India's Contrasts and Colors: A place of wonder
By Donna Corwin
The haze fell over the Ganges river, and it seemed all of Varanasi gathered at her banks to celebrate her waters in preparation for the Holi festival of colors. The masses crowded and chanted as fire bells burned, handled with skill by the holy priests. Colored lights enveloped the altar. The Hindus and Sikhs prayed to their gods. Our open boat, along with hundreds of others, hovered in polluted but sacred waters, and we watched with rapt fascination as the ceremonious sounds rose to a crescendo- the bells clanging, the sitar whining the same note over and over sending the sick, the poor, the foreign observers and true believers into a trance.
The mist thickened and I, too, was carried away into this world called India, a place so full of contradictions and beauty that I felt I had witnessed the extremes unite at the Ganges on that unforgettable night.
OPULENCE AT ITS BEST
India is a destination that you must prepare well for, especially when you travel with your family. Easy Tours of India, an Austin-based company, with offices in over 8 major cities in India, is a family-friendly company offering true expertise on this country. They made the trip seamless and more importantly, they were able to assist us at each destination with a guide, a driver and an on-site laison. We also had the option to choose levels of stay: premier, luxury or opulent based on the hotels and individualized activities.
In our case, we chose the opulent level, and it lived up to its name. The service, staff and amenities at our hotels -The Oberoi, Taj, and Leela Palace hotels were truly outstanding. We were treated like royalty. The signature restaurants including the Indian gourmet of Esphahan at the Oberoi AmarVilas in Agra, the elegant, international cuisine of Le Cirque at the Leela Palace in New Delhi, and the exotically gorgeous Spice Route at the Imperial Hotel, also in New Delhi, were standouts.
Our Indian odyssey began in Delhi, the government and urban seat of Northern India. The crowded streets were filled with women in brightly colored, gold threaded saris, and men in turbans. Cows, sacred in India, roamed freely.
Thousands of Tuk Tuk scooters (motorized rickshaws) wound through highways and alleyways. There is an immediate sensory overload that both surprises and fascinates the traveler. India captivates the imagination.
Delhi possesses some of the world's greatest monuments. We visited the World Heritage Site, the medieval Qutab Minar (1193 a.d.), with its 239-foot soaring iron pillars. Next, we admired the tomb of the great Mughal Emperor Humayum.
Children will marvel at the imposing red sandstone called Red Fort, once known as the 8th wonder of the world. The family tour took us to the India Gate, the National Museum, and the national Rail and Toy Train Museum, which includes the world's oldest running locomotive. We also took a Mr. Toad's wild rickshaw ride through the Chandi Chowk Bazaar, a visual kaleidoscope of sights and sounds.
In the morning, we departed with complete assistance from an Easy Tours Guide on a two-hour train ride to Agra. When we arrived, we were stun with the beauty of our hotel, Oberoi Amarvilas.
From our bedroom window, we beheld one of the world's greatest monuments, the Taj Mahal (1653 ad). In the morning haze, the stark white marble masterpiece caught the light and was almost blinding in its sheer beauty.
We embarked upon a horse drawn carriage to the Taj gates. We were astounded to realize that it took 22 years and 22,0000 workers to intricately lay all the marble and precious stones to complete this historic temple.
We next drove to Jaipur , the jewel capital of India. This city of pink buildings is filled with contrasts between the poor and privileged,ugly and astounding. A highlight of the trip is riding on an elephant up to the Amer Fort, a spectacular fortress built by Raja Mansingh.
During our time in Jaipur, we explored the exquisite chambers. The afternoon was spent touring the City Palace, the former royal residence and an architecturally magnificent structure.
ELEPHANTS FOR ALL
Another day, we spent an afternoon at the Dera Amer elephant camp in the outskirts of Jaipur. After we explored the camp while riding atop Laksmi, a twenty-seven-year old elephant, we washed her down and painted her. Visitors can also choose to participate in elephant polo, using giant mallets to whack the ball into the goal. Included in the price is a lovely picnic lunch. This is a special family experience that can be arranged by Easy Tours or your hotel concierge.
In the evening, we enjoyed a Rajasthani cultural show, sure-fire attraction for kids, complete with regional dances, music and acrobats. The girls can have Mendhi (henna) applied to their hands and feet. Jaipur is also the shopping mecca of India, and there are so many amazing things to buy- pashminas, jewelry, wood carvings, gorgeous fabrics, embroidered tunics and unique art pieces.
If you can extend your trip, visit Ranthambore. This forested national park was once the hunting ground for the royal rulers of Jaipur. Today, it is a sanctuary under the Tiger Conservation project. The terrain is comprised of dry grasslands, small lakes and ponds, and home to a number of animals- the sloth bear, leopard, deer, monkeys and, of course, the Bengal tiger. On our early morning safari, we were lucky enough to spot a tiger napping in the underbrush. These magnificent creatures are endangered and rare to find.
Meanwhile, The Oberoi Vanyavilas jungle camp wowed us as an incredible property of twenty- five ultra luxury tents located in the park on 22 acres of landscaped gardens. The staff treated us like the Royals of Rajasthan .
Most hotels offer such fun activities for the kids as turban and sari tying lessons, cooking classes and jewelry making, art projects like block printing, nature walks, photo safaris, and treasure hunts. Nearly all hotels offer babysitting services.
India is a beguiling place of fascinating cultures and religions, colorful welcoming people, and a stark contrast between past and present. Certainly, you will never forget this country of wonder.
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