Being a tourist in Delhi, Amritsar and Agra.

Light falling on graves, Fatehpur Sikri.

Three years ago, I decided to venture out of the warmth and comfort of South India and take a chance with a holiday in the North. My week-long holiday across Delhi, Amritsar and Agra in December of 2009 was an icebreaker on many levels (no puns intended). Before the holiday, I didn’t think it was possible to have fun at temperatures as low as one degree or witness millions of years of history crammed into one city.

I also didn’t comprehend the oft-mentioned distinction between ‘South’ Indians and ‘North’ Indians prior to the trip. I now thoroughly understand the divide. No matter how much I loved North India, I hated the people. I’m not too far off the mark when I say that most of them are uncouth, abrasive, uncivil and carry heavy chips on their shoulders about God-only-knows-what. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.

Delhi, Amritsar and Agra have been cooked in a cauldron of roiling empires, cultural trends, political upheavals and British colonialism, as a result of which the cities are steeped in history and good food. If you can ignore the people (a little hard to do, but worth a shot), you’ll enjoy what Delhi has to offer for the traveller. The capital is the cradle of Mughal Empire, food and architecture. Amritsar is a cold (weather-wise) city with laid-back people and lots of yummy Rasta food. And Agra is a regal place that maintains all its elegance despite the hordes of people coming to see the wonders it has to offer. At least here, the people were nice and approachable.

So what do you need to do to transform into a typical tourist in the three cities? Simple: visit these places.

Waiting for the Red Fort to swallow them whole.

Red Fort, Delhi

Massive, red and still partially occupied by the Indian Army. A remarkable structure that puts you in the shoes of Jack looking up at the beanstalk – that’s how one feels when they see it. You have to crane your neck to take the entire architecture in. The fort is partially occupied by the Indian Army, so access is restricted to the Rang Mahal and a few other structures. Still, the place is huge. Walking around the Red Fort takes almost all day, so there are a couple of restaurants inside that serve food and chai paani.

The eternal home for Humayun and his family.

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

The architectural ancestor of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum is massive. The structure’s all red with intricate Mogul motifs running along it in white. We hit the place just as the sun was setting, so there was a certain happy-sad dusk light over it. As the sun vanishes, though, you begin to feel a chill creep down your spine because the place is quiet, isolated and more obviously, home to dead bodies that are hundreds of years old.

Crowding for food at Karim’s.

Karim’s, Delhi

You must have one meal here. At least one. Karim’s is famous for its food and a haven for non-vegetarians. Finger-licking mutton curry, bheja fry and crisp Naans. Be sure to carry a swimsuit, though, because you can dive right into the oil that floats above the curries they serve.

Up, up and away.

Qutb Minar, Delhi

All that noise and popularity that the Qutb Minar has amassed over centuries? I can assure you that it’s absolutely justified. Despite being hit by lightning thrice and suffering damage, it still stands tall as the highest minar, with passages from the Qur’an carved on it. The minar itself is just one aspect of the property, surrounded by palaces, mosques, marketplaces and of course, the Ashoka Pillar.

Two together: the Ashoka Pillar on the premises of Qutb Minar.

It was my favourite among all the ruins. Despite the havoc wreaked by the weather and the emperors who came along every now and then, the place still manages to help the mind’s eye fill in the gaps to remodel a semblance of it in its original form. Also remarkable was the fact that while the Qutb property is essentially Islamic, there are hints of Hindu temple architecture mixed in. We saw pillars that had Ganesha and dancing women – the kind that decorate the walls of Khajuraho – and temple bells carved in stone.

My guess is that the Mughal emperors brought them to their palaces and made them part of the architecture to remind them of their exploits and victories. Other, less cynical people like to believe it was a symbolic gesture towards religious co-existence/harmony. Ah, well.

The surfaces of India Gate hold the names of soldiers who lost their lives in battle during Independence. Makes you not take freedom for granted.

