My parents and I have pretty much circled the globe on our many travels. India seemed to be the final frontier, and we were very much on the fence about it. We had heard both good and bad, all of which is true. In fact, one family friend, a seasoned traveler, referred to India as “the armpit of the world.” Another friend, privy to my aversion to curry, warned me that as soon as you disembark the plane, you smell the instantly recognizable fragrant spice.
Then along came an email from Gate 1 Travel with a very reasonable offer on a nine-day Golden Triangle Tour, beginning and ending in New Delhi, with overnights in Jaipur and Agra. We embarked on our sojourn on Thanksgiving. Meeting in Paris, we boarded an eight-hour Air France flight to New Delhi. Upon arrival, the airport seemed rather modern and clean, with no scent of curry to be found, thankfully.
After checking into The Park Hotel in the wee hours of the morning, we had a short nap before our 6:00 a.m. wake-up call inviting us to a full-on breakfast buffet, complete with omelet station, fruits, and cappuccino made from freshly ground beans. Imagine my delight when I opened my blinds to see a monkey frolicking in the tree outside my room!
After breakfast, we boarded our motor coach with our guide, Singh, and headed out into the heavy traffic of motor rickshaws, buses, motor bikes and small cars with an inexhaustible symphony of horns. We began in the walled city of Old Delhi, founded by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan. We traveled along the winding streets to the Jama Masjid, the largest and best known mosque in India. On a cycle rickshaw, we continued along the lanes of Chandi Chowk, once the imperial avenue of Mughal royalty. You haven’t lived till you’ve ridden in a rickshaw through the narrow alleyways of Old Delhi with monkeys jumping on the electrical wires overhead. Ridiculous sights, sounds and smells abound!
After lunch of traditional Indian dishes, we were on to New Delhi, a city of airy boulevards, with a surprising number of lush parks and gardens. In fact, the trees are all numbered in an inventory system, much like a census of people. It’s illegal to cut them down. Delhi became the capital of India in 1911, under British rule, which lasted from 1700 until 1947.
The history of India and its civilization dates back to at least 6500 BC which perhaps makes it the oldest surviving civilization in the world. India has been a meeting ground between the East and the West. Throughout its history many invaders have come to India but Indian religions allowed it to adapt to and absorb all of them. All the while, these local dynasties built upon the roots of a culture well established. India has always been simply too big, too complicated, and too culturally subtle to let any one empire dominate it for long.
India’s population numbers somewhere around 1.2-1.3 billion. Already containing 18% of the world’s population, India is projected to be the world’s most populous country by 2022, surpassing China, its population reaching 1.7 billion by 2050. Thus, India is expected to become the first political entity in history to be home to more than 1.5 billion people.
Further complexity is lent by the great variation that occurs across this population on social parameters such as income and education. Only the continent of Africa exceeds the linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity of the nation of India. India has more than two thousand ethnic groups, and every major religion is represented, as are four major families of languages.
Mahatma Gandhi revived the Indian virtues of duty and harmony, breathing new life in them, during India’s freedom struggle against British Colonialism. An ardent believer in communal harmony, he dreamt of a land where all religions would be the threads to form a rich social fabric. We were blessed to visit the Ghandi Smriti, the official residence and now a museum dedicated to Mahatma Ghandi, where he spent the last 144 days of his life. One can literally walk the footsteps of his final moments and stand on the spot where he was assassinated by a Hindi radical.
The Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple requires the removal of one’s socks and shoes and the covering of one’s head. They provide not-so-glamorous orange doo-rags, and the tour company gave us baby wipes to clean our feet. The Sikh is impressive and feeds some 15-20 thousand people per day. All are considered equal, and the wealthy come to volunteer and eat here just the same as the poor. There is a large pool called the Sarovar, enclosed by marble, where one can bathe. The Sikh is recognizable by its gold dome and tall flagpole.
