Last April, I was lucky enough to be included in the final round-up of a fam trip to India, perfectly coordinated and organised with our local partners at SITA. There were five of us going in total, from various departments in The Holiday Place and most of us had never been there before. But even for the minority that had, it was a truly amazing and eye-opening experience.
For me particularly, there were quite a few things that left me awe-struck; some indeed became benchmarks against which to compare other grand landmarks in the world, although many I fear, are so unique that they’re well beyond any form of comparison.
And that’s India for you (from me), puzzling, intriguing, frustrating and even upsetting at times but beautiful and rich in more ways than you can grasp in a single trip. That’s why I definitely plan to go back and dig deeper. After all I saw the famous "Golden Triangle" and it sure quenched my thirst for the country as it was the ideal introduction to it, but India spans a so much bigger geographical area!
In the meantime, here are the things that surprised me most (both positively and at times negatively – although there’s far more weighing on the former than the latter) about this country of contrasts and centuries-old cultural riches.
Delhi and the big signs in English
The first few glimpses I got of Delhi as we drove out of the airport and into the city’s bustling heart gave me the impression of a leafy, busy, somewhat dusty city with stark contrasts here and there. To start off one of the things that surprised me the most was to see all the big signs in advertisements, billboards or buildings written in English, all in large bold letters that sometimes accompanied smaller writing in Hindi, but only sometimes and seldom (at least on most of the street we passed through).
It’s true that, as the guide told us, English is the second official language in India, yet the fact that it is widely spoken at virtually every level, surely must exclude part of the more humble, uneducated minority – although I suspect that those who cannot read in English are probably illiterate in Hindi too (India’s literacy rate is 74% which means that over a quarter of the population can’t read or write).
My own bit of geeky research here - in Delhi the literacy rate as per the 2011 census was 86.34% so still there is a small chunk of the population that cannot read in the capital, which surprised me because I imagined Delhi to be the most literate (with it being the capital and all!). It turns out that the literacy trophies in India actually go to states like Kerala (93.91 % literacy) and Tripura (94.65%) with Delhi ranking in the ninth position.
But going back to my initial issue with the English writing everywhere, perhaps it’s because there’s a general assumption that those that can’t read English can’t afford the products or services advertised on billboards. Or, maybe, the companies that advertise in English do so because it makes them sound more international and reputable and Delhi is India’s most international and commercial city? Whatever the reason was, it detracted a bit from the authenticity of getting a true Indian flavour. Of course the setting alone made you realise where you were, but still you don’t expect to see it all being written in English…at least I didn’t.
The image of cows freely wandering in the middle of streets, sometimes stopping traffic was one that I wasn’t really prepared for as I thought this only happened in rural villages well off the beaten path. Yes, I knew (as everybody does) that cows are sacred animals for Hindus and Indians, and as such they are treated with utmost care and respect. But the image of cows freely rambling the streets and often stopping traffic seemed too surreal.
Whilst I didn’t see any on the streets of Delhi I did see quite a few cows in urban areas of Agra and Jaipur, sometimes lined by the sidewalk, others crossing the traffic-laden street and generally looking at peace in such an unlikely, chaotic environment. They didn’t seem to be put off in the very least by the continuous honking sounds or the smoke - they were the perfect image of carefree freedom and extreme adaptation in a rather unnatural setting. Some even seemed to be so friendly they approached our coach bus and if hadn’t it been for the fixed glass windows I’m sure I could have petted one. It truly was an amusing sight I’ll forever relish!
The illuminating radiance of Jaipur
Jaipur by all accounts, or at least what I saw of it, seemed much cleaner and prettier than Delhi in general (and Agra even) as well as considerably less polluted – the clear blue skies I longed for and failed to find in dusty Delhi and later in Agra, I found in Jaipur. The city had a more delicate appeal, a finer quality that I’m afraid I’ll fail to fully capture in words - these are personal impressions after all.
Worthy of admiration was the Hawa Mahal, standing in stark contrast against Jaipur’s more modern urban landscape and taking you back to memorable times of powerful Maharajahs commanding grand architectural marvels like this one. We made an obligatory stop here to take pictures and it’s hard to capture the full width of this beauty but I sure tried my best.
Likewise, the City Palace proved yet another magical encounter, with its exquisite and bright design so different from the structures seen everywhere else we visited. With its pink central building and vividly coloured interiors it exudes sheer fairy dust. It’s the most delicate, ornate and feminine of all the attractions we saw.
But the one taking the big trophy here is the one I’ll be describing in more detail just below – the fairytale-like Amber Fort.
