At breakfast one day my mother looked up from reading her paper and eating her marmalade on toast and instead of ‘good morning’ simply said “Do you want to go to India?”
She would invite some friends and then we would discuss and organise what we wanted to see and plan it allowing enough time for us all to save up for the trip, I would do as much overtime as I could in whatever job I had at the time, which usually meant working weekends as well.
There would be 6 of us going and after some research everyone had a place that they particularly wanted to get to, my chosen interest was to see Gandhi’s grave as I have always been fascinated by him and also I asked to extend the trip and go on a tailored trip to Nepal to trek in the Himalayas and get some views of Mount Everest. (Nepal is written up as a separate piece.)
Delhi is a wonderfully exotic place to visit, as soon as you step off the plane the heat hits you and the aromas of mixed spices and rain infuse the air, we arrived at midnight but the heat was still intense.
The languages spoken in Delhi are Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu, Delhi is in two halves of Old Delhi which is the capital of Islamic India and New Delhi built as the Imperial capital of India by the British. New Delhi is very spacious with huge archway bridges and the straight, wide roads are lined with lamp posts, it is in complete contrast to old Delhi with its twisty back streets and narrow roads.
The six of us were given a guide called Sharma, I did not care for him much finding him to be a little leery and decided I would keep out of his way as much as possible, I preferred to see many of the sights alone anyway, so tended to slip away from everyone and do my own thing as much as I could without offending anyone.
I believe that you see more on your own, rather than being rushed with a group.
I instantly liked old Delhi with the markets and old bazaars, life is obviously very harsh though as I saw the extent of people living on the streets, it was very upsetting to witness.
It seems that life is worth very little as we found out when the driver of bus that we were on, drove like a lunatic and hit a cyclist knocking him down, I looked back at him and saw that he did not get up, running to the driver to ask him to stop the bus, I was stopped by our guide Sharma who explained that to stop would mean a fine of 6 Rupees, the driver is better off driving on.
Looking round at people on the bus, I saw that none of the locals were reacting to the hit and run, so it was clearly something that happened frequently.
The next day we set off to explore The Red Fort in old Delhi which was built in 1639 it is palatial splendour built with the red sandstone of the area and merged in places with white marble making it appear particularly grand, the architecture is also visually pleasing. The architect is rumoured to have collaborated with Shahjahan on the Taj Mahal, which looking at the stately fort comes as no great surprise.
I wandered around the grounds alone as I often preferred to be away from the others, although the Fort was impressive and wonderful to view, I found the grounds to be hectic with groups of people constantly pushing past me.
A group of local boys who were possibly only about 15 or 16 in age walked up to me and one of them kicked me on my left leg in the shin bone and grabbed at the neck purse I was wearing, it came away easily and they ran off. In a sense I had the last laugh really as there was very little in that neck purse, I was foolish to wear it so openly, however had just a few Rupees in it for refreshments, my actual proper money stash was in a belt worn under my clothes, I am so pleased that I had that.
It left a bitter taste to the morning there, however I still enjoyed seeing the Fort and was not prepared to let it ruin my day, especially with where I heading that afternoon.
The place I was so excited to be heading to in the afternoon was very close by overlooking the river South of the Red Fort and referred to as Raj Ghat which was the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
The grave is a black marble square platform and illustrates the spot where Mahatma (meaning Great Soul) Gandhi was cremated in 1948, there was a candle burning on it, which, some locals told me is kept burning day and night in memory to Gandhi.
There are two words inscribed on the plaque which were the last words he spoke when he was assassinated by a Hindu Nationalist who was protesting against Gandhi’s empathy towards the Muslims in India. He had spent so long trying to stop the fighting between the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs that fought between India and Pakistan, it is so sad that his life had to be ended by one of those he was trying to protect.
The last words spoken by Gandhi were “He Ram” meaning in English “Oh God”.
I felt a real sense of fascination being here and could easily have stayed for several hours as I think he was one of the greatest people ever to have lived, a shining beacon, he was known by many as “Bapu” an affectionate name meaning ‘father’ in English.
I had always been interested in the 250 mile salt march that he led others on in 1930 as a protest against the national salt tax, I greatly admire his spirit and integrity towards his fellow-man, it was his non-violence protest that helped lead India on the path back to independence from the British Raj.
One of the signs had his words written on it:
“Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any help to him”.
I only had a small point and shoot camera back then, however as I stood taking a couple of pictures some locals came up to me and asked to have their photo taken, they were very excited and grouped themselves together smiling ready for their picture, it was fun and I enjoyed chatting to them afterwards.
Later I wandered about the streets and delighted in getting close to the monkeys which patrolled certain areas where they knew any passing tourists would feed them. I asked a local to take my picture while I fed one of the monkeys.
Later on I saw a funeral pyre, a man in a white shroud had been placed on a huge pile of wood and it was set alight to release the soul from the dead mans body. It was a little odd seeing his feet sticking out as the flames shot up engulfing the body, some local people were stood to the side chanting, I did not take any photographs as I felt it would be disrespectful and also I did not want to stand and stare as that felt wrong too, so I walked away and left them to it.
All of us in the group had the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly’ as the upset stomach is called out there, I think that going from a relatively cool country to a very hot one means it is inevitable that the stomach will react to the change in temperature etc.
