by Inga Aksamit
For a visitor from the U.S., the first steps onto the tarmac in India can assault the senses. Humid air, a cacophony of sounds, vivid colors and the odors of a thousand sources can overwhelm the senses. It helps to have a plan to tackle a country so large and diverse. Here, I’ll share our one-month itinerary.
First, some quick facts: India, the seventh largest country in the world, ranks number two in terms of population. With a history in the Indus Valley that dates back to 7,000 years BCE, India is filled with ancient temples, palaces, carvings and natural wonders. The official languages are Hindi and English but don’t expect everyone to speak English; many speak their own dialect and Hindi but their grasp on English may be limited. Going clockwise from the northwest, the country is bordered by Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.
Our general plan included an area known as the Golden Triangle. This makes a convenient route for first-time visitors as it includes the Taj Mahal and many other highlights. We used that as the basis for our trip with two big spurs, one up to the Himalayan foothills and one down the to beaches of Goa (which led to additional areas of exploration. Even though we had a month, we knew we couldn’t try to cover the whole country. We’re big backpackers but we steered clear of trekking for our first trip to India, knowing that we’d get sucked into a big trek that would consume most of our time. Trekking would have to wait for another trip. This divided the trip into three unequal parts: Golden Triangle (includes Delhi, Agra/Taj Mahal and Jaipur0, Himalayan Foothills (Shimla), West Coast Triangle (Goa, Mumbai and Aurangabad0
I’ll describe highlights of each, the number of days we spent at each, where we stayed and recommendations for doing things differently, especially if you don’t have a month.
We started here for several reasons: several international flights are available from the US, it’s part of the Golden Triangle and I have a cousin who works at the U.S. Embassy there. It’s as good a place as any to get over jet lag, though it’s the least desirable of any of the other locations due to its poor air quality and truly horrendous traffic congestion.
It’s a long flight, no matter how you do it, around 20 hours or more. We flew from San Francisco to Newark, NJ and then flew 14 hours to Delhi.
There are a number of sights in Delhi that can be accomplished in one day. There is no need to set up a tour ahead of time as this can be arranged through your hotel or any of a million tour operators in the tourist areas. It will be much less expensive if you arrange for a driver or join a tour group when in Delhi as opposed to planning it from the U.S. Don’t be afraid to dicker on the price. We chose to hire drivers by the day or location as transportation was cheap. Prices are generally quite fluid in India.
We saw the following over a day and a half in Delhi, arranged in order of our enjoyment. If you’re pressed for time, lop off the ones at the end. The Delhi Tourism website has a succinct list of tourist destinations so look through them and see if there is anything you’re interested in beside what I’ve included below.
Red Fort: the first four places listed here are very close to each other so it’s worth including all of them. This huge fort is distinctive, with its red sandstone walls that were built in 1638. There are several buildings and a couple of semi-worthwhile small museums. If you have a driver, he can help you secure a bicycle rickshaw driver.
Grand Mosque (Jama Masjid): Built in 1644, it’s the largest mosque in India and can hold 25,000 people. It will cost a few cents to rent a colorful cover-up gown for the ladies.
Old Delhi: From the Grand Mosque, a bicycle rickshaw driver will take you through a few narrow lanes in Old Delhi, a hodge-podge of old buildings, shops and stalls that will assail your senses, usually in a good way. They love to point out the jumble of electrical wires
Spice Market: The rickshaw driver will take you to the Spice Market. Ours took us up a narrow staircase where there wasn’t all that much to see but it was interesting to walk among the vendors and smell all the competing flavors. Inevitably you’ll be taken to a spice merchant who likely gives the driver a commission. We like to cook so we bought some spices, which they sealed up so they didn’t smell up our suitcase.
Humayun’s Tomb: Built in 1565, this complex contains a number of fine examples of Mughal architecture. We enjoyed it quite a bit.
Lodi’s (or Lodhi’s) Garden: This large garden contains the tombs of Muhammad Shah and Sikandar Lodhi. It was a nice place to stretch our legs and one of the few places we felt like we could get some exercise, in spite of the air. The octagonal architecture of the tombs was interesting.
India Gate: We saw this several times as we crisscrossed the city. It’s cool to see but we didn’t get out of the car. If you have time you can stroll around the grounds.
Raj Ghat: Memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. There is a black marble platform with a perpetual flame that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. It’s located in a huge grassy park that is peaceful but there’s not much to see. We got more out of visiting Gandhi’s residence in Mumbai but it’s valuable for those who want to see everything.
Lotus Temple: The traffic was so horrible and drive so exhausting that we didn’t even go in. Even our driver was disgusted with the traffic so he just took us to a spot for a good photo. It’s not worth it unless you have a special interest or lots of time.
We stayed at a small hotel, Corus Hotel, in Connaught Circle, which is centrally located area in Delhi. The hotel was nothing special but it was reasonably clean, the staff was nice and breakfast buffet was decent with a few Indian dishes, papaya and pineapple cut fruit, hard boiled eggs, juice and toast. This breakfast followed the pattern for most of the hotels, with slight expansion or contraction depending on the price point of the hotel. The entrance from the inner circle was somewhat menacing with just a small door but that’s because the taxi wasn’t sure where it was and the main entrance was from the other side of the block. There is a park in the center, but there isn’t much to see there except a huge Indian flag. However, it’s a pleasant place for a short stroll.
