AN EXTRAORDINARY VISIT TO INDIA
By William Tomicki

I knew the Business Class Malaysia Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Mumbai via Taipei and Kuala Lumpur was going to be different the moment the route map displayed for the first time in what direction and how far Makkah (Mecca) is. On this 20-hour westbound journey across the international date line Makkah is usually off to the right and about 9000 kilometers away according to the arrow that continually reminds passengers. Things are different too because the flight attendants are slim and pretty and in traditional batik floral dresses and they smile a lot as they bring you hot towels, tea and juices. Their shining black hair is smoothly pulled back into a bun as it has been for centuries. The girls are graceful and demure in their pink and violet kebalas, the flattering tunic top and long skirt that is so traditionally Malaysian. It is ironic that on this fine airline state-owned by a Muslim country the utensils are proper stainless knives and forks, not the plastic junk we get on our paranoid airlines. The food and drink are excellent and the time passes pleasantly in a haze of Sauvignon Blanc, movies, and dozing.

I am off on a three week adventure to India in search of the sport of elephant polo. At my side is my dazzling wife of 39 years who has agreed to make the journey because I promised her the Taj Mahal on our anniversary which will occur towards the end of the trip. She has agreed to chronicle her aging husband atop a tusker swinging a mallet if we are lucky enough to find elephant polo alive and well. She has also come along for the ride because she has heard the shopping in India is phenomenal. More on this later.

I am not a stranger to the sport of polo, having watched it as a boy in Oakbrook, Illinois, young man on Long Island and as an adult in Santa Barbara. But my brand of polo has been on fleet-footed ponies in the tradition of the Persian game that originated long ago. The great Winston Churchill was fond of saying “A polo handicap is your passport to the world.” He may well have been right, for today the regal game of polo is enthusiastically played in 48 countries on five continents. If you know the ins and outs of polo, it is said you have an instant entrée to elite circles in many of the planet’s most fashionable cities.

“Let other people play other things – the king of games is still the game of kings.” This verse is inscribed on a stone tablet next to a polo ground in Gilgit, north of Kashmir, near the fabled silk route from China to the West. In one ancient sentence it epitomises the feelings of polo players today. Polo is arguably one of the most complex games in the world. The precise origin of polo is obscure and undocumented with ample evidence of the game's regal place in the history of Asia. No one knows where or when stick first met ball after the horse was domesticated by the ancient Iranian (Aryan) tribes of Central Asia before their migration to the Iranian plateau. It seems likely that as the use of light cavalry spread throughout the Iranian plateau, Asia Minor, China and the Indian sub-continent so did this rugged game on horse back. Many scholars believe that polo originated among the Iranian tribes sometime before Darius the Great (521-485 BCE) and his cavalry forged the Second Iranian Empire. Certainly it is Persian literature and art which give us the richest accounts of polo in antiquity. Elephant polo is an entirely different matter. The World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) was formed in 1982 at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in the Royal Chitwan National Park in southwest Nepal. The first games were played on a grass airfield in Meghauly which is located just on the edge of the National Park. The co-founders, James Manclark, a Scottish landowner, and former Olympic tobogganer Jim Edwards, owner of Tiger Tops, came up with the idea in a bar in St. Moritz Switzerland, where they are both members of the Cresta Club. Elephant polo was first played in India around the turn of the 20th century by members of the British aristocracy. WEPA is the first and paramount organization in modern times to host the sport. The first games were played with a soccer ball, but after finding that elephants like to smash the balls, the soccer ball was replaced with a standard polo ball. The sticks are made of bamboo and have a standard polo mallet on the end. The length of the stick depends on the size of the elephant - anywhere from 5 to 12 feet. The rules of the game are similar to horse polo, but the pitch is 3/4 length (because of the slower speed of the elephants) and there are some necessary additions - for instance, it is a penalty for an elephant to lie down in front of the goal line. Players are secured in rope harnesses, with a rope across their thighs and rope stirrups. The game will stop if a player's harness becomes too loose and there is a danger of the player falling off. Players have fallen off elephants only a few times in WEPA's 20-year history. The primary difference between horse and elephant polo, besides the substitution of an elephant for a horse, is that the elephants are "driven" by their trainers, called "mahouts." The mahouts have generally worked with the elephant for many years and the elephants respond quickly to the mahouts signals and commands. The mahout communicates with the elephant using verbal commands and by applying pressure to the back of the elephant's ears with their feet. The player's responsibility is to let the mahout know where to go, how fast, when to stop, etc. Most of the mahouts and all of the elephants only understand Nepali, so the communication is difficult at times. The professional players tend to learn some basic Nepali to help with communication on the pitch.

