Here is my Northern India route map – courtesy of STA Travel. I decided to opt for a guided tour on my first trip to India, and STA Travel had lots of different options to choose from. I went for the ‘Rajasthan and Varanasi on a shoestring’ tour provided by GAdevntures. There are advantages and disadvantages to joining group tours, for me this one was a no brainer. I was working full-time, and only had 3 weeks to spend in India. I knew if I tried to go it alone I wouldn’t be able to see half as much as I did with the group tour. Having said that though, I am looking forward to a slower paced style of travel next year where I’ll be going it alone!
- Safety – always keep up to date with your local foreign travel advice service for relevant news and information. I personally experienced some unwanted groping during my trip so remain vigilant, other than that I felt relatively safe – although I was travelling in a large group. Generally use common sense, don’t have valuables out on display and don’t carry large sums of cash.
- Currency – Indian Rupee
- Language – Hindi and English
- Etiquette – Ladies wear modest clothing, covering shoulders and knees, a scarf always comes in handy, especially when visiting temples. Gentleman you’re fine, just don’t go topless! Shorts/trousers and a top and you’re good. I wore open sandals and my feet were regularly filthy so consider bringing some comfortable closed in shoes – especially if you are doing lots of walking. Although, we managed to find a great salon for a pedicure and foot massage towards the end of the trip, which made all the difference.
This trip offered the highlights of Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle. It was a full on itinerary and very active, but great if you have limited time but want to get a glimpse of these beautiful places. The tour encompassed amazing scenery, temples, forts and palaces, with the opportunity to visit sand dunes, go on camel safaris and taste the culinary wonders of India. A few of the tour members opted to travel on to Goa afterwards to soak up the beaches and relax in the sun, which I agree is needed after all the hustle and bustle of this region.
Now let’s look a bit deeper into destinations!
I arrived in Delhi and opted to use the transfer organised by GAdevntures – the women on wheels project. This is a great project which provides women with technical, self-development and self empowerment training to help level the playing field of gender inequality.
A word of warning about India’s road system – the traffic is crazy! There doesn’t seem to be any Highway Code or road signs, but somehow everyone still needs to get where they’re going. Another note on getting around – you must try riding in an auto or cycle Rickshaw, you’ll get to experience your surroundings more taking in the warm air, smells and sights, rather than in an air-conditioned car. Although for that reason, it’s only great for shortish journeys.
Also train travel – if you’re a solo female traveller or travelling in a group of girls, I’d recommend using the women only section of the trains for extra safety. Most of the time we travelled as a large group and I felt pretty safe. The train journeys through the desert get very dusty and extremely hot, so make sure you stay hydrated.
A final note – be prepared to see lots of cows – everywhere! Cows are considered sacred in India so often wander freely – amongst the traffic, in markets or popping in to say hello at a train stop!
In New Delhi I had the chance to visit the ‘Ghandi Smriti’ – The Martyrdom Site of Mahatma Gandhi which I highly recommend including in your itinerary. This site serves as a memorial to Gandhi’s life and death, which sadly took place within the gardens of Birla House on 30th January 1948. Mahatma Gandhi was aged 78 when he died, and was assassinated by a Hindu extremist who shot him in the stomach and chest. You can visit the room which Gandhi used in his last days, and also tour the museum and gardens at Ghandi Smriti.
Other great sites to visit include:
- Humayun’s Tomb – houses the mortal remains of Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor of India. Constructed in Red Sand Stone and completed in 1572 AD. Located in Nizamuddin, East Dehli, Humayun’s tomb or Makbara-e -Humayun is one of the best preserved Mughal monuments and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.
- Jantar Mar – one of the oldest observatories in India. Built by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, Jantar Mantar was devised to fulfil the need of bigger astronomical instruments. This 18th-century observatory is made entirely of red brick and rubble, and is inscribed with scale markings in order to take readings. Unfortunately, it is no longer a functional observatory due to the tall buildings now surrounding it, but it’s a fascinating visit.
- The India gate – similar to the famous ‘Arc de Triomphe’ in Paris, this magnificent gate stands 42 metres high and commemorates the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the British Army during the World War I. The memorial bears the names of more than 13,516 British and Indian soldiers killed in the Northwestern Frontier in the Afghan war of 1919.
We visited the beautiful desserts in the Biknar area, and had the opportunity to go on a camel safari. The organisers of the tour kindly set up our camp and provided these surprisingly comfortable beds. We watched the sunset, enjoyed a campfire meal, and fell asleep under the stars. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and one definitely not to miss!
Karni Mata Temple – also known as ‘The Rat Temple’
This famous temple is home to around 20,000 rats, mostly black with the odd white rat which are regarded as especially holy. The origin of this temple dates back to the early 20th Century and is dedicated to Goddess Karni, a reincarnation of Maa Durga (Goddess). There are two stories which relate to this Temple: one of which, it has been said, is that the 20,000 rats are soldiers reincarnated who deserted a nearby battlefield as punishment; the second, is the story of the youngest son of the Goddess Karni who had drowned and she asked the God of Death – ‘Yama’ to bring her son back to life. At first, Yama refused, but then eventually relented and blessed that all of Karni’s male children and their descendants would be reincarnated as rats.
