Seduced by the charms of India

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 1993, 12:00am

THE first time I arrived in India I thought I was going to die. The sun, a blood red orb, was setting behind a post-Armageddon skyline. Fires glowed in the gathering dusk while the pungent smell of the city assaulted the senses.

As my driver hurtled into town he dodged sari-clad women sitting side-saddle on the back of mopeds, sacred cows wandered aimlessly across the road, and all manner of farmyard life pecked and scrapped at the roadside.

Auto-rickshaws buzzed and weaved haphazardly through seemingly impossible gaps in the traffic as a bus dripping with humanity bore down us. I sunk swiftly behind the seat of the driver fearing the end was nigh.

Two years later, I have returned.

Neatly assembled in a room at the Taj Palace Intercontinental were a group of initiates to the India ''experience''.

It was good to note the humour with which their guide gently introduced the delicate subject of ''Delhibelly'' and the possibility of delay while on tour - along with the idiosyncrasies of airline service, and the strange obsession that security has with batteries accompanying passengers into cabins. (Bombay airport has introduced a restaurant service for delayed passengers!) I am sure many have come across old India ''hands'' who corner you at a party and wax lyrical about the people, the palaces, the food and ''oh'' those Indian nights. You won't be able to change India, but there is a strong possibility this seductive place will affect anyone who takes time to appreciate all it has to offer.

Most travellers begin in Delhi, the schizophrenic capital, and third largest city after Calcutta and Bombay. Old Delhi was the capital of Muslim India between the 12th and 19th centuries and boasts a plethora of mosques, monuments and forts relating to India's Muslim history.

The Qutb Minar in the Mehrauli district, dates to the 12th century. No one is quite sure whether it is a watch tower or minaret, but it is an architectural delight with flutings and exquisite stone-carved features. Snake charmers warble at the gates as the mesmerising reptiles dance to the vibrations of the flute.

New Delhi is the imperial city created as the capital of India by the British. The decision in 1911 to move the capital from Calcutta was an ironic proclamation of the power and permanence of the British Raj. At the time it was not entertained that Indiawould gain independence by August 1947, a mere 34 years after King George V laid the foundation stone of ''New Delhi''.

Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker designed and built the magnificent tomb-cum-palace-like government buildings, combining classic British features with traditional Indian forms, despite Lutyen's apparent aesthetic alienation to Indian architecture.

''Personally, I do not believe there is any real Indian architecture or any great tradition,'' he wrote, and sent Baker this ''recipe'': ''Hindu: set square stones and build childwise, but before you erect, carve every stone with lace patterns and horrifying shapes. On top, set an onion.'' ''Mughal: build a vast mass of rough concrete, elephant-wise, on a simple rectangular-cum-octagonal plan, dome in anyhow. Overlay with a veneer of stone patterns. Inlay with jewels and cornelians if you can afford it. Then on top of the mass, put three turnips . . .'' It is a somewhat harsh analysis of several centuries worth of architectural finesse.

Raj Ghat in northern Delhi is a quiet garden of international importance. By the banks of the sacred Yumuna River lies the cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi, the ''great soul'' and architect of India's independence. Gandhi was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu youth on January 30, 1948, when independence was in its infancy.

His last words were: ''If I am to die at the hands of a madman, I might as well do it smiling.'' Nearby are the cremation sites of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, also assassinated in 1984 and 1991 respectively.

The monument most identify with is, of course, the Taj Mahal. Built by Shah Jahan in the 15th century, it has immortalised his love for his beautiful, young wife Mumtaz Mahal, the ''light of the palace'', who died at the age of 31 in childbirth. The great nationalist poet Rabindranath Tagore described the Taj Mahal as a ''solitary tear'' that hangs ''on the cheek of time''.

Fathepur Sikri was the capital of the Moghul empire during the reign of Akbar the Great, who built the city in 15 years, only for it to be abandoned when the wells ran dry in 1596. Today, it is a perfectly preserved example of a Moghul city at the heightof the empire's splendour. Fathepur Sikri was Akbar's ''Victory'' city and lies 37 kilometres west of Agra.

After an introduction to the many splendid things, move on to Rajasthan, the ''Land of Kings''. Jaipur is the capital city of this exotic state. Commonly referred to as the ''pink city'', it symbolises the dreams and desires of the visionary king, Sawai Jai Singh II (1699-1744) and his accomplished architect, Vidyadhar.

Jai Singh, a precocious child with an intimate knowledge of religion, literature, mathematics and astrology, became ruler of Amber at the tender age of 12. In his pursuit of unravelling the mysteries of the universe, Jai Singh constructed a futuristic assemblage of complex astronomical instruments.

The Jantar Mantar, literally ''storehouse of machines'' is a remarkable observatory which measures the positions of the stars, altitudes, azimuths and calculates eclipses.

The place to stay in Jaipur is the Rambagh Palace Hotel. The last ruling Maharajah, Man Singh II, was tutored here when he came to power at the impressionable age of 11 in 1922. A special school was set up at the Rambagh Palace with the aim of secludingMan Singh from the ''intrigues of the harem'' at the City Palace.

Three years later the Rambagh became the official residence of Man Singh, again to segregate him from the ''undesirable'' atmosphere at the City Palace. In 1932, the Maharani of Cooch Behar arrived, accompanied by her two daughters whom Man Singh escorted on sightseeing tours.

He was dazzled by the beauty of the 13-year-old, Gayatri Devi, whom he decided to marry. Raised in a sumptuous palace, she shot her first panther at 12. When she won a seat in the Parliament of India, John F. Kennedy introduced her as ''the woman with the most staggering majority that anyone has ever earned''.

The Maharajahs lost their sovereignty in 1970 when the Government of India withdrew the titles and privileges of all Indian royals. The ex-royals still play an important diplomatic role in India, and the ''Jaipurs'' are renowned for petitioning for the rights of the people of this city.

Man Singh II, an avid polo player, died in June 1970 at a polo match against the British royals at Cirencester, in England. He was reputed to be the seventh richest man in the world and the second richest in India.

Once you have visited the spectacular Amber Palace, which hugs the Aravali Hillside, 9 km outside Jaipur, and the stocks of silks and precious stones in the area, it is time to move on to Udiapur and the Lake Palace Hotel.

Arriving at dawn at this romantic place would have sent the French Impressionist painters into fits of epilepsy. As you cross Lake Pichola to the palace the pale indigoes and dusty pinks of the buildings glow in the early morning light. Founded by Maharana Udai Singh in 1567, this is the most romantic city in Rajasthan - a tall order in a state replete with palaces, forts and temples.

The City Palace dominates the eastern bank of Lake Pichola, with its gardens running down to the waterside. North of the palace you can wander into the old city. The old bathing and dhobi ghats are fascinating places at dawn and dusk when people come from the city to bathe.

The history of Rajasthan is fascinating and the stories I have heard of the various intrigues at the different courts create a veritable soap opera.

Air India has flights from Hongkong to New Delhi. Cost through Wallem Travel: $4,200 for an economy class return. Visa: required.