India – The Golden Triangle
The first part of my trip to India involved a sequence of cities commonly referred to “The Golden Triangle”, with a couple of additional stops thrown in.
I arrived at New Delhi in the early hours of day 1 and due to the “all night” nature of the flight from Istanbul, I didn’t get much sleep. Janie had warned me that New Delhi was a chaotic, noisy, and polluted city so I wasn’t heartbroken to spend the “lost” day 1 continuing the journey to Jaipur. I can’t describe my relief seeing my Clique Holidays representative holding the sign with my name on it given the more than 2-hour delay while clearing immigration and customs.
A 5-hour drive from New Delhi was, surprisingly, a delightful way to become acclimated to the new sites, sounds and smells of this exotic country. While sleep was a near impossibility due to the sharp stops, starts, turns, and horns on this trip, the miles after miles of beautiful mustard plants in bloom and the surprising sights of the drive including monkeys dancing from trees and fences, camels shuttling cargo and even an elephant walking down the road. Traveling from the west, nearly everything was new and elicited a chuckle. Cows meandered wherever they liked, sometimes just lying prone in the middle of the road. Carts full to overflowing with produce, tuk-tuks carrying passengers and all of them competing for space on the 2-lane highway as though there were 4 lanes -sometimes driving on the left, sometimes the right and occasionally right down the middle. There seemed to me an elegant, if chaotic dance to this rhythm and had I considered driving the trip myself, the results would have been the same if I had joined the Miami City Ballet company performing Swan Lake with no training – disastrous.
But several hours after meeting my driver at the New Delhi airport, we arrived in Jaipur. Also referred to as the “pink city” due to the dominant color scheme of the walled city, painted this way in 1876 to welcome Prince Albert, it has been maintained in this soft rose pink ever since.
The Capital of the Indian state, Rajasthan, Jaipur still has palaces with royalty among the occupants. Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2019, Jaipur is a fortress city surrounded by defensive walls.
The first day I essentially rested and re-set my internal clock, ready to hit the ground running on day 2, leaving me only 1 full day here to get my fill.
The Hawa Mahal was the first stop – the palace of the wind, it is striking in its beauty but, it is just a façade, built to allow the royal women a way to observe special parades or functions without appearing in public. The Hawa Mahal got its name (the palace of the wind) for the venturi effect of concentrating the breezes during the warmer months. Constructed of hundreds of windows, and painted the obligatory pink, it was built by Pratap Singh, the grandson of the founder of Jaipur in 1799.
My guide and I crossed the street for a better view, and there we saw a snake charmer sitting with a black cobra in a basket. I hate to admit that I was totally caught up in the event and sat to have my photo taken while appreciating this enchanting tradition. I learned a week later that it is illegal in India for anyone to use any animal or creature for entertainment purposes. Further, regrettably, I learned that this poor animal certainly had his venom or teeth removed, thereby shortening his life. A classic case of just being swept up in the moment, I regret having the photo taken and later posting it on social media. For this reason, I’m only telling the tale here in the hopes that it may give future travelers a heads up on this illegal practice.
If we are talking about animals here, there are also elephants who are available to carry tourists to the top of the palace. I opted out of this as I was told it is difficult for the elephants to go up and down. And certainly, this qualifies as entertainment, but my guide suggested an activity which I preferred greatly. At the end of the day, we visited the elephants in their small sanctuary. There I paid a small fee to feed them and interact with them in a way that was more to my liking. I had the opportunity to really feel their energy and to offer her mine. All females due to their consistently docile nature, they were sweet and offered my first chance to touch and interact with an animal that I have always called my favorite. Staring into the eyes of this lovely gentle giant was an experience I will never forget.
I visited the city wall of Jaipur, the 3rd longest in the world, the Jal Mahal, and the Amer Palace. The Amer Palace once housed the Rajput Maharajas and their wives. The palace is connected to the Amer Fort and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
And finally, I visited the Jantar Mantar, a collection of 19 astronomical instruments built in the 18th century. Yet another UNESCO world heritage site, this site contains the world’s largest sundial and several working instruments.
Exhausted from the day I arrived back in my lovely hotel in time for a fantastic dinner and straight to bed. The next day we got an early start of 0800.
