India – What Columbus was Looking For

India – What Columbus was Looking For

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India was the biggest source of contention for us when we were planning which countries to visit. Diem was pretty down on visiting and I really wanted to see it. I had heard so many good things about India from a variety of people, I loved the food, and I really wanted to see the Taj Mahal. Diem, on the other hand, did not like the food, had heard the cities are too crowded and dirty, and was scared of getting sick from the food and/or water.

India is a gigantic country with over 1.2 billion people. We talked back and forth about India and how much time we should spend there and where we should go. Diem eventually agreed to visit India but we cut our visit down to 10 days. We also focused our visit on the Golden Triangle (New Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra) and also visit Varanasi.

Our flight from KL was a 5 hour trip to New Delhi and we arrived around 10 PM. For our time in India, we decided to hire a private driver. We were hoping that this would help ease Diem’s fears about dealing with public transportation and some of the crowds. The company, Namaste India Tour, was supposed to pick us up at the New Delhi airport but no one was there when we arrived. We had to take a cab to our hotel and a rep from the tour company came to the hotel to collect payment for our driver (23,050 Rs for our 7 day golden triangle tour).

Birla Temple, stop #1

Day 1 – New Delhi: On our first full day in India, we had breakfast at the hotel and then met our driver for the next week or so, Jagdesh. He was really nice and we started our tour around 9 AM. I wasn’t really excited to see New Delhi because I thought it would just be another large capital city. I also didn’t know many of attractions around the city. However, since it was our first day in India, I was excited to see what Delhi had to offer. Our first stop of the day was the Birla Temple. The temple is a Hindu temple that accepts donations for an entrance fee. The exterior was pretty beautiful but they didn’t allow pictures inside and we had to take off our shoes. For the first 15 minutes we had the place to ourselves and when a giant tour bus arrived we decided to move on.

Just a guy in a sarong chillin with some pigeons

The tour continued on and we drove by Connaught Place, the Delhi Gate, and old Delhi. All were pretty nice but not worth stopping in the traffic. Our next stop was the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India.  While entrance was free, we had to pay 300Rs per camera and take off our shoes. We got some beautiful pictures of the exterior but couldn’t go inside because it was close to prayer time. After, we drove by Raj Ghat, a VIP cemetery, where Mahatma Gandhi is buried but the cemetery was closed. We also drove by the wrestling stadium, Delhi Secretariat, and stopped briefly at some government land reserved for elephants.

It was still pretty early in the day so our driver suggested that we stop at Akshardham Temple. The complex is a Hindu temple and officially opened on November 6, 2005 by Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. The complex is free to enter but they do not allow cameras or purses. Once inside, you can also pay for extra attractions like the Sahaj Anand water show, a thematic garden and three exhibitions namely Sahajanand Darshan (Hall of Values), Neelkanth Darshan (an IMAX film on the early life of Swaminarayan as the teenage yogi, Neelkanth), and Sanskruti Darshan (cultural boat ride). The main attraction of the Swaminarayan Akshardham complex is the Akshardham Mandir. It rises 141-foot (43 m) high, spans 316-foot (96 m) wide, and extends 356-foot (109 m) long. It is intricately carved with flora, fauna, dancers, musicians, and deities. Designed in accordance with the standards of Maharishi Vastu Architecture, it features a blend of architectural styles across India. It is entirely constructed from Rajasthani pink sandstone and Italian Carrara marble. Based on traditional Hindu architectural guidelines (Shilpa shastras) on maximum temple life span, it makes no use of ferrous metal. The mandir also consists of 234 ornately carved pillars, nine domes, and 20,000 murtis of sadhus, devotees, and acharyas. It also contains 148 life sized elephants in total weighing a total of 3000 tons.

Outside the Akshardham Temple, the most beautiful temple in India, sorry Taj

It is a beautiful complex but we were disappointed that we couldn't take pics of any of it. Do yourself a favor and explore their gallery here or Google some images of the Akshardham Temple. I could not have been more impressed with the visit. To me, the Akshardham Mandir rivals the Sagrada Familia of Barcelona in beauty and detail. I also rank it above the Taj Mahal and I would strongly suggest that no trip to India is complete without visiting this fabulous temple.

