by Jane Finn, Photography by David Finn as published in Issue 23 of Planet Golf Review
To read the entire issue visit: https://planetgolfreview.com/PGR-planet-golf-review-magazine-issue_23.pdf
Rich in history and steeped in tradition, India is a country of contrasts. It’s spicy with a bit of bite like the chili chicken I would grow to love on this trip. It’s a mix of congested cities, rural settlements, and large tracts of uninhabited land where wild animals roam free. It’s also a spiritual hub where mind, body and soul align if you allow it. Here, the threads of architecture, culture, and ritual weave together to create a tapestry as stunning as the silky, rainbow-coloured sarees I admire wherever I go.
Before I even land, India engages all my senses. As we descend into Mumbai, the plane’s cabin fills with the scent of camphor, incense, and cooking fires. It’s just after dawn, and the soft morning light shines upon the encampments nestled up against multimillion-dollar condos. From my window seat, I can see that even though it’s early in the day, throngs of people line the streets, and traffic appears to be moving at a crawl.
Everything about India evokes my curiosity and my desire to explore. Still, I admit to being a little intrepid about what I will discover, not only about the country but also about myself on this trip.
Once inside the terminal, I’m overwhelmed by the noise and the crush of people jockeying to retrieve their bags. I grab mine and move swiftly towards the immigration line reserved for foreign tourists. Surprisingly, I am quickly processed and step through the doors and immediately find my smiling driver holding up a placard welcoming me. I sigh with relief that he is here to collect me as planned. I’m even more grateful for Jay’s calm demeanour and navigation skills as he deftly manoeuvres us around rickshaws, bicycles, camel carts, honking Tata trucks, and the occasional cow en route to my hotel on Marine Drive.
I check into my hotel, planning to nap, but I’m not jet lagged. I tear my eyes away from the sweeping panoramic view of the Arabian Sea and descend twenty floors in search of advice, so I can get out and explore.
I’m in luck. There’s a group assembling in the lobby for a walking tour, and they have room for one more. Our first stop is the Gateway to India, a fitting start considering I’m a newcomer to India’s shore. For the next few days, like the city, I barely sleep as I try to take in all the sites – the Crawford Market, Siddhi Vinayak and Mumba Devi temples, the Elephanta Caves and Bandra Fort. I even attend a big, bold Bollywood production that has me swaying in my seat and longing to take dance lessons, but what I will remember most about Mumbai isn’t featured in any tourist guide.
As we prepare to leave the hustle and bustle of this megacity for the solitude of Ranthambore National Park, our car requires servicing, and we make an unplanned stop on the city’s outskirts. I’m offered a seat in the air-conditioned waiting room, but something beckons me to step outside. Across the alleyway, there are rows upon rows of tents. One stands out as there is a small Winnie-the-Pooh plaque beside the door. As I watch, two young girls in pristine uniforms emerge, obviously excited to be off to school. Suddenly, I’m hit by a wave of nostalgia. I think of my daughters when they were that age. Ah, taking the time to absorb an ordinary activity in an extraordinary place reminds me that we are not meant to rush through life. For the rest of this trip, this will be my mantra.
It’s been a long day in transit but worth the effort. The welcome I receive from the gracious staff at the Oberoi Vanyavilas reenergizes me, and before I know it, I’m off on a tour of the ‘encampment,’ a 5-star resort in the heart of the Tiger’s Lair, so undeniably well-planned and well-conceived, it’s hard to take it all in.
My ‘room’ is an opulent tent reminiscent of the era when royalty travelled together in caravans. I dine under the stars, where I’m introduced to Rajasthani cuisine, including Ker Sangri, a local delicacy prepared with shrub berries and wild beans – a feast for a king. The low-slung moon illuminates my path as I wend my way to my tent. I’ve travelled miles today, but when I curl up on my canopied king-size bed, surrounded by the sounds of the jungle, I feel like a queen as I drift off to sleep.
The following day, I think I’m the first person in the compound to wake, anxious to meet some big cats on this leg of the journey, but Mohan, my knowledgeable and unflappable guide has been up for hours organizing today’s safari. I’m so appreciative of the wild beauty but I’m also concerned about the impact humans have had on its inhabitants. Mohan smiles a gentle smile; glad I asked the question. There is immense gratitude In his voice as he explains that not only have the people enjoyed greater prosperity due to ecotourism, but the animals have also benefitted from government-supported conservation. Over the last two decades, the Bengal tiger population has steadily increased as man and beast learn to live and work in harmony.
Minutes later, we’re joined by three other guests who hop in the jeep, before we set off along the dusty, golden road in search of adventure. Surprisingly, the landscape is extremely varied. We drive for long stretches amongst barren trees devoid of leaves and then dense foliage that provides refuge for various animals. As we round a corner, Mohan swiftly brings the jeep to a standstill to give us a bird’s eye view of India’s national bird the Blue Peacock and his harem. Suddenly, to our surprise and delight our newfound friend lifts his tail and spreads his iridescent feathers in a semicircle known as a train before performing a mesmerizing mating ritual. In Hinduism, peacocks are a symbol of pride, beauty, and grace and according to our guide, confidence as he is now certain we will find tigers before our day is done.
