Cultural Tours of India


Northern India Tour Itinerary

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Day 1-2: Fly from the U.S. to Bangkok (or via Europe)

Day 3: Free day in Bangkok, with a 5 p.m. flight to Delhi.

Day 4, New Delhi/Old Delhi: We'll conduct this tour at the trip's beginning and end. As the capital of five empires, Delhi's sights are vast. In Old Delhi, we'll visit major architectural achievements including Lal Qila (The Red Fort) and the Jami Masjid (Friday mosque) while wandering the bustling market streets. New Delhi sights include Humayan's Tomb and the shrine of Nizam-ud-din. Humayan's tomb is one of the oldest examples of Moghul architecture, precursor to the Taj Mahal. It's a building filled with raw energy, topped by giant domes, surrounded by linear gardens.

We'll then visit the neighborhood of Nizam-ud-din, the birthplace of Quawali music, and the Jantar Mantar (built in 1725), a lunar and solar observatory that looks like a postmodern playground. The Jantar has instruments used in predicting eclipses. If time permits, we'll visit the Modern Art Museum, Hauz Khas Village, and Lodhi tombs and gardens. We'll also visit some obscure shopping areas, such as Dilli Haat and Pragati Maidan, and sleep on the first-class train to Jaiselmer.

Day 5, Jaiselmer arrival: Taken straight from tales of the Arabian Nights, this walled city of gold is truly the "stuff dreams are made of." Much time will be spent wandering the narrow streets of the old city and peering across the desert high up on the ramparts. We'll spend our night in a hotel here.

Day 6, Formal Tour of Jaiselmer: Jaiselmer lies in the western extremity of Rajasthan, in the heart of the Thar Desert. The ancient city, which stands on a low range of hills and is surrounded by a stone wall three miles around, was founded in 1156 A.D. Within its walls lie temples, forts and palaces, all built of yellow sandstone. The Jain Temples in the fort are decked with deities and dancing figures in mythological settings. The library attached to these places of worship contains some of the most ancient manuscripts in India, with some dating back to the 12th century, written on palm-leaf in black ink with hand painted wooden covers. Down in the city are the renowned Havelis or mansions of Salim Singh, Nathmalji and the Patwas, with every house boasting superb latticework in innumerable and intricate designs.

Day 7, Manwar: We'll travel two hours to desert camp. This is a beautifully staged "resort" style lodging in a remote area of the Thar desert. We'll partake in a three-hour camel safari, traveling across swaths of deserts between sand dunes. In an area rarely traveled by tourists, one easily harkens back to the era of camel crossings and caravansaries, as the methodical rhythm of the camel helps us transcend time. We'll return to our desert camp.

Day 8, Drive to Jodphur (5-6 hours): We'll make a city tour of Jodhpur in the afternoon. Jodhpur is the land of the valiant Rathore kings, whose courage was a match for the tyranny of the Thar Desert. A bleak scarp rears up 120 meters from the desert valley. Straddling the rocky crevices is the massive Jodhpur Fort, its sheer walls reflecting the strength of its warrior builders. The fort is entered through seven gates, each a formidable barrier. The museum within the fort is one of the finest in Rajasthan and displays royal apparel, ancient paintings and manuscripts, fabled treasures of the royal household and an armory. An interesting section displays folk musical instruments from different regions of Rajasthan. Delicately latticed windows and pierced screens worked in sandstone form the dominant motif within the rugged casket of the fort, and the palaces are exquisitely decorated. On the road down from the fort, the splash of blinding white marble on the left is Jaswant Thada, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II's cenotaph, built in 1899 (previous rulers have their cenotaphs at Mandore). As with the Taj Mahal in Agra, the marble is from Makrana. The town below has more fine buildings and temples and is interesting to walk through, particularly the market near the clock tower.

Day 9, Drive to Udaipur: After breakfast, a six-hour drive takes you to Udaipur. En route, we'll visit Ranakpur, the famous Jain temples of Ranakpur that lie buried in a shady glen and cover a vast area. The central temple is called Chaumukha (four-faced) and is the most complex and extensive of Jain temples in India, covering an area of over 40,000 square feet (3,600 sq. meters). Its 29 halls are supported by 1,444 pillars, none of which are alike. A subsidiary shrines in the shape of side alters throng around in all directions, including a temple dedicated to the Sun God which displays erotic carvings. Continue your drive to Udaipur. We'll lodge in a hotel.

Day 10, Udaipur: After breakfast, we'll depart for sightseeing in Udaipur city, with a visit to the City Palace, which stands on the crest of a ridge overlooking Lake Pichola. The largest palace in Rajasthan, it was built at various periods but still preserves the harmony of design, enhanced by massive octagonal towers surmounted by cupolas. Now a museum, it is a labyrinth of courtyards richly decorated with inlaid mirror-work, and galleries covered with frescos, temples and roof gardens, all of which afford a wide panorama below. Sahelion-ki-Bari (Garden of the Handmaidens) is a good example of the Hindu art of landscaping on a princely scale. Ornamental pools with finely sculptured cenotaphs of black stone are surrounded by a profusion of fountains. The Jagdish Temple in the old town was built in the mid-17th century and has a remarkable bronze statue of Garuda, the mythical bird, facing his revered master Lord Vishnu. The shops and craftsmen's ateliers in the narrow streets of the bazaar justify endless walking.

