Apr 22

Written by: chris
4/22/2015  RssIcon

Incredible India!

This is an incredible land that overwhelms visitors with an intoxicating mix of exotic culture, unfamiliar history and equally magnificent landscapes and architecture. This land assaults every sense with an intense pot-pourri of experiences. It’s immersive. It’s ecstatic. It’s Incredible India!


My two week journey here takes me to Delhi, capital of the sub-continent, across Northern India to the holy city of Varanasi, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. I will travel to Khajuraho’s carved temples, to the palaces of Orchha and of course to Agra, home of the world’s most beautiful building, the Taj Mahal. From there, on to the great abandoned city Fatehpur Sikri, and then south and west into Rajasthan, to the Pink City of Jaipur. I will be travelling by air, by coach, by boat, by train, by cycle rickshaw and even by elephant – but always in the experienced arms of Insight Vacations as I experience their “Art of Touring in Style” on their Classical India tour. A tour that promises “A journey into the mysterious and enigmatic, full of strange fascination - from the erotic temples of Khajuraho and the splendid Taj Mahal, to the spiritual presence of Hindu holy men”. I can’t wait to start! 


There was a moment, shortly after I arrived here in India, when I realized that I was somewhere very, very different from any other place on the planet.  Transitioning from an early morning arrival in a modern Delhi Airport to the whirling chaos of the alleyways of Old Delhi: to a world of cacophony, colour and craziness. A bicycle rickshaw ride through the market with its intense aromas, past temples and mosques, street life of bewildering variety…This first morning of my travels in Incredible India was a vibrant wake up call to open myself up to all the new experiences that a true journey should embrace.

The culture shock of arrival in Delhi in the heart of India with its twenty million people is intense…but thrilling. I’m struggling to make sense of the tumult, to understand the colourful humanity all around me.  This tour of Delhi is kaleidoscope of sights and experiences. Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, built in 1650 to accommodate 25,000 worshippers. A bicycle rickshaw ride through the alleyways of Chandni Chowk bazaar in Old Delhi - a colourful, smelly, loud experience of continuous street drama and lots of close shaves. The Red Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Ghandi Smriti is particularly evocative. This quiet spot in New Delhi is the perfect foil to the frenzy and colossal scale of the metropolis. The small colonial bungalow was Mahatma Gandhi’s last home in 1947-1948. The garden shows his footprints to the exact spot where he was assassinated. His study and his bedroom are kept as he left them: simple rooms with his few possessions still in place. 


The British legacy of Lutyen’s imperial New Delhi is very grand: India Gate, Parliament House, Rajpath, and the Presidential Palace. A visit to the Tomb of Humayun is good preparation for the heart-stopping awe of the Taj Mahal as it was its prototype. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the tomb of the second Mughal Emperor, Humayun, and was built by his wife. The ornate gateways, calm gardens, reflecting pools, and perfectly proportioned mausoleum set the precedent for Humayun's great grandson Shan Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal sixty years later. And next a third UNESCO World Heritage Site in this one city: the Qutub Minar complex, where the 12th century minaret was the highest structure in the world of its time.

Next up, a glimpse into a Hindu temple. The spirituality of India is an essential element of travelling here. India birthed four major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the Sikh religion, and it is also home to 180 million Muslims. I will be experiencing and learning much more of this side of India in the days to come.

After this dizzying tour of Delhi I’m off to the airport now to catch a short flight eastwards, travelling from the political heart of India to the spiritual heart of this mighty country - the holy city of Varanasi on the River Ganges.


I am travelling with a rapidly-bonding group of Canadian, British and Australian travelers on the Classical India Tour from Insight Vacations, who for over 35 years has been designing the world’s finest escorted touring itineraries. 

I have travelled east from Delhi to India's sacred city of Varanasi on the Ganges … It is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism, and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism too. It is also known as the favourite city of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva and many Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and the steps – or ghats – that lead into the Ganges are ageless.

