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Tuesday, 19 February 2013 14:35

Awestruck in India

Written by  Julie Hatfield
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Oscar de la Renta, the fashion designer from the colorful, tropical Dominican Republic, took a trip to India a couple of decades ago and was so blown away by the visual inspiration he found there that his collections for many seasons afterwards reflected more of India than the D.R.
We, as de la Renta, did not expect to be as enchanted by India as we were. Arriving in Delhi from the airport, the exotic sights, sounds and smells of the city give the traveler a startling sensory overload. Driving through Old Delhi on the way to our hotel, we felt as if we were on the set of a very exotic movie with the snaking lanes and smoke-filled air; bazaars and markets selling eggplant, spices and silver jewelry; doctors’ offices set next door to cobblers; rickshaw-style lorries driven by ancient men in Sikh turbans and long white beards; a plethora of people of every shape and size and color moving in no logically patterned way. A tourist to India should be able to move calmly through chaos, enjoy visiting historic sites and value the opportunity for cultural immersion over the ability to spread out on a beach—at least in Northern India.
New Delhi, built beside Old Delhi by the British in the 1920’s, has larger and more ordered streets but does not lack the lavish colors that can only be found here. How can they make a beautiful neon pink so strong we thought, watching a woman in a sari of that color, that it seems you almost have to close your eyes so it doesn’t blind you?
Other surprises awaited us at the hotel. We were in India in January when the weather permits outdoor celebrations, and there were several weddings taking place at our hotel in New Delhi. A wedding in India is a loud, festive, colorful outdoor celebration with jangling jewelry and horse-drawn carriages emblazoned with flowers. I remember the sound of a marching band passing under my window in the middle of the night when public celebrations are deliberately scheduled; because that’s the only time the streets are empty enough to allow marching bands and floats to parade down them.

Majestic Rajasthan
You can pick and choose from an enormous number of historic sites and buildings in New Delhi, but one of the newest and most spectacular is the Lotus Temple of the Ba’hai religion. It was designed to look like a lotus flower and welcomes any visitors who want to go inside and see a service.
We flew to Udaipur, in the state of Rajasthan, to stay at the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, a white marble mosaic jewel set in the middle of Lake Pichola. A summer residence of a princess of Mewar, built in 1746, it is a dreamlike building with nothing but water surrounding it, making it look like its own surreal island. When then First Lady Jackie Kennedy visited here with her sister, she suggested the palace would make a wonderful hotel, and the owners decided to do just that. One of many romantic destinations in this sensuous country, it features a dinner for two, if you choose, served by boat in the lake on a raft a hundred yards away from the hotel.
Take a short boat ride to the City Palace located on the mainland in Udaipur and you can tour through beautiful rooms and enjoy the artwork on the walls, the romantic swing for lovers set over a pool inside the palace, and the deliberately grooved cement elephant “parking lots” just outside, where the palace elephants used to rest. It was here, too, that we saw a woman in a sari of intense sapphire blue working construction on the palace, carrying cement blocks back and forth on her head!
The trip through crowded dusty roads to Agra to see the Taj Mahal is worth the time and trouble to get there from Delhi. No matter how many photographs and paintings you have seen of this incredible building, nothing prepares you for the real thing. There are only two things I have ever seen that moved me to tears from the sheer beauty of them: the Grand Canal in Venice and the Taj Mahal.

Tips on Getting Around
Perhaps the nicest hotel in Agra is the Oberoi Amarvilas, just 600 meters from the Taj Mahal. Those who stay there enjoy views of it at dusk and in the moonlight as well as in full daylight. There is no bad time to see the Taj Mahal. We stayed at a lower priced hotel without the view, but were enchanted when a musician played “morning music” on his sitar-like instrument, at breakfast. Monkeys scrambled over the rooftops of our outdoor patio restaurant at one lunch stop. Surprises such as this are part of a trip to India.
Unless you’re a yoga student traveling to meet your guru (and there are lots of these flying regularly from the U.S. to Delhi), you should link to a tour group on your first trip to India, which will take care of transportation through the crowds, hotels and sightseeing. You should also make sure to apply for a visa; it’s a necessity to even enter the airport in Delhi. You can tell tour guides whether you want to focus your India trip on rivers, or architecture, culture, wildlife, camel safaris and whatever else—India has all these and much more.

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