India: A state of independence
Deep in the bush of Ranthambore National Park, one of the largest reserves in Northern India, our guide Nadeem is hot on the trail of a 15-month-old tiger cub.
My travel companions—a group of 16 solo travellers bound together by a shared fascination with this enthralling country—peer over the side of the truck to observe the huge paw prints embedded in the dirt track. Nadeem can identify most of the 60 tigers that live here by their prints alone. The tracks are fresh.
A former hunting ground for the Maharajas of Jaipur, the conservation effort has been so successful that the tiger population here has peaked, leading several cats to leave the confines of the park and stalk through the tall grasslands of local farms to reach neighbouring forests. Monkeys swing erratically above our heads as we fly over the wildly uneven terrain. They let out whooping distress calls that chime with the cries of nearby birds and deer—they’re the sounds we’ve been waiting for. She’s close.
Minutes later our driver makes an abrupt stop and there, sprawled just a few feet away from us, the cub lies proudly, as if she’s won the ultimate game of hide and seek. At 80kg, it’s hard to believe she’s only a baby. She will double in size by the time she reaches maturity.
"The infamous smog of the city hangs low like a blanket, keeping its people from the scorch of the sun"
When a tubby boar stumbles through the undergrowth, she flattens herself, and begins to stalk. We hold our breath but Nadeem suppresses a snicker. “She won’t catch him,” he whispers. He’s right. The boar is too quick and her pounce too cautious. It’ll be months before her skills are refined enough to leave her mother’s side.
The sun sets behind the ancient ramparts as we begrudgingly leave, and nothing but the sound of the giggling monkeys fills the air. The setting couldn’t be more different to my first experience of India, though the entire country—comprised of different worlds though it seems—shares one magnetic pulse.
Delhi in October is hot. But a heat without sunshine. The infamous smog of the city hangs low like a blanket, keeping its people from the scorch of the sun.
Our first stop is India Gate, the huge war memorial that commemorates the 82,000 Indian soldiers who died in the First World War and Third Anglo-Afghan War.
Areas of open land like this are scarce in Delhi, so the Gate becomes a social hub by night, as local families gather for picnics and friends meet for animated games of cricket.
For now, though, it’s populated predominantly by domestic tourists, many in Delhi for the first time. Rowdy groups of schoolboys run over to us holding their phones aloft and crying, “Selfie, selfie.” When we ask one why he wants a photograph with us, he tells us he’s proud that we’re visiting his country.
Later, after a delicious lunch of spicy curried paneer and crisp, sweet pani puri, we drive to Gandhi Smiriti—Mahatma Gandhi’s final residence and the site of his assassination.
The atmosphere couldn’t be more different to the Gate. Instead of jostling schoolboys and the shouts of nearby cricket matches, there’s absolute peace and tranquillity. Birds chirrup as we follow Gandhi’s final footsteps, marked out beautifully like stepping stones on the ground. Some of them are sprinkled with deep crimson petals.
"Gap-year students sit between Sikh businessmen and Hindu housewives carefully rolling out chapatis"
In the early evening we visit India’s most prominent house of Sikh worship, the Bangla Sahib Temple. We’ve arrived just as the sun—a deep orange yolk bleeding into the sky—has begun to set behind its golden domes.
We remove our shoes, cover our heads and step out onto the cool marble. People come here to pray, eat, sleep or even bathe in the sarovar, a sacred pool that stretches out into the rear courtyard.
In the heart of the temple, volunteers serve up 10,000 free meals every day in an open kitchen called a langar. It’s here for those who need it, Sikh or not, and many of Delhi’s homeless people rely on it for sustenance.
Gap year students sit between Sikh businessmen and Hindu housewives, carefully rolling out chapatis, assisted by willing members of our group, who want to help, moved by what we’ve seen here.
The temple feels a fitting place to visit after the site of Ghandi’s assassination, his dream for a harmonious India fresh in our minds.
It’s a sentiment echoed by our rickshaw driver the next day, as we duck under chunky electrical wires, hanging like great bird nests between the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s most famous shopping strip. All kinds of Indians live here in harmony, he tells us, proudly.
I can’t help but feel guilty as he reaches to wipe his sweaty brow with a small rag. It’s hot, close to 35 degrees, although the sun still hasn’t broken through that thick blanket of smog. As we leave our driver behind to navigate the streets by foot, he looks sorely in need of rest, though he’s clearly already scouring the street for his next customer.
Our guide, Deep, laughs as he spies me trying to find a suitable gap to cross the hectic road—which is now populated by tuc tucs, cars, cows, goat-led chariots and even a man astride an elephant. With one hand on my shoulder he tells me firmly, but with the hint of a smile, “Just shut your eyes and walk.”
