A land of remarkable diversity – from ancient traditions and artistic heritage to magnificent landscapes and culinary creations – it ignites curiosity, assaults the senses and warms the soul. We tailored our trip to concentrate on the Northern and Central part of India which included the all-time classic Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) but would also give us insight into rural life and different culinary experiences.
We travelled with family from India who had done the hotel bookings and secured us a reliable personal driver for our three week trip. This made the entire experience special as we had someone that understood the language and could bargain on our behalf which came in very handy on our shopping sprees. It also allowed for a lot of flexibility as we were not controlled by time and tour groups. The saying goes that to drive in India you need a good horn, good brakes and good luck. We had all three and a great travel experience with our driver Dinesh; a local farmer from Bharuch, Gujarat. Soon we learned that not everything works out as planned in India, but somehow the universe conspired and the alternatives seemed to work out even better than anticipated.
The long rides between destinations weaved in and out of rural towns and cities. It provided us with the opportunity to witness everyday life in India, all the while chatting to our travel companions and nodding off at times. Much exploration and research was done on my phone during the journey, while I sorted through my wicked(?) thoughts.
We entered India on-board Ethiopian Airlines via the magnificent Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. Arriving in Mumbai was an exciting beginning to our journey. We had our first taste of India when they were trying to fit three adults, together with our entire luggage into a Tuk-Tuk (a moped motorcycle), which was not very successful. We transferred to a metered taxi and had a rather uneventful trip to our hotel located in the magnificent old part of Mumbai. There was no time for our stomachs to acclimatise as we hit the streets for some amazing street food, immediately after dropping off our luggage at the hotel.
Mumbai makes space for everyone and welcomes you openheartedly. We quickly learnt how to cross the busy roads, dodge cows and tiptoe around the trails of manure. It was a cacophony of sounds, disorganisation (so it seems), craziness, smells and chaos but somehow it all worked. It is a system that you can penetrate after you discard your own expectations. Roads everywhere were crammed with thousands of taxis, bicycles, scooters and Tuk-Tuks – all pushing forward, stopping abruptly with horns blaring, every driver forcing their vehicle into the smallest possible space with an unbelievable sense of timing.
After spending a few days in Mumbai our journey continued with a seven-hour train trip to Bharuch in Gujarat. From there our three week tour of Rajasthan’s captivating collection of Mughal forts started with the first stop being Jaisalmer; a settlement which originated as part of the silk route and also known as the Golden City. It is one of the last big towns in Rajasthan closest to the India-Pakistan border in the heart of the Thar Desert; the very vision of an Arabian Nights desert fortress. One of the memorable experiences was a Rajasthan Desert Safari and exploring the humongous Jaisalmer Fort, the only living fort of India which provides beautiful views of the golden city. Winter is the best time to enjoy and explore the gems of the magnificent state of Rajastan, as the summers and monsoons in Rajasthan are too unpleasant (the very reason for the timing of our trip).
Jaisalmer Fort. It is believed to be one of the very few “living forts” in the world, as nearly one fourth of the old city’s population still resides within the fort.
Jaisalmer Desert camel ride
If you are a spiritual creature or just love architecture, you will be able to find temples and places of worship around every corner, but in North and Central India, we were truly spoiled for choice. Our itinerary included Jodhpur, Delhi, the twin cities of Vrindavan and Mathura, Jaipur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur and Ahmedabad before returning to Mumbai.
I developed a fascination with Ghats (basically a set of steps leading down to a river or lake) well before our trip to India through following works by Indian photographers and during conversations I had with them on Facebook. Sacred places like Varanasi have burning Ghats where Hindus cremate their departed. These Ghats are fascinating places to visit as it offers the perfect place to witness traditions and puja rituals (worship).
Seagulls at Yumanu Ghat – Delhi
One of my favourites was the Yumanu Ghats in Delhi which is situated on the banks of the Yumanu River, which also flows through plains of Vrindavan, Mathura and Agra. It is truly a breathtaking sight watching thousands of seagulls swirl around the rivers as they get fed by the locals. Seagulls start migrating from Europe & Siberia before the onset of winter and stay in India till March, the beginning of the Indian hot summer. Despite the poor visibility as a result of the severe air-pollution which makes photography challenging, the ambience around the sacred places was calm, dignified and a wonderful experience to witness the worshipping rituals, prayers and interaction with locals. Devotees often also visit the Ghats early in the morning to bathe in the holy water of the Yumanu River.
