Every Wednesday, KLM / Air France sends out a wild deal. It’s typically to a destination outside of Europe, and it’s typically a really cheap fare. The catch? You have only that day to purchase! At the end of June, my boss forwarded me one of these promotions. (As a rule, I don’t sign up for these kind of things, because they’re too tempting!!) The deal was a roundtrip flight to India for 499 CHF (basically, $500 USD). Roundtrip!! If this sounds crazy, it is! I hemmed and hawed for a few hours until I finally pulled the trigger.
My rationale was that I would NEVER get a price like that from the U.S. Also, I would have to fly through Europe to get to India, if I traveled from the U.S. (I’m already halfway there!) Because of the cheap ticket and close-ish proximity, I could go for just a week (something I don’t think I would do from the U.S.). The blackout dates ran through January 4, so I decided to extend my Christmas / New Years holiday by going January 5-11.
I reached out to loads of people to see who wanted to join, but due to timing, cost, etc. no one else could come. Then, I debated whether or not I should still go. Traveling alone in India as a single female didn’t sound like a great idea. That internal debate continued until late November or early December when I finally decided to go! I know myself, and I knew I would be disappointed, if I didn’t do it.
Since I wanted to be wise about safety, and since I genuinely didn’t have time to research and plan, I booked a driver and guide through an agency recommended by a colleague. It was such a good decision for me. I told them my flight details and the cities I wanted to visit, and they took care of everything else. Literally, everything. Such a treat, since I’m always planning!
Now, without further ado, let me take you on a photo tour of the Golden Triangle…
CITY #1: DEHLI
Our first stop in Old Dehli was Jama Masjid (built between 1644-1658 A.D.), which is the largest mosque in India. It can hold 25,000 people. I had to take off my shoes at the entrance and wear a gown provided for the women. I panicked slightly, because they were my only pair of shoes! (There were no lockers or any way to distinguish which shoes were yours. They all went into a pile.) I asked my guide if my shoes would be there when I came out. His response: “If not, we’ll buy you some new ones.”
Next, we took a rickshaw ride through the markets. I took a rickshaw ride many years ago in Beijing, and I remember it being a fun, relaxing ride. This was a little bit different. It was a bit more hold-on-for-your-life. Partly because of the chaos happening all around and partly because the seat of the rickshaw slanted downward toward the bike, and I felt like I was going to fall out of my seat all together! Taking pictures felt like an activity that might kill me, so I was only able to snap a couple. How I wish I could’ve taken thousands! There was so much to take in at once!!
Our rickshaw ride went through the streets of wholesalers selling jewelry, clothing, and decorations for weddings. There were SO MANY COLORS! Next, we walked through the spice market. I don’t know what spice it was, but one of them made me sneeze uncontrollably! We climbed up on top of one of the buildings to see around the markets. The air is so full of smog and dirt, it’s hard to see into the distance.
[I also wish I could have captured pictures of all of the things I saw on bikes, rickshaws, and trailers. You wouldn’t believe the amount of things they move around in this manner! Sometimes piled high to the sky…sometimes long items that stick way out in front and way out the back!]
We jumped back in our rickshaw to ride up the Chandni Chowk to the Red Fort. It was constructed by Shah Jahan (the same Mughal emperor who built the Jama Masjid mosque and the Taj Mahal). This was built between 1638-1648 A.D. The walls are made of red sandstone, and they stretch for 2 km and range from 18-33 meters high.
The Red Fort was the residence of the Mughal emperor for nearly 200 years. The fort was not maintained properly was already in disrepair by the 19th century. Then, the British destroyed most of the buildings inside the fort to make room for barracks and other military buildings. You have to use your imagination to see how splendid it used to be.
[Every year on Independence Day (August 15), the Prime Minister gives an address to the nation from the fort.]
[I wish I could’ve taken pictures of all the things I saw people carrying on their heads! It was incredible!!]
[Hall of Public Audiences – where the emperor would hear disputes from his subjects]
[I am obsessed with these arches! It was my first time seeing this style of architecture, and I loved it!]
[Hall of Private Audiences – where the emperor would hold private meetings. This used to have a magnificent throne and silver ceiling. Most of the beautiful decor was looted in the 1700’s]
[Tuk tuks!! My guide told me there were 100,000 of these in Dehli alone! They are EVERYWHERE! From what I can tell, they function as taxis. In Agra, my guide joked that they are only supposed to carry three people, and they usually carry a dozen! I couldn’t find one with a dozen, but I definitely saw plenty of them with 6-8 people piled inside!]
