Romance and Ritual: A Cultural Tour of India
by SUSAN KOSTRZEWA
We wander through light and shadow. Skirting an expansive courtyard once blanketed in jasmine, dark corridors offer respite from the desert heat. A few paces away, a cool cocoon of marble awaits, its chamber walls illuminated by a thousand twinkling lights — rays caught in the countless jewels and mirrors embedded throughout.
The world is silent, almost reverent, though the teeming town of Jaipur is just miles away. Imagined echoes of the past — the laugh of a maharini swathed in champagne-colored silk, a plaintive raga playing on a sitar — seem the only sounds breaking the solitude. At the foot of the barren, rocky slope, languorous elephants bathe quietly in a small lake.
Only in India could the driving hum of humanity co-exist so harmoniously with the stillness of the spiritual realm.
Our small group’s exploration of Jaipur’s Amber Palace was just one of many timeless and unforgettable experiences on our 15-day cultural tour of India. Traveling through the regions of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, we encountered a mosaic of lifestyles, tradition and cultures — a moving tableau of past meets present, the practical embracing the mystical.
A Precarious Balance
Once described as a land where “the spiritual and the primitive, the individual and the communal all exist side by side,” India is a human drama enacted by the country’s nearly one billion citizens. This show is well-staged in New Delhi, the capital city and starting point of our Sunshine Travel tour.
Here, the precarious balance between order and chaos is tested daily on streets heaving with rickshaws, cows, family-laden mopeds, buses bursting to capacity, and pendulous elephants transporting goods. Compound this with the total disregard of lanes, medians and street lights, and you are catapulted headfirst into the essence of India: unexpected, unimaginable, and — when viewed with a sense of fun and adventure—invigorating.
Ensconced in the colonial splendor of the Imperial Hotel, once used as a venue for British Raj-era events, we were immediately reminded of Delhi’s complex and conflicted history. An ancient settlement definitively founded by 1st-century Tomara Rajputs, Delhi remained a stronghold for India’s ruling aristocracy until debilitating invasions allowed the British to take hold in 1803. Their much-disputed control of India lasted until the declaration of Independence in 1947, spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Though most vestiges of British rule are gone, some signs of the colonial era remain, creating a startling contrast between two cultures in essence so diametrically opposed. Wide, tree-lined English roads characterize Central New Delhi, established as the capital of British India in 1911. As a modern, dynamic Indian society marches on, symbols of the British Raj seem outgrown, bypassed, irrelevant. Crisp and clean colonial buildings stand primly among throngs of smartly dressed Delhi-ites and dusty beggars scavenging their next meal.
Though visits to the colonial parliamentary buildings, Gandhi’s resting place (Raj Ghat) and the impressive Red Fort further accentuated the historic magnetism of Delhi, our exploration of Old Delhi’s Jami Masjid mosque and Chadni Chowk thoroughfare provided the deepest insight to the city and India’s rich cultural past.
A Reverent Relic
Built for 25,000 worshippers and the largest Muslim mosque in India, the 17th-century, red and white Jama Masjid looms over the bustle of Old Delhi with timeless, imposing grace. Climbing wide, sandstone staircases dotted with industrious locals selling trinkets, visitors remove their shoes (minded by attendants for a small fee) and enter a vast courtyard surrounded by marble domes, dizzying arches, and beyond, the hazy horizon of the city.
In the breezy, darkened prayer hall, men knelt on worn, intricately patterned rugs, their murmured prayers creating a strange harmony. As we wandered, minute, through the sizzling courtyard, a group of young children shadowed us, their kohl-rimmed eyes watching us inquisitively. The ringleader, a clever, outspoken Oliver Twist-type aged about 8, waved a baton and spoke grandly as he attempted to guide us around the mosque and relieve us of a few rupees.