My dawn boat ride on the Ganges along Varanasi's Ghats was one of the most magical moments of any of my many, many trips. Serene and surreal in equal part. Drifting with the river current past age-old rituals and religious fervour on one side and the simple beauty of the sunrise over the waters on the other. The sky was became lighter as we turned around and drifted downriver with the current. Then the sun appeared over the far, eastern shore: it was a magical moment: bells rang in the temples, smells of incense wafted across the river waters the funeral pyres were scenes of subdued activity, and the excited murmur of pilgrims on ghats was carried on the dawn breeze.


Later in the day we visited nearby Sarnath where Buddha taught the Dharma. It’s known as the Deer Park, but there’s no deer and no park! But it is a peaceful, uncrowded site that is one of the four sacred sites of Buddhism. Buddha’s first sermon was preached here 2,500 years ago and it was an active pilgrimage and teaching centre until the 12th century when the Muslims arrived. Then the site lay buried and forgotten until the 1910’s when Lord Curzon, the Indian Viceroy, had the site excavated. The ancient, brick-built stupa is the oldest in the world and was built on the very site of the first sermon. There is an ancient Asoka pillar with the laws of the land chiseled into it. The green lawns and tree-shaded tranquility were so different from Varanasi and its ghats. 


In the evening we braved the bicycle rickshaws to witness the holy Hindu Aarti ceremony at the riverside steps of the Ganges. Adventure! Dusk and lights and insane traffic: bikes, cars, motorbikes, pilgrims, rickshaws, cows…We walked the final alleys to Dasashwamedh Ghat where we boarded a boat beside the ghat to watch the Ganges Fire Aarti ceremony under bright lights illuminating the vast crowd and the ceremonial platforms. For 45 minutes young Brahmin priests perform their prayer rituals with conch shells, burning braziers and clanging bells. Pilgrims bought candles and set them adrift on Mother Ganges. Boats were everywhere. The ceremony seemed part holy, part showman, part drama. And all totally unforgettable.


A short 30 minute flight from Varanasi has taken us to a very special place: Khajuraho. A thousand years ago the mighty Chandela kings built 85 temples dedicated to divine love, but decorated with very earthly scenes. Then these Hindu and Jain temples were abandoned for half a millennium under thick jungle as the Muslim Sultans of Delhi ascended. Now, the 22 that remain are a vibrant testimony to India’s rich history.

The Western Group of temples here is a wonderland of soaring spires decorated with remarkably fresh and detailed carvings of courtly scenes - from the domestic tableaux to the famous erotic postures direct from the earlier Kama Sutra. The Rajput dynasty of the Chandela built the temples here from 900 AD to 1100 AD – then the Muslim Sultans of Delhi conquered the region and the site was abandoned, to sleep for centuries.


I went on a pre-dawn run to see the sun rise over the temples. The morning was cold enough to see my breath, but when I entered the site I had the entire place to myself apart from one person meditating on a temple platform. I watched in awe as the sun rose around 6.35 am and lit up all the temples as I sat mesmerized on the temple steps. 



A four hour drive through Madhya Pradesh countryside this morning. We passed through lively Chattarpur City and I borrowed a bicycle from a local kid for a ride down an Indian road – scary! Much of the road was single track hardtop so that whenever a vehicle came from the opposite direction, they played chicken as to which vehicle would be forced off the road into the dirt! After this trip through rural India – the “real India” as our Insight Tour Director, Devender, calls it – we arrived at Orchha at lunchtime. Make time to see this little known gem.  It’s the former capital and royal citadel of the Bundela Kings from the sixteenth century. It’s Indian History on a manageable scale. It lies on a rocky promontory beside the rushing Betwa River and blends palaces, temples and cenotaphs – all laced with green parakeets and black-faced langur monkeys.


We lunched at the picturesque Orchha Resort on a vegetarian buffet as the hotel is owned by a Jain family. In the afternoon we explored down to the river and across the low, medieval bridge across the turbulent river. We watched ladies washing on the Kanchena Ghat and saw with amusement a langur monkey steal from a stall in the roadside market. Hermant, our local guide, picked us up to take us around the magnificent Raj Mahal, a 16th century palace with colourful murals, and Jehangir Mahal, which was built for a visit by the Mughal Emperor…who may never even have stayed there. Up very steep steps to the top floor for lovely final views behind the latticed windows of the fortified bastions and domed pavilions.

