03/19/2012 07:50 am ET Updated May 19, 2012

Northern India's Golden Triangle

The shocking thing about New Delhi is that it is nicer than most European capitals, a tree-filled, clean metropolis of broad streets. My wife and I stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel, which boasts a law library, a house doctor and the best hotel service we've ever experienced. Our experience was refined and lovely, like India itself.

New Delhi has a vibrant nightlife and many excellent museums. Our favorite was the National Museum and a walk through it is a tremendous way to get an overview of Indian culture and history. It contains priceless treasures beautifully arranged, including some of the ashes of the Buddha, an illuminated Quran, textiles incorporating gold and silver thread, and 200,000 art objects spanning more than 5,000 years.

The city tour took us into the notably less clean, but still lovely narrow lanes of the bazaar in Old Delhi then to a mosque that holds 20,000 worshipers, an archeological park highlighting the early buildings of the Mughals, the Muslim rulers of the 16th through 18th centuries, and the Mahatma Gandhi memorial.

Royal Rajasthan

We then flew to Udaipur in Rajasthan, the state where the maharajas once ruled in unbridled luxury and Rajput warriors fought to the death rather than surrender against hopeless odds. We stayed at the Taj Lake Palace, a former royal residence in the middle of a lake, is considered the most romantic hotel in India.

The City Palace on the shore is now an enormous museum featuring numerous miniature paintings depicting the princely life. Created by using brushes made of as little as a single squirrel hair; the originals sell for as much as $400,000, but we bought small pictures for $100.

The next day we headed out through the picturesque countryside, noticing how obsessively neat Indian farms are. After visiting some finely carved 11th-century temples, we were allowed to attend a Hindu service at a "living temple" at Eklingi. The marble, gold, silver, incense, chanting, and bells created an atmosphere that many of us felt was electric.

We then flew to Jaipur, whose old city wall is painted pink, and were ensconced in the Taj Rambagh Palace, on 47 acres of gardens and fountains .The camels pulling wagons were the most startling sight on the streets of this bustling city. We walked through the City Palace, now an opulent museum, and the world's largest outdoor astronomical observatory, a vast array of stone structures finished in 1734 to enable astrological calculations.

Jaipur is the center of India's gemstone industry and is famous for its hand-woven wool carpets, so we spent time watching the craftsmen produce labor-intensive masterpieces at a reasonable prices -- made possible because the average urban wage, at least then, was $2 a day.

Awakened by the haunting first call to Muslim prayer at 4:30 a.m., we rode elephants up steep hills to Amber Fort, a massive citadel for Hindu rulers from the 16th to 18th centuries. The ceilings, covered in tiny mirrors with geometric designs in gold, silver, and gemstones, are awesome to behold.

Taj Mahal

After a stop at Fatehpur Sikri, capital of the Mughal Empire in the late 16th century under the enlightened rule of Akbar, we arrived in Agra, the location of the Taj Mahal, India's most famous building. We stayed in the Oberoi, which has the best view of it.

Although the city has done much to improve the immediate area, smoke from wood cooking fires made visibility imperfect. But up close the Taj was even more impressive than the standard pictures, covered with bas-relief sculptures of flowers (semiprecious stones compose the petals) and verses from the Quran in Arabic script. The Taj Mahal, the tomb Emperor Shah Jahan constructed for his beloved wife Arjuman Banu Begum, was designed to be a replica of heaven.

We spent all of Tuesday getting to the village of Khajaraho by train and bus, a difficult journey ending at a Radisson hotel. The remote location allowed Khajaraho's ninth- and 10th-century temples to be lost in the forest for 700 years and avoid being defaced by Muslim invaders.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Khajaraho is a model for restoration of historic landmarks, and its 25 remaining temples are most famous for their sensuous marble sculptures, made with great artistry. The Chandela dynasty, which created them, apparently adhered to the Hindu philosophy, which regards the cultivation of sexual energy, known as kundalini, as a religious practice. But the erotic elements are a small part of the art, and the temples can be admired for their celebration of life in general. The consensus of our group was that the temples were one of the highlights of the trip.

From there, we flew to Varanasi, India's holiest city and continuously inhabited for 4,800 years, where we checked into the Taj Ganges. We took rickshaws to get to the sunset religious ceremony on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, where five priests chanted and swung torches, accompanied by the haunting sound of sitar and tabla drum.

Before dawn, we arose for a trip back to the river every Hindu tries to visit to bathe in before dying. Some of the city's residents go daily. Those who do not make it hope that their bodies will be carried there, to be cremated on its banks. Our boat went silently along the ghats, the steps down into the water, as hundreds of the earliest risers washed themselves.

After breakfast, we drove to Sarnath, where long ago the Buddha preached his first sermon. At the monument on the site, monks were chanting and we went through a museum of the world's greatest Buddhist sculptures. The Buddha's primary message was that the root of suffering was attachment to -- not possession of -- worldly things. That is a lesson more of us need to absorb.