Story and Photos By Susan McKee
Elephants amble down the main streets of New Delhi in full parade regalia. Loping camel caravans share the road with trucks taking goods to market in Uttar Pradesh. Dancing bears compete for the attention of passing motorists in Rajasthan. Cows amble through Agra’s city streets, taking the occasional nap along the concrete median. Goats, pigs and dogs root through trash in the byways of Varanasi, extracting all the edible morsels before the collectors come along to sweep the rest into their wheeled carts.
Welcome to India, where life in all its forms is all around, day and night.
On my first visit to this vast subcontinent I had time to visit just three cities in Northern India: Delhi, Agra and Varanasi—places encapsulating three eras in Indian history.
In Delhi, the remains of the Raj are all around, from the austere architecture of British colonial-era buildings atop Parliament Hill to the massive India Gate, now watching over soccer matches rather than bearing witness to foreign occupation.
Heading east to Agra means moving back in time, to the period of Mughal domination. Centerpiece, of course, is the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum built by a king for his favorite wife.
Further east, and still further back in time, is Varanasi, said to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in the world (the British called it Benares). Here, on the banks of the “mother river,” the Ganges, the Hindu faithful atone for their sins and reverence the gods as they have for millennia.
Before I went, worried family and friends told me I’d be overwhelmed by the sights and smells, appalled by the pervasive poverty and frightened by the unknown at every turn. None of that was true. I found the sights endlessly fascinating and the smells delicious. (No, sorry, there was no pervasive stench of animals or refuse – even though the temperatures were in the 90s when I visited, and the air pollution is no worse than traffic-clogged Los Angeles.) Despite undeniable material poverty, the people I saw were rich in culture and tradition. And I wasn’t afraid at all.
Now that I’m back home, I remain intensely curious about this vast country and its endless variety. Where else can you view Muhammad’s fossilized footprint one day, and walk in the footsteps of the Buddha the next?
Only in India are you likely to be asked for a contribution towards the annual celebration of a Hindu goddess’ festival, to watch a tailor stitching on a treadle-operated sewing machine next to a public Internet-access site, or hear a half-dozen languages spoken in the course of one day – remaining confident that almost everyone’s second language is English!
Despite the sacred cows, bicycles, oxen, trucks, dogs, taxis, buses, goats, cars, rickshaws and masses of people, the streets were always cleaner than downtown Indianapolis after a major sporting event. Traffic, which first appeared chaotic, seemed to flow with an almost organic rhythm, oblivious of western “rules of the road”. I saw only one accident – a minor fender-bender.
The food—ah! The food was wonderful. Although the temptations of the ubiquitous street vendor were many, I stuck to established restaurants to avoid health hazards. There were counterfeit Western bistros catering to tourists, but who wants to eat Indian versions of American or European food when the local cuisine is so fabulous? Now that I’m home, I miss having poori bhaji for breakfast (Indian bread with a potato-pea curry) and I definitely have tandoori chicken withdrawal.
Because I had only one day in Delhi, I decided to set up a custom tour. I made arrangements with the representative of India Tourism and Development (a government corporation), conveniently located in the hotel lobby. The price? Less than a New York Gray Line tour!
My guide, who spoke flawless English, directed our taxi driver everywhere I wanted to go, from temple to monument and back again – finishing up at a dressmaking shop to be measured for a shalwar kamiz (tunic-pants-scarf outfit) like hers. It was delivered to the hotel desk the next morning, and I’ve enjoyed wearing it back home again in Indiana (it confuses the natives!).
In Agra, the taxi driver from the airport became my driver for all three days. Along with his friend who served as guide, we saw everything in town (including the Taj Mahal — twice). We went into Rajasthan to visit Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, stopover for countless species on their way south from Siberia and central Asia and wandered Fatehpur Sikri, an entire city built in the late 16th century by a Mughal emperor and now abandoned.
I did the same thing in Varanasi, except the taxi driver I engaged at the airport doubled as my guide. It was festival time in the ancient Hindu city, 10 days dedicated to the patron goddess, Durga (celebrating her victory over the bull demon). Civic and religious organizations throughout the city erect temporary structures to house elaborate dioramas of the battle.
My driver/guide was part of a group that put up a bamboo and fabric “building” modeled on a lotus-shaped temple in Delhi. Inside was a two-story tall room lit with chandeliers and wall sconces. All attention was focused on the diorama – until I walked in (the only non Indian). Making a contribution seemed the least I could do to repay him for including me in an event I’d never experience in Indianapolis.
