It’s 3 AM and 107 degrees, as we arrive in Delhi, yet construction crews are busy, kebab stands are doing a brisk business, and pious pilgrims are lining up at Hindu sites. Smog bites our eyes. Our ears are assailed by a cacophony of car horns, as we pass sidewalk dwellers huddled under cardboard outside our fancy, marble-clad hotel. A doorman in a complicated turban presses palms together, and intones “Namaste.”
Welcome to full-frontal India. It’s perhaps the most glorious and unsettling country in the world, but one thing is easy, and that’s packing. Simply bring a roomy suitcase and an open mind—the former to hold the treasures you’ll amass in this shopper’s paradise, and the latter to relish the bombardment to your senses.
You’ll find sights from dump trucks draped in gaudy tinsel to tides of saris in popsicle hues; smells that take your breath away, from cumin-scented curries to streets used as latrines; and sounds segueing from serene temple chanting to the constant bleat of horns from cars, motor scooters, tuktuks, rickshaws, buses, and overloaded trucks, all industriously obeying the only rule of the road that’s enforced—the “Horn Please” suggestion embossed on every rear bumper.
Yet, in a land of 1.25 billion people, pockets of peace and quiet emerge. I fled the army of street vendors—“Hello, Mama, cheap price, where you from?”—to stroll amid the locals in green public parks. I slid off a camel, following a swaying ride through a village of a hundred mud huts and a thousand waving children, to drift off to sleep in a tent where only braying jackals broke the midnight silence.
I unwound with a yogi who instructed us in breathing exercises. I floated beneath a full moon on a barge in the Holy Ganges, entranced by flames of funeral pyres. Then, as priests finished the evening’s blessings, it was a return to pandemonium, as we made our way through throngs of worshipers to our waiting rickshaws. As our guide, Sandeep, instructed, “You don’t simply visit India—you experience it.” He got that right
On every step of our two-week tour, art, culture, and history collided with sensory explosions. Delhi’s Jama Mosque of 1656, calm in the midst of chaos, is the Muslim Moghuls’s stamp on this Hindu city—an amazement of pink stone and white marble inlaid with words on onyx from the Koran, as majestic as the mighty Red Fort at its side. At the delicately fluted Qutb minaret of even earlier (1193), crowds of locals who knew no English nonetheless crowded near our guide to absorb his comments.
At Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial, it was our turn to stand silently, as devotees paid homage. On to the gold-domed Golden Temple of the turbaned Sikhs, open 24/7, aside a soup kitchen for hungry indigents, whom we joined, barefoot and covered in the obligatory blaze-orange bandannas, to hear a reading of the holy word. I still am wearing a silver bracelet given there to serve as a constant checkpoint for honorable behavior.
Those are the sites you’ll find in guidebooks. But snake charmers and wandering monkeys also provided photo ops, as we made our way to Chandi Chowk, an ancient maze of sloping shops held together, seemingly, by an overhead tangle of electrical wires that resembled a bad knitting project. Gas fumes, saffron, sandalwood, and cow dung scented the air, as our rickshaws hurtled among lanes as narrow as our shoulders, assailed by hawkers of every sort of delicacy, from fans of peacock feathers to leather bullwhips.
Leaving Delhi—past the suburban call centers where your computer problems are solved—it was back to Horn Please territory, as we encountered six-passenger motor rickshaws crammed with 11 people (not counting those on the running boards), sharing the highway with sacred cows, shuffling camels, the occasional elephant, and tooting lorries fancier than circus wagons. We stopped to hail Lord Shiva, with his trident, cobra, and white bull, the Mercedes of godly transport, as well as, nearby, Lord Krishna, with his girlfriend, Radha—immense, gaily decorated statues that make Disneyland look somber.
On to Jaipur, the “pink city” of Rajasthan—the fabled land of warriors, and home of Maharaja Jai Singh, a learned ruler of the early 1700s, whose palaces today contain a museum dedicated to his gorgeous, gem-studded clothing, and another to watch artists compose exquisite miniature paintings. Jai Singh’s open-air astronomical observatory still tells time to the millisecond, and accurately records the paths of stars. He also built the lacy, lattice-windowed House of Winds for the ladies of his harem to see but not be seen, along with the formidable Amber Fort, rich with graceful Islamic arches linking voluptuous round domes.
Nothing regal in the least about Bapu Market, the town’s sprawling shopping bazaar. My bags now held bangles ($3 for a wristful), harem pants ($4), and embroidered shoes of camel skin ($7)—too small for my Nordic foot, but this vendor wasn’t going to miss a sale. He slid them on, and stamped about the place until the leather yielded. Silk scarves, pashminas, T-shirts, carpets—all are yours for a song and a rupee or two. Wilting in the heat, we steered for the hotel pool and a cold Kingfisher beer before dinner.
Dinner deluxe: Channeling my Inner Maharani, I left the group to their wimped-down-for-American fare, and headed to another of the maharaja’s palaces, the Rambagh Hotel. Because water was scarce in this arid region, regal dishes were cooked instead in cream and butter. So, of course, I willingly followed suit with tandoor-grilled lamb scented with cumin, cardamom, and bay leaf; corn poached with green chilies; okra with dried mangoes simmered in rich yogurt gravy; and rice biryani flavored with morels—all abetted by piles of naan, roti, and kulcha breads.
