Dartmouth group at the Taj Mahal.

Mystical India

I’ve just returned from India, where Pam and I had the opportunity to host a Dartmouth Alumni Travel group for a two-week tour of the history, architecture, culture, and arts of northern India.   We joined a wonderful group of 12 interesting individuals, and an outstanding tour guide from Odysseys Unlimited, for a bustling tour of Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Agra, and Varanasi.  I think what struck me most about the agenda was its fascinating mix of the sights (palaces, temples, mosques, etc.) with the culture (villages, markets, families. religion) and arts (dance, music, weaving, pottery, jewelry, stonework, carpets, and even paper).  Read on for a summary of our journey, and for a sampling of the many photos!

Our tour guide, Rashid, at Jama Masjid, Delhi.Dartmouth Alumni Travel always sends a professor along as the host of the trip. Usually, said professor draws on her or his academic expertise to bring additional perspective to the history, culture, politics, arts, religion, or natural history of the region.  The professor gives a couple of lectures during the trip.  So why would a Computer Science professor host a group traveling in India?  Although I did cover some computer-science topics in my two lectures, I focused my talks on our experience living in India in 2008-09 (during which I wrote a blog).  Pam and I both enjoyed sharing our experience with the group, and enjoyed revisiting many of the sites we had visited during that year nearly a decade ago.  On this visit, I felt I learned so much more, largely because of Rashid, our guide, who was deeply knowledgeable and balanced in presenting both the incredible strengths and frustrating shortcomings of Indian culture, history, and politics. Given an intellectually curious group like ours, we had many fascinating conversations.

A family takes a selfie at the Sikh temple in Delhi.With so much packed into this trip, there’s no way I can describe it all.  A few things strike me since our last visit to this region eight years earlier: tourism is booming, and everything is much more crowded;  many of the historic sites have continued their restoration efforts and the result is even more beautiful; and the now-pervasive smartphone (and services like Uber) have continued to change the way urban India moves and works.

What were my three favorite moments of the trip?  Seeing a tiger so close we could almost touch her as she passed us in Ranthambore; seeing the Taj Mahal for the second time and yet finding it just as enthralling as before; and walking through streets and markets to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life. Oh, and the food :-).

After snapping nearly 4,000 photos in two weeks, it was tough to select a few to share with you.  I posted a selection of 350 photos in topical photo galleries, including one gallery to highlight my dozen best photos.  I hope you enjoy them!

Here’s a quick day-by-day overview of the trip, with a token photo for each.

  1. Streets of Old Delhi.Delhi – after being issued face masks to protect us from the acrid air pollution (off the charts, this week!) we visited Jama Masjid (one of the largest mosques in India), rode a bicycle rickshaw through the narrow lanes of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, and stopped by the site of Ghandi’s cremation (Raj Ghat).

  2. Even the smallest child can help roll chapatis at the Sikh temple in Delhi.Delhi – we visited Humayun’s tomb (which architecturally foreshadows the Taj Mahal), Qutb Minar and its ancient ruins, and the Sikh temple of Gurudwara Bangla Sahib (with its beautiful gold-coated interior and impressive free meal service to all comers).  Also made a sobering visit to the museum at the home where Ghandi was assassinated.


  3. Chai wallah in Shahpura, Rajasthan.Jaipur – travel day, with a stop in the town of Shahpura for lunch at Shahpura Haveli (a beautifully restored palace, now a hotel) and a walk through the shopping district.  At the hotel, an evening demonstration of Rajasthani dancing.


  4. Arches - Amber Fort, Jaipur.Jaipur – a brief visit to the Hawa Mahal (palace of the winds) and a tour of the Amber Fort (an impressive hilltop palace and fortress), the City Palace, the Jantar Mantar observatory, and a gem-polishing and jewelry store.  Pam and I walked through the narrow streets of the historic district, shopping and exploring.


  5. 2017-11-15-42599Jaipur – after attending a brief service at the Birla Mandir temple (a very new Hindu temple, quite different than many I’ve seen), we visited a handmade paper factory (remarkably interesting, and beautiful products), a handmade “blue pottery” operation, and a vendor of beautiful carpets.  We had a lovely dinner and conversation with a gracious couple (and their six daughters!) in their home.


  6. A Bengal tiger named "Arrowhead", Ranthambore National Park.Ranthambore – after a morning of travel, including a stop to walk through a small-town market, we bundled into an open-top safari vehicle and, joined by a professional naturalist, drove into Ranthambore National Park for a wildlife safari. The highlight of the day was a close encounter with this tigress named Arrowhead!


  7. Black-faced langur monkey, Ranthambore National Park.Ranthambore – on an early-morning safari we found fresh signs from a male tiger, but did not see him; nonetheless, on both our morning and afternoon safaris we saw countless sambar deer, spotted deer, birdlife, and fellows like this black-faced langur monkey.


  8. A camel cart, preparing to transport us to a local village.Kalakho – after visiting Dhonk, a local crafts business that aims to empower women and spur economic development in villages near Ranthambore, and a small public school, we traveled to a remote retreat hotel owned by Odyssey.  We rode in camel carts to a nearby village, watched a demonstration of the sort of music and dancing used in weddings, and watched another demonstration of Rajasthani-style dancing.


  9. Chand Baori step well.Agra – we drove to Agra, with a stop at the incredible Chand Baori stepwell, at right. In Agra we visited the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah (aka the “baby Taj”), and the Mehtab Bagh garden overlooking the rear of the Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River.


  10. View of Taj Mahal from inside the entrance gate.Agra – we arrived early at the Taj Mahal, the sun barely above the horizon.  This timing was fortunate, because it put the Taj in a beautiful light, and the crowds were thin.  We had no lines, no waiting.  Despite having visited before, I was just as awe-struck this time.  Afterward, we visited the Agra Fort, an extensive palace and fortress within eyesight of the Taj.  We visited a family home for a cooking demonstration and delicious lunch.

  11. travel day – we sped along the new highway from Agra to Delhi, then flew to Varanasi.

  12. 2017-11-22-44581Varanasi – we visited the museum and ruins at Sarnath, the site where Buddha gave his first sermon.  We stopped at a fascinating shop where old craftsmen still weave silk by hand into impressively ornate patterns. We learned that the Chief Minister of U.P. was coming through on a campaign stop, and postponed our visit to the Ganges (traffic would have been gridlocked).


  13. 2017-11-23-45037Varanasi – Thanksgiving Day – we rose well before sunrise and walked through the dark, busy streets of old Varanasi toward the river Ganga (Ganges). Pilgrims are gathering along the ghats to celebrate the sun as it rises over the river, and to bathe in the holy waters of the river. We boarded a rowboat to explore the scene as the sun rises to the east and illuminates the ghats to our west. We watched a cremation beginning at the cremation ghat.  In the afternoon we visited the home of a sitar virtuoso for a brief concert, then walked to the ghat as sunset neared.  We boarded a rowboat and gathered (with hundreds of other tourists and pilgrims) near the central ghat to watch the Aarti ceremony, then rowed past the busy cremation ghat.  With a nod to Thanksgiving day, we celebrated our farewell dinner.

  14. We flew back to Delhi and checked into an airport hotel. After a little shopping at a nearby mall, we rested prior to the long flight home.  (Four of the group continued onward to Nepal for an extended trip – I was jealous!)

Overall, a wonderful trip – too much to write about!

Don’t forget to check out the photo galleries.

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One thought on “Mystical India”

  1. Wonderful photos and description. We also visited about 95% of what you did including restaurants. It is a magical place. Mom

    Sent from my iPad

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