Last year I spent Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day confined to hospital bed due to nasty dengue fever, caught from a pre-sunrise hike near Borobudur Temple. The funny thing is, while lying in pain all I could think about was traveling again. During my corporate years I traveled frequently, and I sorely missed it.
Not long after being discharged I boarded a train to Pekalongan for a hotel opening, and every month since I’ve wandered about. Some for work, most for pleasure. Many first-times, too. Like to India, where I spent Christmas and rang 2016 in.
First off, while everyone says they’re dying to see Taj Mahal, not many are keen to actually visit India. Safety, hygiene and personal comfort are the top three excuses. A friend earnestly asked if it was feasible to stay in some airport hotel, pop in to Taj, and fly out the same day. I earnestly answered that this wasn’t some Taj in Vegas, this was the real Taj in Agra.
But, as luck would have it, I eventually found an eager travel mate. For safety reasons we booked a private tour, busting our piggybanks in the process. A local driver, a local guide, and two giggly Indonesian girls then set off on a 10-day road trip that started in Old Delhi and spanned into Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
India was every bit we’d braced ourselves to be, and some more. I’m very visual, so what I noticed as soon as landing on Indira Gandhi International Airport was colors. On saree women wore underneath sweater, on turbans donned proudly by men, even on the toilets’ walls. Outside the airport colors were soon rivaled fervently by horns—blared unapologetically by every running vehicle past decent dinner time at the volume and frequency that would make brash New York cabbies blush.
Yet, beyond the welcomed bursting colors and unwelcomed blaring horns, laid a country so rich in diverse heritage. The first two stops on the so-called Golden Triangle tourism of India, Delhi and Agra, are filled with gorgeous structures of red sandstone and white marble displaying Islamic architecture’s love for symmetry and geometry. Yep, a surprise for many tourists; India is not all about ohms and Hindu deities.
The Delhi Sultanate, whose towering Qutb Minar compound stands to this day as one of Delhi’s most-visited spots, ruled India for 320 years before being replaced in 1526 by yet another Islamic monarch, the Mughal dynasty, for 330 years.
The Mughals built grander structures and swathed semi-precious stone inlays across building facades. Shah Jahan’s love tribute Taj Mahal is the renowned jewel on the architectural crown, where I arrived in saree to properly pay my homage that morning, but later I came to adore more the walled city Fatehpur Sikri where Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Akbar I, respectfully mixed Islamic symmetry with Hindu altars to honor wife Jodha Bai who remained Hindu. The state of Uttar Pradesh, where Agra is, is still home to many Indian Muslims today.
The pink city Jaipur, which closes the Golden Triangle, is where the Rajput dynasty started wowing us with the elaborate, mostly hilltop, edifices. Being Hindu, engraved altars and adorned effigies were abundant. As touristy as it was to ride an elephant up to Amber Fort, it was a fitting prep to take in the grandness of the vast complex later. My friend and I were touring the third floor when a young guard shyly motioned us to the quiet rooftop, allowing us to have an unfettered bird’s eye-view of the walled city.
As we traipsed further down in Rajasthan state into Chittorgarh and Udaipur, the weather got slightly warmer and ‘namaste’ was greeted more often. We were the only foreigners that day on the Rajput’s early capital Chittorgarh Fort, so our experience also got, let’s say, more colorful.
The Rajput’s last capital, the city of manmade lakes Udaipur, was where all the colors seemed to rightly enmesh for me. The architectures were laid out more gracefully, the traffic flowed more easily, and the sellers peddled their wares less forcefully. There’s something rather languid about the city that was subtly enchanting. The Rajputs reportedly took four centuries to gradually embellish their hilltop, multi-story, marble, palace to perfection, and the resulting splendor was visible even as I was squeezed by the throng of visitors inundating its low-ceilinged, spiraled, almost hazardous passages that day.
Beauty, yes. Chaos and noise, granted. Poverty, everywhere. From the outright slums on the way to tourist destinations, including to our hilltop heritage hotel that had been an Udaipur royal retreat, to the random man lying motionless with limbs jutting out onto the busy street off Agra Fort, unclear whether dead or alive. Indian friends, rightfully, muttered I was lucky to have visited in wintertime and escaped funny scents of summer. Yet India is a dustily gilded mélange I personally would love to revisit—the supposedly breathtaking Kashmir is on the list—though I now fathom why it may be an acquired taste to many.
Paradox, aplenty. Incredible, in many different senses, India indeed.