Entering Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, we passed myriad mosques, monuments, unfolding skyscrapers and miles of smog-belching traffic. Kuala Lumpur spread out before us like a patchwork of the ancient and the emerging, with plentiful signs of Asia’s economic boom seen in soaring skyscrapers that share space alongside ancient monuments to achievements past. Traffic stretched even further than our eyes could take in, with an overwhelming presence of cabs and sedans bleating and beating their way into the city’s heart, giving us time to glimpse “KL’s” colonial history, as embodied by the Tudor-style buildings that intermittently dot the corners. Passing the impressively ornate Arabesque designs of Kuala Lumpur’s Railway Station, we approached the city’s commercial district, which has provided the city’s 1.5 million citizens with arts, crafts, street performances and goods both traditional and bootlegged from Nike. The market is crammed with arts both exotic and graceful to the Western eye. My wife and I watched a show of shadow puppets as they flitted like whisps of smoke across a silky scrim. We also watched a demonstration of ancient Thai dance and glass blowing, while the din of traditional gamelan music and fortune tellers soothed the many kite artists and portrait and batik painters.

Kindly older women offered us “very good price sir,” while we bounded outside for a quick drive towards some of the world’s largest buildings, the elaborate Petronas Towers. Kuala Lumpur is no third-world slum city, but a sophisticated multi-cultural capital (albeit it a smog-filled one) embodying both the future direction of Asia as well as a colorful past representing the merger of Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures: flamboyant candle dances, kite-flying, top-spinning and artisan craftsmanship are abundant and in Kuala Lumpur, surrounded by green serrated hills where the Klang and Gombak rivers elegantly merge, all are open to the world traveler’s eyes. With all there is to explore in Kuala Lumpur, we had to move on still, as the Taj Mahal and our search for elephants awaited us in India.

As we drove to the airport, our cab driver explained that the elephant is venerated in local lore for its smarts, compassion and honor, typified in the true story of a Teluk Anson bull elephant who sacrificed his life, standing ground in the path of an oncoming train to save his sizeable herd. The British colonialists even erected a monument to his sacrifice on the spot, with his skull on prominent display at the Kuala Lumpur National Museum. Widely used in royal processions and as transportation, the relatively docile cooperation of the animal made it a fantastic, yet practical worker. The Malays mastered the art of elephant taming and it believed that trained elephants and their mahouts were exported to India from Malaysia by sea, although today Malaysian elephants are only found in the wild, their training and cultivation having been eventually mastered by their sub-continental neighbors. Within mere miles of bustling Kuala Lumpur, dozens of options exist to view endangered elephants in the wild or in sanctuaries and camps.

Although the word “small” rarely comes to mind when discussing the largest land animals on the planet, Asian elephants are known for a slightly more diminutive frame than that of their African relatives. Malaysia is one of the few places on earth with Pygmy elephants, an even smaller, more docile and cuter variety. Standing at about five to six feet tall when fully grown, they are the closest thing to Disney’s Dumbo that an adventurer can witness and are native to Borneo and other outer Malaysian islands. The elephant holds a special place in the heart of Malaysians, and Pahang, its biggest state, is represented by the black elephant, its state seal most noticeable for the massive crossed tusks that look like Islamic swords covering a ceremonial spear. But no one whom I asked in all of Kuala Lumpur knew anything about riding elephants and playing polo. In fact, they viewed me with bemused suspicion when I raised the subject. So off we went to Mumbai.

Nothing prepares you for the sensory assault Indian delivers, the moist hot air filled with irresistible scents, sounds, sights and textures. There is a constant flow of humanity that can be overwhelming, a constant carnival of beggars, cows, camels, merchants, children, snake charmers, holy men and sari-clad women all vying for your attention. This is the kaleidoscope of Indian’s vitality. Mixed with the noise, luxury and poverty, incense, curry, and hair-raising speed of buses and taxis, ringing bicycle bells, itinerant sacred cows, tourist-packed rickshaws, this all combines into an experience that no visitors ever forgets. It is a very personal encounter, India, and no one remains unaffected.

