India, the magical land of crumbling fortresses, bustling bazaars, mouthwatering dishes and an area that offers a complete cultural contrast to much of the western world.
I have visited India twice now. My first trip was way back in 2009, to the very Southern tip. Since then I had been determined to return to explore more of this vast country. So, in January 2017 I took a trip to North India - to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (ie. the ‘golden triangle’) with my friend, Christie on a g adventures tour.
I’ve still barely scratched the surface of what India has to offer and there’s so much more of this extraordinary country to explore so I know I’ll be back soon enough (although hopefully sooner than another 10 years!).
Currency: Indian Rupee (INRR)
Capital: New Delhi
Language(s): Hindi, English (official - many others exist!)
Religion: Majority Hinduism, followed by Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and other minority religions.
Plug Sockets: Type C and D
Ease of travel: 3/5
Ease of communication: 4/5
Ease of meeting others: 3/5
General costs: £
My trip started in Delhi, then to Agra, then to Dhula, to Jaipur, and then back to Delhi.
If Delhi is your first stop in India, you may feel like you have been thrown in the deep end a little, and you wouldn't be wrong.
Delhi can seem loud, dangerous and hectic at first, but dive in and you will find beauty in this chaos.
Things to do:
1. Jama Masjid
The main place travellers flock to when they arrive here is this captivating marbled sandstone mosque.
We bought our entrance tickets at the Southern entrance (100 Rs) and then climbed the 121 steps to the top. We were asked to remove our shoes and were given long gowns to cover up appropriately. From here we walked around the beautiful structure, taking in the intricate carvings and marbled patterns.
Tip: There is a 300 Rs charge for your camera here - even if you don’t intend on using it, if you have on to hand, you’ll have to pay.
2. Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
This beautiful white and golden Sikh temple is situated in the heart of Delhi. Whilst possible to visit in the day, if you go in the evening you can take part in the Sikh practice of ‘langar’ where anyone, regardless of age, sex, race, religion can come together to eat in the langar hall.
We opted to visit in the evening.
The food here was vegetarian, delicious, and prepared by volunteers. Before entering the gurudwara, we removed our shoes, washed our feet and covered our heads - thankfully there were headscarves here for visitors to use.
It was a fantastic experience, and easily my favourite meal of the trip.
Eating and preparing the meal at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
3. Humayun’s Tomb
This is the stunning tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun and was built in the 1500s. It was this structure that inspired the Taj Mahal, and we noticed a lot of similarities when we walked around!
4. Hindu Temples
There are countless Hindu temples in Delhi to explore - notably the Swaminarayan Akshardhan, which is the most frequently visited Hindu temple by tourists. Here you can also watch the Sahaj Anand Multimedia Water Show.
5. Shop in the bazaars in old Delhi
Brace yourself for narrow winding streets saturated with tuk-tuks, bikes, rickshaws, cows, carts and people.
The bazaars of Delhi are definitely a chaotic place to shop, but filled with all sorts of delights. I'd decided to pace myself this time, and wait until the end of the trip to hit the Delhi shops.
The narrow streets of Old Delhi, decorated with images of Gods to deter people from urinating on the walls!
6. Qutub Minar
This is a 73m tall victory minaret, and an iconic monument in Delhi.
7. Visit the Salaam Baalak Trust
We took a visit to the Salaam Baalak Trust - a non-profit organisation that supports street children in Delhi. (more info here: http://www.salaambaalaktrust.com/). We went on one of the city walking tours they offer - it’s a great way to support the organisation and took us through the narrow streets of Old Delhi which I definitely would not have been able to do myself! You can book these walks on the website.
Agra was our next stop - home to the astonishingly beautiful wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal, built in 1632 by Shah Jahan as a gift to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
In Agra, we decided to buy some beautiful Indian outfits. Naturally we went over-board and bought handsewn, tailored matching lehengas, cholis and scarves.