The dream-like essence of the Amber Fort
The delicate palatial beauty of the magnificent Amber Fort was an unexpected breath of fresh air after seeing so many red brick wonders like the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri or the terracotta hues of Jama Masjid and Taj Mahal’s predecessor, Humayun’s Tomb. All ancient wonders that we had seen up until this point in India seemed to be dominated by shades of red (with the obvious exception of Taj Mahal’s pure glistening whiteness).
Not so with the Amber Fort, or Amer Fort (as it’s spelled in Hindi) and the name is but a small clue explaining its stark contrast against the afore-mentioned constructions - not red buy yellow. The exterior walls of this vast fortress could indeed be said to be amber-coloured, although its vibrancy is unsurprisingly fading after the passage of so many centuries; but the flaking paint doesn’t detract an inch from its grand ageless beauty – that’s beyond questioning.
It’s hard to describe what’s more striking; the stunning uphill location overlooking the mirror-like waters of the Maota Lake or the fort itself in its immense grandeur and splendour. But it doesn’t even begin there, this attraction really comes to life in an even more dramatic fashion as you make the climb on the back of an elephant allowing you for the most impressive views over the region and the fort, the likes of which I had never had the privilege of experiencing.
If riding on an elephant for the strenuous walk uphill rings your animal welfare alarms (as was the case with me) you might be relieved to learn that there’s an Elephant Welfare Office at the fort (should you witness any mistreatment or cruelty towards these inspiring creatures you can report it there) and you can do your bit by further donating to the local Wildlife SOS if you so wish.
You go up the fort in pairs (elephants can carry up to two persons each), and the landscapes you witness as you make your way up are truly breathtaking, nothing short of jaw-dropping. Street vendors accompany you all the way up yelling and trying to sell you things. This might be a nuisance if you let it get to you but I was too lost in the beauty of it all to even notice – plus when I did pay attention to them it was to barter amicably and in the end I managed to get a bag full of wooden ornaments for half the price the vendor quoted at the start of the ascend.
Once you’re up there you’re faced with a maze of beauty and so many vantage points you’ll be pointing your camera in all directions. Unsurprisingly an attraction as awesome as this is visited daily by many tourists so you might have to be patient and wait for people to clear the way to get the most stunning shots – but patience is a virtue and you’ll be immensely rewarded.
We were on a guided tour and as such our tight schedule didn’t allow for much time, thus my pictures aren’t flawless and I wasn’t able wait endlessly for people to get out of the shot – still I walked off with some treasured snaps.
What struck me most?
The vibrant, intricate and colourful paintings on some of the facades, the exquisite use of colour and floral patterns including some rare depictions of Hindu Gods, the beautiful carved arches with undulating lines creating beautiful corridors which were a photographer’s dream perspective shot (I went clicking mad), the perfectly landscaped gardens… I could go on, but there’s not much point in only describing these beauties when mere words don’t do it justice - have a look at our gallery and be amazed with your own eyes. The love is truly in the detail and the wow factor is on how these have managed to stand the test of time.
In a way the Amber Fort represented the lively bright side of Jaipur I was describing earlier, it seems to clearly belong here and nowhere else does it fit its environment most. The grandeur of the Amber Fort left me speechless in a haze of delight and wonder. No wonder this is the main attraction not just in Jaipur but in all of India’s Rajasthan region.
The ethereal beauty of the Taj Mahal
This was one attraction in India I feared would be less than what I imagined it to be. It often happens that when you’ve heard of something’s amazingness so much you build it up in your head to such great dimensions that the real thing can’t even come close to your imagined version. Not the case with the Taj Mahal. It could never be.
Yet somehow you expect it to blow your mind instantly and that didn’t happen to me, not at first – my enrapturing was a gradual process that intensified as I got closer to its very heart and soul, the masterpiece mausoleum and symbol of love standing at the very end, the ultimate climax and reward.
At the beginning you see it in the distance and it looks improbable, almost blurry as a dreamlike apparition that could vanish in an instant. Then the people on the way and the noise confuse you, is that the Taj Mahal over there? Really?
You then think: all that pomp and flair and it doesn’t even look real in the distance…it practically blends into the hazy skies…Well, that’s exactly the point, it’s a spiritual place and as such it has a supernatural, spirit-like presence. A quality of something so pure and ethereal it could decide to float up towards the heavens in an instant…it looks as though it could easily slip away from its foundations and ascend all the way up where it belongs…well, that’s the impression I got anyway.
