India, wild and wondrous

A good driver is a must for travelers in India, where vehicles are apt to encounter wandering animals, rutted roads, and oncoming traffic, often in the wrong lane. The key to driving in India, one such skilled practitioner says, is "blow horn, good luck, and good brakes."
A good driver is a must for travelers in India, where vehicles are apt to encounter wandering animals, rutted roads, and oncoming traffic, often in the wrong lane. The key to driving in India, one such skilled practitioner says, is "blow horn, good luck, and good brakes." (MARILYN JONES)

The ancient land beckons with prowling tigers, teeming cities, visions of the Taj Mahal.

Posted: April 28, 2014

JAIPUR, India - Far off, there's a sound of panic, low and guttural. The naturalist, explaining the relationship of the common langur monkey and spotted deer to me, a woman from Los Angeles and two women from Boston, suddenly starts speaking in Hindi to the jeep driver and guide.

"Hold on," the guide yells back at us as the driver makes a frantic U-turn and begins racing down the rutted dirt road.

The sound: The warning call of a sambar deer.

The scene: Ranthambore National Park, India.

The objective: to see if the deer distress call is a warning that a tiger is in the area.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 3,200 tigers in the wild; between 40 and 50 live in this park of nearly 100,000 acres. The chance to see a tiger in the wild is what draws people here. Seeing one is never guaranteed.

After several jaw-jarring miles, we come upon a female Bengal tiger lazily resting by a lake. Other drivers of jeeps and much larger safari vehicles jockey for position to allow their passengers the best view of the endangered species.

Slowly she stands and begins to walk toward the deer. Instead of running, they stand their ground, watching the tiger, making sure they know where she is at all times. After only a few minutes, the tiger disappears into the long grass and our driver maneuvers back into the forest in search of more adventure.

India is magical, mystical, and majestic. Sighting this rare tiger is just the beginning. My adventure also includes Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur - one historic site, animal encounter, and shopping bazaar after another.

Delhi

Horns blare. Tuk-tuks and pedicabs travel alongside motorcycles, cars, and commercial trucks. There don't seem to be any accidents as agile drivers snake through traffic. My driver, Ganga Ram, says the key to driving in India is "blow horn, good luck, and good brakes."

Delhi, the capital of India, is home to more than 22 million residents, the second-most populous urban area in the world after Tokyo, according to the United Nations.

The area has likely been inhabited since at least the 6th century B.C., After independence in 1947, New Delhi was declared the capital of the new nation.

As varied as its long and colorful past is, today it exhibits two distinct personalities: New Delhi, with its tree-lined avenues and imposing government buildings, and Old Delhi, a labyrinth of narrow streets lined with crumbling buildings and street hawkers.

I would not recommend exploring alone. I left the driving and the itinerary in the hands of Kensington Tours. As much as I enjoyed visiting the largest mosque in India, the tombs of long-ago rulers, and government landmarks, the most fun - and eye-opening experience - was a pedicab ride through Old Delhi, arranged by my guide.

The chaos, color, and sound; scents of unknown spices and street food; and people going about their daily lives in the crowded streets are spellbinding - an inspired vision of India, its people and their way of life.

The Taj Mahal

Although the sun is setting and it is too late to visit the Taj Mahal, I am excited to reach my hotel in Agra, where every room faces this Wonder of the World. The Oberoi Amarvilas is designed to give every guest the same view whether they are in their guest room, the dining room, or another public space.

Stepping out onto the balcony, I see the monument built by Shah Jahan and dedicated to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to the couple's 14 child. Her death profoundly affected the shah, who built this monument as her final resting place. I remind myself to be in the moment; this is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The next morning I am met by a tour guide and taken by golf cart a short distance where I stand in line for just under a half hour to gain entry. Once through security, we walk through a grand gate where we pause so that I can photograph the Taj Mahal reflected in a still pool of water before my guide explains more of the monument's history.

It's hard to take my eyes from its beauty; perfectly symmetrical and glowing in the early morning sunlight. My guide takes me to an uncrowded area where he explains more about the monument.

A beautiful example of Mughal architecture, he says, the design combines elements of Islamic, Persian, Turkish, and Indian architecture. It took 20,000 artisans nearly 22 years - 1632 to 1653 - to build it.

I approach the domed marble mausoleum where the shah and his wife are buried. In a crush of tourists I am swept into its interior, where grave markers are placed several feet above the graves.

For me, in addition to looking at the whole, admiring the intricate inlaid designs made of semiprecious stones (yellow jasper, black onyx, reddish-brown carnelian, dark-green jade, blue lapis, light-blue Indian turquoise, smoky-colored agate, and iridescent mother-of-pearl) is one of my most memorable experiences.

In 1983, the Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As I leave, I turn one last time to admire the beauty of this symbol of undying love; a monument to beauty, art, and passion.

Jaipur

Jaipur's history actually starts a few miles away at the Amber Fort and Palace. Built in the 16th century, the fortress of white and red sandstone has many stories to tell of India and its history, and the men who ruled from here.

All the intricate designs remain and show the opulence amid which these men of power and their families lived, including one ruler who designed 12 apartments surrounding a common courtyard to accommodate his 12 wives. (A carved marble screen allowed the harem to look out at the activity of the fort without being seen.)

Jaipur was built in the 18th century as an extension of the fort. It is often referred to as the Pink City. The color originates from 1876 when Maharaja Ram Singh painted the entire city pink to welcome the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) when India was under British rule.

Another highlight in Jaipur is shopping.

In the heart of the city are narrow streets lined with craftsmen creating one-of-a-kind treasures, from stunning lacquer bracelets to lovely handmade journals. This is where you can find beautiful clothing and saris as well.

For jewelry though, avoid the street. This is another reason to have a guide. You'll want to visit a reputable dealer.

Block printing is a featured craft in Jaipur. At Shree Carpet & Textile Mahal, I watched the process as well as other artisans weaving carpets. The showroom features such block-printed textiles as tablecloths, wall hangings, clothing, and scarves.

My time in India, with its roaming animals, warm and friendly people, and cultural charm, was dreamlike.

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