“Here are the two main things I’m excited about in India,” said Leo, our six-year-old. “Painting, and elephants.”
Leo and his nine-year-old sister, Stella, are both into art, and in the weeks leading up to our spring break trip, my husband, Dave, and I had told them we’d be visiting a miniature-painting studio in Rajasthan. But elephants — and specifically riding an elephant? No one is quite sure where that idea came from. Yet somehow, by the time we set off last March, there the elephants sat: kings of Leo’s imagination, and top of his India to-do list.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that in 2023, putting elephants to work as tourist vehicles isn’t seen as a great or even particularly acceptable thing to do, from an animal-welfare perspective. So when, about five days into our trip, the four of us arrived at Amber Fort outside Jaipur to find that the sorry, chained-up herd that used to carry visitors up to the 16th-century palace on the hill was nowhere to be seen, I breathed a secret sigh of relief.
Leo, however, was downcast. Our driver, Mr. Singh, could feel it; we all could. Singh, a mustachioed older gentleman in a beige uniform, drove us up to the palace gates instead, and in we all went. There was a Hindu festival that day, and a crowd of worshippers had gathered around a temple in the central courtyard. Over loudspeakers, a sermon reverberated off the fortress walls. Further inside the complex, we stopped to take a picture of the glittering Sheesh Mahal, or Mirror Palace. Nearby, we came across the hammam once used by the fort’s founder, Maharaja Man Singh, and, to the kids’ inevitable fascination, his latrine. We clambered up narrow stone staircases and along cool, dark passageways, at one point popping out in a turret where a family of gray langurs swung and leaped from side to side, and the sheer walls of the fort fell away to a patchwork of rooftops hundreds of feet below.
My mum read to me a lot when I was little, and some of the books I remember most clearly were about India. It wasn’t the stories or the characters that captured my imagination so much as a sensory impression of heat and light and color so intense, and so unfamiliar, they may as well have existed on a different planet.
On our way back down to meet Singh we passed a puppet show and a snake charmer, and by the time we were driving away from the palace, the elephant ride had been all but forgotten. But then, just as our thoughts were turning to lunch, a lumbering shape appeared on the road ahead. “Elephant!” Singh cried, speeding up to overtake the animal and pulling over onto the shoulder. Before we could say a word, he’d jumped out and begun shouting up at the two mahouts, who were taking the resplendent animal — its face and ears painted in bright festival colors, its tusks adorned with gold rings — from the celebrations at the fort back to the temple where it lived.
A thousand rupees (or around $12) later, Stella and Leo were sitting between the mahouts on the elephant’s back as it made its ponderous way along the road, tuk-tuks and Toyotas beeping and swerving, the sandy crenellations of Amber Fort receding into the background. Expressions of astonished glee lit up both kids’ faces. It was slightly insane, and utterly magical — which pretty much sums up our Rajasthan trip, and the experience of taking children to India as a whole.
I grew up in the English countryside, a place of immense beauty and persistently gray, gloomy weather. My mum read to me a lot when I was little, and some of the books I remember most clearly were about India. It wasn’t the stories or the characters that captured my imagination so much as a sensory impression of heat and light and color so intense, and so unfamiliar, they may as well have existed on a different planet. This land of peacocks and tigers, of ornate palaces and bejeweled saris, of mangoes and frangipani trees: Did it even really exist?
When I was 18 I decided to find out, and set off on a backpacking trip around India that was, in the 1990s at least, something of a rite of passage for British students. And though some pieces of the storybook picture did still exist, I found a reality that was even more compelling — one that lured me back in my mid-thirties, with Dave by my side this time, to spend three years working in Mumbai. After that we moved to New York City and, somehow, a decade went by. Then there I was, reading those same books about India to my own daughter. And that was when I realized: it was time Dave and I went back, and took Stella and Leo with us.
