Here is a land emblematic of the complexity of its curry and the endurance of its people.
Prior to my trip to India, the only things I knew about the largest of South Asian nations were its strong-flavored cuisine, its enormous population, the Taj Mahal, and the fact that the country was one of the world’s business process outsourcing capitals. Hardly a definition.
After all, we’re talking about a land that’s home to one of the globe’s oldest civilizations, multiple social sects, and a rich and diverse culture.
While at the layover in Bangkok, I took the chance to leaf through the itinerary. A portion of it read: “It will be an overwhelming experience…. There’s an old expression that suggests the minute you understand India is precisely the moment you’ve missed the point.”
True enough, the experiences on offer aren’t limited to the touristy bliss elicited by the country’s array of majestic structures. On the way to its attractions, you get the chance to witness the socioeconomic divide that continues to ravage much of the nation, the animals occupying some of the thoroughfares, the modern towers amid a group of rundown buildings, a bustling street food scene, and a chunk of the population acting on every possible opportunity to put food on the table.
This is a lot to take in for any first-time traveler, as any given detail or nuance makes up a confounding whole that is every bit as complex as the flavors of India’s masala dishes.
We partook of that curry for two weeks and noted its peculiarities.
The Taj Mahal looks the same from every angle
The Taj Mahal is the crown jewel of Islamic architecture in India, and is regarded as one of the world’s most magnificent structures. Equally admirable is the fact that all four sides of the mausoleum—which include a sprawling garden with a stylized pool and towering gate—are identical. Four large towers flank the colossal structure, engineered to crash away from the building should an earthquake or other disasters befall the area.
Commissioned by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan out of love for his dearly departed wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1631, the Taj Mahal was worked on by over 20,000 craftsmen for more than two decades, according to our Agra tour guide, Shamsudin. He also mentioned that the emperor planned to create a black version of the Taj Mahal nearby—the beginnings of its supposed foundations can be seen across the river—but was overthrown by his son and new emperor Aurangzeb.
Some forts are turned into hotels
When I checked the itinerary, we were supposed to tour just one fort for the entire day in Neemrana, a sleepy town in Rajasthan. Fort-palaces are huge, but for a travel agency to devote one whole day to just one place seemed preposterous.
As it turned out, the Neemrana Fort was the hotel, complete with castle gates, ancient architecture, and grand structures and fixtures. I was in awe as I was walking through its halls, imagining myself to be a Southeast Asian prince marveling at what would be considered an Indian castle. From the buildings, to the gardens and courtyards, to the maze of hallways, all the way to the rooms, the whole place was injected with 15th century camp. And the best part was that Neemrana Fort was an actual 15th century fort.
Over dinner, I had to ask one of my companions—a distinguished Asian Institute of Management professor and former Asian Development Bank director general who had worked on projects in India—more about the fort-turned-hotel. Dr. Amerasinghe told me that the Neemrana Fort was just one among many fort hotels in India, some of which were just as jaw-dropping as the place we were in.
Indians apparently love their grand ancient structures.
The Indian head-bob
When talking to Indians, particularly if you ask them questions, you might notice them swinging their heads from side to side like a pendulum as they reply.
At first I thought it was the physical manifestation of an exclamation point, but when I did a bit of research, I found out that it could be interpreted as a contemplative response like “uh huh,” “I see,” or “maybe.” It can also mean “yes” if the head-bob is performed at a quick pace.
The world’s most expensive house
As we were touring Mumbai, I noticed a particularly tall skyscraper juxtaposed with the rundown buildings near it. The tour guide was quick to point out that the 27-storey tower I was looking at was called Antilia, the most expensive house in the world.
It is owned by Mukesh Ambani, the wealthiest person in India, and is said to be worth $2 billion.
An entire cave and temple carved out of mountain rock
India is home to dozens of caves, and among the most remarkable ones are the Ellora Caves. This is not just because of the number of caverns within its confines—34 out of over 100 are open to the public—or the fact that it has been in existence since around 600 CE. Inside one of its caves is a monolithic temple with a series of ornate passageways chiseled out of the rock literally by hand.
Believed to have been worked on by 7,000 workers for around 150 years, the Kailash Temple is perhaps the most impressive structure I’ve seen in India. Sure, the Taj Mahal is far larger and grander, but to find an entire Tomb Raider level inside a cave, constructed using nothing but primitive tools, is nearly beyond belief. It’s one thing to use chisels to turn a chunk of a mountain into a temple, and it’s certainly another to carve out hundreds of dizzyingly complex patterns and figures into the walls and by the halls, including the entire Ramayana and Mahabharata, Shiva pinning down a demon from Lanka, and a plethora of lion and elephant carvings.
It comes as no surprise that the Ellora Caves is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cricket is a religion
Football may be the world’s biggest sport and Lebron James one of the most recognizable athletes, but in India, they are minor spectacles compared to cricket. Everyone talks about cricket—from waiters, to tour guides, to business owners, to drivers—and players are revered as if they were a pantheon of gods.
While traveling through several cities in North India, I saw several giant stadiums dedicated to the sport. Dr. Amerasinghe, it turned out, was a competitive cricket player during his college years. He explained to me that the Indian Premier League of cricket is the Indian equivalent of football’s English Premier League, both in popularity and magnitude.
