Want to know the story behind this picture? My Travel Affairs did, and so I wrote about this particular moment in my travels around India- watching sunrise in Varanasi one morning-on her blog. You can read it by clicking here.
Want to know the story behind this picture? My Travel Affairs did, and so I wrote about this particular moment in my travels around India- watching sunrise in Varanasi one morning-on her blog. You can read it by clicking here.
I wrote an article about what the traditional Indian concept of marriage is, and what it is really like attending a wedding in India for The News Hub. Check it out!
Weddings in India are unique compared to the rest of the world.
Weddings are a collision of colour, excitement, a chaos of friends, family and strangers, of sights and smells. A wedding in India is similar to the pulse and rhythm of India, manic, vibrant and filled with beaming smiles, amazing smells and jubilant noise. If you are humble or lucky enough to be invited to an Indian wedding or a wedding in India- jump at the chance.
Similar to any other wedding in the world, Indian weddings focus on and celebrate the joining of two families, two communities into one. Unlike other weddings in the world, in a large majority of the weddings, the bride and groom have never met each other. Arranged marriages are still a traditional concept of marriage in India’s culture, meaning there is little freedom for either spouse to choose their eternal partner. However, the main force behind arranged marriages is that relatives plan and organise their next of kins’ future with ease, finding someone who is “suitable” for their loved one. Although a debatable subject, this does mean that a wedding in India is filled with connections from either side of the family, whom even the bride and the groom may not know themselves. The result is: weddings in India are overflowing with people, bringing more joy and excitement with them than you could ever imagine.
Weddings in England are either one of two things, traditional or not at all. Weddings are held in churches at local registers or even on beaches. Some weddings have no religious connotations at all within the ceremony and events. Although one thing is for sure, weddings in the UK are always an excuse for a massive celebration. Here, it is normal for guests to sip champagne all throughout the day, and even the bride and groom to have a few drinks themselves.
However in India, alcohol is prohibited, which provides an entirely different experience. Although sober and entirely memorable, the celebrations last even longer than in the UK, on average lasting three days. On some days, there are private religious ceremonies, on others the wedding celebration is open for all invited at a chosen venue.
When I was travelling around India, my friend and I were fortunate enough to be invited to one. Rummaging in our backpacks for something that smelt remotely clean and vibrant enough to pass as a western version of a sari, we arrived and tried to blend ourselves into the crowd. Hiding at the back of the baraat, otherwise known as the groom’s procession, butterflies began to flutter in our stomach as the night began. The groom donning a luxurious turban and wearing a classy suit rode on a white horse into the venue, as if a knight from a fairy-tale amidst buzzing fireworks and the rhythm of a traditional drum. Soon the bridal procession followed, led by the bride’s brother dancing in the traditional brash Punjabi style. The bride’s relatives flocked around the bride, holding on to her sari that floated behind whilst her nervous eyes darted around the venue glinting with excitement, her glittering gold jewellery shone in the light. Camera operators and photographers were forever engaged with focus and undivided attention on the couple, enticing them to smile and perform.
Although we were only there for a short time period of the long extravaganza, we did see the Jaimala, which is the giving of the flower garlands. In this ceremony, couples exchange flower garlands as a pledge to each other, to show respect for one another. This was all done on a podium, for all guests to see in full glory their promise for one another. We also found the time to sample a number of incredible dishes, as food in India always emphasizes variety. Food at an Indian wedding is a vital necessity to a successful event. With hours of scheduled ceremonies and entertainment for the large proportion of guests, food is a way to keep guests satisfied. Unlike the UK with strict guidelines of table plans and scheduled meal times, India carries a relaxed attitude to the catering at weddings. Guests can help themselves whenever and how often they like, meaning an incredible amount of food is prepared for weddings in India, with no expense. Even ice cream parlours can be expected at some weddings. Similar to the eating culture in India, one is always hungry- and at weddings, this is even more appropriate.
Leaving the extravagant ceremony behind with full stomachs and banging headaches (from the music not from anything else) we left the ceremony glowing with pleasure. Although brief, the invite we received had given us a small taste of the incredible marriage ceremonies in India that really are like no other. Even though the event was filled with hundreds of people, it still felt personal, private and beautiful.