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Just because Dave and I have lived on the subcontinent doesn’t make it an obvious choice for a vacation, and news of our trip was met with everything from surprise to abject horror by the other parents we told. “Aren’t you worried they’ll get sick?” was a common reaction. “How long is the flight again?” was another. Well, whether you fly in to Mumbai or New Delhi, the journey from the U.S. is considerable, there’s no way to sugarcoat that, and the time difference is about as jet-lag-inducing as it gets. But if you pick the right tour operator, and the right hotels, once you arrive you’ll probably find yourselves more comfortable — and will almost certainly receive better service — than you would on a vacation back home.
We used a U.K.-based company called Wild Frontiers to book our trip; its founder, Jonny Bealby, is passionate about travel to less-visited parts of the world, and to India in particular. He designed a tour of Rajasthan that would include three of the northwestern state’s most iconic places — Jaipur, Udaipur, and Ranthambore National Park — as well as some of its most ravishing hotels.
“India is a fairy tale,” Bealby said. “The old heritage palaces give children this sense of wonder, this Disney-style experience. And Rajasthan, in particular, delivers all of that in real life.”
So we set off from New York City, flying through one night and into the next and finally looking down, some 16 hours later, to see Mumbai’s cacophony of high-rises, palm trees, and blue tarp roofs rising up through the midnight haze. As the kids dozed in the back of the taxi into town, I tried to make out familiar sights. But since my last visit, the city’s familiar layers of colonial, Art Deco, and contemporary architecture had been disrupted by a series of massive infrastructure projects (an entirely new subway system; 50 overpasses; a 14-mile coastal bridge), and some of my favorite parts of town were almost unrecognizable. I’d heard that India was modernizing at breakneck speed under the controversial leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and here was the evidence.
But some things can be relied on not to change, and as we entered the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in south Mumbai, a sense of reassurance immediately set in, as tangible as the scent of fresh jasmine wafting on the lobby’s cool, conditioned air.
This brings me to one of my golden rules of long-haul family travel. If you can, spend the first night or two at a hotel you don’t really need to leave. The Taj is perhaps the best example of the genre I can think of — a center of gravity for the city, where there’s so much going on, and such a strong sense of place, that you can stay put all day and still feel like you’ve had a quintessential Mumbai experience.
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The four of us slept till nearly midday the following morning. Yes, we felt disoriented and a little peculiar when we woke up. But then we opened the curtains and there was the soaring arch of the Gateway of India, right under our window. Black-and-yellow taxis beetled along Apollo Bunder, the road in front of the hotel. Behind them, a flock of pigeons flew in formation over the sparkling Arabian Sea.
Breakfast had wrapped up hours before, so we went straight down to the Taj’s palm-filled garden, where Dave and I soothed our spinning heads with coffee while the kids had the first of many mango lassis, then jumped right in the pool.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that we struck out into the city, setting off around south Mumbai on an e-carriage tour. Battery-powered versions of the vehicles known as victorias were brought in a couple of years ago, after the long-suffering horses that pulled tourists through the chaotic streets were banned. Some new carriages come with a hilarious range of horselike sound effects, and Stella and Leo sat there in stitches as we neighed and clip-clopped our way past the evening crowds on Marine Drive, and in front of the fantastically Gothic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, lit up like Caesars Palace in the twilight.
Before heading back to the Taj, we decided to pick up some climate-appropriate clothes for the kids (we visited in March, when temperatures normally hover around the low nineties). At Fabindia, a cotton emporium in the Kala Ghoda district, Leo picked out a pair of block-printed pajamas; Stella chose an embellished full-length skirt called a lehenga, a pink sari blouse with mirror work, and a matching dupatta, or scarf.
She changed into her princess outfit the minute we got back to our room, taking a spin in front of the mirror and asking, “Can I wear this again tomorrow?”
