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Tuesday, 15 January 2013


The picturesque and travel writing.
The pursuit of the picturesque is truly over.  You might discover a little known temple or a magnificent ruin - a perfect place for a picnic - but rest assured on your next visit there will be a tourist bus and a mass of people.  Contemplating architecture in silent solitude is a thing of the past.

Right: The picturesque at its height: 'Portugal and Madeira', by Sacheverell Sitwell [1954]. 

Travel and genre writers such as Robert Byron 'The Road to Oxiana', Bruce Chatwin 'In Patagonia', Patrick Leigh-Fermor 'Mani' and Roderick Cameron 'Shadows of India' never had to contend with the vast changes of contemporary life.

Rory Cameron - a writer and aesthete with impeccable taste - was a friend whose book 'Shadows from India' [1958], and the photographs he took, made me long for India before I first went.  

A writer, historian and journalist William Dalrymple (an admirer of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Bruce Chatwin) wrote 'Nine Lives, In Search of the Sacred in Modern India', preceded by the scintillating and charming Gita Mehta's  'A River Sutra' - an enchanting novel on similar themes.


On a recent trip to India I re-read 'Nine Lives' and, more to the point, The Age of Kali, 'Indian Travels and Encounters' [published in 1998]. This fascinating book is as relevant today as it was fourteen years ago in its perception of modern India - no holds barred - a must for any traveller to the subcontinent - do not be alarmed, change is inevitable - it is travel writing up-to-date.   

India has changed hugely and  so much the better. An Asian economic giant, its success means new roads, a growing and prosperous middle class and endeavours to alleviate poverty are increasing as a result.

The Taj Mahal, Agra, in its sparkling beauty, is the most romantic of all monuments, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  
In contrast to my last three visits when there were a few stragglers and ill-kept gardens - now very well maintained - and no picnics or lolling about on the lawns, the crowds are now regimented, the paths packed with people, shoulder to shoulder, chatting good-naturedly and taking photographs - the poses are highly professional [thanks to the movies and T.V.], vast numbers in festive mood but to enter the mausoleum is to be in Dante's Inferno.

The Taj from a distance is magical - with a light fog, the brilliant white marble changing to gold, the proportions seem impeccable, it has a refinement and purity of line like no other building.

New hotels have made sure that all their rooms have a view of this magnificent architectural phenomenon.  At The Oberoi Amarvilas - a most comfortable and luxurious hotel - the garden has a swimming pool at its centre, made of stone.  It is ambitious and a Disneyland interpretation of a Moghul garden.
The Statue of a do-gooder gentleman
 on the banks of the River Jumna at Agra

1 comment:

  1. Greetings from India!

    'Disneyland interpretation' is not kind but well-deserved. (Sour grapes. I can't afford to stay there)

    India has changed a lot even in the last 14 years, in ways that William Dalrymple could not have anticipated.


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