NEW DELHI, India, March 28, 2015 – India is an enigma. A country rich in history and tradition, it is equally exotic, colorful, congested, maddening, vibrant, romantic and filled with countless other diametrically opposing images. It is a destination suffocating under the weight of its own population with a cast of millions.
Wherever you go in India there are two worlds. From the comfort of an air-conditioned motor coach, reality exists just beyond the windows where sacred cows roam the streets, barbers cut hair at the side of the road, camels share the highway with scooters, cars, pedestrians, tuk-tuks and bicycles, and beggars reach out with crippled limbs for a scrap of food or a few rupees.
Suddenly, the bus disappears behind high concrete walls and rests in front of a luxurious hotel with elaborately dressed doormen, elegant columns, marble floors and flowing fountains. The beggars are no more. The roadside shops have disappeared.
Situated on the shores of the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges, New Delhi is the capital of the country. It is known as “a city of cities” because it comprises seven distinct districts, excluding New Delhi, which have been individual cities over the centuries and retain an identity today. Each of the cities grew around a palace/fortress of a particular dynasty, and each dynasty desired a new headquarters as a symbol of prestige.
New Delhi and Old Delhi are perhaps the most familiar areas, and they represent a living metaphor for the identity of the country.
Old Delhi, on the other hand, was once the capital of Islamic India and is now a warren of teeming, ever-diminishing streets that overflow with humanity, animals, shops and the spaghetti of electrical wiring that defies description. Old Delhi is known for its formidable mosques and Red Fort.
New Delhi consists of spacious, tree-lined boulevards with stunning architecture and magnificent government buildings constructed by the British Raj. New Delhi is most known for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Humayun’s Tomb and the Qutub Complex. Completed in 1570 after 14 years of construction, Humayun’s Tomb pays tribute to the second Mughal Emperor of India. It is in the center of an extensive garden and has the distinction of being the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent. Nearly 80 years later, the genius of the architecture provided the blueprint for the Taj Mahal.
For all the splendor of India’s layered history and magnificent palaces scattered throughout the country, much of the country remains undeveloped. In many places, if you possess three or four poles and a tarp you have a shop or a dwelling.
Roads vary from relatively well-paved one and a half or two-lane passageways to broken pavement or dirt. Vehicles, animals and pedestrians play a seemingly intricate game of chicken but, somehow, most of the time, the system works. Local buses are crowded with passengers who cling to the perimeter or ride on the top when there is no more room inside.
Hawkers are everywhere, selling trinkets of all descriptions. A mile-long ride in a cycle rickshaw through narrow streets costs only about 100 rupees or roughly $2. It is impossible to escape the sea of extended hands and persistent peddlers whose numbers increase the minute a donation or purchase is made.
In Varanasi, the oldest city in India and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, religious celebrations are a nightly ritual. Situated on the shores of the River Ganges, Varanasi is considered a holy city by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jains.
By nightfall, streets already teeming with people become nearly impossible to navigate as pilgrims swarm toward the Ganges and thousands gather on the steps of the ghat for religious rituals and prayer.
Along the banks of the river, a short distance from the ceremonies, funeral pyres dot the darkened shoreline with the cremations of those who have died during the day.
In the morning, the throngs have dissipated, yielding to bathers who come to the Ganges to wash away their sins.
India is the land of Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi, who spent much of their lives crusading to alleviate the poverty that permeates its borders. As Gandhi proclaimed in 1908, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Now, more than 60 years after his assassination, India’s “violence” continues at a staggering rate, drowning in a sea of seemingly endless poverty.
For many travelers India is a “been there, done that” destination. Often visitors will tell you that they are thankful for the experience, but once is enough. Only time will tell whether India can overcome its serious challenges and elevate itself to those moments in time that hearken to periods of a glorious past.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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