Mumbai has the world’s second largest population and upon a first visit to the city formerly known as Bombay it is easy to think that all of India’s 1,080,000,000 citizens are crammed into its endless streets and lanes. Mumbai is a coastal city of nearly 13 million, spanning the range from international and homegrown CEOs to hardworking expatriates, Mid-East refugees and highly organized slum-tenants, and just about everything in between from Mafia-employed eunuchs to world-worshipped film stars. Although visits to the Gateway of India, which has greeted traders, ambassadors and tourists for centuries, and the seemingly floating Haji Ali Shrine are highly recommended, Mumbai is a city best discovered walking block by block, sampling chai and samosas at its cafes, slyly passing rupee notes to imploring wide-eyed children and finding that locals love to chat almost as much as they like to sell you things. Taking a stroll along the Colaba waterway was one of my wife’s and my greatest pleasures and is among the best ways to take in all the heart that Mumbai offers. For the iron-hearted haggler in you, the Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market) can yield treasures from gorgeous silk paintings to unusual antiques, though the combination of crushing bodies, jabbering, aggressive salesmen and staggering heat proved too much for us. The bustling metropolis of Mumbai contains barely enough room for its citizens to move, sleep, and work, let alone for 12,000 pound pachyderms. Still, elephant lore and worship abound in the “Island City.” The legends of Bombay tell enchanting tales how elephants once had delicate wings, and their slow movements beneath such heavy bodies epitomize gracefulness, something quite easy to observe when coming face to face with one of these behemoths.

Two handsome white-starched gentlemen greet us upon exiting customs. One is Ravi, the other Sharma. They come from military families and are there to welcome me. They are embarrassed to admit they know nothing about elephants because they want “very much for me to be pleased by India” “No, sahib,” I am politely told. “There is no elephant polo here in Mumbai; you must go to Jaipur for that.” So after one night of fine rest and a delicious dinner at the Oberoi, we happily ensconce ourselves in the grand Tata Suite of the Taj Palace & Towers, a landmark since 1903, a Victorian extravagance that faces the Arabian Sea. Mark Twain called this hotel ”a bewitching place” and the Bombay elite use it as a sort of club, relishing its white marble halls, splendidly uniformed staff and balconied rooms that overlook the Gateway of India arched monument built by the British to welcome King George V. Our soft-spoken, tuxedo-clad butler, Vinay, attended to our every whim. We said hi to our old pal Pierce Brosnan who was sipping a cup of tea by the pool. Vinay could accomplish the impossible, but he could not produce an elephant. He insisted there were no elephants in Mumbai and that he was so genuinely sorry he could not find one for me.

Vinay explained that the bustling metropolis of Mumbai contains barely enough room for its millions of citizens to move, sleep, and work, let alone for 12,000-pound pachyderms. Still, as the “Island City” is one of the most famous and popular destinations in the country, elephant lore and worship abound. “Elephants bring good luck,” Vinay assured. In fact, when it comes to Hindu lore, no god is as beloved as the benign Ganesha, whose father Shiva, cut off his head and replaced it with the first one he saw, that of an elephant’s, to appease his slightly upset wife. Symbolizing patience, truth and devotion, the elephant has been revered and utilized for millennia and makes a natural fit for a god bearing the same virtues.

Vinay told me the month of August which brings one of India’s grandest festivals – and believe me, Indians know how to party – in celebration of Ganesha’s birth called Ganesh Chaturthi. Hundreds of thousands of people cram into thousands of different processions pushing gigantic, colorful representations of the elephant-headed deity, to immerse their bodies in the sacred waters of the sea. The ear-splitting noise of multiple sound systems, the smell of chapattis and humanity, and the crush of people is not for the meek.

Elephants played a significant part in the creation myths and daily worship of Hindus and figure prominently as well in Buddhism, the country’s other major religious export. Lately, concerned citizens have made an issue out of the rising number of elephants making their way into the concrete and glass shrouded borders of Mumbai, with an occasional elephant causing traffic mishaps and one recent case of a towering beast going berserk in the area of Ganesha’s own festival at the sound of firecrackers. Rented out for wedding ceremonies and festivals, it is the mahouts’ job to keep elephants in the imaginations and hearts of Mumbai residents but out of the fastlane.