Some hotels are in the middle of nowhere
For first-time India travelers who don’t intend to go with guided tours, doing some prior research can certainly go a long way—and it starts with the accommodations.
On the way to Delhi from Jaipur—separated by over 200 kilometers of desert—we passed by a good number of hotels in the middle of the highway. There were no establishments near them; not even tiny cafes or convenience stores. It was all soil, sand, concrete, and a few moving vehicles when we stepped out of the property, much like the setting of a lot of horror movies.
If you’re the sort of traveler who would rather stay indoors for the entire day, then staying in any of those hotels shouldn’t be a problem. However, if you find solace in seeing random sights on foot, you have to either walk for dozens of miles until you end up in a random hardware store or the ruins of one, or just book a trip to the nearest town via the hotel. To make things easier, just make sure the hotel you’re looking at online is situated in a more conventional location.
Animals live in harmony with the people
In India, I didn’t need to go to the zoo or a wildlife preservation unit to see members of the animal kingdom outside of the usual cats, dogs, and maya birds. On the road or even just outside the hotel premises, I encountered packs of cattle, monkeys, boars, goats, camels, squirrels, doves, and big lizards. Cows were often walking the same thoroughfares that vehicles ply, sometimes causing traffic, but it was perfectly fine with the locals.
Indians are animal lovers, and the animals do love them back: a fact I took advantage of as I was more than happy to pet a cow inside a train station and gave a monkey a few snacks.
India has a collection of majestic forts
The Taj Mahal is far from being the only magnificent structure in India. In fact, it shares the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site with two other places in Agra, the city where it is located. The other two are “walled cities”: the Agra Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri, the capital of emperor Akbar’s Mughal empire. Both places are expansive and opulent, reminding me of the ancient Roman city Pompeii before it was razed by a volcano. They’re just two out of over a thousand forts in the country.
I was also able to visit the Amber Fort near Jaipur (which features fine Rajpat architecture and requires a 15-minute elephant ride to reach the entrance), the Hawa Mahal (an imposing five-storey palace and architectural marvel), the Qutub Minar (an elaborately designed minaret surrounded by an ancient complex) and the aforementioned Neemrana Fort.
All these places are staggering in size and grandeur, with each meriting probably over a hundred photos and dozens of Instagram posts. Any trip to India is sorely lacking if at least a couple of forts aren’t included in the itinerary.
The startling socioeconomic divide
Every city we visited in North India had its own character, but a harsh commonality that many of them shared was the juxtaposition of the impoverished areas with those that were developed. In Delhi alone, I noticed how the surroundings shifted after just half an hour of travel. One minute, I was observing families living by the street, trying to earn a living out of selling trinkets and figurines, and in the next, I was in a modern commercial center with sprawling foreign embassies and shopping centers.
The struggle to earn significant profits has driven most vendors throughout the country to become extra aggressive, to the point where they relentlessly hound passers-by even when they have entered a private area like a tourist attraction. They don’t take no for an answer. This can get annoying for any traveler, but at the end of the day, I can’t help but feel for them considering their living conditions, especially those who have families to feed.
The food is amazing
It’s already a given that some of the world’s best curry can be found in South Asia; pretty much every meal we had included at least one viand lathered in delightful curry sauce. Truth be told, I didn’t encounter a meal that I didn’t love, with the chicken tandoori curry served at the Ahuja Residency Vista Signature in Gurugram being my favorite, along with the combo of dal curry, biryani, kofta, and naan found in every hotel buffet. But I was already expecting that, given that I visited Sri Lanka a few years ago and loved everything about the curry.
What caught me by surprise, however, was the street food, particularly the kulfi and chai tea. Our tour guide in Aurangabad was kind enough to share what he described as “the best kulfi in town,” so I had to check the place out. I discovered that it was a food truck called DS, run by a Sikh with a big, perpetual smile. That smile was unintentionally recreated on my face once I bit into the mango kulfi: think of creamy mango ice cream mixed with Indian masala goodness, and a sprinkling of nuts, all for the price of 35 rupees (US$0.50). I grabbed the black currant variant, which was even cheaper, and was equally impressed. Hordes of people, including the police, were lined up to purchase bags of kulfi from what might have been the Indian equivalent of Osaka’s Melonpan Ice.
As for the chai tea, it was more of a chance encounter. While looking for the smiling Sikh, I had trouble breaking a 2,000-rupee bill. I randomly picked a store in the compound and was told that they didn’t have change. So, I resorted to buying what others had purchased from the store, which was a cup of hot chai tea with milk. One sip sent a tingle of sweetness into my system, and my body’s response was jubilation that led me to befriend the seller and his customers. He gave the tea for free, so I handed him a few Philippine coins as souvenirs—which he then gladly distributed in turn to the crowd that had gathered.
The following day, I purchased more milk tea and he gave me a tea cup as a souvenir. The tea was stellar, but the warmth of the people I encountered was even more noteworthy. I also befriended another kulfi seller, and we wound up talking about his day job as a science teacher and bits about the Philippines.