The Thrill of Chandni Chowk
While Jama Masjid afforded contemplation and reflection, the nearby circus of Chandni Chowk plunged us headfirst into the vigor of India’s past and present pulse. Climbing into a human-powered rickshaw, we were propelled through a mass of honking cars (Indians signal every move by a honk — a legal practice), careening mopeds and cow-drawn wagons.
Gaudy billboards advertising the latest Bollywood slasher film, haphazard cables and power cords strewn overhead, crowded bazaars scented with jasmine, sandalwood and coriander — all combined to create a sensory overload both overwhelming and thrilling. Each tiny shop and stall crammed with goods and people allowed a glimpse into just a fraction of the world pulsating around us.
While Delhi immersed usby in reality, magical Jaipur drew us into a world of perfumed harems, tranquil lakes reflecting pale sunsets, and crumbling palaces reverberating with tales of Rajasthan’s colorful past.
Riding a lavishly adorned elephant up the ramp to 900-year-old Amber Palace, I found it easy to imagine myself as a visiting dignitary to the 17th-century court of Raja Jai Singh. Touring the palace perched on sun-parched crags, we stepped on floors once blanketed in priceless rugs, explored chambers studded with emeralds, rubies and lapis, and watched mischievous monkeys hop from minaret to ledge in the radiating, midday sun.
Let’s Make a Deal
In downtown Jaipur, painted a whimsical pink for Queen Victoria’s 19th-century visit, we shopped for jewels and trinkets, testing our bartering skills for everything from moonstone to painted silk. We found the Indian persona—kindly, humorous and consummately clever — to be a highlight of our trip, and even the salesmen, eager to “make a deal,” were persuasive without being pushy. Sales were made only when both parties felt comfortable with the transaction, and the skill with which merchants sold gained our respect in many situations.
Jaipur’s princely allure was also reflected in the magnificent City Palace, still occupied in part by the current Royal Family of Jaipur. Fully uniformed sentinels in vermilion turbans guard each gate, impressing visitors with a feeling of tradition and continuity. Notable features of the palace are the textile museum in the Mubarak Mahal; and The Hall of Private Audience’s two immense silver urns, crafted to hold Ganges water for Madho Singh II when he attended King Edward VII’s 1901 London coronation. Singh mistrusted the cleanliness of British water and insisted on bringing his own with him.
Leaving the dry desert of Rajasthan, we headed toward Bharatpur, a former bird hunting ground for 18th- and 19th-century maharajas; and Agra, home to the renowned Taj Mahal. Traveling by car through remote countryside, we encountered village life seemingly frozen in time. Modest huts clustered in tiny, roadside towns contained little more than a sleeping mat and a few water urns, carried by women in gold-edged saris and filled from the village’s only water pump.
In the fields, villagers (mostly women) tended to crops, their bent, brilliantly-colored forms streaking the landscape like neon paint. Now and then, a garishly-decorated local bus would totter by, so full that even its roof would be crowded with passengers laughing and seemingly oblivious to the rough roads.
One of the tour’s most romantic experiences was a night in the Chandra Mahal Haveli, a formerly Muslim-owned manor house located in a small village on the outskirts of Bharatpur. While the sounds of small-town business dwindle to a close, guests watch the sun set over a cool, green garden perfumed with delicate flowers. As we fell asleep within the pale yellow walls of the haveli, the faint cry of peacocks wandering the moonlit grounds cast an exotic, dreamlike spell.
A Testament of Devotion
Romance on a more pronounced scale is experienced at the Taj Mahal, a Moghul monument built by the heartsick Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to his fourteenth child. Described as “a poem in marble,” the 17th century wonder is one of the most photographed and discussed sites in the world.
Although we had heard about how light plays on the Taj at different times of the day, we were not prepared for the beautiful transformation that took place on its intricate, symmetrical exterior. Rising at dawn to avoid throngs of tourists, we admired the white gleam of the Taj’s marble as it reflected the waning moon.
