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Exotic and mystical India stirs intensity like no other country. A powerful array of scents, sights and sounds greets travelers the minute they set foot on Indian soil. Vivid colors, textures and flavors appear in architecture, sculpture, jewelry, clothing, literature, filmmaking and food. From arid deserts to lush, tropical lands, India bursts with incredible extremes. We canvassed the Golden Circle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur)—with added stops in Pushkar and Goa—to find some worthy travel jewels.

Delhi – Back-Alley City Walk

back alley

The gateway to India, Delhi refers both to the city of New Delhi, India’s capital, as well as its greater outlying metropolis, which includes Old Delhi. With a population near 14 million, it teems with activity and extreme class differences. For a unique perspective of the city’s pulse, take a captivating walk through Delhi’s backstreets and alleys with young guides who used to live there—not in homes, but on the streets themselves. Striving to create a better life for these children, Salaam Baalak Trust trains them to become local guides, helping them learn English and improve their communication skills so they can give visitors insight into their former world. Follow one of these young ambassadors on a compelling journey through the inner city to see where they came from and who they are today. Their stories of survival make these walks unforgettable. The tour charge of Rs 200 (approx. $4.38 U.S.) goes directly to the trust to grant more opportunities for street children.

Pushkar – Camel Fair & Tribal Gathering


Every November, the small, atmospheric hamlet of Pushkar (southwest of Jaipur) awakens from its rural calm for a meeting with history, spirituality and culture. During the full moon in November, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend upon the lake there to bathe in its waters and visit the temple of Brahma. Awash in vividly attired men and women, impromptu song and dance, moustache competitions and a world of livestock, Pushkar comes alive. During a two-week period, upwards of 20,000 camels, goats, cattle and horses are sold and traded. Stay in a tent hotel such as Orchard Tents or the Pushkar Bagh Resort to experience this unique desert culture. If you can’t catch the fair, consider exploring the Great Indian Desert on a camel instead.

Jaipur – Jai Singh’s Observatory (Jantar Mantar)


Considered one of India’s most enlightened kings, Jai Singh founded Jaipur as the capital of Rajasthan—India’s largest state, situated in the northwest. With an avid interest in science, he also set out to improve the Indian calendar and precisely locate the sun, stars and planets for accurate predictions of eclipses and astronomical events, which were important in determining auspicious dates and horoscopes. Of the five astronomical observatories Jai Singh built, Jantar Mantar in Jaipur is the largest and best-preserved—and the only one still in operation. Its Samrat Yantra (Supreme Instrument) stands as the world’s largest sundial at 27 meters (89 ft.) tall. It can measure local solar time to an accuracy of just a few seconds, its shadow visibly moving approx. 6 cm (2.36 in.) every minute.

Jaipur – Elephant Safari


Elephants have played an important role in India’s culture since the Vedic Period (1500 B.C. to 600 B.C.). As carriers of Indra, the king of gods, they held higher status than horses and featured prominently in stories of Buddha. Assets of both war and royalty, elephants were drafted into duty to defend India’s borders during World War II. Experience their regal power on a safari at Dera Amer. From your perch atop an elephant, you may glimpse hyenas, wolves, antelopes, jackals, abundant birdlife and perhaps even the elusive panther. If you really want to play like a king, try your luck at elephant polo, either by day or on the floodlit field by night.

Jaipur – City of Jewels

city of jewels

Home to the famous Amber Fort, Jai Mahal Water Palace and Hawa Mahal, Jaipur contains a wealth of architectural jewels. Located in a rich mineral belt of precious stone and marble, it’s also a well-known jewelry haven and popular shopping stop. For a look at glimmering treasures, visit Jewels Emporium, which has been owned by the same family for 170 years. One of the city’s best-known gem cutters, this enchanting establishment offers world-class service and a deep understanding of the design and production of jewels and gemstones. You’ll also find fair prices and quality craftsmanship, along with the stories and romance of jewels and the long-lasting relationships they create. To celebrate its 170th anniversary this year, Jewels Emporium is offering a gift voucher for Rs 177 (approx. $372 U.S.) on its website.

