It's got to be every tour operator's worst nightmare: picking the activity to follow a visit to the Taj Mahal. What could ever top this wonder of the world, this building widely considered to be the world's most beautiful? Anything, surely, would be a major let-down.
On this particular visit to Agra, however, Australian-owned tour company APT has come up with a solution. After a private champagne lunch in a garden overlooking the world-famous marble mausoleum, our group is being given exclusive access to Kohinoor Jewellers, one of the oldest and most prestigious jewellery houses in India, dating back to the early 1800s. Which is entirely appropriate, considering the Taj Mahal has 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, jade and onyx, inlaid into it. And which is how I find myself draping a 500-year-old Mughal empire necklace, strung with nine emeralds and two rubies the size of $1 coins, around my neck.
The man who allows me to do this is Milind Mathur, a slim 40-something with a shy smile, whose family has been running this business in Agra for five generations. "With each generation, we've tried to add something to the business," says Mathur, the company's creative director, as he shows us more priceless pieces encrusted with sapphires, amethysts and diamonds. "Until now, for example, this work was all done by hand, but since my sister and I entered the business – well, the previous generation couldn't have even imagined the kind of technology we're working with now."
As part of our exclusive tour, Mathur takes us below ground to the small workshop where Kohinoor's unique jewellery is created, to show us what he's talking about. "It is a glamorous business," he says, as he unlocks the door to the workshop, "but there's a lot of hard work that goes into it."
Mathur shows us the sketchbooks in which he, his sister and his father, Ghanshyam Mathur, hand-draw the designs, which are then turned into technical 3D images using computer-aided design software. These then become wax moulds that are filled with liquid gold and silver, which is then filed, polished and, finally, set with precious stones.
Mathur walks us through the setting department, where men in navy blue pyjama suits sit at white desks, using tweezers to place tiny precious stones into earrings, rings and necklaces. It's mesmerising, watching this intricate work being done by hand. When we remark on the workers' precision, Mathur tells us that most of them have been here for at least 10 years. "They've been trained by their fathers, and them by their fathers, that's how the craft is passed down," he says.
It's soon time to head back upstairs, via a spin around Kohinoor's extraordinary collection of three-dimensional embroidered and precious-stone-encrusted tapestries by renowned textile artist Padmashri Shams. On our way out of the workshop, one of our group jokes about slipping a few small diamonds from one of the worker's desks into their pocket. "When you entered this building, you were entering a vault," says Mathur with a straight face, "the only escape routes are monitored."
And so they should be. Upstairs in the showroom, we're served cheese and olives and cold glasses of wine by men in white gloves, while being given the hard sell on exquisite pieces of jewellery worth more than my car. I don't doubt it when I'm told the gems are of the highest quality, but sadly, I can't afford even the cheapest of them. Still, after a morning spent at the gem-encrusted Taj Mahal, it feels like the perfect place to end the day.
APT's 17-day Spirit of India tour, which includes seven nights on the Deccan Odyssey, starts from $16,895 per person twin share. See aptouring.com.au
Singapore Airlines operates multiple daily flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and Mumbai, via Singapore. See singaporeair.com
Nina Karnikowski was a guest of APT.