Story and photography by Nicholas Grundy
A trip to India is not complete without taking in the familiar sights we’ve all heard of. Yet the highlight of a recent trip of mine was found away from the normal tourist loop, hidden near the border with Pakistan. My journey, of course, included the subcontinent’s usual prerequisites. First stop: Agra. Here one finds the famed Taj Mahal, a gleaming white testament to the love felt by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz. Venturing further eastward, through the state of Uttar Pradesh, leads to the equally famous city of Varanasi. Wandering the banks of the mighty Ganges River bombards the senses—a rainbow of colors dazzles the eyes, chants and prayers fill the ears, and clouds of incense waft up from below. To escape the sensory overload for a moment, I jumped aboard a local water taxi. Gliding along, I witnessed the kaleidoscope that is Varanasi, as buildings and worshippers all jostle for space along the crowded riverbank.
Leaving the sacred watercourse, my travels saw me wheel around westward. The state of Madhya Pradesh is rarely a major stopover on any traveler’s visit to India. Fortunately for me, however, I’d recently heard of a little-known place called Khajuraho. The tiny village is home to a handful of exquisitely ornate temples that dot the surrounding landscape. The intricate stone carvings tell tales of times long past. I hit the road again, departing central India, and crossed into Rajasthan, India’s desert frontier with Pakistan—one step closer to my destination.
First stop in this large region was Udaipur and its beautiful lakeside palaces. Craving some time with nature and away from the hustle and bustle, I hopped on a bus heading into the mountains. Loaded with everything under the sun, the creaking vehicle chugged ever higher as the temperature decreased mercilessly. Atop Mount Abu, I tacked onto a small tour group for the day and hiked high above the flatlands below. Village women silently emerged from the bushes carrying wood and straw on their heads before vanishing just as soundlessly as they had appeared, their bright saris fluttering in the breeze. Descending the slopes, it was time to continue my adventure.
Jaipur is home to the great Hawa Mahal, also known as the Pink Palace, thanks to its vibrant crimson hues.
The wonders of Rajasthan are certainly worth the trek. Jaipur is home to the great Hawa Mahal, also known as the Pink Palace, thanks to its vibrant crimson hues. The city also contains several forts and other palaces. In fact, it is precisely these two types of structures which typify Rajasthan. For centuries, the region was subjected to countless conflicts as great empires rampaged back and forth. It’s no surprise then that the prominent feature of my next stop—Jodhpur—is a sprawling hilltop fortress overlooking the entire city. Before scaling the mighty peak, I took a break and gathered energy in the form of strong chai, or tea, at the local market. From the palatial complex, I gazed out across a sea of blue houses. Nearly every single building in central Jodhpur is painted with azure dye derived from native indigo plants. Apart from making the town aesthetically pleasing, the substance also serves the practical purpose of acting as a strong, natural mosquito repellant.
After my adventure atop Mehrangarh Fort, I bid Jodhpur and Rajasthan farewell. It was time to enter the historical region of the Punjab and approach the city of Amritsar. The Punjab region is the traditional homeland of the Sikh people. It is here that both the land and followers of Sikhism have been wedged for hundreds of years between Muslim Pakistan and majority-Hindu India. After British colonial rule ended in 1947, most Sikhs ended up in the Indian section of the Punjab. However, a sizable chunk of their heartland was left behind in what was then the exclave of West Pakistan. Yet it wasn’t merely the region’s interesting background which enticed me here. What drew me to Amritsar were the glistening walls of the Golden Temple—the holiest place of worship in the Sikh religion. This temple, or gurdwara, is to Sikhs what Mecca is to Muslims.
To describe Amritsar’s Golden Temple as stunning would be an understatement. The shining structure is surrounded by a calm reflecting pool and is connected back to land by a long causeway. From this path emanates a four-sided walkway encircling the temple, around which devoted worshippers pace. My inviting hosts ushered me in and led me to a shared dorm set up especially for foreigners. I was received as if I were a Sikh pilgrim, and I was encouraged to stay for multiple nights free of charge. (I discovered a donation box near the door before departing.) A fellow Australian invited me to join him for dinner. We ambled over to the langar, an immense kitchen and dining facility which fed all guests—devoted worshippers and curious visitors alike. Once again, those who are able offer up a small donation.
Others donate their time to the temple grounds and the langar. Each morning after completing the meditative circuit of the gurdwara, I would help hand out bread, stir food in huge pots, clean dishes, or sweep the pathways. This experience is what truly brought me to Amritsar. It was a chance to escape from the frenetic speed at which normal Western society runs these days. Here I found no greed, no materialism, no envy, and no vanity. Instead, I discovered a place where I could remove the cluttered thoughts of my mind and rethink life in general. Even the requirement of going barefoot for the entire time enabled the muscles in my feet to breathe. As with footwear, it seems that in the West we often wear too much, adding unnecessary weight and stress to our shoulders.
To this day, in times of turmoil, I pause momentarily and can still hear the ancient chants of the Golden Temple’s gurus in my head.
To this day, in times of turmoil, I pause momentarily and can still hear the ancient chants of the Golden Temple’s gurus in my head. As they chant hypnotically, it reminds me of my walks around the reflective pool, banishing negative thoughts and absurd worries. My mind returns to the Sikh pilgrims studiously sweeping the gurdwara, only grateful for what we all have—this one life here on Earth to enjoy.
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Nicholas Grundy is a travel photographer and writer working for international publications such as the Aer Lingus in-flight magazine, Connemara Life, and VIE. His diverse professional experience and background were discussed during his recent TEDx talk in his current hometown of Galway, Ireland. You can find more of his work at NicholasGrundy.com.