Jaipur – Kings & Carpets


Jaipur has a rich history of rolling out royal carpets, red or otherwise (in 1853, the entire city was painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales). Carpet weaving in India developed during the reign of Emperor Akbar, who brought craftsmen from Persia to establish a royal workshop in his palace during the 16th century. The craft developed into a dazzling blend of Indian and Persian art, combining exotic colors and innovative design, and later met with the royal flavor of the Mughal period. Centuries-old weaving traditions carry on through families, each with their own pattern or code. For authentic carpets and no-hassle shopping, visit the Carpet & Textile House, a rug and nomadic crafts co-op. Rugs are brought in from around northern India to be finished and authenticated; one carpet can take up to three years to complete. For quality assurance, the craftsmen there hold a flame to the backing of each rug to ensure no synthetics have been used in its production.

Carpet & Textile House
Natwara House, Old Amer Rd.
Jaipur, Rajasthan 302002
Tel: +91 (141) 263-5720 / 263-2038 / 323-4116

North of Jaipur – Chand Baori Stepwell

step well

Designed to capture monsoon rains and manage an extremely variable water supply in arid land, baoris (stepwells) were created as reservoirs and became a marvelous resource unique to western India and Pakistan. Between the 6th and 16th centuries, masons dug thousands of wells and lined them with stone blocks and stairs for area residents to reach dependable ground water. Approx. 60 miles (95 km) north of Jaipur in the town of Abhaneri, travelers will find Chand Baori, one of the deepest and best-preserved stepwells in the country. Deep enough to submerge a multistory building, it dates back to the 10th century and resembles an inverted pyramid. A dizzying array of steps (3,500 to be exact) and platforms placed in fantastic geometric patterns allowed area residents to step down to draw water at any level, and relax, socialize, bathe and escape the heat. Residents also ritually washed their hands and feet here before entering the ancient temple opposite the well. During the British rule, use of the well stopped due to health concerns.

Agra – Marble & Eternal Love


As imperial headquarters of the Mughal Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries, Agra flourished under the patronage of wealthy rulers. Art, commerce and culture thrived as craftsmen converged from far and wide to create fantastic palaces, forts, mosques, minarets and tombs, such as the Taj Mahal. Stricken with grief over the death of his wife, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the finest artisans of India and Asia to fashion the Taj Mahal in her memory. Its unmatched splendor blends elements of Persian, Islamic and Indian architecture, and took more than 20,000 laborers, 1,000 elephants and 12 years to complete. Exquisite carvings, calligraphy, inlaid marble and gemstones offer the best of Mughal artistry.

To this day, Agra remains a center of bustling markets and shops filled with sparkling stones and inlaid marble. To purchase a piece of Agra’s legacy, visit the highly reputable Kohinoor Jewelers for tapestry and jewelry, and Kala Kriti for marble inlay and handicrafts. At Kala Kriti, you can observe artisans making marble inlay boxes and tabletops, then take in their colorful live stage show, which features the story of the Taj Mahal, India’s icon of romance and love immortal.

Agra – Missionaries of Charity


The city of the glittering Taj Mahal also has another face—that of the poor. Synonymous with India, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity continue to serve the destitute, abandoned and sick around the country. The missions rely solely on donations, which are not abundant and usually come only from nearby villages. A visit to the mission in Agra, or elsewhere, is a soul-moving experience and lets you experience another side of India. Clothing, cash, sweets, cough and cold remedies, children’s medicines or a few hours of human touch and simple personal attention offer a wealth of blessing to the less fortunate.

