“Did you go to Taj Mahal?” This is one of the inevitable questions I hear when I tell someone I went to India.
The gleaming white architecture is a ‘must see’ on everyone’s wish list. However, I visited the Taj on my recent Classic Rajasthan trip, but it lags far back in my memory when I think of the most memorable moments I experienced in Rajasthan. If you simply focus on the Taj Mahal, then you are missing out on the best of India.
Deep, cultural experiences will always win out over bucket-list items for me, and I don’t think I’m alone in that thinking. My best memories of Rajasthan are of local interactions and unique experiences. Here are seven particularly memorable ones.
Taking the local train
Up to this point we had taken a few trains in First Class Air Conditioned to ease us into the India train process, but this early morning we were getting on the Sleeper Car Class where there are no seats, no air conditioning, and no reservations. I was excited and a bit intimidated as the monkeys scattered and the train lumbered into the station. By taking the Sleeper Car Class we were taking a deep dive into the culture of train travel in India.
As we hurried onto the train, I was surprised it wasn’t as crowded as I expected. We were traveling in the early morning hours, which likely helped. The carriages are divided into open-plan compartments with six beds in each that are used as benches to sit on during the day.
My niece and I found a bench to sit on as we stored our bags in some spare space above us. She fit right in as she dozed off in an uncomfortable position like the rest of the locals, while I enjoyed just sitting with my hair blowing in the breeze of the open window. I soaked it all in; smiling at the woman across from me, watching the vendors come by, seeing locals rush to get on at a little stop in the middle of nowhere.
Being a part of this slice of Indian life and culture was a highlight for me, and the 3 hours flew by. Before I knew it the train was pulling away from our group on the platform and we were on to our next location.
I looked at the piping hot samosas, the line of locals waiting for them, and knew this was going to be delicious. “For the first few days I chose restaurants to get your stomachs used to India, but today if you’d like to taste the street food on this walk you can,” our leader, Mohsin, explained as we stood in front of the food stall in Jaipur.
I love to explore a country through it’s street food, so this was my chance to do it in a somewhat safe way. Of course there is never any guarantee you won’t get sick, but the thought of eating Indian street food felt a little naughty and exciting to me! I followed Mohsin’s advice on his carefully chosen street vendors and as I bit into the steaming samosa, I felt as if the training wheels had come off my bike and I was experiencing the real India now!
We ate fried treats, tried the local candy, had piping hot samosas, enjoyed a lassie from the oldest vendor in town, and watched a chai wallah (tea maker) make the best Masala Chai I’ve ever had.
Rural village walk in Madhogarh
Human connection is the heart of travel for me. When I went out walking in the small, village of Madhogarh I was excited to get closer to the people and rural culture of India. A village elder accompanied us on our walk as we just meandered around the little town pointing things out, and making sure everyone was respectful on both sides. We were able to see how the villagers lived, worked, and farmed.
An Indian woman in a colorful dress walked by and smiled at me as she carefully balanced a brass pot of water on her head. There is no plumbing in these villages so the women gather water daily at the central well. We watched as people worshipped at a temple, surround a truck to get produce for their night’s meal, and get their hair cut at the local barber.
We were able to get up close to day-to-day life. But it wasn’t us just observing them, the locals were just as excited to see and interact with us. We had waves, pictures, singing, dancing, and kids speaking their English homework to us. It was a beautiful, memorable exchange that makes for the best moments of travel.
Stepwells in Bundi
You’ll visit plenty of well-known palaces and forts in the big cities in Rajasthan transporting you back to a life of decadence and royalty. However, my favorite architecture in Rajasthan were the surprising stepwells found throughout Bundi. They were used as gathering places for locals to fill water since there was no running water available. Often built by the royal families, the builders dug deep into the ground to find year around useable groundwater. The walls were lined with stones and stairs leading down to the water source where locals could easily fill their pots for their daily needs.
Heritage hotel stay in Bijaipur
After all of the hustle and bustle of big cities we arrived at Bijaipur Castle Heritage Hotel. This 350-year-old heritage property was unique because the ruling family still lives there. So it was less like a hotel stay and more like I was welcomed into someone’s home – or castle in this case!
Not only did I experience all of the luxuries of royal living such as massages, swims in the pool, a stroll along the castle walls, and decadent food, but we even had a henna session at the castle. I loved not just seeing, but experiencing the royal side of India’s history and culture.
Cooking class in Udaipur
The room smelled of curry, but this time instead of just eating it, I learned how to make it. I originally said yes to the hands-on cooking class so I could learn how to make delicious masala chai at home, but I also learned how easy it was to make all other essential India dishes too.
The brother/sister team of Pradeep and Depeeka had constant smiles on their face as they shared their cooking secrets on how to make the perfect Indian gravy. It was fun to see how food is such a family affair in India, and now I can take what I learned and do the same with my family at home; essentially bringing a piece of India back with me. You can’t do that with the Taj Mahal!
As I look back on my Classic Rajasthan tour with my niece, it’s not the Taj Mahal that we remembered the most, it’s experiences like these that will live on in our minds as our most memorable moments in India.
Ready for your own magical moments in Rajasthan? Check out Intrepid’s wide range of small group tours in India.
(All images taken by Sherry Ott on Intrepid’s Classic Rajasthan trip.)