A certain type of snobby, close-minded traveller is always ready to decry organised group holidays. This is just fine by me. Those travellers have wasted an hour working out how to get from their hotel in Jaipur to the Amber Palace, and are now queueing for tickets and about to join the almighty throng that surges through its courtyards and pleasure kiosks.
Nothing wrong with that – we've visited the Amber Palace too, though with much greater ease – but now we're down below in Amber, Jaipur's original settlement, and there's hardly a tourist around. It's just my little group of Luxury Gold fellow travellers, led by local guide Vineet. I would never otherwise have come here and, by the end of the afternoon, I'm very glad I have. Organised tours take you places you mightn't otherwise consider, and do so in the company of people who know what they're talking about, and are keen to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm.
Amber (sometimes called Amer), explains Vineet, was the capital of several Jaipur dynasties before the town was moved to Jaipur's current location in the early eighteenth century. It also long predates the famous Amber Fort that looms above, which was knocked up in the 1590s. Our first stop is a quiet temple, arrived at down a flight of steps into a sunken courtyard, that dates from the ninth century and inspired the town's name.
Ambikeswar Temple, dedicated to Shiva, is solemn and shadowy and feels even more ancient than it is, as if it has grown from the rock itself. We find three locals sitting around a Shiva stone, lighting oil lamps and incanting prayers, as other locals must have done for a thousand years. India is a land of hoary antiquity, and some things never seem to change at all despite the passing centuries.
There are supposedly 365 temples scattered through Amber, one for every day of the year – "or so the tour guides will tell you, anyway," says Vineet archly. The best is sixteenth-century Jagat Shiromani Temple yet, here in one of India's most touristed cities, we find its courtyard empty but for a woman in a pink sari sweeping up pigeon droppings with a twig broom.
An ash-daubed priest lurks in a niche inside, his face illuminated by flicking candles. Pigeons coo from the rafters, and carvings of bare-breasted ladies erupt from pillars. We've seen spectacular sights on this tour of northern India, from Emperor Humayun's tomb in Delhi to Agra's Taj Mahal, but this exquisitely beautiful temple will remain just as lodged in my mind.
The temple has outlooks across Amber's tumbledown houses to the Aravalli hills and their rust-red fortifications beyond. Down in the streets below, old courtyard haveli mansions, despite their parlous states, are lovely with stone carvings and ornate balconies. Two elephants chalked with colourful patterns lumber past. But we're even more startled at the step well, an inverted pyramid dug deep into the ground, daubed in yellow and pink and zigzagged with steps like an Escher drawing.
It's like nothing I've seen before and, if it weren't for my Luxury Gold journey, I might never have seen it at all. All those smug independent travellers, streaming down from Amber Fort, may disdain us as we clamber back onto our air-conditioned coach. I just smile out the window, and rejoice at my secret pleasures.
Luxury Gold's eight-day "Essence of India with Ranthambore" itinerary visits Delhi, Agra and Ranthambore National Park and ends in Jaipur. Highlights include the Taj Mahal and an Agra village experience as well as visits to Amber Fort and old Amber. Prices from $3595pp including accommodation, transport, VIP experiences and dining. Phone 1800 001 783, see luxurygoldvacations.com
The Luxury Gold group stays at Trident Hotel Jaipur, which sits in landscaped gardens just across the road from Man Sagar Lake, halfway between Jaipur and Amber. It's convenient for sightseeing but away from the city's frenetic pace, and has large rooms and a good restaurant. See tridenthotels.com
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Luxury Gold.