When I first started blogging about my journey in India I described India to be like marmite, “you either love it or hate it”. Boy was I wrong. India is a constant whirlwind of emotions. One minute you love it, taken aback by the incredible landscapes that make you gasp out loud, other moments you are aghast by. Here, I entail all of my emotions and reflections on the past few months in one of the loudest, brightest and most colourful places in the world. Where there is no middle ground, you are just thrown in the deep end with all the sights, sounds and smells, awake and alive around you as if suffocating you in this kaleidoscope of activity. As well as this, I list helpful hints and tips that you really need to know and wish someone had told me before hand- which the lonely planet seems to glorify or skim over.
India is a vast sub continent that is as big and diverse as central Europe. Each state (all 28 of them) seem to take up the characteristics of an entirely different country. You can snowboard, camel ride, surf, sunbathe, drink teas in tea plantations and eat street food in hectic cities all in one majestic country. The range of activities and variation in landscape in India is incredible and is one of the things that makes it so astonishing. Being here 2 months and seeing 10 states and 29 different places means that I have seen and covered a vast amount of India, although I feel I have barely scratched the surface. Many tourists wander into the depths of India for months; some on yoga retreats and in silent ashrams, some simply exploring the large scope of rural life that encompasses India on the back of a roaring motorbike. I, instead, have seen and explored the major tourist destinations of India, creating my own memories as I go.
From the banana trees and golden sands in Kerala, to the dry humid deserts in Rajasthan and to the lush mountainous greenery in Dharmshala, India is ever-changing and breathtaking. I urge you all to visit as many states as possible, allowing yourself to comprehend the ever changing landscapes and weather.
India is country with the second biggest population in the world and is hot on its heels to overtake China’s population in 2020, which means people are everywhere and anywhere, piling out of buses, trains, shops and houses. There is no living or breathing space in India, people and houses are piled on top of each other, behind each other, side by side as if dominoes or stacks of wood for a fire, constantly rubbing shoulders with one another. Queuing up for a ticket at a counter or a meal is not a queue which is known in western terms, but seemingly a conga, forcing yourself one way to make sure someone doesn’t push in and crying aloud when someone tries to. People are curious, interested in people they don’t see often. Because India is so vast, in many areas of India, (apart from particularly tourist areas) there is a little chance you will see other tourists (although easy to spot when you do), so people are fascinated by you, interested to learn what you think of India, wanting to know your view on Obama and telling you what certain things are to help clarify your understanding.
On the whole, people in India are kind and willing to help. They are kind and caring people willing to share their food with you and happy to invite you into their family and their life.
Although a seemingly positive overview, I have not taken into account the gender inequality and harassment I will discuss in the safety section. Also, be wary of the small minority (that may seem like a majority at times), that are just trying to make money out of tourists by; robbing, cheating or scamming you. Be wary of known scams in a certain area for eg. that your hostel has burnt down, a new “best friend” who wants to be your tour guide, saying your train ticket is invalid so you have to buy another one, or an opportunity to resell gems that are tourist traps and victimise tourists. Some may overcharge you, not give you the correct change or mislead you under false pretence to aid themselves, be strong and insistent in your view, ignoring when necessary and sticking to your guts when needs be.
Religion is an important and influential aspect in India’s outline, embedded into each and every Indian’s way of life. India has 5 main religions; Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity although there are a number of sub religions that bond and unify people together either through the festivals they celebrate, their daily rituals or even the colourful marks on their forehead, forecasting what religious tribes they are a part of. You would think that religion separates people here because of the large number of religions here, but that is not the case. Religion bonds people together. Whether it be discussing certain aspects, visiting a certain holy shrine or celebrating a religious festival, the variety of religions in India cements all of the nation together in faith. You may not be a religious person when you arrive, mocking aspects of how the world started or created, in favour of science, but you definitely will feel some sort of influence or affect when you leave. You will be influenced by the spirituality that surrounds you, the value of family togetherness, the essence of goodness and the overwhelming power of love: for one another and for each other’s gods. The overwhelming desire to please certain gods and deities consumes families and their day to day thoughts and actions. Insulting someone’s religion or actions in relation to a God and the afterlife is a sin itself and if wanting to cause serious damage, is how you do so.