Tasty dishes of India

Our driver next took us to Humayun's Tomb (Rs 500 pp). It is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun. The tomb was commissioned by Humayun's first wife and chief consort, Empress Bega Begum. It was the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent and was also the first structure to use red sandstone at such a scale. The tomb was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. It was a beautiful tomb and surrounding garden but it was getting hot so we didn’t stay long. We did a quick lunch stop at Hot Chimney which was recommended by our driver.  Ordered Chicken Tikka Masala (half 350 Rs), jareera rice (150 Rs), butter naan (40 Rs), boneless butter chicken (half 350 Rs), mirinda soda (60 Rs), and mineral water. I really enjoyed the food and even Diem said it was good. After lunch went to Qutub Minar/Mughal Mosque. Qutub Minar is a minaret made of red sandstone and marble that forms part of the Qutb complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Mehrauli area of Delhi.

The guy behind us is a little shy

Our final stop was the Lotus Temple. The temple is a Bahá'í House of Worship completed in 1986. Notable for its flowerlike shape, it has become a prominent attraction in the city. Like all Bahá'í Houses of Worship, the Lotus Temple is open to all, regardless of religion or any other qualification. The building is composed of 27 free-standing marble-clad "petals" arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides with nine doors opening onto a central hall with height of slightly over 40 meters and a capacity of 2,500 people. The workers told us to take our shoes off and asked silence in prayer room. We couldn’t take pictures of the interior but the inside was beautiful with a huge, tall ceilings and a circular prayer area. The exterior was beautifully manicured with pools and gardens and the architecture of the building is gorgeous. Unfortunately, we ran into lots of traffic heading back to hotel. We ate dinner at 7:30 PM at Saravana Bhaven. Another good meal but was a little spicy for our tender tastebuds.

Day 2 – New Delhi to Jaipur: We ate breakfast at the hotel and left at 8:30 AM to Jaipur. The driver stopped for lunch around 1 PM on the outskirts of Jaipur. After lunch we headed straight to the hotel to check-in. It was a cloudy and rainy day so we pretty much stayed in until dinner. For dinner, Diem researched a dinner/entertainment show at Amber Villas in Chokni Dani at 7 PM. It was about a 45 minute drive from the hotel. The dinner had a 500 Rs entrance fee which includes vegetarian dinner, snacks at the lassi stand and welcome drink.  Also included are dancing shows and puppet shows. The complex had carnival rides and camel rides but they required an extra fee. Not many people spoke English and our dinner was pretty awkward because we were the only people in the dining hall and we had about 6 waiters staring at us the whole time. Occasionally a new waiter would come up and practice the one or two sentences of English that they knew. We didn’t stay too long because the place was pretty empty and it turns out our driver took us to a different village than the one we requested. It was an experience but I probably wouldn’t recommend it. After dinner, we just went back to the hotel and went to bed.

Day 3– Jaipur: We had another rainy day in Jaipur, but didn’t want to waste a day inside. For our first stop, our driver took us to the Jaipur Amber Fort. The Amber Fort is known for its artistic Hindu style elements. Constructed of red sandstone and marble, its large ramparts and series of gates and cobbled paths make for beautiful views of the architecture and landscape below. There were some nice views of the elephants coming up the rode which is a pretty popular tourist attraction at the fort. Entrance to the fort was 500Rs but it was very cold and raining so we didn't spend much time there.  We were going to go to Jaigarh Fort but it was cold so our driver took us to a block painting fabric store instead.  It was interesting to see the process but clearly they were trying to sell us something. Next, we drove by the lake palace to take pictures. Finally we went to the City Palace (500 Rs) in central Jaipur. It was interesting but most of the palace consisted of outdoor courtyards and terraces so we ran from courtyard to courtyard trying to find shelter from the rain. We ended up heading back to the hotel and called it a day.

Left: Amber Fort; Right Jaipur City Palace

Day 4 – Jaipur to Agra: Today, all we had scheduled was the drive from Jaipur to Agra. We left at 8:30 AM and along the way we stopped at a monkey temple for a bit (50Rs for camera usage). There were so many monkeys but the complex was very dirty.  There was animal feces and trash everywhere. Our driver told us that it was one of the oldest monkey temples in India and towards the top of the temple we saw some people bathing in some open baths.  We didn't stay long and continued the drive to Agra.  We stopped again at the Fatehpur Sikri complex which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that consists of a mosque and a palace/fort. It cost 10Rs pp each way for the bus from the parking lot to the entrance.  We decided not to enter the palace (500Rs pp) but instead went to the free mosque next door.

