'Joy of India draws you in like a magnet'
The Yank in the lift couldn't stay quiet: "You look like you've been shot in the head!" The weapon, however, had been a thumb. My forehead bore a scarlet splat of tikka paste, where I had been blessed over and over again.
I'd been forewarned about the holy city of Varanasi; told that it stank of excrement; that during festival time a 'turd picker' army was employed to do what its title suggested; that it was inhabited by ebony-skinned people whose whiteless eyes would strike terror in your soul.
Despite these (mostly spurious) tales, first impressions do engender a certain amount of fear; the city is dirty, the roads are full of holes, water and dung, and there are people everywhere. India is teeming, but Varanasi is on another level; it is packed to the rafters with bodies, human and bovine.
To rewind: that morning, after a bus ride though darkened streets, we walked to the Ganges ghats, the steps leading down to the holy river; at Varanasi, the Ganges forms a crescent, resembling the moon on the head of Shiva, venerated by Hindus as the great destroyer. There are over 80 ghats along the Ganges – the city was built on the west side only – some for bathing, some for cremation. It is a great honour to die here.
The inky-blue light turned dawn pink as we boarded a boat; we lit butter lamps and launched our offerings on the grey Ganges.
Cremations were evident along the route; some smouldered, just getting going, some blazed, sending wafts of sandalwood smoke across the water; some were dying embers. Each cremation is allotted three hours; women are not allowed at the cremation ghats – it is thought they bring too much sadness.
Boat ride over, we walked through the narrow streets of old Varanasi, avoiding cows, dung, hawkers and observing all human life along the way. People slept, ate, urinated, washed, cooked, prayed, begged, talked, cried, laughed along the route; it all seemed like an extraordinary dream.
That night began with an exhilarating cycle-rickshaw ride; our destination, Dashashwamedh Ghat. We were there to see the Hindu aarti (river worship) ceremony, which takes place from 7pm every night and has done for centuries; to witness it is to connect with the ancient. Our resourceful guide, Devender, guided us through the throng into a boat, from which we had a prime view.
The ceremony, an extraordinary spectacle, is performed by seven priests and involves chanting, dancing, fire and use of various pooja (prayer) items, such as conch shells, incense and peacock feathers; the air becomes suffused with an intense, joyous energy. I did not want to leave. In fact, when the time came, I did not want to leave Varanasi. It draws you in like a magnet with its joy.
Joy is something you encounter all over India. Perhaps it's down to the fact that over 80 per cent of the population is Hindu, a religion with karma at its core; perhaps living in the second most densely populated nation in the world bestows tolerance, or maybe it's just in their nature; whatever the reason, everywhere I travelled, I was struck by the serenity of the Indians – young, old, male, female, rich, poor, urbanite or rural dweller, it mattered not.
Our first stop had been Delhi. It's a city of two parts, Old Delhi and New Delhi, the former British capital. The old city has ancient origins, but Shah Jahan, builder of the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra, was instrumental in constructing the walled city of Shahjahanabad in the 17th Century. The British took over Delhi in the 19th Century and New Delhi, designed in part by Edward Lutyens, was completed by 1931.
Highlights included a cycle-rickshaw ride through the streets of Old Delhi, and along the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk bazaar, past barrows piled with fragrant spices and exotic fruits, and shops overflowing with bales of colourful sari fabric.
Next, another of Shah Jahan's creations, the Jama Masjid. The red sandstone and white marble mosque can hold 20,000 worshippers and is the largest mosque in India. Wandering barefoot around the dusty courtyard, I spy the shadows of vast wingspans – birds of prey, a common sight all over the subcontinent.
Delhi is closely associated with Mahatma Gandhi, known for his espousal of non-violence. Gandhi Smriti, on Tees January Road, now a museum, is where the Father of the Nation spent the last 144 days of his life and it is also where he was assassinated on January 30, 1948. Alas, on the day we arrived, preparations were being made to celebrate the anniversary of Gandhi's birthday, so the museum was closed to visitors.
We set off for Qutub Minar, a Unesco world heritage site and a delight. At its heart, in beautiful gardens alive with birdlife, is an elegant 72m sandstone column, dating from 1202. In the shadow of this fine example of Indo-Islamic architecture stands a mystery: a 1,600-year-old, seven-ton iron pillar, inscribed with Sanskrit that, bafflingly, shows no evidence of rust or corrosion.
The Qutub complex also includes a mosque, graves, tombs and another minaret, Ala'i Minar, built to rival its predecessor in height, but never finished. We also visited Heritage, (www.cieworld.com) where Feroz, a dead ringer for Omar Sharif, educated us on hand-twisted silk-rug making. The exquisite rugs are made in family homes in northern India; the work is so intricate that each rug can only be worked on for three to four hours at a time. It's a dying art. "Texting, texting, that's all the young people want to do," Feroz lamented.