India is an incredibly spiritually place anyway with it being home to the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa’s Missionary, Sikh’s biggest and most well known temple- The Golden Temple, the birthplace of Krishna, where Buddha found enlightenment, as well as the Holy Ganges that purifies all internally and externally- it is hard not to feel the presence of such a powerful being around you as well as inside yourself. Being a little bit of a Buddhist myself, meant that seeing the effect of religion on families, people and spiritual gurus made me rethink certain aspects of my life. Its made me reaffirm what I believe in, what I want in life, and how I see myself and the world. I’ve realised I have very similar values to Buddhism and I found myself nodding enthusiastically to many of their messages. I intend to use these moral sayings into my daily thoughts and actions centring my wish washy beliefs I had before into something strong, unifying and beautiful.
Like I have briefly mentioned before in my people section, in India’s culture, sharing is caring. Strangers will share food and hardships of the day, swapping jokes and thoughts on the newest cricket player and what difference he will make to the world cup. Like I said before, there is no privacy in India, and so a conversation between you and a local means a conversation between you and all of the people in the surrounding area. Even if they actually do not say anything or make any input, they are listening and their reactions are part of the conversation. This theme of sharing and lack of privacy is further highlighted through the traditions of family and their role within each society. Each member of the family has a stereotypical role within the family hierarchy and has a certain role to play. What determines their popularity in the family circle (which includes family, secondary family and extended family) is how well they follow these certain roles and how well they look after each other. Family is a tight knit community ad once included, you are part of that family forever. We had a certain situation which allowed us to fully learn and establish the value of family ties by being invited to a wedding in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. After chatting and sharing food with a kind family on the train, they quickly invited us to their wedding. What followed was us meeting every member of their family, welcomed in through music and ritual, dancing and being photographed with them as if long lost relatives. Their kindness was overwhelming and the experience allowed us a snapshot into culture in India.
This kindness which is embedded in Indian culture is also exemplified through the daily actions of Indians. They will stop what they are doing and help you- whether it be spending a whole day directing tourists in traffic in Manali, or simply trying to find your hostel for you and asking others for the location. I don’t know is not an option here, it is either yes or I will find out for you- which can be irritating at times as some people don’t give you a direct answer but simply shake their head or point absent mindly in what they think is the right direction. Nonetheless, their kindness is refreshing and through the dark and oppressive times in India you may come to at points, you draw yourself to these memories and moments like a moth to a flame.
I have spoken about this inexplicable kindness to others but in this section I must cast your eyes on the situation of castes or classes. This situation is not as bad as it has been before, and a nation that has been torn apart by bloodthirsty monarchs and greedy empires, I do expect there to be some level of resentment within the country. However, it is not towards the past that the nation has shared together, but they hold some level of resentment towards each other. It seems your level of importance is characterised by your occupation, your family and your place of birth, (which can be argued is in other places around the world). These three things, although alterable, are unchangeable. Immediately people ask of your occupation to suss out who you are and what your wage is like. Labourers, bus and train station sweepers or toilet attendants are given no recognition or batted an eyelid towards. They are seen as servants and are of a different level to most of middle class India (I am not including rural villagers here), completely disregarding them as humans. When giving attention to these people, as well as those who are disabled, these people are surprised and incredibly happy. Not because I have given them money or affection, just a simple human gesture. People with these jobs in the UK could argue they are treated in the same respect, however once they have seen the inequality and treatments of the people here: they will beg to differ.
It is the financial inequality that is the most shocking (yes the treatment towards disabled people is horrific and would infuriate my mum to her wits end due to the lack of support they receive), although this is further down to the unequal distribution of wealth. India is one of the places where you can quickly become a millionaire, however a quarter of the population live below the poverty line, living in squalid slums with tin roofs and satellite TV’s, circling around fires made out of burning plastic. If you haven’t been to Asia before, seeing the conditions of how people live and die might come as a shock to you. To recognise that not everyone has a perfect life with a glossy future and a number of options. But this is real India, the nitty and brittleness of it. Of kids still happily playing and laughing at their elder brothers body whilst he washes himself with one tiny bucket of water, or mothers gossip whilst hanging out their laundry. For millions of people it is not something that is new, but a way of life that has been for generations. Neighbourhoods are made within slums, invoking communities and families.
You will see street children, mothers, elderly or disabled begging- whether they live in a slum or on the street, it is a sorrowful sight to see. Especially with the fact that I can go home and curl into a comfy bed knowing I am safe and sound, easily forgetting the memories of a 4 year old girl in Calcutta hugging my leg, wishing to be taken away from the life she leads. Yes it is hard to see, but it even harder for them, so keep this in mind. I never took any photos of slums and instead of money, gave sweets to children and food and water to anyone else as they might be begging for a local gangster, who controls them and their income, which is not good to encourage. Although culture in India at times may seem alien and distant, even sometimes overwhelming, embrace it- any other way will frustrate you.
