Traveling in India – What Lies Beyond The Obvious

Traveling in India – What Lies Beyond The Obvious


Traveling in India

By Gayle Howard—
Photos credit:  Dale Spartas

Do you have a bucket list? If not already there, make sure traveling in India is added to it.  This destination will leave a footprint on your heart.

Few people know there are actually many India’s and the quest to know each one could take a lifetime.  A colorful land of contrasts, steeped in nostalgia, India is a lesson in ancient and modern history, a legend of warm people, a tale of many fascinating cultures, a recipe of numerous delicious and interesting foods, a wide spectrum of architecture, vibrant use of color, and an experience in spiritual mysticism.  Travelers will relive the romance of the Taj Mahal, journey through fascinating history, and fall in love with the beautiful people encountered along the way.

Colorful Land of Contrasts
Many tourists only see the impoverished side of this fascinating country. This does an injustice both to them and to the people of India.  Yes, many are living in situations that pull our heartstrings. Yet their daily struggles motivate and inspire to them to  see and experience life with “a cup half full.”  There is no unemployment in India.  Anyone who wants to work is able to secure a job.  That might result in three people taking your money at a toll booth on the highway, but they are all working.  The man who owns four cows and lives off the land may be considered poor by our standards, but enjoys a status of wealth in India.  As we visited the neighborhoods of major cities like Mumbai and Delhi, we found beautiful villas constructed during the British “rule” next to, by our standards, small hovels of a totally different economic stratum of people, but everyone living in harmony.   The Kohli women in Mumbai who clean fish at the Sassoon Docks dress in their finest silk saris and wear all their jewelry to show the extent of their husband’s wealth.  They would not be pictured in the NY Times socialite section, but happily display their well-to-do status in their own culture. Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai – the world’s largest open air Laundromat is a bustling scene of workers washing and ironing sheets and saris, cleaning them by beating and scrubbing them on rocks.   The story of “Dabbawallas” is amazing. Dabbawallas are  a group of 5,000 illiterates who pick up thousands of hot lunch pails from suburban homes. Their job is to transport the pails to over 200,000 contacts who bring them via rail to the city, and then again hand them over to contacts who deliver them to offices every day by 1PM so that the workers can enjoy a hot, home-cooked meal.  Because the Dabbawallas can’t read, all of this is done only by understanding color codes on tops of the tins! It might appear to us that homeless and unfortunates cannot contribute to society but in this wonderful world of contrasts, the “Tiffin industry” was cited by Fortune Magazine as one of the best organized and most successful business in the world.

Travel in IndiaWhile in India, Take the Road Untraveled
When visiting a strange place, a traveler might be satisfied as a mere “tourist,” only venturing out as far as the most common places to visit.  While traveling in India, resist this temptation and experience all that India has to offer.  Hire a local guide to get an insider’s perspective to this special place. The warmth and friendliness of the people, their pride in history and heritage, will make a special impact.  Accompanied by a knowledgeable and passionate guide, the traveler is not only introduced to magnificent monuments and important sites, but entertained with family stories, colorful legends and unforgettable personal experiences that enhance the understanding of this fascinating culture.  For instance, on one of my trips, our guide in Mumbai shared her spirituality with us on a visit to Elephanta Island – a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of a fascinating complex of caves dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Another guide was a member of one of the wealthy and historical ruling families, so she took us to a prestigious private club in Mumbai to experience “India during the Colonial period.”  In Udaipur, our guide was a dedicated artist and historian and introduced us to the rare and very skillful art of “Jai Sanjhi” – art on water.  He also shared his love of art and interest in antique textiles by arranging for us to visit a dealer to view his magnificent collection of priceless fabrics and costumes.  All of these experiences transfixed a “trip” into an “extraordinary journey.”

Experience Each Region
When planning to travel in India, try to include escapades in a variety of settings.  Ride a rickshaw or tuk-tuk in the narrow streets of a bustling city, travel through the rural landscapes, participate in festivals and temple celebrations, spend time in a local school, enjoy an elephant safari – maybe even play elephant polo as I did recently!  Participate in a cooking event in the home of a local chef.  These are but a few examples of how a traveler can become totally immersed in the culture of this fascinating country.

