Day 1: Join tour Kolkata Our tour begins today in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta. We stay close to the vibrant New Market, a large covered bazaar which has now spilled out on to the streets. A popular shopping spot for locals it is possible to buy almost anything here, from scarves and handicrafts to household items and snacks.
Day 2: Full day’s sightseeing in Kolkata Once the capital of British India, Kolkata (Calcutta) has had a turbulent past. It was central to the struggle for Indian independence and thousands of Bengali refugees came here at the start of the 1900’s. It is a city of striking contrasts and can be overwhelming initially, but the unusual sights, pungent smells and the chaotic sounds of the country’s second largest city are an experience unique to India. Today we intend to explore something of this most interesting of cities, with a tour of some of its major sights. We plan to visit St John’s Church and the many historic Raj buildings around Dalhousie Square, the Jain and Kali temples and the magnificent marble dome of the Victoria memorial, where the sumptuous grandeur of European and Mughal influences come together in a blaze of white marble. We will also visit the flower market and clay modeller’s village of Kumartuli before returning to our hotel. The potters here spend all year creating a wealth of images and idols for the annual festivals and, as the time approaches for the models to be prepared for the coming pujas, the streets are filled with an overwhelming display of brightly coloured and richly attired idols.
Day 3: Morning free; Train to Bodh Gaya A relaxed start to the morning as we have some free time to explore the city before taking the train to Bodh Gaya.
Day 4: Morning sightseeing tour; Drive to Patna This morning we explore Bodh Gaya by taking a walking tour with a local guide. It was here that the Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, making the town an important mecca for pilgrims. We will join the constant flow of the faithful to visit some of the most important sites in the Buddhist world. Whilst the original Bodhi tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment over 2600 years ago no longer remains, its ancestral descendants still occupy the same spot and we will visit along with the majestic Mahbodhi Temple this morning. Built in the 6th century AD on the site of an original temple erected by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, this magnificent building, topped by a towering 50m high spire, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2002 and is one of the oldest brick built Buddhist temples in India. We will also visit the 25m high Great Buddha Statue. We then head to Nalanda, founded in the 5th Centuary AD Nalanda is famous as the ancient seat of learning due to it being the location of the world's most ancient university. 2,000 teachers and 10,000 monk students from over the Buddhist world lived and studied here.
Day 5-6: Full day visit to Sonepur Mela Festival This morning we drive to Sonepur and spend a full day at the Sonepur Mela. The fair is held annually during the Hindu month of Kartik (November) and is located on the banks of the River Ganga. Originally the fair was located in Hajipur and only the puja took place at the Harihar Nath Temple, Sonepur, however the location was changed during the rule of the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb. Sonepur is located at the convergence of the sacred Rivers Ganga and Gandak and whilst visiting the fair many take the chance to dip in these holy waters and pay their respects at the Harihar Nath Temple. The fair used to attract cattle traders from throughout Central Asia and would last for up to a month. These days the imposing Indian elephants are one of the main attractions, ornately decorated to attract buyers. Cattle, camels and horses are also traded during the fair and combined with colourful locals, overflowing stalls and saddhus there is a wealth of variety to experience at this fascinating fair. Legend has it that two brothers, both devotees of Lord Vishnu, one devious and one honest, cast a spell on each other making the honest brother an elephant and the devious brother a crocodile. On Kartik Purnima, the full moon, the elephant went to the confluence of the holy River Ganga and Gandak to bathe and was attacked by the crocodile. Lord Vishnu himself intervened and good triumphed over evil. Early evening we leave the mela and take our bus for drive back to Patna.
Day 7: Morning train from Patna to Varanasi This morning we take the train from Patna to Varanasi. On arrival we are free to relax and explore this vibrant, holy city. Varanasi is one of the oldest Hindu pilgrimage centres in India and believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, its age making it a contemporary with ancient Thebes and Babylon. Lying on the banks of the sacred River Ganges, Varanasi is steeped in the lore and traditions of Hinduism, and since its inception as one of the principal centres of Shiva worship some 1200 years ago it has attracted devotees from across the globe to its myriad of temples and ghats. It is believed by many that this is where the material and spiritual worlds cross and countless thousands come here to cleanse themselves along the banks of the Ganges and partake in the rituals of Aarti.
