The key to successful travel – and to life in general I think – is to learn to become comfortable with certain things that make you uncomfortable. This will differ depending on who you are – perhaps it is speaking in front of others, speaking a different language or getting by without knowing the language. Eating strange and unusual foods that your body may not agree with. Experiencing completely different climates, not knowing how to dress or not understanding the local customs and traditions. Perhaps the level of cleanliness is not what you are accustomed to. Maybe people stare because you look different. For all of these things and more, India is an incredible place to experience.
On Christmas Day we flew from London Airport to Hyderabad, where our friend Aruna met us. We left cold, drizzly England for bright, sunny and hot Hyderabad. I didn’t sleep at all on the plane, so Day 1 for me was a drowsy blur, a sleepy culture shock made easier by the fact we were with friends. We had breakfast at Aruna’s place then ventured out in the car (with a driver). Initially I was uncomfortable with the Indian style of driving – the relentless honking, changing lanes, squeezing through impossibly tiny gaps in traffic, with two-wheelers and tuk tuks everywhere – but I soon realised the drivers are well practiced at what they do! We drove to the Quli Qutulo Shahi Tombs – seven tombs erected in the 1500s in the memory of the departed kings of Golconda. These imposing domes stand over the city as solemn reminders of the grandeur that was once the city Golconda, capital of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. It was very hot standing in the bright sun!
After a delicious home-cooked lunch we got back in the car and went into the old city of Hyderabad, the traffic and people in much higher numbers than I’ve ever seen. We saw the Charminar monument, and walked down through the Laad Bazaar – Aruna’s mum haggled to buy us some bangles, an interesting experience in itself!
We then explored the Chowmahalla Palace, a beautiful and unique building containing many examples of the furniture, crockery and vehicles the Royals used. Now 200 years old and restored, it was the seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty where the Nizams (the hereditary rulers of Hyderabad) would entertain their official guests. The main receiving room was full of sparkling chandeliers and lined with cool marble floors.
The next day, after only a few hours we sleep, we got an early flight to Chennai. Suddenly the climate was different again – hot and dry in Hyderabad to hot, humid and steamy in Chennai. We had a driver pick us up and drive us to Pondicherry down the Coromandel coast, with a few stops on the way. The first was for breakfast, where we had dosas (think: potato-filled, spicy crepes) in a small fastfood restaurant – delicious! And less than £3.50 for the three of us!
The next stops were in Mahabalipuram to visit various sites. We saw the Shore Temple that was built in 700AD, thought to be the last temple built in a series that exist in the submerged coastline. It is now being slowly eroded by the thick, salt-laden winds – lovely strong winds that were almost enough to keep us cool in the humid heat.
Further inland we saw the monolithic carved chariots, the Pancha Rathas, each carved from a single piece of granite. ‘Rathas’ means ‘chariots’, named by locals as they resemble the processional chariots of a temple. They are truly magnificent monuments that have stood the test of time, dating back to the 7th century. Just around the corner we also saw a temple carved into a rock, and climbed said rock for some incredible views of the coast.
Once in the French-style Pondicherry we found our hotel, had lunch, did a bit of shopping, then had a walk along the promenade. We could hear the roar and feel the salt spray of the rough sea; not really a great place for swimming despite the hot weather. We had dinner of mouth-watering fresh seafood in an old converted French restaurant that has a 200 year old mango tree in the courtyard!
The next day, after about 11 hours solid sleep, we had breakfast at a little French café, Café des Artes. We enjoyed French crepes along with some masala tea. Masala tea is delicious! It is made by brewing black tea with a mixture of aromatic spices and herbs, and unlike many other teas where the milk is added later, the tea is often brewed directly in the milk. It is often very sweet, and I really enjoyed it many times throughout our trip.
We had a stroll around the French Quarter of Pondicherry, seeing beautiful parks, the extravagant Governors residence and statues everywhere. We visited Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a small community of disciples of Sri Aurobindo. He was an Indian nationalist, a philosopher, a yogi and a poet, as well as an influential leader of the Indian movement for independence from British rule. We had to take off our shoes to go inside; it is a very tranquil place with flowers everywhere and people meditating and praying.