Travelling by train in India is an essential part of any journey here. Consider the numbers: over 100,000 kms of track, over a million employees and over eight billion passengers a year. It’s a memorable experience. Cows wander the station platforms. Passengers board local trains through carriage windows. We, however, felt like royalty as we rode the first class Shatabdi intercity train, which are among the fastest trains in India, through the evening darkness to the fabled city of Agra.


For many people, the Taj Mahal is the highlight of their tour to India. This iconic building is familiar to everyone and the question is, “Can it really be as wonderful as its reputation suggests?” And I am here in Agra today to tell you unequivocally: YES! The Taj Mahal is indeed every bit as beautiful, as moving, as breathtaking as you possibly imagine. Quite simply – this is the most perfect piece of architecture that I have ever seen.

As I approached the Taj Mahal, she was hidden from view. Like all beautiful women, she has her mystery. So I saw nothing of the building until I entered through a massive, ornate sandstone gate. But I had no eyes for that, because there, suddenly revealed in front of me in her glorious entirety, is the sight that we have all seen so many times before in pictures and in movies. WOW! 


Now, as I sit here some hours later in the geometric Mughal Gardens with their fountains and tree shaded paths staring in awe at the vista before me – everything about the Taj Mahal is right. She sits on the banks of the Yamuna River in order for a perfect reflection to form in the late afternoon sun. The surrounding gardens are the Mughal’s idea of what Paradise looks like. The white marble used to construct the Taj Mahal is pure and lustrous – almost diaphanous. The exquisite symmetry of her delicate domes and minarets are somehow the most pleasing proportions that your eye could possible see. The carving and lattice work is delicate as lace and exactly the right amount of decoration to adorn this graceful lady. Incredibly detailed flowers, calligraphy and carvings are augmented by inlay work of semi-precious stones. As all beautiful ladies, the Taj Mahal has just the right amount of ornamentation. Not one jewel too many. Not one carving too little. She shines with an ethereal luminescence.

Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to be the final resting place of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal who died bearing their 14th child. Ultimately, it is a testament to love and devotion. They lay here side by side – together forever in endless love. It is going to be so hard to leave this very special place: India’s icon so richly deserves its status as one of the seven New Wonders of the World. Of this world, and of any world.

 Can any expression of humanity compete with the Taj Mahal?  We will see in the next section of this blog when I travel to a capital city that was once grander than any in Europe, but was abandoned after just 14 years…

Fatehpur Sikri


Agra’s third UNESCO World Heritage Site is the emperor of all ghost cities.  Fatehpur Sikri was built by Emperor Akbar as his capital between 1570 and 1585. With a population of over 70,000 it was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. But after just 14 years, history – and Akbar – moved on, and the place was abandoned. Now it’s a fascinating assembly of courtyards, arches, tombs, mosques, treasury, palaces, harems…all left as they were over 400 years ago.

We entered through Diwan-i-Khas to the Great Debating Chamber and Ankh Michali, the Treasury. To the left: Parcheesi Court where Parcheesi, a form of backgammon, was played by Akbar using his people as live pieces! Then Diwan-i-Am, a place where the public grievances were heard. The tallest building is Panch Mahal – the female quarters or harem. Flocks of birds weaved over the courtyards. I lay down on Akbar’s mega king-sized raised bed and we bought garnet necklaces and a candle holder from the local hawkers at the gate.

The aura of royalty remained as we continued on to our lunch stop at the Laxmi Villas Palace in Bharatpur. It’s a 19th century home of the Maharajas of Bharatpur and they still live there to this day. It’s an oasis of gardens and fountains and pools in the increasingly arid countryside as we enter the state of Rajasthan. The Old Palace has bright frescoes of Hindu deities around a cool central courtyard. Lunch was in a more modern but very ornate arcaded cool space with portraits of the Maharajas on the walls and huge chandeliers. Outside on the verandah a drummer boy and accordion player provided a musical background. 