The picture that cost us a candle holder

On the way in, we were stopped at the front by a young man who gave me a sarong because I was wearing shorts. This was common practice at the mosques we had previous visited. We were warned not to talk to anyone or take any tours but he insisted that he worked there and didn’t take any money. Multiple people also came up and said that the kid wouldn’t ask for money. We went along and so and behold, he took us to a vendor that sold some rock carvings that he said was his family’s work but we later found out that it was just a mass produced item. We ended up buying a marble candle holder anyways for 700Rs. We also bought a new selfie stick for 200Rs and then had to tip the guy 100 Rs even though he said he didn't ask for money and worked for the mosque. He did take us on a nice tour of the mosque and showed us some good places to take pictures. Still, lesson learned, don't believe the guys trying to be nice and claiming they don't work for money. On the way back, a boy that followed us from the parking lot was waiting for us.  We were led to his shop and bought a set of postcards (10 for 150Rs). After our eventful visit, we had lunch at a restaurant nearby and made our way to Agra. When we arrived, it was getting pretty late so we checked into our hotel, ordered room service for dinner, and called it a night.


Day 5 – Agra: We left our hotel for the Taj Mahal at 6:30 AM and our driver arranged for a tour guide which is included in ticket to Taj. Our driver warned us that it would be foggy in the morning and wanted us to go at 8:30 AM but we read that it was best to go at sunrise to avoid the crowd. We bought our tickets online (1000Rs) so we didn’t have to wait in line to buy them at the entrance. It was probably unnecessary since the ticket line wasn’t long when we arrived. We got in line at the West Gate which is the main entrance to the complex. Sunrise wasn’t until 7:10 AM and we were within the first 20 people to go in. We lucked out because it was a pretty clear morning.

Our first peak into the Taj Mahal

Once you go inside the West Gate there is an inner gate as well where they re-check your ticket. It was pretty amazing to walk through the inner gate and gaze at the Taj Mahal with basically no one around. However, there were some pretty rude girls that shoved us to the side and then went running to different spots for pictures. We took some great pictures at the front and our guide told us to go walk around on our own for about 30 minutes before he would start the tour. People were pouring in but it was still relatively empty and we took some more pictures of the Taj from different angles before heading back to our guide.

Left: View of the West Gate from the inside; Right: Diem relaxing with a view

Another view of the Taj

Unfortunately, our tour guide wasn’t very good at all. I learned more about the Taj from watching Idiot Abroad than what the tour guide said. He basically just told us that it took 22 years and 20,000 workers to complete. Then he told us about Shah Jahan, the emperor who commissioned the Taj and how he was later thrown in jail by his son. He didn’t even mention that Shah Jahan commissioned it to house the remains of his cherished wife, Mumtaz Mahal. We left around 9:30AM and headed back to the hotel. In retrospect we probably should have stayed longer and really took our time but we were sick of our tour guide and wanted to leave. We still saw everything we wanted to see but could have stayed longer.

Touring Agra Fort with the monks

Back at the hotel, we ordered breakfast and chilled in the room for a bit. Our driver picked us up at 12 PM for Agra Fort (500 Rs pp entrance fee) and our tour guide from the Taj was with him. We spent an hour at the fort with our guide. It was a nice complex and had some pretty rooms but it is tough to follow the Taj. After the fort, we ate lunch at Bon Barbeque (650 Rs pp for lunch buffet). It was a pretty nice place, the food was decent and there was some nice AC. Next, our guide took us to a jewelry and textiles shop but we weren't interested in buying anything and went back to the hotel. We rested until dinner at 7:30PM at the Taj Mahal Restaurant. Ordered chicken tikka masala and chicken chowmein and french onion soup. It was a nice restaurant and the food was delicious but Diem wasn’t the biggest fan.

Day 6 – Agra: We slept in today and got up for lunch at Pinch of Spice nearby. After lunch, our driver took us to Akbar’s tomb (210 Rs pp entrance fee), drive from Agra was about 30 minutes. Spent an hour here and then drove to Baby Taj (210 Rs pp entrance fee). This wasn't that impressive. We didn't spend much time here and back to the hotel after. Stayed in the rest of the day and ordered room service for dinner.