Things started to look up when our affable hosts in Mumbai, Raymond Bickson and his beauteous wife, Connie, suggested a visit to Elephanta Island. Raymond is one of the world’s great hoteliers and heads Taj Hotels and Resorts. Surely, I assumed, we would find elephants there. So off we went on the Taj launch, accompanied by canapes and Champagne. Elephanta has the longest historical pedigree of any of Bombay’s seven islands, the capital city of the 1st century Silahara dynasty. This is a legendary tourist destination and holy site for its cave-carved temples brimming with Hindu statues and was so-named for the elephant sculptures guarding its landing, now housed in a Mumbai museum.
We went to see the caves, a mixture of Hindu and Jain temples with a few Buddhist monasteries. The Portuguese found a large stone elephant here and renamed the island for it. Then they took to using the island for target practice. One must keep an eye out for acquisitive monkeys here and the beautiful sculptured panels and majestic three-headed carving is magnificent. But we found no elephants on Elephanta Island.

But we leave Bombay without seeing one elephant. Off we head to Udaipur. A pleasant 1 and 1/2 hour flight with a full dinner and wine served and we land in Udaipur, often called “City of Dreams” and “Venice of the East.” We are met by a smiling Arun in lavender pagdi, or turban. Things are looking up when he tells me our hotel has two elephants on the grounds plus many horses. We are whisked off to the Lake Palace in a 1957 green and white Chevrolet, one of three classic American cars (right hand drive) the Lake Palace maintains in perfect condition for its pampered guests.
A quiet and romantic place, Udaipur was founded in 1559 and is filled with tranquil gardens and fantasy island palaces floating on shining lakes. The city has a bloody past since the 16th century due to resisting Moghul invaders, but today all is calm, a typical Rajput town with a fierce pride in its history. Udaipur still has a noble Maharanja (he was on the plane with us), descendant of the original founder, who lives in the City Palace. The is the House of Mewar, the world’s longest serving dynasty. You can visit the Maharanja’s antique collection of Rolls Royces (one turbaned man is charged with the responsibility of driving each car every day around the circular front driveway), and his large palace complex with museum.

We had come to Udaipur to check out the famed Taj Lake Palace Hotel which sits on shimmering Lake Picola, a fantasy in brilliant white marble. Udaipur is a most gorgeous city, a mosaic of marble palaces, intricate temples and natural splendor found in the multiple lakes, green hills, forests and endless gardens. Udaipur’s most striking image is the Palace, the Singh family’s summer folly, an impressive stronghold confection of white marble in the middle of a serene body of water, most impressive after the celebrated and feared monsoon has made its annual visit.

Sadly, the drought had drained the lake almost entirely, but a small launch brought us to the dock and we spent three heavenly nights there. Taj had graciously organized daily elephant rides on brightly painted and silk-laden animals and a nightly ceremonial parade with dancing in the lake bed for their guests and it was here that we got up close and personal with our first elephants. There is nothing quite like the sight of an elephant kicking up the Indian dust at dusk, trumpeting his call across the plains and the combined smell of dung, incense and water.

Rajasthan is a romantic state famed for its regal turbans, colorful festivals and tales of the noble and brave Rajput warriors. At one museum our guide told us how the proud Mewars trained their elephants to use swords with their trunks in battle. These regals also used to train elephants to fight each other and other wild beasts in large public spectacles. Don’t worry, the last one was held in 1951. Undaunted, they continued to make large puppet elephants and perform “battles” on stage.

After the bustle of Mumbai, Udaipur soothed us with a small town feel. We walked its lanes to see the City Palace, a gorgeously balanced marble and granite construction containing supreme workmanship in incredible paintings, glass inlays, multihued enamels and antique fixtures. It also contains the current Maharana of Mewar, a museum and two hotels in its complex maze of levels. We made visits to many temples that brought out the more gentle sides of our karmic retribution, while feasting on copious curries fit for the rulers who once occupied the surrounding lakeside palaces that seemed to ring us. We were introduced to our first mahout, graceful beast in tow, while being greeted at the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, along with camels, petal-throwing maidens and a formal white-gloved staff. Udaipur’s beauty and romantic magnificence set the stage for the lovely days to come that would culminate on our anniversary at the Taj Mahal.

