Incredible India

Words and photography Sarah Duff
Word count: 1381

‘After all the buildings I’ve seen—from European cathedrals to the pyramids in Egypt—the Taj Mahal is by far the most aesthetically astounding’

There are some sights you travel halfway across the world for, only to feel a tinge of disappointment at how they don’t quite match up to your postcard-perfect expectations. The Taj Mahal is not one of these. India’s most famous building has a lot to live up to, and I was prepared to be impressed but not to be so emotionally affected by it. As I stand under the main archway entrance and take in the Taj’s decorative spires lining up perfectly symmetrically, I have goose bumps down my arms. After all the buildings I’ve seen—from European cathedrals to the pyramids in Egypt—this is by far the most aesthetically astounding.

The Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most famous love stories translated into architecture. Built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1648 for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth, it’s been beautifully described as a “teardrop on the cheek of eternity”. I walk slowly down the pathway leading up to the building and end up spending hours wandering the building and sitting silently (despite the gaggles of selfie-snapping tour groups) watching the pearly exterior turn from off-white to soft gold in the fading afternoon light.

As spectacular as it is, the Taj Mahal is not the only jaw-dropping sight I see on my trip to India. The subcontinent deals in architectural and historical riches like McDonald’s dishes out fries. The Taj sets the scene for a month-long whirlwind journey where I try to take in as much of India’s spectrum of attractions as I can. At every turn I feel the immense diversity of this colourful and confounding country.

I start my trip in Delhi, where I hop on the back of a bicycle taxi and get my first taste of choreographed chaos. The roads are full of rusty rickshaws, hooting trucks, flower-adorned cows and sputtering motorbikes. My senses are assaulted by chanting in temples and calls to prayer in mosques, the smells of samosas frying, incense burning and spiced chai tea brewing. This is the real India. But even amongst the non-stop energy and the noise I manage to discover pockets of serenity: a sublime red sandstone and white marble 16th-century mausoleum, Humayun’s Tomb, and Jama Masjid—the country’s biggest mosque, which, wreathed in a thin wintertime mist looks like an apparition.   

Delhi’s historical sights are at the top of every tourist’s itinerary, but on the road to see the Taj Mahal, the landscape is littered with ancient ruins and crumbling temples. These date back far beyond the capital’s mosques and mausoleums, yet some of them are barely signposted and have not made it into the guidebooks. Civilisation in India dates back more than 5 000 years, and these scattered remnants of the past give a sense of immemorial time etched physically on the country.  

In Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan, I stay in a living historical monument—the Rambagh Palace. Just short of two centuries old, the palace is the former residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur. It feels akin to living in a museum and gives a taste of royal life: I sleep in a lavish room, explore the 47-acres of gardens inhabited by cawing peacocks, eat paneer curry and buttery naan bread in the restaurant under family portraits and drink gin and tonics in the Polo Bar, adorned with the Maharaja’s polo trophies.

Rajasthan, the Land of Kings, has a lot to offer travellers. From desert dunes, tigers, forts, camels and more history than you can shake a guidebook at, to the opulent palaces of the maharajas, of which Ramabagh is just one. My three highlights in Jaipur are the terracotta Hawa Mahal (the Palace of Winds) with its latticed windows overlooking a street thick with honking traffic and placid camels. The magnificent Amber Fort, with its Persian-carpet gardens, hall of mirrors and endless courtyards. And the City Palace, which is crammed full of intricate daggers and golden royal clothing.

Southwest of Jaipur is Udaipur, known as the Venice of the East for its artificial lakes, crumbling mansions, narrow streets and cupola-topped palaces. The City Palace is easily my favourite of these. Rajasthan’s largest palace, it offers a glimpse into the lives of the maharajas spanning three centuries: tea parlours for gossiping ladies of the court and 300-year-old miniature paintings detailing extravagant wedding processions.

A day’s travelling via Mumbai brings me to the state of Kerala, 2 300 kilometres to the south. Even just exiting the airport, I feel like this is a different country to the one I left. In contrast to the intensity and desert climate of Rajasthan, Kerala is hot, humid and tropical. The vegetation is lush, houses are the colour of a box of crayons and it has a low-key holiday atmosphere. I realise just how different Indian states are to one another—each one has its own languages, music, history, architecture and culture. And then there’s the food. India’s cuisine is remarkably regionally diverse. In the north are rich, meaty, creamy curries accompanied by bread whereas down south in Kerala, it’s all about coconut-infused dishes and curries, rice, piquant chutneys, fish and seafood. I feast on all of these happily, while drinking young coconuts and freshly squeezed lime juice.

Starting in the coastal city of Kochi I make my way to Kerala’s backwaters. Here I explore the 900-kilometre network of channels, lakes and lagoons cruising on a teak and palm thatch houseboat for a few days. The pace of life in this world of emerald-green rice paddies, small waterside villages of waving children and gently gliding fishing boats, mirrors the sway of coconut palms fringing the water. This is laidback India at its best and a welcome break from the intensity of travel in a country that doesn’t do anything in half measures.
Just when I think Kerala couldn’t get more down-tempo, I spend a couple of days at a seaside resort at Marari Beach, a short drive south of Kochi. The gruelling regime here consists of morning yoga classes in a beach hut, swimming in the warm Arabian Sea, getting Ayurvedic head and body massages, eating my body weight in coconut curries and banana pickles, and drinking chai on hammocks stretched between palm trees.
I even dream of moving to Kerala and becoming a yoga instructor, but the road beckons me on to explore more. I wind my way eastwards through mountains, past tea, coffee and spice plantations before reaching the next state to the east—Tamil Nadu, known as the Land of Temples. Armed with a guide to some of the 330 million Hindu gods, I explore some of Tamil Nadu’s 33 000 temples, getting blessed by holy men and elephants—the latter leaving a smear of spiritual snot on my hair—along the way. Of all the temples I see, Sri Meenakshi in Madurai takes the holy cake. Dedicated to a triple-breasted goddess, it’s a six-hectare complex that includes towers adorned with thousands of rainbow-hued gods and demons, and a shopping arcade of golden goods and neon flashing light statues. It’s so unlike any other religious monument I’ve ever visited before—kaleidoscopically bewildering, noisy and brimming with life.
The road takes me further east, all the way to the coast and my last stop of the trip, charming Puducherry. This former French colonial outpost retains much Gallic charm and flavour along with a bohemian atmosphere. You can expect cobbled French-named streets lined with pastel-coloured buildings, hip boutiques and cafés serving up crêpes, cheese-filled baguettes and great coffee. It couldn’t be more in contrast to all the other places I’ve visited on the trip. But then again what India has taught me is this country is endlessly surprising and never predictable. There’s no other place that can fire the imagination quite like India, and your experiences here—which range from breathtaking to bizarre—are likely to be among the most memorable of any travel destination you can visit.