As scores of fans of author Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love ascend upon theatres for Hollywood’s adaptation of her spiritual journey featuring Julia Roberts, there has never been a better or more appropriate time for me to share my extraordinary journey through India which I took alone this spring. While decidedly less spiritual and considerably more extravagant, my magical month long trip was no less life-changing and I hope, inspiring enough for others to want to explore this enchanting country.
Nothing could have prepared me for the exuberant spirit of life in New Delhi, India’s capital and the first stop on my jam-packed itinerary. After flying in with the wonderfully refined Jet Airways I was immediately thrust into India’s characteristically chaotic traffic, teeming with ambassador cars, motorcycles, the ubiquitous yellow and green auto rickshaws and almost unbelievably, sacred cows.
Aware that I wanted to see, do, taste and feel as much as possible in the two days I was in the capital, it was important for me to stay somewhere central but also safe and luxurious – as I was a young woman traveling alone and had never been to India before. Aman New Delhi was the perfect oasis of calm – a serene, almost otherworldly place where I recharged after my long days of sightseeing. They provided me with an excellent guide and a beautiful chauffeured ambassador car, therein giving me a key to unlocking many of the secrets of New Delhi not often known to first time travelers in India.
I woke with the sun my first morning in New Delhi and knew there was only one way to start day one of my exciting journey, with a traditional Indian breakfast of scrumptious dosas at one of the Aman restaurants, a spicy delight for the senses and a taste of what was to come. I met my guide Ajay and after friendly introductions we were quickly on our way to see the city’s impressive government buildings, which blend Mughal and European architectural styles and are rich in colonial history. Afterwards, on Rajpath road, we drove past one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks, India Gate, a war memorial arch built by the British that was unveiled in 1931.
We spent some time walking around the government district and happened on a peaceful protest that, according to Ajay, are incredibly common in New Delhi. While stopping to take a look at the chanting men and women in bright sarees lining the streets with signs, two friendly gentlemen offered us a dosa from the local food stall. I would come to experience this spontaneous, benevolent generosity daily as I traveled throughout India.
With stomachs full of dosas and ears ringing with protest chants, Ajay took me to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a sacred Sikh temple located on Baba Khadag Singh Marg, near Connaught Place in central Delhi. Stopping for a few minutes inside to observe the prayers and offer a couple of our own, we headed outside to the glistening pond of holy water known as the Sarovar. Circumnavigating the pond we reflected on the beauty of our surroundings and watched as elderly men dutifully unwrapped their turbans and undressed to enter the sacred water.
Eschewing the smooth, air-conditioned comfort of our ambassador car I insisted that we instead take the subway from New Delhi to Old Delhi, the next stop on our itinerary. As a city girl and frequent subway taker I was amazed at how clean, modern and efficient the Delhi subway was! Since opening in 2002 the subway has continued to expand rapidly, transporting millions of Delhiites each and every day.
As we emerged from the underground in Old Delhi I was startled to see how utterly different this part of the city was – the dusty streets, stores constructed out of aluminum, and cattle moving haphazardly – it all seemed so much farther away than a handful of quick subway stops. For me, the absolute highlight of Old Delhi were the markets – labyrinths of narrow, winding laneways packed to the rafters with beads, spices, fresh food and nearly everything else under the sun – they are quintessentially Indian and a definite must-see.
After exploring we had lunch at the famous Karim’s restaurant and hopped in an auto rickshaw to drive along Chandni Chowk road and visit the Jama Masjid of Delhi – India’s most famous mosque, which was commissioned in 1656 by the same man who built the Taj Mahal, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Blending Hindu and Islamic architecture, Jama Masjid is made of red sandstone, and white and black marble, it is incredibly rich in detail but even richer in importance to the many Muslims who come to pray here.
As the hot sun continued to beat down on us we ventured to Raj Ghat to visit the black marble memorial to Mahatma Gandi, which was built following his assassination in 1948 and marks the spot where he was cremated. Situated on lush green lawns we were lucky to enjoy a surprisingly quiet visit, as this landmark is often frequented by thousands of tourists at a time from around India and the world. Just outside we spoke to the first and only snake charmer I encountered in India, who jokingly placed the coiled snake on my head! Heart beating a thousand times faster we drove back to Aman New Delhi where I rested before venturing out to a night market for dinner and shopping.
Dilli Haat resembles a large traditional village market, with hundreds of stalls selling handicrafts, a variety of foods, and beautiful clothing, scarves and rugs. I was eager to avoid the large tourist shops in Delhi so that I could buy more traditional souvenirs for my family and friends. With sparkling white lights in the trees, Dilli Haat was charming and a fun way to end an incredible first day in India – anyone traveling to Delhi should go.
Day two had me up before the sun and marveling at the millions of glorious flowers at Mehrauli Flower Market. A quick turn off a busy street and we had entered a stunning laneway bustling with life; children and adults were busily arranging bouquets, stringing garlands and bartering with locals over the day’s flowers. Heady with the fragrance of roses, marigolds and tuberose I bought a few garlands to hang in the car, which immediately enveloped us in perfume for the rest of day.
Next stop was Qutb Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret at 72.5 meters, which was built in 1193 by India’s first Muslim ruler Qutb-ud-din Aibak and is a famous example of Indo-Islamic architecture. Housed among other important monuments the grounds are a peaceful place to visit and particularly beautiful in the early morning.
As a very special treat, Ajay surprised me by bringing me to his family’s home in Delhi for a traditional Indian breakfast where we all sat together and feasted on delicious vegetarian dishes. Before eating the women and girls in his family gifted me a stunning saree which they expertly dressed me in, and finished off the look by placing a bindi squarely between my brows. I will never forget their incredible kindness and generosity and can’t wait to visit them again soon.
The last place Ajay brought me too was the Bahai House of Worship in Kalkaji – also known as the Lotus Temple – as its marble, cement, dolomite and sand exterior resembles an enormous lotus flower. Built in 1986 by Canadian Persian architect Fariborz Sahba, it’s open to people of all faiths but visitors are asked to be perfectly silent inside the immaculate and sparse temple. The Lotus is regarded as a symbol of peace, purity, love and immortality – it was the perfect place to say goodbye to Delhi and open my heart to three more weeks exploring India.
I was amazed at what I had seen during my first two days in Delhi but more importantly, moved by what I had felt. I knew I was on the trip of a lifetime. That afternoon, back at Aman New Delhi, I met my batman from Aman-i-Khas – the next hotel on my itinerary – and we traveled together by train into the wilds of Rajasthan where I would ride a camel, go on tiger safari, explore the local village and play with monkeys at an ancient fort.
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