What to See and do in India ( Part 1 )

Jal Mahal Jaipur

Stopover in Agra, to discover the Taj Mahal

What site in the world makes you dream more than this one? Immaculate palace placed like a jewel in the unreal light of India, in Agra, the Taj Mahal arouses emotions due as much to its beauty as to its legend. All in white marble, this mausoleum was built between 1631 and 1644 (or 1654 according to the sources) on the order of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to honor his late wife Mumtaz Mahal. Classified among the new seven wonders of the world, it remains the symbol of love but also a breathtaking architectural performance.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Taj Mahal required the use of many materials from the four corners of Asia: white marble, jasper, turquoise, malachite, lapis lazuli, coral, carnelian, onyx, garnet, agate, and rock crystal. The stones are encrusted in the marble to form sumptuous marquetry. Another feature that gives a magical aspect to this incomparable monument: the body of water where it is reflected and which traces a kind of liquid path towards it.

Agra Taj Mahal

From a more objective point of view, the Taj Mahal is no less remarkable: it is built on a raised octagonal platform and its central dome reaches a height of 26 meters. Framed by four minarets, it is entirely built in white marble and decorated outside and inside with flowers and calligraphy engraved with incredible finesse. A red sandstone mosque is built on its left side, and a twin building replicates it on the right, even if it is not used as a mosque. A gigantic front door allows access to the palace, and the garden, the Bageecha, is divided into four equal squares, themselves divided into 16 flowerbeds where 400 plants make it more beautiful. The symmetry of the places, surprisingly, helps to make them even more unreal. Several thousand people, masons, marble workers, mosaicists, would have participated in its construction under the orders of the architect Lahori. The style turns out to be a mixture of various influences, coming from Persia, the Islamic world, and Central Asia.

All the moments of the day are favorable to the contemplation of the Taj Mahal: the dawn which caresses it with a pink hue, the twilight which gives it orange gleams, the night which makes it sparkle under the moon. You will not be able to forget this supernatural vision ever.

However, Agra offers other sites that you can visit, although they cannot completely compete with the Taj Mahal: the Red Fort – a red sandstone fort where Hindu and Muslim styles are found situated 4 kilometers from the north. The tomb of Akbar in Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri, an imperial city is perfectly preserved with red sandstone, populated with deserted palaces, in which one can only imagine what everyday life was like four centuries ago, when musicians, calligraphers, poets, accountants, and theologians met and worked there, in the midst of stones chiseled like lace and pillars with sculptures of rare elegance.

Jaipur – Discover the Palace of the Winds

Hawa Mahal or the Palace of the Winds is considered one of the wonders of Rajput art, and certainly one of the most famous monuments in India.

It is located in Jaipur which is the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan, 260 km from Delhi, in a basin protected by the Aravalli range.

Jaipur Wind Palace

The palace of the winds, all in red and pink sandstone, was built by the Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh in 1799 to resemble Khetri Mahal, a palace built in Jhunjhunu, another city in Rajasthan.

It is a feat of Indian architecture: the contrasting colors, symmetry and endless networks are truly impressive.

Despite its bewildering architecture, Hawa Mahal essentially boils down to a lace-like openwork facade that it is impossible not to see with its 15 m height for five floors pierced by 953 windows and balconies.

The construction was designed to circulate the air and bring a certain refreshment to the women of the Zenana (Hindu harem) and also to allow them to see and participate a little in the life of the city without being seen. The word Hawa moreover designates the north wind, this north wind which infiltrates delicately in the alveoli of the windows, as through a vaporous curtain which would let the freshness of the night pass.

When we contemplate these windows, we wonder if the maharaja had 953 women in his harem? Nobody knows.

The entrance is behind the building, in a square where there is a little peace, calm, and freshness.

There is a sense of emptiness and poverty, but it is the comparison with the iconic facade that heightens that feeling. It consists of utilitarian rooms with pillars, hallways, and minimal decoration all the way up. The rooms are simple halls of different colored marbles, enlivened by inlaid panels or gilding, while fountains adorn the center of the courtyard. It is in fact a labyrinth, full of small stairs, secret passages, and other nooks.

Kerala: nature and culture in southern India

Indian state located in the southwest of the country, Kerala has a coast of almost 600 kilometers on the Arabian Sea, separated by a central plain suitable for crops, mountains covered with forests in the east, where many streams. This geographical diversity allows the existence of very rich flora and fauna, teak, sandalwood, and rosewood, on the one hand, tigers, leopards, elephants, monkeys on the others. Several regional parks and nature reserves have been created to preserve this privileged nature. This state is also among the richest in India.

In addition to its natural resources, Kerala is home to a rich and varied culture, where theater, dance, and music occupy an important place: kathakali (or dance theater), shadow theater, the many popular festivals, represent attractions of choice for the visitor. These cultural assets added to the beauty of the landscapes make Kerala a very popular tourist spot.

The visitor will appreciate the superb beaches just as much as the small, cooler mountain resorts, but also the backwaters (kinds of bayous) where increasingly popular cruises are organized. Indeed, water is omnipresent over a large part of Kerala, and traveling along the water can be a nice way to discover this region: rice fields, aquatic flowers, birds and buffalos, coconut trees, you will discover these wonders on traditional wooden boats covered with bamboo roofs, all to the slow rhythm of the peaceful waves.

In addition to the herons and the water hyacinths, you will see on the banks the life of the villages which are installed there, and the daily occupations of their inhabitants, children’s games, women in the laundry, making rice mats, sorting nuts and coconut trees. You will discover a temple or a mosque among the foliage, before melting into the serenity of the falling night.