From Mumbai we took a short flight to Udaipur: the former seat of the Mewar kingdom, once one of the wealthiest of Rajasthan’s 22 princely states. This is where we met Singh, our driver, for the first time — he picked us up at the airport and drove us to a jetty on Lake Pichola, where we were taken by boat to our hotel, Oberoi Udaivilas. Dave and I had been to Udaipur before, but setting out across the water that day, the Aravalli Hills undulating away on all sides, palaces casting dramatic shadows from the shore, felt like stepping into a storybook all over again.
Peacocks arrange themselves decoratively among bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers, against postcard views of the lake.
And then we arrived at the Udaivilas. It’s kind of hard to put into words the welcome we were given there; we may still be trying to process it. Let’s just say there was a camel involved. And a shower of rose petals. And a troupe of dancers in dazzling, rainbow-colored clothes, accompanied by a brass band. Stella was perfectly dressed for the occasion in her Fabindia lehenga and blouse: she joined right in with the dancing, and picked up the steps and the twirling hand movements in minutes.
We spent the rest of the day at the Udaivilas, just soaking in the splendor of it all. The property sits on 30 acres lining the shore of Lake Pichola — land that was once the hunting ground of the maharana, or king, of Mewar, and is now rambling hotel garden. Unlike many of Rajasthan’s iconic hotels, the Udaivilas is relatively new, having opened in 2002. Its design, however, is unapologetically regal. (“We are building a palace,” said P.R.S. Oberoi, then chairman of the company, back when it was under construction.) Mewari-style domes and cupolas are reflected in brightly tiled pools, mirrored mosaics twinkle away from the walls, and peacocks arrange themselves decoratively among bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers, against postcard views of the lake.
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Reluctant as we were to leave the grounds the next morning, it was time to try our hand at miniature painting. Singh drove us to a store called Shyam Arts, where a master miniaturist named Deepak Sharma was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a second-floor studio; on a low table in front of him were two small, unbelievably detailed paintings of a couple dancing on lotus flowers. As we all strained to make out the (imperceptible) brush marks, Hemendra Pujari, the owner, explained that each picture would take the painter more than a month to finish.
“See this brush? It ends in a single hair,” Pujari said, holding one out for the kids to inspect. Squirrel fur is preferred because of its softness, he went on. But being followers of Jainism, which prohibits harming living beings of any kind, the artists take great pains to procure their bristles in a humane fashion, slowly taming wild squirrels with peanuts before finally “giving them a haircut.”
Next, Pujari showed the kids how the miniaturists make their paints. “We go in search of the stones and we bring them home,” he explained. He picked a little rock out of a bowl. “This is sulfur,” he said. He dipped it in water and ground it against a tile. “See, it gives a beautiful yellow.” Next came red oxide to make orange, zinc for white, and a form of graphite to make black.
“Stella, can you guess what this yellow paint comes from?” The kids made various guesses, mostly involving plants and flowers. “This is the pee of cows,” Pujari announced, to a chorus of shrieks and giggles. “This recipe was kept secret for generations, especially from girls, who would pass along secrets to other families when they got married.”
Sharma produced paper and a conventional set of paints and sat with the kids as they practiced their own miniatures of elephants, camels, and horses. As they worked, Dave and I drank masala chai from porcelain cups and perused the store’s trove of new and antique miniatures. Not for the last time on this trip, we had to restrain ourselves from buying too much.
You know how people talk about getting into a routine on vacation, as in: “We quickly fell into a rhythm of mornings at the pool followed by afternoons at the beach”? Well, India was nothing like that. Every day we did something so different, so intense, so unlike anything we could ever do at home, that when it was time to transfer to a different hotel we would all fall into Singh’s car in a heap, grateful for the chance to sit and do nothing for a few hours.
