By Jean and Peter Richards
India’s Golden Triangle unfolds in layers as intricate as the colorful costumes of its women.
Its cities abound in economic contradictions; its suburbs burst with banal expansion, but in the landscapes of its fertile, furrowed fields, the India of vivid image comes to life.
New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra provided the classic tourist taste of a country as complicated as its condiments.
It teems with exotic sights and sounds, yet is familiar as the voices of the call support centers now known world-wide.
People we know seem to love or fear India. The well-traveled often advised, “Don’t go. You won’t be able to deal with the poverty.”
“Be careful. There’s crime on the streets and corruption everywhere.”
“Don’t drink the water.”
Ours was a limited taste of Delhi, new and old; Jaipur, Fatephur Sikri and Agra on a private tour for two arranged by Abercrombie and Kent (A & K). It was fabulous and whetted our appetites for more.
There is poverty. You see it in the people who live on the streets on Delhi and camping out in front of the walls of the enclaves of the privileged. You surmise it in the clusters of the un-Westernized sectors where the glorious colors of native costume brighten dusty markets and you suddenly realize that here is where people smile more. Poverty is not an assault on the senses as so many expect, it is a fact of existence.
Crime and corruption were factors in our choice of how to see India in the Fall of 2013. Reports of vicious attacks against women had spread and impacted tourism.
As older, independent travelers, we had twice been stymied in attempts to plan a trip with some surety of arrangements. When A & K emailed a Fall Savings special, we leapt at the chance and for the first time in a half century of travel to nearly 40 countries on five continents booked a 10 day tour — albeit a flexible private itinerary with set dates and pricing for two complete with driver, guides and five-star accommodations. At $2,230 per person, exclusive of international airfare and travel document fees, it was a great choice.
At hotels along the way we met other Westerners exhausted from long days of luxury group journeys by rattling bus, irritated by fellow travelers and exasperated by the number of stops where tourists were encouraged so the driver could get a commission. We experienced none of that, but rather a splendid spree with informative guides, a skilled driver and pleasant lodging, particularly at the Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur.
Both of us were recovering from modest injuries to limbs which slowed our pace but not our enthusiasm for Delhi, the nation’s capital, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Amidst the cacophony of Delhi lies the serenity of the magnificent remains of the 12th century Qutub Minar complex, home to India’s first mosque. We walked and idled amongst its arches, towers and green gardens as Mehesh Ramnani, our able guide, instructed in its Mughal history.
Proportion is essential to successful design. Humayan’s 16th century double-domed tomb is said to have inspired the perfection that is evident in the Taj Mahal at Agra. A more recent success is the Bahai Lotus Temple in which 27 marble petals unfold in a magnificent modern homage to the flower, a symbol of purity. The house of worship, surrounded by nine pools and set amidst expansive gardens, is open to all. Lines of visitors seem interminable but move with remarkable swiftness and respect for the site.
A drive around New Delhi’s British Colonial cream colored government centers, India Gate and leafy diplomatic enclaves was contrasted with the earthiness of Old Delhi’s spartan 17th century red sandstone fort, an early seat of Mughal power and later the place where the first flag of independence from British rule was raised in 1947.
Rickshaws aren’t the most comfortable mode of transportation, but they provide an easy way to traverse the narrow alleys of Delhi’s markets and reach its open air Jama Masjid mosque.
Gandhi Samriti, the house in New Delhi where the Mahatma spent his final months and was, was a serendipitous addition to our itinerary. His few worldly possessions are displayed in spartan rooms, but we were captivated by the series of dioramas made by craftsmen to commemorate the points of his life. They are charming, informative and appropriate in their simplicity.
Only the National Museum in Delhi disappointed with a paucity of offerings and surprising shabbiness. We had hoped to see more of the fabulous miniatures, ceramics and other decorative arts remembered from an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1991, but came to accept that Indians were quite sincere when they told us, “The British took all the best even down to scraping the gold off the walls and ceilings of the 14th century fort at Agra.” Old British India hands, of course, counter that the natives did the looting themselves. The truth is likely somewhere between.
The massive Amber Fort that looms in the hills over the pink city of Jaipur delights with the intimacy of halls, mirrored chamber, gardens and temple. We declined the opportunity to bounce up to its inner reaches on an elephant, sat back in the car and enjoyed the view across the valleys and city from on high.
The intensity with which Indian people look to the stars for guidance is evident at the sculpturally modernistic and functional 18th century astronomical instruments which comprise the Jantar Mantar. The neighboring City Palace museum has a splendid collection of royal costumes and intricately worked textiles and famously large silver urns made to carry sacred Ganges water to London for a Maharaja’s use during a visit in Victorian times.
