Words by Britt Melville from Miss Word
Let me take you on a tour of Incredible India. Together, our group of travellers uncovered its quiet magic and shared once-in-a-lifetime moments in this extraordinary country.
A wonderful group of travellers in front of the amazing Delhi at the Qutab Minar Mosque.
“Home to nearly one fifth of the world’s population, India is a country bursting with people, contrasting landscapes and colour. Somewhere you might think intimate travel experiences would be hard to find. Together, our group of travellers uncovered its quiet magic and shared once-in-a-lifetime moments in this extraordinary country.” – Nicole Beasley
DELIGHTFULLY ORDERED CHAOS- DELHI
Giant copper hands greeted us as we entered the customs hall of Delhi’s T3 international terminal. Classical gestures used in art, dance and yoga: each hand mudra offers rich meaning and a different path to enlightenment. Under these ancient symbols of blessing and joy, after months of excitement and planning, our group of sixteen gathered and said, “Let the adventure begin!” Nothing quite prepares you for your first taste of Delhi traffic. The ordered chaos is a sight to behold. Peak hour was still going strong at 11pm as we left the airport for our hotel. After a night’s rest, we began our first day in India with a quiet walk through Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid (the Old Mosque). Wrapped in colourful smocks, circled overhead by kite birds, we explored the ancient halls and courtyards, its 400 year-old cool marble under our feet. From there we joined the Salaam Baalak Trust City Walk – a guided tour through Old Delhi – conducted by young men who once lived on the streets. Our guides Kursheed, Lalit and Sanjay shared fascinating details about the history and daily life in the Old City; and gave us a unique view of the world through their eyes.
YOUNG BOYS RESCUED
Together we navigated Chandni Chowk’s labyrinth of narrow lanes on foot and by rickshaw, past vegetable sellers; row after row of fabric and kinari (ribbon and trim) shops; down alleys lined with paper makers and stationery suppliers (Old Delhi’s version of Officeworks); ending with a tour of the colourful Spice Market. All under the watchful eyes of monkeys perched on power lines above, waiting for someone to pass up their lunch.
Later, we visited one of Salaam Baalak Trust’s six residential care shelters and met more young boys rescued from Delhi’s streets and learned how the Trust works to fill the missing gaps – by providing food, security, health, education and love – to these vulnerable children. Over the years, Salaam Baalak Trust has helped thousands of children to first imagine, and then go on to live, a life defined by possibility and hope instead of exploitation and abuse. It also runs an outreach program in slum areas and crowded places to help children at risk. Most of us had recently seen the film Lion; and now there we were, surrounded by beautiful boys like Saroo, aged 5 – 17, each with their own story to tell. Shy at first, they were soon showering us with high fives and eager to pose for photos. Months later, their smiles and stories are still having a profound impact on us all. Read more about the Trust’s work here www.salaambaalaktrust.com
Experiencing the royal history of Rajasthan at Rambagh Palace, once the residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur.
MAGICAL RISHIKESH – HOME OF YOGA IN THE HIMALAYAS
Changing gears, the next day we travelled north to Rishikesh, the spiritual home of yoga in the foothills of the Himalayas. By day, this mythical town vibrates with the sound of meditation halls and market sellers; and by night, with the bells of aarti ceremonies dotted along the River Ganges. In Hindu mythology, the Ganges is considered the mother of mankind. Pilgrims come to wash away their sins with a single dip in the icy cold river. We gave our thanks to Mother Ganges by floating marigold pujas (offerings) instead! For the next two days we joined yogis from ninety different countries attending the International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh’s largest ashram, where peachy-coloured walls and mosaic walkways lead you through neatly kept gardens to the various yoga halls. The beauty of the Yoga Festival is its open program. All levels are welcome and registration allows entry to any of the sessions, giving you the chance to discover different types of yoga, meditation, music and healing talks from local teachers and visiting international gurus, many with rock star followings. Some early birds braced the chilly mountain air for pre-dawn yoga; while others joined in later after some pampering at Ganga Kinare, our gorgeous boutique hotel on the banks of the Ganges. In the evenings, we floated back over Lakshman Jhula, the town’s iconic, pedestrian suspension bridge, to swap stories from the day’s events. The magical evening aarti ceremonies conducted by students monks are not to be missed. Swathed in rich red robes, with their mesmerising chants, bells and lamps, the aarti ceremonies of Rishikesh provided just a glimpse of the devotion that takes place along the length of the great Ganges every night.
A celebration performance of the Ganges at the International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh Images.
AGRA FORT AND THE TAJ MAHAL
Fresh from our experience in Rishikesh, we caught our first glimpse of India’s most famous sights from our mats at a special sunrise yoga class; and spent the rest of the morning immersed in the culture, architecture and history of the Taj Mahal. The most recognisable of all India’s world heritage architectural sites, the breathtaking ivory mausoleum was built to house the tomb of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite wife in 1632. What a woman she must have been! Later, the red sandstone of Agra Fort provided an equally stunning backdrop to more stories and people watching; while a visit to a local marble factory added to the memory bank, with beautiful mementos of our trip.
