Magical India

India is a place of wonder,

eliciting both startling shock and pure amazement.


For two weeks this January, I was lucky to join ten wonderful women led by the remarkable Debbie Dale on a trip to the well-trodden circuit of Delhi – Agra – Jaipur, the famed Golden Triangle of India.

India is a world of extremes and contrasts that assault the senses of sight, sound, and smell.  It is a land of beauty, spirituality, grandeur, religion, and tradition.  It is also the land of filth, garbage, decay, pollution, and mayhem.  Our travels presented these stunning contrasts every day: architectural splendor alongside deteriorating infrastructure, rich textiles and sparkly gems displayed on dirty streets with rotting garbage, fervent beliefs and tradition within a society of lawlessness and chaos.

It is nearly impossible to summarize the experience succinctly.

India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” — Shashi Tharoor

Though we saw plenty of beauty, decay was evident everywhere. Most buildings were in some state of decomposition: sagging roofs, peeling paint, random rubble alongside crumbling walls. Driving through the cities was as scenic and captivating an activity as visiting the destination tourist sites.


India has a littered landscape, literally covered in garbage dropped carelessly by the population. We watched as people ate their food and dropped the remains heedlessly on the ground. Our guide described India’s version of recycling: cows and mangy stray dogs eat the disgarded scraps. The lower castes use lengthy thatched brooms to sweep remains into piles to be collected. Though I never saw evidence of any collection.


There is a blatant lawlessness to driving in India. I spoke with an Indian couple I met over lunch about the lack of rules on the road, and they explained the Indian driving ethos: “We look for room. We maneuver“. Cars fight through intersections clogged with vendors, beggars, cows, and stray dogs.  Trucks tailgate rickshaws, tuk tuks weave perilously, cows roam lazily grazing garbage, non-helmeted bicyclers peddle large loads made heavier by two or more people perched on the handlebars.



Despite ignoring the laws of the road, the people adhere fervently to superstition and religious symbols. Green peppers and lime strung like a child’s bead necklace hang above shop entrances to ward off the evil eye, and heavy black tassles drag off of truck mirrors and tailpipes to bring good luck; luck that is most needed when navigating the crowded streets.

There is a constant barrage of noise as the streets emit an incessant cacophony of blasting horns of vast variety: long high pitched whines, short staccato circus clown toots, aggressive blares, incessant rhythmic honks. All of these combine into an out of tune symphony of sorts, annoying background music that cannot be turned off.


The streets of India are like a running river with torrents of activity riding the constant current. What happens on the road is as crazy as what happens off the road. The scenery explodes with activity:

Turbaned men crouch around a makeshift fire pit to warm their hands as others sit in silent repose watching the passing mayhem in stillness.


A snake charmer plays his flute as his cobra dances, entertaining the passing tourists.

Women bear heavy loads of water-laden clay pots and young boys and girls balance firewood twigs, bales of hay, and bags of produce on their heads.



Men squat effortlessly in the yoga pose called Malasana that we struggle to contort into for a moment of exertion in yoga class.

Sari-swathed women sit on the ground next to piles of produce.



Barbers set up makeshift stalls on the streets as customers sit before skewed mirrors tacked to roadside walls. Lathered men sit on the pavement ready for a shave. The attention to grooming strikes a contrast to the grime, grit, and garbage all around them.


Steaming cauldrons sizzle with Indian specialties as curry scents waft into the air.


Men adorned with red painted beards indicating their trip the Mecca mix with ladies decorated with hennaed hands and gold stacked bangles.

Beggars bang on bus windows; children with brown doe eyes and mothers with babies strapped to their bellies, limbs and teeth often missing.

Colorful fruit balances in neat piles perched on wobbly wooden carts of varying disrepair.


Men roll paan, combining betel leaf with other ingredients to create a tobacco-like stimulant that is chewed and then spit out on the street in a blood-red juice.


Women are draped in neon rainbow saris spun in gold threads and embellished with mirrored mosaics that glitter in the sun. They are like jewels decorating the otherwise drab urban landscape.


Men urinate and cows deficate along the street. (no picture required)

Though we did not go on a tiger or leopard safari, animals were everywhere. Baboons were perched on wires and buildings, stray mangy dogs who all looked related slowly loped and lazed on the streets, camels dragged heavy carts laden with goods, elephants crowded traffic after doing tourist duty, and cows roamed freely at every turn.




Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, symbolic of Mother. In India, they can be seen eating garbage on the street, sauntering down narrow alleyways, even butting into tourists who don’t stand clear. In London the “zebra” crossing allows safe passage across busy roads. In India there is no such thing. Even a designated cross section can be fraught with danger as motorbikes speed by, tuk tuks scoot through, and frustrated vehicles aggressively ignore pedestrians. The only animal safe to cross is the sacred cow, worshipped and protected, and always given the right of way.


The aggression among drivers is only rivaled by the road-side hawkers peddling their wares. Prices drop the closer you get to the bus, away from the tourist traps. Once on board, peddlers often fling things to your lap, prices having dropped from 10,000 to 1,000 rupees or less. A smart tourist exercises patience in face of their persistence.

The backdrop to all this commotion is mostly a dirty russet monotone of decaying brick and old sandstone. Yet, there are frequent bursts of color to provide welcome relief. Sun faded bricks washed in lilac, cornflower blue, bleached marigold, and aqua green are lovely despite dilapidated conditions.


Gorgeous textiles in fuscia, electric yellow, neon green, violet blue are like flowers miraculously blooming in a dusty garden. Fanciful footwear provide a tapestry of color in endless stalls lining the streets.




Just beyond the city, fields of yellow mustard brighten the otherwise barren landscape of dry dirt. Appropriately attired turbaned scarecrows stand guard overlooking these crops.


Marigold blooms are piled in colorful heaps atop dirty tarps.


Garlands of marigolds are placed on people in greeting, statues in celebration, and religious icons to show respect for deities.



Fresh off the plane, we were greeted in style and given our first of many marigold garlands, symbolic of Fire, one of the most powerful forces on the Earth.


And so, begins my diary in pictures:


Our first jet-lagged day, we visited the Qutb Minar, a UNESCO World Heritage site with the tallest minaret in the world topping 240 feet.   The nearby Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque is one of the earliest surviving mosques in the Indian subcontinent.



Humayan’s Tomb is the first garden-tomb in India and also the first structure to use red sandstone at such a scale. It is said to have inspired elements of the Taj Mahal.


A stroll through the maze of the Old Delhi spice market, revealed a boy boiling chai tea surrounded by colorful sacks of pungent spices and bright red chilis.



Grime and pollution permeate the air, creating a persistent haze. I had trouble breathing in Old Delhi and felt an asthmastic constriction with each breath.  A rat landed on my foot with a thud and then scampered off as I stood stunned and took this picture.


Electrical wires were festooned between alleys narrow enough to touch side-to-side as I rode in rattle-ly rickshaw. Our guide described these wires as Old Delhi’s “necklaces”.  Let’s just say this part of the city is quite well adorned.



The Jama Masjid, completed in 1656 AD with three great gates, four towers and two 40 meter high minarets constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marble. The courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 people.


This Sikh Temple was absolutely beautiful with ornate gilded interiors.  The Hindu and Muslim faiths coexist peacefully with temples and mosques in close proximity.


There are 5 articles of faith in the Sikh religion:

Kesh: Hair is not just a symbol, it is the gift from God, and therefore remains unshorn.

Kanga: A comb is necessary to keep the copious hair clean and tidy.

Kara: A bracelet symbolizes restraint from evil deeds.

Kirpan: A sword is the emblem of courage and self-defense.

Kachera: Cotton underwear symbolizes a faithful life. It reminds the Sikh of the need for self-restraint over passion, lust, and desire. Clearly, it is no problem to keep these feelings in check when wearing the Kachera that this vendor exhibited for us.  I think of Hugh Grant’s line in the Bridget Jones movie:  “These are absolutely enormous panties!


Gandhi Smriti is the residence where Gandhi took his last fateful footsteps before he was assassinated.  It seemed like sacrilege when as we approached the hallowed ground, we witnessed two baboons crudely copulating on top of the pillars at the entrance.


Dinners in India often involved many little pots each containing a lentil curry dal, lamb, chicken, fish, and seasoned vegetables. All were served with rice and naan. None larger than this specimen seved at Bukhara in New Delhi.



Desserts were very sweet and honeyed with no chocolate in sight. Indian ice cream was more like a less-sticky form of fluff than an icy creamy treat that will melt. I was not impressed. However, I did enjoy the odd combination of fennel seeds + rock sugar + coconut flakes that when consumed together resemble a delicious sweet licorice.

