India is one of the most fascinating countries in the world to visit, especially in this time of its burgeoning modernity. One sees evidence of India’s variety everywhere--the striking heritage of its landmark temples and mosques, a rising middle class thanks to its expanding economic role, the welcoming of tourism and yet the gnawing persistence of poverty, begging, inadequate sanitation, terrible water shortage and reports of farmers committing suicide because of hard times, most of which the tourist is minimally aware. One can’t pigeon-hole anything about India. It is vast, contradictory and endlessly attention-grabbing.
I had been there once before to interview the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray in Calcutta, as well as to write travel and cultural articles. This time my wife Lillian and I fashioned a trip in connection with an invitation to a four-day celebration in Delhi of the marriage of the son of Indian friends. We parlayed the wedding festivities into an extensive month’s tour with excellent arrangements to suit our needs and budget organized by the old-line travel agents Cox and Kings by new-line e-mail.
Ms. Sharmila Ghosh at the agency was able to get us most of the accommodations we wanted and the result was a breathtaking, packed itinerary that enabled us to experience as much as possible in the time we had. Based on our travels, we can heartily recommend Cox and Kings, which had representatives to meet us everywhere, guides, drivers, help at the airports—all that was promised.
We also have a recommendation about getting to India. The trip is a long one, and Continental Airlines has non-stop flights to Delhi from Newark, N.J. Unless one has reason to break up the flight with stopovers, it is possible to make the trip in the comfort of what Continental calls BusinessFirst, and if one can spring for the cost, splurging is worth it. That’s the way to go—wide seats that recline way back, foot rests, plenty of leg room, congenial attentive service, just what’s needed to be in the same plane for between 13 and 15 hours, depending on whether going or returning. According to the latest BusinessFirst quotes, it is possible to get round-trip excursion rates from $3670-$4700, depending on time of year. Non-restrictive fares range from $5729-$7223. The Christmas period, when the weather is not at its hottest, is a particularly popular one for travel to India.
On this trip we did many of the tourist things, including an elephant ride in Jaipur to visit the historic Amber Fort, a camel ride at sunset on the Sam Sand Dunes during an outing from Jaisalmer, and of course, a must during a visit to India, seeing the incredible, breathtakingly beautiful Taj Mahal at Agra. We also traveled overnight by private houseboat after being driven from Cochin to Alleppey in southern India’s Kerala, the boat moving along the backwaters to the Kumarakom Lake Resort, with our own crew, including a personal chef who prepared tasty Indian cuisine.
And speaking of Indian food, the gourmet highlight of our trip occurred at the Taj Garden Retreat Hotel in Madurai, where we signed up for a special dinner with explanations along the way by master chef-in-charge S. Nilesh Kumar. It turned out we were his only guests that night (others at the hotel were in the regular dining room), and in the outdoor courtyard he and his staff prepared an elaborate meal. “Expect to spend three and a half hours here,” he said good-naturedly when the festivities began at 8 p.m. True to his word, Chef Kumar prepared a dazzling array of Indian dishes enhanced with a great variety of spices, culminating in a mouth-watering choice of curries followed by intriguing deserts. Between courses the chef shared information about his life and his marriage and expounded on the benefits of arranged marriages. (Interestingly and much to our surprise, some of our male guides also seemed happy to go along with the concept of arranged marriages, as did our one female guide.)
A special hotel stop was the romantic, luxurious Lake Place Hotel in Udaipur, a former palace situated in the middle of a lake and reachable by a short boat shuttle. We hit it right. Some friends cancelled a stay there only months before because the water had vanished and the lake was completely dry. But the water was back by the time we arrived. Other outstanding hotels on the trip included the famous Taj Mahal in Munbai (Bombay). In general one can count on quality with the chain of Taj hotels. We also enjoyed the classic and elegant Imperial in Delhi, reminiscent of colonial days.
The most depressing stop was on India’s east coast in connection with a trip to Pondicherry and Chennai, when we made a side excursion to a fishing village that had been hit by the devastating tsunami. Widows and their families were living in cave-like quarters and were happy to receive donations from tourists led there by guides. Pondicherry itself was captivating because of the French influence in its history and the remaining signs of it, including streets with French names.
Of the places visited, one of the most fascinating was the holy city of Varanasi, formerly called Benares, where the deeply religious gather at the Ganges to pray, bathe and cremate their dead. There is a belief that if one dies in Varanasi or if one’s remains are scattered in the Ganges, one will be reincarnated into human life. We made the mistake of taking the advice of going very early in the morning, but there was a thick fog that did not begin to lift until we were about to leave. Still, we could walk along the bank to observe the devout in prayer, and riding in a small boat on the river, despite the fog we could see people immersing themselves in the water, but we did not witness a cremation. Afterward we visited the renowned Kashi-Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, known as the patron deity of the city.
Another cultural and religious stop of a different sort was in connection with a visit to Cochin, where there is the oldest Jewish Synagogue in India, built in 1568, destroyed and later rebuilt. We ambled along the street where there had been many Jewish-owned shops. There were very few left as there were very few Jews left, not because of persecution but because of other opportunities, including emigrating to Israel. We were able to see the unassuming outside of the synagogue, but unfortunately, as this was Friday, one of the days on which the synagogue was closed, we could not gain admittance. If we came back that evening to pray, we could have seen it, but our schedule didn’t permit going back, as we were booked to see a Kathakali dance performance.
The above is but a fraction of what we experienced, including seeing amazing carvings on various temples, some candidly erotic, and shopping in the sophisticated emporiums of Delhi and Jodhpur. We were frequently struck by the friendliness wherever we went. Some Indian tourists we met in the temples and mosques would come up to us wanting to shake our hands in welcome or engage us in conversation.
We had a memorable encounter with five youngsters who wanted us to take their picture. We did, and thinking we were using a digital camera, they asked to see the results. When we explained that it was film that had to be developed, the eldest of the group wrote down his address. “Five copies,” he demanded. After arriving home, we sent them.
(Our representative at Cox and Kings can be contacted by e-mail: Sharmila.firstname.lastname@example.org.)