I am being controversial but honest, the Taj Mahal? It’s not all that. There you go, I have finally not only said it aloud, but put it in print and out there on the worldwideweb for all to see. I have had to visit it many times (forced by my career choice) but this ‘familiarity’ isn’t the reason. Even on my first visit I found it dull; it simply did not live up to expectations. I saw it in the afternoon and was unmoved by the experience and so I went back again the following morning to see the changing hues and all that mallarcky and still no, nothing, I failed to be impressed. I would have been happier to have satisfied myself with the images in my head gleaned from photographs and to have used those 24 hours that I will never regain, more wisely. I fail to see why millions of people are in awe of it. Yes, architecture blah blah, white marble, symmetry and all that but no, for me, it was waste of time.
Perhaps it is just that my likes and tastes are not those which follow the norm. I hate Paris with a passion, think Mauritius is one of the most overrated islands on the planet, and Bhutan I found to be quite repetitive.
However! Controversial I may be, but I do know that I am not the only person in the world to feel this about the Taj Mahal. Once, in the swimming pool at Brunton’s Boatyard in Cochin, both of which (the city and the hotel) never fail to impress me, I met a Mr Mahindra (yes of famed corporation) who agreed with my point of view and suggested that I visit the Sun Temple in Konark.
Now it took me a few years to get there, travel time to India was limited whilst working as an India ‘expert’ based in London and it was only when I moved to the country that I had time to travel as extensively as I wished. And boy did I travel! Every spare moment when not working I was on the road/train/tuk tuk/swanky car/camel/horse or elephant, and given that my job was, and still is, travel around India, I was traveling most of the time when I was working too. So it came to pass that I did get to visit the Sun Temple at Konark and let me tell you, that is a monument which really did impress. I was ‘wowed’! I could have spent the whole day there. It is truly incredible and even more so when you realise that it was built in the 13th Century and what would have been the most impressive section has been destroyed. The sheer scale of the place, the intricacy of the carvings, the stories they tell and the history ensconced therein is fascinating; you will see what I mean if you visit.
I have since visited many other incredible places in India which just don’t get the attention that the Taj Mahal does. This is a crime and a situation which should be addressed. Everyone wants to visit the Taj, and so Jaipur invariably gets tagged on, the ‘famous’ and done to death Golden Triangle and people consider that having “done” these, to have ‘done’ India. No, no, no. I love Jaipur, don’t get me wrong, I lived there for goodness sake, but in Agra and Jaipur as a tourist, one experiences all that makes India irritating rather than ‘Incredible’. They are busy busy cities, throng with traffic and litter, one has to queue to see the sites whilst being incessantly harassed and hassled by touts and yet they remain the places people flock to when they ‘do’ India. No wonder people have such a negative view of such an incredible country when they immerse themselves in overpopulated cities and view this as the total of what the country has to offer. People, let me tell you, India is so much more. Be adventurous, stray away from convention and I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.
But, even if you do have to visit the better known destinations, take time, research, think differently, see beyond the hordes. I was recently asked by a five star hotel chain to come up with a series of day excursions that no other hotel chain, local or overseas agent were offering to their clients in the heavily populated (in terms of tourism) destinations of Jaipur and Udaipur.
I set to, internet research wasn’t up to this , so I got out my little black book, jumped in a car and off I went and I discovered some utter gems that people just don’t ever hear about! The Abhaneri step well, the ghost town of Bhangarh, the stunningly beautiful Raj Samand Lake surrounded by marble carvings, I found minor royalty who live in their forts and palaces as they always have done, not ones that have been converted into swanky hotels, and who were only too delighted to host lunch and chat about their lives.
I went to the temples at Nathdwara, saw Persian wheel wells still in use, I cycled from Delwara to Udaipur on the old road and it was stunningly beautiful! I went to the monkey temple at Galta and visited the original city palace in Amer, found astrologers who ‘work’ for their profession and not the money, rode Marwari horses through the countryside, trekked in nature reserves (and followed leopardprints) and on this whole incredible journey met the real people of India, ones who love their country, who truly treat guest as god and not, guest as someone to rip off.