India Gate, Delhi

Commercial, crowded, marginally Indian. The place was full of Chinese tourists taking many, many pictures in front of India Gate. There’s something about the inscription right on top that gives you the heebie-jeebies and roots you to the spot. When your eye finally manages to discover the names of the soldiers who lost their lives inscribed on the facade, you experience the chills all over again.

At the Golden Temple, people go about their work quietly. Some sit by the water, some move toward the langar, and some listen to the Sikh musicians play, lulling one into a sense of peace.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

Every place of religion has an aura of peace within it, and the Golden Temple’s no different. A flotilla of gold in the middle of a placid lake brimming with gigantic fish, people start lining up for darshan as early as 3 in the morning. Apparently, the Sikhs have to volunteer at the Golden Temple once in their life, so everybody inside the four walls of the place (which stretch for miles together) – from those who serve the langar to the ones who stand guard at the Sikh Museum – are people with alternate jobs fulfilling their religious duties.

I would’ve loved to see the place lit up in the night, but it was freezing at night and I was just not ready to put myself through the torture.

Sunset over Pakistan, as seen from India.

Change of Guards, Wagah Border

While the rest of the two nations are a stage for unbridled hostility, the Wagah Border that divides India and Pakistan is pretty peaceful. But then, us being Indians, we have to milk it for what it’s worth. Hence, a well-dressed man with a mike and a booming voice to inspire the crowds to scream bloodcurdling Vande Maatarams, wave the Indian flag in a frenzy and hurl battle cries across the gates; who then goes on to calmly walk around to pockets of non-committals like us and say, “Don’t you want your money’s worth from this spectacle? Let me hear you scream now and add some masala to the occasion.”

Bah.

My suggestion is to ignore him because the experience of standing at the border is quite emotional by itself. I was close to tears initially, and then when the whole thing went too far, I lost all sense of patriotism – the same soldiers walk up multiple times to the gate, have a face-off with the Pakistani soldiers and come back to loud cheering from the crowd. In all fairness to the Indian masala, the tears returned when the Indian and Pakistani flags crossed over and paused there for a few seconds before completing their journey down the poles and into the storeroom for safekeeping.

The dargah inside Fatehpur Sikri is made out of marble. People tie threads to the windows, so that their mannats come true.

Fatehpur Sikri, Agra

Akbar’s mark on time and by God, what an indelible mark it is.

From the Buland Darwaza, a massive structure of 107-odd feet inlaid with delicate Moghul motifs and now home to tons of honeycombs, to the brick wall behind which Anarkali was buried alive; from the beautiful palaces for Akbar’s three wives – Hindu, Muslim and Christian respectively – to the life-size Pacheesi game on the floor of the palace fort; from the Diwan-e-khaas where Akbar hosted gatherings with his ministers from atop a flat surface of a pillar elaborately carved in Jewish, Moghul and Temple designs, to the carvings of Persian birds and animals – beheaded because Aurangzeb said so; from the first known Meena Bazaar to Akbar’s sleeping chambers with an elevated bed and three separate entrances for three separate wives. There’s so much to see and absorb at Fatehpur Sikri. Turns out that the Diwan-e-khaas was where Akbar founded the Deen-e-Ilahi. Seems to me that he was one of the smarter kings we had – he combined all three religions into one, almost as if he had a sense of the communal turmoil of the future.

A view of the Taj Mahal from the entrance.

The Taj Mahal, Agra

Shah Jahan must have really loved his wife to have built a mausoleum so massive, so magnificent and timeless. Expansive lawns with frothy fountains lead you to the actual structure. The marble’s fast losing its smoothness because of the corrosive substances in the environment, and restorations are happening at a large scale. Flash photography wasn’t allowed inside the mausoleum, but there were people still clicking away.

That’s pretty much what we saw our holiday. In the middle of all this, we managed to experience a bit of night life in Delhi, freeze our tushes off, eat authentic desi food, catch our trains on (or just in) time, shop, meet friends and sleep.