Here a flutist serenely plays in a courtyard each morning and a man patiently waits with a gold and purple embroidered umbrella all day long to shield guests from the sun. Our suite, the King’s Room, or Sajjan Niwas, was fit for a king—inlaid walls, full length marble tubs, cobalt blue sconces, old ceiling fans. The Lake Palace is the only hotel I know of where they scatter fresh rose petals in your path, where you can buy a fireworks show to order (150-200 rupees per explosion), and where the staff maintains 14 camels (I learn they symbolize love to Indians), two elephants (Anarkaki, a female and Chanchel, a male who greet me with upturned trunks) and 4 horses. But when I ask the mahouts if these elephants play polo, they laugh and laugh. “Elephants symbolize royalty, good luck and good fortune,” sahib, the mahout explains…”not for playing sport.”

So to Delhi we fly, full of hope that we will find what we are looking for. What exactly am I looking for? I have ridden horses all my life, as fast and as far as they will take me, in Portugal, Patagonia, Palm Beach, Jamaica, Texas and China. And I am no stranger to sitting on an elephant. I’ve bumped along on them in Africa, Malaysia and India and once, as a kid in a zoo outside Chicago. There is an old saying—“there is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse”. With the dust and grit of India in my mouth, the hot earthy smell of dung under my feet and the dizzying patterns, colors and clash of India swirling about me, I am in search of the answer to the question, is there nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of an elephant, too?

Whether one has visited the sub-continent or not, images of Old Delhi frequently come to mind when the experienced traveler thinks of India; masses of locals swarming like dust clouds through the Chandi Chowk, frenzied traffic rife with rickety buses, oxcarts, rickshaws, mad cabs, consecrated cows and poor pedestrians, and stifling humidity that often bears down like the wrath of a ruthless monsoon. Within Old Delhi’s labyrinthine alleys and lanes lies an unbreakable spirit formed by a history and cultures stretching back several millennia, well before the days of the great Mughals, Shahs and colonialists who shaped and defended this “Capital of Seven Empires,” leaving more than 60,000 national monument, in their wake, including two world heritage sites. Crumbling classic architecture shares space with preserved temples, mosques, new commercial buildings and near-forgotten forts.

In between sari and bangle shopping at the hectic Chhatta Chowk Bazaar, we especially enjoyed a visit to Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, gorgeously constructed in red sandstone. The cosmopolitan megatropolis of New Delhi showcases the gorgeous planning of Sir Edwin Lutyens, who established the city as a testament to British supremacy. Indeed, New Delhi stands up there with Europe’s great cities in its organization and balance. A stroll down the Raj Path brings visitors into direct contact with Lutyen’s imperial Delhi, although we were more transfixed by the majestic Tomb of Humayan, the exquisite style of which inspired the building of the similar Taj Mahal. Locals say all is possible and available in Delhi, and watching a tinker hammer silver into a hair-thin edible sheet or a streetside vendor unconsciously break into the latest Punjabi Bhangra hit showcases the magical spirit this city holds. But our search for elephant polo here proves fruitless and so we prepare for the train ride to Agra.

Few sights can compare to an Indian train station before day break. Imagine, if you can, every smell both good and bad mixed to greet the morning, thousands of people sleeping, rushing, standing, taking tea and waiting. Imagine confusion, the press of humanity. This is an eternal experience – babies, animals, bundles as large as a car, cats, dogs, shouts, cries, laughter—and you get an idea of the eerie atmosphere as the rosy dawn makes its appearance. We make it through the pushing crowds; we happily board the very clean train at 6 a.m. for the ride to Agra.

Developed on the western banks of the Yamuna River, Agra could well be the city of love for its possession of the dreamy Taj Mahal, although outside of its spell-binding monuments the city is teeming and grimy. Founder Akbar Agra glorious Fort of Agra, a world heritage site, was once one of the primary strongholds of the Mughals following the death of Ibrahim Lodi in 1526, holding an imperial city in its spacious confines. Second to the Taj Mahal, it is India’s most impressive construction, a marvel of red sandstone that established the city of Agra as a force to be reckoned with by invaders both martial and cultural.