Jaipur – Agra
One of the places on my special requests list was the Galtaji Temple. Off the tourist track, I’m so glad we made the trip. This felt to me like a truly authentic temple with worshippers and visitors who were local. Clearly the monkeys called this home and though the site was generally run down and in poor condition, the temple and my experience with the priest here was as true an experience as I had anywhere in India. We were just in time to witness the ceremony and my driver, a Hindu worshipper who has a small temple in his car (not uncommon for many Hindi), began running up the stairs as he announced “quickly, we are just in time”. We watched the priest perform his rituals and I followed along mimicking the actions of my driver while praying my rosary to my God. It is a fine line showing respect and reverence to other cultures in their worship while staying true to one’s own faith but observing others in their beliefs is for me, one of the greatest aspects of travel. There was a large basin of water where women were performing their morning bath which somehow just added to the enjoyable and authentic nature of this visit.
A couple of hours closer to Agra, we stopped at the Chand Baori. One of the largest stepwells in the world, this well provided water to the women who lived in the village of Abhaneri. Constructed in 800-900 AD, it descends 100 feet down into the water and consists of 3500 steps over 13 stories. While, at first glance, walking down 13 flights of steps to get water to drink, then making the return journey with water weighing nearly 8.5 pounds per gallon might seem like a miserable job but in fact, according to my guides, this was a pleasurable activity enjoyed by the women in the village. An opportunity to gossip and catch up on news, women were the only ones permitted. Men never came here. Further, at the bottom of the well the temperature was nearly 20 degrees F cooler. It is moments such as this when I wonder who had it better? Western Women today heading to the gym to workout but opening a tap and water flows? Funny just considering how simple, if difficult, life must have been. And proving also how some things never change, on one side of the well sits a pavilion where the wealthy and royals could sit and rest.
Arriving in Agra, our final tourist stop for the day was Fatehpur Sikri. Coordinating all of this behind the scenes for my benefit, the tour guide met us as we drove into the lot.
Another shout out to my tour agency, Clique Holidays. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I receive NO compensation whatsoever for referrals or for mentioning someone in my blog. So, this is an honest testimonial for which I have received NO compensation. But having never experienced this level of care while traveling, I cannot say enough about it. At each stop I was dropped off and picked up with my guide, not looking for buses, or parking or managing traffic, I never waited for the driver or guide, they just “magically” appeared ready to take me on a new adventure. I was able to leave behind valuables in the car with full confidence they would be there when I returned. And with no running to busses or waiting for errant lost people, we moved at my schedule, staying longer when I wanted, or leaving early when that suited. So, I was nearly surprised when we arrived at the Fatehpur Sikri and my guide opened the door, introduced himself and whisked me off for another experience.
Once the capital of the Mughal Empire in 1571 by Emperor Akbar, the palace was completely abandoned in 1610 due to, I think, problems with obtaining water. Yet another UNESCO world heritage site, the building was constructed in the Hindu and Muslim architecture popular at the time in India. The structure itself contains a mixture of religious (Jama Masjid) and secular (a winter and summer palace for Miriam), buildings. Miriam was Akbar’s favorite wife and the mother of his son Jahangir.
I must confess to a bit of lethargy on this visit. It could have been the long car ride from Jaipur, but I wasn’t excited about this visit. It is a classic case of another time, and I may have loved it. But my guide, an amateur photographer enthusiastically snapped photos for me and I didn’t have the energy to refute. Knowing that I would have the same guide for my visit to the Taj Mahal the next day, I knew his skills at photography would not go to waste.
The Taj Mahal
Clique holidays arranged all the stops on this tour, with the only input from me being the sites that I wanted to see. They could have arranged it in any order, and I would not have known any better – meaning had I done this myself, I would have had a vastly different experience. I know that it is not unusual for tour guides to suggest an early morning arrival at the Taj, and this is for good reason. Watching the sun rise and the warm color spread across the gleaming white marble façade that is the Taj Mahal was breathtaking. Viewing this masterpiece of Muslim art, I was exceptionally lucky in that there was no fog, no precipitation and very few (relatively) tourists. It was high season, and yet we were nearly alone. Seeing this “Wonder of the World” which I had seen in photos since I was 12, live and in person, was just something I can’t explain. It was far more beautiful up close than even my wonderful tour guide was able to capture in his photos. And since I was alone on this tour, I was able to just meander freely around and take it all in. My guide shared with me the important details, but he allowed me to just walk alone and really feel the place and appreciate the intricate detail and symmetry of the building, the minarets and landscaping.
The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631 upon the death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died while giving birth to their 14th child. In her final moments, she asked her husband to promise her that he would not father any more children with another woman, and that he would build a mausoleum for her. Reportedly thoroughly devoted to her, and devastated at her passing, he kept both of those promises.
