To walk through India is to be submerged in colour; emerald, ruby and sapphire saris, bejewelled mosaics, Holi paints, flower garlands, spice markets, fruit stalls, garnished temples, orange pagri, elephant trunks decorated with pastels and vibrant statues representing the Hindu God and Goddesses relentlessly catch the eye. There is much to love about India, the mesmerising array of colour to name but one, alongside much that is confusing, heart-wrenching and, occasionally, frightening. The roller coaster of emotions that I experienced during my time there underpins my belief that this country is the most frantic, frustrating, fascinating and fantastical place that I have ever been lucky enough to travel. The purpose of this post is to provide an insight into my time on one of the most commonly travelled routes, taking in the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur before travelling on to Orchha and Varanasi. A separate post available here outlines some more practical information and tips for staying safe.
Sitting in the back of a taxi, I try to steady the flutter of nerves in my chest. It is commonly said that three things are needed to drive in India; a good horn, good brakes and good luck. My Women on Wheels driver, though extremely pleasant, chatty and competent, is no exception, frequently slamming on the brakes and horn and causing me to jump out of my skin before winding down the windows to chat to two more W.O.W drivers who are speeding down the motorway either side of us. The radio stations synchronise and all three women burst into song. The trinity is broken when the car to my left swerves to avoid a cow, her passengers clutching at the roof handles. My driver and the driver to my right soldier on as a duet, not missing a beat. Am I hallucinating? No. I’m in Delhi; alone, jet-lagged, disorientated and witnessing the first of many scenes that will leave me questioning my own eyes. I vacate the taxi at Paharganj, after first taking the name and number of my driver who urges me to stay safe and ‘avoid the men’. With her warning ringing in my ears (and the smell of incense, urine and exhaust fumes in my lungs) I fall through the door of my hotel, already exhausted and not yet in the country an hour. The Paharhanj area, owing to its proximity to the New Delhi Railway Station, is filled with backpackers of every nationality and the first stop for many that plan to travel here. I look around the lobby of my hotel; a sea of dazed, iPad illuminated faces look back and I pull myself together. I’m off to see Delhi.
I step outside and my senses are assaulted afresh. Beggars, sellers, cows, cars, bicycles and filth swirl around me. In truth, much of my time in Delhi was spent in this vortex and I never truly felt like I got to grips with the city. I experienced the sight-seeing highlights of India Gate, The Lotus Temple and the Red Fort. I ate golgappas and chole bhature on Chandni Chowk. I ran into Prince’s Paan and Chaat Corner to seek refuge from the crowds and enjoyed some of the best food of my entire trip. That particular meal was expensive by local (and tight-fisted backpacker) standards, still costing less than a grande Starbucks Latte. I went to Khari Baoli Spice Market for saffron, Khan Market for pastries and observed a pace of life that I could never have imagined existed but I experienced it all in an overwhelmed haze, as if falling down a rabbit hole. It wasn’t until I arrived in the famed fuchsia fairytale of Jaipur that I began to catch my breath and allow the web of chaotic energy that I was caught up in to transform into something enchanting.
Everything is pink. Apart from my hotel; the multi-coloured, mass embellished Bissau palace, from which the paint is slightly peeling and peacocks greet you by the door. There are four-poster beds and the light switches don’t work; marble flooring and rusted taps. In my mind it encapsulates the contradictions of India perfectly and consider it utterly charming. This city is easier to navigate than most as it was created as a planned city by architect Vidyadhar Bhattacharya in 1727. The buildings are, for the most part, constructed of red and pink coloured sandstone. Those that aren’t were painted pink on the orders of Mahajara Ram Singh in 1872 in order to symbolise hospitality to the visiting Queen Victoria and Prince of Wales. The most spectacular of these buildings is the Hawa Mahal, or Palace Of The Winds, the honeycomb appearance of which was created so that royal women could look out at the street without being seen from spectators on the ground. Close to the Hawa Mahal is the Kishan Lal Lassiwala, the oldest lassi shop in the city. The lassi is served in a clay cup and, when finished, the customer smashes the cup into a barrel before fresh cups are remade from the shards, creating another aspect of employment for local people.
