Incredible India, seeing is believing
by Keri Vermeulen
History is wasted on the text books. To really feel history, sometimes, you just have to get on a plane and check it out with your own eyes – and ears and nose and every other sensory organ. In the case of India, seeing is believing.
A tour of the Golden Triangle in northern India is one such region that could never be captured in books alone – or even in a magazine travel article for that matter. Named for the triangular 700+ km journey that ties together the cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, the journey can be made in as little as three days, or extended to a couple of weeks to match your budget and/or time allowance. Knowing that we had to transfer planes in Delhi between our visit to southern India (see next month’s Light Magazine) and our journey to the Middle East, my husband and I decided to squeeze in a Golden Triangle tour. With limited time to explore, and being newbies to India, we decided to book our five-day trip with a tour operator, approved by India’s Ministry of Tourism.
We chose Top Travel and Tours, who safely and efficiently put together an itinerary that took us to all the big Golden Triangle attractions: first in Delhi, to India Gate and Raj Ghat (the memorial tomb for Mahatma Ghandi), and the bustling, chaotic, ramshackle and enchanting shopping bazaar, Chandni Chowk in Old Dehli, the Jama Mosque, and the Red Fort; then to Agra, to the most well known Indian monument, the Taj Mahal; the nearby red sandstone mega huge Agra Fort; and at last in Jaipur, the Pink City, where nearby, the opulent Amer Fort sits on a hilltop, overseeing the town of Amer. This ancient palace boasts Hindu architecture, though it was later ruled by the Mughals. Most of these places are connected through the influence of the Mughal Empire, who ruled India for 200 years.
But enough of the monument name-dropping – you can get more details of these spectacular places from the internet. It’s visiting these places in person, among the vibrant, colourful and teeming throngs of Indian people that truly make the Golden Triangle an experience to remember.
Accredited tour guides and drivers all speak very good English. The guides in particular are educated in the ancient and modern history of India – and they are delighted to share it. Indians love their history, and they are especially passionate about their independence. Having been under foreign rule for a combined 700 years (the Sultans from Persia and Turkey, the Mughals and the British being the most prominent), the national holiday celebrating independence from the British, on August 15, is a big deal. And the main man behind Indian Independence, Mahatma Ghandi, is still greatly cherished by the people. In fact, any visit by foreign officials to India that does not include a stop at Ghandi’s memorial tomb, Raj Ghat, is considered incomplete.
India is an intense, bewildering and transfixing clash of religion, poverty and wealth, chaos and order. Take a drive down any street in Old Delhi and you will see countless tuk tuks (auto rickshaws), bicycles, oxen, travel vans and Toyotas, along with a few higher end European cars all vying for the same open two inches of dusty road space. And everyone is honking. Everyone. Indian traffic is a thrill-seeker’s dream, so I loved it. I could find no sense of order or a polite merge system on roadways anywhere in India – and the north was perhaps the most chaotic tangle of traffic and pollution I have ever witnessed. And yet, I did not see a single road accident. Indian people understand the rhythm of the road, and for the most part, remain unflustered by the endless traffic and honking. “We keep a cool head, and we don’t drive too fast,” explained our wonderful driver, Bulbeer, who stayed with us for the whole five days.
Indians seem to appreciate curiosity. Whether it’s the tour guide, the driver or the people you meet in the street – asking questions and showing interest is most welcome. Even questions about cultural practices, religion, politics, history and family life are okay – provided the questions are within the boundaries of friendly conversation. This takes travel in northern India beyond just sightseeing the major monuments, and into a vague appreciation of day-to-day life in India.
Of course, no visit to the Golden Triangle would be complete without seeing the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world. The Taj remains out of sight until you walk through the giant front gate and when you see it, it stands majestic, completely alone with only sky behind it. Breathtaking! It’s a monument of love from Mughal King Shah Jahan to his departed beloved wife Mumtaz (meaning exquisite). About 20,000 workers and 17 years later (1648) it was complete. The Persian craftsmen who did the stunning marble inlay work with precious and semi precious stones, promised never to share their trade with anyone else, so no other building of such beauty would be made. It’s is a completely symmetrical building – it looks the same from all sides. Its condition is almost pristine, except for a few missing stones (including malachite, jade, lapis lazuli, bloodstone, garnet and more) that tourists have carved out of the marble. Today security is tight. You can’t take anything with points or wires inside (which includes pens and ringed notebooks).
We visited the Taj during the festival of Diwali, a Hindu celebration of light that is as close to Christmas, at least in commercialism and gift-giving as a Hindu festival gets. With marigold garlands on the necks of humans and livestock alike, fire crackers going off continuously, and yellow and red bindi dots on foreheads everywhere, it was not lost on me the richness and peaceful co-existance of many faiths. We were a Christian couple, welcomed with open arms into a Hindu celebration, while visiting a Muslim monument. Only in India.
• Take your older kids (12 and up): The Golden Triangle can be enjoyed by older kids, who are starting to appreciate history and can listen for longer than five minutes to a guide. Guaranteed, it will help them appreciate areas of history they are about to learn in highschool.
• Pack light and sensibly: A decent pair of Birkenstocks or comfy sandals is the only footwear you’ll need (unless you plan on staying in luxury locations and dining with the rich and famous). Although you can pretty much wear whatever you want, it’s suggested to dress on the conservative side for ladies.
• Take notes: You’re about to learn a lot. Write it down and savour it later. There will be nuggets you forget about the trip and it’s so fun to read it later in your notes.
• Hire a tour operator: Especially if this is your first trip to India. They will protect you from places that are unsafe to eat at, give you excellent tips on how to handle yourself in the crowds of hucksters around the monuments, and give priceless information about Indian life. We were very pleased with Top Travel and Tours – they accommodated our last minute changes, and our pick ups and drop offs were timed perfectly.
• Local crafts, not trinkets: From marble inlay plates, to hand-crafted jewelry with local precious and semi-precious stones, to textiles and linens – the Golden Triangle has it. Stay away from trinkets you won’t appreciate, and spend a little extra on the pieces that will last. Prepare to haggle, and you will likely get the vendor to come down by half the original price.
• Protect your stomach in advance: We had no trouble at all with any food we ate, and our stomachs were fine. But we visited a travel clinic first and got loaded up with just-in-case medicines.