North and South India are like two different countries and this is particularly evident in their temples.  Visiting southern India, one is struck by temples that are really “temple cities.”  Families spend the day enjoying the shops inside, eating, visiting the various small shrines and relaxing.  Sree Meenakshi Temple in Madurai – one of the largest and oldest in India – is an outstanding example of a temple city.  If you are fortunate enough to visit this impressive complex at the time of a festival, you will delight in the colorful procession that marches through the “Court of Thousand Pillars” – and even might be blessed by an elephant!  In the North, city temples are where people just go to make an offering.  Temple visits are an important part of life in both areas.  Unlike our Western culture, religious attendance is not on a specific day of the week with a structured service.  A very spiritual atmosphere permeates the culture in India as people drop into temples at any given time with gifts, prayers, and wishes.

North India
North India, with its vibrant colors, exquisite jewels, impressive art, architecture and ancient history is more cosmopolitan and life here moves at a more rapid pace.  Amidst all the beauty however, there are more somber stories to be told.  A highlight of my recent trip was an experience with two amazing young men from the Salaam Balak Trust – an organization that works with street children to provide them a secure environment, health services, and an opportunity for education.  As they escorted us through a part of Delhi rarely visited by tourists, these incredible young men opened our eyes and filled our hearts with their stories of running away from home at ages five and eight and surviving on the streets of Delhi.  Thanks to this extraordinary program, these young men are now attending the university with plans to enter the business community.

South India
In the picturesque area of Kerala, in southern India, the traveler will find a more rural atmosphere where life flows slowly and is approached more simply.  Cruising the backwaters in a houseboat, life is observed “up close and personal.”  In addition to the scenic beauty, the everyday living of families is observed.  Water boats take the children to school, laundry and dishes are washed at the waters edge, fishing vessels float slowly as they cast their nets, and wonderful cooking aromas permeate the air as women prepare the daily meals.  Famous for its cooking, this area of rice and coconuts offers some of the healthiest diets to be found anywhere.

india-4Hit the Hot Spots
Most assuredly, visiting the Taj Mahal is always at the top of every traveler’s list in India. Built by Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, this monument, in all of its glory, takes your breath away.  The love story behind its building is beautifully depicted in the historical fiction novel Beneath the Marble Sky by John Shors.  The emotion of seeing this magnificent structure at sunrise or sunset cannot be described.  It’s grandeur has inspired poets throughout history to write passages such as:

“The Taj Mahal is a teardrop on the cheek of Time”
“A jeweler’s work done by a mason”
“She asked for a resting place for herself, he gave her a place in  Time”
– Rabindranath Tagore

Just an hour from Agra, and the Taj Mahal, is one of the most exquisite ancient cities, Fatehpur Sikri, built by the Mughal Emperor, Akbar.  It was constructed in vibrant red sandstone combining architectural styles from Persian, Hindi, and Islamic influence and is a UNESCO World Heritage site not to be missed.  Other favorite sites include the pink city of Jaipur and Udaipur – the Venice of India.  In Jaipur, you will be enamored by the exquisite jewelry and colorful saris the elegant women wear so proudly. As you relax in Udaipur, you can stand in awe at the beautiful elegance of the Crystal Gallery, located in the City Palace complex, which houses luxuries such as crystal furniture and the only crystal bed in the world.  It is a sight to behold.

The spiritual center of India – Varanasi – reinforces how deeply religion is ingrained into the daily lives of the people.  Although a visit to this sacred spot is not for all travelers,    it provides a meaningful understanding of the spirituality of the Indian culture and is a powerful experience.  The city is a “sea of life” yet the crowds are orderly and respectful.  Mobs of pilgrims travel from afar to this sacred city to bathe in the river, cremate the dead, or pour ashes of the already cremated into the river.  Worshippers visit the river at sunset to participate in an evening Aarti ceremony along the water as candles flicker and incense permeates the air.  Another visit at sunrise offers the opportunity to travel by rickshaw through the busy streets, crowded with pilgrims on their way to pray and bathe in the holy water. It is believed that if one can experience the River Ganges once in a lifetime, their souls are blessed.

Whether traveling to a single destination, or to many cities within the vast, diverse land, it is unlike any other country. India – like a rare gem admired in the jewel box of a maharani – is an unforgettable experience stored in the memory bank of our treasured travels.

Gayle Howard is co-owner and Co-President of New Canaan TravelWorld, a Virtuoso agency located in New Canaan, CT.


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