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Except, this being India, those drives were an adventure in themselves. Singh, our daring pilot, dodged the obligatory cows on the road with gusto, and the pageant of extravagantly decorated Tata trucks — their hand-painted horn ok please! signs a reminder that in a part of the world as densely populated as this, you sometimes need to shout in order to be heard. We wound around camel carts driven by men in brightly colored turbans; herds of hardy-looking sheep and goats; and tractors carrying loads of hay so preposterously large that no one was the least bit surprised when we drove past several that had spilled all over the highway.
Our next stop was Jaipur, the Pink City founded by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1727. (The capital was actually founded at Amber Fort, where the kids rode the elephant, but moved to its current location after a few centuries.) Though today it is just as noisy and traffic-clogged as any other Asian metropolis, remnants of its royal past are everywhere you look, and to me, the Old City is one of India’s most evocative places.
The maharajahs were dethroned soon after India became independent from Britain in 1947, but their families still command a high profile in Rajasthan, and in Jaipur, a handsome young king named Padmanabh Singh recently came of age. His youthful, jet-setting profile feels like an expression of changes afoot across the city, where the tradition of craftsmanship established by Jai Singh II and his successors is today attracting a creative crowd from around the world.
We’d seen kingfishers flying over a lake, vultures, parakeets, and a crocodile basking on a wall. But had we seen a tiger? We had not.
Our hotel, Rajmahal Palace RAAS, was a perfect example of that fusion of old and new. Once the home of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh and his glamorous wife, Maharani Gayatri Devi, this pink Art Deco structure has been updated with modern, maximalist wallpapers and other cool design touches, and its restaurant, 51 Shades of Pink, is one of the Jaipur in-crowd’s favorite lunch spots. It also has a delightful pool surrounded by mango trees and pink stucco walls. There, the four of us would cool off between excursions and drink fresh lime sodas in our bathrobes like we had cameo roles in a Wes Anderson film.
Shopping is a big deal in Jaipur, so one afternoon we took Stella and Leo on a retail tour, bopping between traditional bazaars and high-end boutiques. In the shocking-pink upstairs atelier at the Gem Palace, the kids pulled open drawer after drawer of jewels in extravagant shapes and sizes, and tried on candy-colored pieces shaped like birds, frogs, and muskmelons.
We all bought matching pajamas at the flagship of Anokhi, the iconic block-printing label that brought Indian textiles to the West in the 1970s. Later, in a trawl of Johari Bazaar, the kids each chose a pair of jutti, or embroidered slippers. Leo’s were gold with the toes that curl all the way round, Aladdin-style, and he insisted on wearing them right out of the store.
“Today, we are going full tigering,” announced Ashlesh Sharma, making a pumping gesture with his fist. Sharma was our guide in Ranthambore National Park, a reserve in eastern Rajasthan that’s home to 80 or so big cats and is seen as one of the best places to see tigers in the wild. Needless to say, this part of the trip had been a big selling point for Stella and Leo, and excitement had been running high when we’d arrived at Suján Sher Bagh the previous day. The lodge was one of the first to open near Ranthambore, and its owners, Jaisal and Anjali Singh — and Jaisal’s father Tejbir before them — are considered pioneers in the field of conservation tourism. Their property is made up of 12 elegant, safari-tent-style accommodations tucked away in the deciduous trees. Ours, the family suite, was made up of two tents arranged around a pool; each had a mosquito-netted four-poster bed and a bathroom with a big brass tub.
At first light that morning we’d met Sharma and our driver, and set out on a game drive. In the little Field Books we’d each found next to our beds, we checked off spotted deer and sambar deer, a mongoose and a golden jackal. We’d seen kingfishers flying over a lake, vultures, parakeets, and a crocodile basking on a wall. But had we seen a tiger? We had not.
So there we all were in the jeep again that afternoon, and Sharma’s sense of urgency was clear. This would be our last safari, and we were going to find a tiger if it was the last thing we did. This time there would be no stopping to look at birds or other less exciting species, no pausing to take photos of interesting trees or of the 10th-century fortifications that pop up scenically among Ranthambore’s lakes and woodlands. We were in full tigering mode, and it was time to get serious.
