Agra Fort

India: Sacred and Golden

01 May 2017

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The promise of ancient palaces, poignant tradition and an incredibly foreign culture has lured visitors to India for centuries. Her dazzling array of humanity is as astounding as her immense fortresses, and down every dusty street there is an experience waiting to wow you.

I recently explored India’s Golden Triangle and sacred River Ganges with Uniworld, and these are the experiences I will never forget.

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Mother and child in India smile for camera
India is the second most populated country in the world, with over a billion inhabitants

Local Life

You usually talk about a trip in terms of what you saw and did, but the locals of India were the highlight of the trip for me. Everywhere we went the children were thrilled to see us and would follow us around, always with a cheeky grin and a gratifying willingness to pose for photos.

Even in the most rural parts of the country, the Indians took great pride in their appearance and cleanliness. The colours were amazing - all these fresh, vibrant hues against a dusty backdrop. As we wandered through rustic villages, we would see people cleaning their teeth outside their homes, or sweeping their stoop, no matter how humble the dwelling. These people don’t have much, but they take great pride in what they do have and are always seeking personal improvement; a truly uplifting and humbling thing to witness.

On our way into Jaipur we were held up in traffic by a couple of elephants, which were delaying the stream of tuk tuks and cars! This is not a common sighting - we were obviously just a lucky bunch, because on the road from Dehli to Agra we overtook a few camels. They were pulling a cart and were obviously their passengers’ main mode of transport. These are the types of authentic moments that inspire me to travel. 

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Agra Fort, India
On a clear day you can see the Taj Mahal through the slits in the wall of Jodha Bai's palace in Agra Fort

Agra Fort

As you walk through the gates of this mighty, red stone fortress you are infused with a sense of history – its gigantic walls just ooze with the memory of events that have unfolded within. Inside it’s an Arabian Nights fairy tale of scalloped archways, delicate marble inlay and stately columns.

You could have walked the entire structure within ten minutes, but we spent hours gazing upon its beauty as we soaked up the tales told by our guide, whose passion for his home made the stories spring to life in my mind.

Jaipur - The Pink City

You can’t blame the world for being charmed by the pink city - its dusk-hued buildings and lively street scenes are a feast for the eyes. The longer you gaze at the Palace of the Wind, the more exquisite details you will fall in love with, and I was awed when I realised this building is both functional and beautiful. The architects designed an ingenious airflow through the lacy windows so that Indian ladies could watch the streets below while escaping the heat of the day.

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Palace of the Wind, Jaipur
The Palace of the Wind is shaped like the crown that adorns Lord Krishna's head

Jantar Muntar is an observatory filled with ancient artefacts that track the activity of the heavens. There was one giant, centuries-old sundial that wowed us all by being correct to the minute, and we were even treated to a little horoscope reading by one of the hosts. A lady in our group discovered her birthday was on the cusp of two star signs, and she’d been reading the wrong horoscope for the last 50 years!  

Inside the City Palace in Jaipur I was enchanted by the gorgeous designs that enveloped the doors, resplendent with vibrant colours and incredible detail. Another surprising highlight for me was a museum that housed a huge assortment of historical weapons – hearing about their traditional uses gave me a spine tingling sense of how different things were in times gone by.


Old man rows along Ganges River
All of India's most sacred pilgrimage sites are on the banks of the River Ganges

Cruising the Ganges

One of the things I loved the most about our seven nights on the Ganges Voyager II was simply sailing past the villages and seeing the locals bathing from the ghats in their bright saris or going about their daily lives. We came ashore often, and it was quickly apparent that these little villages were not accustomed to tourists. We would be walking through a local market place, dodging chickens and goats, and the locals would stop and stare at us, or ask to take pictures with us. My blonde hair ensured I was quite the sensation!


Ganges Village
The Ganges Basin is home to over 400 million people, the highest population of any river basin in the world

The entertainment and activities on board the ship further enhanced our experience of India. One night, a local troupe performed a traditional dance to their national anthem, which moved me to tears with its haunting beauty. Another night we enjoyed a Bollywood dance, and on one occasion we learned how to dress in saris, and paraded around the deck in our colourful ensembles.

At every single meal aboard the ship we had the chance to eat authentic Indian cuisine, and even had a cooking class in the galley. The chef was genuinely lovely and very attentive - if you didn’t finish your meal, he would check to make sure everything was okay, and try to find out how he could cook you something better next time. 

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I took advantage of the option of extending my cruise to include Varanasi, a city in the northern state which is considered the spiritual centre of India. A Varanasi pilgrimage is a journey that every Indian seeks to make at least once in a lifetime, and we saw a constant stream of people bathing, drinking from, and relaxing in the water. We witnessed several traditional ceremonies, including a few cremations, all of which were based around the waters of the Mother Ganges. You quickly realise that this river is the lifeblood and spiritual anchor for millions of people. 

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Taj Mahal
The name Taj Mahal means 'Crown of Palaces'

Taj Mahal

No matter how many photos you’ve seen, the Taj Mahal will steal your breath when you behold it for the first time.

The mausoleums out the front of the Taj Mahal enchanted me with their spectacular architecture and white-trimmed pink stone, but when I saw the view from the Great Gate I couldn’t tear my eyes away. This colossal entranceway frames a postcard scene over a seemingly endless pool, which leads to the magnificence of the Taj Mahal.

We visited at dusk and a different aspect of beauty was revealed every minute as the sunlight moved across the building’s exquisite curves and curlicues. I highly recommend visiting at two different times – we returned the next morning, but our views were obscured by a foggy mist that created an atmosphere that was very spiritual but not photo friendly.

Honouring Mother Theresa

The final resting place of Mother Theresa is located in a local side street off a busy Calcutta road. You step in from a street scene of vintage yellow taxis and busy foot traffic into the Missionaries of Charity Mother House and are suddenly overcome with a sense of peace. It is quite small and very simple, but paying homage to Mother Theresa and the incredible things she did for humankind was a moving experience that I’d recommend for everyone. Hers was a selfless love that encompassed all religions.

Wendy Gunther is the Senior Travel Manager at Gunther & Turner Travel Associates, Toowoomba. Wendy hosted a group of clients on this adventure through India with Uniworld, and she has plenty more tales to tell! Get in touch with Wendy today.