As the sun rose, we watched breathlessly as a warm pink sheen enveloped the monument, evoking an entirely different mood. Reflected in the still fountain pool stretching before it, the Taj floated, illuminated in rosy light, its smooth curves enveloped in mist. The show continued as the morning progressed, and the interior tomb, laden with small, precious tombs, added to the opulence of the scene.
Traveling deep into the heart of India, we next flew to Khajuraho, a remote, cultural city situated in Madhya Pradesh. The spiritual, artistic atmosphere of the Hindu-dominated area was immediately evident, the gentle demeanor contrasting with the friendly-but-fast-paced mode of other Indian towns. Greeted at the elegant Jass Oberoi hotel by incense and necklaces of fresh flowers, we were graciously led across marble floors to rooms also decorated with flowers and wooden furniture carved in the local style. Everything seemed geared toward relaxation and escape.
Drama of Rajgarh
Visits to the haunting Rajgarh Palace and the incomparable 10th- to 12th-century Hindu temples accentuated the timeless feel of Khajuraho. A once-neglected hunting lodge overlooking a floodplain valley, the palace has a deliciously dark and dramatic aura. Approaching the dilapidated ruins (a future heritage hotel now under renovation by owners of the Jass Oberoi), one could imagine the wistful ghost of a maharini pacing its upper reaches, carefully scanning the valley and lakes below.
Its eccentric personality so charmed filmmaker Mira Nair that she filmed much of 1997’s Kama Sutra there. In the spirit of Rajgarh’s epic past, we sat in stone seats carved high into the palace, imagining ourselves as long-vanished royals surveying the land.
While Rajgarh Palace evokes mysterious dalliances, Khajuraho’s thousand-year-old Hindu temples cut to the chase with their instructive, erotic carvings. Built during the Chandella Dynasty and soon forgotten, the temples were not rediscovered until 1838, when a young, and undoubtedly surprised, British officer stumbled upon them.
Like fantasy castles made of sand, the temples depict scenes of love, courtship, and sex — reputedly drawn from the book of the Kama Sutra. Intricate details and designs are carved to perfection in the pale stone, the minutiae of some features seemingly impossible to create. Some of the temples are still used for worship.
Though Victorian British prudery decried the sexy carvings, the temples have been respected by most Indians since their rediscovery. Our guide chuckled as he described the tradition of grooms bringing their new, young brides to the temples for an education in “married life.” In the case of many sheltered girls raised outside of the cities, this intense introduction to all manner of lovemaking (not excluding homosexual and bestial practices) is the very first exposure to adult sexuality.
Nearby, an elderly couple smiled and held hands as they observed the carvings. Only we were inspired to blush by their frank acceptance of the temple scenes.
Recalling my time spent experiencing the cultural treasures of India, I am not only impressed with memories of peaceful village life, marble monuments shrouded in mist, and ancient palaces standing as testament to glorious days gone by. Though unforgettable, such sites are transcended by India’s people—warm, industrious, poetic, and patient, they fuel what is to be the new India, a melding of past and present, practical and spiritual.
For more information on this tour, contact Sunshine Tourism Services Pvt Ltd., Fax: 011-91-1132-77-875; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: www.sunshineindia.com
For comprehensive information on travel in India, contact the Government of India Tourist Office at www.tourindia.com.
The Chandra Mahal Haveli is situated in Peharsar, on the outskirts of Bharatpur. Contact: Chandra Mahal Haveli; Village Perharsar; Jaipur Agra Road; Nadbai Bharatpur 321001,India.
The Jass Oberoi features spacious rooms, an excellent restaurant and a swimming pool. Visits to the Rajgarh Palace can be arranged for guests. Contact: The Jass Oberoi; By Pass Road, Khajuraho 471 606, India; Fax: 011-91-7686-42-345; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.oberoihotels.com/jass.htm.
Daily flights from New York to Bombay feature customized meals for passengers. For information about additional flights and rates, contact Air India; 800-223-7776; www.airindia.com.
For information about additional programs and operators, see our Geographical Index under “India-Cultural Expeditions.”
Photo: Cristopher Crisp