|CULTURAL India |
|I wrote this for my friends and family when we returned from nearly a month in India. I hope that it will be interesting/useful for other travelers! |
I’ve found it really difficult to begin writing about our recent month-long trip to India. India was one of the most amazing, interesting and friendly countries I’ve ever visited—I’d consider it one of my favorite places in the world, in fact. I’d read that people have a love-it-or-hate-it relationship with the country—but Jim and I were enamored. What makes it difficult to write about is that I always like to focus on culture when I do these write-ups to send out and for inclusion with our trip photo albums. However, it seems impossible to separate the culture from the sites we saw on the trip and I’m not sure why that is now when it hasn’t been the case before. So, I will warn you from the outset that this is going to be long, won’t necessarily follow a chronological order and some of the things you read will be information you could have found in a guide book. I just find it interesting that it’s so difficult to separate the bits of this country from one another and maybe that’s part of what makes it so fascinating to begin with.
Since I’m going to jump around a bit, I’ll start with the basics of the vacation and our itinerary. Please assume that anytime I refer to driving, I mean that our driver was at the wheel. We saw the major sites of all of the cities we visited, in addition to some spots quite off the beaten path. So this doesn’t read as a laundry list of sites, I’m only going to list places that we saw if there was something significant about them…and then later as I get into the ins-and-outs of the trip, I’ll include more detail where it seems necessary.
We flew to Delhi via Hong Kong and spent three days sightseeing in Delhi while staying at a fantastic Bed & Breakfast. From Delhi we flew northwest to Amritsar; the area is known for the Golden Temple, the most holy of all Sikh temples. We also went to a ceremony on the boarder of India and Pakistan in the evening.
After only one night in Amritsar, we flew back to Delhi and then immediately drove to Jaipur—the drive should have been only five hours, but we were caught in a huge sand/rain storm on the way and it took a bit longer. We stayed at an amazing Bed & Breakfast there for three nights before driving five hours to Agra, stopping about mid-way to see Fatehpur Sikri.
With only one night in Agra—we decided to see the Taj Mahal at Sunrise and Agra Fort the evening we arrived—we headed off the next afternoon for a four hour drive to a tiny town called Orchha. This town well off the beaten path turned out to be one of my favorite spots in all of India. The next morning we drove an additional four hours to Khajuraho. This part of the trip was another highlight for both of us. We spent two nights in Khajuraho before taking an overnight train to Varanasi on the third evening.
With one night at our hotel in Varanasi, we went boarded a train the following night to go to Gaya. It wasn’t an overnight train, though we arrived quite late at our hotel. We had that night and one other in Gaya before flying to Hyderbad.
Hyderabad was fascinating, not because of the city but because of the people—we stayed three nights with a friend’s family and had the most authentic Indian experience possible!
We flew to Madurai in the far south to finish our trip with three nights at a gorgeous hotel with light sightseeing in the small city. This town was also one of our favorites.
On our final day, we flew to Chennai and spent a day there with some extremely light sightseeing before flying home via Hong Kong.
We were gone from Monday, May 15 through Thursday, June 9th. It was our longest trip but also our best in so many ways.
…It certainly got off to a rocky start, though. We spent nearly 16 hours flying to Hong Kong with a screaming child (who was old enough to know better) in the seat right behind us. We’ve certainly flown a lot, but that was the longest 16 hour trip I’ve ever been on!
The following 6 hour flight to Delhi was uneventful—right up until the end when the flight attendants made an announcement that everyone should close their eyes if they were wearing contacts. We didn’t understand why until the attendants started walking up and down the aisles spraying antiseptic! We were going to enter India as extremely clean foreigners, though you’d think bringing germs into the country would be low on the list of things to clean up!
We scheduled this trip much like the others we’ve taken to Egypt and China. We booked our hotels and bed and breakfasts ourselves after doing extensive research on TripAdvisor.com and then used a local tour company to book private guides and drivers.
Our tour company representative met us and took us to the Delhi Bed & Breakfast where we were staying. We arrived at 3:30 am, but the owner got up to meet and greet us. The B&B was at the end of a street and there was a guard out front. Apparently, in upper-class areas, apartment owners all chip in to have a security guard stand duty at night. The guard was nothing more than a show piece and probably wouldn’t have scared anyone should a criminal suddenly appear.
We had an interesting experience in the morning when we were introduced to the 12-year-old girl who was living at the B&B. Apparently, she was from a small town near Varanasi and had come to stay at the B&B where Charlotte, the owner, was teaching her the skills needed to run a home; she was also receiving schooling. It made me feel really uncomfortable having a little girl serve us, but Jim thought that it was far better than her living in a group home with bad conditions. He was right on that count, but it still felt a little awkward to me. Charlotte, though, was proud of the fact that she was teaching the young girl how to cook and keep a home, skills that “every Indian woman should know” since 99% of marriages in India arranged and anything that the girls can bring the table is crucial, particularly orphans who will have no dowry.
Charlotte herself was a combination of friendly and pushy—characteristics that we found in many Indians. Charlotte’s husband was the captain of the Indian national ping pong team and spent half of his day in an office and the other half practicing when he wasn’t traveling around the world for tournaments so they were certainly a unique couple to chat with.