One of the most famous pieces of architecture in this city is the Amber Fort. On the day that I came here I chose, ridiculously, to wear black and got so overheated that when a silk festooned elephant strolled past me I once more feared that I was experiencing delirium (I wasn’t, it was the first of many). Within the fort, the Sheesh Mahal mirrored ceiling is one of the most dazzling features. The recommended way to see this fort and indeed, the entire city, is by hot air balloon. Several companies offer this service but Sky Waltz Balloon Safari has the best reviews. Despite the array of incredible sights on offer, the most memorable thing that I did while in Jaipur was visit the Raj Mandir cinema to watch a Bollywood movie. This is something that I think everyone who visits India should experience. The theatres are stunning, the films are fanciful and full audience participation is encouraged. There was dancing in the aisles, heckles, hollers, raptured applause and the occasional mass, scandalised gasp when the lead characters looked like they might finally kiss. The grandeur of the surroundings in no way dims the anarchy of the viewers. Babies cry, phones are answered, entire conversations exchanged. In the U.K. this behaviour would be considered the height of rudeness, but this is India and it somewhat adds to the light-hearted atmosphere of the proceedings, making the environment relaxed and joyful, as opposed to staid and silent. It’s an experience that I’d struggle to forget.
I had one goal to complete in Agra; to take the Taj Mahal trophy picture of my dreams. Achieving this meant being the first person to enter the grounds at sunrise, before a tidal wave of tourists in garishly coloured t-shirts arrived with the express purpose of ruining my shot. At 4:30am I begin the walk towards the grounds. I arrive first, several other groups arriving soon after. There are a handful of chai sellers on the street, selling sweet tea which I gratefully accept. The doors open, I pass through security and race towards the Taj. I look behind me, see a swarm of bodies approaching and take the picture. Less than a minute later there are people everywhere, like water spilled from a cup. Now that I have my picture, I can relax and take in the sights, the opulence of which stand in stark contrast to the poverty of the town that surrounds it. This point becomes more apparent when I decide to leave, only to find that the road outside is unrecognisable to the dark, tranquil one that I walked down just a couple of hours before. Gone are the charming tea sellers and the calm, still air that I had first greeted me. Beggars, street children, sellers, taxi drivers and tourists surge towards the gate as I walk out. Mothers seeking money thrust their crying babies towards me, children wearing rags grasp my hands and pat their mouths, signalling hunger. Desperate sellers lift their wares to my eye level, obstructing my view with postcards and coloured glass baubles and overwhelmed, anxious tourists who have become separated from their travel companions in the melee race frantically around me. Though I would quickly forget the details of the Taj Mahal, who built what and when, my experience in that crowd stayed with me because as difficult as it is to describe the poverty in India, it is equally as difficult to take it in whilst you’re there. It’s so widespread, so average and ordinary in the context of the country that even for the most empathetic of visitors it simply fades into the background. It is wallpaper, the background furniture of the street. Witnessing the poverty in that moment, though, actually seeing a throng of people with nothing intertwined with people like me, the people with iPhones and Nikons, there to take pictures and with air conditioned buses waiting to ferry us back to our hotels, all taking place against a solid marble backdrop of architectural extravagance, hit home for me. The worst part was knowing that these people are the lucky ones, the ones with access to tourists from whom they might make some money. I had little time to dwell in these negative realisations, however, as I had a bus catch.
Orchha has a carefree, tranquil vibe that, after the brouhaha and frenzy of my previous stops, I had forgotten could even exist in India. This is the India of wanderlust, of bohemia, of finding yourself, of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. A balmy, flower child utopia. Those that are that way inclined might even call it spiritual. The is the town for yoga retreats, cooking classes, guided meditation and Ayurvedic treatments. It is a town where in my fanciful imaginings a recent divorcee might take stock and learn to love again, where impressionable gap year students might be accosted by visions of an ‘alternative life’ and stay forever, without giving a second thought to where their next box-set is coming from or the fact that they have 18 months left on their phone contract (in other words, the thoughts that would keep me up at night because, as much as it shames me to admit it, I am thoroughly tethered to long-term life in the West). Holy men wander up and down the main street and around the lake. I’m later told by a fellow traveller, in quite horrified tones, that the majority of these people are not holy men at all, but merely chancers playing dressing up in the hope of extracting charitable donations. If this is true it couldn’t have bothered me less, as far as I could see they were not doing any real harm and very much added to the atmosphere. For me, Orchha offered the chance to explore the culture of India without the risk of being pick-pocketed or inhaling air so polluted that I coughed up a black lung. For that alone, I loved it.