Day 7 – Agra to New Delhi to Varanasi: Drive at 9 AM to New Delhi, arrived to Delhi airport around 1 PM and flight was leaving at 4:40 PM. The airport didn’t have internet and then our flight got delayed 2 hours, so we got the chance to catch up on some audiobooks. We got into Varanasi around 9 PM and luckily the driver waited for us and took us to the hotel. It was about an hour ride over a really torn up road that was going some major renovations. The car couldn’t drive all the way up to the hotel so we had to park and meet a guy from the hotel. He carried our bags and we walked about 10 minutes through a maze of streets to get to our hotel. The streets were pretty crazy. They were filled with pedestrians, cars, tuk-tuks, motorcycles cows, dogs, animal feces, beggars, and smelled just about as good as you would expect. It was a little overwhelming so we just checked in and went to our room for the night.

Day 8 – Varanasi: It was our first full day in Varanasi but Diem wasn’t too happy with how dirty the city was. I agree that it can be a bit of a shock. Varanasi is what some people typically think are the bad parts of India, dirty, crowded, and smelly. However, Varanasi also is a very spiritual place for natives and tourists alike. Mark Twain described it as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

View of the holy river Ganges from our hotel

A major religious hub in India, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism. The Ghats in Varanasi are world-renowned embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the Ganges river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. We stayed near the Dashashwamedh Ghat which is the main and probably the oldest ghat of Varanasi located on the Ganges, close to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The Dashashwamedh Ghat also hosts a nightly Aarti ceremony on the river. Aarti is a Hindu fire ceremony performed by Brahmin disciples to honor the holy river, Gods and deities.

Today was really foggy/cloudy and even though our hotel was right along the river, the fog was so dense that you couldn’t see it. We thought about booking a boat ride to see the Aarti ceremony or take a morning boat but we didn’t want to book it when it was so foggy. We checked the weather forecast and it said it was going to be cloudy all week so we decided to wait and see if we would get a clear day. Since we couldn’t do much we stayed in and ate at the hotel. The coffee in the morning was pretty good and the food was also pretty decent for the price.

Unfortunately, all the boats were closed for business

Day 9– Varanasi: It was another very foggy day in Varanasi.  We asked about boat tours but it appeared that it was a holiday so there weren't any operating tours. Since we slept in and wanted to try something new, we went to lunch at Varanasi Café and Bakery. After lunch, we walked around town and along the Ganges.  It was pleasant and it actually started clearing up a little, but the town streets were very busy.  We stopped at Dashashwamedh Ghat to see where the Aartis take place, the took a short walk along the river, and then headed back to the hotel.

Day 10 – Varanasi to Bangkok: Our last day in India was pretty uneventful. We checked out of our hotel at 10 AM and left our luggage at reception. We ate breakfast at hotel restaurant, used their internet for a while and took a transfer to airport at 1 PM (900Rs).

I feel pretty disappointed that we didn’t get to do a boat ride on the Ganges. I really wanted to experience the Aarti ceremony and the morning river puja rituals. All in all, I say that our time in India was a success. No one got sick, we had a beautiful day at the Taj Mahal, our tour of New Dehli exceeded our expectations, and we got to see four of the most popular cities. However, it didn’t blow me or Diem away. I would like to return someday and see Mumbai and go back to Varanasi to witness the more spiritual side of India. I don’t think Diem would want to go back though so I doubt we’ll be back anytime soon.

I think most people who come to India and have a life changing experience probably have never seen a third world country nor have been exposed to such poverty and discrepancy from the Western world. To me, aside from Varanasi, India wasn’t that much different from the north of Peru and parts of Lima.  I’m very glad we went and I think everyone should visit it. Of course there are many other beautiful parts of India that we didn’t see, but the Taj Mahal is very beautiful and even more impressive was the Akshardham Temple. By using a private driver, we avoided a lot of the hassles of dealing with the crowds and public transportation. If you are doing the Golden Triangle, I would recommend getting one. It is around the same price as the trains and really convenient.

See the full gallery of our time in India here: Best of India.

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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