After sleeping for a bit to get on the Indian time zone, our driver picked us up in the late morning and we headed to the Lotus Temple, a house of worship for people of the Baha’i faith. I didn’t know a lot about Baha’is before, but we had a great learning experience when we arrived since they had a fantastic display. The faith is very interesting in that they see every world religion as essentially the same, it’s just that people decide what they need in their lives in a particular time period and that’s God’s representation to them. So, as a result, Baha’is will actually consider themselves part of multiple religions—for instance, a Baha’i could also be Christian because they would merely be following the dictates of the religion that works for them at a particular time. Baha’is also very much believe in equality between the sexes as well.
Another interesting facet of the Baha’i faith is that because they believe all religions are essentially equal, they don’t allow any reading of religious texts in their temples because they don’t want to alienate any religion. I understood it to be a place for meditation more than anything else. The Lotus shape was chosen because it’s a holy flower for the Indian people within all religions and its symbolism has permeated the rest of the world. Volunteers at the Temple were students from all over the world. I thought it had a really nice feel there, very peaceful.
The architecture of the temple itself was fascinating; it has won many international awards. The marble was imported from Greece and is layered/joined with a special putty that specifically helps to keep it cool since it otherwise becomes too soft for building. (This is according to one of the volunteers. Jim thought that sounded weird and I haven’t been able to find any information either way about it, so I’ll include what they told us since it’s interesting, though possibly not true!) The shape of the building is designed to draw air inside through special vents near the floor and when you sit in the benches close to the walls you can definitely feel the breeze in an otherwise hot day with stagnant air. It was like a magic trick!
Ironically—and horribly—the founder of a faith that recognizes and respects all other faiths was actually executed.
We spent some time at Akshardham, a temple for a Hindu sect called Swaminyari. It was a little bit like an Indian Epcot experience since everything was new and designed to encourage Indian patriotism. However, wandered into one of the Holy areas and a volunteer (an engineering student who was a priest-in-training) was extremely nice and explained the statue inside. Then, there was a ceremony and he pulled us to the front—the spot of honor!—and explained everything and provided us with water to pour over the Idol as we made a wish. He even gave us our first forehead “dots” before we left. The best part was that it wasn’t a scam and they didn’t want money from us!
Although Akshardham was a new complex, we had the most delicious meal of curry and a bready yellow cake for lunch. (Gosh, I wish I knew what that bready-cake was called!)
Regarding the “dots” we learned that they do not show if a woman is married or not, as we had thought. To see if a woman is married, you look at the part in her hair and if she is married, then there will be some red powder there. (As our guide joked, when she’s angry with her husband she puts only a small dot in her hairline versus a long line of it.) There are bindis which are stickers of a pattern or design that women wear for decoration in between their eyes on their forehead as well. But, the dot that I think most foreigners associate with Indians is actually a symbol of which Hindu god they follow. Certain lines, patterns or colors represent different gods.
Learning about Hinduism and the other religions in India was particularly fascinating. Although we would say that the Hindus are polytheistic, they would not consider themselves as such. There are three main gods in the faith who represent, essentially, a past, present and future. Brahmin is the supreme creator. As everyone is made in his image (the equivalent of the single western God) there is actually only one temple for him in India because the idea is that everyone should be treated as a god because we are all created in his image—this is why guests are so honored in India. (We really experienced this when we stayed with a friend’s family in Hyderabad!) Vishnu is the god of things as they are and Shiva is the god of destruction—because without destruction you cannot have rebirth.
The Jain and Hare Krishna followers’ gods are Hindu sub-gods. It was fascinating how the religions were interconnected and reminded me a lot of Japan.
As every single Hindu (we met) said, Hinduism isn’t a religion, but a way of life. There is no set time to go to the temple and pray and there aren’t specific rules.
The Sikh religion is a combination of Hindu and Islamic faiths. (It started in Northern India near Pakistan.) In fact, sometimes Hindu parents will “donate” their children to Sikhism. Our guide told us about her in-laws who had 4 miscarriages and prayed for a live birth. The mother promised that she would “donate” her child to Sikhism if one was born, so although they wound up having four children, the first was raised as Sikh and the other three were raised Hindu.
The Sikhs also have a fascinating religion. They are probably the most recognized outside of India because they are the people who do not cut their hair and wear turbans. (Some Muslims and Hindus also wear turbans, but they are of a “messy” variety whereas a Sikh turban is very neatly wrapped.) The leader of the Sikhs is the only religious leader in the world who was martyred in defense of another religion; he was killed when he stood up for Hinduism. Ironically, they are also considered the fighters of the Indian culture and are frequently part of the military or police forces.
Despite the extreme poverty rate in India, the crime is relatively low. The guide explained that Hinduism is so pervasive that people would rather follow the sacred path of doing good in order to be reborn in a better life than commit crimes in this life. Of course, that’s not to say this goes for everyone or that there isn’t any crime—just an observation from the guide that I found interesting. Speaking of the sacred path, when Indian give money to poor people outside of temples, it’s so that they can follow this same sacred path and doesn’t have anything to do with actually helping the poor as much as looking out for themselves in the next life.
Another guide explained how to tell the “real” beggars from the “fakes”. True beggars will never move. They will stay in place and will hold out their hands; all of their earthly possessions will be with them. Key, however, is that they do not react when receiving alms other than to bow their heads in thanks. The “fake” beggars are the ones who pester you and who carry only a small bag with them—so they can change clothes and go home at the end of the day.