Varanasi, the City Of Shiva, rests on banks of the Ganges. The embankment steps, known as the Ghats, lead the holy, the curious and those that are honouring their dead to the water. The Galis are the small, winding alleyways that weave through the city, splicing through the buildings, labyrinth like, leading back to the Ganges. A very talented photographer at Silent Skylark, a travel blog that I couldn’t recommend more, has taken some incredible images of the Galis that truly capture the area. Daily life begins and ends at the water. Entire families bathe in it each morning at dawn, before spending the day on it’s shore. A crematorium sits atop the Manikarnika Ghat, pyres blazing, billowing smoke. To be cremated in Varanasi is considered a privilege and several hundred cremations take place here each day. From my understanding of the Hindu faith, the dead are cremated, with the exception of young children, saints and pregnant women. I had previously read that burial is customary in these cases, but witnessed ceremonies in which the bodies were wrapped in cloth and lowered into the water. Out of context this may sound morbid or voyeuristic, but this is not the case. In India as a whole, the concept of having any sort of right to privacy or personal space simply does not exist. Privacy is a commodity that can only be purchased by the very wealthy and so, for the majority of Indian people, it is not something that will ever be experienced or that figures in their thought process. Death, in particular, is dealt with openly, no where more so than in Varanasi. For those going about their day to day business, it is entirely normal to walk through a funeral procession as the processions are constant and take place, alongside everything else, at the water.
Also taking place on the Ganges is the Aarti ritual, where oil lamps and floating candles are placed on the water. When the sun goes down, this sight breathtaking. Elsewhere in Varanasi in the Muslim Quarter, an area synonymous with silk weaving. There is no where more recommended to buy silk on this route than here. Walking through the Galis, the doors are open, revealing the looms and jewel coloured threads from which the silk is created by hand. I also found the street food in Varanasi to be some of the best. I left Varanasi on the overnight train, an experience in itself. While the train journey largely passed without incident, at Varanasi station something unnerving occurred. I was standing on the platform with three other white women from a travel group that I had linked up with, chatting as we waited to board. Slowly and silently, a circle of Indian men surrounded us, then another, and another, until the rings were so deep that we could no longer see through them. Some took pictures, most just stared, not one uttered a word; their faces blank and unreadable. A couple of inches had remained between us and the initial circle at first. As more men joined the crowd, the space that separated us began shrink and the the initial trickle of fear that had begun to work its way down my spine gave way to something colder. With each new circle, the dam gave way further. Thankfully, after what felt like an eternity, a male tour guide broke through the circles and began clapping his hands and speaking in Hindi until the crowd dispersed. Afterwards he explained to us that, owing to the crematorium, many people from smaller towns and villages travel vast distances in order to lay their dead to rest here and that, for many, it is the first and only time that they will visit a large city. Consequently, it may also be the first and only time that they will encounter white travellers in person. He said that a crowd attracts a crowd in India, that they did not mean any harm and that when he had told them that they were making us uncomfortable they moved away without protest. Part of me, the part comprised of logic, reason and understanding, accepted this explanation readily. After all, no hint of physical contact had been attempted and, apart from sending my heart into my mouth, no harm done. Had they harboured any negative intentions I doubt that a single, clapping man would have sufficiently deterred them. Another part of me, however, the part that is powered by adrenaline and in charge of my regulating my pulse rate, the part that had not seen curiosity or intrigue on their faces, just cold, hard stares, took longer to be convinced.
I left India for Nepal soon after Varanasi. Although my time in India can safely be considered a series of highs and lows, it is an experience that I would never want to change. The most important advice that I feel I could to give to anyone who is planning to go is to adjust your expectations, recognise that there will be aspects that make you feel uncomfortable, dejected or scared and that there will undoubtedly be times when you just want to give up and come home, then book the flight anyway because when you’re looking back all you will feel is grateful that you got to experience it, in all of it’s imperfect glory.
Images: author’s own