A particularly compelling cultural dance
While we were at the Neemrana Fort, we were told by the people at reception that we should not miss a special dance performance at the hotel’s mini stadium to welcome the Holi festival. Curious, I sat right in front of the stage and waited in eager anticipation, expecting a whimsical performance akin to those that were popularized by Bollywood. A woman dressed in an elegant pink sari and skirt walked on the stage, her expression draped in the gravitas of a holy ceremony as she addressed the crowd. At that moment, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing anything resembling “Jai Ho.”
Kartika Singh, the dancer, started off with reserved movements, smoothly transitioning from one dignified posture to another, and then proceeded to execute a succession of fast turns, her garments accentuating grace in motion. It was no mere exercise in showcasing technical proficiency in dancing, however. She was playing the role of the goddess Radha, and in doing so, captured the expressions of ecstasy, longing, and adulation for Krishna with peculiar moves, like pretending to stroke someone’s hair or fixing herself anxiously as if looking through a looking glass. It was compelling.
After the performance, I got the chance to meet Kartika when she suddenly walked into the bar I was in and lingered in front of my table. Without her makeup and flowing garb, she turned out to be an upbeat individual who was more than happy to participate in silly banter and suggest places I should visit in India based on my preferences. She also revealed that her art does indeed blend dance and theater, and she has represented India in cultural festivals in other parts of the globe. She explained that when she’s not dancing, she runs her own film studio, Eastern Monk Productions, and creates all sorts of content. Turned out, she was still a deity even when offstage.
A festival of colors
We also managed to witness one of the country’s most popular festivals: Holi, sometimes referred to as the “festival of love,” which celebrates the arrival of spring and is met with fervor by everyone throughout the country.
I saw parades of people carrying banners and smearing each other with paint before exchanging warm hugs, whether they were friends, family, or complete strangers. Even the guests at the Neemrana Fort hotel got in on the action. We weren’t able to participate since we set to leave for Delhi, but our driver was kind enough to bring paint and place marks on our foreheads to signify that we were part of the celebration.
Some locals are awestruck by foreigners
My mom has a knack for dressing stylishly even when the occasion doesn’t call for such, say, trekking to a series of caves in the mountains.
While I elected to be in a casual ensemble, she wore a large hat, a long and flowing scarf, and a fashionable jacket and blouse—putting average influencers to shame. A series of puzzling events then occured when we visited the Ajanta and Ellora caves.
As I was doing touristy things with my phone, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that a lot of Indian women were surrounding my mom, some of whom pretended to listen to the tour guide’s narration. Their intentions were revealed when one of them mustered up the courage to ask my mom for a photo, perhaps thinking that she was a Chinese celebrity. Before long, the whole crowd wanted photos with my mom: some asked for group shots, while others preferred selfies. She was mobbed in various caves as different groups of people wanted her in their cameras.
I found the whole thing hilarious until an older couple approached my mom for a photo. It wasn’t for them; their young daughter was too shy to ask my mom, so she had pleaded with her parents to do it on her behalf. Touched by the kid’s actions, I invoked the full potential of my limited photography skills to capture several portraits of her and my mom—the former I had intended for her social media accounts and the latter for her efforts—and sent them to her dad. I just wanted to see the kid smile.
A most unique experience
Every country I visit yields a distinct experience to be treasured, factoring in culture, food, architecture, and history. Like all nations, India is similar in that regard, but pinning that experience down to a simple definition is virtually impossible. One can claim that countries like Japan and Singapore are mostly urbanized lands that pride themselves on efficient systems, discipline, and busy commercial centers, while nations like Italy and Spain are big on preserving history and tradition as they appear like portals to bygone civilizations. Those assertions are fairly accurate.
India, on the other hand, is too heterogeneous to fully encapsulate, as each of its cities is vastly distinct from the others in appearance, norms, and sometimes even culture. What works for a modern city like Mumbai or Delhi, for instance, may not necessarily apply to less developed areas like Aurangabad and Agra. In addition, the norms that define parts of those aforementioned cities could be alien to other parts within their respective territories.
History dictates that India has not always been a cohesive nation, separated by independent provinces that, in turn, were divided by its major religions and the caste system. This partly holds true even today. On one hand, governing bodies are presented with the unenviable task of being unifying figures in a land that has lived by its demarcations. On the other, it is a plus for tourism as travelers are kept in awe for the entire duration of their trips, relishiong the unpredictability and special features of any given city.
I believe that a two-week trip to India will run you through the gamut of emotions. You’ll be in awe of the magnificence of the Taj Mahal and the considerable skill required to construct the Kailash Temple. You’ll also likely be overjoyed (or disgusted) by the endless stream of masala dishes, and annoyed yet saddened by the extra aggressive sellers at tourist spots. The lack of sidewalks in many cities will frustrate you, and the low prices at shopping centers will amaze you. There’s also a good chance you will feel pity for the families living by the roadside, and feel refreshed by the warmth of the people you’ll meet.
The emotions you choose to gravitate to will define your vacation.
I defined mine with yet another bowl of curry and the thought of visiting each of the places on Kartika’s list, preferably amidst the constellation of a few Katakh performances.