On the subject of begging, we’d heard that India is completely overwhelming because of the beggars and the poverty. We found, though, that we didn’t see those things when we looked around. We saw the rich culture and the friendly people. Indians were always smiling and, in one small extremely poor town, invited us into their homes. They didn’t have anything, but they were willing to share. When I think about our trip to India, I don’t remember the poverty; I remember the friendly faces and the wonder and beauty of the country. It makes me feel bad for the people who only remember the other parts when there is so much more to India than that.
On that first day in Delhi, without a guide, we went from the Lotus Temple and Akshardham to a local market where monkeys were running all over the place, completely unconcerned about the people milling about. It was at this point that we hoped we wouldn’t regret our decision not to get the rabies vaccine before leaving! We also saw our first barbershops in this area with vendors who simply sat outside by the side of the road waiting for someone to stop for a shave or cut. In some places, there would be three in a row just waiting for the next customer or working on someone in their chair.
We’d heard that driving in India was among the worst in the world and we had our own unique experience with it when our driver needed to make a call. He stopped in the middle of the road since it’s illegal to drive and talk at the same time! Jim and I craned our necks around and looked out of the back window as the rest of the drivers rounding the corner swerved to miss us. It was like being in the midst of an old fashioned arcade game—and luckily, time didn’t run out!
The next day our fantastic guide met us for a day out; this is the guide who explained how her in-laws “donated” a child to Sikhism. She explained how some Hindus worship Idols whereas others do not. Interestingly, it was difficult for her to adjust when she married her husband (in an arranged marriage, of course) since her new family were Idol-worshipping Hindus and she had not been raised that way.
It was great fun listening to our guide because so much of Hinduism is about mythology and stories! We learned the fascinating story of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god that is outside of every Hindu temple. One day his mother left him playing outside of the house and told him not to let anyone inside. When his father Shiva, the god of destruction, arrived home, Ganesh followed instructions and refused to let him inside. In his anger, Shiva cut off the boy’s head. When his mom explained what had happened, Shiva felt remorseful and gave Ganesh the head of an elephant and declared that everyone would worship him, including the other gods. So, this is why there are so many images of Ganesh throughout India and although he is not one of the “big three” gods, he is one of the most important and well-known.
Although we didn’t take any meditation classes in India, our guide explained the “Om” symbol that we saw everywhere as well; it looks similar to a 3. The “Om” sound that people say in meditation is supposed to arouse a vibration within to help bring forth knowledge and center the person during meditation.
We also learned a lot about curry when Jim started asking our guide about cooking. Apparently, what we refer to as Indian “curry” is a recent development. Curry powder is essentially a short cut to the combination of tomatoes, garlic and ginger that Indians cook with. You cannot actually buy “Indian curry power” in India—you can only buy the ingredients necessary to make Indian curry!
From the Laxminarayan Temple we went to Qutb Minar, the first Mosque in Delhi. The complex was beautiful and included a finished Minar (a tall column that was originally used to announce prayer time) as well as a larger one that was never completed. The most interesting things happened at the Minar—and continued throughout our trip. People began asking for photos of and with me! We’d thought Jim would be the popular one, but instead it was me. I was dressed modestly and blended in but people came up to pose with me, snapping pictures on (always showing me afterwards) and sometimes gesturing for me to take off my hat or move so I’d be in a spot more conducive to a beautiful photo.
While it was certainly novel, I can now understand what it’s like to live as a celebrity in the US. I would sit in one area to enjoy the ambiance while Jim was snapping photos and I could feel everyone staring at me and surreptitiously taking pictures. Other times, later in the trip, people would interrupt our guide’s explanations to pull me aside for (their) family photos. Although I enjoyed it at first, I cannot imagine having to live life that way on a permanent basis. (I told Jim that we should start asking for tips from everyone who wanted my photograph and we’d be able to make back the price of our trip!)
We asked our guides during the trip about it and the explanations were that I looked like the ideal Indian woman: light skin and dark hairm and that’s why everyone wanted my photo. Most Indian women are dark with dark hair or, if they are lighter, their hair is lighter, too. Because I fit the ideal, that’s what made me so popular. It was interesting, actually, to watch Indian television because all of the women who were considered the most beautiful (and we thought pretty much all Indian women were beautiful, incidentally) actually looked Hispanic rather than the stereotypical Indian.
We had a startling experience near the end of our trip when we were in Madurai and wandering through a local market. A female vendor wanted to talk to us and, with our guide translating, we learned that she wished she could keep me there to marry off to her brother and give Jim her daughter (who was sitting right there) as a replacement wife. At first we thought she meant she wanted her daughter to live in America, the land of opportunity. Nope. Her daughter was dark skinned and she knew it would be hard to find her a husband so she wished she could give her to someone. Jim and I were stunned; there is certainly no question that racism exists everywhere.
It’s kind of confusing when you hear people talk about going to Delhi vs New Delhi. We learned that they are the same city. Because Delhi was rebuilt so many times, the “old” vs “new” referred to building periods rather than a modern area or even an entirely different city. Old Delhi is actually the 7th time the city was rebuilt (also known at the Wall City) and New Delhi is the 8th.
There are strict building requirements in Delhi as well—private homes cannot be taller than 4 stories, apartments 9 stories and businesses 32 stories. This way, the town grows outwards rather than upwards. Since you always hear about how populated India is, we were surprised by these regulations.
