India, unravelling myths
rom grandeur to rags and tatters, from opulent palaces to widespread hunger, from Aladdin’s lamps and the jungle to a hundred tongues. According to the writer Mark Twain, India is a series of contradictions; it is a destination you dream of before you embrace it. From the instant you start imagining you’re walking its narrow streets and not simply visiting its great monuments, it becomes a part of you, clutching the literature its settings have inspired, firmly attaching them to our heart. The author of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ toured India at the end of the 19th century and he described it as ‘the mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition’.
India is about learning to find your prejudices to then immediately unravel them
But India is not the country that is idealised by so many. This is a place where you learn to find your prejudices confirmed, only to then see them immediately unravel before your eyes, which is what happens when you arrive in Delhi, Agra or Jaipur, the most visited cities in the northwest of the country. Standing quite a distance from each other, about 250 km apart, they form the ‘Golden Triangle’: a city bursting with life, Delhi; the beauty of the monuments of the centre of the old Mughal Empire, Agra; and the radiant pink of the city of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, a land of forts, palaces and desert.
When you reach these cities –if you’re driving you’ll need a loud horn, good brakes and a lot of good luck– your trip begins to take shape and you understand what it means to share space with so many people. Delhi, with nearly 19 million inhabitants, is one of the most populated cities in the world; a megalopolis in permanent flux, where there are two contrasting areas: Old Delhi, the capital of the Muslim Mughal Empire in the 17th century, with the Great Mosque (Jama Masjid) and the Red Fort (Lal Qila), with the artery of Chandni Chowk market around the edge. And to the south is New Delhi, an area built by the British and characterised by its wide tree-lined streets. You can visit numerous shops and cafés under the white colonnades of Connaught Place or go to Rajpath boulevard, which runs from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president’s official residence.
Outside the triangle
Sometimes detours are the best part of a tour. They let you escape the tourist masses and discover treasures like the hundred-odd Shiva temples of Bateshwar, near Agra. For three weeks in October or November, the city is home to India’s second-largest cattle fair, an event with a religious side, too. Even though you probably don’t have a commercial interest in the horses, goats, camels and oxen gathered together under the orange and yellow tents, this is a chance to witness an event that has hardly changed in the past 2,000 years.
After all the noise, you will want to try and find some peace by the emblem of the city, the postcard you dreamt about. Agra is home to the most visited monument in all of India: the Taj Mahal. The mausoleum of white marble commissioned by Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his wife is surrounded by gardens, tuk tuk drivers and photographers who offer to immortalise your visit for 100 rupees; spirituality and entrepreneurship in perfect harmony. This is a place that will never leave you, whether you start off in the garden complex of Mehtab Bagh, on the other side of the Yamuna River, or from the Agra Fort. The main residence of the Mughal emperors is a complex of royal apartments and patios that provides a relaxing retreat from the medieval-like maze of bazaars. After Agra, you can enter the city of Fatehpur Sikri where you might encounter the spirits of the concubines, emperors and servants who once passed through this gigantic red stone gate.
The road continues until the gate into Rajasthan, Jaipur. The bazaars dotted around the historical centre reach as far as the wall whose colour gives it the name of the Pink City. The inhabitants used this colour as a symbol of good luck but the tradition was forgotten until it was recovered at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the city’s emblems is the Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal), with its delicate façade made up of five floors with small windows and screened balconies, from where the women of the royal household could watch what was going on in the street.
You’ll find the first seed of calm in Rajasthan
Rajasthan is also where you will uncover the first seeds of tranquillity. From hundred-year-old palaces converted into hotels that offer visitors the chance to feel like a maharaja of the British Raj, literature festivals, such as the one held in the Diggi Palace Hotel, or camel rides, it’s all here. For the ultimate experience, combine the privilege of camping within the walls of the 350-year-old Ramathra Fort with being taken on a safari with the owner, Ravi Raj Pal. He will drive you through the Daang valley, an arid landscape where tigers and bandits used to roam.
If Jaipur is pink, then Jodhpur is blue, with sights such as the Mehrangarh Fort standing proud at the top of the hill, and the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Rajasthan’s third jewel is Udaipur, with its numerous lakes and floating palaces that have earned it the nickname the ‘Venice of the East’.
The bench of lost love
The Taj Mahal is a love poem made of marble, built by 2,000 craftsmen between 1631 and 1648. But it has also been a symbol of lost love. In 1980, the press published a photo of the Prince of Wales sitting in front of the monument, with the caption ‘One day I would like to bring my bride here’. In 1992 the prince returned to India, but only Princess Diana visited the Taj Mahal. She sat on the same bench where her husband had been photographed 12 years previously and said, ‘It would have been better if both of us had been here’. Ten months later, the Prince and Princess of Wales announced their separation. Ever since then, the bench has been known as ‘Lady Di’s Chair’.
Captivated by the beauty of India you might ask yourself what’s left of your preconceptions, of the place you had previously imagined. You’ll find the answer in the ‘ashrams’, centres where they teach yoga and meditation. It is known as spiritual tourism, but it is much more than staying in a retreat, learning these disciplines or taking care of your mind and body. It is about assimilating, after the chaos and deafening noise of the cities through which you have roamed, that if peace is going to be a good travel companion it must be born from within; you have to know how to get rid of all that is unnecessary in order to grasp to the happiness of oneness.
Kundalini is one of the main disciplines taught in these centres. It is about cultivating spirituality through our own emotions, our creativity, our purpose in life. There is a proverb that says ‘There is no tree that the wind has not shaken’. This is exactly what happens when you go to India, when your wish comes true: you feel shaken, exhausted, your beliefs crumble to pieces. As Twain said, ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness’. India affirms just this, it undoes your prior judgements, though at least you’re left with what you’ve learnt: the real India is far more exciting than you had previously thought possible.