A lot of tourists dress in traditional clothing for a visit to the Taj Mahal, and so we decided to give our outfits an outing.
1. The Taj Mahal
My first view of the Taj was at sunset from Mehtab Bagh Park. It was an incredible sight - although the dust and mist in the sky did mean that it wasn’t the most impressive sunset I’d ever seen.
By far my favourite view of the Taj was the moment I walked through the Great Gate inside the complex itself and saw the alluring ivory marble peeking out of the darkness from the unlit gate walkway.
It is truly breathtaking.
View of the Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bagh Park
Taj Mahal from the Great Gate
The Taj Mahal, Agra
Once you’ve walked through the great gate you’ll find yourself at the steps leading down to the walkways either side of the central reflecting pool. Half-way down you’ll probably find a crowd of snap-happy tourists eagerly waiting for their turn to pose on the ‘Princess Diana’ bench. Keep walking and you’ll end up at the queues to enter the tomb - there are two queues - one for ‘Foreigner’ ticket, and one for ‘Indian’ ticket. You’ll need to take your shoes off - or wear the shoe covers provided. Flanked at either side of the tomb are two russet sandstone buildings - the mosque and the Mihman Khana.
The sandstone mosque - view from Taj Mahal tomb.
Walking around the tomb you’ll be in awe of the intricacy of the Mughal exterior wall decorations - repeating floral motifs, Islamic calligraphy and dazzling precious and semi-precious stones. A marbled minaret stands are each of the four corners - if you look carefully you’ll notice that they all tilt outwards slightly. The rationale for this is that if they for any reason fall down, they will fall outwards - thereby avoiding any damage to the tomb itself. At the centre of the tomb you’ll find the sarcophagi of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, with their graves lying deep underneath.
The beautiful decorations inside the Taj Mahal
Tips for visiting the Taj:
You can enter through any of the Southern, Western, or Eastern gates.
You can buy tickets at any of these gates - 1000Rs for foreigners, 40Rs for Indians. You can also buy them online here: https://asi.payumoney.com/#/
A foreigner ticket includes a water bottle and shoe covers.
You can only take small bags inside the Taj and they will need to go through a security scanner.
You cannot take photographs inside the main mausoleum
It’s easy to hire a guide - if you don’t have one organised already you’ll find many outside the complex to hire. Just make sure you select an approved guide with an identity card.
The Taj Mahal is closed to visitors on Fridays.
Having a spin in our beautiful outfits!
2. Agra Red Fort
If you’ve come to Agra, don’t just visit the Taj Mahal - there are other monuments that are worth visiting.
The Agra Red Fort is an impressive sandstone walled city and historically home to the Mughal emperors.
If you spend some time wandering around you’ll find beautiful structures such as the Shish Mahal (mirror palace), the Diwan-i-Am, the Diwan-i-Khas, the jigsaw-like gardens of Anguri Bagh and the Musamman Burj - the grand marbled tower overlooking the Taj Mahal, where it is rumoured Shah Jahan died.
Musamman Burj, Agra Red Fort
Decorated panel, Agra Red Fort
Anguri Bagh, Agra Red Fort
More commonly known by it’s nickname - ‘Baby Taj’, this is thought to have been a draft of the Taj Mahal.
It’s delicately beautiful with hand-carved lattices, lapidary artwork and glistening marble engravings.
It’s much less touristy than the Taj Mahal and well worth a visit.
Itimad-ud-Daulah or "Baby Taj'
After Agra, we headed to Dhula VIllage. Nestled between soaring mountains and luscious green forests, it is a truly beautiful and peaceful place to stop and recharge after a busy introduction to India.
I'm not sure how easy it would be to book the tented accommodation here, without going through a tour company, however I'm sure there are similar places between Agra and Jaipur that offer accommodation for those needing a short retreat from the city bustle.
The 'camp'-site, Dhula Village
Beautiful spot for some yoga and meditation, Dhula Village
We stayed in tented accommodation - all en-suite, very much 'glamping'! Here you could swim in the pool, explore the village mausoleums, and take a bike ride.
We took a scenic bike ride through the countryside, passing camels and goats along the way. We finished our cycle at a family friend of the campsites owner's home for some delicious chai!
Meeting some locals along our village cycle ride
Our host family for chai!
We stopped in Abhaneri on our way to Jaipur. Abhaneri is a city of ruins with two major attractions. Firstly, the Chand Baori Stepwell, built during the Chauhan Dynastry around 800 AD, this thirteen storey-structure was built to conserve as much water as possible, with water at the bottom of the steps around 5 degrees colder than the top.
Around the top of the stepwell are a collection of sculptures and wall remains.
Chand Baori Stepwell, Abhaneri
Harshat Mata, Abhaneri
Next to the stepwell is the second major attraction, the Harshat Mata temple; this temple was broken apart in the 10th century by Mahmud Ghazni. Looking around you will find some interesting carvings that depict temple sculpture styles of 8th and 9th century India.
Monkey Temple, Galtaji
This was our final stop on the journey to Jaipur, and as it is only 10km from the city itself, this could easily be done as a day-trip.
This peaceful temple structure is tucked away within a mountain pass. The whole complex consists of numerous temples and stairways winding upwards towards a natural spring. The spring trickles down into three pools in which visitors bathe; there is one pool for the women, one for the men, and one for the monkeys!
Locals on their way to the springs, Galtaji
Monkey temple, Galtaji
Ritual washing, Monkey Temple
Monkey Temple, Galtaji
You'll soon see why the temple has been nicknamed 'monkey temple' as there are over 200 monkeys residing here - they are unafraid of tourists so if you aren't keen on our furry cousins then try not to carry any food on your person!
Monkeys at the Monkey Temple!
Jaipur, the 'pink city' is a beauty itself. Home to the glittering rooms of the Amer Fort, the salmon-pink city walls, colourful fabrics, alluring spices, sweet-scented flower markets and astronomical wonders, Jaipur is a fantastic city to explore.
1. Amer Fort
One of the main sights of Jaipur, this is a huge fort built around 1600 on a large hill overlooking Maota lake. It's a moderately steep walk up to the main courtyard. Surrounding the main courtyard are numerous buildings to explore. My favourite was the mirror palace - beautiful rooms with shimmering mirror mosaics and sparkly gems covering all four walls, ceilings and floors.
Amer Fort, Jaipur
Mirror Palace, Amer Fort
Look out for the magic flower - a marble carving found at the bottom of one of the palace's pillars. Our guide showed us that if you hide part of the carving with your hands you can make seven different images.
From the top you can see a beautiful panorama of the surrounding hills and city walls.
For more information about the fort it is possible to hire a guide inside the palace. As there are no explanations as you go around, I would recommend doing this.
The Water Palace
2. Water Palace (Jal Mahal) Front
Visible from across the waterfront is this beautiful palace. It's not currently open for visitors so you need to appreciate it from here.
Jaipur has some fantastic markets including fruit and vegetable markets, spice markets and flower markets. Jaipur is famous for it's brightly coloured fabrics and colour-block printing. You'll find many shops selling everything from cushion covers, bedspreads, bags, clothes, fabric, purses etc etc. There are also workshops where you can buy these items directly from the makers - this costs slightly more but comes with the knowledge that those who have worked to produce the products are paid a fair wage.
Turmeric, Spice Market
Chillies, Spice Markets
4. Cooking Class
Jaipur, and any Indian city really, is a great place to participate in a cooking class. We went to a cosy family-run cooking school who were fantastic - I attempted to master the art of several Indian recipes including chat masala, dal makhani, homemade chai and puri. The family were brilliant and it was a really lovely night ending with dinner outside surrounding a warming fire sharing stories.