We finished the day at Humayun’s Tomb sometimes known at the “Poor Man’s Taj.” It was finished before the Taj and the architecture is Islamic and the layout is the same (garden with four quadrants, for example). However, since the Taj was designed for a woman, it’s all white marble, thus a more feminine look. Humayun’s Tomb was built by a woman in honor of her husband, so the red standstone gives it a more masculine look. Since sandstone is less expensive than marble, it’s the “Poor Man’s Taj.” Rich or poor, it was certainly gorgeous!
When we returned to the B&B, we napped before heading out for dinner—a pattern that continued for most of our trip. Since India is so hot in the summer, most places close in the afternoon and reopen later; the restaurants in the area weren’t even open for dinner until 7 pm and we were the old, early-bird diners eating at 7 since restaurants weren’t busy until closer to 9 or 10 at night.
Charlotte suggested some fantastic restaurants in the area so we were able to eat local food without feeling worried about health and safety. She was used to foreigners, so we knew we could trust her. The cost of food was minimal—and unfortunately, the mere though of 15 INR naan (about $0.33 USD) was so enticing that I wound up eating my way through India and had way more naan than anyone should ever be allowed to eat. At the end of each meal, I’d groan and hold my stomach as I regretted overeating but reveled in the deliciousness that was authentic naan! Indian food in India was extremely similar to Indian food at home, but of course there’s more of a variety there.
Indians believe that specific foods are better to eat at certain times of the year. Saag, my favorite dish, is actually more of a winter meal. A lot of it has to do with what is available and fresh, but there are also beliefs about how you digest in hot vs cool weather. We also had to keep in mind that seeing mutton on a menu referred to goat, not lamb. Beef never meant cow, but water buffalo.
Our third day in India (and our second with a guide) started off with a visit to Jama Masjid. This is the largest Mosque in Delhi. Our guide told us about the Mosque and then stayed at one of the gates while we walked around. It was the only place in India where I felt extremely uncomfortable. Even though I was dressed extremely modestly, I felt like people were staring—and not in a good way. While I was standing and waiting for Jim to snap a few photos, a young guy came up to me, stood less than a foot away, and asked if I believe in the greatness that is Allah. I never felt so eager to leave a place as I did the Jama Masjid.
We spent a lot of times in Mosques throughout Egypt, including close to prayer time, but there was something about this one that made me feel insanely uncomfortable and I hurried Jim out. When I told our guide my feelings, she said she’s had other tourists say the same thing. I was glad when we left—that place definitely had some bad chi!
We toured the markets of Old Delhi with our guide, experienced a Jain temple, and drank off-the-street Chai Tea, an experience I’d been dying to have!
After bragging to each other about how we were so healthy despite eating in local Indian restaurants, our hubris caught up with us and we had to eat some humble pie as we got sick in the night. We had to get on a plane in the morning to fly to Amritsar in the north and it was all I could do to drag myself to the airport. (Jim was doing better by then.) At the Delhi airport we stopped at the Chemist’s (Pharmacy) and purchased what seemed like an insanely expensive bag of various pills. (We’d already taken some of our prescription medication at this point but I was still groaning and holding my stomach.) We were skeptical but desperate and low and behold, by the time we stepped off the plane in Amritsar I was feeling much, much better. We have to give credit where credit is due—the Delhi airport Chemist must be used to sick foreigners because we were in ship-shape condition afterwards. By taking the digestive pills for the rest of the trip, we didn’t have any additional bouts with illness! Go us!
Domestic flights in India revealed some of the most thorough security measures we’ve ever experienced. (The same goes for places like museums where you always got searched.) First we’d show our tickets or itinerary and ID just to get inside the airport. At the security checkpoints that we’re used to the US, we’d have to separate into male/female lines and show our boarding passes and ID before getting a pat down.
Every single piece of carry on luggage was tagged and stamped to show it had been through the x-ray machine. When it came time to board the plane, we had to show our ID again and they checked to make sure everything in our arms was stamped. If you didn’t have the appropriate stamp, they’d send you back to security. We had a near-miss at one point when I took my hat out of a bag and was holding it as we boarded the plane. Since it didn’t have the tag and stamp, we nearly had to go back.
The Golden Temple, the most holy place for all Sikh people, was a huge complex with the temple itself in the center. Large buildings surrounded a pond with religious holy water and a temple right in the center. We walked around the perimeter and then waited in line to get into the temple itself. All three floors were jam-packed with people praying. It was a really neat experience that Jim described as a Religious Fun House since everywhere you looked people were crammed into a corner praying or sleeping.
The Sikh’s believe in feeding people, so there was even a 24 hour cafeteria for everyone to get free food as desired. (For health reasons, we passed.)
Later that night we drove about 45 minutes to the Wagah Boarder ceremony at the boarder of India and Pakistan. This ceremony takes place every evening when the flags are taken down at sunset with each country contributing as much show and machismo as possible to the event. Although the Pakistani side wasn’t jam-packed with people, the Indian side had people literally hanging off the edges of the bleachers.
Before we were allowed into the stadium area, everyone was separated by gender into two lines. We, of course, couldn’t understand anything and everyone was pushing and shoving (Indian nature). It was very nerve wracking and scary to be separated from Jim. Guards were riding by on horses and trying to get everyone into single file lines, charging by and forcing everyone to jump out of the way if they didn’t want to get run down. The lines were long and we couldn’t see where we were going or what was happening; I had no way of knowing when I’d see Jim again or how I’d find him since I couldn’t even see the end of the line. Suddenly, both lines began to run (still single file); I felt completely terrified.
