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India (6): Agra, home of the Taj Mahal

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After the oasis in Khajuraho and Orchha’a, Agra meant going back to the India we had known a few days before: big city, traffic, and noise. Agra was the capital of the Mogul empire for a century, and the heritage of that time makes them be a popular destination for travellers all around the world: the Taj Mahal. One of the non-argued Wonders in the world, and which can be a reason on itself to put India as your next destination.

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The Taj Mahal is considered one of the most expensive and beautiful (from a material perspective) proofs of love in the history of Humankind. It was ordered to be built by the Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his wife. A colossal white marble building that can be seen from several spots in Agra, and which looks fascinating from all of them. If you see the video, you can see one of the most hair-raising moments of the trip, when you cross a gate and the Taj Mahal appears in front of you… It is hard not to immerse into the picture-taking hysteria around you. When getting closer to the building itself, you are jealous of not being able to take the same famous picture as Lady Di with an empty complex, although we did a homage to it.

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As this was one of the main drivers to come to India, we carefully planned our stay in Agra around Taj Mahal. We stayed just 1 km away from the least crowded gate in a hotel with a swimming pool with views to the Wonder, we made sure not to be the day it closes, and we were before the daybreak to make sure we could avoid the hordes of visitors, and if possible, we could see the magic building change its look minute by minute, as the sun lights it from different angle. Some piece of advice for you regarding this: if the day is foggy (quite frequent), there will be no such thing as those changes, and it may not be worth to get up that early. Moreover, instead of queuing to be the first ones, you can easily be there 30 minutes after they open the complex, and you will avoid queues… If you are not a morning person, don’t thank me for this advice.

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The century of ruling the Empire from Agra left the city a few more stimulating spots apart from the Taj Mahal. Its fort is one of the most refined ones in our stay, as it incorporated styles and tastes from different dynasties, which combined the red and the white stones with a noteworthy result. Also, if it was not for the proximity of the Taj Mahal, the known as Baby Taj would be a major highlight in Agra.

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Before leaving to Jaipur, also by car, we asked the driver to stop in the Fatehpur Sikri complex, which is in the outskirts of Agra. This complex lies in a high hill, and it is formed by a fort (yet another one!), and a mosque. The fort is a concatenation of buildings and vast halls, with very few people inside. If I were more into art or architecture, I may have discovered the subtle differences with the other forts in India… but it is not the case. On the other hand, the mosque was a terrific choice. Its entrance, facing a vast valley, and steep steps gives you the feeling of entering a rural major mosque, full of tourists, and probably because of that, full of activity.

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A pleasant way to finish our visit to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, which we will for sure remember regardless of how many years go by. A more than justified Wonder of the World.

India (5): Khajuraho and Orchha’a

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Khajuraho is a small town at a night-train distance from Varanasi, and it is the perfect stop after the intense and touching Varanasi: no traffic, less people, and a relaxing atmosphere… but that is not why we go there. We go there because of the 22 temples older than 1000 years, and which were built by the Chandela Dynasty. The legend of the birth of this dynasty is closely linked to the temples: the most beautiful lady in town (legendary stories do not happen with regular people, remember) is taking a bath in one of the nearby lake, when Chandra, the Moon God, sees her, and decides to come down to Earth in the form of an attractive gentleman (again, only attractive men have such an effectiveness) and she falls in love. After that night, the Moon God disappear, and she later gives birth to a child, who later became the founder of this Dynasty.
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With such background, it is not surprising that the temples walls are covered by fine figures picturing the main activities at that time and the most important values for the dynasty: war and erotism. War figures are quite basic, but the latter covers all possible spectrum in the most specific way. Some guidebooks say this is the origin of the famous Kamasutra book, but it is actually not linked to it.
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These figures represent the union of the masculine and feminine energies, which signify the magical protection needed to guarantee the successful life of the temple. Apart from these details, the temples are kept very nicely, and their perfect alignment to East, put into the perspective of the time of building, is breathtaking.
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There is enough time to explore the surrounding areas, and we followed the advice of the people in our hotel (by the way, quite more easy-going than the ones in other places), and we let our tuk-tuk driver bring us to the Panna Tiger Reserve. The 45 minutes ride was the most rural part of the whole trip, and was worth it to see closer the massive nature, and the rural life… The real differences with our home countries became clear, as women had to walk long distances for water, food and life seemed to be slower for those sitting on the curb looking at any vehicle that crossed the road. The destination offered us some fanciful formations that water and limestone has created, with impressive waterfalls up to 30 meters.
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From Khajuraho, we took a car (with driver) to go to Orcha’a, another small town with even less activity than Khajuraho, but blessed with a river. There we visited their two forts, Raj Mahal and Jehangir Mahal, massive buildings, empty of any furniture, with many rooms and a big open-air halls, as many others we had seen. The feeling here was a bit different as these complexes were on a hill in a big green valley governing a vast territory. Apart from the forts, Orchha’a also hosts a complex of chaatris, at the riverside, which are memorial buildings, acting as tombs of former kings.
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After Orchha’a, we went to Jhanshi, which is a bigger city nearby, with a bigger train station, and where we took our train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

India (4): Varanasi

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Varanasi is synonym of Ganges. The Hinduism sacred river, where many people do pilgrimage at least once in their lives in order to perform the bath rituals. When possible, they also try to to be cremated here, as there is no better place to rest than the Ganges. For Hinduists, the river is the PERSONIFICACION of the Goddess Ganges in Earth, who came down in order to save the World from the Demons who perished in its waters. It is also a pilgrimage place for buddhists, as Buddha said his first sermon in Sarath, in the outskirts of the current Varanasi.

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This sacred characteristic can be felt in every corner of the city, but especially in the narrow streets near the river, and the Ghats, the streets ending in stairs leading to the river, and which host most of the activity in town. People go there in thousands to perform the sunrise ritual bath, but also during the rest of the day there are people meditating, walking or just observing the vast river.

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Two of these ghats host crematories, with hectic activity during all day, as people from outside Varanasi come in their last days here to have the honour of have their remains be spread in the Ganges river. I find quite interesting and surprising to see a town grow so much thanks to the death business. Everyone shall be cremated, except the saint people (holy men, kids, animals, pregnant women -they have kids inside), and others to avoid annoying the Gods (LEPROSOS, and those who died because of a snake bite)… The weird side of this rule is that those people are thrown directly to the river, so it is not unusual to see dead animal bodies floating in the river, and locals playing to guess what animal it is from the distance…

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For me, Varanasi was a highlight in the trip. It was the most interesting place from all we visited. It probably helped that, following some previous travellers’ recommendations, we hired a local guide, as we had been told that Varanasi could be too intense to get lost. It was particularly useful, as the river water level was very high, and the easy walk on the riverside became impossible, so we had to wander around many small streets which did not feel as the safest place on Earth.

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As there are some morning people, there are some cities which shine the most also in the morning. Varanasi is one of these places, and the best place to live that is from a boat ride at sunrise. Observing the city waking up from the calmness of the sacred Ganges is an unforgettable experience: the ghats getting the many first people to have morning bath rituals, some having travelled long distances for that specific moment, others who have the blessing of having that as part of their daily routine, the crematories starting their daily famous activity, some people meditating in calmer ghats, and many boats full of local tourists fascinated and happy for being able to live this at least once in their lives.

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Apart from that, a plain tourist can enjoy walking up and down the bazaars in Varanasi, which are more adequate for the international taste than others, visit one of the many temples in town, like the busy Monkey Temple, or walking around the green areas in the University… But after many years, you may forget them, or not be sure whether it was Varanasi or somewhere else… but you will not forget the river… and everything else.

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India (3): Delhi

The first impression of Delhi, the capital of India, when you arrive is that it is a hectic city with almost 10 million people continuously moving, provoking constant traffic jams in the main roads. When you arrive there, you may be prone to get immersed into the city, and decide to walk to the closest spot from your hotel. We did that too, and those were the worst 2 km that I have walked in a long time. My first recommendation would be to avoid doing that: Delhi (and in general, India) is not thought to have people walking long distances. Instead, take its wonderful subway, you will be pleased with its modern network, and its tidiness.

