Unveil her secrets slowly, delicately

Take time to savour India’s rich culture and beauty, says STEPHEN SCOURFIELD

Most travellers thinking of India will think first of the Golden Triangle in North India — Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.

Delhi. Visit Raj Ghat, India Gate, take a rickshaw ride in Old Delhi, Jama Masjid mosque.

Agra. Visit Agra Fort and Taj Mahal.

Jaipur. Visit Amer Fort (or Amber Fort), fabric block printers, and have a garment made.

TAJ MAHAL, TRICKS

Of course most first-time visitors to India will want to visit the Taj in India.

They may have to contend with an early start, crowds, renovations, hazy skies and being ushered through the interior of this beautiful marble building quite quickly, but they will be rewarded with their own memory of one of the world’s most famous sculptural buildings and stories.

I have been to the Taj Mahal many times — and I have three tips:

The first is to enjoy the surrounding buildings in this campus. There is much to see in the precinct, apart from the Taj itself.

The Great Gate which leads to the Taj Mahal and its gardens, symbolises the four flowing rivers of jannah, or paradise. Stand well away from it, central. Then walk straight forward, following a line in the ancient pavers, and through the gateway to paradise.

For this is to slowly unveil the Taj as it should be — delicately, and respectful of its symmetry. “Unveiling the bride,” whispers an Indian friend, walking with me.

Once standing before the great building, you don’t have to walk straight down the water ponds towards it (though the temptation is to do so). Stroll to the side of the gardens and follow the wall.

You can find a place, even here, with more than 10,000 visitors a day, to be alone, and make a private memory. One of the things I like best about the Taj Mahal is that Indians come to visit, and I happily sit and watch the passing, colourful parade. I have been to the Taj many times, and I will see it again, twice this year and each visit will bring its own reward.

And one last personal thought: I have visited with my wife Virginia twice before, but she will come with me again. A new memory in a treasured place.

BE IN GOOD COMPANY

I like the idea, for most travellers reading this, of venturing to India in company.

My best advice to anyone considering travelling to India for the first time (to anyone who’s always wanted to but been unsure) is to travel with someone who knows India and loves India.

I like the idea of decent hotels, good transport, knowledgeable guides, and help if there are difficulties.

There are many tours to choose from, lots based on the Golden Triangle.

But look for itineraries that also ...

add Udaipur. A beautiful city of lakes, white palaces and temples. Visit Sahelion Ki Bari gardens and the City Palace.

add Jodhpur. A lot of the old town is painted blue, hence the name Blue City. Visit Mehrangarh Fort and Umaid Bhawan Palace.

add Varanasi. Take a rickshaw to the Ghats and watch a puja ceremony of worship.

add Sikkim. Travel by train (first class) to the eastern Himalayas in north-east India, near the border with Tibet.

add Goa. Hang out at the beach and wander round the old parts of Panaji.

add Kerala. Stay in Old Kochi, and I recommend two nights on the Kerala Backwaters.

IMPORTANT SITES (sights)

Fatehpur Sikri Built by Emperor Akbar in 1569, after it was prophesied that he would have sons if he moved his capital to the site. It was only occupied for 14 years before being deserted and ruined after Akbar left the city because of the scarcity of water. In the Hall of the Private Audience, Akbar the Great got together Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, Jains and other theologians to compare their beliefs, identify common ground and try to work out one world religion.

Jantar Mantar This astrological observatory near Jaipur was built between 1727 and 1734, bringing maharaja Jai Singh II’s interest in mathematics, astrophysics and astronomy to a grand scale. The biggest instrument is Samrat Yantra, a 27m-high sundial which plots the time of day to within two seconds.

Ganesh Gate In the Amer Fort, Jaipur. Coloured by lapis lazuli, sapphires, emeralds and rubies, crushed and painted on to a fine plaster called arash. Jaipur is famous for gem cutting, and the precious colours were collected from the water used in the process.

Mumbai beach It’s teatime on a Sunday and there must be a million people on the beach, some literally shoulder to shoulder. Women flick water with their toes, up to their ankles, saris delicately hitched up. People fly kites. Hawkers throw fluorescent toys into the air, and I want one.

Hotel lobby musicians A sitar player has his eyes closed, for a while playing not much more than a drone note as the tabla player beside him speeds up. The capped fingertips of one hand rata-tat-tat while the fleshy pad of the other hand presses out a booming, oscillating base note. Some good musicians play in the lobbies of hotels. I take time. Sit. Appreciate the music. Acknowledge them.

Food The important sight of a crisp, golden plain dosa for breakfast in South India, and the various colours and textures of vegetarian thali for lunch.

GETTING A VISA

The visa process has been improved in recent years, but still needs a careful approach.

The only place to apply online for an e-Tourist Visa is indiavisaonline.gov.in.

There are a lot of scam websites.

Or travellers can visit VFS Indian Visa Service at Level 1, Goodearth Hotel, 195 Adelaide Terrace, Perth.

Or, for more help, contact Indian Visa and Passport Services, Perth. They are on Level 1, 195 Adelaide Terrace (Goodearth Hotel), but in Room 22, adjacent to the Indian Visa Service. They offer help and guidance, for a small fee. Phone 1900 969 969.

HOW TO PAY

India is still largely a cash economy, so track down 2000 rupee notes (1000s are no longer legal tender), and as many 500 rupee notes as you can. If you can find smaller denominations, get them too. Each note must be perfect (clean and undamaged; without nicks or cuts) because even hotels will be more than reluctant to take suspect notes.

There are ATMs but some have limits on amounts.

This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.

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