India 2006: Mildly Bewildered but Totally Enchanted

For nearly two decades before I went there, I had heard about mysterious, beautiful, infuriating India. Having decided that the Taj Mahal was on my short list of “things to see before I die,” I was fascinated with all stories of India – of ashrams, yogis, yogurt, the significance of turbans, cremations, tapeworms, spice markets, crushing poverty, Hindu temples, filthy streets, spiritual transformations, loincloths, street food, palaces, train cars, monsoons and cows – from acquaintances who beat me there. At the end of each story, I would mutter to myself, or to my friend and fellow India-dreamer, “I have to go.”

Funnily enough, even after some 15 years of thinking and dreaming about this trip to India, neither my friend D’Lesli nor I had any idea what to expect. Or, rather, all of our expectations turned out to be either slightly off or flat-out wrong.

We decided to team up with a travel agency – no small decision for two very independent and relatively experienced travelers. But the thought of dropping into India with no guidance just seemed overwhelming; plus, we wanted some of the insider info and access that local guides should offer. After considerable effort with other companies and frustrating attempts to suss out answers on the internet, we signed on with Anshuman Khanna of SITA World Travel for a private, customized tour. The idea was to have guides and drivers, but also have some independent time for solitary wandering.

We were eager to experience the “magic” of India, whatever that meant. The Taj Mahal – the 17th-century tomb, often said to be the most beautiful building in the world – was obviously on our list. But so were Hindu and Jain temples and the people in them, reasonable doses of art and architecture, riding an Indian train, holy lakes and rivers (for viewing, at least, if not actual immersion), a camel ride, wandering through old town markets, and more.

The first morning: An introduction to Indian Roads

Our first morning was a tour of Delhi. After meeting our city guide and driver, we climbed into a quite nice SUV/mini-van and hurtled into the city streets, accelerating into oncoming traffic, braking briefly for a man on a bicycle, and careening around corners at full speed. Over the coming weeks, we grew used to rattling over potholed roads filled with Honda scooters, camel-drawn carts, fuel tankers with “Highly Inflammable” emblazoned on each side (something that stayed funny the whole trip), impossibly old trucks full to bursting with workers, roosters emerging from roadside huts, pigs rooting through smoldering piles of trash. Like everyone else, our driver honked constantly to ensure our collective safety.

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And then there are the cows.

It is estimated that as many as 40,000 cows wander the streets of Delhi, and I believe it. Delhi cows are even more nonchalant than your average cow, and they seemed downright bored by the insanity swirling around them as they meandered across busy roads to munch on a patch of grass or pile of garbage.

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This wild Indian ride was our introduction to the country, and, it turns out, one of the most memorable themes of the trip. City, town or country highway – all roads were a study in the particular chaotic mix of machine, human and animal that India offers. Our guides and drivers worked very hard to shield us from the really grueling condition of some areas, but there’s just no hiding the Indianness of those Indian roads.

Yes, Indian roads are an attack on your senses. As are the breathtaking array of rainbow-hued saris, the colorful turbans, the golden sprays of flowers that drape auto-rickshaws and camels alike, public cremations, the sea of intensely colored spices mounded in bowls at markets, the wafts of incense and lilies that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere, spicy curries, and the never-ending chorus of “ma’am” and “please” that came at us from all corners.

Open-minded and mildly bewildered are probably the right states of mind for seeing this overwhelming country. In other words, if you’re not sure you can live without your morning Starbucks and newspaper delivered at exactly 7am, you should probably consider a different destination. At the same time, D’Lesli and I agreed that we had never been so completely tended to and fussed over in our lives. And we were certainly never bored.

Our guides took us to forts, palaces, ruins, markets, temples, gardens, mausoleums and shops (where we quickly learned the deal – if you let the shopkeepers do their whole dog and pony show, you’re expected to buy). Here are a just a few of the highlights:

Our Itinerary:

We made a loop from Delhi, flying first to Udaipur, then driving to Jodhpur, Jaipur and Agra, with stops at points in between, ending back in Delhi.

Delhi

Delhi is the second-largest city in the country, with a population of 13 million (give or take a couple of million). One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it offers numerous ancient monuments and historic sites, including the Old City that was built by the Mughals.