As it turned out, we were just in line to get searched like everywhere else in India and Jim and I met up on the other side. Next to the experience at the Mosque in Delhi, this was my most uncomfortable experience in India. However, unlike the Mosque, I’d go to the ceremony again now that I know what to expect.
We were busy wondering how we’d ever see the actual ceremony since the area was packed when a guard directed us to the Foreigner VIP section—where we had better seats than most of the Indians! Everywhere we looked, military personnel with huge machine guns stood by in case of emergency.
The ceremony included stepping in time, some bugle playing, shouting and moving around like chess pieces (according to Jim) because of the rapid high steps and little leaps. After the ceremony, you couldn’t help but feel a little bit patriotic!
The next morning we flew back to Delhi before beginning a five hour drive to Jaipur. We’ve learned that traveling long distances by car is the best way to really see a country and we had a great time staring out of the windows and watching all of the things go by—camels, buses piled with people, motorbikes with families of five, motorbikes piled with crates higher than the driver’s head and pretty much anything else you could imagine! Although we’d occasionally see a man with a helmet on, we never saw women wearing them. (Apparently, it was the law for a while that women had to wear them on the bikes, but there were too many complaints that it mussed up their hair, so the law was retracted!)
On our way to Delhi, we got caught in a terrible standstorm and couldn’t see even six inches out of the car’s windshield. We stopped at a restaurant to wait for a bit—but with the power out and the inside area beginning to flood from the rains that started, it didn’t do much and we were on the road again shortly. The driving was certainly scary (I closed my eyes for a lot of it) but amazingly we didn’t get into an accident.
Our driver explained Indian driving was dependent on three factors: a good brake, a good horn and good luck. Amen to that!
Jaipur, also known at the Pink City, is called that because all of the buildings within the walls of the city were painted pink in order to impress European royalty. Our B&B was fantastic and we were lucky to be able to order dinner there as well—so we got to enjoy (safe) home cooked Indian meals every night. The power was out when we arrived, but that was such a common thing in India that we chatted with our hosts at a cozy table in the backyard until it came back on.
The next morning our guide met us to go to the Wind Palace and the City Palace, both of which were amazingly beautiful. In the afternoon, once we were through with the guide, we had our driver take us to the Rambagh Palace, a former King’s residence which is an upscale hotel that is considered one of the most beautiful in the world.
We were able to go in because the owners of our B&B were friends with “the owner” (aka The King). When India was given independence, the kings were no longer allowed to own vast amounts of property, so many of them turned their palaces and properties into Heritage Hotels, thus the Rambagh Palace hotel was no longer a private residence. (In fact, the owners of our B&B lived next door to a Heritage Hotel—the house where the owner actually grew up!)
The Palace was beautiful and we enjoyed a late lunch on the veranda looking at the grounds and enjoying hearing the peacocks call to each other. During our meal, the manager came up to our table to introduce himself because “he knew we were guests of Mr. Singh, who is friends with the owner”. We felt like VIPs!
The next day we went to the Amer fort and took an elephant ride to the top. (Yes, cheesy and touristy, but also really interesting and fun.) On our way up, a little boy ran up to the elephant and held up a blanket and shouted up to us “30 rupees! 30 rupees!” This sounded like an excellent deal and we thought we should buy it. (Thirty rupees is less than a dollar.) Our elephant guide tried to warn us that things weren’t as they seemed. We kept asking the boy “Rupees?” to clarify since our guide insisted that the boy meant dollars. The boy assured us that the price was in rupees—but sure enough, as soon as the boy handed the blanket up to us and we passed our money down, he looked at it and said, “No, no 3,000 rupees!” Jim and I nearly fell off the elephant laughing as we passed the blanket back down again.
We had a similar experience when we stopped at a restaurant/tourist trap to use the bathroom on our way to Jaipur. It was like the typical stops I remember going to when I was younger—lots of kitchy things to buy. Jim asked about the price of a bracelet that looked pretty and they told us 27,000 rupees (about $587 USD)! Can you imagine buying something that expensive from one of those road-side stores? Sometimes, hearing the outrageous foreigner prices they quoted was great for a laugh. (Yes, we could have bargained, no it wasn’t worth it to us regardless.)
After the Agra fort—which was more of a fortified palace, as were all of the forts we visited, we went out to enjoy the hotel pool in the evening and, while swimming, noticed a flurry of activity at the pool’s surface. It was like we were watching a lot of mosquitoes, but that definitely wasn’t it. After a little bit, Jim realized what was dive-bombing the pool surface: bats. (Yes, in retrospect we probably would have gotten rabies shots before leaving for India. No, we didn’t actually have a problem during our entire trip.)
For dinner, we ordered room service—my very favorite part about staying at any up-scale hotel. We’d been eating Indian food during our whole trip, and I had a craving for some chocolate, so I asked for a slice of chocolate cake, which I thought I’d seen downstairs in one of the bakeries on the property. Room service knocked on our door a short time later and our tray held the pasta we’d ordered for dinner…in addition to an entire chocolate cake! It was about six days late, but happy birthday to me!
At sunrise we were up to visit the gorgeous Taj Mahal. It was nice to be there before the crowds arrived and the building was just as beautiful as everyone says—and as it looks in photographs. We received booties to put on over our shoes so we wouldn’t damage the marble and spent a lot of time walking around (and photographing) the Taj.
