If you live on the west coast of the United States, India is about as far away as you can get. It really doesn’t matter whether you fly east or west, the distance and travel time will be about the same. Before 2012, I had never been to Asia, but that year I made trips across the Pacific to Cambodia and Timor-Leste. But when I traveled to India with my girlfriend, Lauren, and her family in December, it would be the furthest from home I’d ever been.
We flew from San Francisco across the Pacific to Seoul, a flight I’d made before en route to Cambodia. But that had been in summer, and this time it was the dead of winter. Temperatures in Seoul were well below freezing, and there was about half a foot of snow on the tarmac. Because of the weather, our flight out of San Francisco was delayed, and we had to hurry through Seoul/Incheon airport to our connecting flight. We arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi in the early hours of the morning. We took showers and then boarded a flight to Aurangabad.
Named after the sixth Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, Aurangabad is fast-growing city in western India. On our first morning there, we checked into our hotel and drove about an hour and a half to the Ajanta caves. Built between about 200 BCE and 600 CE, the Ajanta caves are Buddhist monasteries and stupas carved into the solid rock on the side of a valley. Within the caves are stunning, and remarkably well-preserved, religious paintings and statues.
We spent part of the morning and much of the afternoon touring the caves. Then we drove back to Aurangabad, where we visited Bibi Ka Maqbara, also known as the “mini Taj Mahal.” Prince Azam Shah, Aurangzeb’s eldest son, built Bibi Ka Maqbara in the late 1600s as a tribute to his mother. Originally intended to rival the Taj itself, Azam Shah was forced to curb his ambitions due to budgetary constraints. Today it remains a beautiful marble monument with grassy, well-kept grounds.
The next day we drove out to Daulatabad, the site of the Fort of Devagiri, an incredible, multi-level defense system. The fortress has a main entrance at the base of a hill. Within the thick, tall walls is a mosque, a reservoir, and a citadel with dark, winding, bat-infested passages that provide the only access to the upper levels. We spent a few hours exploring this amazing site, and then continued driving out to the Ellora Caves.
The 34 caves at Ellora are, like those at Ajanta, actually buildings and structures carved out of sheer rock faces in the hills. Ellora contains Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain religious structures. We toured some of the Hindu temples, and then moved on to Kailasanatha Temple (Cave 16), which is the largest monolithic (carved from a single piece of rock) structure in the world. A temple to Shiva, Kailasanatha was built in the 700s CE. It was carved out of the mountain, down from the top, and its construction required the removal of over 400,000 tons of rock. When we had finished ogling Kailashnath, we moved on to the smaller stupas and temples. In one of the temples, our guide demonstrated the architecture’s incredible acoustics with a beautiful Buddhist chant. In the right conditions, a chant might echo around the chamber for 40 or 50 seconds after the chanter has finished.
Our tour of the Ellora Caves concluded, we drove to Aurangabad airport and flew to Delhi. During our brief stint in the Delhi airport two days earlier, we really hadn’t seen any of the city. We didn’t see much of it on our first night in Delhi, either. It was so dark that we couldn’t really see much, except the horrendous traffic. We checked into the Hotel Silver Ferns and went to bed.
The next morning, our guide picked us up for a tour of the city. Our first stop was Jama Masjid, the main mosque in Old Delhi. At the behest of India’s fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, construction of the mosque began in 1650. It was completed six years later. Built mostly of red sandstone, the mosque has a massive courtyard and the building itself boasts three huge domes.
When we had finished exploring Jama Masjd, we took a short rickshaw ride to get the feel of Old Delhi. A small carriage linked to a bicycle, our rickshaw bumped and swayed on the narrow, uneven streets. Much of Old Delhi is a maze of tiny alleys with messes of electrical wires strung above them. Though brief, the rickshaw ride gave us a sense of the sounds, sights, and smells of Old Delhi.
Next was a whirlwind tour of major Indian monuments throughout the capital. We tried to visit Mahatma Gandhi’s tomb, but it was closed for security reasons because a dignitary was visiting. Upon leaving the tomb, we drove around several of the main Indian government buildings, including the Sansad Bhavan (house of parliament) and the ministry of defense. I was struck by how clean and well-kept New Delhi is–it has broad streets and lots of open green space. Then we drove to the India Gate, a huge arch modeled after the Arc de Triomphe built by the British to memorialize Indian soldiers who died in World War I.
After the India Gate, we visited the tomb of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor. An awe-inspiring structure of red sandstone and white marble, the tomb itself is a massive building at the center of a beautiful, sprawling garden. Humayun’s tomb was so grandiose that it even included a separate building that was the tomb for the emperor’s barber.