India is such a large nation with so many states that are seemingly smaller countries in themselves, there are a number of languages that are spoken in the land. Officially, there are 29 languages (on record), however, I am sure that there are hundreds of languages spoken in India, varying in what area, district and religion. The countless amount of people who live in the rural areas amongst paddy fields and personal chickens, I am sure there is an abundance of languages due to the influx and variety of people who live there. Most people in India speak English due to the fact that there is such a vast number of languages, although I always find the polite thing to do is to learn some of the native language. In this case, it is hindi. However in the south, hindi is not spoken as widely as in the north, rather Tamil is spoken.
Useful phrases I have found are:
Thank you- Danyavad
Your Welcome- Abkar Swagate
Your Name- Abkar Nam
I want the bill- Bill Kijeye
How much- Kit na
Discount- Cum Kejeye
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, -ech, do, cha, tin, pash
Food in India is a bizarre and delightful culinary journey that will leave your taste buds tantalising and wanting more. Being an avid fan of spicy food, I easily adjusted, however even if you are a sweet sort of person, India has such a wide range of cuisine- you will find a dish that can satisfy your needs. You will find yourself become accustom to the use of such an array of herbs and spices, so much so, that even in your tea (the most popular drink in India)– you have masala spices in the tea which enrich the flavour of the tea leaves, the creamy texture of milk and the sweetness of sugar, creating a combination that is overpowering, but will never make you look at English breakfast tea again in the same way.
Food in India has such a diversity, in each area of India and each state, it is hard to keep count of the number of dishes you will enjoy. From coconut based dishes in Kerala; to fresh seafood in Goa, kati rolls in Calcutta, clay pot tandoori dishes in Punjab, resourceful thick curries in Rajasthan and Tibetan food in Dharamshala, India is every food lovers dream. Some dishes are characteristically more well known in various areas of India, so be wary of this if you become attached to a certain dish (I am attached to my beloved Uttapam). I have eaten at a number of places, expensive middle class restaurants, bus stands, street food, on trains, and backpacker cafes, mainly eating meat in most places I went. I did not take note of the guidebooks that shared horror stories of Delhi belly and travel bugs, I instead took caution to the wind and threw myself into the burning sizzling saucepan. Some guidebooks recommend waiting a few days allowing your stomach to adjust to the cuisine in India- which I think is definitely a good idea to do so. I feel when ordering meat, it is about instinct. 9 times out of 10, expensive restaurants have nicer and much more sanitary kitchens then other places, although you can get ill from pretty much anywhere, (I got ill from Pizza Hut- an international chain in Agra). Just be sensible and only order seafood by the coast, stick to what and where locals eat and if you feel unsure about a place- don’t eat there.
I have predominately focused on what it is like being a meat eater in India, however, for many Indians, meat is not an option. You will find many places signposted, “Vegetarian food only”, to highlight to vegetarians no cross contamination will be here, so if you want to be safe, eat at these places. In a number of places, especially Rajasthan, meat is scarce, so adopting a flexitarian attitude is beneficial. You will not be restricted in choice or options if you decide to eat as a vegetarian, as there is an abundance of dishes, (much more than non veg) to please your stomach. Favourites of mine are: Malai Kofta- the sweetness of a korma combined with dumplings, Jalfrezi- a popular at home and Dal Mahkani- vegetables in a creamy rich tomato sauce. All dishes are accompanied with rice; roti or chapati, (a flatbread both similar), doughy naan, or loose paratha (my favourite). As well as a side for a spicy dish, Raita is ordered, a creamy mid yogurt dish filled with salad and onions. For a budget option, choose a Thali- which combines 3 small dishes with papad, (poppadom), either chapati, roti or naan and rice. Don’t feel you will get bored of vegetables, an array of all sorts are used as well as paneer, a cottage cheese, is heavily used.
