Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Return to India: Tigers and the Taj Mahal on a glorious tour of the ever-Golden Triangle

| Mail on Sunday


I first visited India in the late summer of 1961, driving a motorcycle down the Grand Trunk Road from Kabul to Delhi. With two friends, Tim Severin and Michael de Larrabeiti, I had set off two months earlier from Oxford, planning to follow Marco Polo's route across Asia to China. Marco Polo had entered China through the Wakkan corridor in northern Afghanistan, but we had found the route impassable so we rode on down into India instead.

Though we left England with two motorcycles, one of them had been severely damaged in a crash in Iran and we had to leave it behind. So we all piled on to the remaining bike. As we drove south through the Khyber Pass, then on through Peshawar and Amritsar to Delhi, dodging buffaloes and sacred cows, we must have looked like some multi-limbed Hindu god.

Of course, we were desperately disappointed to have failed in our main objective but there were compensations. Seeing the Taj Mahal was one.

I can remember even now, at a distance of 50 years, the sheer excitement of that first glimpse of the Taj as we drove into the centre of Agra. This was - and is - a monument which is stunning beyond words. We parked our motorcycle in the shade of a banyan tree, found a willing guide, and spent an hour or two walking round, feeling totally gobsmacked. I still have the notes I made at the time. I see that I jotted down the famous lines by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who described the Taj as a 'teardrop on the face of eternity'.

Perhaps more intriguingly, I also noted a comment about the mausoleum by one Lady Sleeman, as relayed by our guide. 'I would die tomorrow to have such another over me,' Lady Sleeman is supposed to have said. Later, I found out that Lady Sleeman was the wife of Major-General Sir W.H. Sleeman, General Superintendent for the Suppression of Thuggee in India, known by the nickname 'Thuggee Sleeman'!

I have visited Agra three or four times since 1961 and for me the Taj Mahal comes as close to perfection as any building I have ever seen. Can one ever tire of it? I suspect not. As I grow older, I must be getting more emotional. On this visit I found myself not only overwhelmed by the sublime architecture, but unconscionably moved by the narrative behind it.

Was this the greatest love story of all time, I asked myself, as I watched the sun rise over the Taj's great white central dome? Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan's second wife, died while delivering their 14th child. 'On her deathbed,' our guide told us, 'she asked two promises from her husband. The first was that he would never marry again. The second was that he should build a monument peerless in concept and beauty which would symbolise their eternal love for each other.'

As far as the first wish was concerned, Shah Jahan - fifth of the Great Mughal Emperors, he ruled India from 1627 to 1658 - already had three other wives (including a Hindu and a Christian one) and a harem numbered in the thousands, so agreeing not to marry again was perhaps not such a great act of self-denial as it might at first appear. But it was Shah Jahan's determination to observe the second promise that enabled Agra to achieve in the 17th Century the peak of its glory. Shah Jahan invited designs from the famous architects of the world. Ultimately, the Persian Ustad Ahmad Lahauri was nominated.

For 22 years Shah Jahan closely supervised the construction of the magical building on the banks of the holy yamuna river. He neglected the affairs of state; he virtually bankrupted the treasury.

The construction of the Taj Mahal was finally completed in 1648 and the mortal remains of Empress Mumtaz Mahal interred beneath the dome.

We were so lucky that morning in Agra. Sometimes - let's be frank - air pollution in what is now a large industrial city can affect visibility. The clear lines of the Taj can be shrouded in mist. But for our visit the weather was absolutely stunning. We arrived well before the crowds began to gather and walked in the cool of the morning through the beautiful Moghul gardens. I remembered the inscription I had once seen on the gates of a Moghul garden in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. 'If there be any paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.'

Shah Jahan fell ill in September 1657. Taking advantage of this opportunity, one of his sons, Aurangzeb, took over the throne and imprisoned him in Agra Fort. Today, when you visit the fort, you can stand by the window from which, for the last ten years of his life, Shah Jahan was able to gaze at the wonder he had created, not much more than a mile away, on the bank of the holy river. He was still a captive when he died, in 1666, to be entombed alongside Mumtaz.

For my money, Agra is the pinnacle of the Golden Triangle. Our tour took us, of course, to Jaipur and Delhi as well.

Nowadays, Jaipur is gaining considerable prestige as the location of an international Literary Festival. We arrived in the town a week before the festival and could well understand the success it is having as a venue for the literati and indeed the glitterati. This is a fascinating, beguiling place. Jaipur is actually one of Rajastan's youngest cities, having been founded in 1727 by Jai Singh II of the Kachchwaha royal family.

At its heart lies Jai Singh's original capital, known as the Pink City. Our guide explained: 'Jai Singh decreed that the city should be painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales when he visited Jaipur in 1853. Pink is the colour of hospitality!'

Of course, not everyone got to go out in the wide streets of the new town to welcome His Royal Highness, the eventual Edward VII. One of the most striking buildings in the city is the Hawa Mahal, the place of winds, a tapered construction with 953 latticed windows, which permitted royal women to observe ceremonial processions without themselves being observed.

We spent two days in Jaipur and could easily have spent several more.

