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India’s Gold Stars: Be enchanted by everything from a 24-carat temple to a mountain retreat with mesmerizing views

As early days go, this one will be hard to beat. I’m in Amritsar, Northern India – on a farm where I wear a turban after milking the cows. I am then taken to the Golden Temple, a sacred Sikh shrine with a marble facade dripping with 24 carat gold.

At night, it shimmers, glows and floats majestically in a pond as its reflection glistens in the water. During the day, the temple takes on a calm, almost ethereal tone.

Furthermore, this 420-year-old temple houses the largest kitchen in the world. On the ground floor, volunteers chop garlic and onions, on the floor above they stir steaming vats of dahl, and upstairs there is a chapatti-making assembly line where I help roll the dough into thin circles.

Around 100,000 people are fed here every day because Sikhs believe that no one should go hungry. It is classy and brilliant.

India has a population of 1.4 billion (the second highest in the world) and because a trip here can be a culture shock, many vacationers prefer to take a guided tour.

Jo Kessel visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar (pictured), which she describes as “a sacred Sikh shrine with a marble facade dripping with 24-karat gold.”

I took one such 10-day tour of northern India with small-group specialist Jules Verne, whose routes take in lesser-known places and promise “authentic travel with a twist.” The average group size is around 20 people (although we only have eight people). We never feel “guided” but are accompanied by locals who show us around and give us insight. With any luck, they’ll even take us to a Bollywood film set.

The Punjab city of Amritsar has recently undergone a makeover, with shiny new pedestrianized market streets stretching from the temple. But it is still haunted by its history. Bullet marks on walls show where the British Raj massacred thousands of innocent civilians in 1919.

And its siege in 1984 led to hundreds of deaths and the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. However, the region’s darkest moments occurred after the British partition of the country in 1947.

It created Pakistan – Amritsar is only thirty kilometers from the border – and led to the slaughter of an estimated two million displaced Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Their story is told in graphic, disturbing detail at the city’s Partition Museum, and our guide Jagroopsingh shares his thoughts. “Imagine the superpower that India would be today if Pakistan and Bangladesh were also included,” he says.

Jo visits the India-Pakistan border in Wagah to attend the daily closing ceremony.  Held in a packed stadium with a capacity of 30,000 spectators, it is a frenetic celebration with soldiers marching, high kicking and shaking hands.  Pictured: Indian Border Force personnel during such a ceremony

Jo visits the India-Pakistan border in Wagah to attend the daily border closing ceremony. Held in a packed 30,000-capacity stadium, it is a frenetic festival where soldiers march, high-kick and shake hands. Pictured: Indian Border Force personnel during such a ceremony

Jo visits Amritsar, Dharamshala and Shimla before ending with a local train ride to Delhi

Jo visits Amritsar, Dharamshala and Shimla before ending with a local train ride to Delhi

Today there is peace. We visit the India-Pakistan border in Wagah to attend the daily closing ceremony. Held in a packed stadium with a capacity of 30,000 spectators, it is a frenetic celebration with soldiers marching, high kicking and shaking hands.

After a few nights in Amritsar, we set off for the foothills of the Himalayas in a convoy of three white Toyotas.

There are no traffic regulations; Instead, it’s an annoying, frantic rush of honking, swerving rickshaws and trucks. India has enormous distances to cover, so prepare for long, bumpy journeys – and cows.

They are considered sacred, move freely and pose a constant danger. “If you kill one, even by accident, I will be hunted down and beaten,” says our driver Vinod as he patiently waits for one to cross the road. Our journey is broken up by several overnight stays, including one in India’s first private forest reserve, Kikar Lodge. Leopards, jungle cats and antelopes call this place home and we hope to see them on a jeep safari – but if they turn out to be shy, we’d rather enjoy a sunset under the stars.

Jo travels to the hill station of Shimla (pictured),

Jo travels to the hill station of Shimla (pictured), “where the British Raj once escaped the summer heat”.

Jo says Shimla was

Jo says Shimla was “a small town of 100 people” when the British Raj discovered it in 1815, but today it has a population of 200,000 and lots of monkeys (above).

The next day we got our first glimpse of the Himalayan hills in the Kangra Valley, where the exiled Dalai Lama has created his own piece of Tibet. We visit his monastery in Dharamshala and find a large gathering of Buddhist monks having a heated discussion about something.

The higher we climb, the bigger the mountains become. We acclimatise for a few nights at the Rakkh Resort in Palampur – a 1,300 meter high retreat that offers yoga, meditation and an early morning hike through the village’s ten hectare tea plantation. Their unique Kangra blend is available at the hotel and the cup of coffee I make in my room is delicious – fragrant and delicate.

Another 900 meters of altitude brings us to the Taj Theog Resort, where the air is fresh and clear and the views are hypnotic. The steep slopes behind are dotted with rice paddies, while the higher peaks beyond are covered in snow. It’s an impressive, energetic view that you can’t get enough of.

This is our starting point to explore the hill station of Shimla, where the British once escaped the summer heat. When they found it in 1815, it was a small town of 100 people. It now has a population of 200,000 animals (with almost as many pesky langurs) and a bold ban on plastic and smoking.

The crumbling pastel-colored houses cling precariously to the hillsides and several colonial buildings still stand, including the Viceregal Lodge, where Lord Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, once lived. The interior is beautiful, with ornate chandeliers and spiral staircases made of dark Burmese wood. Shockingly, the desk where the divider was placed is still in place.

Pictured: one of the rooms at the Rakkh resort in the Himalayas, where Jo lives.  She says it's a

Pictured: one of the rooms at the Rakkh resort in the Himalayas, where Jo lives. She says it’s a “1,400-foot retreat that offers yoga, meditation and an early morning tour of the local village’s ten-acre tea plantation.”

The trip ends with a local train ride to Delhi, where we get an insight into life in India’s capital on a comprehensive tour. We admire the red and white architecture of the Mughal era, learn the art of paper cutting and make perfume. And you can try the local Punjabi specialty “Kulcha”, India’s answer to a Cornish pie: warm bread filled with meat, cheese or vegetables, served with sweet chutney.

Best of all, a pedicab ride through the noisy alleyways of the old city, inhaling the intoxicating smell of incense as we pass stalls selling saris and street food.

Traveling through India is not relaxing. It’s intense, but it’s a party. For body and soul.

TRAVEL FACTS

An 11-day Sikhs & Exiles small-group tour with Jules Verne costs from £2,195 per person, including flights, accommodation, some meals, guides and transfers (see vjv.com or call 0203 553 3722).

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