The only unsymmetrical aspect of the entire project is the tomb of Shah Jahan himself which was added later and not planned for originally. But looking at this masterpiece from every angle and side, there is nothing out of proportion or unmatched on both sides. Even the buildings which flank the mausoleum itself were only added for the benefit of symmetry. The minarets are ever so slightly bowed out so that in the event of an earthquake, they would fall away from the primary structure. The marble is of the highest translucent quality, the black onyx and jewels are inlayed so flawlessly as to appear to be painted. The writing is verses of the Koran which are bigger in size as your eye travels up to appear the same. More than 20,000 artisans are said to have been employed on this project, many of the descendants of these artists are still creating equally beautiful if not much smaller works of art in the local area. All these years later, this unequalled structure stands as a beautiful symbol of love the world over.
I’m glad that I “arrived” at New Delhi after I had a few days to “come into” India. I do not know if Clique Holidays knew the effect that arriving in New Delhi has on the average traveler and “saved” it for me (or more likely saved me from it). I don’t usually have too much unpleasant stuff to say about the cities I visit. Even in places where I may never return or wish to live – there is usually enough good, I hardly have space to write the stuff that isn’t so good. But I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression either. New Delhi is – wow – just LOUD – BOLD – heavy – and unquestionably it pulses at a vibration which might challenge the average visitor. While efforts to minimize pollution are real here – emissions tests on cars, electric vehicles and tuk-tuks common etc., the pollution is unmistakable. I felt my throat irritation while sitting in the line at immigration and I felt it again nearly immediately after the second time.
The chaotic traffic, which was otherworldly, and again, the cacophony of noise while animal, beast and human attempted to make way in any direction possible – was really something to behold. All of this is to say, had I experienced this after a flight with no sleep and a 3 hour wait in immigration, my humor may have been suffering.
I checked into the hotel and my guide arrived early the following day to whisk me off on my New Delhi tour.
New Delhi is the capital of India and all 3 branches of government call it home. There are 2 sections, the Old Delhi and New Delhi. The “New” section is characterized by gorgeous old colonial mansions, government buildings. But my favorite part of the day was the Rickshaw ride in Chandni Chowk and the spice market. My guide took me to a favorite place for a delightful snack. To say that a person could get lost doesn’t do it justice. The turns and snakes of the walkways felt like a maze I may never find my way out of again. But the energy, like most of the cities I had visited, was palpable and enjoyable.
Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi was high on my list of places to visit. So, here I’m going off on a tiny tangent which I get to do because this is my blog ha-ha. My guide asked me, as a Westerner what I thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Like most Westerners, I have an idea of who I think he is. Based on the facts of his life, Gandhi was born to a wealthy Hindu family, schooled in law, and spent most of his life advocating for civil rights. He employed nonviolent resistance in a campaign to end British rule. He ushered in a new era of independence in India and advocated for the end of the “untouchables’ caste. He was imprisoned, he went on hunger strikes and he was nominated several times, though never won, the Nobel Peace Prize. My guide then went on to say that many Indians are not fans of Gandhi and that there is a social media drive in effect sharing all the reasons that Gandhi was no friend to the Indian population. While my guide did not dispute any of the facts of Gandhi’s life, he found Gandhi’s position too Muslim friendly resulting in the Pakistani/Indian partition and the resultant wars between the two countries. My guide opted to allow me to visit the memorial alone. Possibly he had a phone call to make, but given the context of our conversation, I feel he had another reason.
This is exactly why I love travel. I love having honest discussions with people in their country and learning their point of view. To be clear, there was nothing that this guide was going to say which would change my view of this peace-loving advocate for the poor and for the people of India. But I appreciated hearing his viewpoint. I then suggested to my guide that perhaps any life, when viewed through a microscope, would show cracks but taken as a whole, as any life should be, was the world left better because he was there? And clearly few could argue that his life left the world and his community better than he found it.
We next visited the Lotus Temple, or the Bahai’I House of worship. Most noted for its construction, it is a non-denominational place of worship open to all faiths. And our last stop on the way to the airport was the Qutb Minar founded by the Rajputs built roughly in 1200. A beautiful example of Hindu-Muslim art and architecture, it is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the most visited sites in New Delhi.
Leaving this site, I bid farewell to my tour guide and my beloved driver who protected me all week. I boarded my flight to Varanasi which is where I will begin the next blog update.
If you are considering a tour to India – I highly recommend clique holidays. Their details follow:
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