India: Namaste!

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With a flourishing culture and a rich history dating back centuries, it is a peninsula that rests at the tip of Southern Asia and a destination every traveler must undertake. Armed with the thrill of setting out to an unknown land, my adventure-stricken self could not have gotten a better taste of India than what I experienced during my short escapade.

For timid first-time travelers, India rarely tops their list of places to go. Compared to more accessible Asian counterparts like cosmopolitan Singapore or Hong Kong, this country definitely loses the bout on who gets the most tourist traffic. I personally have not been to any of these countries yet, but I’m glad to have India as my first taste of the essential Asian destinations. A far cry from the usual American culture that greets me every other year, this trip—which seemed like a condensed version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love—was an immersion into the exotic. Though unexpected, it was very much welcome.

The quest’s beginning

Making New Delhi our base, we embarked on an adventure that took my family and I to the glorious city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. We explored the little secrets that New Delhi hides deep in the side streets of the city.

India, the seventh most populous country in the world, is home to 1.2 billion people. Being part of the 1.2 billion even for just a couple of days definitely showed me that India is an incredible, overwhelming experience. Since Agra is a four-hour drive from New Delhi, we decided to take Indian Railway to cut the trip in half.

The station looked like a scene from the film Slumdog Millionaire: a mass of locals camped out the gates, a noisy and bustling aura brought by the tuktuks and taxis racing against each other and that certain pungent aroma of spices that seem to veil the air. It was five in the morning when we arrived and the sunrise was just about to peek through the cloudy day. It was at that moment when I felt the authenticity of being in India.

Aboard the Indian Railways on CC tickets that afforded an air-conditioned and seemingly first-class cabin, my family and I were roughly three hours away from our destination. Killing time was painless. Every kilometer that whizzed by the train window revealed scenes of India very much like a film reel set to fast forward. The traditional architecture of the cityscapes was a pleasant sight. The imagery of the people waiting on different stations’ platforms were both inspiring and wrenching at the same time. People camped out on the station’s platforms for what seemed like days was probably a common sight. But there was something in their eyes that tugged at my heartstrings.

India’s “Crown Palace”

When we finally reached Agra, taxis and shuttles conveniently lined up outside the station to take tourists and pilgrimage groups straight to the Taj Mahal. After climbing aboard one, we reached our destination in less than 20 minutes. The short car trip was just the first of many steps to reach the actual palace. Entering the compound of what Hindis consider as sacred ground, we took a 15 to 30 minute walk towards the gates of Taj Mahal. Camels and monkeys paced the same path tourists were traversing. The experience of being in a place untainted with modernity added to the anticipation.

The Taj Mahal Museum was the first structure we could see from the outside. For 750 rupees or roughly 15 U.S. dollars, one could already purchase an entrance ticket to the Taj Mahal. The ticket price covered bottled drinking water and a pair of shoe covers that were required inside the marbled royal mausoleum. The long queue ended with a security checkpoint similar to those in airports. The safety measures they took were pretty tight but understandable given the circumstances and ever escalating volume of people who entered daily.

Once we had undergone all the protocols, we beheld the splendid architectural wonder of the north entrance of the palace. In the background was a faint silhouette of the Taj Mahal. That in itself was enough to send chills down my spine and tears to my mother’s eyes. We were in the midst of a grandiose experience.

Tourists and locals crowded the grounds of the Taj Mahal. It was a photographers’ dream. With all the Indian women in multi-colored garments against a backdrop of majestic architecture, no shutterbug was left without a perfect photograph. We learned a bit about the Taj Mahal’s symmetric design. No matter where we stood, the palace always looked the same. It lived up to its reputation of being an unchanging and timeless beauty.

Inside the palace awaited a whole different experience altogether. Seeing the tombs and intricate gems embedded into the walls of the Taj Mahal gave me a sense of appreciation for the rich history that comes with the palace. A symbol of love and commitment of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to his most beloved wife Empress Mumtaz Mahal, the palace continues to live out its purpose of proclaiming undying devotion even to this very day. The Taj Mahal makes you fall in love at first sight. It just swept me off my feet.