It is only natural to find elephants in Agra. And a local mahout gets wide-eyed as he kindly tells me that in Mughal times horses were fitted with costumes of leather trunks so that from afar they would appear to enemies to be large forces of elephants ready to charge. Indeed, we see such a prothsesis in the museum. But no one, and we ask many people, can recall anyone playing ever polo on an elephant here. “Too slow, too big animals, too loving” says our guide.
By now, most are familiar with the story of the grief-stricken King Shahjahan who built the world’s most beautiful white marble tomb for his wife Mumtaz who died in childbirth, intending to match it with a mirroring monument in black marble which was never started. Renowned masons, architects and carvers came from all over the mid-East, while Arabia sent coral, Yemen gave agates, Central India donated garnets, and Persia contributed amethyst and onyx to create the crown jewel of resting places and monuments to eternal love.

Like the Fort of Agra, you can not know the intricate beauty of the Taj from mere photos. No need to worry about getting there and avoiding the crowds: Oberoi takes guests in a private golf cart right to the entrance. The Taj Mahal is a mesmerizing vision of fairy-tale romance, its gardens and reflecting pool as dazzling as the monument itself. Holding hands and sharing a kiss under the shadow of this testament to one man’s undying faith and love was undoubtedly a highlight of this jouney. Agra might not give Paris a run for its money as one of the world’s most lovely cities, but the Taj Mahal cannot be missed. Judging from the crowds there, it is not in danger of being forgotten.

From Agra we fly south to Kerala. India evokes images of dry, choking hot cities on the edge of the Gobi in your mind, the tropical confines of Southwestern Kerala will make you rethink what you know. We headed south to tranquil beaches of powder white sand hugging calm aqua-marine waters. In Kerala, mangoes, guavas and bananas hang heavily from the abundant trees. Fresh seafood comes as plentiful as the coconut farms and spice fields dotting the green state. In fact, it might even be easy to mistake Kerala for Jamaica, with its eternal emerald mountains, rushing waterfalls and laid-back populace. The culture and scenery differ greatly from Delhi and Mumbai, just as Kerala enjoys India’s highest rates of literacy, health care and cleanliness. Beggars are less frequent, and the population is diverse in its cultures, languages, religions and heritage. It would be the perfect spot for a honeymoon and for us, a great continuation of the romance stirred by the Taj Mahal, as we walked along the shore with azure waters lapping gently at our heels and stars gleaming overhead.

We’d come to spend a few days cruising the picturesque, tranquil backwaters, canals and lakes of Cochin on the motor vessel Vrinda, an Oberoi-owned luxury yacht. We lolled in oir air-conditioned cabin, and ate superb international cooking as we languidly floated by farms and water highway life unchanged from 1502 when Vasco de Gama reached these shores.

The Vrinda’s captain invited us to stay until January when the Great Elephant March to Kerala takes place, during which the world’s largest collection of gentle giants are bejeweled, garlanded, caparisoned and painted in the dazzling bright colors Indians love, before ambling through the state’s most famous cities and ending in the capital Trivandrum to thunderous dancing and revelry. A big part of the accompanying festival are world-famous snake-boat races held in the many lagoons of this tiny state. In addition to a plethora of palaces, wildlife viewing is first-rate in Kerala, where tigers, leopards, bears, bison, flying squirrels, rare birds and our beloved elephants roam freely through state parks with names like Silent Valley. But we cannot stay. Not many elephants here and those we see are engaged in farming chores. No polo for them. Jaipur beckons and we head there.

Picturesque Jaipur is the gateway to Rajasthan where the warrior Rajput spirit is alive and well. Surrounded on three sides by the rugged Aravilli hills, Jaipur is named for the soldier-prince and astronomer Jai Singh II, who moved his capital here in 1727. The entire city of Jaipur is surrounded by fortified walls and guarded by seven gates. The distinctive pink-orange sandstone buildings of Jaipur are most magical at sunset, when bright red turbans and saris of orange, lilac and yellow seem to glow like embers. We toured the old city, the 18th century merchant houses, the Hawa Mahal or “Palace of Winds,” where the ladies of the court used to view the city’s action below, the Water Palace, originally used by the Maharajahs as a summer residence. Best of all was a bumpy elephant ride to the Amber Palace, high atop a hill overlooking Moata Lake, dating back to the 11th century, a jewel of solid silver doors, swings, chamber of mirrors, carved decorative reliefs, ivory and sandalwood inlays, stained glass, pillars, clanging bells, and monkey-infested banyan trees. It was in Jaipur that I meet a most gracious gentleman, Vikram Rathor, a dashing polo playing businessman who hopped off his horse just long enough to take tea with me on the back lawn of the great Rambagh Palace. Finally, the concierge promised I would learn all about elephant polo.

