Over the years we have traveled in most of the continents around the globe and usually did our own self guided tours, but the prospect of taking on a travel venture on our own through India had seemed daunting. Since we had always wanted to visit India because of the country’s rich history as well as our curiosity about the Hindu religion’s spiritual aspect, we decided that if we went we would need to do it on a guided tour. Several of our friends had done tours with SmarTours and told us not only were the tours well done but also the cost was from a third to half as much as some of the better known tour companies. We selected a 14 day tour that began in Delhi and went to Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho, Varanasi, and ended with 3 days in Nepal.
After just over 15 hours of our non-stop flight from Chicago to Delhi we arrived around 10 in the evening at the Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi. As we reached customs, we were confronted with a long wall possessing huge sculptured, golden hands with fingers in different positions of sign language welcoming us to India. We were amazed at the modern, clean atmosphere of the terminal building, which contrasted greatly to our taxi ride of some 45 minutes through smog and dusty streets of this city of some fifteen million inhabitants and was teaming with vehicles and people even at this late hour.
On arrival at our hotel, The Surya (Crown Plaza), our taxi driver was halted at a large iron gate by guards in military uniforms. We were questioned by the guards to make sure that we had reservations at this hotel, and once we showed our SmarTours booking, we were allowed to unload our bags from the taxi and were let through the iron gate, the taxi and driver not being allowed to enter. At the hotel’s entrance we had to pass through a metal detector and have our bags X-rayed before being allowed to enter the beautiful lobby. The floors and counters were highly polished marble, and the furniture gave the appearance of a palace. Even the attendants who checked us in looked as if they fit better than we did in such surroundings. We almost had to pinch ourselves to be sure we were not hallucinating as only a few minutes before, when we were outside the walls that surrounded the hotel, we had been staring at buildings in disrepair and huge piles of trash in the street, small, tattered shops with poor lighting, and several blocks of ghetto dwellings constructed of cardboard and discarded scrap metal and plastic.
We were up the next morning after about 6 hours sleep, took a warm shower, and went down to a huge buffet breakfast with a selection of all kinds of Western and Eastern cuisine. Having made our own travel arrangements to and from India, we went to te lobby after breakfast to introduce ourselves to the rest of the tour group and our SmarTours guide. The tour group of 28 came from various parts of the United States and Canada and turned out to be a great bunch of people. Our SmarTours guide, Arvind, whom we found, as we experienced the next two weeks, to be one of the best tour guides we had ever had the pleasure of knowing. Boarding the comfortable tour bus without any delay, we were off to sightsee around Delhi.
Both smog and traffic of Delhi were thick as we encountered a mass of cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, horse and ox-pulled carts, bicycles, and pedestrians. All were competing for the four traffic lanes in a mish-mash of converging at intersections, where directions were sorted out with roundabouts and hundreds of horns blowing. We saw few streetlights throughout the city and u-turns were a common means of reversing direction. Progress was slow, and I had to admire the patience of our Sikh driver. The lack of government expenditure on infrastructure, which affects everyone, became increasingly apparent from the first day of our tour to the last.
Our drive through the city that morning brought us by the Red Fort, built by a Mughal Emperor around 1648. Today Delhi’s Moslem population was celebrating the Haj festival called Eid , and we passed many people leading goats down the street around the huge Jama Masjid Mosque. The goats are auctioned and then slaughtered in a ceremony for the festival. Our driver was able to find parking near the Mosque, and we disembarked to go inside. The inside of the Mosque was a huge area with the floors covered with woven rugs, and the ceiling was a large dome. The Mosque, which is the largest in India, was built between 1644 and 1658 and can hold 25,000 people. It towers over what is known as Old Delhi.
After leaving the Jama Masjid Mosque we drove through various parts of Delhi. In New Delhi as we passed large, gated mansions dating back to the period of the British Raj and the government complex where India’s Parliament meets and the President’s house, our guide, told us about some of the key eras in India’s history, from the period of Mughal rule to the partitioning after the British Colonial Period with the country being divided into India and Pakistan.
As we listened and viewed the passing scenery, we could not help but see the contrast between the grandeur of the past and present rulers’ buildings and the poor state of the people we passed on the street. We saw many men begging, some with an injury wrapped with a bloody cloth bandage; bike rickshaws carrying whole families; carts and bicycles heavily loaded with goods of all kinds transported by boys walking alongside; filthy kids bathing in water streaming from a public water hand pump; and dogs, so scrawny you could count their ribs, going through piles of trash along the street. But even among the squalor, we saw smiling, determined faces with beautiful features and women elegantly dressed in beautiful, multi-colored saris trimmed with gold bangles.