These dishes can be easily washed down with a chai, a kingfisher or a lime water (sweet or salt depending on your preference). Breakfast is quite a strange ordeal in India and varies dependent on the region you are in. In the south, dosas are common, which are a crisp like pancake texture or uttapams,a faijta like texture, or idli with a sauce of sambar, which is a white circular spongey texture, whilst Kulcha is popular in the North, a omelette without the egg served with chickpeas. As you may have noticed, carbohydrates are in every dish with a topping of vegetables and a splash of spicy sauce. I urge you to not hold back when eating food in India, as some tourists stick to chains such as Burger King or dishes like vegetable Biryani. Go out and explore! Let your tongue do the tasting!
I have taken every form of transport in India. Trains: in all classes, chair, AC chair, sleeper, 3rd class, 2nd class and 1st class, metro, buses: private and public, planes: both domestic and international, motorbike, jeep sharer, auto tuk tuk/rickshaw, human powered rickshaw, taxis- short or long distance, boat; engine and human powered, bicycle and even camels- if you count that.
Transport is a vast network of interlinking channels allowing members of the public to get from one area of the country to another. I have spent hours that calculate to weeks on trains whilst I am here, but it is one of the only ways to get around on a budget. Some tourists decide to take chaffered cars or multiple domestic flights, which although comfortable, do not allow you to see the real views of India and share beautiful moments with locals. Trains in India are incredible. They dart long distances around the country, some passengers are on trains for 42 hours or so. I advise booking trains in advance, as most of the public take trains on a daily basis. Using the app clear trip- which can be downloaded onto a smart phone, is a vital necessity. Otherwise, booking through tour offices is another option, although a hefty commission of 100 rupees will be added on each time. If trains are booked up, do not fear and follow the example of nervous passengers by prebooking all your trains (allowing no flexibility in your journey and experiences), instead use taktal or go through the tourist quota, or if necessary, get any ticket that is available and upgrade on the train.
Each class varies in pricing, ranging in comfort and luxuries. For a backpacker and for long distance, 3A is a great choice. However, if there is a large group of you, then sleeper is a much cheaper option. I found travelling as a woman, sleeper is acceptable in the day, although long distance over night trains, splashing out that little extra bit for comfort and security in 3A is worth it. The trains in India will surprise and baffle you. Each section of the train is well thought out including coat hooks, fans, bed bunks and water bottle holders. The people are a massive highlight of the various journeys I have made, sharing religions, names, advice, food and giggles with each other. I have tried to solve rubix cubes and cats cradles with locals on trains and received useful recommendations and wedding invites on trains. Unlike England, train passengers introduce themselves to each other immediately or join in conversations, whether observing or just nodding when appropriate. As well as the passenger, the constant influx of sellers and hawkers is an enthralling experience in itself and should be enjoyed by all visitors whom go to India. Food sellers that create dishes in front of your eyes out various hidden bags, chai boys that shout in a sing song voice, and people that sell all kinds of goods. Beggars, musicians, transvestites and entertainers ask for attention and money. The train seems to be a small capsule of India and is much easier to digest for many travellers.
The metro is a great way to zip around big cities like Delhi and Mumbai. The characteristic pictures of passengers overflowing on trains are normally of those from the metro so hang tight to yourself and your valuables. There are ladies only sections for your own safety- although they get as equally packed, one woman when leaving the corner gave me her seat and it seemed to be the biggest gift anyone could give me at the time! The metro is much more efficient in Delhi, connecting all areas of Dehli rather than the suburbs of Mumbai, so keep this in mind when travelling around these two big cities.
Government buses can be caught from any bus stand and are normally a long and uncomfortable journey. Private buses are similarly the same distance but pricier, (although are still generally public as they stop for anyone meaning technically you have paid for their fare), as well as stopping at food places in the middle of nowhere. Some private buses are sleeper, which have little booths with beds in, pick this option if travelling overnight and with all sleeper options pick above positions to avoid sharing with strangers and midnight groping.
For the upper middle class and upper class, planes are the only option to get around India and with such a large number of airports in India, it is a quick but expensive option to do so. Scooters and motorbikes are the most common form of transport for Indian families as they are quick and efficient. I have seen numbers of people and various forms of belongings or produce on these bikes dodging every type of animal on the road; warthog, pig, camel, goat, dog, elephant, cat and cow- so it can be quite dangerous, especially that 13 people die from a road accident every hour in India (although the roads don’t seem as dangerous as Vietnam!)
Jeep shares are a cheaper form of a taxi and are very entertaining. They are jeeps (funnily enough) with a fixed destination that is then filled to the brim with passengers, almost overflowing at times, for a cheap price. 17 passengers is the maximum amount of people I have been squished next to in one of these, although more has definitely been fitted in before. It gives you a giggle, how much you are tightly packed- although it can be quite painful at times.