Bangla Sahib Gurudwara is a Sikh Temple. This was my first time in one. Everyone has to take off their shoes (even socks) and cover their heads. Inside the temple, three musicians were performing…two on small keyboard-like instruments, one on a drum, and one or more of them were singing. It was really loud! I think they were singing from their holy book. The inside was really ornate – lots of gold! There were a lot of flowers being sold. I’m assuming they’re given as an offering, but that’s just a guess.
[They feed free meals to tons of people each day! Look at the amount of food they make!]
Lunch was at Lutyens Cocktail House – a restaurant that could’ve been in any major city. I felt a world apart from what I’d seen in the morning. I told myself I was going to eat Indian food at every opportunity (and avoid raw fruits & veggies at all cost), so I bypassed the pages of pizza and pasta and opted for naan and Chicken Tikka. It was good, but boy, was it spicy!
After lunch, we visited Humayun’s Tomb. It was built in the mid-16th century for the second Mughal emperor by his wife. The tomb is red sandstone and white marble – just beautiful!
And finally, the Qutab Minar complex. Construction of the minar began in 1193. It is nearly 73 meters tall and goes from a diamter of 15 meters at the bottom to only 2.5 meters at the top. The first three stories are made of red sandstone, and the final two stories are made of marble. Initially, only three stories were built. Later, additional ones were added. In 1368, the top story was rebuilt (following a lightning strike a number of years earlier). The minar sits among the ruins of the Quwat-ul-Islam Mosque.
[Look at the intricacy and uniqueness of the pillars!]
[This iron pillar is seven meters high. The iron has not rusted after 1,500-2,000 years, which is mind boggling to scientists. Per the Sanskrit inscription, they believe it was located somewhere else before coming to this site. It was erected in memory of Chandragupta II. He ruled from 375-413 A.D.]
CITY #2: AGRA
We left Dehli early in an attempt to miss the traffic. I can’t recall exactly, but I think the drive to Agra took 3-4 hours. The amazing thing about India is that you NEVER reach a stretch in the drive where you are the only car. There are always trucks, motorcycles, tuk tuks, bicycles, camels, horses, pigs, cows, street dogs, or pedestrians sharing the road with you. ALWAYS. Somehow the organized chaos seems to work. But one of the secret weapons is the horn. Whether it’s a gentle “toot toot” to remind someone you’re next to them or passing them, or an angry “HONK” to yell at someone for nearly causing an accident, the horn is a constant.
Before heading to the main attraction, we stopped at the “Baby Taj.” This is the tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg, and it is exquisite! It is built of marble, and there is some incredible detail in the carvings. Both the marble lattice screens and the marble inlaid work is stunning! It was built in 1628, and some believe it inspired the design of the Taj Mahal.
[This is carved out of marble!!!! Without modern day tools!!! Can you say “WOW”?!]
[And all of the colorful detail is inlaid marble. Again…WOW!! The artists carved into the marble, then carved precious and semi-precious stones into pieces that were glued into the marble cut outs. Amazing detail!!]
[There were monkeys in Dehli – mostly climbing around on rooftops and in the wires above the streets, but in Agra, they were EVERYWHERE. And it’s clear they are fearless! They can’t do anything to reduce their numbers, because many Indians consider the monkey to be a god. At a number of sites, there were men in place to chase the monkeys away!]
After checking into the hotel, it was the moment I’ve waited for (and the real reason for this trip in the first place)…the Taj Mahal! Emperor Shah Jahan built it in 1653 A.D. as a memorial to his queen, Mumtaz Mahal. (They were married 19 years, and she died giving birth to their 14th child!) This mausoleum took 22 years to complete and required nearly 22,000 craftsmen! Can you believe that all you find inside are two bodies – the queen and the Emperor?!
If you were to divide the Taj Mahal in half, it would be IDENTICAL on either side. Imagine making such a perfectly proportioned structure before modern computers and tools! Simply amazing!
[I think I was most blown away by how the only thing behind it is the sky. It literally sits on a blank canvas. My guide told me that there is strict regulation that nothing can be built behind it. They’ve also restricted manufacturing of any kind within a 50 km radius of the Taj Mahal. This is an attempt at reducing pollution, which taints the white color.]
[I probably would’ve been okay with just one picture of me with the Taj, but my guide commandeered my camera and insisted I pose over and over again at all of the perfect spots.]