Saving perhaps the best for last in Delhi, we visited Humayun’s Tomb. Set in stunning gardens and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Humayun’s Tomb was commissioned by the widow of the Mughal Emperor. The Tomb served as an inspiration for the Taj Mahal.
Jaipur: The Pink City
En route to Jaipur, the gateway city to the desert state of Rajasthan, we stopped for photos at the graceful sandstone Quran Minor Victory Tower, the world’s tallest brick minaret. There were monkeys along the way as well as a great deal of poverty and agriculture.
Glorious Jaipur consists of stucco buildings lining the wide streets and earned the name “Pink City” when the buildings were painted the unique color in 1876 to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Wales. Nothing can prepare one for the symphony of horns and the traffic of Jaipur—people on foot, cars, buses, motor rickshaws, motor cycles, and cows. And don’t forget the monkeys hopping along the awnings of the shops. It is difficult to put the pandemonium into words—an overwhelming feast for all the senses.
We hunted for bargains at the Babur Bazaar and then witnessed jewelry making at the Bhadari factory. I bought some souvenir pashminas as gifts as well as figures of the Ganesha—smaller sandalwood carvings for presents and a more decorative one for my home. The Ganesha is one of the most important deities in Hinduism and represents happiness and success. A seated elephant, the Ganesha is thought to inspire others to their highest and is the god of happiness and success who blesses his devotees with prosperity and fortune. I bought one in vermillion color for self-growth.
On our second day in the Pink City, we ascended the hill to the ramparts at the spectacular Amber Fort by elephant, a truly breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime experience! From the top we were treated to delightful, panoramic views of Jaipur’s original city walls and the lake below.
We attended a dinner and cultural show and were treated to sensational nighttime views of the Pink City’s landmarks, including the Wind Palace and Albert Hall Musuem. I even purchased an Indian Kurta, drawstring pants and turban for the occasion.
En route to Agra, we alighted at the ancient village of Abhaneri in northern Rajasthan. Highlights included Chand Baori, one of the largest step wells in India, fortified on all sides. This unique idea was conceived by the early natives to work as a water reservoir, located adjacent to the temple dedicated to Harshat Mata, goddess of joy and happiness—an architectural jewel.
In Agra we visited the Agra Fort, with its incredible maze of walled courtyards, mosques and lavish private chambers reflecting the grandeur of the Mughal Empire. We also toured the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daulah built of the finest Indian marble embellished with mosaics and inlay of semiprecious stones. This landmark was the first tomb to be built with marble and is known as the “Baby Taj,” having been completed three years prior to the beginning of the construction of the Taj Mahal.
By far the most memorable day of the sojourn included a visit to the astonishing Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved Queen. Perhaps this is the most perfect architectural monument in the world, built of white marble and precious stones over a 22 year period—considered the finest example of Mughal architecture in the world. It was surreal to see this world-renowned iconic symbol in person. This was the highlight of the trip for all on the tour. As my Dad commented, “There’s just something magical about it.”
Having my photo taken with my Mom on the same bench that Princess Diana sat on in front of the Taj Mahal was priceless. Another remarkable occurrence was sitting with our mostly American tour group waiting to depart the Taj Mahal and having several groups of Indian people respectfully ask to take their photos with us. Our tour guide, Singh, explained that many of the Indian tourists at the Taj Mahal come from areas of the country, like Punjab, where they never see any foreign visitors. Consequently we became the attraction–a completely unique experience.
India is not for the faint hearted and is more appropriate for the seasoned traveler. I have never witnessed the scale of poverty and deplorable living conditions present in this country. Additionally, the crowds of people and motor traffic is indescribable—combined with the monkeys, cows, camels, goats, donkeys and dogs strolling about—it’s really almost overwhelming. If you travel to this country and are not a fan of Indian cuisine, be sure to pack plenty of snacks for sustenance. Additionally, do not drink the water as it is not potable. Rely instead on bottled water—even for brushing your teeth. The sights and people make the experience worthwhile, though I do not plan to return.