I was surprised to learn that the elaborate, larger than life-size figures of ten-armed Durga, her tiger-pulled chariot and the monstrous bull demon opponent she vanquished would, like all the specially made painted plaster figures in temporary temples throughout the city, be consigned to the Ganges at the end of the festival.
The Ganges River is the reason for Varanasi’s sacred draw for Hindus worldwide. Bathing in the “mother of rivers” is said to wash away several lifetimes of sins. My guide hired a boatman to row me along the banks as the sun came up, bathing the ghats (sets of steps leading to the water) in misty light.
There was a constant stream of people in and out of the water, bathing and praying from before dawn. And, yes, there are cremations, too, but here in India death is seen as the opposite of birth, not the opposite of life. Life continues.
Speaking of water, no, I didn’t drink what came out of the tap. I bought sealed bottles – readily available even on the street – and had iodine tablets for water emergencies (which didn’t happen). Of course I avoided ice, and washed my hands often. I also carried lots of pre-moistened towelettes and that waterless hand cleaner, which I always used before eating and whenever I thought I might have come in contact with something, well, strange.
My caution paid off: I never got sick. Not once. All this is not to say that traveling in India is just like traveling in Indiana. I never encountered one of the legendary pit toilets, but I was glad I brought a roll of toilet paper. Once or twice I actually had to use it because there wasn’t any. But that’s not really a catastrophe, is it? I can’t wait to go back.
IF YOU GO
India requires a visa for most tourists, so start your travel plans with the nearest Indian embassy or consulate. Hoosiers go to the Chicago consulate, 455 North Cityfront Plaza Drive, Suite 850, Chicago, Ill. 60611; (312) 595-0405, FAX (312) 595-0416, or chicago.indianconsulate.com on the internet. I downloaded the visa application from the website, drove to Chicago, handed it over in the morning along with two photos, my passport and $50 cash for the fee. Everything was handed back, signed and sealed, at 3:30 p.m. the same afternoon. Easy!
There are many ways to get to Delhi. I went via Seoul and Bangkok to get the lowest fare, but there also are non-stop flights from several North American cities, including Chicago (via Lufthansa). Shop around for the combination of time-in-transit and price that’s best for you.
Because most flights from outside India arrive at Delhi airport in the middle of the night, it’s best to have a hotel booked – at least for the first night – before you arrive. Then you are not at the mercy of a cabbie who’s likely to take you to the place that gives him the best commission. Because it was my first trip to India, I booked all my hotels ahead of time. Next time I’ll probably make reservations for my first and last nights, and be more adventurous in between.
In each airport I visited, there was at least one pre-paid taxi stand. It may be more expensive than negotiating on your own (meters are merely decorative accessories in Indian cabs), but that way you’re certain to be taken to your requested destination. I flew between cities on Indian Airlines to minimize travel time
More on what to see
Three of the top tourist sites in Delhi are sacred to three major religious traditions. The Hindu Lakshmi Narayan Temple is the newest, built in 1938.The largest mosque in India is the Jama Masjid (where I viewed the fossilized footprint of Muhammad). The Baha’i Temple, centered in elegant gardens, is a startling modern structure of white marble, the roof of which resembles a giant lotus flower.
Other Delhi draws are the Red Fort, an enormous complex built in the mid 1600s; Raj Ghat, where a perpetually burning flame commemorates Mahatma Gandhi, and Qutb Minar, a red sandstone pillar covered with carved Arabic script erected at the start of the 13th Century to mark the eastern frontier of the Muslim world.
In Agra, the top destination is the Taj Mahal, the 17th Century marble mausoleum built by Shah Jahan – the same Mughal ruler responsible for Delhi’s Red Fort and Jama Masjid. But there’s more to see here, including the smaller and earlier Itmud-ud-Aulah’s Tomb. Not far out of town are the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, home to more than 200 species, and the Mughal “ghost town” of Fatehpur Sikri..
Just north of the Hindu holy city of Varanasi is Sarnath, a site revered by Buddhists as the site where the Buddha preached his first sermon while walking in the Deer Park. In Varanasi itself, the Ganges riverfront is the main tourist draw, but a drive around Benares University will remind the traveler that the city also has been a center of learning for several millennia.
In planning my trip, I relied on two guidebooks: Frank Kusy’s India published by Cadogan and Let’s Go India & Nepal. However, the best in-depth look at Varanasi (also called Banaras and Benares) is an academic staple: Diana L. Eck’s Banaras: City of Light. Based on her Ph.D. dissertation, it’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about the city – at least until you’ve been there.
Susan McKee, a historian by training, takes off for her travels from her home in Indianapolis.