Incredible architecture, rich history and enchanting landscapes make for the trip of a lifetime.
Words and photography Natalie Cyra
The sun had just set on a Friday evening as I stepped outside for the first time in Delhi, India. “Here we go,” I thought, butterflies fluttering deep in my stomach as I was met by the hot, dense air and a flurry of people making their way past me to greet loved ones. My Indian adventure had finally arrived.
It wasn’t long before I was deep in conversation with my female taxi driver, who was employed by The Planeterra Foundation’s Women on Wheels project. This is a trusted service providing safe and reliable transport for travellers, while also offering a dignified livelihood for employees from resource-poor communities. Women on Wheels is one of 50 social enterprises developed by Planeterra (planeterra.org). Planeterra was established in 2003 by Bruce Poon Tip, founder of global travel company G Adventures, which I was taking my 15-day long Essential India tour with. My driver did well to distract me from my first experience of the chaotic roads of Delhi, telling me about her young family, her passion for driving and how Women on Wheels has been imperative for her livelihood. “My husband is [unable to work] and so I have to work hard. I have another job doing electricity bill distribution, door-to-door. This Women on Wheels project has helped me a lot,” she said.
No time to dilly-Delhi
Despite the jetlag, I’ll remember the next morning’s events vividly forever. After meeting the other nine members of my group, we headed off for our first guided tour, exploring the packed streets of New Delhi. Our guide was Aman, a 17-year-old former street kid, now a part of the Streetkids City Walk Project run by local organisation Salaam Baalak Trust (which Planeterra works with too). The Trust provides five safe houses across the city, counselling, education and support to vulnerable children on the margins of society. With more than 18 million kids living on the streets, India has the largest incidence of street children globally. We were told that without adequate shelter and care, many of these children enter the labour, drug and sex trafficking markets at an early age, and often resort to begging to survive. Aman knew from experience – kidnapped at the age of six, after taking candy from a stranger (a cliché, but tragically true), he lived on the street before being housed by the Trust. What struck a chord with me was that despite the most unsettled of childhoods, and having to live with the reality that he will never see his family again (due to the limited memory of his home), Aman showed such optimism, positivity and determination to make something of his future. The guided tours, taken by 3500 travellers each year, support more than 5000 children in New Delhi and help raise funds towards college and university fees for the guides.
For a girl from a small north Auckland suburb, India’s capital Delhi (population an estimated 19 million) injected me with a dose of culture shock. Here, the traffic is nothing short of chaotic – continuously tooting cars compete for space with trucks, rickshaws, dogs, pigs, cows and, in other parts of the country, even camel carts. Our first main attraction was one of the largest mosques in India, Jama Masjid. Commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1644, (also of Taj Mahal glory) its courtyard can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. Following this, we visited a Sikh place of worship called a gurdwara (meaning door to the guru). Every gurdwara features a langar (kitchen) hall, where people of any religion can come to eat free vegetarian food prepared by volunteers each day. Another Delhi highlight was the spectacular mausoleum known as Humayun’s Tomb, built in the 16th century by Haji Begum, the Persian-born senior wife of the second Mughal emperor Humayun. An incredible spectacle and example of early Persian architecture, its high-arched entrances and pristine formal gardens would later become the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.
We soon moved postcodes and found ourselves in Jaipur, also known as the Pink City for its rose-hued buildings and palaces. The charming capital of India’s largest state Rajasthan, Jaipur is famous for its royal past and boasts many wonderful sites including the Palace of the Winds, Jal Mahal (“Water Palace”) and Amber Fort set high in the hills. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of this large site overlooking the city; I spent what felt like forever swooning over the Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace), which features spectacular mirror mosaics and coloured glass that glitter brilliantly under candle or torchlight.
Jaipur has a unique buzz and energy I admired. Here we saw trailers blasting music packed with dozens of dancing civilians zoom past as we made our way through the “organised chaos” (as our tour guide Raj called it), to watch a Bollywood film at the famous art deco Raj Mandir cinema. This was so much fun – we left wide-eyed and grinning from the surprising amount of cheering and whistling throughout the film’s duration by the 1200-strong crowd.
The next leg of the trip had us taking in more tranquil surrounds, in the form of a small rural village called Dhula, between Jaipur and Agra. We visited four rural towns over the two weeks, Dhula, Abhaneri, Alipura and Orchha – all welcome antidotes to sometimes overwhelming city life in India. Each brought its own authentic highlights. Dhula was memorable for its glamping accommodation and sunset cycle around the village. Alipura for its heritage palace stay and scintillating game of cricket we had with the locals. Abhaneri boasted a spectacular 10th-century stepwell and water tank, Chand Baori (Baori is a unique Indian invention for harvesting rainwater), which features more than 3000 steps 30m deep, and was the site of Batman’s prison in The Dark Knight Rises. Orchha meanwhile had beautiful temples and exquisite vegetarian fare. We came back for seconds and thirds for the delicious Aloo (Potato) Tikki (cutlet or croquette) dish which was coated in the most delicious mango chutney ever.
Labour of love
A visit to India wouldn’t be complete without some time at the simply breathtaking Taj Mahal. My alarm buzzed early as a sunrise tour was on the cards – a great time to visit in hindsight as the crowds were small and the temperature pleasant. Described as “a teardrop on the face of eternity” by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, the Taj Mahal was commisisoned by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their fourteenth child in 1631. I found myself speechless as I took my time to wander inside and around the grounds of the white marble mausoleum, marvelling at the detailed Islamic calligraphy and ruby and lapis luzuli embellishments. It’s no surprise it made the new World Wonders list – perfectly symmetrical at every angle, it took 22 years and more than 20,000 labourers to construct. We returned at sunset to behold it from another angle, on the site of where an onyx replica had once been planned to be constructed. That was a truly special evening, reflecting on the day’s events with my newfound friends (we had also just seen Agra Fort and the Baby Taj), and sharing our future travel dreams and personal aspirations.
Not for the bashful
Driving further into central India had us at the Khajuraho Temples – known famously for the Kama Sutra sculptures depicting tantra poses and lustful pastimes. There were originally more than 80 monumental temples constructed during the 9th and 10th centuries, with now only 22 remaining, but the condition and stories of those still standing definitely makes this worth a visit.
The holy city
The tour was sadly coming to an end, but not before a visit to Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India. Death is an omnipresence in this deeply spiritual place, where millions visit to cremate their loved ones on the banks of the holy Ganga (Ganges) river after the body is dipped in it one final time to be blessed and purified. Goosebumps rose on my arms as two funeral processions went past us while we sat in a 75-year old Lassi bar. The families were chanting “Ram nam satya hai” which translates to “the ultimate truth in life is death”.
With its beautiful sites, rich history, culture and customs, delicious food and friendly locals, India opened my eyes to the world. This was a journey I’d never forget.