1. Emperors in Delhi
Throughout Indian history, emperors with grand pretensions have headed for Delhi the way aspiring starlets head for the paparazzi. Greatest of them were the Mughals, whose imperial monuments still survive in the crowded alleys of
Old Delhi. The Jama Masjid, India's most majestic mosque, is a revelation, while the colossal Red Fort offers a glimpse of imperial life from the stately audience halls to the jewel-patterned baths of the harem. But the dead emperors got the best buildings. The garden tomb of the Emperor Humayan is an architectural masterpiece and the prototype for the Taj Mahal.
In 1911 George V was crowned King Emperor in Delhi at a fabulous durbar that attracted myriad Indian royal houses. When the British finally moved the capital here from Calcutta in 1931 — keen to connect with that Mughal glamour — Sir Edwin Lutyens was let loose on the urban planning. Follow the processional avenue of Rajpath, lined with gardens and fountains floodlit at night, to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace that is the architectural love child of Mughal splendour and British classicism.
The Leela Palace Kempinski (theleela.com) is opening
a fabulous new property in Delhi this year. Doubles from £237 a night. A personal favourite is the august Imperial (theimperialindia.com), where there are moments when it could still be 1911. Doubles from £160.
2. Rebirth on the Ganges
Varanasi was old when the ancient city of Nineveh in Iraq
was new. It was very old when the Wise Men set off for Bethlehem. In its warren of antique alleys, so narrow that a bicycle could prove an obstacle, Varanasi feels what it is — one of the oldest cities in the world.
To die in Varanasi is deemed to be a shortcut to heaven.
At the moment of passing, Shiva arrives to whisper the tarak mantra, the secret of the attainment of nirvana, in the ear of the dead, allowing the soul to escape the endless cycles of rebirth and suffering.
A boatman took me upriver. It was evening and, above
the city, kites danced in the wind like released souls. I had bought some of the small lamps that serve much the same purpose as church candles — one lights them for the dead, for loved ones. As dusk gathered, I launched my lamps on the water, where they drifted downstream to join a thousand others on the dark bosom of the river. Eventually they were indistinguishable from the lights on shore, the lights of Varanasi, beating with insistent life.
The Nadesar Palace (tajhotels.com), set in extensive grounds, is the pick of the hotels, from £280 for a double.
For a ringside view of the river, try the Palace on the Ganges (palaceonganges.com). Doubles from £70.
3. Nightlife in Mumbai
Delhi may be India's political fulcrum, Kolkata may enjoy greater cultural gravitas, Bangalore may be the new IT capital, but Mumbai is indisputably India's first city. Not only is it the nation's economic powerhouse, but it is also the home of Bollywood, whose glamour dazzles every stratum of Indian society. Fittingly, the city prides itself on having the best restaurants and nightlife in India.
Aer, the rooftop bar of the Four Seasons (fourseasons.com/mumbai), is one of the newest arrivals and has a spectacular night panorama of the lights of Mumbai and the dark ocean. Happy hour is sunset hour from 5.30-8pm. Expect fruit cocktails, Middle Eastern mezes and Mediterranean tapas to the latest sounds of an impressive line-up of live DJs.
Two of the coolest restaurants are Olive (olivebarand kitchen.com), a perennial favourite in Bandra in north Mumbai, and the stylish Indigo (foodindigo.com) in Colaba
in the south of the city, near the Gateway to India. I spotted
a couple of Bollywood directors in Olive the night I was there, but somehow they failed to spot me.
To strut your stuff in style, head for Poison (+91 22 2642 3006) in West Bandra, where the beautiful people are crammed in even with 10,000sq ft to play with. For those of more sedate tastes, try the Sea Lounge in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where afternoon tea is served overlooking Mumbai Harbour and the Gateway to India.
The Taj Mahal Palace (tajhotels.com) in Colaba also offers the city's most elegant accommodation, though clubbers may prefer the Taj Lands End in Bandra. Doubles from £430.
4. The palaces in Rajasthan
In Rajasthan, where the moustaches are the size of broadswords and the turbans are like hot-air balloons, it is easy to get carried away. When it came to palaces, Rajput royalty built on a scale that would have beggared lesser aristocrats. Now that democracy has got in the way of
royal swank, many of Rajasthan's dashing princes have turned to the noble tradition of hotelier to make ends meet, transforming their residences into some of the world's grandest heritage hotels.
If you are accustomed to turrets and candlelit courtyards, 12-acre reception rooms and moonlit ramparts, white-gloved waiters and elephant sentries, you will feel right at home. The palaces come in all shapes, sizes and ages, from the Cloud Palace, Kumbhalgarh Fort in Udaipur and Jaipur's 18th-century Jai Mahal to Jodhpur's astonishing Art Deco Umaid Bhawan. If your accommodation is not one of the highlights of a Rajasthani tour, you are staying in the wrong places. Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) offers a 16-day itinerary from £2,040.
5. Cricket in Kolkata
In the Victorian age, Kolkata was the second city of the empire, outranked only by London. A British trading port established in the 18th century for the export of cotton to Lancashire and opium to China, it grew into a great metropolis through the boom years of the 19th century and remained the capital of British India until well into the 20th century.
The British imprint in India is at its most poignant here. From the dining room at the top of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, you can look out over the Maidan, the vast park at
the centre of the city. On the left are the ramparts of Fort William, named after William III. On the right is St Paul's Cathedral, whose spire is modelled on Canterbury. In the distance are the wrought-iron gates of the former Viceregal palace, modelled on Kedleston, while closer to hand is the great classical edifice still known as the Victoria Memorial.
The air might be scented with the exotic odours of India, but across the green swathe of the Maidan, the dominant sound is the familiar thwack of leather on willow as a dozen cricket games are underway in the mid-afternoon haze. This is England's greatest legacy in India, the game that the Indians have elevated to the status of a national religion.
On the far side of the Maidan looms Eden Gardens, a cathedral of cricket. Due to hold the World Cup in 2011,
Eden Gardens in mid-Test is a cauldron of cricketing
passion. Known as India's 12th man, the spectators here are as much of a spectacle as the game itself. Overlooking the Maidan is another colonial legacy, the Oberoi Grand Hotel (oberoihotels.com), where doubles are from £286.