To Agra and back

On our way back from the Taj Mahal and on to our tour of the city of Agra, we opted to take a coaster bus because the train leaving for New Delhi was scheduled to depart at around 9 p.m. Though the drive back to Agra took twice as long as the train ride, it was a fast one.

The driving culture in India was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I used to think that Manila traffic and Filipino drivers were the worst. But boy, was I in for a surprise. It was four crazy hours of honking, swerving and stopping in the middle of the road to check for an overheated engine. Trucks had painted signs and placards at their rear ends warning, “Horn please.” Equivalent to our jeepneys’ “God, bless our trip” interesting quirks such as these can only be discovered when travelers immerse themselves in the daily lives of locals.

Contrary to popular belief, India’s metro was actually a very feasible, reliable and utterly convenient mode of transportation. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation was surprisingly very modern: magnetic coins for passes, digitized route maps and a sophisticated architecture for all the stations and established platforms. User-friendly and quite similar to New York’s subway or to the Philippines’ Metro Rail Transport, Delhi’s Metro Rail made jumping from point to point quite easy.

Since the Indian Metro cuts across almost the entirety of Delhi, all we needed to know was where to alight from the station of origin. To get to Janpath, Rajiv Chowk is the station we had to get off from. Beginning from that platform, we traversed a five-minute walk into the heart of Janpath market—a row of small stores or quaint stalls that sell everything from accessories to vintage finds.

The street culture in Janpath was similar to the haggling practices in most local markets spread throughout Asia. Just like Bangkok’s Jatujak or Manila’s own Divisioria in downtown Binondo, this Delhi district is a haven for savvy yet practical shoppers. Fashionistas go gaga over the prices at this local hub. From accessories such as native earrings and bangles that range from 20-180 rupees to ethnic tunics and pants that go for 200-450 rupees, local markets across the world have definitely met their match.

Tourists, especially women, had to be wary when fitting garments since most of the stalls’ owners and sales assistants were men. It was normal for males to handle stores in India.

Downtown Delhi was a pleasure to explore. While the weather sometimes fluctuated between warm and cool whiffs of air, travelling from Point A to Point B was hassle-free. Aside from the Delhi Metro, one can also ride the traditional tuktuk or, if the aforementioned warning did not scare you, take the taxis.

Last minute scenes

India was a paradise for discovery, an introduction into a culture that is diverse and intact, and visiting it is a way of finding one’s self. All this was achieved by being one with the historical past of the Hindi society. Untainted by Western tradition and resilient to the advancements of modern lifestyles, the inspiring past is still lived out in present-day India. This unique experience is what India offers.

Reluctant to leave the country without a little souvenir, I impulsively got myself a traditional henna tattoo from one of the side street artists of Delhi. Though not for the original purpose of matrimonial ceremonies, retting inked the Hindi way was definitely the best way to cap off this wonderful adventure of spices, railways, and marbled splendors.

Namaste, India. This will not be our last hello.

Indian Cuisine 101

Tandoori Chicken – A traditional Indian dish that consists of grilled chicken which has been soaked in yoghurt, and marinated in curry and tandoori masala. It is seasoned with chili (whole or powdered) to give it that extra kick.

Naan bread – Oven baked flatbread is all that Naan bread actually is. A staple in Indian meals, this is served with a dip on the side usually made from hummus, or fermented cheese. Naan bread is sometimes also seasoned with curry to give its aromatic touch.

Rasgulla – A popular dish in India that is commonly served as dessert. Rasgulla is made from cottage cheese and semolina dough that is cooked in sugar syrup.

Masala chai – Masala chai, or spiced tea, is a common drink served in India. It contains a mix of different herbs and spices and is usually more flavorful than your usual Ceylon or Earl Grey.

Paneer – Another cottage cheese dish that is a staple in India. It is made from milk brought to a boil and curdled using lemon juice, and cooked either in a curry base, a tomato sauce base, or grilled in kebabs with some bell peppers on the side.

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