India’s history – from the time of the Mughal emperors, who reigned for nearly two centuries beginning around 1525, through the British Raj and into the country’s current independence – is visible everywhere, often in layers on the same structure. At innumerable forts, we were able to see original Mughal architecture, sometimes in partnership with Hindu architecture, and empty spaces where precious stones had been looted by the British – now painted in bright enamel by the post-independence government.

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Crowded with people, cars and cows – all moving in different directions at more or less the same moment – we were surprised that Delhi also offers a number of peaceful green spaces, including numerous parks and the Raj Ghat, a memorial at the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation.

The Delhi Oberoi hotel is very nice, if not exactly bursting with charm or personality. Get into the culinary swing of things with an upscale version of traditional Indian breakfast at threesixtyº — one of the sleek restaurants in the hotel – like the masala dosa, crisp rice and lentil pancakes stuffed with curried potatoes.

Also the Kandahar Restaurant at the Oberoi, for a memorable yoghurt (yoghurt is delicious in India – I recommend getting all of it you can!) dish generously studded with red chilies and mustard seeds. I could make a daily meal of the stuff, especially when paired with the hot naan (bread) coming out of the open kitchen.

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Qutab Minar (above) is a soaring 238-foot-high stone tower that was built by Qutub-Ud-Din Aibak in the 12th century. The tower has five distinct stories, each with a projecting balcony. At its base is the Quwwat-Ul Islam Mosque, the first mosque to be built in India. A 23-foot-high iron pillar, which was built in the 4th century, stands in the courtyard of the mosque.

Chandni Chowk is one of the oldest markets in the area and is well worth a visit. So congested that it makes the rest of Delhi feel positively wide open, its narrow lanes are crammed full of stands and shops selling Indian street foods, a vast array of sweets, saris, books, shoes, electronics, wedding supplies and much more. At one point, there was a shift in the crowd, and we saw a flower-strewn, sheet-covered corpse being held aloft on a stretcher of sorts and hustled down an alley… It’s that kind of place.

Then we were off on a totally confusing, totally entertaining domestic flight to Udaipur…

Udaipur

It was really difficult to pick a favorite hotel from the trip – all of them qualified as some of the most impressive we had ever seen. But I have to say that the Taj Lake Palace Hotel (below) in Udaipur was probably the most memorable.

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Once a royal island retreat, it is now a wonderful hotel that seems to float in the middle of manmade Lake Pichola. Gorgeous sunrise and sunset photo opps at every turn, a lovely mustachioed and costumed doorman, extremely gracious service, palatial guestrooms with lake views, and manicured gardens and lily ponds make this place a destination in itself.

Udaipur was founded in 1599 as an eleven-gated, fortified city, and a great deal of those ancient bastions and structures are still in evidence. One of the main attractions is the City Palace, a blindingly white hillside palace that includes lovely courtyards, elephant parking spaces, hanging gardens, and room after room of exquisite furnishings and art.

It was also in Udaipur that we met up with Rakesh, our favorite SITA guide of the trip. Young, charming, hip and funny, he was as well informed on the dozens (hundreds?) of miniature paintings of the City Palace as he was on the last season of Sex & the City.

At the end of our afternoon city tour, Rakesh took us to Jagdish Temple, the largest Hindu temple in the city. Steep, slick marble steps (below) lead to one of the happiest sights I’ve ever seen – a roomful of brightly-sari’ed women seated and singing and clapping in the middle of the afternoon, while a line of locals and a few tourists queued their way to pay a visit to Vishnu. All churches should offer as much hope and inspiration…

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Dinner at the Neel Kamal restaurant at the Lake Palace featured one of the best dishes of the trip – a cherry tomato “kabab” filled with a delicious mixture of mint, grains and spices and topped with chili oil.

If you ever find yourself in Delhi and only have time to visit one nearby city, you could hardly do better than Udaipur. (And call Rakesh…)

Ranakpur

It seems like every other sight in India is a “must-see” with jaw-dropping architecture, color, people and history, but the Jain temple at Ranakpur surely ranks near the top of the list.

Set in a remote valley between Udaipur and Jodhpur, the temple is a walled forest of white marble columns – some 1500 carved pillars (below), no two of which are alike, including a few plain pillars and one that is slightly crooked (with stories connected to each and every one). Covering nearly 4500 square yards, the sprawling temple is remarkable not only for its architecture but for the way the pillars filter and reflect the sun’s rays – seemingly changing from morning’s gold to twilight’s pale blue.