Montage of happy travellers in beautiful locations. An unforgettable experience.
HAPPY HOLI! A FESTIVAL OF LOVE AND COLOUR LIKE NO OTHER
Incredible images of people drenched in colour have put the Holi festival – also known as the colour festival – firmly on the travellers’ map. While this ancient Hindu festival officially marks the arrival of Spring; Holi also celebrates good over evil and many other traditions in honour of Lord Krishna. It’s a time to dance, laugh and forgive; a rare occasion where women and men play freely as equals, showering each other with coloured powder as they celebrate long into the night. After Agra, we travelled to the Braj region, an area famous for its Holi celebrations. Ready for adventure, we journeyed from our hotel in Mathura through green fields to the village of Nandgaon, where Krishna was raised, passing a steady stream of scooters and overloaded vehicles filled with people showing off their Holi coloured hair, clothes and faces. There were more than a few nervous giggles as we tried to imagine just what was in store for us.
At Holi time, the usual bustle of village life is replaced by a supercharged, playful energy reserved for the annual festival. We arrived in the village centre and followed the drum beats, music and shouts up ahead, drawn along with the rest of the crowd. Within seconds, were transformed into walking rainbows – changing colour every few steps as more pranksters emerged with a new colour of powder or water guns to decorate our once-clean clothes. Ambushes from above were common. Even the local police were in on the act! The joy of Holi lies in surrendering to the colour and chaos – and we did exactly that. Later, after we’d scrubbed our bodies clean, our wonderful group sat down to dinner. Tired, colour-stained faces framed by incongruously white-toothed smiles. We were all still buzzing from the sights and sounds of the day. The spontaneous dancing outside the Shriji temple; the hypnotic music and drums that moved our bodies along on our behalf; the sight of coloured powder flying in rainbow arcs across the village square. Most of all, being wished “Happy Holi!” by beautiful, smiling, colourful strangers everywhere.
Happy Holi! Loved sharing this amazing experience with such a fab group of girls.
THE PINK CITY – JAIPUR
The last days of our India tour were spent visiting Rajasthan, literally the Land of Kings, so it seemed fitting to stay at a former regal residence, the exquisite Shaphura House, in Jaipur. Beyond its walled gardens, we discovered a sanctuary. Room after room of marbled floors, chandeliers and fine upholstery; corridors lined with framed collectables and photographs of the royal family; copper urns filled daily with fresh flowers. Smiling staff hovering discreetly in their finely tailored uniforms. Divine detail everywhere we looked. As the capital of India’s largest state, Jaipur is culturally rich and steeped in history. Known as the ‘Pink City’ after the building hues of the old town, it also boasts excellent boutique and market shopping bursting with vibrant colour and life, unique restaurants and countless places to take a break while sightseeing. Afternoon tea at the Rambagh Place and dinner at the much-photographed Bar Palladio topped our list of elegant retreats. Over the next few days, we immersed ourselves in the history, stopping by the Jal Mahal (the Water Palace), Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) with its stunning red sandstone façade built to screen the royal ladies from view, Jantar Mantar (the Maharaja’s City Palace) and a visit to Amber Fort. Perched high on a hillside, surrounded by lakes and uninterrupted views, it was easy to see why Amber Fort was chosen as the site for the former royal palace. We climbed to the top, perched in baskets carried by sweet, middle-aged ladies and their gentle mahouts. (The all-female elephants of Amber Fort carry morning visitors up the slope; afternoon visitors have to walk.) Inside, the captivating mosaics of the Hall of Mirrors was a highlight.
Later, we visited local workshops to see artisans creating stunning block prints and traditional carpets. It was humbling to watch the weavers squatting in front of their looms, their hands a blur as they tied row after row of tiny knots at lightning speed, creating perfect colour combinations and pattern symmetry. Just a sample of the handicrafts available in Jaipur. MEMORIES AND FRIENDSHIP Returning home from a trip like this, the question we often get asked is, “What was the highlight?” Travelling to a remarkable place such as India, there are so many daily highlights, it’s hard to pick just one. Was it the ever-present smiles of our guides Nitin, Kapil and Kamal who shared their knowledge and friendship with our group? Was it bumping into cows in the street as we shopped the markets of Jaipur? (Holy cow, you really do have to watch your step!) Or the gracious flower seller who rescued us from the slippery steps of the Ganges with her sweet, knowing smile? The small moments tally up to create an overall memory of laughter and gratitude. Of treasured friendships formed among our group of incredible women. And I can’t wait to do it all again in 2018.
Exploring Shahpura Hotel in Jaipur, flaunting shades of history with stunning and royal decor.