You hear India before you see it. Honing horns, tuk tuks, people and animals competing for space in the streets; quite loudly. Then you smell India. Mold, animals, exhaust... but oooh, someone is making masala on the side of the road and it smells delicious.
Home to 1.3 billion people, India is a true cultural experience. Not for the “faint of heart”, the trip I took felt like camping with cold showers, humidity, bug bites and animal encounters. I highly recommend going with a group, especially G Adventures, because Indian infrastructure and cities are hard to navigate on your own. We had a blast going with a social group like ours and I’m not sure I would have done half of the activities on my own. Special thanks to Manu for making India so special and sharing the stats you’ll read below!
1. Complete Culture Shock... Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable.
Indian cities are dramatically different; and the way of life is truly shocking to a westerner. While every city has its rough pockets and there are beautiful parts of Delhi, the slums are over-crowded, loud, honking quarters with trash, ferrel dogs, exposed electrical cables... The extreme poverty and living conditions of 1/3 of the Indian population is shocking. The sheer volume of people sleeping on the streets, animals without limbs, beggars and peddlers. Mentally prepare to be uncomfortable, but still go see it. Gives you perspective, humility and an appreciation for the luxuries we take for granted.
Speaking of being uncomfortable, you must take off your shoes to enter most temples (Siq, Hindu, Mosque) and add extra coverings for the mosques. Just get comfortable being uncomfortable and go with it.
2. Retreat to the Countryside
Indian cities are tough. Head to the countryside for a restorative retreat from the chaos and traffic. Agra used to the the capital of India 500 years ago, but now it is only a “monument city” with shoddy infrastructure around these sights. See the Taj Majal, Baby Taj and Agra Fort and then get out of dodge. I preferred Jaipur to both Agra and Delhi, but my favorite parts of the trip were the peace of the countryside, especially in XYZ... thanks Manu for taking us off the beaten path!
3. People Will Take Your Photo
As a westerner (especially if you have fair skin and light hair) people will ask for photos. 72% of India’s population lives in rural areas so for many domestic tourists visiting these attractions, it is their first time seeing someone who looks like you. Everyone does it, small children, little old ladies and yes, eager Indian men. It was more prominent in India than China. I prefer to take group photos with the men and boys but always want to be polite and respectful when they ask. You feel like a celebrity at first... they you feel like you are being stalked; so just keep moving at these monuments! If you are busy moving around and taking photos they bother you less.
4. Get to the Taj Majal at 5:00am.
It is a crowded site... be first in line! It’s magical as the sun rises, the light changes and you have the place to yourself. I was surprised how crowded it was, even as early as 7:00 am.
“Taj Majal” Means “Royal Palace”... but not for the living. The Taj Mahal and Baby Taj are actually Islamic mausoleums; with beautiful marble inlay. It was built for the 6th’s mogul ruler’s wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child. She had 14 kids in 18 years... #icanteven. He is buried there alongside her, under the large marble dome that weighs 12,000 tons!
She had 3 dying wishes... 1) Do not remarry 2) Treat our Children Well 3) Build a Tomb for People to Remember Me
He fulfilled all her wishes, much more than she ever could’ve imagined. This is why it’s often referred to as the monument to love.
5. Tour the Amber Palace at Night
On the other hand, visit the Amber Palace in Jaipur after sundown. Much less crowds and they light up the palace with beautiful colors! The mirrored temple was especially beautiful with the lights. I explored rooms in the dark, gazing out the patterned screens at the lights.
Another great (and less frequented) spot in Jaipur is the Monkey temple! Tons of monkeys swimming and sunbathing in the temple. Take the hike all the way to the top for the sun temple and beautiful views of Jaipur.
6. Swasticas and Six-Pointed-Stars
There are Jewish Stars everywhere.... wait what?! Not exactly. The 6-pointed star is used in Hindu astrology, and the swastica is an ancient Hindu symbol for peace. You’ll find these carvings everywhere, but they have nothing to do with Germans OR Jews.
Interestingly, the 3rd Mogul ruler who built the fort and royal palace had 3 wives from different religions, so he constructed it with religious symbols in the red sand stone demonstrating tolerance. Inside you’ll find Islamic patterns, lotus flowers, and Christian symbols... but no Jewish iconography. There are, however, Jewish and Portuguese influence in parts of Southern India.
7. Street Cows Stop Traffic
Street cows... and dogs, goats, donkeys, camels and chickens... Street cows are common, and well taken care of; the reason they are on the street is it’s bad luck for a cow to die in your house. So, rural owners release them from their houses and they wander their way to the cities where they are well-fed by Hindus who view cows as sacred. Why are they sacred? In the afterlife, Hindus have to cross a river to paradise holding the tail of a cow.
8. Orange Hair & Neon Saris
Bright. Orange. Henna Hair. Some graying men and women use henna to dye their white hair, the result is a shocking orange! Hindu women wear electric neon saris. I’m not kidding, those Forever 21 80’s throwback colors! You’ll find it everywhere across all ages and occupations.
9. The Cast System Exists in Rural India
According to our guide, the cast system is still practiced in rural India (not the cities) and arranged marriages are only allowed between members of the same cast. Indian marriages have a 90% success rate, some say because of the astrological pairing. Indian couples are matched according to 32-points of astrological comparability. While divorces are legally allowed and women do inherit property, it is still quite rare. Arranged marriage is socially reinforced and supported by the community.
10. Eat Carefully
2 in 12 of our group got sick, even following these rules... bring along Cipro if your doctor will prescribe it in advance. Some tips to avoid indigestion are:
Hot and/or boiled food
Vegetarian foods (potatoes, bread, rice, bananas)
Eat mild foods (at least until you get used to it)
No street food
No raw veggies
In the beginning I focused on vegetarian foods (which is easy in India) and avoided spicy foods. Towards the end of the trip, I started eating meat again and spicy sauces and had no trouble at all.