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Jodhpur

After touring the Jain temple, we continued on the road to Jodhpur with our driver Jasbir, who had met us at the airport in Udaipur and would stay with us – and look after us – for the rest of our trip. He was a sweetheart, and we were in safe hands the whole time – even on those crazy Indian roads!

Jodhpur is a desert city, presided over by the impressive Mehrangarh Fort, which can be seen from virtually every point in the city, including our nearly equally impressive hotel, the Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Surrounded by a six-mile-long wall, the 16th century Fort offers spectacular panoramic vistas of the city below. Opposite the Fort on another mountainous road is the Jaswant Thada, the royal crematorium of the Jodhpur rulers. Peering over the sidewall to see a pile of ashes is a startling connect-the-dots moment, with past and present colliding.

The Jodhpur Tambacoo Bazar is a riot of color and movement, combining market stalls, all manner of creatures and more stuff than you can imagine. We bought perfumed oils, a boatload of spices and teas, and enough textiles to open our own shop back home.

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However you do it, be sure to visit a textile shop called Maharani Art Exporters (tel: 2627607 / 2653152/2620898) in the Tambacoo Bazar. The presentation of textiles was outstanding – we hung on every word and felt like buyers for some chic designer as we picked out stacks of favorites.

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Jaipur

As the capital city of the Rajasthan region, Jaipur is known as the “pink city” for the pink hue that was applied in 1905 to all the houses in the old city in honor of the visiting Prince of Wales. Jaipur is full of gardens and palaces and (another) fort, and also offers loads of jewelry shopping – especially sapphires at high-end shops.

An elephant ride up to the Amber Fort was more fun than expected. Our ride’s name was Desmina, and she had to pee about half way up the path. I have to say – she showed remarkable Steel Magnolia grace and kept her head high while creating a bit of a river for the line of elephants and their tourist riders in line behind us.

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At the Oberoi Rajvilas hotel, we had a gorgeous luxury tent accommodation, fully air-conditioned, with teak floors, a clawfoot bathtub, plush linens and our own back patio. As with all the hotels we visited, service was exceptional – and we loved it, even as we flung ourselves off our India-spiritual-wagon and paid eighty bucks each for two (or was it three?) bottles of Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc. My only explanation is that it was just time to do it…

Agra & the Taj Mahal

Of course, the Taj Mahal was a big part of the motivation of this trip – but we wondered if it could possibly live up to our expectations. It did; and then some. We spent the better part of an afternoon wandering the pristine grounds, gazing at the awesome structure from various angles, then climbing the steps to the front entrance to see the relatively small interior rooms that are open to tourists.

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The Taj seems to have a pulse of its own, throbbing silently but emphatically as it drew us in. The changing light – even over a 30 minute period – is every bit as remarkable as they say. Going back later that evening to see it lit solely by the light of a full moon was a once in a lifetime experience that I can say – without a trace of exaggeration – has stayed burned in my sense memory. I can still feel it.

Resources & Tips:

SITA Tours Agent: Anshuman Khanna www.sitatours.com

Tips: We got all the shots and took all the malaria medicine recommended. To be honest, I’m not sure we really needed all that, but it was nice to not worry about it during the trip.

Same goes for all the pepto bismol, various first aid items, water purifiers and energy bars that we started out with, but systematically dumped as valuable luggage space was needed for purchases. The only items that we held onto for the whole trip were mosquito spray, sunscreen and Dramamine.

Bring loads of one-dollar bills and pass them out generously.

At the hotels, you’ll have the opportunity to tip the staff when you check out. It’s much easier than trying to convince random staffers to accept a gratuity in person, when they so obviously are trying not to offend you by refusing.

Take advantage of the lovely breakfasts offered as part of your room price – they kept us going through some long fort tours.

Our guides wanted to treat us like fragile, foreign dolls that couldn’t handle seeing anything unpleasant or being jostled in any way. While that’s very nice, we realized that we needed to insist on going to places like the old bazaars. But then it was great – the trip wouldn’t have been the same if we had allowed ourselves to be totally sheltered the whole time.

Most images by D’Lesli Davis. For the rest of our India pics, click here.

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