Finally, after about an hour of bumping over rocks and rattling through undergrowth, we turned a corner to find a group of jeeps pulled up in a row, passengers all pointing their iPhones, binoculars, and zoom lenses in one direction. We stopped, frantically adjusted our binoculars, and finally made out the shank of a young male, his stripes an incredibly effective camouflage against the light ocher soil and the dark, slender trunks of the dhok trees. It wasn’t quite the sighting of our dreams, but we had seen a tiger, and that was the main thing.
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Everyone seemed exhilarated and a little relieved when, a few minutes later, we pulled over and stopped for cookies and masala chai in the back of the jeep. As we ate, Sharma told us he was born in Ranthambore, in a village that was relocated when the area was declared a national park in 1981. “At that time it was pure jungle life — no electricity, no schools,” he said. One day, Sharma and his father had been walking through the forest when they came upon a tiger. (The kids paused snack consumption mid-mouthful at this point.) “We hid behind a tree,” he said. “The tiger knew we were there, but it didn’t attack. I was seven and a half years old.”
There was a silence as we all absorbed the fact that Sharma had been within feet of a wild tiger, unarmed and unprotected, when he was just a few months older than Leo. I asked how his village had felt about leaving Ranthambore. “The old people didn’t want to leave the forest,” Sharma said. “But the young people saw the future.”
It was time for our final palace, and the one that felt like the most up-to-date expression of Rajasthan’s aesthetic identity. About an hour’s drive from Ranthambore, Six Senses Fort Barwara is a dazzling concoction of new and old that rises up from a village overlooking a lake. At its heart lie three relatively small original structures, the oldest of which — the Kharbuja Mahal, or Muskmelon Palace — dates back to the 14th century. Around these a monumental new resort has been created that, while in sync with the fort’s existing architecture, is brimming with modern-day glamour.
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Soon after Fort Barwara opened in 2021, a high-profile Bollywood wedding took place there, and our fellow guests channeled a similar vibe: Mumbai-Delhi types floated around, lounging by the pool in Western-style designer clothes and taking selfies on their phones. The design felt fashionable, too, with playful doorknobs and room signs by the Jaipur studio ASA, and stylishly packaged homegrown brands in the mini-bar.
I wanted to find out more about Fort Barwara’s origins, so we took a tour with the experience host Kunal Bhatt. He explained that the original palace was built by the Chauhan dynasty, who ruled these lands 700 years ago. A later family put up massive wooden gates — now used as the hotel’s back entrance — and studded them with hundreds of sharp metal spikes in order to fend off elephant incursions.
We toured the Shikar Bhuj, a tower once used for shooting tigers and now a dining space. The Zenana Mahal, or Palace of the Queens, was where female members of the royal family would live, cloistered away from the rest of the world. Today this ornate 30,000-square-foot structure is home to the Six Senses Spa.
I looked at the two little bodies fidgeting and fighting to keep their eyes closed beside me, and thought of all they’d take home from this trip: the sense of perspective, and of wonder. And I hoped, more than anything, that they would carry those things with them always.
Dave and I each spent a much-needed 90 minutes in this hushed, temple-like space, at the hands of a supremely gifted masseuse from Kerala. The next morning I climbed the 650 steps to a nearby temple; later, a villager in a white turban, kurta (tunic), and dhoti (loincloth) came to teach the kids how to throw clay pots on a stone wheel shaped like an enormous spinning top, which he stuck in the ground and turned with his hands.
That evening, as the sun was beginning to set, the four of us took a family yoga class in a pavilion on the roof of the fort. Rina Bharati, our patient instructor, showed Leo and Stella how to pose like cats, cobras, and (downward-facing) dogs. At the end of the session, we all sat cross-legged in sukhasana, or easy pose, while she played a quartet of brass and crystal singing bowls. Out rang the vibrations, filling our pavilion with hypnotic waves of sound that extended — or so it seemed — far across the fields and rooftops below.