And trust me, not all I discovered is mentioned here, I reckon it would be easy to spend at least 8 days each in Jaipur and Udaipur discovering the places no one tells you about.
I’ve also since been back and researched Agra in more depth, for example, did you know:
- That there are actually three Taj Mahals?
- That the first ever Mughal Garden was built in Agra and still remains today, in a pretty good condition?
- That the North West Province was run from Agra from 1803 – 1858 and it has one of the best preserved cantonment areas in the country?
- Did you know the first ever telegraph in India was sent from Calcutta to Agra in 1854?
- Did you know that there is a brilliant bird sanctuary there? No, I am not talking about Bharatpur.
- Did you know that Wildlife SOS, now that it has saved all the dancing bears, in addition to its bear rescue centre, has an elephant rescue centre on the outskirts of the city?
The answer is, probably not, because most tourism these days is about dashing you through destinations to tick off the main sights without bothering to peel back the layers and showcase to you the curiosities and complexities about a destination.
When planning a trip for my brother, sister-in-law and 4 kids, for their first visit to the country, I didn’t even include the Taj. I had 3 nephews and a niece to consider, aged 10-20, they didn’t want to be dragged around monuments. Instead it took them out to showcase to them what Rajasthan does best, fabulous comfortable and at times boutique hotels where the owners focus on the experiences. We went on jeep safaris, leopard safaris, cycling safaris, walked with elephants in the countryside and rode camels into desert hamlets. We went out into the countryside met the people, saw how they lived, played with the kids in the villages (human as well as goats), interacted with the families and tried local food. The locals were as intrigued by four very blond kids as my family were about them, it made for some hilarious interactions. We made memories and today, 14 years later, they still enthuse about the trip as the best they have ever done! Do they feel cheated that they didn’t see the Taj Mahal? No, not for a second.
For my brother’s second visit for his 25th wedding anniversary, given that the highlight sfrom their previous trip had been their experiences in rural India, but also being buoyed on by my now published book about a season in Kanha National Park, they went on wildlife safari to Madhya Pradesh and then into the heartlands of Chhatisgarh before exploring the hinterland of Goa. They still haven’t seen the Taj Mahal.
When my father came on his first trip aged 80, he’d never seen an elephant up close, or been in a hot air balloon or seen a tiger. We had time, 3.5 weeks and so we did all these and even fitted in some horse riding on the wonderful and indigenous Marwari horse for me. However, his real passion is classic cars and so we visited private and public collections throughout Rajasthan and whilst doing so, stayed in some incredible off beat destinations and saw parts of India few people know about and were amazed at (and possibly a little bit envious) when we shared the journey.
India is sold as a series of bucket list destinations, but the fact of the matter is that India is many different things and a truly tailor-made holiday is one that factors the elements into a trip that appeal to your sensibilities as well as the main sights.
My advice, when planning a trip to India: think about what it is you want to experience and not what you think you should do. If you truly want to see the Taj Mahal, and most do, then great and if not, well, you can always photoshop a picture with you sitting on Lady Diana’s bench! But even if you do want to see the Taj, don’t just follow a bucket list of destinations, do some reasearch and think about what your interests are. Are you interested in food or textiles or tea, or photography or religions or trekking or horse riding or skiing or white water rafting or architecture or a boozy beach stay, a visit to a vineyard, a spa and detox, yoga or exploring unique nature and wildlife? India can satisfy all these and more, you just need to know how to find them.
This is one of the reasons that Indian Experiences was established, after 23 years as a specialist in India (and having lived there for 13 years) we wanted to share our knowledge and to work with DMC’s tour operators and travel agents helping them to discover a different and more diverse India which in turn helps to create the truly tailor-made experience travellers are looking for.
Post pandemic there is the opportunity to make travel itineraries more authentic, more sustainable and to slow things. One think that I have leant from extensive travels around India is that less is more, the more you slow things down, take time to peel back the layers of a destination and to discover its people, culture, food, in short, the essence of a place, the more you will discover, the more fulfilling will be the journey and the more extraordinay memories you will have to keep.
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