoon prayers is a deeply calming experience. The noise and traffic give way to a comforting buzz, as if a blanket has been placed over the city. Time seems to slow as thousands of people mill around the yard, praying or chatting with fellow devotees, but before long it’s time for the next round of prayers, at which point I leave the peace for the bustle of the streets below. I pass a gang of eight-or-so-year-olds on the way out, hitting each other with sticks and kicking a bottle across the steps; I suppose God wouldn’t want to stifle the enthusiasm of youth.
From here, I was driven around the political centres of New Delhi, taking in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the 320-acre Presidential Estate, and Parliament House, both designed by British architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens. It was here that the contrast between rich and poor was starkest. We left the cars behind for half an hour to take in India Gate, New Delhi’s monument to the fallen of World War I (and again designed by Lutyens). The Romanesque arch was lit up, and set behind fencing and armed guards. Even at 10pm, the street was bloated and hectic, scores of homeless vendors vying for trade from tourists and the middle class meandering through the portable stoves and rickshaws. A five-minute drive from here is a suburban idyll, lush gardens and nice cars; the economic distance is almost insurmountable.
The atmosphere in New Delhi, however, is still one of deep-seated ambition; the city crackles with dynamism. There is no doubt that it is a major city, ready to take the next step on the world stage. Hopefully, the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens will not get left behind.
The Pink City would never have gained its distinctive colour scheme were it not for King Edward VII’s visit as the Prince of Wales in 1876. Maharaja Ram Singh, ruler of Jaipur, had sided with the British Raj in the uprising of 1857, and it was he that redecorated the town in honour of its esteemed guest. The colour stuck, and the city had a new name.
The height of Jaipur’s grandness is undoubtedly the City Palace, a substantial complex of richly hued royal reception rooms, museums, and private residences still used by the Maharaja’s lineage. However, even more impressive is the fascinating Jantar Mantar, a collection of nineteen huge astronomical instruments, including the world’s largest sundial. Completed in 1734 on the orders of Sawai Jai Singh II – after whom Jaipur is named – the instruments help track the movements of celestial positions using just the naked eye. The Samrat Yantra (meaning ‘Supreme Instrument’), the aforementioned sundial, is 90ft high and measures time to an accuracy of two seconds, and is commonly believed to have been designed by Jai Singh himself.
Travel companies laud the markets in Jaipur. They are a swirl of dust, colour, over-eager merchants and riches of admittedly varying quality, including jewellery and traditional Jaipur blue pottery. Perhaps it was because the markets were in full swing, or perhaps because it forms part of the Golden Triangle of tourism with Agra and Delhi, but Jaipur seemed the busiest of the three cities I visited, although it has the smallest population at a ‘mere’ 3.5 million. It also does a very good job of trading off its past, having conserved its architecture almost faultlessly – it’s the perfect place for a taste of the India you see on television, but take time to delve deeper and you’ll find a place steeped in the history of Rajasthan.
The connecting flight from Jaipur back to Delhi for the journey home gave me some time to re-centre after the clamour. As I sat on the bumpiest flight I’ve ever been on, and my arm became closely acquainted with that of the young woman sitting next to me, my thoughts turned to trying to describe the three cities I’d been lucky enough to visit, albeit rather briefly. All three were busy. They were also overpowering. They mainly, however, made me impatient. I had scratched the surface of only a trio of India’s 4,000 cities and towns, yet the experience felt like it would take months to process; it was simultaneously too much and not enough. I would go back tomorrow, however, without hesitation, such is the uncontrollable desire India encourages, to uncover a little more of the country of contradictions, of rich and poor, of Empire and independence. Though this time, I’d probably take a portable fan with me.
Where to stay
The Park Hotel group pioneered the boutique hotel experience in India. The chain turned 50 this year, offering the height of luxury, local knowledge, and inventive restaurants and nightclubs
Hyderabad (from £63)
The flagship hotel in the group, The Park Hyderabad is a modern interpretation of the opulent palaces of the city’s former rulers. It’s also a certified LEED Gold ‘green’ building, setting the new standard for Indian hotel design
New Delhi (from £100)
Designed by Conran & Partners, The Park New Delhi is inspired by a fun mix of the five elements of nature and the Miami pool party scene. It’s home to the multiple award-winning Fire restaurant and Aqua outdoor pool area
The Zone Jaipur (from £50)
Zone by The Park is a new series of design-led hotels for the mid-market Indian sector. The hotels emphasise interaction, with bazaar-style public areas, and are based in cities fast becoming popular new travel destinations