Once the home of the regal Maharajah of Jaipur and his beauteous wife, the remarkable-to-this-day Rajmata Gayatri Devi, the Rambagh Palace is just that—symmetrical, airey verandahs, idyllic lawns, 47 verdant acres and a marriage of Rajput and Mughal architecture, 90 rooms sensitively restored with period furniture and large French windows overlooking the gardens. For us, it was the Peacock Suite, reflecting the vibrant colors of Rajasthan with fountains, hand painted details, our poster bed, inlaid peacock walls. If it’s the unhurried lifestyle of Indian royalty that appeals, this is the place. We drank gin and tonics in the Polo Bar amidst the Maharaja’s polo trophies, swam in the pool, shopped in the jewelry stores. One dinner at the renaissance banquet hall, Suvarna Mahal, was noteworthy for its selection of dishes from the royal kitchens.

But we’d come for elephant polo and that’s what we finally got: Vikram expertly explained the subtleties of elephant polo, a sport he is passionate about. All it takes is four to six willing pachyderms, four to six players and a few thousand dollars. Vikram can arrange it all for you on your next trip to Jaipur. He insists it is perfect for a small band of friends or a company off on an outing. It certainly builds team spirit. Elephant polo has been played for years in India and there is the added bonus of getting up close to an animal that is considered near-sacred. No worries about manuevering the big fellows, mahouts do the work and you just worry about hitting the ball with a very very long mallet.

But time did not allow us the luxury of organizing a game with Vikram. We had to be on a plane bound for Los Angeles in the morning. I almost did not find out if the outside of an elephant was good for the inside of a man. What I did find out was that India was good for a man…and a woman. No where in the world will one find honest gracious hospitality as in India. It is a fascinating place, teeming with sights and sounds. India is a sultry, delicious temptress, all fantasy and all reality. Frenetic, exotic and with an ineffable sadness, India is rich and poor at the same time, a constant carnival with an inner rhythm of irresistible peace. India is an indelible experience, powerful, ugly at times, ravishingly beautiful mostly, efficient and chaotic, the ultimate contradiction.

The morning I was preparing to leave, I walked the cool halls of the Rambagh Palace, imaging myself in the court of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II. Down the long corridor I spotted an antique elephant carved almost life size in wood and decorated with jewels and paint. It was one of those used long ago to stage elephant battles and parades. It was beautiful in the morning’s dew and peachy sunlight. On an impulse, I lifted myself onto the back of this creature. I pulled a decorative polo mallet off the wall. I swung the mallet. I smiled. I had done it; I had managed to get on an elephant of sorts in India and learned a lot about elephant polo. And now I was back in Mughal times fighting, back on the polo field scoring. “Bill,” my wife called, breaking the fantasy. “The driver is here.” I jumped off. I felt like a new man. Indeed, the outside of an elephant proved very good for the inside of this man.

Get inside the real India with an unforgettable year living like a maharajah. Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces is offering 365 nights in three historic cities—Mumbai, Jaipur and Udaipur—for a mere $2,000,000. Pricey, yes, but considering included are the finest suite accommodations each and every night, butler service throughout the year, private limousine transfers, 24-hour limousine and driver at your disposal, 100 hours use of a private Taj Air jet, all meals at world-class restaurants, unlimited cocktails, candle-lit dinners for two with entertainment, customized sightseeing and excursions to out of the way locations, private shopping excursions, ten private yoga classes with a yogi, and private Indian cooking classes. That’s not all: Taj will arrange for you to ascend via caparisoned elephant to Amer Fort, one of the finest examples of Rajput architecture set on a hillside overlooking Mautha Lake. You will be transported by boat to the Lake Palace Ganguar accompanied by traditional Rajasthani folk performers after which the liveried Palace staff will serve dinner. That’s not all for this India year: there is a tiger sighting trip to Ranthambore, heritage walks in Jaipur and Udaipur, cultural themed evening programs, select invitations to high-profile events, and use of a private yacht in Mumbai. Just to keep fit, there are three personalized Taj spa treatments each week for two. And now that you are looking and feeling like a king and queen, Taj guarantees introductions to Indian royalty so you can rub elbows with the upper class. To book this trip of a lifetime, call Leading Hotels of the World, (800) 223-6800.