Our last night in Delhi was Lohri, the Harvest Festival, an annual event in January celebrating the end of winter solstice and bounty of the harvest.  Bhangra and Gidda (folk dances of Punjab) are performed before the roaring fire.  We couldn’t help but join in the celebration!



The impressive Red Fort was completed in 1573.  Over 4,000 builders worked on it daily for eight years. It is a massive walled city comprising 94-acres.




Here we found a familiar geometric shape that had innocuous ancient meaning and was slightly altered by Hitler to have a more sinister one.


The main reason to visit Agra is to see the famed Taj Mahal, one of the 7 Wonders of the World.  Taj Mahal is Persian for “Crown of Palaces”, a fitting name for this ivory-white marble mausoleum commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  The tomb is the centrepiece of a 42 acre complex, which includes a mosque and a guest house, and is set in formal gardens bounded on three sides by a crenellated wall.


The Oberoi hotel was magnificent and offered perfect views of the Taj Mahal, but only on a clear day.  The heavy haze was unfortunate but did not diminish the beauty of the setting.


En route to Jaipur, we stopped at Fatehpur Siri, an abandoned city built by Emperor Akbar which  served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585.  Of note, Akbar had several wives (and a harem) and built different buildings for each one’s faith:  a Christian church, a Muslim mosque, and a Hindu temple.



In Jaipur, we stayed at the beautiful Rambagh Palace, the exquisite former residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur.  Rose petals were showered over us, garlands of flowers were placed around our necks, and red bindis were dotted on our foreheads with blessings and wishes of welcome.


We arrived in Jaipur on January 14th, the day of Makkar Sakranti, the Kite festival, an annual event during which the city shuts down for the day as families and children stand atop sagging rooftops flying their colorful paper kites high into the air.  The tattered remains adorn trees and wrap around electrical wires.  Only in India could this innocent, playful event become deadly;  each year there are reports of the clear, nearly invisible kite strings strangling unwitting pedestrians.




Jaipur is known as the Pink City.  Buildings are painted in a pinkish color that unites the architecture, both grand and dilapidated alike.


The fascade of the Hawa Mahal,also known as the Wind Palace, exhibits 800 honeycombed windows that once allowed ladies to stay discreetly concealed as they viewed the activities of the main road.


We passed a turban shop at an intersection, providing more colorful wares for sale.


India is a shopping Mecca that overwhelms the senses but not the pocketbook. Precious gems and Polki diamonds gleam in storefront windows, soft Kashmir scarves drape over stalls, bright block printed fabrics lay in colorful heaps, silver trickets glisten in the sun, and embroidered mules dazzle like rainbows.  I needed an extra suitcase to travel home with all my treasures.


Our trip to the Amber Fort, once the residence of the Rajput Maharajas, was a highlight. Getting there was half the fun…


…the best way to reach the fort atop a formidable hill was by elephant!  This was truly a first for me, and with my phobia of heights I was nervous, but the ride was steady and the experience was unforgettable.


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The familiar “ambassadors” of every tourist site greeted us upon arrival at the top.  One was even holding a garland, though he did not offer to place it around my neck!



I must have taken 100 pictures of this magnificent complex filled with frescoed walls, glittering mosaic tiles, and breathtaking views.





Interesting elephant designs in cornices.


Pornographic frescoes perhaps displaying one of the many sexual positions exhibited in the famed Sanskrit text, the Kama Sutra.


An elephant commuting home after a long day’s work.


On our last night at the Rambagh Palace, we were surprised to find saris waiting for us in our rooms.  It took a team of experts to wrap us up properly, and we arrived for dinner draped in the luxurious jewel toned fabrics with hennaed hands to accent our outfits.



The next morning we were packed and ready to see the City Palace, built between 1729 and 1732, and once the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur.  It is a beautiful complex of several palaces, pavilions, gardens, and temples.


The interior courtyards were stunning with elaborate frescoes covering every surface space.  The peacock is the national bird and, therefore, a popular subject.




We arrived late afternoon in the village of Dehradum.  Happy to get off the bus after hours of driving, we were surprised to find our next mode of transportation…camel-driven carts!



We encountered a Hindu celebration complete with a music-making horned truck that seemed to resemble one of the fantastical instruments of Dr. Suess’s imagination.


The camel behind me lurked dangerously close, and we had a camel tailgating situation! I worried that the drool of exertion might land in my lap.


