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Tuesday, 19 February 2013 14:45

Cultural Journey Driving India’s Golden Triangle

Written by  Marian Goldberg
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Driving (or riding in) a car in India is a cultural experience. Despite the distances between states and cities, the best way for tourists to get around India is by private automobile. There are no super-fast bullet trains, and a private car provides convenience, flexibility, and allows you to keep your favorite driver for your entire trip. At first I was extremely nervous in the car, especially at night, with dark and not-always-very-well-paved roads. In fact, when my driver, Rana, picked me up upon my arrival at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi,I complained, “Slow down. I’m not in a rush!” and “What’s with the incessant horn?” I just figured HE wanted to get home, since my Jet Airways flight had arrived after 10 p.m., and we hadn’t even gotten into his car until around 11:15 p.m. Nevertheless, after a week with him driving me all across North India, I was grateful that Indebo Travel (www.indebo.com), the company that arranged my trip, carefully screens its drivers. In fact, Rana, had been owner Nandini Ramaswami’s wife’s personal driver, before they agreed he was expert enough to drive their guests.

I learned that being in a car in India is, in itself, a cultural experience. One day, for example, after paying the toll collector what seemed like a substantial amount of rupees, we proceeded at about 50 miles per hour onto the “highway.” But, then cars came head-on at us in the opposite direction, honking and swerving their way around us. Women carrying — atop their heads — baskets of food, sacks of rice or clay and metal amphorae filled with water, crossed the street in front of us. Cows – solo and in groups — meandered their way across the road. Alongside us and in front of us, colorfully decorated trucks that looked like they should have been heading to the circus, displayed signs demanding “Horn Please!” In reality, these trucks were transporting everything from construction materials to produce to hordes of local Indians desperate for a means to get to work, but they moved at the speed of a dump truck laden with lead pipes. I was fascinated by minivans — seats removed — so packed with men, women and children that they could not even close the rear door, and by buses — so cramped with passengers that more rode on the “fenced-in” top of the bus — where at least they could have access to fresher, cooler air and get down the back ladder and off the bus quickly – in the middle of the road, of course — when the bus came to a stoplight or was just stalled in traffic. The ubiquitous motorcycles are another favorite Indian mode of transportation. Sometimes families of four would ride on one bike, sometimes with no helmets, and the children never seemed to wear helmets! Roving street vendors also seemed to favor the motorcycles as they could make a quick sale at a stoplight. Shopping as a Cultural Experience While I took a round-trip New Jersey Transit-like train from Delhi to Haridwar to experience the mystical Ganges River, the rest of my itinerary maneuvered me from city to city and state to state by car. Rana drove me from Delhi to Jaipur to Samode to Ranthambore National Park (www.ranthamborenationalpark.com) at Sawai Madhopur to Agra and then back to Delhi.

In Jaipur and Agra, we visited a number of local craft industry establishments that employ hundreds of local Rajasthanis. Some work in the Anokhi stores, but most labor in their homes. This gives the local people jobs without the burden of long, difficult, and expensive commutes, and also helps to preserve centuries’ old crafts. Jaipur is well-known as a world gem-cutting center, especially for emeralds as well as for its wood-block, hand-stamped fabric designs and specialized woven carpet patterns in both yak wool and silk. Bhandari Jewellers (www.bhandarijewellers.com) employs up to 90 people in their store, including craftsmen who cut, polish and assemble jewelry, which they also demonstrate to showroom visitors. More importantly, Bhandari employs more than 250 home-based skilled craftspeople who are assisted by their family members in Cutting Stones, Polishing Stones, Faceting Stones and Creating Jewelry, and in making other types of handicrafts that are sold in the store. Indigo Carpets & Textiles (E-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ), near Jaipur’s Lake Palace and Amber Fort, employs in-home craft workers to weave the rugs and stamp the fabrics for sale. In Jaipur’s Anokhi Museum (www.anokhi.com) the history of hand-stamped indigo clothing is preserved in a by five staff members plus one on-site block carver and one on-site printer. Visitors can just observe or try carving and hand-stamping techniques themselves. As a company, Anokhi employs nearly 300 on-site workers,as well as home-based printers, carvers, embroiderers, and weavers, totaling 1,500 -2,000 craftspeople.

For many of these people, Anokhi attempts to provide regular, year-round employment. In Agra, one of the most common local handicrafts is pietra-dura, a type of marble inlay, the same art used to decorate the walls of the Taj Mahal when Shahjahan built it in 1653. Floral and geometric patterns, created with local and imported semi-precious stones such as Lapis Lazuli (from Afghanistan), Malachite (from South Africa), Turquoise (from Iran), Coral (from Italy), Paua Shell (from New Zealand), and Cornelian (from India), are carefully inlaid into non-porous white, black, or green (Baroda) Indian marble. Resulting art pieces include: tabletops, plates, room tiles, boxes, coaster sets, chessboards, even vases and wine cups. Marble Krafts (www.marble-krafts.com), a 35-year-old family business located just 800 feet south of the Taj Mahal’s Western Gate, employs hundreds of home-based skilled crafts workers. As in all these situations, the goal is to enable the craftspeople to remain in their villages and work in a familiar environment, closer to family.