An auto tuk tuk, or more commonly known as a rickshaw, is a tuk tuk similar to those in Asia. These vehicles can easily zip in and out of traffic and although a small engine, are a more consistent and a cheaper way to get around (although fairly open so be ready to face all the elements). It is virtually impossible to find a tuk tuk who will put the meter on for a tourists, rather wanting to charge a ridiculous price, so get your bartering hat on, but do with a smile and remember- walking away most of the time means they’ll give in and take you. There are human powered rickshaws that are led by bicycles. Only in Varanasi, were these a more popular option than auto powered rickshaws, because of the size and age of the drivers, which is normally pretty shocking. Be a little more generous with these drivers, they deserve it.
Taxis are also an obvious choice to get around and they vary in style, some as a classic white Honda, others in cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai with black and yellow vintage Italian stallions. Once going into one, try to ask for a meter and if not, state your price before, during and after. With both auto rickshaw and taxis always head to pre paid- where normally an official or member of the police gives you a ticket with the correct amount in it. Pay the official and don’t give the ticket to the driver until you are at your destination and have checked you at the destination. Luggage charge is 10 rupees per item, and waiting charge is 30 rupees for an hour, and there is a night charge from 11 to 5am which is an extra 25 percent. Many drivers will try charge you more and quote these terms, so be prepared to repeat this information and stand your ground. When deciding to take a taxi long distance, it is better to organise through the agency first hand. There are a number of companies that are safe and track their transportation as they go- this is a must do when travelling in Delhi by taxi.
The only time I travelled by boat is in major tourist areas: Varanasi, Mumbai and Alleppey, two engine, one human powered. These are necessary modes of transport to see the beautiful areas of scenery and landscape, thus I have no helpful information on boats as a mode of transport to and from major destinations.
Bicycles can be easily hired out in small tourist locations and are a fantastic way to see the ins and outs of a city, although not the areas surrounding it. Places which are highlights to see on a bicycle are Hampi, Khujaraho and Fort Cochin.
Finally, I also travelled by camel in Jaisalmer, slow and steady but a must when visiting and all part of the experience. Other animals you can ride are elephants, yaks and horses.
Clothes around the world, in stalls and shops in Europe and on an international scale, are made in India- so you will find clothes in India on the cheap. The variety of choice: backpacker style clothes (loose baggy trousers and colourful T-shirts), saris, kaftans and silk blouses are a plenty- as well as the fashionable expensive shops. Embroidery is popular and is carefully adorned on clothes, curtains and even cushion covers. Furniture and jewellery are also significantly cheaper here. Some of the furniture are beautiful architectural pieces that are so magnificent you will easily splurge on for the international delivery back home.
Pashminas and scarves are a popular option for tourists, just always remember to check the quality of the products before you buy anything, as a lot of fabrics are mass produced. In all places in India, there will either be a bazaar or an eager man wanting to take you to his friends shop- although be careful of this as you will end up paying 40% of his commission on top of the original price, even if it is a stranger who sees you entering a shop and decides to make a beeline before you to make a quick buck! Remember that shop keepers see their shops as their lifeline and their income, taking out products to show you as their duty, so always barter with a smile, any other way shop sellers may find your attitude offensive to their products.
Helpful hint: Some shopkeepers see certain nationalities as wealthier than others, British, American, Canadian and Australian especially, so I chose to adopt a Slovenian nationality (they know of eastern europeans to be tough bargainers) and hilarious fake accent, to get a certified discount, which worked for me so feel free to do so!
India is always in the news. Whether it be for human rights, health care, sex trafficking, child labour, corruption, gender inequality or rape- we hear very little positive news about India. When any friends, family or even strangers hear of your wish to go to India, their immediate reactions are of fear for your safety. As a young white blonde haired women, my safety throughout India has been the first and foremost important thing throughout. Attracting a lot of attention because of my alien looks, means that I have had to deal with unwanted attention on a daily basis. Because of the repressed males and uneducated behaviour around women, society is off balance. Men feel at times, that they have the “right” to treat woman as a commodity, touching them inappropriately.