The elaborate facade known as the Hall of the Wind is a stand out, but the palace which has become the 100 room Jai Mahal hotel is an 18th century Rajasthani gem is justly referred to as a “masterpiece in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture.” Its grounds sprawl over 18 acres. Fires on its terraces cast a warm glow on a cool night as 600 revelers gathered in flower strewn pavilions below for a sumptuous wedding event said to cost as much as $50,000, possibly not including its video drone and camera crew.
In the mezzanine restaurant called Cinnamon, we found a young chef is making a mark worthy of the palace’s heritage. Niranjan Nayak’s food bears no relation to the dishes we have tried and dismissed in Western Indian restaurants. His have depth and finesse and changed our perception of Indian food. (See accompanying review.) So enthusiastic is this charming young man that next day he sent a bowl of his dal to our lunch. Its subtle and rich taste lingers in memory as does his smile.
An unexpected highlight of our tour was the drive from Jaipur to Agra. Along the way we glimpsed the India of legend — women doing field work in bright and beautiful saris, thatched open air shops, donkey carts laden with bricks fresh from kilns whose chimneys rose like stelae beyond the fields. That which looks so beautiful and bucolic can be backbreaking to person and beast.
Alongside the highway, fastidiously groomed camels ornamented with decorative necklaces were being led by men in fresh white garments walking them to the annual fair at Pushkar hundreds of kilometers yon as helmeted and cell phone carrying women on motorbikes zipped past with the colorful tails of their regional dress fluttering in the wind.
At Fatehpur Sikri, Manu Pathak, a pioneering female guide, waited to show us the hauntingly beautiful and ephemeral 16th century red sandstone capital abandoned possibly for lack of sustainable water almost as quickly as it was built.
We couldn’t resist a stop at lively market outside of Agra where a festival appeared to be in the making. Musicians in sparkling blue uniforms gathered around trucks decorated to a fare-thee-well ready to transport grooms to brides on wedding days. There seemed a brisk business in marigold flowers in stall after stall. Women were carefully selecting long stalks of sugar cane. “The Devuthan Festival,” Manu explained, is a time when offerings are made to the Hindu gods in hopes of being favored with an auspicious wedding day. It was joyous, it was colorful and it was a glimpse of daily life which makes a trip memorable.
We took Manu’s advice and did not go for the sunrise at the Taj Mahal when, she said, the lines would be long, the press of the crowd possibly tight, and haze would obscure the view. We arrived about 8 a.m. when the haze was just lifting. There were no lines. Security was so tight that a piece of candy was confiscated. Only water, tissue, wallets and a small camera were allowed in our pockets.
The Taj, like an increasing number of tourist sites world-wide, has a two tier payment system: 750 Rupees for foreigners and 50 for natives when we were there. An increase has been proposed.
The site of the beautifully proportioned white marble domed 17th century mausoleum built for a beloved queen now also teems with those seeking to emulate a princess – visitors queue to pose on the bench that Britain’s Diana made famous in a memorable photograph.
Much as we enjoyed the Taj and the 14th century Agra Fort, we equally enjoyed the company of our guide, Manu, whose knowledge of history and willingness to discuss Indian culture immeasurably enriched our experience. She didn’t blanche when we elected not to return to the monument at sunset for what sounded like a ghastly and expensive sound and light show designed just for tourists. Instead, we asked to be taken to a local market.
We found it far more interesting to see the people, the fresh produce, the peanuts roasting in sand in a wok, the making of sweets and the preparation of paan, a beetle nut and other flavorings folded in a leaf. Indians take great delight chewing this concoction. Flies buzzed, cows wandered, dogs foraged, rickshaw drivers sat at the ready and the kids smiled, waved and said, “Hi.”
Women were gaily dressed in saris. Inexpensive ones with five meters or more of cloth could be had for a few hundred rupees; better ones cost anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 ($80 – $800) as a rule, Manu said.
We learned that women shop daily and cook fresh food at each meal. They would never make something in the morning to eat at night, she said. At the end of the day she will prepare two dishes to share with her husband and seven-year-old son —a meat dish and a vegetable dish. Men generally don’t cook.
We asked to see a supermarket, but Manu said the big store in a nearby shopping mall had closed for lack of business. “People prefer to shop locally. They know that small businesses are important to the Indian way of life and economy,” she said.
Though Manu comes from a family of guides officially licensed by the Indian government, she is a pioneer who endured experiences familiar the world over to women breaking into male purviews. She succeeds with intelligence, grace and style. We were sorry to leave her at Agra.
Everything and everyone in India has a story – even the water. Himalayan, our preferred bottled brand, comes with all the statistics of its mineral composition and its biography:
“I was born in the Sivalik range of the Himalayas. In a place most of you visit only in an Atlas. In a time that wasn’t measured by cuckoos that sprang out of clocks. In a silence that was sometimes punctuated by howling winds and gushing streams. In a world that had nothing to do with yours. Seems like enough reason to be here.”
Not a bad story for any traveler in India.
Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards