India has been on my travel bucket list for some time now, and when a friend living there offered to host us, I knew it was an opportunity I could not pass up. Studying abroad in London for a semester and traveling Europe was the first time I left North America. As I enter my last semester and prepare to graduate and start a new chapter, I wanted to go somewhere outside my comfort zone, and to a celebration of history, culture, beauty, and life that I could experience with close friends. Here are four cities we visited in India to explain why it should be your next trip.
Mumbai is India’s business and financial capital, and subsequently its most modern and international city. In Mumbai, India’s evolution and emergence as the world’s largest democracy – and one of the largest economies – was most on display. Among glass office buildings (many still in construction), Bollywood celebrity residences, and cosmopolitan restaurants with views of the Arabian sea and Indian-fusion cuisine, were world-famous temples and mosques constructed as far back at the 1600s, traditional clothing markets and outdoor vegetable vendors. The streets of South Mumbai, the main tourist area, are lined with British buildings from the days of Imperialism, taken over for present uses. However, as we drove by slum neighborhoods, there was also a level of poverty that one could not and should not ignore – in which two thirds of the world’s population live, left behind by the globalization right in front of them. I was surprised to learn that such poverty was actually a major improvement, and that Mumbai was nearly unrecognizable just 15 years ago. We often talked about India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has often been compared to President Obama for his progressive message and charisma, and whose election caused much worldwide attention. Every five minutes or so when driving, we would pass a billboard with a picture of Modi’s face advertising a new health, education or anti-poverty initiative, along with some murals and street art with the slogans “India Rising” or “This is India’s Moment.” The layers of modernization, tradition and culture – India’s past, present and future – were most on display in Mumbai, and for that it was my favorite city we visited.
Agra is a smaller city, known for its main attraction: the Taj Mahal. If you are planning a visit to India, the Taj Mahal is a requirement. It is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, constructed over the course of 22 years from 1632 to 1653, and is considered a quintessential symbol of India’s rich culture. Often called the “Eternal Symbol of Love” it was ordered to be built by an emperor as his and his wife’s tomb. The size of the tomb and complex was unlike anything I had seen before, and made entirely of ivory white marble, breathtaking, especially contrasted against the clear, blue sky. Our tour guide told us 1,000 elephants were used to transport all the marble used in construction, and that it is entirely symmetrical – a major architectural feat without any modern tools. Not only was its size awe-inspiring, but its painted and tiled detail. We spent three hours exploring the complex, as the sun was setting and created a golden fog around the domes. Throughout the whole trip, but at the Taj Mahal especially, I felt a deep gratitude to have the opportunity to travel, and bear special witness to the human capacity to imagine and create such beauty.
Jaipur is known as the “Pink City.” It is home of the Pink Palace, with the color spanning store fronts, gates and arches throughout Jaipur due to the type of stone used in the city’s original construction. Jaipur is also known for its markets, and for precious gems that originate from the region. It was in Jaipur that we did the majority of our shopping, whether silk scarves, earrings, hand beaded purses, skirts or gifts. The prices were so unbelievable and items so unique we barely walked into a store without buying anything. Jaipur is surrounded by mountains, and before we knew we wanted to ride an elephant up them before we left. As we viewed the landscape behind us, we rode elephants up to the Amer Fort and Palace, one of Jaipur’s main attractions. We explored the complex, gardens, floral and colorful frescoes and jewelled ceilings.
Delhi, along with the cities of Agra and Jaipur, is part of what is called the “Golden Triangle”- a geographic triangle of three cities that are must-see’s for tourists. In Delhi, we saw administrative and government buildings with beautiful architecture, as is typical of many other capitals. We also saw the president’s palace – which our guide told us was seventeen times the size of the White House – along with some residences of members of the Gandhi family, which has maintained much political power and influence. However, as is not so typical of government capitals, we were also able to explore famous, historic tombs, notably Humayun’s Tomb and Isa Khan’s Tomb. These were the first older sites we had visited on our trip, with Persian and Islamic architectural influence and painted details. We stayed as the sun was setting, which brought out the contrast between the pink sandstone and white marble.