Before traveling to India, I realized what I knew about the country pretty much boiled down to this: the Taj Mahal. Elephants. Garlic naan.
All the more reason to travel 13½ time zones, mingle amid one-sixth of the world’s population and learn about a belief system, art, religions, languages and traditions built on Eastern thought.
The payoffs in our travels to cities and rural areas were tremendous, though this is a journey perhaps not for everyone.
A lot of areas of India’s cities looked like this: dirt sidewalks; rambling shops in broken-down structures selling mysterious items; rickety buildings; families living in open-air dwellings (or just in the open air); bustling or dead-stop, lane-free roads; litter strewn in most gutters. Add women wearing the brightest palette of saris; men convening in front of storefronts, perhaps doing business, perhaps just chatting, occasionally
getting haircuts from a makeshift outdoor barber. Life courses on a human scale here, available to travelers to either see or experience. Interactions with people shift from “why?” to “wow!” Beyond friendliness and outright curiosity, Indians we met – even in the bleakest of conditions – were open to interaction.
India is a complex country full of contradictions and complications a western tourist can’t begin to understand in a trip. But after nearly three weeks in the north of India, and a few more weeks to think about it at home, here are some takeaways.
See the Taj Mahal but don’t
miss its ancestor
If you are going to northern India, the fabled Taj Mahal in Agra is probably at the top of your bucket list. An average of 77,000 people daily visit the tomb, considered one of the world’s seven modern wonders.
And it is probably wise to come sooner rather than later: The buzz among tour guides onsite is that within a couple years, due to security concerns and wear and tear, visitors won’t be allowed up onto the broad marble platform that circles the outside perimeter of the Taj, nor to enter the tomb itself.
Millions of words praising the exquisite structure exist; here are just a few more about what surprised/delighted me:
The tomb and its manicured setting are, indeed, visually breathtaking, but what I hadn’t quite expected were the serenity and grace of a place that millions of photos don’t quite convey. There is not just shock and recognition of entering the gates and being walloped with an “aha” OMG moment, but a peaceful grandeur makes you want to linger a bit, at a distance, drinking it in.
Inside the circular, small internal tomb, the marble and the vaulted ceiling cause visitor voices to merge into not a roar but a steady, collective murmur. It’s a stirring, unique sound, almost like the chanted – and enchanting – echoes of millions over time who have come here.
Equally significant and satisfying as the Taj, I would suggest, is that any time spent in Delhi should include visiting Humayun’s Tomb.
This structure and immaculate…