Our bus let us out in front of Birla Mandir Temple, a very colorful red and cream structure, and we toured the Temple, experiencing our first up-close observation of some of the practices of Hinduism. As Arvind gave us a great deal of information about the symbols and gods we saw around the Temple area, we were able to watch Indians going through certain rituals that go back thousands of years, this being the oldest of the world’s main religions.
During the day we visited Kashmir Emporium, a factory selling hand-knotted wool and silk rugs made by families in Kashmir as their sole means of support. The special Pashmina wool rugs are made from just the soft chin hairs of the goats in the Kashmir Mountains. Each unique pattern is specific to a family, and these designs are handed down and taught from father to children for generations and are now certified motifs. This extreme northern area of India used to have great tourism, especially from the Indian people. But travel advisories about terrorism in the area since 1940’s have all but ended tourism there, greatly hurting the economy of those mountain families. Indians believe that all their problems are because of Partition. At the factory they served us wonderful cardimon tea, samozas, and goat cheese sandwiches, delicious light snacks to last us till dinner because with today’s holiday no restaurants are open. The government sponsors the bazaar here and guarantees the quality.
Later in the day we visited Raj Gnat, which is a large park on the banks of the Yamuna River that is the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation after his assassination in 1948. A stately platform of black marble with an eternal flame stands on the spot and is a peaceful setting for honoring and remembering this man, considered the Father of India, who dedicated his life to trying to get justice for the Indian people. As we returned to our hotel through the afternoon traffic, we passed the large India Gate or War Memorial Arch, which is a memorial to some 90,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting the British, and the Bahai Lotus Temple, 1 of only 7 in the world, which is a large empty Hall of Meditation open for all faiths and of beautiful lotus flower shaped architecture.
At our hotel we enjoyed a delicious evening buffet, selecting from an array of Indian cuisine, and another huge breakfast buffet. Our private bus journey from Delhi to the city of Jaipur in the Eastern state of Rajasthan was about 160 miles (277 km) and took all day. On the outskirts of Delhi we stopped at the Qutb Minar, which has a tower or minaret over 70 meters (210 feet) high and 15 meters (45 feet) in diameter at the base. A Muslim sultan, Qutb-ud-din, started the structure in 1193AD, and his successors completed it in 1368 AD. The beginning of this complex came immediately after the defeat of the last Hindu kingdom of Delhi. The tower was amazing to see, and some of the ruins of the mosque that had been a part of the complex showed that these Muslim conquerors used Hindu Temple sandstone blocks, defacing them by removing the human and animal forms carved in relief, to build this first mosque in India.
We journeyed on to Jaipur during the rest of the day, arriving at our hotel about 8 P.M. The inferior roads and extreme traffic make travel overland particularly slow going, and everyone had to limit their coffee and beverage intake because of the lack of restroom facilities in most of the towns and villages we traveled through that day. As we neared Jaipur we passed a rural taxi jeep taking people home from work: a jeep suited for five people but holding about 20 with some hanging onto bundles on the roof. We saw gutters filled with trash, blocked drains causing mud and stagnant puddles all long the roadside. This created terrible health conditions, made worse by people peeing any and everywhere and one adult defecating on side of road against a town wall with his back to the road. People don’t know any other way of life and were smiling and happily visiting in groups of men or women. Most look amazingly clean in spite of squalor everywhere. Bathing is required every morning before worshiping at whatever temple or small statue of a god or goddess is available. Most people have to wash in a puddle or the ditch or under a city hand pump.
The Indian people are really pretty. Beauty seems to be very important as even work lories are decorated with hand paintings and designs. People work hard as a way of life because everyone is poor and each has to make his own survival each day. Men work in shops and factories; women in fields and also do all the home preparation and cooking etc. Nearing Jaipur, the city of kings and a business center, a traffic jam gave us a long wait. We were entertained by a hoard of rhesus monkeys on the wall beside us eating trash and begging food from vehicles. Natives of Jaipur, they have been relocated to the rural area because they become pests in town robbing homes.
Watch for Part 2 in our March 15 or April Issue, describing life in Jaipur, Agra and the Taj Mahal