Our next stop was a small town inspired by the vision of the same man, a town called Auroville. The idea is a universal city dedicated to the idea of human unity, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa – known as The Mother. In the middle of the town is the Matrimandir, which was conceived by The Mother as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside it but apparently it is a space of tranquillity, a place to find one’s consciousness. The entire area surrounding the Matrimandir is called Peace area.
On the way back to Pondicherry we stopped beside the beach so we could dip our feet into the Bay of Bengal. It wasn’t as warm as I was expecting, and the waves seem pretty strong. There was no one swimming, though a lot of fishing boats lining the beach.
Then we spent the evening having a delicious meal at a restaurant called Bay of Buddha, a kind of Indian/Asian fusion, right by the sea. I love how the tables say ‘promised’ instead of ‘reserved’.
The next day we left early to drive back to Chennai. It’s a long drive, about 3 hours, but it’s very scenic. We drove past lakes, rice paddies, and many small villages along the way. Once in Chennai we visited a huge, colourful temple but we were asked to leave because we’re not Hindu. So we went to the beach – a large expanse of sun-warmed golden sand littered with trash and broken glass, the air thick with the smell of hot rubbish.
While we were there Aruna bought some fresh sugar cane juice, squeezed out of a couple of feet of sugar cane with a wedge of lime in there. It was sweet and delicious, very refreshing on a hot day.
After the beach we went to the Fort Museum to see some old military stuff, and learnt a bit about the English in India. The Fort St. George was the first English fortress in India, founded in 1664.The building displays antiques in ten galleries stretched over three floors. We saw rifles and pistols, mortars, petard, cannon shots, breast plates, swords, daggers, helmets, baton, bow and arrow. We also saw the very first Indian flag! It’s a little bit in tatters, but what would you expect? We saw a few of the other Chennai sights from the car, then headed to the airport for our next flight, to New Delhi.
The first thing we noticed about New Delhi was the pollution. It kind of hangs in the air like a dirty fog, making the sun and moon look deep orange in the sky – which is not surprising since it’s one of the world’s most polluted cities. The second thing I noticed was how big it was and how long it took to get anywhere – we drove a long time through the streets to get to Faridabad which is just outside of Delhi. We had to drive through a poor area to get to the apartment, which is in a newly built-up area.
Our first impression of a filthy, overcrowded city quickly melted away once we saw more areas of Delhi the next day. We went to Qutub Minar, a towering 73m marble and red sandstone hybrid, built by Qutab-ud-din Aibak after the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu Kingdom. It was built in the 13th century, and it is considered by some to be a tower of victory, and by others as a minaret for call-to-prayer. Whatever its origins are, it is an impressive monument! We explored the complex and all the ancient structures surrounding it, all the time being asked by groups of school kids if they could take photos with us!
Then we visited the place where Mahatma Ghandi spent his last 144 days, where he was assassinated by a Hindu zealot in 1948. A very poignant memorial, with his last footprints immortalised in concrete on a thin path. We were able to learn about his life which inspired so many people in the adjacent house and museum.
We had a delicious lunch of Parsi food at an informal Irani-style restaurant called SodaBottleOpenerWala – I would highly recommend it! It’s in Khan Market, a very popular area in Delhi. After lunch we drove to see India Gate, a monument erected after World War 2 that looks like a newer version of many European monuments.
Then we drove to see the President’s official home, Rashtrapati Bhavan. The mansion contains over 340 rooms, and the estate is 320 acres with huge gardens. It used to be the largest residence of Head of State in the world until presidential complex in Turkey opened in 2014. And if you look into the far distance of the photo below, you can see the India Gate from a different angle, right at the other end of a very long boulevard!
We had a few drinks in another popular area called Haus Khas, on a rooftop terrace bar; we listened to some live music in another bar, then went to a nearby restaurant and finally ordered some butter chicken for dinner. It was very tasty, and not too different from some of the butter chicken I’ve tried in England/NZ.
New Years Eve day we spent exploring more of Delhi. We saw Humayun’s tomb, the first garden tomb on the Indian sub-continent. It was commissioned by Humayun’s son Akbar and built in 1569, out of the red sandstone that is so prominent in the area. It is an incredibly beautiful building, reminiscent of a palace rather than a tomb. It is said to have inspired the Taj Mahal, and you can see the resemblance.
