If you read a standard India travel guide, one of the first recommendations made is to plan your trip for the cold season. The monsoon season, lasting from June to September, is a hot, humid mess that should be avoided, with greater chances for both disease and natural disaster. Well, it was mid-July, and having skimped on my research, I was not about to cancel a flight. With only a 2 week stopover in the UK from my previous adventures in Ecuador, where I had just enough time to undertake a speedy university graduation, I was straight off again towards India.
I landed in New Delhi with extreme jetlag, and in all honesty, the first day was a total blur. I took no photos and remember only rain, cows, and a variety of pleasing and not-so-pleasing smells. Being a dense, polluted and busy city, I planned to make my immediate exit the next day. Luckily, Delhi is positioned as one corner of a "golden triangle" tourist route, linking up three of the most famous cities of the North. With almost too much choice for where to travel, and seeing that the final stopoff would drop me inside the legendary state of Uttar Pradesh, this route seemed as a good a place as any to start.
If you're also an India first-timer, read on for my top 5 tips to survive India.
Hawa Mahal, Palace of Winds
A six hour bus ride away, the pink city of Jaipur is best known for its castles and forts that were built during the Mughal Empire. Painted pink to welcome the visiting Prince of Wales in 1876, the pastel hue still lingers on, merged with the warm oranges of ancient brickwork.
Stepping off the bus in Jaipur, just like anywhere else in India, I was immediately greeted by dozens of over-friendly tuktuk and taxi drivers pushing their services.
TIP #1: use tuktuks to get around, but be a great haggler or use apps for a fairer deal.
Tuktuks are the quickest and most adventurous way to get around, and drivers are not afriad to mount pavements or drive on the wrong side of the road to transport you fast. They are a livelihood for many, and each bears the personal marks of its owner.
Before you accept a tuktuk driver's invitation, it is essential that you have agreed on a price. The first offer they give you will always be extortionate, at least compared to the local rate. While this may be a trivial amount to the average holidayer, for budget travellers where every penny counts, tuktuks can quickly cut through your budget. Don't be afraid to act like a local: push your counteroffers, shop around for other drivers, or better yet, book a tuktuk through one of the various taxi apps.
After visiting several textile factories and talking with eager locals, most of my time in Jaipur was actually spent watching the more interesting occupants of the city: Hanuman langurs. Revered as a symbol of Hanuman the monkey god, they are a common fixture of Indian temples, making for some interesting photographic opportunities.
Langurs have even been employed by the government as pest controllers - when New Delhi hosted the commonwealth games in 2010, 38 trained hanuman langurs were used to drive off rhesus macaques and other more aggressive animals.
The Legend of Hanuman (हनुमान्)
One morning as a child, the playful monkey Hanuman once mistook the sun as a ripe fruit, and jumped up to catch it. Lord Indira, the king of gods, intervened and struck Hanuman with a diamond thunderbolt, hitting him on his jaw and sending his body hurtling back down to Earth.
Enraged by this attack, his father the wind god Vayu sucked out all the air from the universe, leaving the people and animals to suffer immensely. Seeing this struggle, the supreme Shiva resuscitated Hanuman and the air was quickly returned, but as an amelioration to Vayu, Hanuman was blessed with multiple wishes.
Lord Indra granted him a body as strong as his thunderbolt, other gods granted him protection to fire, water and wind, Brahma the Creator granted him the ability to move anywhere in any form and Vishnu the Preserver bestowed upon him a weapon. Hanuman was hence made immortal, and even today, temples located in his last know residence of Gandmadana mountain keep one seat in the audience empty in his name.
Macaques can also be found in Jaipur at the Galta Ji monkey temple, but emit a less-approachable vibe than langurs. The temple here is centered around a natural water spring that pilgrims (mostly, but not exclusively, human) use to cleanse themselves.
Jumping on another short bus from Jaipur, I arrived at my final destination of the golden triangle, Agra, tucked inside the border of Uttar Pradesh. Home to the Taj Mahal, almost everything else in the city feels immensly overshadowed.
The Taj Mahal, a wonder of the new world, is the "jewel of Muslim art in India", constructed out of white marble by 20,000 laborers and 1000 elephants over a total of 22 years. It cost around $1 billion in today's value to build, and was dedicated to the memory of a King's favourite wife after her death.
