The Golden Triangle and Rajasthan, India
Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
48Trip End Nov 28, 2006
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Prepare for the worse, and hope for the best - that was our motto and it worked. We were quite anxious about visiting India. Everyone from our travel agent to our Indian friends to people we met during our travels warned us to expect a huge culture shock. We anticipated being hassled non-stop and having to constantly keep our guard up as everyone would try to rip us off...never mind the stereotype of India being a dirty place crammed with 1 billion people. How wrong we were. What we found was a laid back, friendly place where people invite you into their home for a chat and some chai. And sure, India was 'dirty', but no dirtier than any other country we had been to so far.
One question we kept asking ourselves was - where are the 1.1 billion people that make up the world's most populated country? Despite all those TV images of people hanging off trains and buses, it certainly didn't apply to any of the places we visited, not even the capital New Delhi. In fact, New Delhi's subway system is much more modern and efficient than the one we have back home in Toronto.
Leaving Delhi by train was an interesting experience. Waiting at the platform, people openly stood there and stared at us as well as other foreigners...we tried staring right back at them, but they didn't even blink an eye! We felt like we were being herded like cattle and a small crowd soon formed around us, just staring and whispering.
Speaking of cattle, cows are everywhere in India...wandering the alleyways, sleeping on the streets with cars whizzing by, poking their heads into shops to see what food they can find, and even on the railroad tracks! Unfortunately, though the cow is revered as a holy animal in India, they are neglected because people can't afford to care for them and so they are set loose on the streets. Too many times we saw cows eating newspaper, plastic bags and other garbage. Cows looked sickly and many on the verge of death with distended stomachs...a very sad sight.
Our first stop outside Delhi was to Agra to see the magnificent Taj Mahal. Although we've been to some over-rated sites on our travels, the Taj is not one of them - it definitely lives up to the hype. The stunning white marble building and the manicured gardens look like they could have been built last year, but was actually built in the 17th century. While many people assume it was a palace, it's really a tomb and memorial that the Shah Jahan built for his wife. Pictures don't do the Taj Mahal justice because it's much more impressive in person (but you first have to get over the hundreds of other tourists who are trying to get the same shot that you are!).
Rajasthan is a land of forts, because every place that we went to had one. The forts are interesting because they are very elaborate and show how opulent people used to be, which is contrary to what most people, including ourselves, think about India. But trying to get a feel for life back then was difficult because many of the forts have now been turned into museums. To get the full experience, we decided to try and live the life of the nobles ourselves. We spent a night at the Pachewar Garh, a 300-yr old fort that has been turned into a heritage hotel. We enjoyed an evening of dining in their garden followed by a traditional puppet show, and then dressing up in traditional Rajasthani garb to dance the night away.
The town of Pushkar had a different atmosphere than the places before it. Because of its holy lake, it's a very spiritual place where people come on pilgrimages. Here, Holy men perform 'pujas' or blessings for people, and offerings are made. Foreigners can also have a puja done, so Amy decided to try it at a sunset ceremony.
Never to turn down a trip into a desert, we took a camel safari to the Thar desert. We expected to rough it, as we had all the other times, but instead we ended up being pampered in a luxurious desert camp. We had a large canvas tent furnished with antique wooden beds, plush mattreses, fine linens, as well as an ensuite bathroom. The most amazing part was that the bathroom had running water and even a flush toilet!
Our last stop in Rajasthan was Bikaner, a place we had been excited about going to long before we arrived in India. The reason was the Karni Mata Temple, a.k.a. the Rat Temple. The temple is famous for its unusual residents - thousands of rats. The rats here are worshipped because they are said to be reincarnations of people from the Charan caste who reside in Rajasthan. In Hindu mythology, the rat is also the traditional vehicle for the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh. As with any temple, you are expected to remove your shoes before entering! We were a bit nervous because we had images in mind of the floor being carpeted with rats, as well as rats running across our feet and up our legs. As we wandered around, we discovered that yes, there were thousands of rats, but it wasn't too overwhelming. We weren't as afraid as we expected to be, mostly because the rats seemed to avoid us and also because a lot of them looked so darned cute! We saw rats scurrying across the floor, climbing the railings and fences, peeking out from holes in the wall, and feeding on the many bowls of grain or milk prepared by devotees in the temple. We had to tread carefully, because a few times we almost stepped on them as they ran under our feet. I couldn't avoid them completely though - as I walked through a doorway, a rat ran right over my foot and kept going! Apparently, it's lucky to have a rat run across your feet, but I was more freaked out than happy about the experience. Another lucky sign is seeing a white rat at the temple. You'd think that with thousands of grey rats running around a temple it'd be easy to spot a white one, but not so. After searching high and low, we finally came across the lucky white rat:
Where I stayed