In the evening, take a boat ride on Lake Pichola. The steel blue waters of the lake, artificially created in the 14th century, reflect the white phantom Jag Nivas Palace — now the Lake Palace hotel, which was built in 1746 as the summer residence of the rulers — and Jag Mandir, which was said to be built by Maharana Karan Singh for his friend Prince Khurram, who was later to become emperor Shah Jehan. Huge seamless stone slabs of translucent thinness were used. The rooms were embellished with inlaid stones — onyx, jade, carnelian, .phper and agate.

Day 11, Travel to Chhatra Sagar (4-5 hour journey): An old Maharajah hunting area turned five-star tent camp. This luxurious tented area sits on the edge of a huge dam, where we'll watch birds and wildlife traverse the area. This certainly one of the most interesting and peaceful days of the journey, as we visit local villages whose residents practice the timeless skills of weaving, pottery and smithing, much as they have 500 years. In the morning, those interested can hike around the dam.

Day 12, Pushkar: (The small town of Pushkar lies 11 km northeast of Ajmer and is an important pilgrimage center for Hindus). The sanctity of the lake is equal to that of Mansarover and Tibet. Throughout the year, Pushkar has the atmosphere of an ancient religious town, peaceful and secluded. But for 12 days in the month of Kartik, it is transformed into a spectacular fairground that spreads over the dunes west of the town.

Day 13, Drive to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve: After breakfast, depart for a five-hour drive to Ranthambore. On arrival check in at the hotel Sawai Madhopur Lodge. Ranthambore is situated at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges. Since becoming one of the original 11 areas under Project Tiger in 1973, the park has recovered much of its previous natural glory. The blend between nature and history is strong in this park — the fort, temples, tanks and other relics are a constant reminder of man's involvement in the area. The fort commanded a large region, and up to the late 13th century, was the center of a Hindu kingdom. During the 18th century, the area was protected as a hunting area for and by the Maharajas of Jaipur, and it is thanks to an extension of this protection that the park exists today. Ranthambore has an impressive range of animal species within its 150 square miles (392 sq. km), including sambar, cheetal, nilgai, chinkara, wild boar, sloth bear, hyena, jackal, leopard and tiger. The rich birdlife reflects the range of flora on which it feeds. During the winter months, the lakes attract a variety of migrant water birds. Afternoon wildlife viewing by jeep.

Day 14, Ranthambore: Morning and afternoon wildlife viewing by jeep.

Day 15, Delhi: We'll take you in the morning to the railway station in time to board Kota/Delhi Jan Shatabdi Express, for the five-hours-plus journey to H. Nizam-ud-din railway station in New Delhi.

Day 16, Fly to Varanasi: In the morning, you will be taken to the airport for an hour-plus flight to Varanasi. In the afternoon, we'll visit Sarnath, six miles (nine km) from Varanasi, which is the center of the Buddhist world, just as Varanasi is that for the Hindu. It was here that Buddha preached his first sermon, partially recorded on one of its stones. Dhamek Stupa, dating back to 500 A.D, is the largest, with geometrical ornaments on its wall. Dharmarajika Stupa was set up by emperor Ashoka to contain the bodily relics of the Buddha. There is an outstanding museum, worth visiting.

Day 17, Varanasi: Early, before sunrise, we'll depart for a boat ride on the sacred Ganges River, where devout Hindus can be seen performing their daily ablutions. The bathing ghats, over three miles in length, lead from a steep bank to the river and are the soul of the city. Here, where the wavelets of the Ganges lap the last of the stone steps, can be seen young Hindu men practicing Hatha yoga; older men seated, eyes closed in meditation; Brahmin priests under sunshades, waiting to bless the passing pilgrims; and beggars sitting in serried ranks. Manikarnika burning ghat is the chief cremation center of Varanasi. Corpses lined in white silk or linen are borne on bamboo stretchers to the smoking pyres, where they are deposited to await their turn. Photography is not usually permitted here. We'll return to hotel for breakfast.

Later, we'll explore Varanasi, the religious capital of the Hindu faith since the dawn of history. Known as Kashi in the 7th century B.C., it is a microcosm of Indian life. No one knows how old it really is — when Buddha came here in 550 B.C., it was already a flourishing ancient settlement. The town is one inextricable maze of small streets and alleyways, hiding in disorderly array no less than 2,000 temples and shrines. Domes, pinnacles, towers and derelict 18th-century palaces dominate the left bank of the Ganges river. The streets are noisy and rife with color. Overnight at the Hotel.

Day 18, Delhi: Return to Delhi and our hotel, then take a late-night flight back to the U.S.

Day 19: Arrive in the U.S.

(Those interested can add a two-day extension to visit the Taj Mahal and other sites in Agra. Note that each day, we will try to have some free time so that one is not always on guided tour. While we often eat meals together, they will not be pre-arranged, which will allow us the flexibility to eat at local establishments or at more preferred hours. Hotels are subject to change.)

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