Known as the Golden City, and home to the Jaisalmer Fort built in 1156 by King Rawal Jaisal. This area is chock full of palaces, temples, bazaars, and residences inside the walls of the complex, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. During our visit, I purchased some authentic Indian tea and chai spices to recreate my own Chai tea at home. As long as everything is clearly labelled, then you’re fine to bring it home in your luggage. Our tour guide did warn us of the fake saffron being sold which was merely newspaper shredding dyed burnt orange, so do be vigilant when making any purchases.
Also in Jaisalmer, and worth a visit, is The Gadisar Lake – a man-made reservoir built in 1367 by Maharawal Gadsi Singh, after whom it is named. Boating here is one of the refreshing things to do in Jaisalmer. Or just visit at sunset and marvel at the surrounding views.
Founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha, the chief of the Rathore clan. This infamous blue city is a burst of colour and beauty, get lost within it and search for these beautifully blue buildings.
The Sadar market is made up of an array of markets offering spices, leather goods, fabrics, colourful shoes and pottery, all located around the central century old clock tower. It’s a must visit when you’re in Jodhpur, but be prepared to haggle – although only a little, the markets are the locals livelihood and they need to make a living.
A Royal City, which was the capital of Mewar rulers for centuries. The first foundations were built in 1557AD. The City Palace is situated overlooking Lake Pichola. The palace is an eclectic mix of styles from medieval, to European and Chinese, and each successor of the Royal City added their own stamp to this marvellous building. There’s an array of mosaic work, marble, granite, and paintings to see in this structure, and definitely worth a visit.
Taj Lake Palace is built on a man made island surrounded by Lake Pichola. Taj Lake Palace is one of the 4 palaces of the Royal Dynasty of Mewar. The foundation stone of the new palace was laid in 1743 and it was inaugurated in1746. It has since been converted into a beautiful 5* hotel. It’s well worth taking a boat trip out into Lake Pichola, we were lucky enough to see the bats flying against the backdrop of the dusky sky as the sun was setting.
After lots of sightseeing, forts, palaces and markets, we arrived in Pushkar. With only a day here, we took a tour around the city and enjoyed a relaxing evening watching a cultural show including a Kalbelia dance performance. Everything from the music, the dancing, costumes and setting was awe inspiring.
Our next location on this trip was Tordi Sagar. Escaping the hustle and bustle of the Royal Cities we arrived in a small rural town. This was an opportunity to relax and take a step in the slow lane. We wandered around local villages, being greeted by cows, pigs and camels. I would highly recommend if you have the opportunity to have a traditional henna tattoo. It was a chance to meet with local women and watch as they so quickly and adeptly painted pretty designs on our hands.
From the slow lane back into the dazzling city of pink – Jaipur. The now capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur was built in 1727 AD by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. A marvel of red sand stone is the reason this destination is named the Pink City. Although in my experience not at ‘pink’ as some photo editing and software leads you to believe!
Amber Fort is located just 11km outside of Jaipur, and should be on your travel list. The construction of Amber Fort was started in 1592. It was modified at regular intervals by several rulers and the trend continued until the late 1600s. The fort was mostly constructed using yellow and red sandstone as well as white marble. You can opt to ride elephants up to the fort, however we were advised against this by our tour guide, due to the hot conditions and welfare of the elephants. It’s just an uphill 10 minute walk to the fort anyway so a good bit of exercise to incorporate into your day!
Jaipur City Gates and the parade of stores and multiple mopeds alongside it serve as a great entrance to this picturesque city. There are a total of eight gates surrounding the city and historically, they were opened at dawn and closed by dusk to secure the city and its inhabitants. Most of the city gates are adorned with white floral motifs.
Lastly, a must see in Jaipur – Hawa Mahal is a palace in Jaipur, translated as ‘Palace of Winds’. It was constructed in 1799 and made of red and pink sandstone. The building enabled the royal ladies who at the time, strictly observed “pardah” (the social practice of female seclusion), to be able to watch any processions and activities on the street without being seen by the public.
Any visit to Agra would not be complete without visiting the glorious Taj Mahal. Built between 1631 and 1648, the Taj Mahal is now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The immense white marble mausoleum was erected by request of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal is considered to be the greatest architectural achievement in the whole range of Indo-Islamic architecture due to it’s arches, domes, intricacies in voids and solids, and is unequivocally amazing! We arrived early in the morning so as to beat the crowds and get our best shots in as there can be upward of 70,000 visitors on busy tourist days.
And lastly, before settling up our trip and heading back to Delhi to fly home, was Varanasi. My favourite experience in Varanasi was visiting the River Ganges.
The River Ganges flows over 2700km all the way from the Himalayan mountains and is considered sacred by Hindus. As such, the city of Varanasi is one of the most holy city’s in India. Everyday you will witness people travelling to the River to bathe, pray and celebrate life and death. Those who have passed away will be cremated along the river banks and the ashes then spread across the waters. During the day, we took part in a blessing and watched on as locals enjoyed the cool waters with children playing alongside older people bathing. Once the sun set, we took a boat ride along the Ganges where we observed a cremation ceremony take place and marvelled at the Evening Aarti Ceremony, which is performed every evening at 6:45pm for 45 minutes.
For more detailed information and advice, why not check out these useful guides and books Lonely Planet Guide India, DK Eyewitness Travel Guide – Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Lonely Planet Guide Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra, or The Rough Guide to India.
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I’m planning to head back over to India next year to explore the southern regions of Goa, Kerala and Kochi – check back here soon for more blog post updates!
What have been your experiences so far? What’s the best things you’ve seen and done in this beautiful part of the world? Share your experiences in the comments section below, I’d love to hear about them!