I begin this on a train back to Delhi for our flight home, sipping on the sweetest of tea and meeting as many stares with as many smiles as I can muster (you soon get used to that). The train was delayed, but only for an hour-and-a-half this time. A few days earlier our overnight train was cancelled with a couple of hours’ notice, forcing us, on a tight schedule, to take a cross-country taxi ride for less than it would have cost to fly from Auckland to Wellington. There were no flights available, but we got the next best thing as we hurtled down the highway during what felt like a 600-kilometre skydive, undertaking, overtaking, dodging dogs, careening around cattle (they roam the streets everywhere like gods, which they kind of are there) and clipping a goat’s arse (it lived).
To capture India is to catch a flame.
Upon arrival in Varanasi, the taxi driver’s GPS attempts to guide us through a heavily guarded army barracks where we are intercepted by a heavily armed soldier, who, with a smile nearly as large as the Kalashnikov slung across his chest, points us on our merry way. Our taxi driver, Keshav, occasionally serenades us, always smiles and poses for umpteen selfies during refreshment stops (you soon get used to that, too). He barely speaks English but by the end of the journey we are best of friends—he actually WhatsApps me while I am polishing off this article back on home soil! (Our very first taxi driver from the airport in Delhi at one point mounted the—kind of—pavement before tucking in behind a speeding ambulance, lights and sirens blazing, to ferry us faster through the traffic.)
To capture India is to catch a flame.
There are rules in India, it’s just that no one seems to obey them. In Jaipur I am offered a marijuana tea from a hole in the wall that I presume must be some kind of pharmacy. “It’s legal here?” I ask. “Sure,” I was told, with an unconvincing shrug before being handed a concoction that resembled a spirulina smoothie in an old plastic water bottle. Halfway through I am encouraged to say it’s green tea, if anyone asks. (A Google search and much, much giggling later I discovered that, though the rules are, er, hazy, cannabis is technically illegal.)
Jaipur is the second stop of our two-week tour of the north of the country, taking in the iconic ‘Golden Triangle’ route—Delhi, Jaipur and Agra—with a side trip to Varanasi, India’s holiest hub and one of the oldest cities on Earth.
I’ve encountered some seriously bustling hubs in my time—Hong Kong, Tokyo, Kathmandu, Saigon, Beijing during Chinese New Year, last orders in London—but boy does Delhi take the biscuit. Over two thousand years, Hindus, Muslims and the British have battled over this ancient settlement on the banks of the sacred Yamuna River, and all made their indelible mark. India’s chaotic, cosmopolitan capital positively pulsates, green and yellow-topped auto rickshaws dominating its streets like worker bees.
Fortresses and religious monuments pepper the walled city of Old Delhi (then known as Shahjahanabad), clues of its multi-faith past—and present—though it is magnificent Mughal architecture that most commands (the Mughal Empire, distant Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan, ruled much of India from the early 16th- until the mid-18th century, and created its united state). Red Fort, or Lal Qila, is a sprawling 17th-century sandstone palace and defensive complex that at its peak housed around 3,000 souls, while Jama Masjid, also built from sandstone around the same time, captivates with its contrasting marble domes. It is one of the largest mosques in India, and its spiritual presence feels almost like a physical force.
It’s important too, to set aside some time to simply stroll some of Old Delhi’s neighbourhood streets, visiting the spice markets and sari sellers and sampling some of the city’s legendary street food. We also spend half a day doing the Salaam Baalak Trust City Walk led by former street kids who guide us through fascinating hard-to-find lanes and bazaars, culminating in a visit to the charitable organisation’s HQ to meet some of the impoverished youth under their care.
New—or Central—Delhi houses an array of government buildings and is awash with British architecture (the area is also known as Lutyen’s Delhi in honour of the early 20th- century architect, Sir Edwin Lutyen, responsible for its design), but the most memorable monument is the Hindu temple complex of Akshardham. Though completed in 2005, the 100-acre pink-stone, dome-topped site mimics architecture from antiquity.
I manage to (accidentally) time a visit to the impressive National Museum—India’s largest, covering 5,000 years of humanity—with the arrival of dozens of pilgrims who proceed to prostrate at a shrine said to hold relics of the Buddha, a truly mesmerising experience. Across the city, the National Gandhi Museum pays tribute to India’s most famous son with exhibits that include some personal effects and the blood-stained dhoti he was wearing when murdered.