You may be lucky enough to witness a boat race, as there are multitudes in summer: the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is the most famous and lively one, not to be missed if you are in Kerala in August.

From an architectural point of view, Kerala is characterized by the very strong presence of wood in all traditional constructions: you will have examples of this by visiting the temple of Padmanabhaswamy, or the palace of Krishnapuram with its very beautiful murals. Do not miss Kochi and its old town, and the Mattancherry Palace, but also Thiruvananthapuram, with its astonishing Kuthiramalika palace, and its temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, with a monumental entrance, then Madurai and Sri Meenakshi temple, gigantic with its ornaments made up of thousands of colorful statues.

Your discovery would be incomplete if you did not venture to Munnar, 1500 meters above sea level, with its bustling bazaar, and the surrounding hills covered with tea trees, as far as the eye can see, as well as other diverse and sumptuous flowers whose freshness of the place favors the blossoming.

Along the Ganges, from Calcutta to Varanasi

The Ganges, a sacred river, a river from the Himalayas, a symbolic river in Varanasi and in Haridwar. Shelter for endemic dolphins, a liquid tomb for thousands of corpses, gigantic trash can for used wood residues, used for cremation, privileged theater of ancestral rites, place of purification. The Ganges flows over 2,500 kilometers, and it is the guiding thread of India, the one that you can follow to discover this country like no other.

Let’s embark in Chandannagar, a few kilometers from Calcutta: a former French counter, the city is very marked by the colonial style, the governor’s palace or the Church of the Sacred Heart, and imbued with a nostalgia to which some visitors are sensitive.

A stop at Kalna will allow you to discover the 108 temples, dedicated to Shiva, and arranged in two circles, or the Krishna Chandra Mandir and its 25 bell towers. In Shantipur, you can visit a weaving center: the city has indeed been famous for its hand-woven saris for centuries. Mayapur, on the other hand, represents a sacred city for the Hindus: thousands of pilgrims stop there permanently, and many festivities are organized throughout the year in honor of Krishna, with prayers and dances in all the city districts. A little further, Murshidabad welcomes you with its palace of a thousand doors, built in a very European style, and now transformed into a museum.


After the Farakka dam, you are on the main section of the river: one of the key stops will undoubtedly be Patna, capital of the state of Bihar, and one of the oldest cities in the world, probably dating from the 6th century BC. You will discover the Golghar, an egg-shaped construction that was intended to serve as a grain silo, with a spiral staircase that allows you to admire the panorama from the top of the building.

Other curiosities of the city, the Har Mandir, a Sikh sanctuary with multiple domes, and the museum, where very beautiful sculptures of the Gupta and Maurya periods are gathered.

And then finally Varanasi… Acme of the trip, no doubt, and which in itself largely deserves the trip. Its ghats, stone steps which descend towards the river, where the faithful go to do their ablutions to purify themselves, and where cremations are practiced, its golden temple, its crafts producing embroidered silks and jewelry, its strange atmosphere between extreme poverty and spiritual ecstasy will not leave you indifferent.

For the more adventurous, or the less conventional, there are also possibilities for rafting on the Ganges: most agencies offer this service from Rishikesh, a city made famous after the Beatles’ stay in an ashram in the city. The classic course is about twenty kilometers long and allows you to combine thrills and direct contact with the sacred river.

Visitors returning from Banaras speak of it as a “concentrate of India”… Varanasi, its other name, located in the north of India, offers the visitor the strong and abundant image of this country which undoubtedly represents for many travelers the height of exoticism, the height of strangeness, the quintessence of a change of scenery. Smells, colors, rumors, all the senses are called upon, in pleasant or aggressive ways.

The Ganges serves as a common thread to the city, symbol, and vital artery of daily life in Varanasi. Death, closely linked to the river, is also omnipresent: families accompanying their deceased to the water of the Ganges, corpses drifting in the murky wave, funeral chants, the atmosphere is imbued with them.

Considered a sacred city, Varanasi gives off mystical energy that appeals to even the most skeptical. Some images will remain engraved in the memory of any visitor: the ghats, kinds of steps along the Ganges, where people come to purify themselves, pray, wash clothes, cut their hair, do yoga, in a cacophony of music and prayers. The streets overrun with putrid garbage cans and flies, but also with women in beautiful multicolored saris. The cremations, accompanied by fanfares, where the corpse covered with flowers burns on a pyre in front of the family and passers-by in a smell of plants and charred flesh. The dark brown river where all kinds of rubbish float and where the Indians immerse themselves to purify themselves. Temples and their ashrams where students practice yoga and meditation in public. The hundreds of stalls selling fresh flowers to place on the statues of the gods. The Bharat Kala Bhavan museum listing many stories and legends linked to the city through statues and ancient images. The center of the city around the Vishwanath temple, with its maze of alleys, its silk shops, and religious objects; the chaotic traffic and its rickshaws.

However, besides these thrilling and colorful photographs, the characteristic of Varanasi, its identity, is of the order of the imperceptible. Both indisputable and unutterable. This resides in a sort of diffuse spirituality: that which allows Hindus to pray in the middle of the crowd, that which imposes itself on every traveler who will have experienced a sunrise in a boat on the Ganges, in the middle dozens of lights from the little candles that drift, the one that does not fail to embrace us if we attend cremations. It also certainly stems from this astonishing and constant duality between extremes, which coexist permanently in every nook and cranny of the city: beautiful and ugly, pure and impure, wealth and misery, profane and sacred.

You will understand, Varanasi is more than faithful to its reputation. This statement is even more valid for this emblematic city, from where you will return with full of questions and strong images.


Leave a Reply