After a brief visit to Raj Ghat, the humble site of Ghandi’s cremation, we drove to the Red Fort, a huge walled complex in the middle of the city. It was built in 1648 when Delhi was the capital. The red-sandstone walls tower over 30m above the clamour that is old-Delhi, a clear reminder of the magnificence that was once the Mughal empire. Unfortunately the photos don’t show just how bold the red is; thanks mostly to the smog surrounding us. Inside is a treasure trove of buildings, including the Hall of Public Audiences, the white marble Hall of Private Audiences, the Pearl Mosque, Royal Baths and Palace of Color.
For New Years Eve we went to a house party in South Delhi and enjoyed delicious finger food and tried to learn some Bollywood style dancing. Unfortunately (but fortunately for Alex) there is no photographic evidence of our dancing attempts! The 1st of January was a relaxing and chilled out day. We went to a market called Dilli Haat and lingered around, looking at handmade crafts and listening to live music. We met some other locals and sat in the sun drinking my new favourite, Masala Tea. A very pleasant way to spend our last day in Delhi!
We tried to visit the Lotus Temple but the line was far too long! It was the 1st of January after all, and India is a very superstitious country. We did manage to take a photo of it though!
We got up at 5am in order to get to the Taj Mahal before throngs of other tourists arrive – over 50,000 people visit it every day! It was a three hour drive, and I have no idea if it was scenic or not because we were surrounded by a very thick fog. We could barely see 10m around us! Luckily it had lifted by the time we arrived at Taj Mahal, though the photos still show a slight haze around it.
After Taj we explored Fatehpur Sikri, a small city in the district of Agra that was the capital of the Mughal empire for a short time. This place was where I felt the most uncomfortable of the whole trip so far – the hawkers and vendors were overwhelmingly persistent and did not listen to us when we said we were not interested. This was the only place we experienced it so badly! We visited the Mosque briefly then wandered over to the magnificent palace.
Fatehpur Sikri Imperial Palace was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar who wanted to revive the splendours of Persian court in India, though there were also plenty of Indian style embellishments. It is built from red sandstone and it consists of a number of independent pavilions arranged in formal geometry. The mix of different architectural influences created a style unique to Emperor Akbar.
After walking back to car, ignoring everyone trying to sell us something, we were back on the road. We ate lunch at a beautiful road side restaurant with amazing views over the agricultural land. The rest of the day was spent on the road to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state, and our home for the next few days.
While nearby Udaipur is called the White City, Jaipur is nicknamed the Pink City – after it was painted pink, the colour of hospitality, in honour of the visiting monarchs Victoria and Albert.
We first visited the Jantar Mantar, a collection of astronomical instruments, built by the Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh in 1738. It has the world’s largest stone sundial. Even with the written instructions, I couldn’t figure out how they worked! Then we saw the City Palace, a large complex of which the greatest part is still a functioning royal residence. We visited the museum and walked around an impressive array of courtyards, gardens and buildings. The palace was built between 1729 and 1732, though as with most other palaces, additions were made by other generations as the years went by.
We had lunch at a place called Niro’s, apparently Jaipur’s most famous restaurant. We had some Rajasthani specialities: Lal Maans with incredibly tender mutton in a traditional spicy red gravy, along with Allu Piaz which is onions and potato cooked Rajathani style. Very rich and spicy!
In the evening our driver collected us and we drove up a hill for the first time in India. At the top of the hill was Nahargarh Fort, and within this fort was Madhavendra Palace – a fine example of a building that combines both Indian and European architecture.
The remnants of paintings on the walls gave a glimpse of the splendour that it was once, and the windows afforded us superb views over the city.
We had a drink in the restaurant nearby and watched the sunset over Jaipur, with twinkling lights springing to life around the darkening city. We could hear the faint murmur of the busy streets below from all the way up the hill; the call to prayer, the cars and their horns and busy markets with people bartering.
