By Arlene Larsen / Photos by Thor A. Larsen

India was the most difficult trip we ever embarked upon.  The streets of the cities are crowded with all manner of humanity and animals, and no one seems to be in charge.  The odd thing is that no one suffers road rage and there is no shouting nor horn honking…. No one seems to mind.  Clearly defined, asphalt-covered roads are almost non-existent.  Most roads are filled with enormous ruts, with large clouds of dust swirling up and around the open cars and buses.

 One of the most disturbing sights was the low hanging bundles of electric wires from pole to pole distributing uncertain electricity to the masses. While the hotels are modern and attractive, the electric service isn’t always working, so it is not totally unusual for the water to stop and the lights to go out as you are in the middle of a shower at the end of a long day.

However, India would qualify as the most exotic venue we ever traveled to and the most unusual culture we had ever experienced. The diversity of religions, languages and ethnicity of the people adds richness to the culture.  This diversity translates to a dazzling array of styles in the architecture and the art of the nation.  The nature is beautiful (once you leave the cities) and the colors that you see out in the countryside are extraordinary.  The gardens are painstakingly planned and the flowers lush and brilliant.  The most vivid colors of all are the colors of the women’s saris, especially out in the country, walking along the roads and out in the fields.  The material and the extraordinary detail on the saris is just like nothing we ever see in the west.

The people are a delight to deal with.  Often they speak perfect English and are more than helpful and hospitable to perfect strangers.  While staying at our hotel in Delhi, relatives of a bride celebrating at the hotel insisted that we come to the party, take pictures and dance.  It was fascinating to see the incredible saris and jewelry worn by the women, and feel the joy shared by the two families. Because the Indian people seem to have a very kind and benevolent nature (in part due to the basic tenets of the Hindu religion) we never felt uneasy or threatened.  Although there were times we found ourselves in the midst of chaos, we felt perfectly safe.

Just outside the capital city of Delhi, there is a huge archeological park called Mehrauli, consisting of a complex of ancient monuments.  Here you can wander amongst the ruins of political and religious buildings and temples that can trace the tumultuous and historical development of a nation, the rise and fall of kingdoms and leaders.  This UNESCO World Heritage park began as a Hindi/Rajput settlement, but after the Mughals defeated the Raja princes, new cities were built right on top of the old ones.. 

In 1193 QutbbinAibak (aMuslim slave-general ) established this area as the center of the first Muslim kingdom in northern India and this is where the first Muslim mosque in northern India was built. Aibak started building the Qutb Minar,(a five story ornate tower), to celebrate the Muslim victory over the Indian people and mark the beginning of the rule of the Sultans. This is India’s highest tower and resembles the towers built in Afghanistan to mark victories.

         A few yards away from Aibak’s beautiful tower stands an impressive iron pillar, that is seven meters high and constructed in the fourth century.  At the top of the pillar (written in Sanskrit) it tells us that it was made by order of Chandragupta II (who ruled 375 to 413 AD) but fails to divulge just what technology they used.  How were they able to produce such a feat in metallurgy in the fourth century and why hasn’t it disintegrated in all that time?

The state of Rajasthan is called the ‘land of kings’ (once the home of 18 princely kingdoms) and is still rich with magnificent palaces, forts and bazaars. Beautiful Jaipur is called the ‘pink city‘ because its main buildings are made of pink sandstone  and it is fitting for this busy and attractive city to be the capital of royal Rajasthan.

The thrill of seeing Jaipur in an open ‘tuk-tuk’ cart as your driver swirls and jostles you amongst the cars, camels, elephants, and such, is an experience you never believe you could survive. Just as you stop marveling at your ability to overcome all the chaos, animals and your broken-down vehicle driven by a mad-man in a turban, your guide has another new experience for you.  He convinces you that the only way to get up the hill to see the magnificent palaces and gardens at the famous Amber Fort is to do so by elephant.  Now that’s a ride you don’t forget!   Luckily our mahout was a calm and reassuring young man that promised he was on intimate terms with this elephant (he had grown-up with him) and he was well cared for and very safe.  As we ambled up the hill on our benign pachyderm we passed the stunning gardens and towers of the huge complex of palaces, temples that make up the Amber Fort.  It was built by Man Singh I (1621 – 1667) with lavish rooms, halls, and temples that are decorated with ornate carvings, silver doors and stone work, and other Hindu works of art. It was challenging to take in all this art and history along with elephants, snake charmers, and monkeys at the same time.