Day 8: Visit Sarnath; explore Varanasi This morning we make a short journey north, to the sacred site of Sarnath, the cradle of Buddhism, where the Buddha preached his first sermon following his attainment of enlightenment. We will visit the main shrine, the DharmarajkaStupa and the Dhamekh Stupa, the spot where he first espoused the teachingsthat were to form the very principles of the Buddhist faith. We will also see the nearby Ashoka Pillar and the monastery, the centre pieces of what is ineffect probably the most expansive collection of Buddhist temples and monasteries on earth. At its height this remarkable site housed over 1500 monks, before its decline and subsequent destruction by Muslim armies saw it all but disappear. It was rediscovered by British archaeologists in the middle years of the 19th century, since which it has recaptured some of its original prestige and now represents one of the four holiest Buddhist sites on earth. Returning to Varanasi after our visit we will spend the afternoon exploring the old city and the riverfront by taxi, cycle rickshaw and on foot, before an evening sunset boat ride along the sacred Ganges itself, hopefully catching sight of the local priests performing the revered Aarti ceremonies. Varanasi can boast some 80 or so riverfront ghats, including a number of burning ghats where public cremations take place along the waters edge.
Day 9: Overnight train Varanasi to Agra It is possible this morning to take an optional dawn boat ride along the Ganges, when the city is bathed in the glow of the early morning and the pilgrims are practising the puja ceremony to the newly awaking sun.The rest of the day is free to explore more of this most fascinating of cities at your leisure, immersing yourself in the eclectic mayhem of the narrow streets and alleyways, a truly unforgettable experience and a incredible insight into the lives and cultures of traditional Indian life. The Alamgir Mosque is certainly worth a visit, showcasing a blend of Hindu and Mughal architecture or visit the Bharat Mata Temple which houses a large relief map showing the entire Indian subcontinent and Tibetan plateau. Alternatively spend some time in the shopping hotspots where silk sarees, carpets, wall hangings, stone inlay work and spices all compete for your attention. Late this afternoon we will transfer back to the railway station for the overnight sleeper train to Agra.
Day 10: Arrive Agra; Walk and Free time in Agra Once the capital of the mighty Mughal Empire, the city is littered with some of the country’s most opulent and iconic buildings, and the sandstone majesty of its imposing fort is no exception. Built by Emperor Akbar and then embellished by his grandson, Shah Jahan, the fort was once a great city, with palaces, mosques and halls all lying behind the protective embrace of 20m high walls. There will be some free time to wander the city, perhaps taking in the rich elegance of the exquisite Itimad-ud-Daulah, a 17th century tomb built for the Emperor Jehangir’s chief minister that mirrors the marble majesty of the more famous Taj Mahal (hence its rather apt title of ‘Baby Taj). There is also a possibility of paying a sunset visit to the Taj itself, prior to our visit tomorrow, to watch the setting rays of the sun casting a golden glow across its marble splendour (optional).
Day 11: Sunrise visit to Taj Mahal, visit Fatehpur Sikri. This morning we have an early start as we head for the iconic magnificence of one of the most universally recognised buildings on earth, and surely the greatest testament to love ever constructed. Built by the emperor Shah Jahan to honour the memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz, the building took some 22 years to complete and was once described by Rudyard Kipling as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’. Built of marble and decorated with the most exquisite inlay work, the Taj Mahal required the labour of 20,000 men and is estimated to have cost something in the region of 3 million rupees (at today’s prices that equates to around $70 million). Later this morning we will continue to the nearby abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, lying to the west of Agra and, for a brief time, the capital of the Mughals under Akbar the Great. Founded in 1569 it was deserted just 16 years later following the emperor’s death and today it remains a ghostly testament to the majesty and power of 16th century Mughal India. Visiting the site with a local guide we take in the splendour of its perfectly preserved imperial court and the grandeur of the 5-storey Panch Mahal. We will also see the courtyard and pachisi board, where the emperor played an Indian equivalent of chess, using slave girls as pieces. Perhaps the finest of all the city’s monuments though is the lotus shaped carved central pillar of the Diwan-i- Khas (Hall of Private Audience), a magnificently column of matchless proportions that supports the vaulted roof of Akbar’s old debating room.
