Northern India - the Land of Treasures.
Jaipur is known as a pink city. Its palaces, the walls surrounding historic district and the seven gates were constructed from either pink or red sandstone. The rest of the old town was painted to maintain the colour scheme. India is in love with colour and its cities are a testament to that. In Rajasthan you will find the blue city of Jodhpur, Udaipur – white as its marble palaces and the golden Jaisalmer, build from yellow sandstone. Colourful is traditional clothing, still worn widely outside the cosmopolitan Delhi, colourful is food, colourful are countless festivals for which the season never ends.
Who didn’t dream about visiting India at least once? History, architecture, landscapes, spirituality, cuisine, all of this makes India an intriguing and fascinating destination. It is so vast and diverse it would take years to explore and even longer to understand. It is a melting pot of languages, religions, customs and traditions. Landscapes span from snowy peaks of the Himalayas, across the deserts and jungles, down to the sunny, palm fringed coast. Most of us will have to choose what we want to see on our first trip here. For me it was the famous Golden Triangle, the sacred city of Varanasi and Ranthambore National Park, all in northern part of India.
Golden Triangle connects three cultural centres: Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. Rich history and iconic monuments awarded these cities their world heritage status and they are an absolute must see. Despite landing in Delhi, Jaipur was my first stop, where we travelled on a mini bus. The journey by road takes approximately 7 hours and is such a great opportunity to see rural India as well, you don’t feel the time pass.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and was founded in the 18th century by Jai Singh II, who moved his court here from Amber. He initiated the construction of the City Palace, the works were continued under his successors. The palace is home of royal family to this day. This complex of buildings, courtyards, gardens, pavilions and galleries is a blend of Rajput and Mughal architectural styles and it is worth to take time to explore in detail its fine craftsmanship.
Jai Singh II is the one who initiated the creation of another marvel, astronomical observatory where you can walk amongst gigantic instruments measuring time, predicting eclipses and tracking location of major stars. The observatory is located behind City Palace and boasts the largest in the world stone sundial. It is also listed by UNESCO. I absolutely loved being there!
Amongst Jaipur’s many monuments, Hawa Mahal is arguably the most easily recognised. Known mainly for its trademark pink façade resembling the honeycomb, Palace of Winds was built by Jai Singh’s grandson on the main city street, where the ladies of the court could observe everyday life without being seen. I am not sure where the name came from, but it possibly refers to the architectural feature, which allows the breeze to pass through the rooms, thus creating a cooling effect.
Of all the monuments that Jai Singh II and his family had left behind my favourite is definitely Jal Mahal. Although called a ‘Water Palace’, this structure is not a royal residence but a hunting lodge. Built from pink sandstone in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, its four floors are permanently submerged and only the top level is visible. Even though you can only admire Jal Mahal from the busy shore, with its background of hills and forests the palace emanates an air of serenity.
11 km outside of Jaipur lies famous Amber. On the hill, surrounded by imposing protective walls, this 16th century fortress overlooking Maota Lake makes an impression even from afar. Austere exterior doesn’t prepare you for the opulent marble and red sandstone palace behind the walls. The fort has an extensive courtyard and beautiful panoramic views from many vantage points. You enter the fort through enormous gates, it is a rather easy walk and you have an opportunity to admire the structure from different perspective at each turn.
I should note that you will also see elephants taking tourists up the hill, but I would not recommend this. Elephants are very sensitive, social creatures and they don’t respond well to humans riding them. It results in a lot of suffering that we might not be aware of when we see them walking calmly towards the gates and into the courtyard. For local people this is a way to make a living and I am not in the position to judge them, since I don’t know the full story. However each of us can make a decision not to participate in activity that causes harm to animals. On the bright side I have to say I didn’t see any elephant rides anywhere else I have been to in Northern India, so I believe this practise is now mainly a tourist attraction in some areas.
Jaipur is a city where you are confronted with history everywhere you turn. I can see why it is considered one of India’s treasures. Agra, the second metropolis I went to see, is no less captivating.
Agra has its own historic fort, constructed in the 15th century by Mughal Dynasty. It is the emperor Akbar who is particularly remembered as the one who rebuilt the fort and gave it its current appearance. The fort is in fact a walled city of red sandstone with enormous gates, you will most likely be entering it via spectacular ‘Delhi Gate’. Inside there are several palaces, gardens, temples, halls, you can easily spend several hours exploring all the architectural wonders.