The Taj Mahal
The smog in Delhi turns to fog in Agra as we take the four-and-a-half-hour drive to the home of the Taj Mahal. Unfinished high rises emerge from the gloom of the misty morning and Deep explains that they should have been finished years ago. Thanks to India’s backlogged courts, the people who bought them will probably never get their investment back.
Girls dance amidst the highway traffic, begging for money. A young couple rolls down their windows to hand one two bananas and a bag of nuts. She seems pleased with her haul, but continues her dancing all the same.
We depart for Agra’s Red Fort just after dawn, keen to avoid the fierce heat of the midday sun. The architecture is extremely ornate. Rings still hang from the floors and ceilings where silk sheets, rugs and swings once hung. Perfumed water used to flow through the palace and oil lamps lit the marble interiors.
The place is infused with royalty; you can almost feel the noble figures moving around you.
A short walk from the palace reveals an altogether different side of India—the roadside wholesale food market has opened, selling their wares before the main markets open their doors later in the day.
The floor is thick with rotting vegetables and vehicles race through the narrow walkways between stalls, offering no more than a blast of their horn before zooming past the shoppers. I feel a nudge on the back of my thigh and jump, only to find a cow carefully butting its head against me, telling me in no uncertain terms that I’m to move out of her way. She settles a short distance ahead, to graze on some bruised potatoes left over from a previous day’s trade. Despite the muck beneath our feet, the produce is colourful and succulent. We purchase vibrant green water chestnuts, peel them with our hands and enjoy the sweet, nutty taste.
When evening comes, a horse and carriage carries us on to the Taj Mahal. Our driver is very young, and he pats the horse’s rump muttering words of encouragement throughout our drive.
"Seeing the Taj Mahal with your own eyes is like spotting a full moon on a night you expected cloud"
The sun has already begun to set when we arrive, and the crush to get in before it disappears entirely is almost unbearable. When we finally emerge, the rosy sunset has tinged the marble visage of the Taj a faint pink.
Seeing the building with your own eyes is like spotting a sparkling full moon on a night you expected cloud. It’s a personal encounter, and our group disperses as we each take in the sight, our experience deepening as we the majesty of the building alone.
Our next stop is Udaipur and during the long journey, we play games, drink Indian rum and sing songs. One of our group performs a ditty he’s written. It’s a love song constructed from the things we’ve encountered during our trip (his love is “spicy too, like a strong vindaloo”).
Despite the glamour of inner city Udaipur—it’s known as the “Venice of the East”—the rural outskirts prove the most captivating as we travel to a small village named Dhar.
Children clamour around us from the moment we arrive, beaming toothy grins as they pose for photos, scrambling to see the final picture the second the shutter closes.
Many of the children here attend a free school in the village and they look delighted to be in class. They sing us English songs and one shy but brave boy stands up alone to recite a Hindi poem. It’s especially wonderful to see the row of girls sat in the front. In rural Rajasthan where this village lies, less than five per cent of women are literate.*
One of the elder women dresses me in a sari, and falls about laughing when it transpires that I’m too tall for the pretty material to stay on my head. She follows close behind, constantly fidgeting with the fabrics. She tells our guide that she’ll be putting me to work in the fields next, and all the women laugh.
Food is plentiful here. I even spy two boys hitting one another over the head with a custard apple as they wait for school. They giggle bashfully when they realise I’ve noticed, and it’s a delight to be momentarily initiated into this shared secret.
Despite travelling alone, I never feel lonely. Instead, the solo experience offers a chance to experience sparks of connection like this—moments that can easily go unnoticed when with familiar travel companions.
We walk on towards the Aravelli mountain range, which stretches from Delhi in the north to Haryana in the south. Here, farmers still plough the fields with cows and we follow a river where children play as their mothers wash jeans in the water.
Eventually, we reach the foot of the 3,000ft mountain we’ll be climbing. There’s no path, and it takes a challenging two hours to reach the top. The local women, meanwhile, do this every day with great bushels of grass balanced on their heads.
Something about the trip to the village has our group opening up. That night over dinner, we speak about births and deaths, weddings and funerals, the family we feud with and the ones that we miss.
We’ll soon be leaving the state of Rajasthan to venture somewhere altogether new. I think about the final stretch of our trip—a plane journey to the modern “city of dreams”, Mumbai—with a quiet excitement, and remember the advice Deep gave me.
When the plane touches down and the thick humidity of Mumbai hits my lungs, I look out at the bustling city, shut my eyes and walk.
One Traveller offers 16-day holidays to India from £3,590 per person.
Taking in Delhi, Royal Rajasthan and Mumbai, the trip includes return flights from London, 15 nights’ accommodation in four- and five-star hotels, all meals, all domestic travel and excursions as detailed in the itinerary, plus the services of a dedicated One Traveller Tour Manager (01760 722 011, OneTraveller.co.uk).