There must be a thousand or more candlelights floating on the river in the darkness, like the twinkling sequins on a maharani’s sari. We lie back in our punt, sipping sodas and eating onion bhajis as the leaf-borne fairylights bob slowly towards us.
Then, a troupe of musicians merge out of the darkness to serenade us with Hindu songs.
Have we woken up in nirvana? No, it is definitely India, and different from the one that travellers normally see. My wife, Denny, and I are staying in a converted castle, Ahilya Fort, at Maheshwar, a remote town a couple of hours’ drive east from the city of Indore in the heart of India.
Serene: Ahilya Fort towers is located high above the Narmada River
Ahilya Fort towers high above the wide Narmada River. Our room is built into the top of the fort’s walls, with a casement jutting out over the mighty river. We arrive at the height of a religious festival (hence the floating candlelights) where, hundreds of feet beneath us, pilgrims wash in the ghats (flights of steps) leading into the sacred river, to the amplified chanting of Hindu prayers.
Our trip to Maheshwar is part of a journey to remote parts of central India, using Mumbai as our base. Most holidaymakers to India take a tour of the ‘golden triangle’, visiting Delhi, the Taj Mahal at Agra and then the great cultural centres in Rajasthan.
Indeed, Denny and I had enjoyed just such a trip on our honeymoon. Now, many years later, we want to see some of the country that is less well known. And I have another deep-rooted wish: to find the house were my grandparents lived with my young father and uncle in central India in the Twenties.
On our honeymoon, we travelled independently, booking our own trains and buses — and it was a palaver. This time we want adventure, but without worrying about the logistics.
Greaves Travel, specialists in India, oblige, meeting and ferrying us from hotel to airport to station with seamless efficiency.
Our trip starts in the middle of the night at our Mumbai hotel by the airport — the ITC Maratha. This is an Indian-style ultra-modern hotel where we are greeted — rather disconcertingly for jet-lagged Brits — by the concierge and her team with a garland of flowers, a scarf and a bindi, or red dot, pressed on the forehead.
The first goal of our holiday is to see the great sculpted caves of Ajanta and Ellora, which are close to the growing city of Aurangabad, 200 miles east of Mumbai.
Stone giant: The Gateway of India monument in Mumbai
After a short flight, we arrive at the Rama hotel in Aurangabad.
Next morning, Jagdish, the kind concierge, rings us without warning at 6am: ‘Good morning — would you like a wake-up call?’
It’s the same everywhere: a genuine eagerness to please that can almost overwhelm in this vast and newly confident nation.
We need to be up early because the world heritage site of the Ajanta caves is three hours away along a bumpy road. Hand-hewn hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years ago, the caves are the home of Hindu and Buddhist carvings and radiant wall frescoes.
I can’t recommend these caves, along with those at nearby Ellora, highly enough. They are thrilling works of art whose beauty echoes down the ages, yet are hardly visited by Western tourists.
We head back to Mumbai and stay this time at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which has been restored after the terror attack 11 years ago. The oldest section was gutted by fire but has risen from the ashes in all its Edwardian splendour.
Denys’s father as a boy (left), with his uncle, grandfather and a Maharaja
Denny and I love this and the other Anglo-Indian buildings of Mumbai, with their ostentatious Gothic revival architecture, brilliantly blended with the local style.
After the British departed from India, understandably many of their buildings were left to rot. Before our trip I had Googled the house in Indore, 300 miles north-east of Mumbai, where my father had stayed as a boy.
My grandfather had lived and worked there as the Viceroy’s representative in central India. Over the years we have spent hours looking at the family albums with fascination.
Now we fly from Mumbai to Indore and, with mounting excitement, drive up to the colonnaded building — now a government guesthouse — in the Residency district of the city.
It is eerily unchanged from the building in the old black- and-white photos. The portrait of George V that had hung on the sitting-room wall has been replaced with a picture of Mahatma Gandhi, but otherwise everything seems astonishingly unchanged.
There is even a cupboard with a cracked dinner set that my grandparents must have used, and the old green shutters still hang loosely from the window frames.
Exhilarated by our journey back in time, we now take another long drive, into the depths of the Gujarat countryside to a Maharaja’s former hunting lodge — the Kathiwada Raaj Mahal hotel.
We are the only guests in this bizarre retreat. From the outside it looks like a wedding cake, but on the inside it is a palace of Art Deco design. Billed as a high-end wellness retreat, the Raaj Mahal is a curious mixture of comfort and the homespun.
The late owner’s books still furnish the shelves, each one marked with the date it was read. His hunting trophies glower at us from the walls.
As the sole guests, it is slightly eerie for us eating under the gaze of several young waiters, each more eager than the last to help. They leap forward every time we reach for a chapati. We are treated like royalty: the head waiter in a state of confusion even calls me ‘Ma’am’.
I was nervous about going to India. Memories of being pestered by trinket-sellers and beggars remained from my last visit, combined with fears of falling ill. Denny persuaded me.
She was right. Travellers’ tummy upsets seem increasingly rare, and you are more likely to be accosted by beggars in London than in Mumbai.
For us, the highlight of the trip was discovering my father’s old home. But I can guarantee that a two-week voyage to the less visited parts of India will be, as it was for us, a glorious, eye-opening adventure.
Denys Blakeway travelled with Greaves India (greavesindia.co.uk) who offer an 11-night tour to Mumbai, Aurangabad, Maheshwar, Indore and Kathiwada from £3,555pp including all flights, activities and accommodation.