The Amber Palace, Jaijargh Fort, the Albert Hall Museum - these are sites that would benefit from longer visits. For those of a scientific or mechanical turn of mind, Jaipur's Astronomical Observatory must be uniquely interesting. Maharajah Jai Singh was not only an inspired town planner and soldier of note, he was also an astronomer of distinction and the colossal instruments - 18 in total - that you can see in the observatory still perform today the functions for which they were designed.

The official title of our tour was Tigers And The Taj. Though we had seen the Taj under the most perfect conditions, we had not yet seen the tigers. When India gained independence from Britain in 1948, there were 50,000 tigers. Now there are possibly fewer than 2,000. I had had the good fortune to see tigers in the wild in India on a previous trip, but this was my wife Jenny's first visit.

En route to Jaipur, we had visited Sariska National Park. A few years earlier, Sariska had suffered an epidemic of poaching and a total wipe-out of the tiger population. Five tigers were subsequently brought in from another national park, Ranthambore, but one of those, alas, had died.

I told Jenny not to have too high expectations. 'You may have to settle for a footprint.'

Our guide explained why. 'The average male tiger has a range of 11 to 15 square miles. The average female ranges over seven to 11 square miles.' Needles and haystacks came to mind. Well, we were lucky. We didn't see any tigers in Sariska, but we did in Ranthambore.

Ranthambore is one of the loveliest of India's national parks. With its 10th Century fort perched on a hilltop looking out over deep forests, it is straight out of Kipling's Jungle Book. Though in the Nineties poaching led to a collapse in Ranthambore's tiger population, it seems that since then there has been a recovery.

When we arrived at our lodge, just outside the boundaries of the park, we were briefed by a ranger: 'We believe there are about 30 tigers in Ranthambore today.' We went out four times in the canters - open-sided vehicles riding high off the ground for good viewing. We enjoyed the magical setting: the lakes, the battlements, and the jungle backdrop. We saw a mass of wildlife - monkeys, peacocks and an abundance of sambar deer and spotted deer, herons and kingfishers - but the tigers remained elusive.

From time to time a tracker would point out a print, but this would be followed by a shaking of the head and a clicking of the teeth. 'Acha! This is not a fresh print. Tiger was here this morning. Now gone very far!'

Finally we came to the end of our last ride on our last day in Ranthambore. I was sitting up front with a tracker, Shivraj, next to me. Shivraj was deeply despondent. It was as though he felt his own honour was impugned by his inability to produce a real live tiger for us.

Then, as we were getting ready to call it a day, a message came through on the radio that a tiger had been seen at a waterhole a few miles away. With our driver, Vijay, breaking the speed limit by a considerable margin, we careered off through the forests only to find that the tiger, if there was one, had moved on.

Finally we had to head for home, still lickety-split, since we were out of time and the park gates had already closed. We were travelling, I guess, at almost 30mph on a bumpy track when we were all but sideswiped by a Jeep containing a party of tourists. What interested Shivraj, as we took rapid evasive action, was that the Jeep wasn't heading for the exit; it was heading towards another part of the forest.

'Follow that Jeep!' Shivraj told the driver.

So we belted after the Jeep and, as luck would have it, arrived a few minutes later at a fork in the road where three or four vehicles were already gathered. A female tiger came out of the bush and crouched in the road right alongside one of the vehicles. We could hear her growling. Seconds later, a male tiger followed her. The female's growls grew into snarls.

By now I was standing up, holding on to the windscreen, trying to focus my camera. 'They are going to mate,' Shivraj whispered to me. 'That's why the female is snarling.'

I would like to report that we saw the tigers mating, but suddenly Shivraj told the driver to reverse and beat a retreat.

'We are illegal here!' he told me as we drove back. 'This is Route No5. Ours is Route No4. If the park officials catch us, our canter can be impounded, and the rangers can be suspended and fined.'

We drove back to the lodge, tired but happy. But like the Battle of Waterloo, it had been a damned close-run thing.

Our last days were spent in Delhi. Actually there are at least three Delhis, not just one. There is Old Delhi with the Red Fort and the Jama Mashjid, Humayun's Tomb and the Qutub Minar. There is New Delhi, so much the creation of Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker. Then there is the Delhi of post-independence India - the teeming, bustling city that is literally bursting at the seams. With a population of 14 million, it is the third-largest city in India. There are seven-and-a-half million vehicles on Delhi's roads, with 900 new vehicles being registered every day.

I could not help thinking how much had changed since I first rode into the city as a 21-year-old on my motorcycle. Yet the magic was still there. If I could find that old 500cc BSA twin-cylinder Shooting Star somewhere in the back streets of the city, I would be quite ready to roar off into the sunset.

Once you have seen both tigers in the wild and the Taj Mahal in all its glory, what else counts?


Travel Facts

Page & Moy (0800 987 5112, www.pageandmoy.com) offers an 11-day India - Tigers And The Taj tour from 1,699. This includes return flights from Heathrow to Delhi with Jet Airways, nine nights' accommodation with two nights in Delhi, two nights in Jaipur, three nights in Rathambore and two nights in Agra, nine breakfasts and dinners, five lunches, excursions, game drives and the services of a Page & Moy tour guide.


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