For me, the day I visited the Taj Mahal will go down as one of the hottest days I have ever experienced. Under a 40°C sun, intensified by reflections from the shining marble architecture, even the free tour guide was a continuous melting fountain of sweat. Still, that didn't stop thousands of visitors from taking selfies at every available corner of the complex.
To visit the Taj Mahal, you must first walk or take eco-friendly transport through the 500m emission exclusion zone, recently erected to protect the temple from pollution-damage. Although originally white, air pollution has recently been turning the marble of the Taj Mahal yellow and green. This pollution is released in huge quantities by the continuous development and construction activity within Agra, making it one of the most polluted cities in the world. Unfortunately, alongside architectural damage, poor air quality is also causing high rates of respiratory problems in the local population.
The crumbling spire
Tip #2: Go off-path.
To experience a unique form of India, that doesn't just follow the basic tourist itinerary, you have to explore a bit. Take chances on locals who offer to tell you more about the history of an area, and try to view landmarks from a different perspective.
On a search for an interesting vantage point, I took a right from the main entrance to the Taj Mahal and followed a long path down some dusty roads. Eventually, I ended up at a crumbling spire that overlooked the Yamuna river, where two children were playing and admiring the view. A handful of other tourists did turn up over the evening, but compared to being inside the Taj Mahal gardens, the place was practically empty.
Watching the sunrise reflect gold and lilac in the Yamuna, framed by the Arabian architecture of the ancient spire, I appreciated the spectacle in the best way I could - by vomiting in front of it.
Tip #3: Food.
If you want to visit India, especially during the monsoon or hot seasons, you have to come to terms with the fact that you will inevitably get ill. Whether by food or water, I have met no one who has been through the country unscathed. You can, however, take steps to minimise the rate at which you get ill. Eat plant-based, ask other travellers for restaurant recommendations, and drink only bottled water that is properly sealed.
Potentially one of the oldest and holiest cities in the world, Varanasi is a swarming hub for Hinduism. It is closely tied to the Ganges river, where pilgrims journey to wash themselves and collect holy water to bring back to their families.
Tip #4: Take it slow.
To travel to Varanasi, I had to take a 15 hour overnight bus across Uttar Pradesh from Agra. That is, if everything went to plan, which it rarely does in India. Instead, I stayed inside a sleeper compartment for almost 30 hours, without any additional food or water, due to a build up of some record-breaking traffic. This was a common pattern in India, with travel being full of delays, unexpected detours and changes of plan. I quickly learned that to enjoy yourself, you have to keep chill. Make extra time in your schedule for delays, and just go with it.
Finally arriving in Varanasi, I went directly to the waterfront and walked along the numerous ghats, stone steps leading into the water, that line the shore. I soon found that two ghats in particular are used to prepare bodies quite openly for cremation. To be cremated on the banks of the Ganges is thought to break the cycle of reincarnation and reach salvation, and Hindu families can be seen cremating the bodies of their family members throughout the day.
Tip #5: Avoid hustlers.
It wasn't long on my walk before I was approached by several different locals. Some appearing as Sadhus, those who have renounced their life to follow a path of spiritual discipline, encourage you to take a friendly photo and then immediately demand payment. Others invite you to watch a traditional ceremony and explain to you what is happening, but afterwards question you for donation. As a visitor to this country, you are easily identified as a source of cash to what is quite often an impoverished population. It is up to you where you draw your line on "donations", but be aware you'll be poked and prodded to give money out in most situations.
One group who did approach me for different reasons however. Seeing my camera, these young men wanted a photo to mark their friendship in front of the Ganges. Sadly, the phone number they gave me to send it over never worked.
Every evening in Varansi, there is an explosion of orange from Shiva devotees to mark the conclusion of another Ganga Aarti. This is where hundreds if not thousands assemble on the river's edge to watch the Ganges be honoured through mantras, incense, fire and music. Although this ceremony is held all year round, the largest being on the Dashashwamedh Ghat, during the holy month of Sawan, in which Lord Shiva shows limitless favour to his followers, huge numbers from around the country join. This period happened to line up with my visit, and caused enormous traffic jams across Uttar Pradesh, as people rush to take part in the Ganga Aarti and collect blessed water.
An explosion of orange
I only had time for a week in Uttar Pradesh, and it was over before I knew it. From Varanasi, it was time to head to to the main destination of my trip, the Indian Himalayas (click here to read part 2 of my India blog)∎