It was 7:30 in the morning. I was stretched into downward dog, and India’s saffron sun was already beginning to melt everything beneath it when a fight broke out between a splendid peacock and a pair of green parrots. The scuffle, which involved flailing of tempers and feathers, broke the serenity of the moment and even Das, our yoga and mediation instructor at the Oberoi Rajivilas Resort in Jaipur, collapsed into laughter.This was my last day in India and, after a week, I already knew that the unexpected is always expected and nearly always welcome in India.
My mother joined me on this trip to the Golden Triangle, an area in northern India encompassing Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. We began in Delhi, where the whoosh of India and its famed symphony of sights, sounds and smells seized us the moment we arrived. We paused for a quick photo op at one of the city’s proudest monuments, India Gate, a landmark arch erected in honor of the joint British Indian Army, which fought in World War I. Our driver weaved between motorbikes and tuk-tuks, a cross between a rickshaw and open air taxi, always making room for the cows that lounged in the roadways. “They are the kings,” declares our driver, swerving out of the way of a white Brahman bull as we pulled into our sleek high-rise hotel, where we were greeted with fresh garlands crafted from marigolds.
The next day we drove two hours to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world. We holed up overnight at what surely must be its own wonder of the world, the Oberoi Amarvilas, a luxury hotel where every single room has a view of the Taj.
In the morning, my mom and I beat the heat by arriving at the Taj Mahal by 7:30 a.m. when the resident monkeys outnumbered the visitors. Emperor Shah Jehan commissioned this masterpiece of a mausoleum in 1632 for his beloved wife, employing 20,000 craftsmen to carve the marble, inlay precious gemstones and hand-cut the mosaic work. We also made a foray across the Yamuna River to Mehtab Bagh, where Jehan had planned to create a dark Taj twin carved of black marble before his son stopped him from spending more money by placing him under house arrest.
Next, we had planned to explore the tiger reserve of Ranthambore, but we were thwarted by heavy monsoon rains, which had washed away roads and had driven the tigers into the high hills. When our tiger plan was scrapped, we headed instead to Jaipur, dubbed the Pink City, thanks to its hued buildings painted when King Edward VII came to visit in the late 19th century, and the Rajasthani royals had the city’s buildings painted pink in honor of his favorite drink, rose.
The city is India’s jewelry capital, and small shops with cramped windows belie the array of gems within. Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, a state with a princely reputation, and we paid tribute to it by visiting galleries of gold-trimmed royal robes at the City Palace, where a branch of the royal family still lives.
But our favorite part of Jaipur had to be the Amber Fort, a 16th century sandstone structure that towers above the town. Gripping hard to a pink metal basket, my mom and I steadied ourselves atop a lumbering elephant as we rode up a steep incline. To keep from tumbling to the embankment below, we mimicked the movements of our elephant driver, who, with a dusty crimson turban snug on his head, swayed to the rhythm of the elephants’ gait. We dismounted within the fortress walls amid a rogue moneychanger, panting stray dogs and a snake charmer, who coaxed a shimmying cobra from a woven basket.
Although visitors can fly between cities, we were glad we’d chosen to hire a driver instead. The Golden Triangle is ripe with extraordinary monuments, palaces, temples and tombs, but the journey between them proved every bit as fascinating as the sites themselves: rustic farmyards thick with corn; sad migrant tent cities where the only running water is what flows in the gutter; women in colorful saris navigating taut paths through medieval markets; gleaming high tech university campuses. There is no one India. There are a multitude of Indias that slap up against one another.
On our final day, we sank into the backseat watching the jagged hills of Jaipur disappear into the distance, as we motored back toward Delhi. Horns were still honking, buskers were hawking, teems of people vied for pavement with a steady stream of camels, donkeys, cows and dogs, but this time I saw myself less as spectator and more as a part of the symphony. While we idled at a light, a mustachioed man crammed into a tuk-tuk, turned to me his hands in prayer and mouthed “Namaste.” I returned the salutation before the flow of the traffic separated us and propelled our car forward into the sea of chaos I’d grown to love.