Exploring India: Delhi, Taj Mahal & Varanasi

India is not an easy place to visit. Aside from the almost impossibly long flight to get there, the crowds, noise and chaos are the very antithesis of a relaxing vacation in a beach resort. Add in the almost constant vigilance over what you eat and drink to avoid getting sick, and you might wonder, “Why bother?” Because it’s also the most interesting, complex and diverse place I have ever visited. If you judge a trip by how long the memory lingers and how profound its impact – the mark of true adventure travel – then a trip to India is likely to be at or near the top of your list.

Our two-week trip was organized by Encounters Asia and included the must-see cities of Delhi, Jaipur, Agra (the site of the Taj Mahal) and Varanasi. All but Varanasi are within a day’s drive of each other. Except for two internal flights and an overnight train ride, we had a car, driver and guide throughout our trip.

Delhi, Jaipur and Agra form the “Golden Triangle” where the most famous historical sites of India are located. The Taj Mahal lives up to its hype, especially if you arrive shortly before dawn to beat the crowds and to watch the Taj change colors, from rosy pink to blazing white, as the sun rises. Almost as impressive were the Amber Fort in Jaipur, a vast fort and palace built in the late 16th century; the Jantar Mantar, also in Jaipur, an 18th century astronomical observatory comprised of “instruments” the size of buildings; the Fatehpur Sikri, a red sandstone city just outside of Agra built in the late 16th century; and the Agra Fort which provides an opportunity to see the Taj from a distance and different perspective. The strangeness of the architecture, the unique history, and in the case of the Amber Fort, the majestic setting add to the allure and the beauty of these sites.

From Agra, we took an overnight train to Jabalpur where we were met by a driver for the 4.5-hour drive to Kanha. I was expecting the Orient Express, what we got was Amtrak on a bad day. No luxurious wood paneling, elegant dining car, and mysterious strangers (well, maybe that). Just a bouncing, narrow seat to sleep on, two communal bathrooms (one, western style; the other, the ubiquitous squat toilet found throughout Asia); and a takeout meal we had the foresight to bring on board with us. We survived without incident, but didn’t get a lot of sleep. Good thing we were heading to the tranquility of the tiger reserves.

There is an alternative – return to Delhi and fly to Jabalpur. If you’re a bit adventurous and the kind of person who can sleep anywhere, or can at least tolerate the occasional sleepless night, I recommend the train. Just don’t forget to bring your meal on board with you. I also recommend a light meal that won’t gurgle all night in your intestines as you bounce in time with the train.

As much as I enjoyed the Golden Triangle, our destinations after the National Parks were our second favorite segments of the trip, surpassed only by our experiences in the parks. From Bandhavgarh, it was a day’s drive to Khajuraho, the site of the famous Hindu temples with the erotic carvings. The temples are beautiful and well preserved and the carvings are indeed amazing – they are everywhere and depict the entire range of human experience, not just the erotic – but what impressed me most is how leafy green and peaceful  the city is. It’s a small town and has little of the congestion and chaos of India’s major cities, unless you count the many young backpackers from all over the world.

And that wasn’t the best part. Our one night visit came during the middle of the annual Khajuraho Festival of Dance, held every year during the first week of February. This year it was free – it hasn’t been in the past – but I would have been happy to pay for some of the best classical Indian music and dancing I have ever seen or heard, which was nothing like the pelvic thrusts and tacky dance routines seen in most Bollywood movies. The shows are presented after sunset and feature the best dancers from around the world on a stage in front of the brightly lit Hindu temples. The sights and sounds made for one of the most ecstatic one and half hours of our trip.

I would have been happy to stay for another night in Khajuraho just to see more dancing, but our trip was coming to an end and our last stop, Varanasi, promised to be a highlight of our visit. The only way to describe Varanasi – one of the holiest cities in Hinduism and one of the oldest cities in the world – is surreal, even hallucinogenic. Hindus make pilgrimages to Varanasi to bath in the Ganges to absolve themselves of their sins. They also come to die. Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi they will be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation and go directly to Nirvana.

The streets of Varanasi make downtown Manhattan at rush hour look like Mayberry. We walked several blocks from our parked van to the river in the early evening (we couldn’t drive any closer), took a boat ride to see the flaming funeral pyres lining the river, then observed the colorful Hindu services for the deceased on the banks of the river, marked by swirling incense and other worldly chanting.

Early the next morning we were back on the river to watch people bathe away their sins, then took a walk through the narrow alleyways of the funeral district where most of the pyres are located. The morning was just slightly less psychedelic than the evening before.

I have visited some of the most exotic sites and cities in the world, but none compare with Varanasi. That one night left me breathless, unsettled and excited. It may not have been the same as being hissed at by a tiger just a few feet away or glared at by an angry cobra, but it was a close second.

Don Mankin is a travel writer, business author, psychologist, organizational consultant and executive coach. He is the author of “Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to 50 Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler.” To check out his blog, visit www.donmankin.blogspot.com.


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Salim July 20, 2013 Reply

Hey Don. Great article! My wife and I are planning a similar trip (still debating taking a tour or just winging it). What airports did you fly in and out of? We’d be flying from the East Coast and thinking about flying into Delhi and out of Calcutta. Is that doable?

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