India – A Trip of the Five Senses
When I told some of my friends that I am going to India, most of them raised their eyebrows and asked “why?”. Traveling through India is regarded by many as an adventure out of one’s comfort zone and it is mostly for those who are young and enthusiastic. Perhaps my friends expect my ideal holiday to be somewhere in Europe, America or on a cruise rather than going to India. But little do they know that I have always been eager to explore India – one of the world’s most ancient civilisations and a place that has long held much mystery for me.
After a month of preparation with the India tour company Marvel Tours, finally, sixteen of us landed in the Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport one evening in January.
Often when I visit somewhere new, I feel as though I am opening the curtains of a window – full of curiosity and anticipation. When we touched down in India, despite the chilly and misty air, I felt warm and excited as if all my senses opened up to receive the new experience in full.
I was not disappointed. Throughout the tour, at every corner, in every moment, my senses were touched by the brilliant colours; fragrant smell of spices; energetic buzzing sound of crowds; spicy, flavorsome and diverse cuisines and soft delicate texture of beautiful fabrics. It was a truly unique and rich experience that weaved a symphony of sights, sounds, tastes and smells in my mind.
This article is a random collection of little gems that stood out to me through my unforgettable India trip from Delhi to Kovalam as well as a few practical travel tips.
The Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is one of the most fascinating tourist routes in India. It includes Delhi (the capital of India), Agra (the home of the 7th wonder of the world: Taj Mahal), and Jaipur (the gateway to India’s most vibrant state). These three cities provided us with a great introduction to the rich history and vibrant cultural heritage of the country through the breathtaking monuments, the contrast of modern and ancient, bold and beautiful architecture and an amazing array of colours.
The Taj Mahal of Agra is the most famous mausoleum in the world and one of the most beautiful architectural works of mankind. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in 1631 when giving birth to their 14th child.
~ Aysha Taryam, The Opposite of Indifference: A Collection of Commentaries
The Amber Palace (also called the Amber Fort) of Jaipur was constructed in 1592 with red sandstone and marble by Raja Man Singh I. Rich in beauty and history, it is known for its elegant and artistic design, seamlessly combining both Hindu and Muslim influences.
Qutab Minar, is a soaring structure and the tallest brick minaret in the world, a 73 m-high tower of victory, to commemorate the defeat of the last Hindu kingdom by the first Muslim ruler Qutub-ud-Din Aiba in Delhi.
Hawa Mahal (The Palace of Winds) built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh is a fascinating landmark situated in the heart of the pink city Jaipur. It is a 5 story palace designed in the manner of a castle and the shape of Lord Krishna’s crown. It has over 950 windows uniquely constructed in the Rajasthani pattern, with the purpose of allowing royal ladies to observe everyday life outside of the palace unobserved.
A window into the locals’ daily life
Words are inadequate to describe the magnificent architecture and unique design of the ancient buildings. Each one of them has rich and wonderful historical stories behind it. However, I was even more touched by the hospitality of the locals. I also love the vibrant colours in their way of life and the delicious flavorsome food.
Wherever I went, the local people were warm and welcoming. It was surprising and delightful. Many of them we met had very little material wealth, yet were incredibly generous. It was not uncommon for complete strangers to invite us to their homes. On several occasions, we were invited to be impromptu guests at a family dinner. Once we even shared the excitement of a retirement celebration party. The coming together of strangers seemed to have enhanced the joy and elation of the celebration.
It was refreshing to see young people reading the newspaper in the morning. Back home, young and old alike are much more likely to be found skimming through social media on their phones or tablets. The newspaper is consumed leisurely and contains articles of greater depth and interest.
We came across this large group of men and I was taken by their brightly coloured clothing. Despite the long queues, the men were patient and the atmosphere was cordial. It turned out they had come to purchase alcohol!
I have always believed that in order to truly experience a travel destination, one needs to get to know the culture, mingle with local people and sample the different foods. On our tour, I ate hot dishes of many colours prepared with a wide range of fragrant and exotic spices. The meals were authentic and exquisite. Each mouthful of the rich, flavorsome and unfamiliar taste was filled with much pleasure, mystery and temptation.
As we traveled around, we often saw cows roaming the streets freely, which surprised me initially. Later, I learned that cows are considered sacred in India. Some cows are abandoned because they have outgrown their milking age so they rely on Hindu families to feed them. In most Hindu families, when they prepare their first meal, they make the first bread, roti or chapati for cows. Cows are left free to roam around and feed on pasture that grows naturally. However, due to the increasing urbanisation, their natural food resources are becoming more scarce. The tracks that were once trodden by domestic and wild animals are rapidly disappearing.
One of my Indian friends told me that Kerala was his favorite place on Earth. It would be an incomplete trip without exploring the beauty and natural surroundings of Kerala.
Kerala is amazingly pretty and green, with the Western Ghats on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. It is filled with beautiful rivers, lagoons, backwaters and rich vegetation.
After a busy schedule touring the Golden Triangle, it was time to relax. We flew from Jaipur to Cochin (Kochi), Kerala, in Southern India.
Kerala has one of the most fascinating and protected wildlife sanctuaries in India. While there, I experienced the abundance of wildlife, visited bird sanctuaries filled with birdsongs teeming with life, enjoyed the view of enormous swaying coconut trees and took many leisurely walks along canals.
One day I remember fondly was when I saw the sunset over Cochin bay. I took a short walk up to the bayside and caught the pink and violet hues of sunset from the port. It was an experience that left me feeling deeply calm, happy and content.