A brief stay in Khajuraho followed our Varanasi sojourn. A small village, it is home to temples built between 900AD and 1130AD, famous for their erotic stone carvings, 22 of which survive. Built to honour Jainist and Hindu deities, the sandstone temples – built in the Nagara style, similar to Angkor Wat, Cambodia – are exquisitely beautiful.
No two sculptures that adorn the walls and interiors are the same, and not all are erotic. Those that are, are highly explicit, however. Some are thought to be educational, a lesson in what not to do – one shows a soldier, lust-crazed after too long away, succumbing to his horse's charms. Ahem.
Next, the bus to Agra, encountering many cows along the way. The cow rivals the lotus flower for ubiquity in the subcontinent; they are sacred animals and can wander freely.
En route, we stop to explore the 16th-Century citadel of Orchha, a romantic cluster of three palaces, set in splendid isolation on the Betwa river. The views are gorgeous; this is Rudyard Kipling country – the landscape inspired his famous work The Jungle Book.
A train ride later, we arrive in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, recognised worldwide as a symbol of love. It's not necessary to see the Taj at dawn or sunset – it is enchanting at all times – however, during the day it gets scorchingly hot, so plenty of water and a hat are essential.
The sublime structure represents the pinnacle of Mughal architecture; as you approach, the first glimpse through the red sandstone arch is breathtaking. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan between 1631 and 1648, it was a tribute to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died having his 14th child. Though he had other wives, the love he felt for the 'jewel of the palace' "exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other".
The Taj, home to Shah and Mumtaz's tombs, is an architectural marvel. The white marble is inlaid with precious stones, and the Taj's perfect proportions are complemented by the four minarets, which lean slightly outwards, so that, in the event of an earthquake, they will not fall on the main structure.
Be warned – if you want a photo at 'Diana's' seat, you'll need patience; it gets almost as much attention as the Taj.
Our final Indian destination – Jaipur, the Pink City, famed for its jewels, is our guide's home city, of which he is inordinately proud. It's not hard to see why. Our hotel, the Fairmont, is a new build in the Mughal style; 1,000 craftsmen worked for five years to carve doors, sculpt stone, craft marble inlays and hand-paint murals throughout the hotel.
The Amber fort, built in 1592, overlooks Jaipur; it was once the fortified home of the maharajah, his family and his concubines before Jaipur was founded in 1727. We are ferried to and from the fort in original jeeps from the Second World War; it's a blast.
The fort's unquestionable highlight is the Sheesh Mahal, a chamber decorated with thousands of tiny mirrors, in such a way that a single flame will illuminate the entire space. Constructed by Raja Jai Singh in 1623, the mirrored glass was, incredibly, imported in full sheets from Belgium.
That evening, we visited Dera Amer estate, where a herd of elephants awaited to bring us on safari. Rajasthan is a nature-lover's paradise; as our banana-eating pachyderms trundled along, I spotted wild peacocks, monkeys, honey buzzards, black kites and a wolf.
Afterwards, as the sun set on the polo lawns and the elephants got a hose down, we sipped tea from china cups and, to the music of the evening birdsong, fell ever more hopelessly in love with India.
Insight Vacations' Classical India with Nepal tour starts from €2,775pp and operates year round with the exception of May-July. Gemma will report on Nepal in the coming weeks. The tour is featured in Insight's Exotics Collection brochure, which also includes tours in Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
Included in the price is touring on a luxury coach with a small group, accompanied by one of India's finest Tour Directors, 4*+ luxury accommodation in hotels like the Fairmont and Le Meridien, entrance fees to sites, most gratuities, buffet breakfasts, plus delicious and authentic dining as per the brochure itinerary.
Return flights to Delhi can be arranged by Insight Vacations and prices start from approx. €600 per person. For more information, see www.insightvacations.com or tel: (01) 775-3838
Varanasi is also famed for the quality of its silk; Mehta International is the real deal – here, you can learn about the production of silk from the droll Brahmin owner. You can watch the artisans at work and pick up anything from exquisite fabrics to scarves and bed covers.
The Deer Park at Sarnath, 13km north of Varanasi, is where Buddha came to preach after he received enlightenment; he gave his famous first sermon here. The site is marked by Dhamek Stupa, a large circular brick monument built by King Ashoka over a thousand years ago. It's one of the most important sites in Buddhism and a perfect place to reflect and remove the "dust" from your eyes.
The City Palace Museum in Jaipur is home to a fascinating collection of royal costumes. It also houses two silver urns, the largest in the world, made in 1901 for Maharaja Singh II, who insisted on bringing his own drinking and cooking (Ganges) water, on a visit to England. The famous peacock gate, dedicated to autumn and Vishnu, is also here. Handcrafts and paintings are sold in the palace shop.
Sunday Indo Living