If you asked me in person about my recent trip to India you’d probably get some lacklustre response about how it was amazing, incredible or any combination of inflated and predictable superlatives. This isn’t me trying to deviously mask a bad holiday but rather an attempt not to excitedly recite every little detail to the unfortunate soul who asked.
As someone who is half-Indian this trip carried a little more significance than just being a holiday. Before I left the UK the idea of me exploring a culture that is ingrained in me but I know so painfully little about was firmly in my mind and as such I was slightly nervous. The possibility of me not liking it as much as I thought I would do was very real.
I needn’t have worried.
From the moment I walked out of the arrivals lounge at Delhi’s Indira Ghandi International and into the hazy daylight that winter brings to the country I knew I was in for something special. As we sat in the traffic Delhi is so famed for I was drinking in my surroundings, the smell of the garland of fresh flowers our driver had placed around my neck filling my nose. Despite the drive to our hotel not actually being that interesting in the grand scheme of things, I couldn’t not look out the window. This was my first taste of the country and I was loving it.
India completely envelops you in the most magnificent way; it is most certainly not a place that you can do by halves because it is quite literally impossible to. The country’s rich heritage is everywhere. Grandiose old forts, hundreds of years old and lavished with marble and intricate carvings lie proudly in the middle of sprawling, modern cities that have grown around them. Ornate temples, of all sizes, are of course found everywhere and no matter where they are they stand out from their surroundings.
It certainly isn’t what you’d describe outright as a beautiful country, too much mess lies in the streets and too many buildings are unfinished. However you soon become oblivious to it and that’s when the country really comes alive and the underlying wonder reveals itself. Beauty lies in the never-ending chaos that the country runs on, street side sellers offer everything from stacks of brightly coloured material to local delicacies, even barbers work at the side of the road, their speciality being shaves with cut throat razors. Spotting one of the thousands of cows that freely roam the streets was novel the first time and it didn’t wear off. Cows are of course the most sacred animal in Hinduism and have the ability to stop traffic, whether they wander in front of a rickshaw or one of the huge 8 axle trucks that congest the streets.
Charm comes by the bucket load, whether you’re in the midst of a city or a tiny town, and can be a tad overwhelming in the most positive sense of the word. Any time you step outside of your hotel you’re thrust right into the midst of the action, it’s almost like stepping into a separate world, venturing from a bubble of calm. I found Jaipur particularly enchanting; the narrow streets packed with tiny shops and street vendors that you find in any Indian city took on a different character here. Faded purples, pinks, blues and reds made them look almost like something you’d see on the set of a Wes Anderson film.
It would be absolute criminal of me to write about India and not talk about the Taj Mahal (well, unless I hadn’t visited it). Borne out of one mans love for his dead wife, it is safely up there as one of the most awe-inspiring and magnificent sights I have ever seen in my entire life. Constructed entirely of gleaming white marble and perfectly symmetrical, the pure magnificence of what lies before you stuns you into silence the second you see it – its effect is so profound it’s almost made one of my friends cry before. It’s truly unfathomable how amazing it is until you’ve seen it for yourself; not a single photo is able to do it justice.
Unexpectedly, the highlight of the 17 days I was there was visiting the Wagah border for the daily closing ceremony. Every night, guards from India and Pakistan try to outperform each other with an eccentric and frankly wild display of high kicks, marching and some amusing fist waving. A ceremony between two supposedly sworn enemies is not something you would think is treated as the spectacle it is but try telling that to the countless people selling commemorative t-shirts, flags and hats.
Most of all, out of everything I saw and did nothing could come close to the real gem of India – the people. Sure it’s infuriating when someone trying to sell you something won’t take no for an answer, annoying when the 50th person stares at you for being such an obvious tourist but it’s just the way the culture is. All this is forgiven and forgotten when you go native and take a tuk tuk ride. Engaging in a bit of light bartering with the driver – read halving the inflated tourist price – is always fun and makes tipping them at the end of the journey even better, not a single driver failed to burst out into a grin as wide as their face when you told them the extra money was for them. Modern India has even managed to catch up with tuk tuks, it’s not unusual to see one with flashing LED lights and huge speakers in the back blaring Bollywood hits, which certainly add something to the journey even if they do feel a bit out of place.
I fell in love with India and as I began the long journey home I wondered why on earth I ever worried I might not. An underlying sense of amazement takes over you anywhere you go, drawing you in until you’re totally and irrevocably taken by it.
Magical may sound cliché, but that’s exactly what India is.
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Words by Kieran Parmar