I thought back to my first visit to Rajasthan as an 18-year-old backpacker, about how much had changed in my life since then, and how much change had taken place in India, too. I remembered all the curiosity I’d had about the world at that age — and how little real knowledge. I looked at the two little bodies fidgeting and fighting to keep their eyes closed beside me, and thought of all they’d take home from this trip: the sense of perspective, and of wonder. And I hoped, more than anything, that they would carry those things with them always.
Plan a Trip to Rajasthan With the Kids
Taj Mahal Palace: The original Taj hotel has an unrivaled location, iconic architecture, and more amenities than you’ll ever need — but it’s the scene that really sets the place apart. Ask the concierge to book an e-carriage tour of the city’s historic southern district for a low-impact way to see the sights. Doubles from $421.
Fabindia: This cotton emporium in the Kala Ghoda neighborhood is a must-visit for souvenirs and climate-appropriate clothing.
The Oberoi Udaivilas: A perennial reader favorite, and with good reason: the design and lakefront setting are spectacular, and the service is outstanding.
The Leela Palace: Our dinner at the hotel’s Sheesh Mahal restaurant, which overlooks Lake Pichola and serves a menu of classic Indian dishes, was fabulous.
Ganesh Emporium: A mazelike town house stocked to the rafters with vintage textiles, crafts, and artworks. The founder’s son, Vipul Shah, has an upstairs boutique selling contemporary women’s wear made from traditional Rajasthani fabrics.
Shahpura Bagh: Perfect for breaking up the drive between Udaipur and Jaipur, this characterful 11-room retreat, once a royal palace, is still run by the former maharajah and his family.
Rajmahal Palace RAAS: This pink Art Deco palace was home to generations of Jaipur royalty; today, it’s a stylish 13-room hotel. We stayed in the QEII Suite, where the British monarch slept on her 1961 visit.
Villa Palladio: A jewel box of a hotel on the outskirts of the city, opened in 2022 by the Swiss-Dutch duo behind Bar Palladio. Guests can get a ride into town in the hotel’s adorable red vintage car.
Bar Palladio: The blue-and-white interiors of this glamorous restaurant and lounge, located in the garden of the Hotel Narain Niwas Palace, have become Instagram-famous — and the reality more than lives up to the hype.
The Johri: This chic five-room hotel in the heart of buzzing Johari Bazaar has a photogenic cocktail bar and a restaurant serving organic, seasonal vegetarian food.
Anokhi: If you’ve ever admired someone wearing a block-printed cotton dress from India, chances are it was made by this groundbreaking label. Anokhi’s Jaipur flagship is the place to stock up on clothing and home textiles.
The Gem Palace: Don’t even think about leaving Jaipur without visiting this celebrated jewelry store, which has been in the same family since 1852. You’ll find antique and traditional pieces on the ground floor; the second-floor atelier carries more modern styles.
Suján Sher Bagh: There’s something special about this 12-suite safari-style lodge, from which guests can take tiger-spotting excursions in the nearby national park. Our butler, Samandar Singh, was one of the kindest, most gracious staffers I’ve encountered in a hotel.
Six Senses Fort Barwara: The 2021 launch of this resort in an updated 14th-century palace was big news in India and beyond. The setting is like something from a fairy tale, but the 48 suites are fresh and contemporary — and, this being a Six Senses, the wellness programming is next-level.
The Leela Palace New Delhi: If you decide to fly in or out of the Indian capital, I recommend this plush hotel in the leafy Chanakyapuri district. You’ll be near many of the city’s monuments, but the property’s luxe guest rooms and seamless service give it the feel of an oasis.
How to Book
Wild Frontiers: This India specialist can help custom-build a family-friendly itinerary that includes miniature painting in Udaipur and other immersive activities.
A version of this story first appeared in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “I Dream of India”