Dispatch, India: The grand temple tour

India DispatchTravel Weekly Destinations Editor Kenneth Kiesnoski has completed his trip to New Delhi, India, detailing experiences about his first trip to the country. His final dispatch follows.

DAY 5: The prayers worked. Yesterday evening, I survived the five-hour ride along the 125 or so miles of “modern, divided” NH2 Highway from Agra to New Delhi.

My driver prevailed against the scofflaw scooters, careering camel-drivers and the occasional sacred cow. Better still, my stomach held out against the lunchtime ambush of tasty but testy Indian spices, despite my worries about a digestive tract battle on the scale of the Mahabharata.

Not wanting to tempt fate, I skipped dinner and spent the evening in my cozy Club Suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel. I alternately thumbed my current read, “The Inheritance of Loss” by Indian author Kiran Desai, and ogled MTV India. I liked the mix of Bollywood music clips and reality shows like “MTV Hero Honda Roadies,” conducted largely in Hinglish, a trendy blend of Hindi and English.

Today is my final day in India. I wake early, refreshed. I feel fine, so I head down to the hotel’s Tejas Spa for a workout in the gym, followed by a quick dip in the pool and a deep-tissue massage. The gym trainer on duty spots me on the most difficult exercises and cheerfully proffers a free 10-minute stretching session afterward. I curse my gym back in New York.

After a light breakfast, I reconnect with guide Rajiv from Rainbow Travels and our driver for more touring. On tap today: Indian temples and Victorian New Delhi.

Our first stop is the golden-domed Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the most prominent Sikh temple in Delhi. Rajiv and I doff our shoes and don kerchiefs (non-turbaned men must cover their hair to enter a gurudwara) to join the throng slowly shuffling into the sanctuary, or Darbar Sahib.

A trio of musicians plays a sacred hymn on sitar, drums and harmonium. Worshippers circle the takhat, or throne, housing Sikh scriptures, stopping to offer marigold garlands or sit quietly in contemplation. Before exiting, we circle and pause to appreciate the gilded shrine, the song and style.

Mindful of my stomach, I bashfully slip by the temple workers handing out small portions of kara parshad, a sweet paste offered all worshippers on their way out. We also opt to skip the free vegetarian meal available at the temple refectory, as we have more temples to visit.

We only do a drive-by of Delhi’s famed Bahai Lotus Temple. While it’s a wonder to behold – the temple is composed of 27 giant, concrete “petals” -- Rajiv says there’s little to see inside.

Our next and final stop is the Sri Lakshmi Narayan Temple, also known as the Birla Mandir. Delhi’s most impressive temple complex, it is dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver god of the Hindu trinity, but also houses shrines to Shiva, the destroyer; Hanuman, the monkey god; pot-bellied, elephant-headed Ganesh; and the Buddha himself.

indiadispatch5Rajiv and I purchase a plate heaped with rose petals, sweets, incense and a marigold garland from a merchant outside the temple gates to “do puja,” or worship, in the Hindu manner. Entering the temple, we jump to slap the clapper of the entrance bell, to announce our arrival to the gods.

At the shrine of Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, the priest takes my garland and drapes it at the feet of the idol. The rose petals are strewn about the engraved Sanskrit scriptural passages lining the interior temple walls. Rajiv offers lessons on Vedic philosophy as we move from shrine to shrine.

Our sacred duties fulfilled, we head out onto the grand, wide, leafy boulevards of New Delhi, laid out to the south of Old Delhi in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the British Raj. We pass by the sandstone structures erected under English colonial rule: Parliament House, India Gate and the Secretariat. Each is a unique blend of English Victoriana and ancient Moghul elements. We stop here and there for snapshots. It’s all very grand and planned in a Parisian or Washingtonian way -- a stark contrast to the marvelous, muddled magic of Old Delhi.

The midday heat drives us inside, to Rainbow Travels’ offices in the heart of New Delhi, and a farewell lunch with Atin and Pawan Khanna. After taking my leave, I return to the Taj Mahal Hotel to pack.

Later in the evening, I sip an infusion, selected from the hotel’s enormous tea menu, in the lobby with Sanjukthaa Roy, the hotel’s director of public relations. She booked me a reservation at the House of Ming, the Taj Mahal Hotel restaurant said to serve the best Chinese food in all of Asia -- no small feat on a continent that includes China.

No culinary critic, I defer judgment on the continent-wide claim. I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the meal.

I head for the airport and my 1:10 a.m. Air India flight back to New York. The Khannas advised arriving at least three hours before departure. Better advice has never been given. Although traffic is light getting to the airport, getting into it turns out to be a different matter.

I hereby rescind my assessment of Indira Gandhi International upon my arrival. First impressions can indeed be wrong; it seems I had benefited from beginner’s luck. Granted, the terminal is under reconstruction, so it gets a temporary pass.

But I do get that developing-world experience I’d missed on the way in. They say be careful what you ask for, for the gods may grant your wish. Well, in my case, Krishna and Vishnu and Ganesh are more than happy to oblige. Mayhem and mania ensue. Eventually, I do get through myriad lines for security, check-in, immigration, security, customs, security and boarding, hampered and hamstrung by huge crowds along the way. I finally reach Air India’s serene Maharajah Lounge.

But hours later, aboard the quiet, peaceful flight home, I’m already nostalgic for the crowds, smells and sounds; the mosques, monkeys and mandirs -- and even the maddening traffic and stomach-churning spices -- of delightful Delhi.

Kenneth Kiesnoski is Travel Weekly's Destinations Editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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