My overall verdict on the holiday? North India is a beautiful place full of secrets. North Indians, not so much.

Adjoining ruins at Humayun’s tomb, where people sometimes go to catch a stunning view.

Getting there: Delhi is well-connected from most places by flights. From there, Agra is a few hours away and Amritsar about six to seven hours. Trains and buses can take you there from Delhi. Make sure you spend at least four days in Delhi, because that’s how much there is to see.

Go if: You love history, shopping, culture and food.

Pictures: All pictures here were shot using my friend’s Canon EOS 400D. This was in the days that i didn’t own a Digi-SLR of my own.

Tales from Kodagu.

A coffee estate in full bloom.

No matter how many times you go to a place, you’re always bound to see a different side to it. Or something new about the same things you see and do. The Coorg trip over the weekend that just went by was a lot like that. Visiting Kodagu – the name locals call Coorg by – was a thing I had to do at least once every year: there’s just something really soothing about rows and rows of coffee, pepper, vanilla and spice plantations and roads that wind through them. The visits sort of took a back seat over the last two years because I wanted to explore more of North India and new places in the South. When I checked the holiday schedule for this year and saw the long weekend, I decided to use it to renew my connection with the estates of Coorg. I’m happy to say that we are on genial terms again and Kodagu doesn’t feel like a scorned lover any more.

Fingers of God at Virajpet.

It took us around 10 hours to reach Coorg, only because we stopped several times to take pictures and just generally sight-see. The honey comb-like shimmering of the sun from between the Eucalyptus, Teak and Areca nut trees made me fall in love with the late-afternoon light all over again. We stopped at a coffee plantation that was in full bloom, so the entire place was a sea of green and white. Dreamy, dreamy setting. I discovered new wonders of my camera, walked through random rocky streams, bonded with the monks at Kushalnagar and recharged my batteries.

It was a new experience in so many ways, but what I loved most about this trip was the stories I gathered. Little tales about people, places and history – just the kind of thing I like.

Exploring a stream in the middle of nowhere.

The wild ones.
Somewhere off Virajpet, after many stops to shoot birds in green fields and climbing the barricade of a coffee estate to take pictures of the flowering plants, we passed through a stretch of jungle. And there, we saw elephants. Not one, but three. There was this hilariously cute elephant, standing and sleeping. Its tusks were tucked into the bark of the tree it was standing against; its eyes were shut, its trunk hanging limp and mouth wide open, snoring. To catch a sight like that is one of life’s little pleasures. However, we noticed that the elephants had chains around their ankles and necks and a man and woman were hovering around it. Apparently, the family is friends with the wildlife in the area – they’re so much a part of the surroundings that the animals have accepted them as one of their own. In turn, every time an animal falls sick, the family brings it to their clearing and takes care of it till it gets better. This time, one of the elephants in the herd was sick, so they got the entire herd and were taking care of them. Funny that we struggle to coexist with nature in the cities only to find the perfect example of it tucked away in a little jungle clearing.

*Snore*

When foreign soil becomes home.
Our home stay, Honey Valley, was deep in the lap of the Western Ghats, nestling at the base of Coorg’s highest mountain and surrounded by nothing but forest. Completely cut off from civilization, Honey Valley is simple, basic and beautiful. Only 4X4 vehicles can make it through the path all the way to the home stay, so we were picked up in a jeep and taken to the top where the place was. What with being lulled to sleep by the swishing trees and cicadas, waking up to birds chirping and the jeep rides through winding kachcha roads with a valley on one side and plantations on the other, the holiday was everything I wanted and more. Miraculously, I was up at 5:30 on the first day at Honey Valley to see the fog lift and leave behind crests and troughs of trees glittering with dew. And of course, I went mental taking pictures of flowers and birds.

The home of the couple that runs Honey Valley.