As we entered Rajastan the landscape has become increasingly hilly and more arid. This is Rajputana, or “Land of Princes” – India’s second biggest state and as large as France. The Rajput warrior clans emerged in the 6th century AD and they offered their subject peoples protection in return for taxes - and were to retain their power for nearly 1500 years until the 1970’s, partly through their ferocious fighting prowess and partly through political and marriage alliances with the Mughal Emperors. Emperors Jehangir and Akbar both married Rajput princesses. We arrived at our final and finest hotel of the journey: the sumptuous Fairmont Jaipur where a fanfare of trumpets from the balcony above the entrance announced our arrival and we were showered by a confetti of rose petals! 


Jaipur, the famous “Pink City” of India, was designed in 1727 as Asia’s first planned city and now has a population of 3.5 million. The Maharajas created a lake for the city and built an island palace. There is a 7 km defensive wall around the city that marches over the Aravali Hills with defensive towers reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. Our first stop was the much-photographed Palace of the Wind with its 365 windows – beautiful, but a mere façade to allow women of the court to view city life unobserved. The Pink City has many unmissable sights, but perhaps the most unbelievable and unique is the Jantar Mantar. Maharajah Jai Singh built this medieval observatory complex which includes the biggest sundial in the world, able to tell the local time to within two seconds accuracy. It’s all set in gardens, surrounded by walls which keep the city buzz at bay.

Museums and palaces, markets and bustling streets with camel carts and wandering cows: Jaipur is such an exotic city!  I encountered a snake charmer with a cobra in a basket who hospitably draped the serpent around my neck. I recorded an interview with Bhandari Jewellers: did you know that over 85% of the world’s coloured gemstones come to Jaipur to be cut and polished?  Then on up to the fabled Amber Fort which sits high on the Aravali Hills overlooking Jaipur. We travelled up the mountain in old jeeps on narrow cobbled lanes to the Moon Gate and on up on to the ramparts to the remarkable 1135AD Restaurant for a Thali lunch in this 900 year old building which perches amidst an eclectic mix of palaces and fortifications. 


What better way to complete our “Golden Triangle” journey than atop a massive, yet gentle, Indian elephant? We relaxed in lurching comfort on the cushioned howdah as our Mahout guided the magnificent animal ponderously along sandy trails through the acacia forests at the foot of the Aravali Hills outside Jaipur. At sunset, we reached a forest camp where tea and cucumber sandwiches were served. Without the crusts, naturally. We have come full circle: from the richness of a truly Indian experience to the delights of a very English teatime…

Insight Vacations and India Tourism


My thanks to the Insight team who have created the perfect way to see and experience India with this tour…And to my Indian friends who facilitated this trip…But most of all to the people of India who have welcomed us travelers to their home.   To further share my Indian Idyll, see my photos on Pinterest on the India board.

Insight Vacations were a great choice to experience India. Their carefully curated itineraries offer the ideal balance of included sightseeing and leisure time. Travel is in comfort in a smaller group in a luxury coach – there were just thirteen of us on our Classical India Insight tour. Devender was a knowledgeable tour director, who eased us through the culture shocks and kept us constantly informed. Insight ensured that we were able to engage with the local people and artisan producers to truly experience India, its history and its culture. We were able to see an amazing amount in the time we had – including no less than nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in ten days.

The Insight Vacations Exotics brochure is available at your local travel agent or you can call 1-866-747-8120 for Insight Vacations’ expert team. And for sure, visit their website at www.InsightVacations.com.

And to fall in love with India even before you go there, view the India Tourism website at www.IncredibleIndia.org. There is also a dynamic and very friendly India Tourism team in Canada that is very helpful. And obtaining a Visa for India is becoming much simpler this year as it becomes possible to pick up the Visa at your airport of arrival. 

So: no excuses: stop dreaming and start planning your trip to…Incredible India!

Copyright ©2015 Chris Robinson

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