Despite the layers of history and grand scale of Agra Fort, another monument steals the show drawing thousands of visitors every year. On the right bank of Yamuna River an immense mausoleum has been built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Its undying popularity is partly due to the beauty of the white and pink marble structure and partly to the captivating love story, since Taj Mahal is a tribute of a grieving husband in memory of his favourite wife, Mumtaz.
Who have not seen this architectural gem on countless pictures and have not wanted to see it in real life?
It does not disappoint. The perfectly balanced, octagonal composition with four free standing minarets, which reinforce the perception of rhythmical regularity, the use of ivory coloured marble inlaid with precious stones, subtle decorative elements, all contribute to Taj Mahal being considered the highest achievement of craftsmanship and one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It is a good idea to come here at sunrise, not just to avoid the crowds, but to observe the play of light and shadows on the concave and convex elements of the design, which further emphasize its perfect beauty. There is a story that Shah Jahan was planning to build another, similar mausoleum for himself, this time using black marble, but his son put him under a house arrest for wasting too much money. I wish the black version had been built though.
One of the inspirations for Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum was a tomb of the Mughal emperor Humayun in Delhi. I was lucky to visit this monument and although it is made of red sandstone and lacks the lightness of Taj Mahal, it is still a structure striking with its regularity and delicate ornaments. I didn’t have much time to spend in Delhi, where the same emperor Shah Jahan built the Red Fort, a royal residence after the capital has been moved here from Agra. His legacy is also a mosque Jama Masjid, one of the largest in India. I will definitely need to come back here and see more of this intriguing city.
India is a treasure trove of incredible monuments and it would take months to visit them all. I also wanted to see some of the nature that the country is famous for. Since my trip was a short one, Ranthambore National Park due to its location near Jaipur was a perfect choice. The reserve covering 500 square kilometres is famous for its tiger population. Tigers are very elusive and even if they are used to seeing humans we are not always that good at spotting them. I did get a chance to see one eventually and it is a very special feeling to see this majestic animal in its natural environment. Even if you don’t see tigers, the park is a joy and a relaxing break after bustling cities.
Ranthambore used to be a hunting ground for Maharajas of Jaipur and you can still admire the remains of the 10th century fort towering over the area. Throughout the park you will see various lodges or ruins of stone structures left from that era. We spent some time around Padam Talao Lake, observing crocodiles and birds. Apart from tigers, wild boars, sambar deer, sloth bear, Indian leopard and rhesus macaques call this reserve their home. Being this far north it is not a steamy jingle, but a patchwork of open grasslands and deciduous forests, with some impressive banyan trees. I was there in November which is a dry season and perfect for observing wildlife.
After seeing so many famous monuments and relaxing in the park for a couple of days, it was time for me to take a train to Varanasi. Since spirituality plays such an important role in Indian culture, what would be a better introduction to the rituals than a visit to this sacred city?
Varanasi, kissing the banks of the river Ganges, has, according to the stories, been founded by a god Shiva. Recorded history dates it back to the 6th century BC. It is a holy city for Hinduism and Jainisn. It has also links to Buddha, since it is believed that he delivered his first sermon in the nearby town of Sarnath. Varanasi is also home to Benares Hindu University and many, many temples, amongst them famous Durga or Monkey temple built in the 18th century.
What drives thousands of pilgrims to this city is the holy river Ganges and daily rituals performed along its shores. Ghats, a series of stone steps that make the banks of the river , become a theatre gathering believers and tourists every evening. It is a festival of lights and colour, sound and smoke and if you happen to be here, you become one with the crowds for these few hours of music and magic.
Not to be missed when in Varanassi is a boat trip on the river Ganges. It offers a different perspective on the city, its ghats and all the historic buildings that adorn the river banks. Watching sunrise here is an unforgettable experience. River is for Hindu embodiment of the goddess Ganga and the dip in the waters is a mystical cleansing experience. A lot of people take the sacred water back home. Unfortunately the river is badly polluted and so far environmental initiatives to clean it up have not been very successful. Despite that, Ganges waters are still home to several species of fish, amphibians and reptiles as well as a critically endangered Asian river dolphin. Let us hope the sacred river that purifies the souls of those who take a dip here, granting them salvation, will in turn be cleaned and saved by people, for their benefit and that of the whole planet.
I had to say goodbye to India. It has been an incredible cultural, spiritual and human experience. India defies all definitions with its mix of transcendental and profane, classic and modern, noisy and serene. Vibrant, always changing, always moving, it holds a lot of ancient wisdom but is also focused on the future. I had a chance to see amazing places but knowing there is still so much more to see, I will be back.