Honey Valley is run by an ageing Coorgi couple and their son. But there are two other people as well – non-Indians, both. One of them, Jonathan I think, happened to pick us up from the junction in his jeep, and he told the story of his growing up on Australian terrain very similar to that of Honey Valley’s. He had been in Coorg for many, many years and had made the place his home, although he did visit Australia to meet his father from time to time. If you go, you’ll catch him running around everywhere bare feet and wearing a lungi at most times, folded up and tucked in at the waist. Jack, the other foreigner, lives there as well and is a business partner with the Coorgi couple’s son. Together, they’ve opened another home stay further down the slope from Honey Valley. Oddly, despite the two places being so close, the parents and son meet only over weekends.

A view of mornings at Honey Valley.

The Coorgi saree.
The traditional saree is worn with the pleats in the front and pallu of the saree draped over the shoulder and trailing behind, but you’ll find that most women in Coorg wear their sarees with the pleats at the back and a part of the pallu pinned in the front at their shoulder. There are many legends associated with the origin of this style of saree-wearing, the most popular one being that the goddess Cauvery submerged herself into the ground and emerged as a river that would sustain the people of Kodagu. Harsh winds blew as her husband Agastya tried to stop her, turning her saree backwards. To date, Coorgi women wear their sarees the same way.

Little monks walking in the wind.

Nature above everything else.
No matter where you go, you’ll always see a Coorgi home surrounded by lush greenery. They have great respect for nature and believe nature to be their god and religion. Apparently, those who own land and practice agriculture leave about ten percent of their land uncultivated and untouched, just so that Mother Nature can take her own course and bring to life whatever she wants on that patch of land.

5 a.m dew.

A different kind of Prasadam.
We were in Kushalnagar on Sunday, belting Chicken Momos at Hotel Golden Star. There were monks dressed in yellow and maroon everywhere, riding Avengers, eating, shopping, basically having a good time. (I’ve always wondered how the Buddhist monks are such cool people, but I haven’t found the answer to that yet.) When we entered the Golden Temple, the sight of a giant Dalai Lama vinyl draped over the first shrine greeted us. We wondered what was up. Then, above the hum of the crowd, we heard the mesmerizing sound of prayers happening in another shrine. We walked over and stood as if in a trance as the cymbals clanged together, the giant drum (I don’t know what it’s called) was beaten and the chants flowed. It’s music that elevates the soul – there’s no other way to describe it. There was a Dalai Lama poster kept in the inner sanctum as well.

The Golden Temple, Kushalnagar.

Still curious, we went to the main shrine, the one with the giant Buddha. I walked in in anticipation of getting some fabulous shots of the Buddha and stopped dead in my tracks three seconds later. There was no giant Buddha, only a huge Dalai Lama vinyl covering it. A monk soon put our curiosity to an end: it was the Dalai Lama’s birthday and everyone was celebrating. Once the prayers were over, the monks handed out huge plastic covers of Prasadam to everybody. I was quite surprised – I didn’t know Buddhism had the system of handing out prasad to people. I was even more surprised at the contents of the cover – two packets of chips, an apple, an orange and a tetra pack of mango juice. I’m telling you, monks are cool people.

Removing the decorations from the ceiling as the Dalai Lama looks over.

So that’s that, those are my stories from Coorg. It was a holiday spent exploring, learning, tasting and experiencing the flavours of the land of the Kodavas.

Driving through plantations, away from the home stay.

Getting there: Coorg is a six/seven-hour drive from Bangalore. I’m not sure about the train route, but there are buses that go to Madikeri and Virajpet, so choose according to the place you’re going to stay at. I only recommend getting there by car because the route is green, beautiful and goes through the forest, sometimes with a chance-spotting of wild elephants, bisons and even tigers.

Go if: You want to be in the midst of nature, eat lip-smacking Coorgi food, like seeing how coffee and spices grow, are a bird watcher, want to experience first-hand how awesomely cool Buddhist monks are. Yes, I’m stuck on them.