For Victoria’s Family

June 2015.

Among architectural marvels

Dear Victoria,

India is an important country, muscular, challenging and engaging; you cannot visit it and return home unchanged. For this reason, it is the perfect destination for a family—offering challenges that will both expand your sense of the world, renew your vigor for life, and bring you closer together as a unit. India has something to teach us all: it is a country that has the strength to show you its soul while holding you in its spell.

Day 1: Arrival

You will arrive in Delhi in the evening, and make your way to your hotel. Here, you will relax after your long flight, and, if you wish, enjoy some live traditional music alongside a scrumptious meal in the hotel’s restaurant, which features both traditional cuisine, modern fusion, and also more western options for the palate that has yet to expand to embrace India’s flavorful cuisine.

Day 2: Delhi

By way of introduction to India, I have arranged for your guide Anita to give you a tour of Delhi, showing you the remarkable mixture of medieval and contemporary life. Delhi is the current capital, but it was also the capital of many previous dynasties. You will be visiting some of the older architecture still preserved in the city amidst its chaotic and rapidly developing present. The old part of Delhi now is a maze of lanes crowded with shops and crumbling havelis (mansions). In the midst of all this sits one of the country’s largest mosques. Anita will also take you through the narrow lanes of the 300-year-old Chandni Chowk market, with its extraordinary variety of items – silver, aromatic spices, leather, fruit and vegetables. Apothecaries sell home-grown medicinal items, and roadside dentists display their fascinating array of equipment and false teeth. Finally, Anita will take you to one of the architectural triumphs of the Mughal Empire – Humayun’s Tomb. Have your camera ready to capture the incredible arches through the recently restored gardens. Remember this building – the design of the Taj Mahal is based on it.

Day 3: Chandigarh

Chandigarh was born when Lahore, the former capital of Punjab, became a part of Pakistan in 1947. It was supposed to be a planned city, with a New York firm initially responsible for its design. However, when the firm’s planner died, the work was handed over to the internationally renowned architect Le Corbusier. Today, you will explore this city’s imposing government buildings and its Garden of Nek Chand. Nek Chand was a road inspector who dreamed of transforming discarded items into things of beauty. You will be moved as you wander among all the cheeky rock statues adorned in bottle tops, fluorescent lights, tin cans and other items. Your children are also sure to delight in this eclectic experience.

Day 4: Varanasi

The city of Varanasi is a revelation and a lesson in how deeply ingrained religion is in Indian lives. The holiest of all of India’s seven holy sites, devout Hindus will visit Varanasi at least once in their lifetime. It is believed that if you are cremated in Varanasi, you are released from the endless cycle of rebirth. Varanasi is also the oldest living city in the world, with a history going back to 2500 BC. As Anita shows you around, notice how each temple is well-attended and every street corner has roadside shrines, with vendors alongside selling garlands and incense sticks. Let the narrow alleys, packed with cows, scooters, cycle rickshaws, shops and people, take you to the banks of the Ganges. On a sturdy wooden canoe, your family will glide past temples, abandoned palaces and the crematorium where people wait to cremate their loved ones. As a fitting closing to the day, you will dock at Assi Ghat in time to watch the evening “aarti” ceremony, where priests perform a ritual to put the river gods to sleep and to ward off any evils. As requested, you will spend the night in a private home, where your kind hosts can discuss the intricacies of Hinduism with you. If such a discussion is of less interest to your children, you needn’t worry—the family’s children will be eager to get to know and play with your kids.

Day 5: Khajuraho

Sunrise and sunset are the most auspicious times for the Hindu religion. This morning, you will take a boat up the river as the sun dawns, noticing the people flocking to the river to greet the rising sun, the pilgrims taking a bath in the holy river, yogis meditating on the steps leading to the river bank, and women doing laundry and washing vessels. There is a certain timelessness about this sunrise routine. After the private yoga session your family requested and a generous lunch, you will head to the tiny village of Khajuraho.

This village is famous for its remarkable complex of temples built in an inspired burst of creativity between 950 and 1050 AD under the Chandela kings. However, of the village’s original 85 temples, only 25 survive, each a masterpiece dedicated to different deities. The temples were lost in the forest for centuries, and then were accidentally discovered by a British army engineer in 1858. Take some time to observe the sensitivity and warmth that radiates from the sculptures. You will all absorb the genuine love of life that is part of Hinduism.

Day 6: Panna National Park

Mounted on my favorite gentle giants—India’s elephants—you will discover Panna National Park, in all its opulent biodiversity. Look out for the chinkrar deer, sambar, nilgai (blue bull) and Indian tigers. The long drop waterfalls will really make you appreciate the patience of nature. Once you finish this adventure in the national park, you will have the afternoon at leisure, perhaps to explore nature some more, or to relax with your children and reflect upon what you have experienced so far.

Day 7: Agra

Once the capital of the great Mughal Empire, Agra is a city-sized repository of some of the empire’s most intricate architecture. You will start at Agra Fort, a 14th century monument that was occupied by the Lodi Sultans of Delhi. Mughal Emperor Akbar later rebuilt it as a beautiful fort palace, thereby combining defense and decorative architecture. Be sure to observe the Taj Mahal across the river Yamuna from the private quarters of Shah Jahan, who was imprisoned there by his son.

The Taj Mahal, which you will all visit next, is perhaps the world’s most perfectly proportioned monument. This stunning mausoleum immortalized the name of Shah Jahan’s last wife Mumtaz Mahal, “light of the palace.” The poet laureate Tagore describes it as “a tear on the face of eternity.” Decorated with a mosaic of semi-precious stones and Persian calligraphy that recreates verses from the Koran, the mausoleum is an important place of pilgrimage since the empress died in childbirth, making her a martyr.

