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Trip Report TRIP REPORT: 18 days through Rajasthan and more--during wedding season

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Day 1: Delhi

Since it is over a month since my husband and I returned from our wonderful 18-day trip to northern India--Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan (Jaipur, Chhatra Sagar, Jodhpur, Udaipur) and Varanasi --I’ve decided if I don’t do an abbreviated trip report it will never ever happen. As many of the regular India posters and travelers may remember, I spent a lot of time last year “anguishing” about how to base our trip around going to Kumaon, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Once we realized that that just wasn’t going to work out and probably wasn’t the best choice for our first visit to India, choosing the pace of our trip, the number of places we’d include, and the range of hotels (luxury, havelis, guest houses, etc.) is where we put our energies. After reading a number of positive reports by Fodorites who had used Ajay at Yatrik Travel, and having spoken to a number of agents here, we contacted Ajay and were very impressed with his immediate, helpful and fresh approach to the kind of trip we were hoping to have. We’re reasonably well-traveled and generally are independent travelers, but we had decided we didn’t want to take on India on our own. We made the right choice for us—Ajay was terrific, and there’s no way I would have wanted to arrange all the details of this first trip by ourselves.

For the most part, I’m going to do a broad brush approach as our trip did follow a route that so many others here on Fodor have reported on—but at times, I will go into more detail. From a month’s distance, but using some of my notes, these are the experiences that made the strongest impression:

We started our trip on Thanksgiving Day—NY to London; stayed overnight in London, and then left for Delhi at about 1:00 p.m.—our plane being delayed over an hour because of having to be de-iced, and another fueling problem. We, therefore, landed at about 2:30 a.m.

Delhi—the airport!! After reading so much in the forum of how unpleasant the Delhi International Airport was, but also having learned that a new one had just opened, the very newness and cleanliness of the airport was a welcome sight. I don’t think we’ve ever been in an airport with such huge corridors and where they were carpeted!! The international arrivals hall was jam packed. It felt as if it were the middle of the day, with long lines of people everywhere, and everyone looking completely alert. Once we completed the passport check, picked up our luggage and went outside, it was around 3:00/3:30 and we were delighted to see a very attractive young man, Virengar, the representative from Yatrick holding a sign with our names, and smiling warmly,waiting for us. On the ride to our hotel, the Imperial, he pointed out what points of interest we could make out, and then when we arrived, went in with us to help us with our registration, and give us a run down of everything we needed to know re: the agency and our trip over the next 17 days. We wound up getting to bed at about 5:30 a.m.—more than ready for a long sleep.

The Imperial—we loved it! After our two-day long journey, we were more than ready to be indulged and very appreciative of the simple luxury of our lovely room. The hotel is still family owned, elegant, tasteful and with 244 rooms, relatively small. The public rooms, set off the main corridor are warm and intimate. Traditional furniture, beautiful Indian carpets and a noted art collection of photographs and paintings illustrating different events from India’s history all help to create a timeless atmosphere. We loved the large planter globes dripping with small delicate white orchids, that hang from the ceiling in the main lobby and in the main corridor.

Our Heritage room was spacious, elegantly furnished, with a small dressing alcove and a white marble bathroom with all the amenities. We were definitely quite happy with our choice—and loved the buffet breakfasts in the sun-filled glassed in verandah that overlooks the garden, where the setup for a wedding was taking place the first day we were there. The hotel was very busy, had good people watching with guests of all ages and a variety of nationalities coming and going. The service at breakfasts was efficient if not particularly warm.

Our guide, Punam, came for us at 1:00 or so, and outlined our schedule for the day—the Jama Masjid, drive past the Red Fort, and the cycle rickshaw through Chandni Chowk,
shopping at Dilli Haat, a visit to the Judah Hyam Synagogue and an appointment with the Rabbi, Ezekiel Isaac Malekaar, and then attend the evening service at Gurudwara—Shrine of the Sikhs.

But just as we walked out of the Imperial, the first part of the wedding rituals, the Vara Satkaarah,
presentation of gifts to the groom’s family by the bride’s family was about to begin. We’d watched the garden outside the breakfast room being set up for this wedding and now couldn’t resist watching the procession, which began from a garden on the other side of the hotel. The very handsome young groom, dressed in a fitted beige silk tunic over beige trousers, and sported a beige silk turban with a tulle “fan.” He and his wedding party seated themselves in the backseat of the vintage convertible the Imperial has for these events. (A perfect touch was the groom’s continuous conversation on his cell as his vintage car drove him to the first part of his traditional wedding!)