Another day, we were off to Ranthambore, a maharaja’s hunting preserve-turned-game park—a two-fer featuring a crumbling fort of 500 AD soaring above the jungle, where 50 tigers roam. They are spotted easiest early in the morning, so no complaints when the 5:30 wake-up call rang. Piling in a roofless truck, we patrolled the park where two had been seen the day before. But on our visit, nada—well, not exactly: wild boar, crocodiles, peacocks, parakeets, deer galore, and monkeys lunging at our backpacks.
Never mind: Back to lounge at the pool, and chat up the Iranian families also on tour, then regroup for an alfresco dinner highlighted by butter chicken, curried eggplant, and lentil stew, along with rice pudding studded with grapes and almonds. Plus another Kingfisher, of course. Gotta keep hydrated in this heat.
The next day treated us to a snapshot of village life, as we strolled the dusty paths between thatched-roof mud huts, dodging cows and hordes of children screaming, “Hallo, wottis yor nem?” We followed them to school, eavesdropping as they recited prayers to the goddess of learning, then set to work doing sums on their slates. Nearby, a women’s collective workshop, enabling its 300 members to learn sewing and design, while opening microbusinesses and establishing bank accounts. Gladly, we pulled out our plastic to purchase their lovely garments, tablewear, scarves, and purses.
Back on the bus, our destination was a tent camp for the coddled—air conditioning (yes, it was still 107) and bathrooms under our individual canvases. We gathered at the fire pit, as village locals danced and drummed under the stars. But first, a camel ride through the village, where kids tumbled out of mud huts to smile and wave. The group dined on the usual airbrushed dinner, but I’d made friends with the chef, who proved delighted to deliver the real deal on my plate.
Our usual predawn wake-up call was delivered by a strolling fellow who sang out, “Good morning.” It was off to Agra, honking at the camel train with which we shared with the—ahem—highway. We were en route to the vast red sandstone palace-fort built by Moghul emperors, including the luckless Shah Jahan, imprisoned there by his usurping son. In a love story for the ages, Jahan’s window looks across the water to the Taj Mahal, the alabaster temple he’d built to honor his beloved wife. Yes, it’s the world’s most beautiful building—serene, symmetrical, and simply breathtaking. Yes, it was worth another 5 o’clock wake-up call.
Back at our resort-hotel, set among 25 acres of gardens, I again escaped from the fries and pasta of the “grand” buffet for dinner divine at Paatha, its Indian fine-dining restaurant—a scene of fountains, marble, and strumming musicians. First, a patty of green peas studded with paneer cheese, dried fruits, and nuts. Then, crispy pappadum wafers to dip in a mélange of condiments (mango, mint, yogurt with mustard oil, candied lemon peel) before a heaping helping of murg dun biryani (lamb with seasoned rice) and, compliments of the chef, a plate of lamb tartare. No dessert, I demurred, but he had other ideas, and sent out a dish of mango ice cream atop rice pudding. Smart man.
Now, we were on our way to Khajuraho, stopping for lunch in a tiny town’s 300-year-old hostel that yielded a surprise bonus. It was a festival day for Jain worshipers, so what came our way but a spangled pair of dancing horses, men devoutly shouldering a holy portrait, and a loudspeaker truck booming tunes for the ladies in blazing saris behind them, all followed by an avalanche of kids. We snapped their pictures; they snapped ours.
Khajuraho is visited for one reason only, and it’s a great one: its collection of sandstone temples of 900 AD, sculpted to within an inch of their lives with erotic figures—men screwing bare-breasted ladies; men screwing men; men screwing horses. Well, you get the idea. And speaking of homosexuality—widely practiced by the Moghuls until the prissy Brits made it illegal—today, it’s no longer a crime. Men can share hotel rooms, but smooching on the street is bad form, just as it is for heteros. After all, the day’s newspaper headline pummeled a recent film for portraying a “lip-locking” moment.
The best for the last? I’ll say! Varanasi, aside the Ganges, is the holiest of all Indian cities, as well as the most awe-inspiring and flat-out over-the-top. It’s a multimedia extravaganza of sights, sounds, smells, emotions, and extreme devotion like nowhere else on the planet. Yes, it’s worth the usual predawn wake-up call to arrive at the holy river at sunup. George Harrison, who owned a house on its bank, captured it in his song. At that hour, 20,000 pilgrims descend daily for joyous morning prayers, plus a dip in the—well, let’s just call it murky—water, along with diving kids, laundrymen at work, and yogis leading open-air exercises at their ashrams. Agra boasts no monuments, no museums. It’s all about the river.
Return again at evening, and board a boat to drift the waters, reverently watching the cremation pyres take fire (300 every day) amid chanting priests and the scent of sandalwood. Then, a white-knuckle rickshaw ride through labyrinthine alleys (more kids, more cows, more fumes, and mayhem).
Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Jain: Have we overlooked anything? Oh, right: Buddhists! So, a final visit to Sarnath, just outside Varanasi, where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon 2,550 years ago.
That’s India, in all its living color.