The mossy acrid smell of burning dung fires wafted through the streets and assaulted our nostrils as children lined up to wave at our procession en route to the Samode Palace.


The Samode Palace was initially built in the 16th century as a Rajput fort, but in the early 19th century it was converted from a fort into an exquisitely designed palace in Rajput and Muslim architectural style.


Once again, marigold garlands greeted us.


The palace is like a jewel of magnificently frescoed walls, glittering mirror mosaics, moorish arches, and geometric design.



Stunning paintings in vivid colors decorated every square inch of the beautifully preserved inner sanctum.


Traditional dancers performed for us that evening, enhancing the magical atmosphere of the palace courtyard.  Of course, we joined in when beckoned and shared in the celebration.




The Ananya Spa in the Himalayas offered startling tranquility after a week navigating the chaos of the Golden Triangle cities.  This spa got the stamp of approval from Gwyneth and was featured in her blog, goop:  “Tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal’s former palace, Ananda is inarguably the most luxurious authentic Ayurvedic wellness destination in India”.


Traffic horns were replaced with sounds of woodwind flutes playing ancient discordant melodies and birds chirping happily. The smog, pollution, and odors of the cities were replaced with crisp, clean, and fragrant air. The soothing drone of “om shanties ” resonated in yoga classes, a permeating mantra. Greetings of Namaskaar, a less formal version of Namaste were offered with hands in prayer and head slightly bowed.


White cotton PJs were the designated uniform. Jeff would say we looked like we had entered an asylum. But actually we were returning to sanity after all the crazy chaos. Here we were surrounded by peacefulness, mindfulness, and beauty.  The only thing that marred this perfection were the men wielding blunt bamboo sticks hired to ward off the wayward baboon or stray dog.


On our way down the mountain to town, we saw colorfully-clad women heading to temple to worship.


We ventured into Rishikesh, a primitive village along the Ganges River.  This area is considered the Yoga Capital of the World and was made famous by the Beatles when they dropped in for a visit. We were transported by boat to the the opposite bank.


Here we placed offerings of marigold flowers and candles afloat in the sacred Ganges.




At sunset as the orange sun dipped beneath the horizon, we attended a Hindu ceremony called Aarti, the Fire Ceremony.


Aarti is a religious ritual of worship that always involves flame, light, and fire. We watched as priests made offerings of sesame seeds, barley, herbs, and Ghee (purified butter) to the fire pit.


Hypnotic mantras were sung in praise of the deity, and lamps were offered with wicks soaked in the purity of ghee to acquire the power of the deity.


The orange-clad priests circulateed these lamps to all those present. People cupped their down-turned hands over the swirling flames and then raised their palms to their foreheads in receipt of the blessings. It is an experience our driver referred to as Indian “happy hour” when people congregate and say thank you to God. One girl was so elated by the proceedings that she seemed lost in a trance of ecstacy. As one of my friends commented, “I’ll have what she’s having!


It is here that I experienced not only spiritual enlightment but corporal enlightenment, literally becoming lighter as “Delhi belly” struck at the most inopportune time. The public toilets in India are not good in the best of circumstances; you must bring your own toilet paper as none is often supplied and hand sanitizer is a must. In the small village of Rishikesh, there were only crude Indian style WCs, in which a hole on the floor is outlined by a place to set your feet. The floors were filthy and wet, adding to my dilemma. Let’s just say that my years of using the “loo with a view” in the outdoors of Wyoming came in very handy for this unfortunate exercise!

On our last day, we trekked four miles through the Himalayas where we passed by several children living nestled in the hills.  These children couldn’t wait to show off their puppy who had a red bindi centered on his furry forehead!


We climbed countless steps to a beautiful hilltop Hindu Temple where we received a blessing and rang the bell to awaken the deity as tradition dictates.


The views of the mountains were stunning with a snow crested peak barely visible in the hazy horizon.


Alas, all good things must come to an end (including this interminable post!).  We left India reluctantly, having shared an unforgettable experience together.  The dynamic among us remained harmonious throughout, smiling up to the very last moment before heading to the airport.


To all my fellow friends in adventure and to beautiful, chaotic, and magical India:


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Alev Ozturk January 31, 2016 at 10:20 am

Dear Cathy,many thanks for this beautiful and detailed brief about India…It’s like a documantary.Amazed by your narration talent…Incredible India…looking forward for a visit…


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