Throughout the morning, we come across large groups of spotted deer grazing quietly at the edge of a stream or watering hole, entirely at ease in their surroundings. We also encounter a shy desert fox and a hyena with pups, but the tigers remain elusive.
By mid-day, the air has grown hot, heavy, and humid. The birds are quiet, and I sense that the animal kingdom is enjoying a well-deserved rest. Mohan suggests it’s time for us to tuck into our picnic lunch before making our way to the Ranthambore Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose history dates back more than a millennium.
At first, I’m disappointed that we’re abandoning our tiger search, but when I get my first glimpse of the circular ramparts towering more than five hundred feet above my head, I have a change of heart. Shrouded in myths and folklore, I know this is one of those places where legend comes alive.
As I tread the stone pathways and listen to the stories from the elders, I can feel the presence of the warrior spirit of the ancient ones who occupied this land during sieges and battles. Within this complex there are three Hindu temples dedicated to Ganesha, Shiva and Ramlalaji. There is also a Jain temple of Lord Sumatinath and Lord Sambahavanath that are still in use today; a symbol of man’s ability to come together for safety and connection, regardless of differing beliefs. Two hours later, Mohan comes to collect us to resume our safari, and now, I’m almost reluctant to leave.
Patience is a virtue, and perhaps the lesson I need to learn – let go of expectations and enjoy the moment. Within minutes of departing the Shilpgam artisan village, we come across a young male tiger sunning himself on the rocks who is utterly oblivious to the humans who can’t believe their good fortune. After that, it’s as if Mother Nature conspires to put on a show for the tourists. Before we return to the resort, we have four more sightings, including a mother and her cub. What a day – one that I celebrate with a sundowner or two as our group relives the day, knowing we now have shared memories that we will carry with us forward, even when we go our separate ways.
I usually shy away from highly visited attractions, but how could I pass through Agra and not see the Taj Mahal? It’s pitch black, and I’m at the ticket booth, well before sunrise, surprised that several hundred others are already in line. That’s when I recall that The Taj Mahal is more than an iconic monument. It’s a sacred space where pilgrims and tourists come together to explore the mystery.
When the gates open, I’m caught in the crush of people surging forward, and for a moment or two, a wave of panic washes over me, but my expert guide quickly separates us and allows the crowd to disperse before he finds us a quiet corner in the garden where I can relax and watch the sun come.
I note a slight tinge of colour in the sky, and then suddenly, the massive onion-shaped white marble dome is awash in a sea of pink. I’m so transfixed that I don’t realize I’m holding my breath until my guide, Ashok, reminds me to breathe and feel the magic.
Time stands still as we wander the grounds admiring the reflecting pools, the architecture, the craftsmanship and the landscape. I could linger here for hours, but time is running short, and I must find a sari for the wedding I will be attending in New Delhi.
I begin my quest at Raji Ki Mandi, one of Agra’s busiest and most crowded markets. Everyone is eager to help, and I’m presented with a dizzying array of exquisitely embroidered and intricately beaded gowns. Each one is stunning, but I’m overwhelmed by the choices, the salespeople’s urgings, and the need to decide, and I leave empty-handed.
I regroup over a long, leisurely lunch at Pinch of Spice, then head to the Sadar Bazaar, confident that I will find what I need.
The first store I enter is devoid of anyone save the shopkeeper and his assistant. Unlike my previous experiences, he doesn’t immediately start pulling items from the shelves. Instead, he invites me to sit in the middle of the room while he gently questions me about my likes and dislikes and why I need a sari. With a sage nod, he rises from the floor and disappears through a door, returning moments later carrying the most beautiful moss green swath of pure silk, adorned with a glittering golden band and a few tiny beads. As I run my hands over the fabric, I feel tears spring to my eyes. It’s as if the shopkeeper has known me a lifetime, and this sari had been crafted for me and me alone.
It’s twilight when I reach my hotel. I’m weary from the day’s activities and not fully present until I open the door to my room. What I see literally takes my breath away. Before me lies the Taj Mahal, shining against the dark sky. As I dine under the stars, I replay the tales I’ve heard today about the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan and the shrine he built for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, that speaks to the power of enduring love.
A Hindu wedding is not a one-day affair but a series of events that herald the coming together of two families. I dance through the next three days, thrilled to be invited to the Mehndi party, where I marvel as an artist creates a henna work of art on the bride’s hands and feet. I’m told this ritual is meant to calm the bride’s nerves, but legend has it that much like the Taj Mahal, the more intricate the design, the longer the couple’s love will grow.
More than five hundred people gather on the wedding day to celebrate and bless the marriage. I revel in the music and the choreographed dances performed by family and friends. Suddenly, the crowd erupts in a cheer as the bride descends from the dais, resplendent in her red wedding dress, that symbolizes new beginnings, passion, and prosperity. I watch as the groom slips his hand into his wife’s and gently guides her through the well-wishers to begin a new chapter. I bow my head and quietly whisper Namaste in gratitude for the generosity of spirit I’ve been shown as I followed my path throughout incredible India.