Day 12: Train to Delhi; New Delhi Sightseeing In the afternoon we explore the colonial grandeur of New Delhi. The Indian capital has long been a phoenix, rising again and again out of its own ruins and is essentially a city divided in two: a magnificent living monument to the grandiose designs of the Mughals and the British. New Delhi was the creation of the British Raj of the 1930s and its streets are filled with a rich collection of the architectural creations of Edward Lutyens. Our tour this afternoon will include many of the sites of New Delhi and give us the opportunity to see for ourselves this vibrant city of bustling bazaars and historic sites. Following the broad expanse of the Rajpath (Kingsway), we will visit the towering memorial arch of the India Gate, a testament to the 90,000 Indian troops who lost their lives during WWI and the fighting along the Northwest Frontier during the early years of the 20th century. We will alsovisit the imposing buildings of the Indian Parliament, as well as the Mughal majesty of Humayun's Tomb, a 16th century mausoleum commissioned by the emperor's Persian born wife and considered by many to be one of the best examples of Mughal architecture in the country. Our final visit of the day will be to the towering Qutb Minar, a spectacular 13th century edifice made of sandstone and marble that towers some 73m above the city and heralded the final demise of the Hindu kings and the arrival of the Muslim sultans.
Day 13: Old Delhi sightseeing; afternoon free This morning we take a tour of Old Delhi by metro and cycle rickshaw. This old city, the former capital of the 17th century Mughal emperor Shan Jahan, is a magnificent fusion of grandiose architecture and vibrant chaos, centred around the Chandi Chowk Bazaar, an eclectic cacophony of noise, colour and deafening barter that is so essentially Indian. Our sightseeing takes in the spectacular Jami Masjid Mosque, the largest in India and Shah Jahan's magnificent swansong. Taking 14 years to complete, the mosque is a majestic structure, featuring four towers, three gateways and two towering minarets that stand some 40m high. Built from sandstone and marble its vast courtyard can hold upwards of 25,000 worshippers and from the top of the southern minaret you can get a clear view of the colonial designs of Edward Lutyens across the city. The afternoon is free to explore at your leisure.
Day 14: AM train to Kalka, then ‘Toy Train’ to Shimla Departing the Indian capital this morning we take a train to Kalka, just to the north of Chandigarh. From here we transfer to a narrow gauge track and continue to Shimla on the remarkable ‘Toy Train’. Climbing from the plains below, the train negotiates a meandering journey of some 93km, ascending over 1600m towards the cooling heights of the old British hill station. The journey takes us through an incredible 103 tunnels and past some of the most scenic landscapes in the region, before reaching the town itself, stretched out along a crescent shaped ridge, its alpine style houses shaded beneath dense forests of fir.
Day 15: In Shimla With a full day in Shimla we have an opportunity to explore this beautiful setting further, first with an orientation tour of the town, taking in some of its colonial ambience. The opening of the Kalka-Shimla railway at the turn of the 20th century allowed the well to do families of the Raj to escape the heat of Calcutta and Delhi and spend the hot summer months amongst the cool landscapes of these verdant hills. We will take in the ageing charm of the Christ Church and Scandal Point, where the mock Tudor architecture presents a quite surreal imitation of Old England against the magnificent backdrop of the Himalayas. Whilst following the ridge there is an opportunity to visit the Viceregal Lodge, the former residence of the British viceroy and site of a number of important negotiations that preceded Indian independence. Various optional walks are also available today, such as the 2km walk up to the Jakhu or ‘monkey’ Temple, which provides some inspiring panoramic views. Dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman the site is, as you might imagine, inundated with monkeys, many who find no trouble in chancing their arm at mischief and mayhem, so be careful of bags, food and anything that isn’t firmly nailed down! Back in town, the bazaar is renowned for its selection of locally made woollen shawls, as well as a range of other locally produced handicrafts.