Favorite Cultural Attractions Of course my favorite site was the magnificent Taj Mahal of Agra, built from 1632-1654 on the orders of Shah Jahan as a monumental tomb for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In fact, I actually hadn’t realized it was only a tomb and a mosque. In all those photographs it appears to be a palace with a tomb “on the side.” We planned to view the architectural marvel at dawn with the sun rising in the background, but it was pouring rain that morning, so we got another view -- a vision of misty solitude… not too many crowds and spires in the clouds. At Haridwar, along the River Ganges (Ganga in Hindu), I had the pleasure of witnessing pilgrims from all over India arriving to bathe in the Ganges and wash away their sins. But, even more exciting was the Aarati Ceremony, held along the banks with singing and lamp lighting that set the river aglow in candles. This ceremony denotes spiritual knowledge and the illumination of truth as well as the total destruction of the ego in the light of true knowledge — represented by the vanishing, burned-out camphor wick. In Delhi, I visited the Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, a holy place of worship for the Sikhs. Translated from Punjabi, Gurdwara means “the doorway to the guru,” and this one is located in the middle of a busy street in the Chandni Chowk area of Old Delhi. It’s at the exact site where the Ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded on the orders of the Mughal emperor in 1675 for refusing to convert to Islam.

There are several relics here, including the trunk of the banyan tree under which the Guru was martyred, and the well where the Guru took his daily bath during his imprisonment. It was intriguing to see how different the Gurdwara is from a Muslim mosque. Here, men and women could sit together and anywhere they chose, and both men and women have to cover their heads. In Jaipur, I had the special opportunity to not only take the tourist’s tour of the pink-washed Amber Fort, which was Jaipur’s hill-top capital until 1728, but because of Indebo’s connections, I got a behind-the-scenes introduction as well. One of the security guards who knew my guide, another Raj, personally took us to the private area of the Fort where I viewed solid silver chairs and jeweled inlayed tables. In Samode, I rode a camel down the village streets waving to the children readying themselves for school and to the local metal smiths hammering away at their pots and bowls. I also rode out into the fields. The scariest part was getting on. That camel could jump! We spent five hours driving from Samode to Ramthambore National Park, but missed the afternoon safari. The next morning’s 6 a.m. safari was delayed due to rain, but we did finally take out the jeep at 9 a.m. I was pleased that although we did not see any tigers, the nature guide did point out other animal and bird species, even though it was kind of difficult to understand his accent. Upon our return, Mr. Balendu Singh, owner of the Dev Vilas Ranthambore safari resort (www.devvilas.com), where I was staying, kindly took me to meet the famous Mr. Fateh Singh Rathore, a former park field director who went from tiger hunter to tiger protector in less than a lifetime. He is one of the founding members of the famous Project Tiger (projecttiger.nic.in) and had a lot to say about the challenge of running a national park under the Ministry of Tourism rather than under the Ministry of Wildlife and Conservation. He noted that what is good for attracting volumes of tourists in the short term, often causes stress on the wildlife and will ultimately affect tourism in the distant future. An Amazing Guide Engages Visitors Indebo (experienceindiatravel.com) was founded over 30 years ago by Malathi Ramaswami, one of India’s first licensed tour guides, renowned for her in-depth knowledge and passion to explore and teach people about her country. Indebo, now run by Mrs. Ramaswami’s son, retired Indian army Colonel Ravi Ramaswami, provides added guide training, pays them well, and recognizes and seeks out exceptional service. Girish, my guide in Delhi, was enthusiastic, down-to-earth, clearly communicative, and an engaging story teller.

During car rides, he explained Indian history, religion, art, people, politics, festivals, celebrities and pop culture, and flora and fauna. He had information and he shared it willingly and exuberantly without me having to ask. Cultural Accommodations Besides the Dev Vilas Ranthambore, I stayed in the following hotels: By Haridwar, I stayed at the Spa Resort of Ananda in the Himalayas(www.anandaspa.com), where I enjoyed complimentary open-air morning yoga and the best massage of my life. The massage treatment called Abhyanga, was a traditional full body massage with sesame oil, but given simultaneously by two Ayurveda therapists – the strong-handed Krishna from Southern India and the softer touch from Melody from Eastern India. In Samode, I stayed at the authentic, restored Samode Palace, a luxury heritage hotel where the service was so grand that when I asked for a clock for my room they brought me the only clock they had – a giant two-foot by two-foot round wall clock that certainly did the trick. www.samode.com I also stayed in three Oberoi properties: The Oberoi New Delhi, the Oberoi Rajvilās in Jaipur, and the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra. These hotels are all new builds made to look like former Indian palaces by integrating the local traditional handicrafts into the design and décor. I was impressed by the individual tented-suites at Rajvilās and the personal service at Amarvilās, where I had an amazing dinner enhanced by live tabla and sitar music, and the musicians themselves seemed to personally draw us in. Getting There India was an awakening cultural experience from the moment I got on my Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) flight. All Jet Airways flights from the United States to India pass through Brussels. The flight from Newark to Brussels was 7 hours 15 minutes, but I passed the time watching two movies on my personal video screen, eating great India cuisine and sleeping in their lie-flat beds in business class. I plugged my computer in on the plane as well. It was almost 8 a.m. when we reached Brussels Airport. A Jet Airways staff person escorted me and the other business-class transfer passengers directly to the club lounge which offered comfortable leather seating, a wide selection of food and drink, and a small room with large yoga floor pillows. I learned Brussels Airport is the largest chocolate store in the world. I snuck out to buy several boxes of chocolate-coated biscuits at the duty-free shop before boarding my 7-hour-20-minute flight to Delhi. I brought them as gifts to those I would meet in India.

For more information on India, call the India Tourist Office, 800-953-9399; on the west coast, 213-380-8855; www.incredibleindia.org

 

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