A 15-day tour of India: What it's like visiting this intoxicating country for the first time

There are several doors in this passageway in Varanasi but the cow knows exactly which one is the one. It trots up to it, knocks with its head, and waits.

There's chattering from inside and then a sari-clad arm throws open the door and waves a chapati. The cow wolfs it down and heads off, on the way, we are told, to its next stop.

We have only been in India for days but already this bizarre bovine exchange makes just as much sense to us as everything else as we hurry along the winding streets of this spiritual ancient city, dodging stacks of cremation wood and meditating holy men sitting cross-legged on dusty steps.

The night before I'd dropped candles into a smoky, crimson Ganges in memory of three family members as the funeral pyres of others' loved ones burned both on heaving ghats under a full moon, and forever in our memories.

It took three false starts and a few decades for me to get to India, and the country is playing with my mind. Nothing seems to make sense one minute, and the whole universe makes perfect sense the next.

DAYS 1 & 2 FEEDING GOOD KARMA

A man drops biscuits on the ground in a lane off a choking Delhi thoroughfare. "Feeding the rats," K, our enigmatic guide for our small group G Adventures tour, explains, as we pass another man having a haircut on the roadside. The barber is incredibly tolerant I decide as we watch him take styling advice from passers-by. 'Rats?' 'Yes, for good karma,' explains K. I nod, though I understand nothing. We visit an NGO that helps street kids, Jama Masjid, Delhi's Great Mosque and enter a heaving Chandni Chowk Market. At Qutab Minar, a 72.5 metre minaret dating to 1192, we hear how sections of it were destroyed and rebuilt over centuries by earthquakes and lightning. But tragedy struck in the 1980s when 45 people died in a stampede inside it. How did I not know this, I wonder. It's a question I will repeat many times on this trip.

DAYS 3 & 4 HOW I MET MY MOTHER

You did not decide to come here, Mother Ganges summoned you. That's not quite right my brain starts to insist, but it, like my mouth, seems to have been put in neutral. For here we are bobbing in a small boat on the smoky Ganges as the sun dips in the sky, casting a pink glow over the strangely still water. Chants, acrid smoke, tinkling bells and the breaths of thousands of mourners and visitors fill the air as funeral pyres are lit on ghats on the side of the river and mourners stand in line to farewell their loved ones by placing them on burning wood. As the sun sinks it is replaced by a full moon that throws a sheet of silver over the water and spotlights camels, people in yoga poses and a lone horseman on a small island in the middle of this end-of-days tableau. A holy man blesses us before I set my three candles sailing off on bamboo husks. It's impossible that we flew into this ancient scene on a gleaming jet from Delhi just this morning.

At 4.30am the next day we cannot be more awake. Images of last night's introduction to the Ganges have infiltrated our dreams in our beautifully restored palace hotel and left us keen for more. We arrive by rickshaw to the river and listen to chants and prayers before we watch pilgrims wash away their sins. Then we are back on the water, though now the nine of us and K are accompanied by a sitar player. As he loses himself to his music one of our number, an ex-prison warder from Northern Ireland, sits eyes closed in a yoga pose. Later we walk through streets behind the ghats and spot barbers preparing pilgrims by shaving their heads near pits where fires burned the night before. It should be confronting but the acceptance and respect shown to and by the mourners makes it moving and, strangely, comforting. We follow a brisk K single file up a narrow street. A shout from ahead and we spring into doorways and count our blessings as we miss a stampeding row of horned cows by centimetres.

DAY 5 KAMA CHAMELEON

Another flight, this time to the western temples of Khajuraho. As we head by bus to our hotel, K explains the roles of the Hindu gods, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma; the pros and cons of arranged marriages and the use of plastic waste in road building. The western temples, built between the ninth and 11th centuries, display erotic scenes from the kama sutra in tableaux that mix the erotic, the sublime and the irreverent with respect, ahead-of-their-time candour and humour. Our guide is excellent. "Why is this pachyderm the only one smiling in this row?" he asks, head wiggling in delight. We look closely. Sure enough the grinning elephant is the only one with a sideways view of a cavorting couple.