Day 16: Drive to Ambala for train to Amritsar Departing Shimla this morning we follow the train track as it winds its way down towards the town of Ambala, to connect with an afternoon train to Amritsar in the Northern Punjab. The holiest city of the Sikhs’, Amritsar was founded in 1577 and, in spite of extremist unrest and destructive invaders, it remains the spiritual centre of the Sikh religion, its Golden Temple its magnificent and serene centrepiece. After transferring to the hotel there may be an opportunity to visit this landmark monument this evening, to watch the reflective light of the moon playing across the tranquil waters that surround the main shrine, the Harmandir. The temple is home to the revered texts of the Sikh Holy Scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, and its gilded dome is covered in over 700kg of pure gold. A sumptuous fusion of Hindu and Islamic influences, the temple was the scene of the massacre of hundreds of Sikh protesters in 1984, when the Indian army acting on the orders of the then Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, evicted extremists from the temple, an act that led to the assassination of Indira Ghandi by Sikh bodyguards later that same year.
Day 17: Sightseeing in Amritsar; PM visit to Wagah Border This morning we will pay a visit to the Jalianwala Bagh, site of the notorious massacre under General Dyer in 1919, which led to 379 Sikhs being shot from point blank range by British troops. This wholly unprovoked attack on a peaceful demonstration led to Ghandi’s programme of civil disobedience and helped to galvanise India’s burgeoning independence movement. We also visit the Golden Temple, where we need to make sure that we remove our shoes, cover heads and wash our feet before entering. The temple itself is a surprisingly small building surrounded almost entirely by tanks of holy water in which the Sikh pilgrims bathe (the name of the town itself comes from the Amrit Sarovar – the Pool of Nectar). The atmosphere is one of incredible calm, with devotees taking their turn to pass through the main shrine, where there is a continuous and melodic recital (known as the Akhand Path) from the Guru Granth Sahib. There will be plenty of time here to wander the complex and soak up the rich atmosphere of this unique setting, before a late afternoon drive along the Great Trunk Road to the Wagah border, to witness the colourful spectacle of the changing of the guard. Each day this ritual is played out between the Indian and Pakistani border guards, when the flags are lowered at sunset, amidst much pomp and ceremony as each side tries to out-do the other. It is a quite charming example of the usually less than amicable rivalry between the two countries.
Day 18: Tour ends Amritsar Our tour ends this morning after breakfast.
Kolkata to Varanasi
More familiarly known as Calcutta, we visit historical sites, take time to wander in the flower market and enjoy fine views of the Ganges, known locally as the Hooghly River. We join the flow of Buddhist pilgrims travelling to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Continuing along the pilgrims' trail, our journey takes us to Varanasi where Hindu devotees purify themselves in the sacred waters of the Ganges.
Taj Mahal & Toy Trains
In Agra we spend time at the magnificent Taj Mahal and explore the preserved 'ghost city' of Fatehpur Sikri. From the thriving metropolis of Delhi we journey up into the mighty Himalaya, aboard a relic of the Raj, the narrow gauge 'Toy' train to the hill station of Shimla. Here, at the former British summer capital, we take in the fresh air and magnificent views. There are opportunities for walks or to wander in the warren-like bazaar.
Golden Temple & Wagah
Descending from the mountains we travel to the Punjab and the city of Amritsar, which owes its existence to the renowned Golden Temple - the holiest of Sikh shrines. To spend time in its marbled courtyards and shrines is a unique experience. From here it's just a short distance to the Pakistan border at Wagah where we watch the colourful (and noisy!) changing of the guard.
prices based on double occupancy land only, no air is included, prices vary on departure dates
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