Traveling to India for only 8 days might seem like it’s too far to go—maybe, it’s even a little crazy to travel across the world—for such a limited amount of time, but as travelers we take what we can get and make the most of our sightseeing opportunity.
We started our journey in Chennai, located in Southern India and after a 30-hour flight and a very short night we woke-up to an amazing sunrise on the Bay of Bengal. We were staying at a beautiful resort, which was deserted at that time of the year probably because the monsoon season had started. During our stay, rough seas prevented us from swimming, but just walking on the beach and putting our feet in the warm water was wonderful!
Tip: For those interested in riding the waves, there is a surfing school nearby.
We spent part of the day exploring the coast, and saw many temples and funky natural sites like Krishna’s Butter Ball. This boulder seems to be ready to roll down the hill at a moment’s notice but it hasn’t moved in over 1300 years.
Nearby, we visited the Ganesh Ratha Temple carved in pink granite. This temple is dedicated to Ganesha, the Hindu god of success. Many other temples can be found in the Tamil Nadu district among them: the ancient Varaha Cave Temple dedicated to Vishnu is one of the most important Hindu deities.
The Shore Temple dates back to the 8th century and is overlooking the Bay of Bengal where many fishing boats are docked.
Chennai’s beach is without contest the widest beach we have ever seen and it’s hard to imagine that during the 2004 tsunami the water reached the road. The disaster destroyed many villages along the coast and thousands lost their lives on that tragic day.
We also visited a replica of a Tamil Nadu Village where local artisans demonstrated their skills and sold their works. Everyday, intricate flour designs are made in front of doorways or altars; we were told that the purpose of these is to feed the ants and other small creatures, as all are considered important.
The Government Museum of Chennai has a good collection of bronze sculptures representing deities.
My guide accompanied me to an active Hindu temple. The complex was interesting but unfortunately I wasn’t allowed inside the temple because I’m not Indian (my guide should probably have known that fact, but be sure to ask if you are going to head towards such a place) so I cannot recommend this visit. This was something new to me since I’ve visited many other temples, mosques and churches where anyone could visit provided they respected the local culture. As it is customary, I had removed my shoes and was dressed appropriately. Entry was forbidden because I was a foreigner.
Next, we were off to Jaipur, the Pink City, one of the main cities of India’s Golden Triangle. The easiest way to get there was to take an internal flight. Domestic flights are fairly inexpensive and definitely worth the extra expense as the travel time would be much longer and less comfortable by bus, car or train.
Once in Jaipur, we hired a local driver that stayed with us throughout our trip to Agra and Delhi. At various sites, we hired local guides to get the most of our visits. A knowledgeable guide is always helpful to better understand what we are looking at as well as knowing historical facts related to the monuments we were visiting. They also know where the best photo spots are and where the good toilets are! In our case as we were mixing business and pleasure we had the good fortune of having someone local with us to help navigate the language and local culture.
Excluding the Taj Mahal in Agra, Jaipur was my favorite city. We started our visit on the outskirts of town to visit the Amber Fort located in the mountains.
On our way up we stopped at a step-well where locals go to get water or even swim. The well fills up with the rains and the water level raises accordingly but when the water level goes down, people can easily get down to the water by using the staircase walls.
Nearby, we visited a small Hindu temple and saw a 100 year-old monk still tending to the temple like he has been doing for decades.
The Amber Fort Complex is a must-see: the intricate carvings, delicate stone inlays, glass mosaics and the mirror work all contribute to a spectacular ensemble.
Our guide told us exactly where to stand for a good picture of our reflexion.
There’s no need to take an elephant ride up the hill since it’s possible to drive up; jeeps are readily available. Some people choose to ride the elephants perhaps because they don’t realize that it’s hard on them. It’s not good for their backs and in the heat of the day I would consider it animal cruelty! At least, new laws were put in place to protect the elephants and it’s no longer permitted for mahouts to work them all day. There is a maximum of 4 rides per day and none after 10:30 am because it gets too hot. Also, after working the elephants have to walk back home in the heat of the day. So before riding them, let’s keep those facts in mind and make the sensible choice by opting for the motorized vehicles.
On our way back to the Pink City, we stopped at the Jal Mahal also known as “The Water Palace”. It sits in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake for a picture perfect setting. Here, a local family asked us to be in a photo with their kids. I guess we looked unusual to them, so we accepted graciously. We had experienced this 20 years ago in China and always kept fond memories of these encounters.
The Hawa Mahal is one of the most recognizable buildings in Jaipur’s Old Town or better known as the Pink City. The façade is stunning but a visit inside will clearly demonstrate why it’s dubbed “The Wind Palace”. There is a constant breeze, which is welcome in the heat of the day. Climbing to the top will reward you with a bird’s eye view of the Pink City.