Next we visited Qutub Minar, at about 240 feet the highest minaret in India. Built by some of the first Muslim rulers in India, the tower was completed in 1052 C.E. The tower and the surrounding building and grounds are incredibly beautiful. Given that it was erected almost a millennium ago, Qutub Minar is a remarkable architectural feat.
In the morning, we returned to Indira Gandhi International Airport to fly to Varanasi. When we landed, our guide picked us up and drove us to the city’s archaeological museum. The museum contains some amazing treasures, including a pillar and capstone carved almost 2,000 years ago. Despite its age, the capstone was made out of polished sandstone, using a technique that no one has been able to replicate to this day.
After the museum, we drove to Sarnath to see Mulagandha Kuti and Dhamekh Stupa, the site of Buddhist monasteries where the Buddha himself studied and preached. The stupa is said to be the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. That night, we took rickshaws out to the banks of the Ganges, where we watched the evening prayer ceremony. The rickshaw ride was an experience. Varanasi is the busiest, dirtiest, and most crowded place I’ve ever been. The streets were packed with rickshaws, pedestrians, scooters, cows, cars, beggars, and trash. When we finally arrived at the Ganges for the prayer ceremony, the sounds were amazing, and it was incredible to watch, though impossible to follow without knowing the language. After about an hour, we returned to the hotel for dinner and bed.
Early the next morning, we returned to the riverbank for a sunrise boatride on the river. We floated downstream and saw pilgrims bathing in the water. Then the boat turned around and sailed back upstream. We watched a beautiful sunrise, and then reached the site of Varansi’s famous crematoriums. Even from the middle of the river, the funeral pyres were visible, burning high on the riverbanks.
We spent the rest of the day visiting a few more sites throughout the city. We saw the university and its main temple, as well as the Bharat Mata (Mother of India Temple), which features a huge relief map of India and the surrounding regions made entirely from black and white marble.
The next day was a travel day. We flew back to Delhi, where another driver picked us up. Then we spent the rest of the day driving to our next destination: Jaipur.
After Varanasi, Jaipur was a breath of fresh air. Known as the pink city, Jaipur is clean with broad streets, and the old part of town is made entirely from pink sandstone. Our first stop that morning was the Amer Fort (the Yellow Palace), the second-largest palace in the world (after Versailles). We stopped at the base of the palace, which is situated on a hilltop, and rode elephants up to the fort itself.
Amer Fort is stunning. It boasts incredible views of the lake below and the surrounding hillsides. The palace itself is enormous. It has room after beautiful room and boasts bathrooms that had running hot water. It has a hall of mirrors, with reflecting panes on all sides, a beautiful garden, and a system of ramps designed for servants to push the queen around in a wheelchair because she wore so much jewelry she couldn’t walk.
We spent the rest of the day visiting some of the other sights of Jaipur, including a textile factory, a gem cutting and polishing site, and a marble inlay craft shop. We were able to see the Jal Mahal, the summer palace, which sits out in the middle of the lake. We also visited the site of the royal observatory, the site of the largest sundial in the world, and the city palace. Both were built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (r. 1699-1743), who was a remarkable mathematician and astronomer as well as a talented ruler. He was said to speak 17 languages.
We left Jaipur the next day to drive to Agra. En route we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a city built in 1500 by Maharana Sangram Singh. Akbar conquered the city, and it served as his capital from 1571-1585. But the lack of a nearby water source and the extreme heat of the summer led to the city’s abandonment. It remains a beautiful city, made of red sandstone, that is very well-preserved. It also contains its own Jama Masjid, a huge mosque modeled after the one in Delhi.
We continued driving, reaching Agra in the late afternoon. Agra itself is wholly unremarkable, but it contains two unmissable sites. The first is the Red Fort. Covering 94 acres and boasting a 2.5 kilometer circumference, the fort was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1565. The Fort contains sprawling gardens, beautiful examples of marble inlay, and intricately decorated rooms.
The next morning, we woke up and drove to the final stop on our tour: the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is one of those few astounding places that manages to exceed your expectations, no matter how lofty. The Taj Mahal was the most crowded site we visited, but it nonetheless managed to impress and astound. The palace itself is made of shining white marble. Its walls are covered with inscriptions and designs that are finely crafted marble inlay.
The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj between 1632 and 1653 as a tribute to Mumtaz Mahal, his third wife. Four hundred years later, the monument still stands, widely said to be the most beautiful building in the world. Having been there and admired the massive dome, the beautiful gardens, the idyllic pool, and stunningly intricate marble inlay, I have to agree. After leaving the Taj, we drove back to Delhi. That night I boarded a plane and flew back home.