I never realized that there are actually two other buildings in the Taj Mahal complex—a mosque and a building that was never actually used, but was built because Muslim architecture of the time dictated that everything should be completely symmetrical and balanced. (The gardens of the Taj Mahal reflect this as well.)
After looking our fill at the magnificent building, we piled into our car and headed to Orchha, the town that turned out to be one of my favorites on our entire trip. It’s a small town in the middle of nowhere that most tourists don’t bother visiting because it’s too difficult to get to. The town is pretty small—a main street and a few other smaller ones—surrounded by palace ruins and cenotaphs. Since it’s not a touristy destination, you can climb all over everything, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. (As we climbed the steps of one of the cenotaphs, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had checked the building for safety—ever.)
We stayed at the Orchha resort which made up for low-end quality with high-end friendliness. The staff couldn’t have been nicer and loved speaking Hindi to us at dinner. The doorman boasted that he knew lots of languages and started signing songs to us in Greek, Hebrew and German. It was random and wonderful; the service made the stay spectacular.
While exploring the town and ruins that evening, some children ran up to us with big smiles on their faces. The youngest shoved her little hand into mine. We smiled back as ambassadors for all foreigners but held tightly to our things, thinking the worst. It didn’t take us long to realize that we were wrong—these children weren’t out to pick our pockets or get money out of us, they were just excited to see new people. I’m always happy to have a local cultural experience and couldn’t have been happier when they took us to the home where two of the little girls lived.
The home wasn’t much more than a square courtyard; these people had nothing. But, the mother and grandmother who were home welcomed us with smiles. We couldn’t communicate with anyone in English, but smiles and laughter can do the same job. We began playing games with the children and more and more came to join us in excitement over hearing about the foreigners! They sat on my lap, played patty-cake games and smiled.
The young mother looked as though she couldn’t have been more than 20 years old and she was on her second child. She seemed surprised that we don’t have any kids ourselves (as are our parents and grandparents, incidentally!).
After about an hour of games we decided to head back to the hotel since we were in a malaria zone and didn’t want to be out after dark. That wasn’t to be, though, and we were pulled to the house next door to visit with the next family.
Only the mother was home, but someone must have gone to get the father, because he appeared shortly after our arrival. They insisted we sit down and the father told us about how all of the drivers were on drugs—leading us to wonder if this was a language glitch or something we should be seriously concerned about!
When we finally went back to our hotel that evening, we’d had what I still consider one of the highlights of our entire trip to India.
After seeing some more ruins the next morning we headed to Khajuraho, a city that was one of Jim’s favorite places in India since the architecture is completely different from what we had seen already on our trip. For me, however, the second highlight of the trip occurred. When we met our guide, I mentioned my fascination with Hindu weddings and how much I wished we knew someone getting married. He said he wished he’d met us earlier because he’d just been to a wedding the night before, but that he’d do his best to find a wedding for us to attend.
Most weddings last several days, though, and before going to the temples for sightseeing, our guide took us to the wedding breakfast of the ceremony he’d attended the night before! We were treated like honored guests—the photographer took pictures of us with just about everyone there and the bride’s uncle jumped into nearly all of them. He shook hands with me for a photo, he shook hands with Jim, he put his arms around us like we were his children getting married…the photo list went on and on! We had a blast!
They showed us where they were cooking the morning breakfast (and of course invited us to eat, which I would have absolutely loved to, but we couldn’t because of sanitary reasons) and where the actual ceremony had been held. One of the priests blessed us.
There was a loveseat on a stage where the married couple had sat during performances the night before and the uncle took me up there to sit with him and of course take more photos.
We couldn’t believe the kindness on the part of the guide for taking us or from the family for happily showing us around; it doesn’t matter if guests are honored or not, we were still foreigners crashing a wedding!
We learned that a woman stands on the man’s left, near his heart, during the wedding ceremony and that part of the process involves walking around a fire clockwise 7 times to represent 7 lives together.
When we left, I insisted that we get a gift for the married couple; I just didn’t feel right having been to a wedding without giving something. It was early, and we could only find one open shop. Our guide took us inside to pick out a sari and insisted that we get local pricing since the gift was for a local girl. We spent a very appropriate (according to the guide) 300 rupees ($7 USD).
The temples we saw in Khajuraho were amazing and the architecture was beautiful, no doubt, but having the opportunity to spend time at a wedding was a personal highlight (for me—the architecture was definitely Jim’s favorite!).
All of the temples in this area were designed to look like the Himalayan mountains, so they were taller and more rounded than others we’d seen. To build them, all of the pieces were held together by a key piece in the top—so to take them apart for repair involved actually removing the top piece and then unstacking each stone progressively.
The kama sutra temples of Khajuraho were really interesting—and as our guide said, no explanation should be necessary for some things! We did, learn, however that Indians consider a deep belly button very beautiful, which made me want to take a look at my own!
We spent some time at a Jain temple as well. The Jain prophet looks remarkably similar to Buddha, though there are three key ways to tell them apart: Buddha sits in a lotus position on a lotus whereas the Jain prophet sits in a lotus position on a cushion; Buddha has a diamond on his forehead and the Jain prophet has a diamond on his chest; Buddha has ropes on his body to represent clothing and the Jain prophet is always naked.