Nearby, there is the City Palace Complex, which is the perfect place to observe artisans at work or to purchase artifacts and souvenirs. We spent our time observing a skilled artist at work on miniature paintings. He explained how he created these paintings by using miniature brushes made out of squirrel’s tail hair. Sometimes using only a single hair! He also told us that the hairs came from squirrels that had died of natural causes. As a thank you note for our time he gave us a signed memento.
We were impressed by the City’s Palace observatory, the Jantar Mantar, which was built by Raja Jai Singh II, a master of astronomy. The level of precision of the instruments is phenomenal. The giant sundial has an accuracy of 2 seconds with the local time! Outstanding, considering it was built in the 18th century. Each astrological sign has an instrument dedicated to it and we had fun finding ours.
On our way to Agra we decided to stop at the old city of Fatehpur Sikri, a UNESCO site, but it proved to be a big disappointment. Access was difficult and the level of filth surrounding the site was shameful. Add to that all the aggressive guide wannabes that kept harassing us and the whole experience left an unfortunate negative perception of what could surely be a wonderful site to visit. Even after braving all these things, we were turned away because of short pants. A sign at the parking lot would have been helpful. Rather than brave the mobs again we ended up skipping it and made our way to Agra for our visit of the world-renown Taj Mahal, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World!
The Taj Mahal was built out of love by the emperor Shaw Jahan as a memorial for his favorite wife. It took approximately two decades to build with a workforce of more than 20,000 men. The monument is exquisite with beautiful marble carvings and intricate semi-precious stone inlays. At the heart of the manicured garden, where the four water channels intersect, there is the Lotus Pool, which is in direct alignment with the gateway and the tomb.
We visited twice: at sundown and at sunrise. Both were beautiful! The hues of Taj Mahal change with the time of day. Getting-up at 4 in the morning was worth it to experience the Taj Mahal in the early hours of the day when it was cooler and much less crowded.
Tip; Hiring a knowledgeable local guide is worth it. We hired one through our hotel concierge and appreciated his explanations on the history of the Taj Mahal. He also knew the best spots for photo-ops and he took good photos of us.
Visiting the iconic Taj Mahal was an incredible experience. It’s a work of art in the name of love!
While in Agra we skipped visiting the Agra Fort because we were told that the Red Fort in Delhi was very similar. This proved to be a mistake. Had we done our research before hand we would have known that it’s a UNESCO site and unlike the Red Fort in Delhi was built by three emperors instead of one and that it is in a better state of preservation.
We were then off to Delhi, where our first visit was to the Red Fort in Old Delhi. It was very crowded and we felt out of place. The fort is impressive even though it’s not in a great state of preservation. We hired a local licensed guide to enhance our visit but even with a guide, some locals were staring at us in away that made us feel uncomfortable. We were told that these were just people from the rural areas that were curious, but to us their looks conveyed more anger or distrust which made us uncomfortable.
The heat of the day (46ºC/ 115ºF) was getting to us, so we skipped walking around Chandhi Chowk and the market in Old Delhi. It was extremely crowded; Delhi’s population itself is over 18 million, but the national Capitol region of Delhi has over 46 million people!
For our second day in Delhi we opted to visit attractions to the south of the India Gate in Central and South Delhi. Our first stop was to the Qutb Minar Complex, site of Delhi’s oldest mosques. The main highlight is the Qutb Minar’s minaret that reaches up to the sky; it is 72 m (236 ft) tall, which is the tallest brick minaret in existence. You can see on the site the plans, which were started for an even taller minaret, which was never finished. The Iron Pillar is another curiosity, as it still remains rust free after 1500 years!
Our next visit was to Humayun’s Tomb, which is a huge mausoleum and according to our guide, a predecessor to the famed Taj Mahal. The layout is similar but the decorations are more modest. The garden is an oasis where one can take a break from the hustle and bustle of Delhi just outside of the gates.
Our guide also took us to a working Sikh temple where they feed 20,000 people per day. The long line of people waiting and seeing the kitchen in action was impressive and again made us feel grateful for the abundance we take for granted. We spoke to one of the elders at the temple who told us that the kitchen is all run by volunteers, many of them very wealthy. We were again affronted by the extremes and as we walked by to see the temple, there was a small pool a few inches deep where everyone that removed their shoes would walk through this water to clean their feet. Our reaction, to seeing this brown water was much the opposite and we were afraid of what we might catch. Just as we walked through, we looked back and saw an elderly man scooping up the water and drinking it. Our guide saw us aghast and smiled saying it was a ‘matter of faith’.
After a brief stop at the Presidential Palace and the India Gate, our India adventure came to an end and we were left with mixed emotions. As we discussed our experiences, we could not help but feel how we were confronted by so many extremes, and so many contractions. Some say that India will change you, perhaps it has…