In Cochin, the local fishermen use a peculiar kind of fishing net, introduced from China over half a millennium ago. These nets are cleverly designed contraptions with rocks of approximately 30cm in diameter suspended from ropes for balancing. From a fixed position on the shore, a team of fishermen operate a lever to raise a large net that often result in a modest catch of small fish and crabs. It is an intriguing process to watch.
Alleppey is the rice bowl of Kerala and famous for its intricate network of canals. On arrival, we embarked on a Marvel Tours private houseboat to experience the enchanting backwaters. As we cruised along, we watched the abundant rice paddies and the Kerala village life ashore.
The boat in the photo below was once used to transport rice and other commodities. Today, such boats have been transformed into comfortable floating accommodation.
The five hours on the house boat was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. We experienced how it was like to live like a Maharaja. We had the captain to sail our boat, a chef to cook for us (the chef even cooked seafood that we bought straight from the Cochin seafood market) and all we had to do was relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. We never had a dull moment. At every bend and stretch of the waterways there was something new, wonderful and interesting to explore with our eyes.
From the Alleppey, we headed west towards the mountains. Our westmost point in Kerala, Periyar National Park in Thekkady, was an enchanting location known for its thick forests, home to an amazing range of incredible wildlife such as elephants, tigers, bisons, sambar deers, boars, leopards, lion tailed monkeys and many more.
There is boating facility at the Periyar Lake where we had the memorable experience of taking a relaxing evening boat ride to see birds and other wildlife with fabulous views all around.
The next stop of our tour was Kumarakom. It is a picturesque destination just to the south of Cochin where calmness flows through the whole environment. Refreshing cool breezes gently took the edge off the humidity and left us feeling wonderful. In fact, the energy there was rejuvenating to our mind, body and soul, relieving us from the daily wear and tear of city life.
Around the ecologically rich Kumarakom lake, nature is at its best. The sanctuary here is birdwatchers’ paradise and a popular resting place of migratory birds.
It is said that if you haven’t visited Kovalam, you haven’t really seen Kerala. Our final destination Kovalam is located in the south coast of Kerala. Historically, it was a quiet fishing town. In the late 1920s and 1930s, it became a favorite holiday retreat for the Travancore Royal Family, especially for the Maharaja of Travancore who spent much of his leisure time there.
Since the 1970s, Kovalam was infused with a hippie culture and gradually became a popular tourist destination to the Europeans and locals alike because of its charming beaches, relaxed atmosphere, endless beautiful tall palm trees stretching out to the horizon and a great variety of restaurants serving fresh seafood and other tasty local dishes.
India Holiday Tips
Nothing can fully prepare you for the experience of an Indian holiday. Here are some practical tips to help you plan for a great experience.
Plan a sensible route
India is vast, colourful and intriguing and it is not possible to see it all in one visit. Unless if you plan to spend an extended period of time there, you will benefit from focusing on just a few selected locations and themes that are of interest to you. I hope this article has given you a taste of some of the key destinations.
Take some time to plan the sequence of destinations, and the methods of travel between them in order to minimise disruptions and maximise the time spent appreciating the experience.
In my case, I started with the classic destinations in the North: Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Then I took an internal flight from North to South in order to appreciate the wild and natural environment of the country in Kerala. Other themed destinations that might appeal to you are the mountainous regions, the religious centres (both Hindu and Muslim) and the beaches.
Respect and take an interest in the culture
The value in travel can be found by immersing yourself in foreign cultures. Learning about a different culture is an experience that broadens our minds. The more significant the differences are between cultures, the richer the opportunities are to gain insight. We all understand when we travel to a foreign land, we need to respect the culture. Having a basic understanding of a foreign culture is necessary in order to travel in a way respectful to the locals.
There is nothing to be gained by trying to recreate your own culture and live the same lifestyle abroad. There’s no doubt that travelling to India for the first (or second or third) time can be a major culture shock. The cities are densely populated and the noise and bustle can be overwhelming. You will enjoy it much more if you are prepared to go with the flow and align your experiences with the local customs when you can.
Take measures to protect yourself from mosquitos by wearing mosquito repellent and or cover your skin with clothing especially at dusk and dawn. You could either take a repellent from your own country or purchase it from India. I prefer natural products that do not contain harmful chemicals such as DEET. An excellent natural product available in India pharmacies is called Odomos. Many have found it to be more effective than any other natural repellent.
Another option is to take a multi Vitamin B supplement from 10 to 14 days before your trip and continue to take the supplement while you are there. Vitamin B produces a smell on the skin that is undetectable by humans but drives mosquitos away.
Consider your digestive health
Delhi belly (also called traveler’s diarrhea) is an unpleasant experience that sometimes occurs to tourists due to the different microorganisms in water and food that locals are accustomed to but travelers are not.
Taking probiotics 1 to 2 weeks before departure and continue taking it daily during the trip helps to build up the resistance to harmful bacteria and the body’s overall immune system.
Always try to stick to peeled fresh fruit and foods that have been cooked. Drink and brush teeth with bottled water or brush with boiled water. Avoid salads and ice in particular. Keep anti-bacterial wipes and hand sanitisers handy and use them before taking food. Following this advice, none of us in the group had any stomach problems during the trip.
~ Mark Twain (American writer)
My India holiday is a memorable trip of a life time. If you are planning a trip to India, may you too have a good adventure and a wonderful experience.
the drawings. See more at Perspective – View of the World through Illustrations