Before getting closer we took some time to appreciate it from a distance and let one of the local “official photographers” take individual and group photos of us which he then charged us at the equivalent of £1 per photograph - thanks to our tour guide intervening and bargaining with him, otherwise we would probably have been coerced into paying more. Some of the photographs he took were really stunning souvenirs, so worth every penny.
Once you walk on, past the hordes of tourists and march towards the foot of the mausoleum you fully take in its colossal proportions and gasp in even more awe. For the ascension you are required to take your shoes off and as you make your way up the wooden steps (put on top of the original marble ones to protect the original structure) this act adds to the humbling experience of being upclose such a feat of tremendous architectural beauty, but most evidently such a monumental work of love.
You can truly feel the sense of mourning and transcending, larger-than-life love in the air. This is the stuff romantic novels are made of but all the more compelling because it’s actually real.
Everyone knows the love story behind this great marvel, whoever hasn't read about it has at the very least heard of it so I won't go into too much detail. Suffice it to say that in that day and age for a powerful Muslim ruler (who had many other wives) to devote the rest of his lifetime to building a palatial mausoleum for his one true love is a moving and desperate act of devotion and desolation seen nowhere else in the world in such a grand scale. His dedication to seeing this monument come to life and sparing no fortune in its construction even cost him to spend the remainder of his lifetime imprisoned in a tower from which he overlooked his ultimate labour of love until his very last day.
The stop in the itinerary that I most looked forward to witnessing, the Taj Mahal is a difficult wonder to describe in a way that fully does it justice. It’s not glorious in an imposing way, it’s ethereally sublime. There are indeed negatives, like the fact is much too crowded and that can detract from an otherwise truly heaven-like spiritual experience.
The captivating wildness and surprising warmth of Ranthambore
And we entered India’s Tigerland. Wildness and warmth are two terms that you don’t often see standing next to each other, unless you’re describing the weather in wild lands or making an allusion to a wild animal fiercely protecting its offspring or nursing it (that’s a wild image that can fill us with warmth).
Ranthambore’s is precisely like that image, a chunk of protected wilderness with an added dimension of warmth wrapped up in modern day comforts that never stand out or look out of place amidst their wild surroundings. I’m talking here about the hotels and lodges in Ranthambore – all the ones we visited as well as the one where we stayed were low-rise properties that perfectly blended with the landscape, some with more luxurious interiors than others but all in full “tigerlicious” character.
We could not fault where we stayed at: Ranthambore Regency. It might not be the most luxurious or modern hotel in the area but it has charm in bucketloads. Our hosts were the most caring, attentive and humorous we could have hoped for. Each time we met them at mealtimes they never failed to put a smile on our face and one even promised me the opportunity to personally meet Machli (the legendary tigress and Queen Mother of other tigers in the reserve) on my next visit if I managed to gulp down a full tall glass of chaas or buttermilk (a thick sour-tasting drink popular in India to accompany meals and aid digestion).
The tiger expert onsite also gave us a great introduction into the safari we’d be going on the next day and enlightened us on how to have the best chance at spotting them (which we sadly didn’t in the end but that’s how it goes). They were all really knowledgeable about the area and their wild inhabitants and were happy to answer as many questions as sprang to our minds. Plus, they all sounded like they truly deeply cared about the wellbeing and conservation status of these fantastic creatures. Neither of them could have been more pleasant or engaging to talk with.
The chatty, witty Ranthambore Regency guys topped all of the other hosts we encountered along the way by miles – it felt like a cosy and familiar place to spend weeks in instead of our shortened two-day version, so I’d definitely cherish an opportunity to be back!
The ambitious construction plans of the new Delhi Metro
Once back in Delhi for the end of our tour I was introduced to one of the latest transport developments in the capital. An attempt to get more cars off the road and onto alternative, cleaner and more environmentally friendly forms of transport, the new Delhi Metro had ambitious expansion plans.
As the guide told us there were a couple of lines (yellow and red) already operating (with quite a few more under construction) and the newly-built trains were shiny, modern and comfortable inside, with air conditioning and state-of-the-art design. Yet, as one lady from SITA told us, most people that own cars in India are quite proud of their vehicle ownership and would not leave their treasured and far more convenient wheeled possessions at home to go for an alternative method of public transport. Some may view it beneath their status, and most simply wouldn’t give up the convenience and comfort of driving their own cars.
Who knows maybe in the future the traffic might get so bad (it’s crazy enough as it is) and the metro will have developed into so many new routes that some will be pushed to use it. Pollution levels in Delhi are way off the recommended limits, so turning to public transport would definitely be a good thing and a positive step forward but unless really pushed to do so it doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon.