Though the capital city of the state of Rajasthan boasts a population three million-strong, Jaipur almost feels like a rural retreat following a few days in Delhi. There’s a local saying that translates as: “What have I accomplished in my life, if I have not seen Jaipur?” It doesn’t take long to realise why.
Surrounded by verdant hills, as with Delhi, there is also an old town in Jaipur. Here, it is nicknamed the ‘Pink City’ owing to the walls being, well, pink. The previously yellow structures were painted such in honour of Prince Albert’s 1876 royal visit, and the tradition stuck—bagging it Unesco World Heritage Site status last July (though admittedly, parts of it could do with another lick of pink paint).
The city was founded in the 18th century by Maharaja Sawai Ja Singh II, a fascinating character obsessed with all things science and space. It was one of the world’s first ‘planned’ cities, broken into defined, geometrical blocks, and among its star attractions is Jantar Mantar, the largest of five observatories around northern India (there is also one in Delhi). Developed by Sing II in 1726, it comprises towering angular, abstract structures that measure such things as the location of stars and planetary orbits—think of them as enormous, celestial sundials.
Another guided city tour, with Jaipur Cultural Walk, reveals Jaipur’s rich artisan culture, with entire streets dedicated to the likes of jewellery making, metal working and marble sculpting, but the city’s crowning glory rests a few kilometres to the north on a site known as the Amber (or Amer) Fort and Palace. Construction began in 1592 and continued for 125 years, and though much of it is now in a state of decay, it remains such a remarkable, imposing feat of engineering that as you approach it from a distance it feels as though it should have its own film score. Inside are gardens, shrines and palaces still adorned with complex, centuries-old carvings including, for the uber-eagle-eyed visitor, the occasional Karma Sutra-esuqe artwork. Unsurprisingly, this one’s a Unesco World Heritage Site, too.
I am almost apprehensive about visiting Agra, the gateway to the Taj Mahal, for how could the reality of such an almost mythical structure—and story—possibly measure up? I needn’t have worried.
The Taj Mahal, which translates as the “Crown Palace”, was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in honour of his favourite wife, Arjuman Banu. It is said that on her deathbed, she asked him to create a monument to their love and this legendary mausoleum is the result (now entombing the bodies of both lovers). Often cited as the world’s most beautiful building, beginning 1632, it took 20,000 workers 17 years to complete the project, spread across 17 hectares. Forget all you think you know about this mighty marble shrine, for it is when you get up close that you truly realise its brilliance, its symmetry, its exquisite detailing of majestic motifs and entrances adorned with Koranic scripture. The iconic pillars at its four corners were even built with the slightest of tilts to ensure they fall away from the main structure in the event of an earthquake. As the sun rises, this palace of passion glows ever so slightly pink, and later in the day shifts from white to yellow to orange until the sun slips behind the horizon to leave its white marble glowing against a sky of black.
Considering how in the world this could ever be topped, we make for a cold beer to escape the day’s searing sun, where I am accosted by a snake charmer who places a couple of cobras, in their basket, on my head!
How to match cobras and the Taj Mahal? Varanasi is still to come.
India’s oldest and holiest city, Varanasi (or Banaras, Banares, or Kashi) means “resplendent with light”. Rows of steps known as ghats lead down from the city’s maze of streets to the River Ganges—or Ganga—considered sacred by Hindus. A morning boat ride along the Ganges provides a confronting yet compelling window into some of humanity’s most ancient rites. At one ghat, a body is dipped into the holy waters before being cremated on the riverbank while at the next a child bathes as a grandmother washes their clothes. It feels so improper to intrude, yet, returning, metres on from a funeral, a smiling family signal gestures of blessings towards us as their kids splash merrily in the shallows. It’s an utterly humbling experience, a journey taken in silence and contemplation that tempt the occasional tear, and the occasional smile. The city behind these people may have bloomed over the years, the waters may have blackened, but those faces, those riverbank practices, have remained unchanged for centuries. And there is comfort in that.
Just 11 kilometres north of Varanasi, in Sarnath, Buddha preached his first sermon.
We are only in the country for a fortnight, but it feels like a lifetime. In a good way. A fortnight later,I’m still processing it, and appreciating it more each day. How to sum up India? It is intoxicating and infuriating in equal measure. There is squalor, there is spirituality, there is colour, there is chaos, there is kindness and the occasional scam. There is heartbreak. There is humanity. There is a sensory overload, that at times is hard to take. There are a million different Indias.