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If you happen to stay near the diplomatic area, your first stop is the Gate of India. It reminded me to the Puerta de Alcalá, but in a nicer promenade made to emphasise the presence of the Parliament. If you are there after the sunset, you will find a hectic environment: local tourists taking themselves selfies with the monument (hard with the light conditions), and some others offering all kind of services (pictures, water selling, sweets, …). The building might not impress you much, but the leisure atmosphere is a nice beginning.

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From there, you can would head to Connaught Place, another particular spot of the city: well known brand (and expensive) shops, tons of restaurants and bars, bazaars in the street, and mostly young people make it the top destination for evenings out, and some decent -but expensive- shopping.

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The real visit to Delhi starts with Old Delhi, and there the main attraction is the Red Fort: the first fort in India was also one of the biggest in the country, and if you started your trip now, you will enjoy this kind of palaces (after a few more, you may be looking for something else): a fort is a sort of palace with military defences. Forts are a good way to understand the aesthetic taste at different ages in the history of India, and you can imagine the rulers having their receptions or living there, walking like we can do now in their vast and well preserved gardens.

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When you go out of the fort, crossing a busy bazaar, you will arrive the the Jama Masjid, an impressive mosque, able to host up to 25000 people. If like me, you find mosques captivating with their vast open spaces, you can enjoy its atmosphere of retreat, so needed even if it is only the first day in Delhi. You might be luckier than we were, and have a successful visit to the nearby bazaar and the spice market… We did not enjoy it much. Either we did not go to the right place, or my expectations were not the right ones. Bazaar and spice markets bring me to two places in this world: Istanbul and Marrakech, and that was not what we saw there.

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To complete the day, you can visit two wonderful monuments; both of them are memorials of different rulers. The first one is the Safdarjang’s Tomb, and as it is not in the centre, it is not crowded, and its visit becomes a relaxing experience, where you can even take a short siesta to recover from the jetlag. The second one was the Humayan’s tomb, which is almost as crowded as the Fort. This memorial inspired the Taj Mahal in Agra, and it is a huge red marble building with several tombs inside. Taj Mahal is a clear must, but visiting Humayan’s tomb boosts the appetite to arrive to Agra.

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Before the sunset, you can still be convinced by a crazy tuk tuk driver to go to the Lotus Temple, a modern building in the outskirts of Delhi, which hosts the Bahai House of Worship, aiming to close the gap between different religions… Not that interesting inside (a few minutes to reflect, pray, etc.), but really nice from the outside.

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A great farewell from Delhi can be the Loddhi Park and buy some curry and tea. The park atmosphere was very similar to the one you can see in any big park in the world: my dear Retiro park in Madrid, Englischer Garten in München, Central Park in New York, with only minor differences (like the remains of a mosque inside): people jogging, couples, friends, and even BBQ’s… Life in megacities are the same in any place in the world: we are not that different in the end.

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India (2): The Route

We spent 11 days in North India, starting and finishing in New Delhi. We tried to limit the travelled distances, while maximizing the places we visited. The route can be seen in this map, and was done clockwise, using trains, planes and cars/taxis, depending on each track. All recommendations we got included Delhi, Varanasi and Agra as musts in the North of India. Most of them included more days in Rajastahn than we were, but we had to shorten the trip and decided to stay in the closest places to Agra and Delhi (Jaipur and Udaipur). Jaipur could be skipped, but Udaipur was a nice way to finish the trip: a small oasis.
  • Day 1: Arrival to Delhi
  • Day 2: Delhi
  • Day 3: Early Flight Delhi-Varanasi. Varanasi
  • Day 4: Varanasi
  • Night Train Varanasi-Khajuraho
  • Day 5: Khajuraho
  • Day 6: Khajuraho-Orchaa-Jhanshi (by car). Jhanshi-Agra Train
  • Day 7: Agra
  • Day 8: Taj Mahal. Agra-Jaipur (by car)
  • Day 9: Jaipur
  • Night Train Jaipur-Udaipur
  • Day 10: Udaipur
  • Day 11: Udaipur. Flight Udaipur-Delhi. Delhi
  • Day 12: Departure from Delhi
If you like videos, this is a good summary video of almost two weeks in India:

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