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Indian Summer

By Ariana Crisafulli 2019-04-29 16:07:23

If I had to pick just one word to describe my experience in India, it would be extra. Everything about it was absolutely over the top in ways I could never before have imagined. The colors were extra bright, the food was extra delicious (and extra spicy), the streets were extra crowded, the weather was extra hot (sometimes reaching 50 degrees Celsius!), and above all, the people were extra friendly. It was like stepping into a world where the volume had been turned up in every imaginable way.

For four months, I traveled slowly from south to north via train and bus and still felt that there was not enough time to see all the treasures that India had to offer. However, I was absolutely gobsmacked by four places that I was lucky enough to visit during my time there. These were Hampi, Kerala, Varanasi, and the Taj Mahal.

 

Hampi

 

Hampi is an interesting combination of hippy enclave and historical site in the south of India. The UNESCO World Heritage monuments brings travelers in, but the chilled-out restaurants and cafes, and the lazy Tungabhadra River invites them to stay. With 1,600 surviving remains of ancient monuments spread out over 41.5 square kilometers, you need plenty of time to see it all anyways.

 

 

In five days, I hiked and biked my way through Hampi, squinting at my map in the bright sunshine and finding my way around the many forts, riverside features, royal and sacred complexes, temples, shrines, pillared halls, mandapas, memorial structures, and water structures. Some of the structures, like the ones in the Vijaya Vittala temple, were so well maintained over the centuries that they could have been constructed merely a decade ago rather than 500 years ago. Others, like the 36.5-meter tall Virupaksha Temple, were weathered, but no less awe-inspiring.

In Hampi’s heyday in the 14th century, it was the center of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire capital. By 1500 AD, Hampi-Vijayanagara was the world’s second-largest medieval-era city after Beijing. But by 1565, The Vijayanagara Empire was defeated by a coalition of Muslim sultanates and destroyed, leaving the remnants you can visit today.

Besides the numerous temples, Hampi is characterized by a series of boulder-strewn hills that are excellent for hiking and for watching the sun rise, like Matanga Hill. It’s a place that’s easy to get lost in for hours, and I often did. At times I felt like an archeologist, coming across an ancient statue or carving here and there among the boulders as I explored the landscape.

 

 

When you’re tired of all the hiking and exploring (and you should be if you’ve done Hampi right) you can head to the river for a swim and then to one of the many cafes afterward for a traditional dish of thali – a plate of rice with around five to six different sauces and curries. Pro- tip: you can walk to the river from the town and take a dip there, but it’s worth it to hire a driver to take you about 30 minutes upriver for cleaner, clearer water and a private swim!

 

 

Kerala

 

Kerala is a lush, coastal state on the southwest edge of the country. When I think about Kerala, two things come to mind: water and greenery. Being a coastal territory, there are beautiful beaches along the Arabian Sea with warm water for swimming, but what really marks Kerala as unique are the endless waterways webbing through the interior.

 

 

When I visited Kerala, I was there with a friend, and the two of us decided to hire a houseboat to navigate us through the endless stretch of placid, green waterways. We were the only passengers aboard, with the captain, the cook, and a deck hand – all locals - to keep us company. For twenty-four hours, the captain steered us through one of the dreamiest landscapes I’ve ever witnessed. The heavy, wet heat, the vivid greenery, and the tranquil pace of the boat through the calm waters lent a dreamlike quality to every scene.

At midday we hopped into a smaller boat and made our way through the water villages and the endless shrimp and fish farms, and in the afternoon we took a swim in the warm, silky water. For dinner, we were treated to local cuisine, including fish that our crew caught right from the river!

 

 

Varanasi

 

Varanasi is arguably the most fascinating city in India. Lying along the shores of the Ganges River, it is the holiest of the seven holy cities in Hinduism and Jainism.

In the old town, take a wander through the maze of densely packed buildings and shops. In many places, the buildings are so closely squeezed together that you can hardly see the light of day between the walls and the colorful overhangs. The walkways are so narrow that no vehicles or bicycles can pass through, and every now and then you may find yourself stuck behind a stubborn cow! The smells, the crowds, and the tightly packed quarters make for an absolutely otherworldly experience.

Varanasi is a central location in the Hindu religion. In Hinduism, followers believe that you will be reincarnated until your essential being overcomes ignorance and desire. The end of reincarnation, known as moksha, is the ultimate goal. Many Hindus believe that if your ashes are dispersed in the waters of the holy Ganges River, you will have a better chance of achieving moksha and be at peace from the cycle of death and rebirth. All along the shores of the Ganges can be seen funeral pyres where families bring their deceased loved ones to be cremated and given to the Ganges with the hope that they will be at peace at last.

At dusk you can hire a rowboat to take you out onto the wide river. As the sun sets, you see families bathing in the water, sometimes right alongside cows, as these animals are considered holy in India. As the day becomes night, you can light little candles and send them floating along the river. The water becomes alive with flickering candle flames and the reflection of pyres all along the shore.

 

 

Taj Mahal

 

I at first wanted to shun this UNESCO World Heritage site, as I was coming to the end of my trip by the time I got near, and I originally dismissed it as a tourist trap. But I have to admit that I was being a bit of an arrogant traveler. There’s a reason why some sites attract so many tourists, and it’s because they’re worth the crowds. The Taj Mahal is one of those places.

Made of white marble, the Taj Mahal all but glows in the sunshine. It’s so stunning, UNESCO called it “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”.

The Taj Mahal is actually a mausoleum, built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. It was dedicated to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their 14th child. The tomb now holds the fake sarcophagi of Shah Jahan and his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. The site also holds incredible gardens on a 300-meter square property, as well as other outlying buildings, many of which house Shah Jahan’s other wives and even one of Mumtaz Mahal’s favorite servants.

After seeing it in person, I have to admit that a trip to India would not be complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal.

 

So if you're ever visiting India, be sure to check out a few of these stunning locations!

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