Robyn Gray & Rees Tapsell

Auckland, New Zealand

“As first-time visitors to India we wanted to learn about this country of many religions with its rich history and see how it is for people living here and that was certainly what happened..…”

To explain how wonderful our trip to India was I thought about how to do this. How to describe our three plus weeks in this beautiful country?

I decided to pick one day towards the end of our tour with Joji and All Things India Travel. We were nearing our time after two wonderful weeks in Tamil Nadu and Kerala by spending time in the north of India.

This was not necessarily my favourite day of the tour, that is too hard to choose but it will show the variety of our experience, the carefully thought out accommodation options chosen and how Joji continued to surprise us every day.

After our trip to Taj Mahal in Agra we headed further east in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where we stayed at the Chambal Safari eco-lodge. The hotel is an old family home and land from the 15th century where they used to hold cattle sales. Now the land is planted in indigenous forest and the owners are very involved in the local community, employing the young people and promoting conservation. We sat by the open fire and chatted with other visitors and were accommodated in separate bungalows all decorated with love and care, just like being in someone’s home. Every meal there was a unique experience where we could observe the cooking and ate either al fresco or in the dining room reminiscent of someone’s home.

That morning Joji casually proposed we head to Bateshwar on the banks of the holy river Yamuna (which also flows past Taj Mahal). It is known for the 101 Shiva Temples sited along the riverbank. We had just missed the annual animal sale here which is the second largest in the country. They sell cattle and horses but historically there would have been elephant sellers from Burma and camel sellers from Pakistan Afghanistan etc. However, he told us, there happened to be a fair and religious festival on this morning attended by many religious ascetics- men and women.

Shiva is the third god in the Hindu triumvirate with Vishnu and Brahma in the Hindu religion. He is the destroyer and the transformer. Joji our guide reckons there are more temples to Shiva than anyone else…not all are still operating along the river and there is a trust now that protects these temples. We visited a temple, took a trip on the river to watch the people bathing in the holy water, checked out the markets and at some point became the focus of attention as a group of dancers and snake charmers heard there were Westerners in attendance and rushed to find us and perform for us. Before we left we witnessed the local middle class people, who maintain houses at Bateshwar for when they visit, feed the many ascetics who were there to attend the festival.

Next stop we visited a village where we watched a potter produce domestic houseware, He literally produced them off his wheel by the hundreds. The whole family is involved, with the women and children cleaning the clay before it is worked, the pots are fired in the front yard. Alongside these houses the sacred cows sit and their dung is collected and mixed with grasses and dried to make fuel. This is subsistence living.

Our afternoon trip takes us through ravines that run parallel to the Chambal river for hundreds of kilometres. These ravines were home to the Dacoit bandits –think of Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen. There was a lot of resistance to the British here and these ravines look like good places to disappear without trace.

The Chambal river is a protected river and not at all polluted as it is part of a sanctuary that is home to the critically endangered Gharial, the marsh crocodile and a blind river dolphin, the susu- and amazing bird wildlife. We got to see all three of these animals although the dolphin was a glimpse just as it splashed!! Our guide on the river Batchu who has worked in conservation all his life, was so knowledgeable – birds are his passion. He took us birdwatching the next morning early and we were lucky enough to see a Himalayan owl which had just migrated to Chambal for the winter.

That was just one day in the life of our tour and every day was like this. As first time visitors to India we wanted to learn about this country of many religions with its rich history and see how it is for people living here and that was certainly what happened.

So it is too hard to pick the highlights but from the time we arrived in Chennai (Tamil Nadu and formerly known as Madras) to the airport terminal lit up for Diwali and to a friendly welcome from our driver for the next three weeks Shiva to our last evening’s cooking lesson in Jaipur, Rajasthan we took it all in.

We highly recommend the tour with Joji and Shani and All Things India.

Robyn Gray & Rees Tapsell

Auckland, New Zealand

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