Life close to the banks of the Yumanu River (Ghats) is beautiful in its own way. Listening to the chanting of mantras, seeing the sacred sadhus and the exquisite architecture of the temples are what make a visit to these Ghats an unforgettable experience.
The other memorable place we visited in Delhi was the Lotus Temple, another architectural gem, which is open to all regardless of religion. The temple is built in the shape of a lotus flower using pure white marble and is the last of seven Bahai’s temples built around the world. It is a perfect place for introspection – absorbing its calmness and tranquillity.
No trip to Delhi can be complete without visiting Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. This incredible 7th wonder of the world with its flawless majestic edifice lived up to all expectations. The actual architecture, perfectly symmetrical structures, and layout are nothing less than perfect and visiting it gave me a fresh perspective on the history and achievements of humankind. The Taj Mahal was partially covered with heavy fog on a typical winter’s morning with very large numbers of visitors, which did not bother me.
After just a short (relative) drive from Agra we arrived at Mathura, a sacred city in Uttar Pradesh which is said to have been the birthplace of the deity Lord Krishna. Dotting the Yamuna River are 25 Ghats, of which Vishram Ghats is considered the holiest. Next came Chittorgarh, the home of the Chittor Fort – the largest one in India.
When it comes to shopping in India, Jaipur with its pink terra-cotta architecture is unbeatable. It is impossible not to fall in love with Udaipur, the ‘City of Lakes’. We explored the Gangaur Ghats which is the main ghat situated near the waterfront of Lake Pichola with prime views of the stunning Taj Udaipur and lit-up City Palace. It was a hype of activity with yoga, prayers and worshipping. The locals were very helpful and less forceful trying to sell you their wares. At one stage, I lost my credit card and had two hands full of locals, including taxi drivers, helping me trace my movements and trying to find it.
We all developed a weak spot for the savoury street food served in the many alleys and lanes of cities. Udaipur is one such city that is known for its delightful varieties of street delicacies, but with a twist of the mind-blowing spices of Rajasthan (which also helps with relieving any sinus issues). We found Udaipur to be the destination for the best and biggest variety of street food, including Pav Bhaji, Paani Puri, egg Bhurji and egg curries. After Udaipur we spend two days in a rural village outside Bharuch, which was another special experience.
I found myself instantly drawn to the people of India. I loved their generosity,kindness, their subtle smiles, all the intricate facial details, and only wished that I could speak their language to get to know what hides behind their faces and what stories they have to tell. Beside their admirable entrepreneurial spirit which can annoy you at times, I admired their sense of calm and willingness to allow me to photograph them. Although I didn’t know these people personally, I somehow felt very connected to them – a connection that surpassed any language barrier.
It touched me how the people conduct their lives even when they have none of the resources or means readily available to us. Yet they happily coexist with each other, ‘complementing’ not ‘competing’ with their fellow countrymen. India is the place where so many different believes and practices can live together in complete harmony. Faith is so deeply ingrained in the many shrines and religious places that it leaves even a non-worshipper in bewilderment. I never felt unsafe and never felt threatened walking the streets with expensive camera gear during the day or at night. Even walking through one of the slums in Mumbai to take photos of the prestigious Bandra-Worli Sea Link, I felt safe and could even manage a few conversations with curious slum-dwellers about Hansie Cronje, who is still remembered by cricket-mad Indians.
India is a photographer’s paradise – all of the colours, textures, architecture and the people present themselves as perfect photo opportunity on every corner. The way people languidly sit on their front steps seem better than what any professional model can offer. The poorest woman wears her colourful saree with so much pride, entices us foreigners with their dark tresses and kohl-lined eyes.
In my bag was a full-frame Sony body with only a Zeiss 24-70mm lens. My tripod became a hindrance after a while as I could not take it inside many religious sites and it was not always easy to mount it in narrow or crowded places. I therefore decided to abandon it when we visited a village in Bharuch before departing back to Mumbai for the last few days. Somehow it found its way back to South Africa and was returned to me with the message ‘These things cost money and you just don’t leave it behind’!
India was truly incredible. Chaotic, bamboozling, intoxicating, crazy, generous, charming, intensely irritating, exasperating, wonderful, squalid, beautiful, daunting, overwhelming, colourful and fantastic! India is all these things rolled into one, with a diversity that few nations can claim. Christopher Poindexter said “The thing about chaos is that while it disturbs us, it too forces our hearts to roar in a way we secretly find magnificent”. I found that magnificence and will never be the same again. I can’t wait for our next trip to this amazing country.