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A SECOND TRIP TO INDIA
by Ted Cookson
Published in June 2004
What distinguishes India from many other travel destinations is its vast storehouse of cultural treasures. In India there are places where visitors encounter history at every step.
Most first-time tourists to India visit the so-called Golden Triangle consisting of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Delhi is India's cosmopolitan capital. The Taj Mahal, India's premier tourist attraction, is in Agra. And a visit to Jaipur offers a good introduction to the Moghul splendors of India's state of Rajasthan southwest of Delhi.
But what destinations should be considered for a second trip to India (or for an extended first visit)? Khajuraho, Varanasi, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Leh, all well-served by nearby airports, are worth including.
Khajuraho is famous for the erotic motifs displayed in its sandstone temple sculptures. A millennium ago walled Khajuraho contained more than 80 spired temples. Although today just 22 temples remain, several of the surviving temples are very well-preserved. The remains demonstrate the zest for life of the ancient Chandella civilization in several different aspects: warfare, hunting, sexuality and spirituality.
The ruins at Khajuraho eventually fell into obscurity for hundreds of years. They were later uncovered by a British captain in 1838. It is likely that the ruins were preserved because of their remote desert location which allowed them to remain hidden from the destructive Muslim armies which invaded India in the eleventh century.
Today it is possible for tourists to view Khajuraho's remarkable monuments in a single day. Interestingly, the well-known erotic sculptures constitute only about 4% of the sculptures which survive.
Khajuraho is 395 km southeast Agra and 600 km southeast Delhi.
Mark Twain wrote that Varanasi is "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together." In fact, the city has been inhabited continuously since the days of Babylon.
Hindus come to Varanasi to purify themselves in the sacred waters of the Ganges River, and they return after death to be cremated on its banks. It is easy for tourists to view the daily spectacle of ritual devotion. An hour-long ride in a rowboat along the bank of the Ganges reveals many hundreds of pilgrims gathered along the stone steps, or ghats, which lead down to the river. Devout Hindus stand waist-deep in the holy Ganges to offer prayers to the rising sun.
Corpses are rinsed in the river before being cremated along on the river bank. This is a sight never to be forgotten. While it is unusual to witness a corpse floating down the Ganges, in fact, several categories of Hindus are thrown directly into the river rather than being cremated. Those not cremated include pregnant women, lepers and those who have died of snake bites!
Incidentally, Benares, the city's former name, was an Anglicization of a Mughal corruption of Varanasi. The name Varanasi itself is a combination of the names of two nearby rivers, Varuna and Asi.
Varanasi is 415 km northeast of Khajuraho and 710 km southeast Delhi.
Udaipur, Rajasthan's "sunrise city," was established in 1567; and a 10-km-long wall was built around it. Of the original eleven gates, five still survive. The most spectacular sight is the City Palace, the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. Half of the palace is still used today by the royal family. Built over a period of 400 years, the City Palace sits on a 1.5-km-long rock formation overlooking Lake Pichola. Dating back to the fourteenth century, the lake covers a maximum of 8 square km. But, fed only by rainfall, it is often much smaller. Udaipur has been subject to draught for the past six years, so today the size of Lake Pichola is very much reduced.
Udaipur is also famous for its luxurious marble Lake Palace Hotel, which was created in 1962 from a former palace on an island in Lake Pichola. This magnificent hotel property features beautiful interior courtyards and terraces as well as a small marble swimming pool. In fact, the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed there.
Udaipur is 407 km southwest of Jaipur and 670 km southwest of Delhi.
Prior to the arrival in India of the British with their merchant ships, Jodhpur thrived as a staging post for camel caravans traversing the route between the Middle East and China. The city traded in silk, coffee, sandalwood, spices and opium, which is still grown in Rajasthan today.
Towering Mehrangarh Fort, founded in 1459 and 5 km from the city center, contains one of the most dramatic of Rajasthan's edifices. The palace, completed in 1853, offers superb views over the blue city. Traditionally just Jodhpur's Brahmin homes were painted blue. But the use of blue house paint has spread further as the indigo in the paint serves as an insect repellent.
A masterpiece of medieval defense engineering, Rudyard Kipling once wrote that the Mehrangarh Fort and its palace were created by "angels, fairies and giants."
Jodhpur is 275 km northwest of Udaipur, 343 km southwest of Jaipur and 599 km southwest of Delhi.
A final, unusual suggestion for a second trip to India is Leh in Ladakh, the "Land of Passes." This region of Kashmir, primarily Buddhist, is culturally similar to Tibet. Leh, the ancient capital of Ladakh, lies on a 3,555-meter-high plateau in the Indus Valley. From afar, Leh's Khar Palace, the former royal residence overlooking the city, looks similar to (but smaller than) the fabulous Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
Ladakh's population was swelled by refugees who fled their native land when China invaded Tibet in 1959. Because India only opened Ladakh to tourism in 1974, the region still retains much of its Tibetan character today.
Sightseeing in the vicinity of Leh involves visiting various hilltop monasteries called gompas, which were built as places of worship and meditation. In addition, gompas serve as religious schools for young monks. Hemis Gompa, 40 km from Leh, is the largest and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh.
In winter Leh Airport is Ladakh's sole link with the outside world. Leh is an exciting 55-minute flight from Delhi over the Himalayas in a Boeing 737 jet. Tourists arriving by air should take it easy upon arrival until their bodies have had a chance to acclimatize as the high altitude may cause headaches, dizziness or nausea.
SUMMARY AND TRAVEL TIPS:
In summary, second-time visitors to India should consider visiting Khajuraho with its unique erotic sculptures, Varanasi with its sacred river, Udaipur and Jodhpur in Rajasthan with their remarkable forts and palaces, and perhaps even Leh in Ladakh, India's "Little Tibet."
Summer season round trip airfares to Delhi currently begin from approx. EGP 3,600 including taxes. In general, the best time to visit India is October through March. But the best time to visit Leh in Ladakh is April through mid-October. The trekking season there begins from mid-May.
ABOUT TED COOKSON: Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world! He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club). A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi. Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at: Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301. Fax 2359-1199. E-mail: email@example.com. Web site: www.eptours.com.
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