With the right tablets it usually only lasts a few hours and you need to know to avoid salad and ice cream and also to brush your teeth using bottled purified water, if you follow those rules you should be fine, the food was wonderful everywhere we went, I am a fan of curries and they really are divine out here.
I met back up with the others and the next morning very early we travelled to the city of Agra which was the capital of Akbar the Great, but of course the main reason for going was to see the majestic Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is a romantic palace built on the command of Shahjahan for his cousin who became his wife and constant companion, they were married for 19 years but sadly she died in 1631 at the birth of their 14th child. It is said that his beard turned white overnight and that he mourned her for the rest of his life, he wrote these words of his loss:
“Empire has no sweetness, for me now, life itself has lost all relish”
The white marble mausoleum took over 12 years to build and has a outstanding beauty that is hard to beat, in its day it was encrusted with sapphires, emeralds, rubies and diamonds making the palace once sparkle, however they were all stolen over the years including a silver ceiling that was taken by looters in the late 18th century.
What remains is still breathtaking though as the marble changes colour according to where the sun or moon is and the gardens are also spectacular, I remember at the time seeing the most amazing bird with extremely long tail feathers fly from one tree to another, I have since found out it was an Indian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) .
It was also interesting to see people in traditional dress according to their religion and I took a few photos here and there to capture this.
I found the place full of charm and felt at ease walking the grounds and in the palace itself, again I preferred to wander alone rather than with the others, at one point the guide Sharma caught up with me. He was huge round, middle-aged man who had always been a little over familiar with me and I thought him best avoided, however as I walked through one of the darker rooms in the building he made a grab for my behind and I shouted at him to get off me.
He jumped back a little shocked at my reaction and quickly walked off, later on back at the hotel he knocked on my door and handed me some packets of Indian tea, said nothing and went off, I could see this was his way of an apology and found it highly amusing, to be accosted in the Taj Mahal and given packets of tea afterwards, all rather funny really looking back at it, though I still gave him a wide berth.
Later on walking round some of the streets in Agra I saw many snake charmers, it was so interesting to see these Cobra snakes rise from their baskets and sway to the music that the charmers would play.
Later in the evening I met with the rest of the group and after dinner we drank refreshing Gin and Tonics, the gardens next to the hotel had been decorated with garlands of orange blossoms which were hung everywhere and two tall seats were placed on a wooden hand-made platform.
It emerged that there was to be a wedding and that it was open to everyone, on talking to a local I was informed that it was an arranged marriage and the bride and groom had only met once and very briefly for a few minutes while they were introduced by the parents who had ‘matched them.’
I waited, along with the others in the darkness and more and more people gathered lining the sides of the streets, then horns began to sound and men rode Elephants down the street, the elephants looked amazing decorated in the orange garlands and gold tassels.
The wedding party eventually walked gracefully down and the bride and groom were seated upon the chairs on the wooden platform, both wearing beautiful red, gold and orange attire, the bride looked stunning in her wedding costume with the jewels glistening in the lights set around the platform.
It struck me that the bride looked rather unhappy with her head cast downwards most of the time and the groom also did not look too enamoured either.
We waited and waited but nothing seemed to be happening, the helpful local who I was chatting to earlier came back through the crowd to me and kindly explained that the Holy man was not satisfied with the stars being in the right place, so they would have to wait until the stars were in the right position for them to marry, however this could take several hours.
I waited another 2 hours but little had happened other than a few people dancing further down the street, the bride and groom however sat and waited, neither looking or speaking to each other, I gave it until midnight then decided to call it a night and went off to bed.
The city of Jaipur was perhaps the most beautiful one to visit, the name stands for ‘Pink City’ as the stone is of a terracotta colour.
I stayed with the group this time as I had spent much of the trip on my own and thought it high time I was a little more sociable, we went to a fascinating observatory called Jantar Mantar with its huge sun dials set out in concrete grounds.
We went on a real touristy route to see the city palace or pink palace as it is often referred to, a stunning building built of the sandstone. On the Eastern side there is the palace of winds called so because the wind whips through the tiny gaps in the windows. The women of the palace were forbidden to show their faces to another male other than their husbands so had to look from tiny screened windows made up within the walls, it was very interesting to see. It was built in 1799 and has five floors with rows of tiny windows and screens.
The icing on the cake to coming to Jaipur though was to experience an Elephant ride up to the Amber Fort built with red sandstone and marble, it is steeped with history.
We went to meet our elephants, mine was so friendly and looked as though it was smiling, I loved my elephant and wanted to stay with it all day, in fact I rushed around the amber fort to get back to my elephant and feed it some more bananas. I was allowed to give it some water too, though this was a mistake on my part as it sprayed me with some of it for fun.
The elephant ride up to the fort really was majestic, I felt very precarious so high up and swayed from side to side as my elephant strode up the cobbled path it knew so well to the amber fort.
The fort itself was impressive with four courtyards and inside it displayed many fine paintings ad carvings as well as some fantastic mosaic work. I was keen to learn about the Maharaja who had 12 wives and had kept over 300 women in his harem! How on earth could he keep up with so many, it must have been exhausting for him, the women were given very little freedom and it seems were watched wherever they went in the one courtyard that they were permitted to use.
It was a really special day, made more so by the elephants.
India is somewhere that I would very much like to return to, there is something about it that draws you in, the sights, sounds and smells are so exotic and the history is so rich, I liked the local people also and felt at ease there, one day I shall go back.