5. Jantar Mantar
This is an observatory, built in the 1700s. It is also a UNESCO world heritage site. It's made up of 14 yantra that track time and stars in orbit. You’ll also find the Samrat Yantra, a 128-foot long sundial.
My time in India really was just a snapshot - I’m well aware that there is so much more to see and do - and I didn’t even manage to see everything listed in this article. However, I was only there for 8 days, and I definitely feel that I managed to fit a huge amount in considering! And, I guess, it has given me a pretty good excuse to come back and explore more!
Getting around the cities:
The easiest way of getting around the cities is by tuk-tuk (or 'auto' as they're sometimes called). You can also get taxis. Taxis are the more comfortable way - and are much better if you have lots of luggage, but they're no quicker than tuk-tuks in the city centres due to heavy congestion and traffic! Walking is another option - although beware - traffic is chaotic and a lot of the streets are quite dirty! The streets can also be pretty challenging to navigate!
Getting Around India:
As mentioned previously, I went as part of a tour to India. I would definitely recommend this - this offers good value for money, the use of many local guides and local transport drivers. Our tour guide (or CEO) only took us to restaurants that he felt were of a reasonable quality - they were all very cheap and amazingly none of us caught the feared Delhi-belly! Contrary to popular belief, tours are not like school trips - you don't get herded around and told when to do what. You get a huge amount of free time and you don't have to do all the optional activities that other members of the group do - it's just that most of the time you make such good friends with others in the group that you end up wanting to spend time with them - and a lot of the optional activities are fantastic.
Typical journey times:
Delhi to Agra: 2hrs40 (train), 4hrs (bus/car)
Agra to Jaipur: 6-7hrs (train), 4-5hrs (bus/car)
Jaipur to Delhi: 5hrs (train), 5-6hrs (bus/car)
For travel between long-distance destinations, plane travel is an option. Although bare in mind that it can take a long time to get from city centres to airports due to terrible traffic - so for short distance travel, it may not be worth it!
Top Tips for India:
Try as much food as you can - you'll never taste curry like this, so don't be afraid to dig in and try everything out. Generally I didn't find the food very spicy, if anything it was quite mild. This was in contrast to the food I had in the South, where everything was very, very spicy!
Be careful of street food and avoid anything raw or that could have been washed in tap water. Even if it smells delicious, you do not want to end up in an Indian Hospital dehydrated and delirious (as I did my first time in India) - it really isn't a very pleasant experience. If you’re really keen for street food - make sure you select your vendor well - from places that have long queues and are recommended by locals!
Go and see a Bollywood movie! Even if there aren't English subtitles, they will generally be easy to follow - (plus you can google what's happened during the 15 minute interval)
Prepare to haggle for everything - this is just the way buying and selling works here, so try it out.
Your clothes will get dirty - the streets aren't very clean so just expect this.
Don't be scared to use the squat toilet - they're actually often cleaner than the Western ones. Cleaner still is nature's own toilet.
It will take a fair amount of time to get from A to B in India. Expect this and plan for this and you will be fine.
If you don’t look Indian - particularly if you are fair-skinned, expect to be asked for lots of photographs. If you don’t want to be photographed then just say ‘no’ politely. Taking photographs of foreigners isn’t seen as rude or strange behaviour (as it would be in the UK, for example!) so try not to be rude in return. It definitely happened more when we were wearing our outfits at the Taj, somewhat unsuprisingly.
9. Things to bring: hand sanitiser, toilet roll, anti-diarrhoea tablets, electrolyte replacement sachets, earplugs, contact lense solution and prescription medications.
10. Take money out of a cash machine when you get to the airport! At the time I visited India there was a significant shortage of cash in ATMs in the cities! It was pretty bad - we tried so many cash machines and for about 20 machines we tried, 1 would have cash.
11. Don’t fill your bag too full on your way out - I had to sacrifice a lot of my belongings to be able to bring back my haul of cushions, bedspreads, bags, clothes etc (worth it, though!).