Being assaulted 4 times, followed home 3 times and being propositioned more than once, I feel like a target to the lewd stares and comments continuously. Someone with a weaker stature would have left earlier, but that doesn’t help the situation. Unfortunately, all Indian men think western women are whores, (that’s the honest truth), so thanking compliments and ignoring assaults is the worst thing you could do. Men here have very little respect and restraint if you say you are married (and wear a ring), if he is not present with you, then it is not real. Therefore, sticking up for yourself is the best option. Being fierce, feisty and a feminist (the triple 3), meant I had no problem slapping men, telling men they can’t sit next to me, or even to tell men who decide to sit underneath my berth in an entirely empty carriage to move.
But future travellers, try not to flirt for discounts, or adopt in any other similar attitudes, this will give them the wrong impression towards foreign women, and will hinder our safety on the whole, a lot more. If possible, try travel India with a man, or a large group of women. Never walk alone at night, down alleyways in the day, don’t talk to strange men, as answering questions is seen as a turn on, travel in ladies carriages, certified taxis and upper berths. A lot of this advice is obvious, however at times you may just think someone is a lot more honest then they seem. Whilst giving this advice it is hard not for yourself to turn into a negative cynic, just be cautious with your friendliness.
Although I have spoken about the safety of women, foreign men get propositioned as well, so the same guidelines go to you. And remember, his idea of a “friend” may be very different to yours. As well as this, drugging and robbing is quite common. I have heard many stories of strangers spiking foreigners on the train, so when taking food off strangers, make sure you have sussed them out as people, or politely decline to avoid the situation altogether. Always have your valuables locked away (either hidden on yourself or in a locker with your own lock in the hostel), padlocks on backpacks and rucksacks, wallets in front pockets and phones out of pockets. When sleeping on transport, sleep with your bag tightly wrapped around you, you never know who might be watching you.
At times, I feel this continuous physical and mental awareness for my own safety was exhausting and had put a downer on my trip. Belongings are replaceable but the continuous misogynist and sexist behaviour you have to face daily is disheartening – in this situation, think of the positive moments you have had in India to lift your mood.
Indians adore the cinema. For many it offers escapism, the ability to delve into a glamorous life filled with beautiful women, beautiful lives and beautiful men. The Bollywood Cinema is a multi million dollar industry and is a vital entertainment for many. A must do is to visit the cinema and see a Bollywood film in Hindi, the musical songs, the over dramatic characterisation and acting skills, as well as the audience’s ever-changing and loud reaction is hilarious and will keep yourself entertained.
Indians adore music, (playing in the street for wedding processions, on their phone or in transport vehicles) and Indian music is very unique. Mixtures of Hindi and English conjoined with obscure beats, make this style and when listening to it, many burst into song or dance. There are opportunities to see traditional dance of Kathakali, a short version of the original, which immerses history and culture into dance.
Festivals are in abundance in India. Every day there is a various celebration for something. Conjoining your trip with a festival would be ideal as they are an explosion of music, dance, rhythm, colour and life. Each festival is celebrated for various reasons and mean different things, so a little research beforehand wouldn’t go amiss. The two main festivals in India and are widely celebrated are Diwali, the festival of lights and Holi, the festival of colour.
I was in Mathura for Holi, one of the best places for the festival because of it’s huge religious significance. However, we found the place to be aggressive and violent. Stepping outside the hotel, immediately we were swarmed by a group of Indian men, very enthusiastic about Holi- giving us paint and dancing joyfully. They asked for pictures and we happily obliged, until some men arrived who weren’t covered with paint and began to target us and repeatedly assault us. These type of people use Holi as an excuse to grope, cheat and rob, to take advantage of tourists who want to celebrate. Friends told me of being covered by cement in Pushkar, a bag hidden over her head and being groped whilst her boyfriend was harassed, or in Varanasi where friends were asked to be taken pictures with and whilst posing, men searched into the depths of their pockets for wallets. Unfortunately, these types of people ruin the experience for everyone and so, make festivals unsafe. If you can, find an area that is exclusive to tourists and celebrate there. Other good festivals are: The Desert Festival in Jaisalmer, Yoga Festival in Rishikesh and the food festival in Goa.
I hope these tips have helped you prepare for your trip to India, and although nervous- if you are cautious and wise with what you do, you should be just fine.
