Asia

India Travels Continued...

The Taj Mahal is a tourist attraction that is 100% worth the hype, crowd, and line.  It is an architectural masterpiece, and all eyes travel over the pools and up to the domes exactly how the genius creators intended. It is made of an ivory-white marble, and took about 20 years to build .  Commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife, the Taj today acts as a mausoleum for both of their remains.

The structure is a testament to symmetry and grace, with the monstrous dome towering 115 feet above the base and surrounding lakes.  The reflective pools and sunken gardens change as they slope away from the dome to keep everything proportional, and then the inlay of precious and semi-precious stones make staring at the Taj a pleasure, whether from near or far.  It is spectacular.

It was a full moon, so we also signed up to visit the Taj by moonlight.  It was much quieter and even peaceful (hard to get at tourist sites in India!), and we highly recommend it if the timing is possible.

Next, we hopped a train to India’s capital Delhi.  The Holi Festival is the Hindu festival known as the “festival of color,” and it signifies the arrival of spring and the victory of good over evil.  This was actually an anchor date for us, as spring and conquering evil are two of Blakely’s favorite things to celebrate!  We found a fun place to go, put on some clothes we didn’t mind ruining, and prepared for fun.  Blakely’s hair was pink for literally over 2 months!

We stayed at a charming B&B called B Nineteen Hotel—it was the perfect tranquil base in an otherwise hectic place.  And then of course, we had to get our tourist on.

Our first stop was to the Qutab complex, a gathering of 27 Hindu and Jain temples and one of the oldest ruins surviving in India.  The main attraction is the Qutub Minar, which is a giant minaret built by the first Sultan of Delhi in the 1300s.  It was fascinating to wander and explore all of the temples, monuments, and tombs.

One of the major attractions in Delhi is the impressive Red Fort, which was the residence and political center for the Moghul dynasty in the 17 and 1800s.   Though most of the valuable artwork and jewels were plundered, the defensive walls were left intact to be admired.

Nerd alert!

After all of that dust, it was time for some luxury in one of our favorite ways:  Tea Time.  Tea Time is the best because of the gorgeous setting, peaceful atmosphere and relatively reasonable price tag if you make it a meal.  Whether in India at the Imperial Hotel or at the Livingston Hotel in Victoria Falls, we very much enjoy acting civilized for an hour or so.  

Our last stop in India was a BIG one, and a place that shouldn’t be taken on lightly.  It is a city shrouded in traditions that travelers can find unsettling.  It is the pinnacle of Indian culture that, while magnificent, is the epitome of culture shock.  We’re talking about the holy city of Varanasi.

Varanasi is the holiest city in the Hindu religion, and is also where Buddha gave his fist sermon which started Buddhism.  Those being the two biggest religions in India make Varanasi pretty significant to its people.  Mark Twain summarized Varanasi as only he can: “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”  

The city is located on the Ganges River, and the river is considered holy and the base of many rituals. In a country of intense overpopulation and the accompanying sanitation issues, we didn’t wonder why.  Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges brings absolution of sins, and all Hindus try to make the pilgrimage once in their life. But even more unique, Hindus believe that death in Varanasi will bring salvation and break the cycle of rebirth. This belief makes Varanasi a major center for pilgrimage at the end of life and for families bringing loved ones who have died.  There are countless funeral pyres all along the banks, but these are mixed in with children swimming and locals doing laundry in a combination that you’d only find in India. 

We stayed at one of our favorite hotels, Hotel Ganges View, which is a refurbished mansion located on the river.  The gorgeous terraces and home cooked meals were the perfect comfort and base to explore the rather uncomfortable city.  

We chose Varanasi Walking Tours as our hosts, and did the overview tour as well as the Sunrise Yoga Tour.  Both were exceptional ways to see the city and experience the atmosphere that makes Varanasi so special.  

A must in Varanasi is a boat tour at night and experience the ceremonies on the bank.  The main ritual is Aarti, which is performed by Brahmin disciples and honors the river and deities.  It takes place every night at 7pm no matter the weather, and is full of chanting, incense, and fire dancing.  

