A first-timer’s whirlwind trip around India reveals a country that is dazzling in its diversity, with more spectacular sights than you could see in a lifetime of travel.
There’s not much that can prepare you for your first trip to India. Of course, you can do a lot of reading and Google image viewing, and watch a lot of travel programmes and Bollywood movies, but none of this comes even close to what it’s like to be there. India hits you with an inescapable assault of sights, sounds and smells from the minute you arrive, none of which you can begin to imagine while reading your guidebook at home. This extraordinary country unfolded, state by state, on my month-long trip around the north and the south.
My introduction to India was its capital, which had me hooked as soon as I jumped on the back of a bicycle taxi to explore its labyrinthine streets. Delhi was cacophonous, as rusty rickshaws, hooting trucks, flower-adorned cows and sputtering motorbikes competed for street space. The smells of frying samosas, burning incense and brewing chai wafted in the air, as chanting in temples and calls to prayer in mosques sounded in the distance. And then, amid all of this were pockets of exquisite and surprising serenity: Humayun’s Tomb, a graceful 16th-century mausoleum that looked more like a palace, and Jama Masjid, the country’s biggest mosque, which was swathed in wintry mist like a magical apparition.
Jaipur and Udaipur
The state of Rajasthan is known for its camels, forts, tigers, desert dunes, and opulent palaces of the maharajas. Its capital, Jaipur, is a city of cultural and historical riches, from the photogenic latticed windows of the Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds) to the courtyards and gardens of the red sandstone and marble Amer Fort. Jaipur was full of treasures, but I loved Udaipur, a city to the southwest, even more. Reminiscent of Venice, Udaipur is extraordinarily beautiful, with its artificial lakes, crumbling havelis (mansions), narrow streets and creamy cupola-topped palaces. My favourite of these was the City Palace, where I loved learning about the lives of the maharajas spanning the centuries, spending ages staring at the detailed miniature paintings of extravagant wedding processions that took place three hundred years ago.
My next stop was once capital of the mighty Mughals but now is more famous for the Taj Mahal, India’s most remarkable building. There are some sights that you travel halfway across the world for, only to feel disappointed at how they don’t quite match up to your expectations. The Taj Mahal is not one of these. Built in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth, the Taj Mahal is so exquisite, so breathtaking in its symmetry, that gazing up at it gave me goosebumps. Of all the buildings I’d ever seen in the world, this was the only one that affected me on such an emotional level.
Kochi and Marari Beach
For a total change of scenery from northern India, I flew to Kochi in Kerala, 2300 kilometers to the south. Kerala felt like another country to Rajasthan, not just another state. In contrast to the desert climate of Rajasthan, Kerala was hot, humid and tropical, with lush vegetation, houses the colour of a box of crayons and a laidback atmosphere. The change made me realise just how remarkably different Indian states are to one another. Each one has its own languages, music, history, architecture and cultures, and each state I visited felt like another unfolding of a different side of India.
After a stay in a tiny gorgeous —and also affordable— palace in Kochi (if you ever want to feel like royalty, stay in some of India’s many palace hotels), I made my way to Kerala’s idyllic backwaters, choosing explore some of the 900 kilometers network of channels, lakes and lagoons on a traditional thatch houseboat. The pace of life in this world of emerald-green rice paddies and gently gliding fishing boats mirrored the sway of coconut palms fringing the water. It was the perfect break from a fast-paced trip.
More downtime came in the form of lazy beach days at a seaside resort at Marari Beach, a short drive south of Kochi. My waking hours were spent in a routine of swimming in the warm sea, napping on hammocks stretched between coconut palms, cycling around sleepy villages, doing relaxing yoga classes with a septuagenarian instructor and eating my body weight in delicious coconut-based curries, fresh seafood and banana pickles.
I travelled east through hills covered in tea, coffee and spice plantations into the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, which is known as the Land of Temples. I only had time to see a few of Tamil Nadu’s 33 000 temples, and of these, Sri Meenakshi in Madurai was the most
mind blowing. Built in the
16th century and dedicated to a triple-breasted goddess, Sri Meenakshi is a staggering six-hectare complex that includes high towers adorned with thousands of rainbow-hued gods and demons and a shopping arcade of golden goods and neon flashing light statues. It was noisy, kaleidoscopically chaotic, bewildering, intense, and astoundingly beautiful, all at once, a microcosm of my experience of India.
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