In the afternoon, you will drive to the sunset-colored Fatehpur Sikri—built entirely from vibrant sandstone under Mughal Emperor Akbar. Architecturally, it draws its inspiration from Hindu, Persian and Islamic styles.

Day 8: Jaipur

The sprawling Chandra Mahal (Moon Palace), which you are visiting today, is a superb marriage of the Rajput and Mughal styles of architecture. With seven stories, multiple courtyards, public buildings, an astronomical observatory and zenana mahals (harems), it’s a feast for the historical imagination. Within the palace complex are several museums, including a textile gallery exhibiting a fine selection of costumes from the royal collection. Spend extra time in the Jantar Mantar observatory. Built in 1827, the site contains 13 instruments. These massive futuristic structures that are are accurate even today, and will certain tickle your children’s interests in science and technology.

Day 9: Markets

Today you will all spend the morning in the markets of Jaipur, marveling at the leisurely bargaining mixed with cups of tea and the way the winding chaos somehow has an order to it. Then it’s on to the Fort Palace at Amber. Rajput rulers built a number of such forts all over Rajasthan, believing the Hindu Purana holy book line, that “a fort is the strength of a king.” Amber is one of the finest examples of a fort palace, built similar in style to the surrounding richly decorated Mughal courts. Then you will ride elephants again to the end of the day—through the forest to the ruins of an old temple.

Day 10: Nimaj

Today you will move on from the forts and palaces, to experience a change of pace and another side of India. The destination I have chosen to suit your needs is Nimaj, a lovely retreat in the heart of the Indian countryside. Surrounded by farm lands and bordered by a reservoir that attracts a large number of water birds, this is the home of the Rathore Clan, and they will be your hosts during your stopover here. You will have a chance to get to know your hosts, providing a deeper understanding of the people who inhabit this incredible country, and also will have more free time—a wonderful chance to relax a bit after so much adventuring.

Day 11: Chattrasagar

Nearly 60% of India’s population lives outside the cities and towns. Villages like the one you will visit today are the essence of the country. This particular area is the home of the Seervi Tribes. Closely related to the Bishnoi, they highly value the protection of wildlife. Learn about local life as you walk in the surrounding farms and visit the village school, stop at homes and share a cup of chai, and spend time with crafts people who use methods and skills passed down through the ages. Then, at “gaudhuli,” or cow dust time, watch as the herders bring home their animals under the looming dusk and housewives perform a brief blessing with incense and lamps before switching on the lights in their homes.

Day 12: Jojawar

Today you will continue your discovery of rural India, passing through the hamlet of Rawla Jojawar on the back of the famous Marwari Horse. This village is the home of the fascinating Rebaris, the tribe which are traditionally camel herders by profession. You and your family will take a fascinating local train ride through the rich green Aravallis hills, passing through tunnels and bridges overlooking resplendent lakes bordered by plush forests.

You will end the day with a gentle, unplanned walk through the settlements of the Rebari—herders by profession and dwellers in simple thatched and mud houses. Passing through a wolf sanctuary to the temple of the folk divinity “Mamoji,” you will meet Bhopa, the temple priest. On full moon nights and the second night of the rising moon, the spirit of Mamoji enters the priest and he becomes an oracle. If his predictions come true, the villagers bring brightly colored terracotta horses as offerings.

Day 13: Train to Jodhpur

Today you will travel by train along a narrow line, arriving at a tiny station where things haven’t changed since it was installed by the British. Puffing its way through the hills, the charm of the train and your fellow passengers in traditional outfits will give way to shock—and delight, perhaps—as thousands of monkeys descend on it to be fed by the passengers. Feeding monkeys is considered to be very auspicious and you should have a packet of biscuits handy! You will arrive in Jodhpur in time to settle in for another homestay, enjoying a delicious meal prepared interactively.

Day 14: Jodhpur

Of all the many forts in Rajasthan, very few compare in majesty to the Meherangarh Fort. Built on a high rocky cliff, the views from the fort stretch all across the plains as far as the Mewari Fort at Kumbalgarh. Almost impregnable, the fort is entered through seven fortified gateways. At the last gate, you will find the hand-prints of 15 royal sati, Marwari queens who immolated themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. The fort is divided into three sections—the public areas, the Maharajas’ palaces, and the zenana, or ladies quarter, which is decorated with exquisite sandstone filigree work.

Later in the afternoon you will take a walk through the Sadar Bazaar, a marvelous example of late 19th century town planning, blending colonial and Rajput traditions. This is an excellent spot to pick up some souvenirs—spare some change for Jodhpur’s famous glass bangles, and the rugged mojri slippers made from camel leather.

Days 15-16: Manwar

The intense beauty of the desert is where you will spend the last few days of your trip. The miles of thorn forest, dunes, and scrub are home to several tribes including the Rebari, or camel herders. You will experience a dhani, or small desert settlement. In the dhani, you will discover huts built with thick mud walls as protection against the extreme climate and the desert winds. The exteriors are decorated with striking folk art, which also covers the walls and the floors of the houses. As requested, I have arranged for you all to spend the night in a private tented camp, eating dinner and drinking cocktails and child-appropriate beverages around a bonfire. As your last few days run together in a blur of authentic desert experience, you will come to understand the haunting rhythm of life in this place.

On your last day you will explore the desert on camelback, before making your way to Jodhpur and then flying to Delhi, and then home.

Victoria, it has been a pleasure to put together this itinerary for your India trip. Even 16 days doesn’t seem like enough to enjoy all of the country’s history and traditions. Please do call if I can be of any assistance.