Certainly the most breath-taking site you will see in all of India has to be the world famous Taj Mahal.  Often referred to as the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj is located in the city of Agra, in center of India (in the state of Uttar Pradesh) on the banks of the Yamuna River.  Our experience in viewing this masterpiece of architecture was heightened by approaching it at dawn as the blue-white haze of morning slowly lifted to reveal a dreamy image of this massive monument of beauty.  Nothing can prepare you for the incredible scale of this icon.  Rudyard Kipling called it “The embodiment of all things pure.”

Sweeping down from the north, the Mughals brought Islamic merchants, artists, preachers and scholars with new ideas, art and architecture.  The enlightened Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, built this stunning mausoleum as a sign of his love and devotion for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal and the two of them are entombed here.  Much of its brilliantly white marbled walls and ceilings inside and out are hand carved in floral designs called pietra dura.  This art of marble carving depicts flowers, vines and leaves that have been inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones of turquoise, lapis, carnelian, etc.  It is supposed to resemble a garden paradise as described in the Islamic holy book, a perfect image of the hereafter.  Many of the walls have been delicately filigreed to give the illusion of a veil surrounding the tombs.  The whole complex is encompassed by fountains, gardens and pools of water to reflect the images and give a feeling of coolness to the intense heat and sun of India. This edifice dedicated to love and devotion cost 41 million rupees and l,l02 lbs. of gold to build and took twenty thousand men twelve years to complete, being finished in l643. That is what I would call a Valentine present! 

Khajuraho is a tidy little town in the state of Madhya Pradesh (in the middle of nowhere) with a stunning collection (25) of ‘kama sutra’ inspired and decorated temples.  These Hindu and Jain temples were built by the Chandela dynasty (between the 9th and l0th centuries) and because of their remote location, they were spared being ravaged by Islamic raiders.  They remained hidden in a forest for over 700 years and were only discovered in l838 by an English engineer. 

These ornate temples represent the high point of north Indian temple art and architecture and are embellished with spectacular stone carvings of erotic scenes of gods and goddesses, sensuous maidens, dancers, and warriors.  These ‘naughty’ depictions have rendered Khajuraho a very popular architectural attraction with tourists. Having said that, the workmanship is amazing.

An absolute must on a trip to India has to be a visit to Varanasi (sometimes called Benares) located on the west bank of the sacred Ganges River. For almost 3,000 years this has been known as the city of the god Shiva and observers of Hinduism have made every effort to make a pilgrimage here to perform rites of passage and rituals. For four miles the west bank of the Ganges is lined with temples, ghats (sets of steps) and crematoriums where the faithful pray, wash their clothes, bathe, and burn their dead. The river itself is worshipped as a living goddess whose waters can cleanse away all your earthly sins. 

To experience the true essence of life on the Ganges hire a boat just before dawn to see the sun rise on the river when people release hundreds of paper floats on the water(with flowers and lit candles). As the sun comes up you can watch the faithful come down to the river’s edge to perform their daily rituals, wash a buffalo, bathe, do yoga, etc. A constant somber sight along the river is the funeral pyres that burn day and night and the bodies wrapped in shrouds wait their turn.   To die and be cremated in Varanasi is a dream to every Hindu.  Hindu scriptures profess that the water of the Ganges can help your soul on its final journey to freedom and salvation. 

India left us wanting more. We want to see more of those exotic and lavish temples, more of the grandiose forts, the national parks, colorful bazaars and a chance to see the southern parts of the country, Kerala, Goa and Tamil Nadu.  It’s a dreamy and magical place and we highly recommend it.