The next day we visited Jaigarh Fort, up on the ‘Hill of Eagles’ overlooking Amber Fort and Palace. The fort was known as one of the world’s most efficient cannon foundries – mainly due to the abundance of iron ore in the vicinity. We saw a giant cannon – it is so big and heavy that apparently it took four elephants to turn it and it was only ever fired once! It was built in 1720, at the time the world’s largest cannon on wheels.
The palace itself was a confusing labyrinth of halls, chambers, ante-chambers, and passageways. We would have almost certainly become lost if we didn’t have a guide. This was done on purpose to help protect the occupants. If anyone somehow got into the fortress, they would have a lot of trouble finding the one they sought after. We walked along the walls of the fort and looked down over to Amber palace, where we would go next.
Amber Palace is located in Amer, a town just a short drive from Jaipur. It is known for its artistic Hindu style elements; large ramparts and series of gates and cobbled paths. It overlooks a small lake, once their water source. The opulent palace is laid out on four levels, each with a courtyard. My favourite part was the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace) that was covered in dazzling mirrors in beautiful patterns. And learning about the Sukh Niwas where a cool climate is artificially created by winds that blow over a water cascade within the palace. Maybe the very first air conditioning?
We had a brief ride on an elephant through the streets. It is possible to ride the elephants up to the Amber Palace; retracing the steps of royalty in years gone by. Instead we went for the cheaper option, but hey, we still got to ride an elephant!
That evening we went to Chokhi Dhani – a concept village that captures the vibrant spirit of Rajasthan, for both local and international tourists. We saw Rajasthan villages and temples, local paintings, Bani Thani art and wall decorations. We saw a puppet show, a man breathing fire and some local dancers. I got henna on my hands, Alex got an Indian head massage, we ate enormous amounts of local food and really just spent the evening soaking in the enthusiasm, the traditions, the costumes and the friendly hospitality.
Our final day in Jaipur we spent exploring Albert Museum, doing some shopping and going to see a Bollywood movie! Albert Hall Museum is in a beautiful old building; the foundation stone was laid during the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1876. It has a rich collection of artefacts like paintings, carpets, ivory, stone, metal sculptures, local pottery, clothes and instruments. I even saw Indian bagpipes in there!
We went to Raj Mandir, a glamourous movie theatre built to impress. We saw the hotly anticipated movie Bajirao Mastani. Parts of the film were set in Amber Palace, the very place we were the prior day! The rich movie sets really showed us just how opulent the palaces were in their prime.
The next day we had another early start – we were getting pretty good at them – to fly back to Hyderabad. We had a delicious breakfast of dosa (Indian crepe) again, then an amazing lunch of Hyderbadi biryani and an Indian version of shawarma – OMG I could have eaten them all day long! I’m sorry that I have no food photos, but in general I gobbled everything up before I remembered to take a photo! I’ll just have to go back.
We visited Golkonda fort in the evening, with just enough time to walk to the top of the hill for panoramic views of Hyderabad, then back down to watch the Sound and Light show. As soon we sat down Alex noticed the swarms of mosquitos above our heads, but luckily they gave us free insect repellant!
For dinner we went to a very fancy palace – Falaknuma is one of the finest palaces in Telangana, India. After parking outside it, we were taken by golf cart up to the palace, retracing the steps of Nizams, European royalty, and many distinguished Heads of State. We had a tour around the still-furnished rooms before dining in an incredible restaurant which cooked many local delicacies. It’s possible to stay in the palace which I think I might do next time Unfortunately I did not take any photos of the palace.
The next day we went for a long drive to see the Thousand Pillar temple, an 850 year old historic Hindu temple located in Hanamakonda.
We also saw Warangal fort – or what was left of it. Some of the gates and pillars still standing are carved in such exquisite detail, but not much of it remains. It is thought to date back to the 12th century.
Our final day we revisited Park Hyatt hotel for another massage – this time we did not fall asleep on the table as we did on our first day! We did a bit of shopping and I tried on a very heavy but absolutely gorgeous wedding outfit – wow I wish I could find clothes like that at home – and then headed to the airport.
What a fascinating, exhausting and yet exhilarating trip – India is a country full of friendly and inquisitive people, a rich history evident by the temples and forts and palaces, and such incredible food that varies in every state and every city. At times it was tough going – yes, we did get ill – but in the end it was totally worth it!