Mother Teresa’s Home
Missionaries of Charity
8, Ajmer Road
Tel: +91 (562) 226-9722

North of Agra – Indian Ghost Capital


Emperor Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri, the brilliant red sandstone city, as the ceremonial capital of the Mughal Empire during the 16th century. It was abandoned only 14 years later when its wells dried up, the water supply vanished and the emperor went to battle Afghan tribes in the northwest. Despite this, the “City of Victory” (located 25 miles from Agra) served as a model of Indian town planning with its complex of monuments, temples, tombs, reflecting pools, regal palaces and formal courtyards. These structures didn’t just spring up randomly—buildings and layouts were strategically designed to make the most of the surrounding landscape, weather conditions, residential needs and cultural rules. It is also believed that the Indian chess game of Pachisi (Parcheesi) originated here. The aptly named Pachisi Courtyard in the main palace complex is patterned in red and white squares to represent a giant playing board. According to legend, Emperor Akbar delighted in playing on a grand scale with his courtiers, using colorfully dressed harem girls as life-size game pieces. As the dice were rolled, girls dressed in each player’s color would move on the squares accordingly.

Rural Superstars – Kabaddi


Watching a sports match is one of the best ways to get a glimpse of a country’s culture. When you’re in India, try to catch some kabaddi. The sport made a name for itself roughly 4,000 years ago as a method of developing self-defense. Combining elements of rugby and wrestling, today’s version features two teams competing for the highest score by touching or capturing players on the opposing side. One “raider” at a time may cross to the other side of the playing court while chanting “kabaddi-kabaddi.” The trick is doing it all in a single breath while the opposing team attempts to prevent him from returning to his side of the court. If he cannot return in the same breath, he is out. The game is played in two 20-minute periods with seven players from each side on the court. A variety of rules and variations apply in the three forms of kabaddi currently recognized in India. With no need for expensive equipment or large playing areas, the sport is popular in rural India and has also found fans throughout Asia, the U.K. and Canada.

Goa – Holistic Health Retreat


After you’ve explored India’s cities, take a trip to Goa on the west coast for a tropical, laid-back beach retreat. The 500-year-old colony of Portugal retains its colonial influence in architecture, cuisine and culture—with a bohemian twist. Nearby spice plantations offer a chance to see how spices are cultivated and used. A plethora of yoga classes and ayurvedic treatments (the ancient Indian system of natural health and holistic medicine, which addresses mind, body and soul) abound in the area. Try the Ayurvedic Natural Health Centre for an authentic, local Indian experience. For just Rs 2,722 ($60 U.S.), you’ll be transported to and from your hotel, treated to a 2 1/2-hour massage administered by a two-person team, and served a nutritious, delicious meal. Detox, cleansing, therapeutic, beauty and relaxation treatment, along with classes in ayurvedic medicine, diet and yoga let you experience the ancient secrets of India.

Goa – Anjuna Flea Market


Set amidst palm trees on a beach flanked by the Arabian Sea, what was once an open-air hippie exchange now bears the official title of flea market. Every Wednesday, a sultan’s portion of silver jewelry, semiprecious stones, colorful saris, bangles, silk and cotton clothing, crystals, incense, spices, instruments, handicrafts, knives, lampshades and more grace this two-mile sandy stage. Tibetan, Gujarathi, Rajasthani and Western vendors come from all over India to hawk their wares, while music and snake charmers provide a charming backdrop. If you shop, you’ll be expected to bargain (half of the asking price is the general rule). If you’re feeling brave, try a henna tattoo, haircut, hair coloring or dreadlocks. If you choose to simply wander around this lively market, you can enjoy live bands, beachside bars and food stands featuring local, Western and Israeli fare.

Other markets in Goa include:

Goa – Abode in Blue Heaven

goa heaven

Hidden away in the hills of India’s beach playground, the Nilaya Hermitage has hosted celebrities like Sean Connery, Kate Moss and Georgio Armani, who check in for a little spiritual R&R. Organic, freeform structures of hand-hewn stone create a natural paradise in an already lush surrounding. Blending cosmic elements of fire, air, sun, moon and stars with an eclectic fusion of Indian, Mughal, Portuguese and Spanish influences, Nilaya creates a haven of bohemian chic reflective of Goa’s hippie legacy. This intimate establishment has only 11 rooms, each of which is a unique, avant-garde living space that includes a terrace with a sea view, overlooking dense palm groves. Part Rajasthani palace and part commune, it’s high-end bohemian fantasy, Indian-style.

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