In the evening, we decided to get massages at the hotel. Even an intense sight-seeing vacation should involve some R&R. Let me say that Indian massages are completely different from what you get in the US…unless you’re going for a happy ending. Jim’s massage therapist said, “Some people think they get happy endings here because of the temples! Ha ha ha!” From the way both of us had been rubbed, it wasn’t so much of a “ha ha” as a “are they propositioning me” moment.
We went sightseeing some more the next day and in the evening left our driver (who had been with us since we arrived in Delhi) and guide as we boarded an overnight train to Varanasi.
Varanasi is the most holy place for the Hindus and the Ganges river is considered a god. For Hindus a life-long goal is to die in Varanasi so we’d been warned that the city can be a culture shock because there are old people waiting to die absolutely everywhere you look. While that was true, we had built things up so much in our minds that even the row of beggars near the river wasn’t as troubling as expected.
What surprised us most about Varanasi was that it was the most unfriendly city we visited in all of India—this went for our guides as well as for the people we came into contact with. Considering it’s such a holy city, we found it extremely surprising.
Watching the cremations and evening ceremony putting the river to bed from our rowboat was fascinating, though. We’d pictured half-burned bodies floating along the river and that’s not the case at all. Here is the process: only men are allowed to be present during the cremation because they believe women are too emotional and will cry, disturbing the spirit of the deceased. The chief mourner wears white and shaves his head and stays with the body until it is completely cremated, which takes approximately 6-8 hours. At the beginning of the process, the family members carry the body, wrapped in shrouds and filled with flammable oils to the river where it is submerged as a way of purification. The mourners also pour river water into the body’s mouth. (This is particularly important to Hindus and jugs are for sale all over the city so that pilgrims can take the holy water back home with them.) The body is set on fire and when the process I complete, the next one begins. Nothing is done with the ashes because Hindus believe the spirit of the person has been released and that’s what’s important, not the earthly remains. Bodies are burned 24 hours a day 7 days a week and families must pay for the service as well as the wood used.
We saw Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon, and in the evening hopped on an evening train to Gaya. I can’t say we were sad to leave Varanasi—after so much kindness elsewhere in India, that was the culture shock for us more than anything else.
The train trip to Gaya was interesting because rather than having a compartment to ourselves like on the overnight train, we were sharing a more open area with other people as we were only on for a handful of hours. We met a very nice businessman as well as a family from Calcutta. Although at first we’d been really turned off by the train conditions, in the end it was a nice experience visiting with locals.
Getting off of the train in Gaya was far more of a culture shock than Varanasi had been and is the place where I remember seeing the poor people of India more than anywhere else. People were sleeping in every available nook of the train station; the floor was wall-to-wall people inside as well as on the curbs outside. The amount of people were unbelievable. In reality, they were probably waiting for the train and they weren’t all homeless. However, it was definitely the most shocked I’d been.
Gaya, though, was a nice little town. On our way to the airport, we saw a procession with a carriage, horse and music. It was a groom on his way to his wedding. The day and time must have been chosen as auspicious and so that’s why the procession started in the middle of the night.
The main reason we went to Gaya was to see the Bodhi tree that the prince sat under when he turned into Buddha. It was a bit like Epcot since there were Buddhist temples from around the world—Japanese, Tibetian, Burmese, etc. Looking at the different styles of Buddhism was really interesting since all Buddhism is not the same.
While in the hotel, we watched some Indian television from the safety of our mosquito tent (!) and what struck me as the most interesting was that a disclaimer came on (in English) before the shows (in Hindi). The disclaimer read that none of the characters were mean to be similar to any person, political party, caste, society, or government official.
The next part of our trip was three days in Hyderabad, a city where we certainly had our most unique, authentic Indian experience. Every morning I go to the AM/PM near my office for coffee and over the years I became friendly with Singh, one of the employees. When he heard about our trip to India, he invited us to stay with his family in Hyderabad. Since I consider this type of cultural experience the best of all, I didn’t hesitate to accept his offer!
Although Singh has lived in the US for about seven years now, his wife and daughters still live in India, as does the rest of his extended family. Singh’s youngest daughter can’t even remember her dad since he hasn’t been able to return to India as part of the green card process; as soon as he has it (versus the work permit that he has now) then he will be able to return for a visit. They speak on the phone every day and skype, but that’s it. Singh’s wife is, essentially, a single mother. Singh’s wife is expected to take care of her in-laws and treated them with reverence even though her husband is gone. Each morning, we saw her bow down and touch their feet in a gesture of respect when they came to visit at breakfast.
We were the first foreigners the family had ever hosted and we really experienced the adage that entertaining a guest is entertaining god—to the point that it became extremely uncomfortable. In addition to the health issues that we were concerned about (we were given ice cream, for instance, which is one of the worst things for foreigners to eat because of the bacteria that grow during the frequent power outages) we were watched like hawks. In a typical Indian home, the order of who eats when is very much dictated by familial rank: first the guests, then the men, then the women and children. When we ate dinner (the men at least ate with us or it would have been really uncomfortable for about ten people to stare at us while we ate by ourselves!), the minute we took a bite, Singh’s brother would yell at one of the girls to feed us more of whatever it was. So each bite in led to two more on the plate! (When we returned home, Singh commented that I gained weight—I told him it was because his family kept feeding us!)
It was interesting staying with a “real” family (as opposed to B&B hosts who are used to foreigners) because we really experienced local life. We ate dinner at 10 pm and on our final night before an early morning flight to Madurai, cousins came over to meet us at 1 am!
