India is a country that was never on my bucket list, but when I had an opportunity to visit, I was eager to take advantage. There is so much to tell about this beautiful country, that I will also cover it in a second article next month.
I had two options for routing: the first was a direct flight to Delhi; the second included a two hour layover in Zurich. I chose the latter, because not only was it with Air Canada, but I have done a few long hauls, and find the plane gets quite messy after 10 or so hours. Having said that, I have just booked a 14 hour, non-stop to Korea, so we will see.
Delhi was quite spectacular, and you have to appreciate a city with twenty million inhabitants can be quite disordered. Munna, my driver, navigated the roads with skill, because driving anywhere in India is chaotic.
I visited the typical tourist sites in Delhi, including Raisina Hill, once the home of the Viceroy of India. It is now the residence of the president, and is an architectural remnant of British colonial rule.
A monument, visible from many different vantage points, is the India Gate. It is an iconic, commemorative structure, dedicated to the Indian and British soldiers who died in World War I. It loosely resembles the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, and has an air of stillness amid the hustle of the city around it.
As I travelled through Delhi, I continued to be amazed by the traffic and seemingly lack of rules. Life in this vast metropolis was a culture shock, and it took me a few days to acclimatize.
We drove to Old Delhi to visit the famous mosque of Jama Masjid, constructed in 1656. It is hard to imagine the courtyard accommodates up to 20,000 people at Friday prayer sessions. Amusingly, I watched several people working non-stop, to keep the area clean and free from pigeon debris.
Delhi is divided into new and old, and a visit to the famous Red Fort in the old city is a must. Built in 1639, it took nine years to complete and was the seat of Mughal power until 1857, when the last Mughal Emperor was dethroned and exiled.
Another interesting site was Humayun’s Tomb, the resting place of the second Mughal emperor, where the ceilings are covered by nests of bees. Authorities are afraid to remove them, for fear of damaging the art underneath.
I came across an amazing iron pillar, which was forged in the 4th century as a tribute to Indian metallurgy. Mysteriously, in 1,700 years, it has never rusted, and no one knows why.
My next stop was Varanasi, the holiest city in India, and bathing in the Ganges at sunrise is a ritual performed by thousands of Hindu worshippers. In the Hindu religion, tradition dictates that each person must fast during the night, and bathe before breaking the fast. Hindu priests stand on platforms, and offer prayers on behalf of the people.
Most forms of Hinduism worship a single deity, known as ‘Brahman,’ but still recognize 35,000+ gods and goddesses. Consequently, there are thousands of temples located throughout the country.
I took a small rowboat on the Ganges to view some of the sites along the shore. Although the caste system is no longer officially in place, people who form the lower group, perform laborious tasks such as washing clothes on the rocks.
Varanasi has over two million inhabitants, and very few traffic signals. Life in smaller cities is more chaotic, and I soon realized that Delhi was very progressive compared to the rest of the north. The one thing that stood out, was the friendliness of the people. No matter whom I spoke with or what the topic was, everyone was eager to answer my questions or direct me to places of interest.
My next stop was Sarnath, the site where Buddha preached his first sermon after gaining enlightenment in 528 BCE. Buddha was born in India as a man, and on a trek with his mother through the northern jungles, became lost and found enlightenment.
I continued my adventure through northern India with a trip to Khajuraho, a small village of 25,000, but known worldwide because of its massive temple complex. The history of this area is interesting, as it is closely linked to the text of the ancient Kamasutra.
I set out to explore the famous temples, built between the 9th and 10th centuries. Religion was a major influence in the area, and it was believed that sexual activity was unholy. The population began to decrease, and the Maharaja was concerned for the future of his people. He summoned his advisers, and it was decided to build a series of temples, adorned with images depicted in the fourth century Kamasutra text.
Artists were hired and the temples were constructed. The average temple was decorated with over 800 explicit statues. The Maharaja hoped the images would entice people to rediscover intimacy, bringing an end to the population decrease… obviously it worked.
The 20 temples at Khajuraho represent the peace and generosity of the rulers. The temples remained hidden in dense jungle until they were rediscovered in 1838. According to local myths, there are 85 temples and ongoing excavation continues to discover remnants of many hidden structures
As I mentioned at the beginning, this wonderful country cannot be explained in one article. I am grateful to Focus Magazine to allow me to split it into two. See you next month.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com