Getting there: We flew Malaysia Airlines, a quality carrier with fine service, wonderful cuisine and wines and a superb staff. One of the best kept secrets in quality international travel, visit www.malaysiaairlinesusa.com. Within India we took Jet Airways, a spectacular airline, whose spotless plane and caring staff served a full excellent meal on every single flight, even those under one hour in duration. Visit www.jetairways.com.

Where to Stay: Indian hotels vary greatly in price and quality. We concentrated on the top end and stayed with Taj and Oberoi exclusively. I would highly recommend them as quality falls off quickly in this country. Hotel highlights: The Oberoi Mumbai; The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower; Amar Villas, Agra; Trident Hilton Cochin; Rambagh Palace, Jaipur; Lake Palace, Udaipur; The Taj Mahal Hotel, Delhi; The Oberoi Udaivilas; Taj Malabar, Cochin; Rajvilas, Jaipur; The HRH Group of Hotels is the only chain of grand heritage hotels, palace hotels, luxury hotels and historical resorts in Rajasthan, India. It is headquartered in Udaipur on the banks of Lake Pichola. The HRH Group of hotels is committed to preserve royal palaces and resorts across Rajasthan and has developed an authentic heritage circuit in this Indian state. Go to www.hrhhotels.com.

Eating out: We relied heavily on the Taj and Oberoi concierges to guide us. We did not eat off the streets, preferring hotel restaurants and top quality local establishments. Take care, Indian cuisine can wreck havoc with your tummy if you do not approach it with respect. A few of our favorites: Souk; The Zodiac Grill; Wasabi By Morimoto; and Sea Lounge four wonderful spots all in The Taj Palace & Tower, Mumbai; Travertino in the Oberoi New Delhi; Tiffin at The Oberoi, Mumbai; Shopping: India is a shopper’s paradise with silks, cottons, leather, jewelry, carvings, tribal silver and handicrafts. Wall hangings, paintings, pottery, mirror-embroidery are also available in a wide range. Custom tailors are everywhere and eager to help you select fabrics which they will then turn into any design you wish overnight. Carpets and large items can easily be shipped. The large deluxe hotels are a good bet as they have edited their stock but, beware, their prices reflect this. Government stores are also a good bet for a wide range of crafts. On the streets hard bargaining is the order of the day. Exceptional shops not to miss: Jewels ‘N Arts, Jaipur, www.jewelsnarts.com; Channi Carpets & Textiles in Jaipur, a treasure trove of fabrics, custom tailoring, rugs, scarves, bags, shirts and dresses. If they don’t have it, they will make it overnight and deliver it to your hotel. Say hello to the charming owner, Channi Kochar. Visit www.channicarpets.com.

Reading: India is gigantic and diverse. Seldom does a traveler have time to see it all. These books can help define the essential experiences. Fodor’s India. Seemingly everything is covered in this respected and poetic guide to all India has to offer in sightseeing, shopping, eating, wildlife, and leisure.

Lonely Planet India. For off-the beaten track, insider knowledge of what to do and see. Like having a local showing you around. Great for those trying to avoid the tourist traps. Jack Adler’s Southern India, Hippocrene Books. An essential and informed guide to the tropical, lesser known but equally rewarding region of India Traveler’s Tales India. True stories from esteemed world travelers as they discover the idiosyncrasies and heart of the subcontinent. INDIA by Frank Kusy, Cadogan Guides, a well-researched, intelligent and comprehensive guide that portrays India intimately along with dining and lodging tips.

Elephant polo: You can reach Vikram at Polo Sport, 2, Karni Nagar, Queens Road, Khatipura, Jaipur 302012, India or e-mail him at jaipurpolo@hotmail.com.

William Tomicki was knighted by both the French and Portuguese and is president of the Montecito Polo Club. A former New York Times Syndicate columnist, he is Editor and Publisher of ENTREE Travel Newsletter headquartered in Santa Barbara. Tomicki was the youngest Vice President in the history of Tiffany & Company and also served as Vice President of Sotheby’s.