The driver drove the car around the driveway and was met—and followed—by a band of musicians, dancing girls in vividly colored saris, and guests of all ages streaming in to the garden. All the women wore elegant silk saris, many in subtle shades of pink, beige, and gray, and many were adorned with very impressive pieces of jewelry. The men either wore Western suits or Indian tunics. The day was a bright, sunny, and a crowd of spectators and photographers lined the driveway from the entrance to the grounds of the Imperial to its portico. It felt as if we were on a movie set!

This was the first wedding event of many we were to see. It turns out we were traveling in the midst of the wedding season. Our guide, Punam, filled us in about what we were seeing and the different rituals/ceremonies of a traditional Hindu wedding. She knew that today’s bride was the daughter of a prominent industrialist, and as we watched, it was obvious that this wedding would be a lavish one! It was a memorable way to be introduced to India’s wedding season.

Since many on the forum have written about visiting the Jama Masjid, and taking a rickshaw through Chandni Chowk, I’ll just say we enjoyed seeing them, and wish we’d had more time to wander in Chandni Chowk. We loved Dilli Haat, the food and crafts fair, which had a woolens exposition going on. It was filled with vendors selling all sorts of pashminas, and beautiful, imaginative wool shawls. Since our time was so limited, I decided that if and when I saw something I liked, I would buy it instead of regretting not taking advantage of the moment. Well into the market one of the stalls of vendors from Kashmir caught my eye, and after a bit of bargaining, I bought five beautifully woven shawls as gifts for about $20.00 each—and have since seen identical ones here in New York at ABC for four times that. Everyone who’s received one has been delighted.

Trying to keep to our agenda, we got to the Judah Hyam Synagogue at about 5:00 and were met by the rabbi, Ekzekiel Isaac Malekar, who works full time as a lawyer, part time as the rabbi, and is also very active in human rights organizations. He’s a very small man with bright red dyed hair, a gentle, warm smile and a very modest manner. There are less than 5,000 Jews in all of India (fewer than there are Zoroastrians!) and the congregation of this tiny synagogue is about 15 or 20 families, although Jewish members of the international community often attend services there. The synagogue was formerly a small house; is very simple, with its bimah in the center of the sanctuary, and a small ark where it keeps torahs that I believe an American congregation presented to it. While we were talking to the Rabbi, a young couple and their seven-year-old son, and his grandfather stopped by to say hello to him. The grandfather was visiting from Pune, which has a “large” Jewish community that has been active for many years. He was a larger-than-life personality and told us about his family, which traces its roots in India back 1,000 years. He had formerly been a pilot in the Indian air force for many years, but was now a psychotherapist. He credited the Delhi rabbi, with reinvigorating the Delhi Jewish community—and spoke warmly about India and its tradition of embracing all religions. Our hour there was like being invited into someone’s home to learn about their family’s history.

Our next stop was at Gurdwara Bangla Sahib—Shrine of the Sikhs. We first stored our shoes in an anteroom and then joined the crowds flowing to the temple to hear the evening service. The music from the shrine is piped over loud speakers and sounds at times like that of the cantor in a synagogue. The scene--with its constant stream of people walking through the temple, others sitting on the floor, some chanting, while others in white garb, walk up to another level, and the priest or leader, stands under a canopy singing over a microphone--also reminded us in some ways of services we've experienced in a synagogue/temple. It was strangely both familiar and exotic.

After awhile, Punam led us out to show us the large hall where people are filing in and sitting quietly in rows. She explained that they are waiting for their evening meal and that all who come will be fed. Next she took us to the giant “soup kitchen” but here they were making thousands of chapatis—and vegetable dishes. Some chapatis are being shaped by hand and hundreds/thousands more are being spat out by giant machines. Everyone working there is a volunteer. Enough food to feed 17,000 people will be made by these volunteers. It was a powerful and moving scene.

By the time we leave the shrine, we’re exhausted. We’re not yet caught up on our lack of sleep from our late arrival, so we decide to eat at the Spice Route restaurant in the Imperial. (Embarrassing to write immediately after describing the soup kitchen at the shrine!) It’s a beautiful room and the menu offers dishes of the various cuisines from the ancient Spice Route. Our meal was good, not great, and quite pricey—but it was so much easier than going anywhere else, and we were so glad to be able to go from it directly to our room and immediately to sleep.

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