The only low - begging children in Delhi
Now I’m aware that in some parts of the world child beggars do exist and in fact the guide had warned us to be aware of them when getting off the coach bus. But it’s one thing to be aware and another to be confronted by it, to face it and be personally affected by it. As a new mum of a toddler who had just turned two my heart ached to see this little girl no older than five cradling her newborn sibling with one hand (not without some difficulty) while stretching the other to ask for money. That I was totally unprepared for and this vision totally shattered my heart to pieces.
The heat, the flies circling around that tiny baby, the struggle of the little girl to carry his weight (she was only tiny herself after all), the fact there was no responsible adult for these two tiny creatures in sight and the enraging thought of how could any parent in the world leave a very young child responsible for a helpless baby made my blood boil and my heart ache – deeply.
I desperately wanted to do something, to take that baby off her, shade him from the relentless heat, spray those flies dead and put him safe, but knew I could really do nothing and that was even more upsetting. I had to be in fact pushed along our way to continue because I kept staring at her wondering how much to give her, what little effect it would all have and why everyone insisted I ignored her and walked off. How could anyone be so heartless I thought?
Well…it’s all part of a big mafia as it turns out, and as long as tourists continue to hand over money it will never stop. I later read more on the subject when I got home and was absolutely horrified to see how some parents in India go to the lengths of severing their children’s limbs to make it more compelling for tourists to give them something. An article by Jillian Keenan on Slate titled Keep the Change: Giving money to child beggars is the least generous thing a tourist can do really put it all in perspective for me.
Now, I’m happy to say that I only witnessed this level of child begging in Delhi and only on this one occasion I described here was I moved to tears. We did see some other older (therefore much less disturbing) children begging elsewhere in the country, but most of these were trying to sell you something in exchange so it couldn’t be strictly called begging. It still doesn’t feel right as they shouldn’t be missing school, but you cope with seeing this so much better. Truth of the matter is that for me it didn’t prove that much easier to decline their offers and I walked away with a long elephant chain that I later gave to my elephant-loving son and which he still loves to play with.
The thought of that girl endlessly doing that same round day after day still haunts me today and sometimes I wonder whether I should have called a police, or raised someone’s attention to it. But sadly no police in India would take these issues seriously and (to no one’s surprise) there was no police officer anywhere around.
That image will forever be a lingering pain in my heart. If there was one thing in India I wish I could put an end to it would definitely be this. No more use of vulnerable young children for begging please.
Other highlights and a personal unexpected favourite – Qutab Minar
We did visit many other iconic Indian landmarks as part of our tour and although they are indeed impressive and truly magnificent feats of architecture belonging to glorious bygone eras; none of these captivated my heart quite in the same way the others I’ve already described here did.
In Delhi there was the 16th century Humayun’s Tomb (a worthy precursor to the Taj Mahal) and the impressive Jama Masjid mosque (which in all honesty I could have skipped altogether). In Agra, besides the Taj Mahal, there was the intensely red and extremely photogenic fortress of Fatehpur Sikri (and thanks to the minimal crowds at the time of visiting I managed to get some striking shots). Lastly, in Jaipur the unforgettable (and highly educational) observatory at Jantar Mantar immediately captured my interest and made me want to learn more as it sheds an insight into India's astronomic advances astrological beliefs. Indeed our accompanying lady from SITA told me how much Indians rely on Zodiac predictions to pick auspicious days for weddings, starting a new job, and so on.
But it was ultimately, the Qutab Minar in Delhi the one unexpected highlight that I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with. It was a photographer’s dream. And I’m not even referring to its main attraction and focal point; the second tallest tower (or minar) in India. That was surely impressive but I actually fell in love with the ruins surrounding it. The remains of the medieval monuments and columns scattered around are what truly did it for me.
Some uncrowded nooks and crannies were perfectly isolated and made me feel like Lara Croft in a lost ancient valley. The intricate, ornate motifs carved on the stone, the exquisitely detailed columns with plenty of reliefs, it all gave it a dreamlike eerie. This was another big highlight for me that appealed to me in a more personal way, it reminded me of landscaped I fantasised about in childhood, and I’m sure it would have the same effect in many others but I know its appeal is not as widespread as other bigger attractions.
Another highlight was visiting the Carpet & Textile Mahal factory in Jaipur but on this experience I’ll probably elaborate more on a future post because it was something I thoroughly documented and truly enjoyed. Carpets were expensive and way out of my price range but I did admire the exquisite handiwork and I did walk off with a silk sari and a few silk scarves to bring home to friends and family.