Amritsar is unlike any northern town I have been to. It is not filled with lush greenery but rather dry, with blowing dust, sand, dirt and rubbish that gets into every crevice on your face. The place reminded me of a desert town, but with no desert. Maybe because of its neighbouring country, Pakistan, it shares similar characteristics to the country. The main section of the city is an old town, although ironically filled with the latest phone shops, technological advances and flashy sunglasses.
Here, the religion is predominately Sikh because of the presence of the fine sight, The Golden Temple. The Golden Temple is magnificent and by far the nicest temple I have ever seen- nicer than Angkor Wat and the Palaces in Bangkok. Here, there are four entrances with no doors to emphasize that all people are welcome, no matter what religion, race or sexuality you are. Water from the holy lake that centers the temple is constantly chucked on to the glistening marble floor by the help of fellow Sikh followers, causing many who visit to slip and slide, but also keeping the grounds pristine. The Golden Temple shimmers its reflection onto the glossy waters and its marvellous domes and ornate designs creates it to be an awe inspiring sight. Thousands flock here every year to step inside the temple, to see the tombs of their beloved martyrs, whilst musicians constantly play, praising their moral righteousness. This mode of music and human interaction makes this temple and religion, much more personal to all those who visit.
There is a kitchen situated through one of the main entrances in a hall, where thousands come every day to eat at. It is the most fed soup kitchen in the world, with large numbers of Sikh people helping to peel potatoes and wash dishes all in the name of charity. The food is simple yet delicious; chapati made by a chapati machine (no way could they be hand made), yellow dal, potatoes and a sweet milky dal. Bowls of chai are also served. However, the quality of the food is not an essential part, as it is mass produced for thousands, rather the act of sitting down with others as en equal, eating the same food at the same level promotes equal humanity, charity and compassion- which is what Sikhs are all about.
A short walk away from this is the Jallian Wala Bagh memorial. Here a park is created from where a massacre happened by a British general, who told his solider to open fire on a number of non violent innocent people. The history is harrowing and walking around the sunny well kept park makes the experience more sobering. It reminded me of the killing fields in Cambodia-the juxtaposition of beauty with horrific pain. Make sure you go into the hall to read first hand accounts, the widows testimonial really paints an accurate picture.
A trip to the Waga border is a must when visiting Amritsar. A safe space on one of the most dangerous borders in the world- where the countries of India and Pakistan merge, here locals push aside their resentment, for a ceremony between the two groups of guards. It is a cultural march off. Guards doing similar but different stylised marches against each other and call to attention. The Indian stand is colourful, brash and patriotic with large crowds jostling for glory and beckoning with excitement. Whilst the stands in Pakistan are empty and quiet, tame compared to the rowdy side of India. It is highly entertaining and you are able to buy snacks such popcorn or fruit to bring with you, (as if at the cinema). The experience is “second to none”.
The hostel I stayed at organizes a full day tour here, which is a great day out and includes a visit to Lal Mata Mander Temple. A temple dedicated to a woman who received the powers of a certain god enabling her to do various acts of charity. The temple itself is incredibly trippy, as if something from The Mighty Boosh, (I half expected Noel Fielding to pop out at one point), you go through tunnels and a cows belly. Bring with you an open mind and be prepared to get your feet wet.
The hostel we stayed at was Jugavdus Eco hostel and really is the only place you should stay in Amritsar. A ten minute walk from The Golden Temple, it is a hostel with a friendly backpacker vibe with a kitchen constantly sharing food and chai, washing facilities, the biggest bunk beds I have ever seen, a rooftop terrace and informative helpful staff. The hostel is filled with quirky paintings and inspirational quotes painted by backpackers which you are welcome to spend an afternoon doing.
Make sure you eat at the delicious street food stall across the road: Nikhil (nowhere else as other backpackers got food poisoning from the other places). Here, father and son run the establishment cooking tasty soyabean with curry sauce, (otherwise known as gravy), and mushroom tandoori kebabs that are mixed in with milk sauce and spices. An mouthwatering dish. I also recommend the oldest restaurant in Amritsar: Hesar Da Dhaba for its delicious Malai Kofta, Beera Chicken for its mutton filled nan, (a strange combination as if pizza like) and I had my first ever Lassi at Gran Di Lassi– which was like having yoghurt in cup with butter on top. I’m not sure if that is what it was supposed to taste like, either way it was refreshing (although sickly after too much).
During our stay in Amrtisar, we crossed paths with a Wedding parade that was dancing through town. Catching our quizzed faces and amused expressions, they invited us to join in.