My trip to India began with a festive Hindu wedding in Kolkata. It ended after a mesmerizing sitar performance in a musician's home in Varanasi, a visit with elephants rescued by a conservation center in Mathura and a walk through a Delhi slum with a young man who grew up there and hopes to be an actor.
Oh, I also saw the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Amer Fort near Jaipur and the National Gandhi Museum in Delhi.
The must-see sites of India are indeed captivating. But I left India with more vivid memories of places that are not on the bus tours. Saffron Dreams designed my nine-day itinerary to include up close and personal interactions with the people and animals of India. The tour also didn't skimp on opportunities to learn about the colorful history, modern and ancient, that continues to shape the second most populous country in the world.
"India isn't one colorful monolith; it has millions of layers,"said Saffron Dreams' managing director, Rachit Thakkar. "Those layers include the people, the culture, the folk and classical arts, the cuisines, the history and how it manifests in the present, how religion and spirituality intertwine and so much more."
When I was invited to the Hindu wedding of a former colleague, I knew I wanted to travel beyond Kolkata after the wedding. But I wasn't sure where else to go or how.
After researching various tour operators, I discovered Saffron Dreams in my backyard in Austin, Texas. We discussed which cities to visit and where to stay as well as what to see and do. Since Thakkar and his wife, Urmi (Saffron's marketing director), both grew up in India and travel there frequently, even the must-do itineraries of first-timers are infused with immersive experiences and offbeat destinations.
With their help, we designed an itinerary that met our personal interests in Indian culture, religions, wellness and nature. We also selected a female guide (still rare in India), who had the knowledge of a history professor and spent the entire trip with us. Plus, we had 24/7 backup from Thakkar to manage any bumps along the way.
It's hard to top the pageantry of an Indian wedding or the chance to wear a hand-stitched sari (on loan from the groom's mother). But many of our experiences afterward came very close, beginning in Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city and one of the world's oldest.
Tour guide Geeta and a driver met us at the airport, and before sunset we were in a rowboat on the Ganges listening to the hypnotic chanting of Hindu priests. A visit to Varanasi is considered essential for all Hindus, and to die there is said to guarantee salvation. As a result, throngs of pilgrims and visitors crowd the ghats, or steps, and the river to bathe, pray and participate in rituals. Like so many others, we said a prayer and released a small floating candle surrounded by yellow marigolds on the murky Ganges. Later, after climbing the ghats to the old city, we stopped to catch our breath and to sip a steaming cup of chai poured by a chaiwala from a copper kettle as weathered as the city itself.
The beep-beep of traffic is hard to escape, but we found solace in Varanasi in the humble home of two brothers, Bholenath Ji and Dhruv Ji, who are carrying on a long family tradition of playing Indian classical music. The friendly duel that erupted between the tabla and sitar players was delightful and inspiring.
The Taj Mahal in Agra is a must-see for first-time travelers to India. Photo Credit: Barbara Redding
A native of Varanasi and an experienced guide, Geeta was an indefatigable source on Indian history. But we also met with local experts as we moved around. In Agra, Anu directed us to the best places from which to view and photograph the Taj Mahal. She also shared stories of how ancient craftsmen carved jade, lapis and other precious stones into the intricate mosaics that symbolize the power of India's 17th-century Mughal rulers.
Jaipur and Delhi
From Agra, we traveled by car to Jaipur, stopping along the way to ride in a horse-drawn carriage through Keoladeo National Park, a bird sanctuary where adolescent painted storks filled the trees. At Abhaneri village, we peered into Chand Baori, one of the oldest and deepest (13 stories) stepwells in the world. We also met an elderly villager who's been fashioning tiny incense holders on a pottery wheel for decades.
Our stay at the Samode Haveli hotel in Jaipur was as intriguing as any of the top attractions in the pink-walled city. Still home to Rajasthan royalty, the heritage hotel is a maze of courtyards and narrow, winding hallways lined with family photos dating to the 1800s. We could easily have spent an extra day exploring the hotel. But not to be missed is the stunning Amer Fort and palace some seven miles from Jaipur in Amer and the world's largest stone sundial, or Jantar Mantar, a Unesco World Heritage site of astronomical instruments dating to the 17th century.
In Delhi, we found the mix of old and new India breathtaking. We slipped inside the gates of Parliament just in time to watch the stately changing of the guard. After admiring India Gate, we toured the city's Jama Masjid mosque and visited the community kitchen that feeds 10,000 people a day at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a massive Sikh temple in the heart of Delhi.
The museum dedicated to Gandhi was a spiritual highlight. After viewing his austere room, we followed his footsteps to the spot where the beloved father of India was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. But the most emotional moments came when we walked through the slums of Old Delhi with Dev, a street orphan before he found his way to the Salaam Baalak Trust. Now 18, Dev has completed high school and shares his story of life on the streets with visitors for a donation to the trust.
Our trip ended in Delhi the next day. The people of India remain as indelibly imprinted in my memory as the country's iconic structures.
For information about Saffron Dreams, visit www.saffron-dreams.com.