First time travel to India can be a daunting experience. Debutante, Roderick Eime, shares his experience and tries to alleviate your concerns about travel to the mysterious subcontinent.
To say India is a vast land of extremes is something of an understatement. A traveller, especially a first-timer like me can and probably will experience the entire gamut of emotions and sensations on their journey to the mysterious subcontinent. Some will, no doubt, welcome this avalanche of sensory experiences, while others will want to avoid, or at least minimise, the deluge of stimuli. I tried, with mixed success, to tread the middle ground.
To give you some idea; you’ll be amazed beyond words at the vast and extravagant palaces, forts and temples that abound throughout India, while at the same time you’ll be struck by the abject poverty in which the lowest castes live. You’ll satisfy your wildest cravings when immersed in the rich cultural heritage of this ancient civilisation while, almost at the same time, be frustrated to despair at the often pedantic bureaucracy and re-tape that is integral with modern Indian life.
To just “lob” in India is not something the debutante should do. Of course it depends on the individual, but to become comfortable within India takes time and usually several trips. My heartiest recommendation for your first trip is to use one of the many pre-packaged tours available from the plethora of companies offering itineraries to India. Mine was compiled by the Travel Corporation (India), or TCI for short and I was grateful for their sensitivity and flexibility when I needed it most!
So where do you start? The Taj Mahal, without too much argument, is the most recognised symbol of India and any travel agent can slot you into an efficient package that takes in what is known as, “The Golden Triangle”. Visiting three of the richest and most diverse cultural centres of India; Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, this tri-cornered exploration will quench your initial curiosity and likely leave you hankering for more.
On one of these tours you will almost certainly travel by coach, but train or taxi is also a popular option. Self-drive is not. The roads of India defy description and often you’ll find yourself hiding your delicate eyes from the mayhem outside. Driving in India deserves its own book, let alone a paragraph here.
Delhi will occupy your first few days while you gaze in awe at the likes of the Qutb Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, the Jama Masjid and the imperious Red Fort. Gain a few points toward your Indian Adventurer’s badge when you tour the seething Chandni Chowk, near the Red Fort. Set up by the prolific and expansionist Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame, Chandi Chowk is the madly buzzing hub of Indian street commerce and the nominal centre of “old” Delhi. In contrast to the ancient capital, New Delhi was proclaimed in 1931 as an “Anglo-Indian Rome” replete with modern architecture wide, tree-lined boulevards and copious flower-stocked parklands.
A “day at leisure” can incorporate any number of the huge choices of shopping options. Prices for any single item can, take it from me, vary wildly. Often the first figure quoted to you is hugely inflated in optimistic hope you will just agree and pay. But haggling is an accepted method of negotiation and can yield welcome bargains. An item initially offered for say, ten dollars, can often be secured for as little as two or three dollars after protracted theatrical offer and counter-offer. Tipping is another delicate art and is a must if you want to receive a level of service we’re used to elsewhere. Indian porters, guards, waiters, taxi-drivers and lavatory attendants, you’ll find, are not at all backward in soliciting for a gratuity.
The second corner of the triangle is Agra, two kilometres south of Delhi, former capital of the Mughal conquerors and home to the fabled Taj Mahal. In accounts dating back to the 1600s, Agra was a “dream city” of palaces and temples visited by diplomats, traders and rogues alike, all seeking favour with the incumbent ruler and access to the wealth within. Today, there is not much to Agra except the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. The streets are dusty, unkempt and chaotic, even by Indian standards, so once you’ve seen the key sights, move on.
Once in Agra, you’ll reach the Taj Mahal by electric shuttle. The smoky omnibuses of yore long since decreed unfriendly by UNESCO’s World Heritage edict, and after a thorough security check, you’ll find yourself strolling amongst the immaculate architecture of the Taj Mahal. The entrance is through a dramatic arch that “delivers” you into the realm of the Taj Mahal and sets the scene for the breathtaking sight before you. Even for the most sophisticated of world-travellers, the Taj Mahal is a splendour to the eye. Completed in 1655 after twenty-two painstaking years of construction, this venerable “monument to love” has withstood numerous earthquakes by virtue of its superb construction from unique translucent marble. The Red Fort of Agra is also an impressive construction, but much more utilitarian and purposeful than its passion-inspired neighbour on the Yamuna River.
The third corner of our triangular journey takes us to the fabled “Pink City” of Jaipur, the vibrant, bustling and immensely colourful capital of Rajasthan. Unlike its neighbouring metropolises, Jaipur gives a certain style and energy to the hubbub of Indian urban life. Taxis, rickshaws, bicycles, camels and mules all vie for the road space which seems a little more generous and well-planned than in other cities – and all this in apparently less stressful and hectic fashion.
The “pink” is derived from the rich hues of the architecture, constructed from rare coloured sandstone. One of the most outstanding examples of this is the towering Hawa Mahal, effectively a giant, elaborate façade from which the women of the court could observe the festivities below without attracting unwelcome gazes from the commoners. The Rajasthani dress code, especially for women, goes beyond the simple elegancy of the traditional sari to bold reds and crimson. Adorned with gold and silver, they carry themselves gregariously yet with grace and charm, in keeping with the ease and confidence of the city.
Traditionally an important trading centre, Jaipur has thankfully retained most of its historic character and is a wonderful, almost magical place to visit. My only encounter with the tenacious street vendors so rampant throughout India was at the famous Amber Fort where they will harangue you mercilessly as you make the journey up and down the steep rampart atop a lumbering elephant.
The immense Amber Fort, a few kilometres out of town, is overshadowed by another older fort high up on the protective Aravalli hills, both built well before the first stone of Jaipur was laid in 1727. Touring these gigantic defensive structures is a humbling experience and reminds you that, unless you were a fantastically powerful and dedicated ruler, your life wasn’t worth much back then. Despite the fierce and brutal power struggles that saw rulers come and go all over India, Jaipur is something of a monument to the finer arts and sciences. The World Heritage listed Jantar Mantar is an open-air observatory which amply displays the highbrow capabilities of the city’s founder, Jai Singh II.
Leaving Jaipur and heading back along the ridiculously congested highway to Delhi and imminent departure, leaves a heartfelt longing to see more of this region. If your selected itinerary allows a few extra days in India, spend them in Jaipur.
Reminiscing afterward on your short, but fantastic journey to the subcontinent, the many little tribulations of your discovery will quickly melt away into the amalgam of richly diverse experiences gleaned in those few jam-packed days. The memories and recollections will last much, much longer.