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DAY 6 SELFIE STATION

We arrive at a teeming railway station to catch the night train to Agra, but I can't see how we are going to make it through this sea of people with our bags. Somehow K clears a path and we head inside with our bags, up escalators, across a walkway, then down escalators, all the while being peppered with questions from friendly crowds who queue for selfies with us. The train arrives and swallows us. On board, chaos turns to order as we realise K has our allocated tickets, K has the right carriage and K has organised our bags. Dinner is served on metal trays by nimble-footed waiters. I spend the journey chatting to an Indian aid worker on a mission to bring solar lights to villages.

DAY 7 TAJ MIRAGE

It floats in front of us, a dazzling white mirage. We left our hotel before dawn but that is not why we are rubbing our eyes. The Taj Mahal is mind boggling, and we are among the first there. We wander around this epic symbol of love, and later chuckle as big crowds, including Westerners dressed in traditional Indian garb, arrive. This is apparently the thing to do at "the Taj", as is being photographed on the Princess Diana bench, the one where she was snapped looking sad. As women queue for a turn, cries of 'tilt your head' or 'look sadder' ring out.

DAY 8 TIGER BALM

We have been in the jeep only 20 minutes at Ranthambore National Park when we spot a shock of orange. Tiger. We stare transfixed before it disappears into forest. There are deer, boar and monkeys but nothing beats this. This afternoon word is out that another tiger is cooling off in a river. We rush there and sure enough it's just metres away sitting Sphinx-like in the water. We are spellbound for 40 minutes as the sun sinks and other groups leave. Just as our driver says we must go, the tiger stands, stretches and splashes its paw before exiting. We are ecstatic, K is chuffed. 'Two tigers! Excellent karma.'

DAYS 9 & 10 IN THE PINK

 

A boy repairs a tyre with a needle and thread by the road as we head to the "pink city" – Jaipur, Rajasthan, where we visit the City Palace and Amber Fort. Tonight we have a cooking lesson with a local family. We head to their roof after dinner to watch the coloured lights which are sprinkling the city for the upcoming Diwali festival. 'I wish I could put lights on the terrace,' one woman sighs. 'Why don't you?' we ask. 'The monkeys smash them.'

The next day starts with a yoga class before we head past snake charmers to Jantar Mantar, an astronomical park dating to 1727, which houses giant instruments built by Raiput King Sawai Jai Singh – a man way ahead of his time. Our guide, an astronomer and astrologer, asks us to recite our birth dates then tells each of us an unnervingly accurate snippet.

Later we travel to Jojawar to catch a train through Rajasthan's Aravalli Range. As we straddle open doorways to take in sheer drops to valleys below, we spot monkeys swinging through trees. At station stops they clamber aboard along windows and through doorways, gobbling peanuts before leaping off through thick vegetation. Tonight we stay in the Hotel Rawla, a former fort. As we walk into its gates, marigold petals rain down on us from above.

DAY 11 ANIMAL MAGIC

A dog, a pig and a cow trot down a street together like friends on an outing. There is something about their gait, the way they relate to each other: this reincarnation thing is stretching my brain. We walk through Jojawar and visit the village home to the Rabaris, cattle herders. We meet a shepherd whose long turban protects him from the elements when he's on the road - often for months. Once unfurled, it becomes a tent.

DAYS 12, 13 & 14

A PALACE THAT HOVERS

A woman in a pink sari shovels tar on a road as we drive into the Venice of the East – Udaipur. Whereas the waters of the Ganges summon ancient magic, Lake Pichola summons visions of Venice. Udaipur's lake is home to the Taj Lake Palace or "Floating Palace", which appears to hover over the water and the marble City Palace with its spiked entrance gates and concrete pitch where elephants once played tug-of-war.

DAY 15 WE WILL BE BACK

We fly out leaving a Diwali-mad Delhi exploding crackers and belching smoke and goodwill behind us.

TRIP NOTES

Jane Richards travelled to India at her own expense and was a guest of G Adventures.

MORE

Traveller.com.au/India

incredibleindia-tourism.org

TOUR

15-day Discover India small group National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures from $3199pp. Phone 1300 180 969 www.gadventures.com.au

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