At one point, we were with two of Singh’s daughters and they knew of a restaurant that served delicious south Indian food. We were sitting at one table with the youngest daughter and the daughter called us around the corner to another one. Jim started moving the tray of food to the end so that someone could take it away—and then we realized that the tray was the fresh food! We managed to avoid getting sick while with Singh’s family, which was something short of a miracle!
Their home was really interesting since it was the first one that I’ve been in with an Asian-style (hole in the ground) toilet; even the family I lived with in Japan had a western toilet. (Truth be told, I prefer the Asian-style one when I’m in public places because I think it’s much cleaner.) The family was really similar to the Japanese as well. No one called each other by their names, but instead used their titles and family roles as references. Everyone was “Mr. Singh’s daughter”, “Mr. Singh’s wife”, “Mr. Singh’s younger daughter”, etc—we didn’t learn one single person’s name while we were with them!
Another interesting fact about the Singh’s home was that they didn’t have an oven. All of the food was cooked fresh daily, so there was no need for it. I can’t imagine living without an oven—or a microwave for that matter!
Singh’s family is Sikh and part of their faith is that they never cut their hair. Anyone who has been baptized (generally just the men) must cover their hair when they aren’t with family members. So, all of the women had long, beautiful hair. (They weren’t baptized, so we could see it.) Then men wore the traditional turbans and sometimes also a band that went across their faces keeping their beard’s contained. (Jim and I thought these were not the least bit flattering; it looked like the men had toothaches when they wore these.)
We went to Singh’s family’s local temple as well as the temple where most of them got married. We also got to see the apartments of the other relatives since they all live in the same building together. It was great having the opportunity to see multiple units.
One of the other highlights was getting to play “Indian dress up”. They dressed me in a beautiful sari and Jim modeled a red and black turban. (The color doesn’t mean anything—it’s just a style preference.) Jim’s head grew about three sizes with the turban on top; he reminded me of Toad from the old Mario Brothers game.
We spent a long time talking to Singh’s oldest daughter one evening when she asked if Jim and I had a “love marriage”. We were shocked because knowing abstractly about arranged marriages is one thing, but to think that someone would even have to wonder if ours was arranged put things into a whole other perspective.
Singh’s daughter could hardly believe that we dated for two and a half years before getting married. We tried to describe our wedding to her, another totally foreign concept. We explained the typical rehearsal-wedding-morning after brunch and she was so confused about why we would need to rehearse something so simple! Jim and I really laughed about that—it IS kind of odd that we practice walking down an aisle and standing still. For someone who has been raised in a culture of arranged marriages, the idea of a bride planning her wedding day for years was as foreign to Singh’s daughter as the idea of an arranged marriage was to us.
While at one of the temples in Madurai, the city we visited after Hyderabad, we had the opportunity to watch a marriage negotiation take place with our guide providing a play-by-play. In arranged marriages, usually the couple only meet after the relatives have approved of the match through various meetings. So, what we saw was the initial meeting. The couple agreed to the marriage after spending a short time together and barely exchanging a few words. Furthermore, the bride wears wedding bangles for up to a year after marriage. These signify that she and her groom are allowed to touch in public by holding hands since they’re still considered newlyweds; brides also aren’t allowed to wear white, the color of mourning, for a year after marriage. A ceremony with the couple and the bride’s parents a year after the wedding signifies the changes.
Singh’s daughter was really sad because she knew that her college didn’t mean much as her family would set her up for an arranged marriage in a handful of years. (Later, we learned for our guide in Madurai that wealthy families send their daughter’s off for higher education, like with Singh’s family, just so that they can help assure a better match down the road.) She knew that she would be forced to stop going to school once she got married and that there was no room to dream of a career or her own goals in life. She said she tries not to think about it because it makes her so upset. We had hoped that Singh would be more laid back since he has lived in America for so long, but she said he has actually become even more conservative since he left.
From the moment we got up in the morning until the minute we went to bed, we tried to be on our best behavior so we wouldn’t inadvertently offend the family since there’s only so much you can learn in a guide book. We knew enough not to use the word “no” (they always evade, like the Japanese, rather than using such an absolute negative), but it was a very, very intense three days.
We wrapped up our vacation in Madurai, a city very much in the south of India. In addition to women wrapping their saris differently, south Indian women are distinguished by their dark skin and the jasmine flowers they wear in their hair. (They wear the flowers when they travel, too, so we saw them all over India, not just in the south.)
The architecture was also extremely different in this area. The temple structure was totally different from elsewhere—taller, more square, colorful and with tons of small carvings.
Our guide in Madurai was so excellent that it quickly became one of our favorite cities in India as well—and the fact that we were staying in a gorgeous heritage hotel didn’t hurt, either! It was nice to end our trip on such a high: nice people, nice guide, nice hotel.
We were definitely sad to board a plane for Chennai, where we spent about 12 hours, before heading to the airport for our flight home.
We have been back for nearly four months now and I’m ready to hop a plane again—India was an amazing, wonderful; the food was delicious and the people were among the kindest anywhere. I wonder if my extreme love for Japan contributed to my love of India since there are so many similarities.
This was an awkward write up to start with—not sure why—and now I’m in the same position eighteen pages later. Thanks for sticking with this and I hope you learned a little more about Indian culture which I found utterly fascinating!