When we circled back to Delhi to fly to Goa we stayed at an Ibis Hotel at the airport. Traffic was so congested that we felt it best to be near the airport for a morning flight. Ibis Hotels are the same the world over, which is nice when predictability is desired.
If you are arriving in Delhi after a very long flight and have any hotel points for a US chain, this would be the time to use them. We prefer to stay in hotels with more local character but arriving in the middle of the night with jet lag is not the best time to get acculturated.
The focus in Jaipur is on palaces. The Jaipur Kingdom (now Rajasthan) existed for several generations from 1128-1974. Kings were succeeded by their sons or other male heirs and several built huge, ornate palaces that are spectacular to behold. The first three can take a couple of hours each while the last two are quick viewing visits.
Amber Fort: This large palace was first the first royal residence, built high up on a hill in Amer, surrounded by a Great Wall that is similar to a miniature version of the Great Wall of China. It was built and rebuilt several times by various rulers starting in 1036.
City Palace: Sawai Jai Singh II, the fifth ruler in the Amber area, built City Palace between 1729-32. Jaipur is named after him. This is the most ornate of the palaces. The royal family still lives here but has made part of the palace public.
Jantar-Mantar: This astronomical observatory was built by Jai Singh during the period 1727-1734 in north India (he built 5 in different parts of India, including Delhi). The observatory consists of fourteen major geometric devices (or yantras in Hindi) for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking stars in their orbits, ascertaining the declinations of planets and determining the celestial altitudes etc. This is located on the same grounds as the City Palace so they can be visited together. It is fascinating.
Jal Mahal (Water Palace): Set in a lake, this is a quick stop to view it from the shore.
Hawa Mahal (Palace of Breeze): Built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Singh as part of City Palace, it was an extension of the women’s chamber. Its purpose was to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen. It is a five-story high red sandstone structure complete with over 950 windows. This is a quick visit as no one is allowed inside.
The area is known for its gemstones and block printing, so expect to visit a factory store for each if you’re on a tour or if you hire a private driver. It’s understood that they get a commission and you’ll pay slightly higher prices but that’s the game. It’s still pretty inexpensive. If either of these are of particular interest to you do some research, determine your needs and negotiate.
This is where the Taj Mahal is located. The world-famous white marble mausoleum sits on the bank of the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges. The Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, who reigned from 1628 to 1658) built the structure to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
The Emperors resided in the nearby Agra Fort, which is currently occupied by the Indian Army. A small portion is open to the public.
Ranthambhore National Park (Tiger Preserve)
A popular extension to the Golden Triangle is a tiger safari at Ranthambhore National Park, a five-hour drive from Agra. The nearby town of Sawai Madhopur has many places to stay at all price points to support the effort. Tickets to the tiger safari can be obtained from local travel agents but the safari itself is government-run. There are two options, both open air: the small jeep (holds six plus the driver and spotter) or canter (holds 20 plus driver and spotter). The jeep is recommended as they can travel on the smaller roadways and you may be more likely to see a tiger. You may be more likely to see a tiger on the morning safari instead of the afternoon safari. If you have the time, schedule more than one safari to increase chances of viewing a tiger.
We chose a small jeep. We had three adults in the front row, while an Indian family of three adults and a child were squished into the back row. The driver picked us up at our hotel, then went to a nearby hotel to pick up the other group. The roads were busy with the government jeeps picking up passengers all over town. It was quite chilly at first and the locals were bundled up with hats, scarves and coats. The steep, rough trail was intimidating at times but the driver did a good job in the lowest gear going very slowly. We saw antelope, deer, boar and peacocks but no tigers for the first two hours. We were pretty disappointed until 30 seconds before we exited the park. All of a sudden, there was a tiger lounging by a watering hole! Everyone was very excited. The tiger got up and ambled away but we were able to follow the road as it curved around to get another view of him in the forest.
In the afternoon we visited the Khandar Fort, a large complex with several Hindu temples.
An example of a 10-day itinerary could look like this:
Day 1: Arrive in Delhi, possibly at midnight
Day 2: Delhi, city sights
Day 3: Delhi, city sights
Day 4: Drive to Jaipur
Day 5: Jaipur palaces and fort
Day 6: Drive to Sawai Madhopur, Gateway to Ranthambhore National Park/Tiger Safari
Day 7: Sawai Madhopur, Tiger Safari and Khandar Fort
Day 8: Sawai Madhopur, Tiger Safari in the morning, drive to Agra in the afternoon
Day 9: Agra, Taj Mahal
Day 10: Drive to Delhi
This 10-day loop on the Golden Triangle will give the visitor a good introduction to India. If you have less time, days can be trimmed in Delhi, the tiger safari and Agra. If you have more time, see my next article on Shimla, Mumbai, Goa, and Aurangabad, coming soon.