Of course, the most frequent ritual is burning the bodies of loved ones in the many funeral pyres.  They request no photos to maintain the holiness and sacredness of the experience, which we respected.

Lastly we participated in a beautiful ritual:  Releasing a candle out on to the river as we made a wish!  Pilgrims all over the world come to Varanasi to release a wish, and the river is full of the votive candles floating into the distance.  We couldn’t wish for a cooler experience in India. It is truly a spectacular place that can’t be explored enough.  If you ever have the chance, please visit.  Bring a sense of humor and adventure, and let India sweep you away.

After the chaos, heat and dust of India, we retreated to a refuge chosen by countless pilgrims before us: the sacred Himilayan mountains.

A Honeymoon in India

India is an all-encompassing experience and a world unto itself.  As we made our way through the country, we read as much as we could, both fact and fiction, to try and soak up this spectacular culture.  We didn’t get enough.

For those lucky enough to have gone to India, there are no neutral feelings about it.  You either are utterly and incandescently in love with India and glow when recounting tales, or you hold a passionate abhorrence and shudder at the thought of it.  We unequivocally fall into the first category.

That doesn’t mean we don’t understand the haters.  India is a LOT to take, and the sensory overload isn’t always pleasant. But it is a spectacular culture, and with 17% of the world’s population, it is a place you have to see.

We started at one of the coolest places: Mumbai (aka Bombay).  We were lucky enough through Honeymoons.com to stay at one of the best hotels in the world:  The Taj Palace Hotel.  Not only is this hotel luxurious and beautiful, it is full of history that runs parallel to that of Mumbai itself.  Read Blakely’s article to learn more, but this hotel is worth a trip to Mumbai.  And of course, we had to take advantage of the amenities.

After exploring the hotel, we wanted to explore our neighborhood.  Until fairly recently (1947) India was a British colony, and Mumbai holds gorgeous architecture that beautifully blends the two very different cultures.  

Mumba is indicative of one of the hardest things for foreigners to take in about India—the sheer number of people.  In India, there is an estimated population of 1.3 billion people, which equates a living space of only 4 square meters per person.  The Mumbai train system transports 7.5 million commuters daily (that's larger than the entire population of Denmark).  But the energy level of the city is unlike any other (this is coming from New Yorkers) and it will remain one of our favorite cities from the trip.  A visit is best paired with reading Shantaram, a spectacular book that offers a visceral glimpse into India in all of its overwhelming magnificence.

Our number 1 recommendation in Mumbai is a Slum Tour.  This sounds bizarre, we know, and photos aren’t allowed so we have very little evidence to show for how extraordinary this tour was (though, the fact they don’t allow photos speaks to the integrity of the company and their protection of the dignity of the people in the slums).  

So first, erase anything you associate with the word slum, ghetto, or similar because Mumbai slums are not that.  62% of the Mumbai population live in a slum, including both our tour guide and our driver.  Many of the slum inhabitants work towards the economy that their slum has adopted (more on that later), and others work very hard elsewhere in the city.  These slum dwellers travel from impoverished villages for the opportunity of the big city, and they’re grateful to be able to live and work in Mumbai.  

We went to three different types of slum. First to Dharavi, the second largest slum in India.  We visited the portion where their industry is recycling, which makes it less fortunate because of the fumes.  However, the industry employs approximately 250,000 people, exports goods all over the world, and is estimated to turnover between $650 million to $1 billion dollars per year.  This was far from a utopia—the fumes were thick, the homes congested, and filth over every surface.  But every single person was busy working.

Next, we went to Dhobi Ghat where most of the city (including luxury hotels) send their laundry.  Through a complex labeling system, these workers collect the laundry, sort by color, handwash, dry and return TONS of laundry efficiently and correctly. Pictures were allowed here, but ours don't convey the immense operation this slum operates.  

Lastly, we went to the portion of Dharavi that house many of the city's hotel and tourism workers.  The bustle of the people in their crisp attire and focused walk dispelled any remaining prejudice we had against the slum.