[This is the kind of detail that is all over the facade and in the interior of the building! It is marble inlay work, and it is incredibly intricate. Like I described earlier, the craftsmen carved into the marble, then carved precious or semi-precious stones to glue into the grooves. There is TONS of this on the Taj Mahal!]
[Rockin’ the shoe covers!]
[The script is all marble inlay work, too! AND…the font size is smaller closer to the ground than it is up above, so that it looks to be the same size from the ground. Who thinks of things like that?!]
That is a site that did not disappoint. If anything, it was even more impressive in person – particularly when I learned about the marble inlay work!
[Another Indian meal at Pinch of Spice]
The final stop of the day was the Agra Fort. I saw a number of forts in these cities, and they are all laid out similarly – haram, the living quarters of the Emperor, his family, etc., the audience halls (both public and private), and the protective exterior.
Construction of the Agra Fort began in 1565. The Fort was made of red sandstone, and later, Shah Jahan added white marble.
[The former moat]
The next morning, we started the trek from Agra to Jaipur. In total, it probably took 5-6 hours. Getting out of Agra in the morning was crazy. So many humans, animals, and vehicles of all kinds are in the road!
[Yes, that’s a cow in the street blocking traffic!! And did you notice the label on my van? So much for blending in…]
We drove through REALLY dense fog until we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri – an ancient city that was built by Emperor Akbar between 1570-1585 A.D. Today, it is uninhabited, and they speculate that they’ve only uncovered about 5% of the city. It is made of red sandstone. For a few years, the capital moved from Agra to this city before the Emperor abandoned the city and returned to Agra.
[Can you see the faded fresco of an elephant on the bottom right portion of the wall?]
CITY #3: JAIPUR
The final city was a beautiful one. Early in the morning we headed out to Amber Fort, but first, we stopped for a picture of the Palace of the Wind (Hawa Mahal). This facade was built in 1799 so that the ladies could observe the bazaar through the windows without being visible by the people on the street below.
The Palace of the Wind is located within the Old City, which is also known as the Pink City. This was a meticulously planned city, and it was painted pink as a sign of hospitality in 1876 to welcome the Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VII).
At the Amber Fort, I accomplished another life goal – riding an elephant! For any animal rights activists, I’ll tell you what I was told…the elephants only make five trips up the hill to the fort per day. In the warm months, they only go twice. Most of the elephants are owned by private owners. These rides are not their greatest source of income. Festivals and weddings are where they make most of their money. Many of them had faded colors and designs from on their trunks, ears, and faces from previous engagements. One final fun fact…all of the elephants are female.
[This fort is beautiful enough to be a palace. Construction began in 1592, but the fort was expanded over time.]
[This facade is original. Isn’t that amazing?! They painted most of these buildings with natural dyes from fruits & vegetables.]
[My guide was so proud of this picture. He was showing how all of the mirrors reflect.]
[Posing with the Amber Fort up on the hill]
[Jal Mahal is also known as the Water Palace. It was built in 1799 for the royal family. They had duck hunting parties here.]
[Jantar Mantar is an observatory that was created in 1728. It looks like a sculpture park, but it is actually home to many astronomical and astrological tools, including the world’s largest sundial!]
[The City Palace is a large complex with a variety of museums inside. There are descendants of the royal family who still occupy a large portion of the palace.]
[These are the largest sterling-silver objects in the world. They held holy water from the Ganges when Maharaja Madho Singh II was traveling to England. He needed to have enough holy water for bathing. There are two of these urns, and they can each hold more than 4,000 liters.]
As you can see from these pictures, India is definitely incredible. However, more than the palaces and forts, vibrant colors and beautiful architecture, the thing that remains with me is the poverty. It was impossible to escape, except for when I was inside one of these monuments or in my hotel. Everywhere else, I was faced with people living on the street. I’ve been to more than 50 countries, and this was the most intense destination I’ve ever visited.
I was also blown away by the sheer number of people. Even when we were driving for hours between cities, we never went more than a few hundred feet without seeing people…walking through the fields, drying cow patties on the roadside, overflowing out of a tuk tuk or jeep driving down the road…there are so. many. people.
Two of my three guides described India as organized chaos. The first day, my guide told me that despite the chaos, everything works. It will be a long time before I forget the sheer volume of people, animals, and vehicles that are dodging each other on the roads.
I guess all of these things combined are what truly make it Incredible India…