Traveling in India stays with you
India is the most amazing place. I have traveled all over the world, and of all the places I have visited, India has stayed with me. Years later I still think about the sights, the people, the animals, and how very different it is there from our lives in Canada or the US. It’s a place of culture, color, contrast, chaos, beauty, filth, temples and incredible history! During my time in India I laughed, I cried, I learned and I marveled at this fascinating place. It was easy to get around, since most people speak English – “a gift from the British” one man told me. Years later I continue to learn more about the country, culture & history of India.
The Taj Mahal
My best friend Cindy and I traveled to the Golden Triangle in Northern India – which is the popular tourist route that includes Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. The highlight in Agra was of course – to get to see the famous Taj Mahal! It’s the ultimate symbol of romance, and the world’s best example of Mughal architecture. The Great Mughal family dominated India’s history for 200 years. In 1983 the Taj was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and called, “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage” via Wikipedia. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the ivory white Taj Mahal in a 42-acre complex on the river to honor his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their 14th child. The project required 20,000 artisans and a fleet of 1,000 elephants to carry materials. It cost the equivalent of $827 million US and took more than 10 years to build!
Our driver dropped us off outside the Taj Mahal complex. Cindy and I entered and followed the crowd of locals. We walked briskly for a while, wondering where the entrance was… We realized we had unknowingly joined the locals for their morning walk! We appeared to be the only tourists on the walk and the locals were very friendly - likely having a giggle at our expense! When we finally found the entrance, walking through the gate and seeing the Taj Mahal was surreal. It was larger and more beautiful than I imagined! The mausoleum itself, and the surrounding buildings and gardens are stunning. The exterior and interior decorations of the Taj are exquisite.
Not much is known about the daughter who was their 14th child, but it is known that she lived until age 75 and died in Delhi. I wonder what the princess thought when she visited this incredible site? I wonder when someone will make a movie about what her life might have been like…
The History of India
The history of India is fascinating! If you're new to learning about India’s I recommend you watch the excellent documentary “The Story of India by Michael Wood” – here’s part one: https://youtu.be/_OVH5kirr54
Here is the link to the series on PBS: www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia You may also be able to rent this series from your local library.
India's contributions to science and technology are also fascinating – this is another great documentary “What the Ancients Knew”: https://youtu.be/QxgK0dX872k
The Colors of India
I loved the colors of India – the clothing, fabrics, flowers, temples, art, food & spices. It’s wonderful to see the women in their beautiful, brightly colored saris, adorned with jewellery.
One of my favorite treasures I brought back from my trip is a fuchsia Pashmina paisley print scarf that I bought from a street vendor in Mumbai. It’s super soft and the price - just $5! I so wish I bought more colors! Some call Mumbai the fashion capital of India – it’s the home of Bollywood (India’s Hollywood)! In India you’ll see beautiful patterns & colors – in cotton, silk, crepe (woven silk) and blends such as chiffon (cotton, silk or synthetic fibres such as polyester).
“Since ancient times, textiles have been associated with important rituals and social occasions in India.” - Louise Levathes Read her excellent article on the fabric of India: www.travelandleisure.com/articles/the-fabric-of-india
Eighty percent of Indians are Hindu – and in Hinduism color plays a significant role – it’s not just used for decoration. Similarly to the ancient discipline of feng shui in Chinese culture, color is used in India to create a positive environment for a happy life. Red is one of the most significant colors – which I LOVE since it’s my birthstone (ruby) and my absolute favorite color! Red symbolizes both sensuality and purity – which is why you will see a bride wearing a red dress if you ever have the privilege to attend an Indian wedding. They will put a red dot on the forehead for important ceremonies and special occasions. Or in my case in the photo – “holy men” will put a red dot on a tourist’s forehead to “bless” you - for a fee! Women will use red in the part of their hair to show they’re married. The powder they use for this is called bindi – and it has the most amazing smell – it’s one that is very distinct to India and one you will never forget. Sometimes I close my eyes & smell the bindi power that I brought home with me – it takes me back to my travels in India!
You Have to See Varanasi!
Based on the advice of other travelers – we also visited Varanasi. It was a bit further out of the way from where we were planning to travel – but we were so happy we went! This city was everything we imagined India would be. It is one of the “oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world”, and is considered “the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism” - a major center for Hindu pilgrimage (via Wikipedia). Hindus believe that bathing in the river Ganges will wash away your sins and that dying in the city brings “moksha” or salvation – to release you from the cycle of rebirth. One man I met told me that he never kills spiders, since it could be someone who has returned as an insect in his next life. That could explain the popularity of vegetarianism.
The Animals of India
There are animals everywhere in India including elephants, camels, goats, peacocks and monkeys. The monkeys in Bali, Indonesia are well known for their thievery… but these Indian monkeys seemed relaxed and content to just watch the tourists. It was such a treat to watch them just hanging out. In North America you generally don’t see animals wandering around the streets… Okay we do have a few peacocks who wander around Beacon Hill Park in Victoria BC!
In Varanasi the people were friendly and the people-watching and animal-watching was fantastic! We saw goats, monkeys and cows! I know what you’re thinking – why was she excited to see cows!?! We saw people stop to touch them – it looked like they were saying a prayer – so we thought that might mean that cows are sacred in India, but that’s not exactly the case.
“In Hinduism, the cow is revered as the source of food and symbol of life and may never be killed. However, many non-Hindus interpret these beliefs to mean that Hindus worship cows. This is not true. It is more accurate to say the cow is taboo in the Hindu religion, rather than sacred.” (via ReligionFacts.com) We were told that there is someone who “owns” the cows, or at least who is responsible for making sure they are fed. Other community members will contribute to the cost of food if they are able.
One day when walking we saw some dogs eating garbage with a cow… People walked right by as if it were an everyday occurrence. Cindy and I sat and watched them for about half an hour – it was highly entertaining. I couldn’t help thinking these Indian dogs must have much stronger stomachs than my dachshunds at home. I also thought about how much food gets wasted at home.
One family with young girls proudly showed us their goats. I showed them a video clip of my dogs in Canada on my video camera which they loved. One morning we met a man with a pet goat who loved to play with him! I have never seen a goat with such affection for a human before. At every turn there seemed to be animal entertainment.
One of the main highlights of the ancient city of Varanasi was seeing the river Ganges. We enjoyed sunrise boat rides to see pilgrams bathing in the river. Seeing the city from the river is an incredible site – just as surreal as seeing the Taj Mahal, after you have watched it in documentary films. Nothing compares to seeing it in person!
Yes, we saw dead bodies floating in the river – the ones we saw were wrapped and covered with sheets. When asked why they were not cremated like the others, they explained they did not have money for cremation. It is estimated that “100,000 bodies of various cremation levels are tossed into the Ganges each year.” (via National Geographic)
The National Geographic blog has a fantastic video and photos about the 24 hour/day, 7 day/week cremation fires: http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/07/the-pyres-of-varanasi-breaking-the-cycle-of-death-and-rebirth/ We were discouraged from taking photos of the fires when we were there, since they believe that taking a photo can interrupt a soul’s journey to freedom. We were told that 300 bodies are cremated daily.
It felt raw being so close to death, yet it made me appreciate the beauty and fragility of life. I felt lucky for the opportunity to experience such an amazing place on the Ganges River where Buddha and Gandhi had once been. Varanasi, the Taj Mahal and India are still with me.
I’m super excited to be returning to Northern India for my next visit in the fall of 2016! Cathy Scott of Niche Travel has put together an incredible private women's tour.
Learn more about how you can join me for this adventure of a lifetime here: http://nichetravel.ca/tours/explore-northern-india/