The second thing we'd recommend is the Prince of Wales Museum, now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (with India's independence, they renamed everything to honor native history.  Real confusing for the tourists, but fair!).  It is located in a beautiful building in the Victoria Garden, and our favorite was the gorgeous ivory and saris.

We couldn’t stay in Mumbai forever, so next we flew to the north-western region of India called Rajasthan where we would stay for a couple weeks.  Our first stop was a city called Udaipur, which is also known as the City of Lakes.   Incredibly beautiful and romantic, the city’s main attraction is its palace and that’s where we headed first!

Ornate and immense, the palace took over 400 years to construct and is the largest palace in Rajasthan.  It provides breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding lakes and city, and listening to its story was a great snapshot into India’s history of Maharajas. Coupled with a lunch at the Palace View restaurant, and even a couple dusty travelers like us felt glamorous!

Blakely next stopped by an art school to learn about the traditional form on miniature art.  This technique is practiced all over India, and uses tools like brushes made of camel eyelashes to make miniscule brushstrokes with natural dyes.  The bottom picture is one that is now hanging in our home!

Next, we took a road trip through Rajasthan.  Budget friendly India allowed us to have a driver to escort us, which enabled pit stops and roadside views that made the journey even better than the destinations.  Among other sights, we stumbled upon a colorful road crew and Blakely couldn’t resist stopping.  Most road crews we saw in India were women, which is extraordinary enough.  What makes it even more remarkable is that the women wear the most gorgeous saris while performing their work.  This group of women was full of laughs and energy, and taking pictures with them was a true highlight.

Isn't the fabric gorgeous?

Midway between Udaipur and our next destination was one of the stops we could NOT miss—the Ranakpour Temple.  The temple is carved out of white marble, and the extravagantly intricate pillars, arches, and porticoes epitomize Indian architecture.  There are 1444 marble pillars, and no two are the same.  The marble creates a calm and coolness even in this chaotic sun-torched area.  Absolutely stunning.

Our next destination was Jodhpur, which is known as the Blue City because most of the dwellings surrounding the city’s fort are painted a gorgeous bright blue.  We stayed at a charming house that was converted into Hotel Singhvi. The Mehrangarh Fort rises out of the desert and, if I was a desert trader under constant threat of being robbed, it is exactly where I would go.  It holds several palaces, which in true Indian fashion are full of gorgeous carvings and refreshingly cool courtyards.  The museum is one of the best in Rajasthan, and holds costumes, paintings, and arms used by the Majarajas in the 1400s.

Next up:  Glamping in the Indian desert of course.  You can read about our adventure at Damodra Camp here.  We met some of our favorite people and had adventures that could only be had in the desert of India.

Next we made a quick stop in Jaisalmer, called the Golden City, to tour its magnificent fort. Again, the vast size coupled with the intricate detail makes walking through these fort/palaces a delight.  

We next hopped on a train to Jaipur, where we stayed at the gorgeous palace/hotel Alsisar Haveli, which you can read about on Blakely’s Honeymoons.com article here.    Jaipur is the capital and largest city in Rajasthan, and it is known as “The Pink City” due to the gorgeous coral color of the palace and surrounding city.  

Just outside of town is the magnificent Amer Fort. Constructed of red sandstone and marble, this fort and palace holds four levels for different purposes, and massive facilities to house the royal family.  Our favorite was the huge courtyards, where water fixtures run through the walls and ground to keep the air cool.

On the way home, we stopped by our last tourist attraction of Rajasthan: the Jal Mahal, which is a palace in the middle of the lake and appears to be floating over the water. We weren’t finished though!  We visited one of the local textile factories to spur the local economies.  Absolutely gorgeous hand printed and embroidered fabric, but be prepared to negotiate!

Our time in India was so full, we divided it into two posts.  Next, read about our time at the Taj Mahal, the Holi Festival in New Delhi, and the spiritual capital of the Hindu world Varanasi!