Submit to India
Submit to India. Cast your Western expectations aside. India is a present waiting to be unwrapped. The wrapping is a week old newspaper, leaving black ink on your fingers, but the present underneath is spectacular. It will challenge your senses out of their complacency. Look beyond the litter, dirt, grime, and you will see pleasant smiles, vibrant textiles, and beauty around every corner. Smell beyond the burned wood, and you will inhale flowers, burning incense, and subtle candles. There are surprises everywhere, almost sensory overload. Colorful string hangs from the mirror of a scrap truck. A brightly hued Sari on a woman hanging out under a dusty overpass. Even a cow sitting in the middle of a two-lane highway. The truth is it may take an outsider to truly appreciate these realities, where the five senses don't take the extraordinary for granted. Submit to India … I did!
Falling in Love, Understanding Cultural Nuance
Shantaram translates to Man of Peace and is a story of someone who learns to find inner peace despite outer turmoil. I find the best way to learn the nuances of a country’s culture is to read its literature. This book represents a version of the truth about India that can only be revealed by an outsider. Writer Gregory David Roberts has weaved some autobiographical details (he was a convicted felon and escaped from prison) into his epic novel full of complex characters and choice wisdom. It is a love story with India and its people. I am surprised HBO has not made a series of it a la Game of Thrones (rumblings though that Apple bought the rights). It is the perfect introduction to India (though quite long) if you are planning on traveling there, and thank you fellow Louper Amy A. for the stellar recommendations and introductions throughout!
Traveling is substantially improved when you have access to locals who can show you the ropes and allow you to delve organically into the culture. India, like many countries around the world, draws visitors who end up never wanting to leave, thus becoming locals themselves. We were fortunate to make the acquaintance of Olivia and Rikki Dar through a mutual friend. They are both expats who live and work in fashion in New Delhi, Olivia from Paris and Rikki from London.
5A, 1st floor, Dada Jungi House Lane, Shahpur Jat, Siri Fort, New Delhi, New Delhi, Delhi 110049, India
I appreciate fashion that is unique, well-made, and fits well. I am turned off by identifying labels for the sake of identifying labels. Therefore, the most attractive items are those that are one of a kind pieces. I am not talking about runway fashion that is horribly expensive and impractical, rather items that are crafted and can't be easily (mass) reproduced. Well, Olivia Dar is doing precisely that as she operates an atelier in New Delhi where she has assembled exquisitely talented embroiderers using centuries-old techniques to create and refurbish necklaces, jackets, and shirts. We visited her studio and purchased some items that I guarantee you won't see anywhere else. You can find some of her unique handcrafted items in boutiques in the US, and when you do, you will feel the touch of India.
Kardo is a label founded by Rikki Dar who we met in New Delhi. It is a men’s fashion label with an Indian design aesthetic and a worldly view of the process. He has adopted “Slow Fashion” as his process mantra, and it is the reverse of mass manufacturing. He is keenly interested not just from where the item is sourced, but also who made it and under what conditions. In fact, each item has a label that describes who in his small studio cut, stitched, and finished the clothing. Compare that to Made in Vietnam! The textiles are super soft, and the clothes fit well and look great. Hard to find but worth looking for!
The Lodhi, Lodhi Rd, CGO Complex, Pragati Vihar, New Delhi, Delhi 110003, India
Before Westerners travel to India, the fear of God will be instilled in them by friends who have experienced "Delhi Belly." It seems that the water is treated (if at all) with certain chemicals that your sensitive Western stomach just can't tolerate. Therefore, you are compelled to eat exclusively at hotels. This is an unfortunate fact of traveling with children and an overly cautious wife! Nonetheless, if you travel to Delhi, you will be compelled to go to Indian Accent. It is critically acclaimed and world-renowned. The food is a modern take on traditional Indian cuisine acknowledging "openness towards global techniques and influences." The flavors are complicated and please the palette. The setting in the Lohdi Hotel (formerly an Aman Hotel) is quite stunning. Just go there and experience for yourself! For the record, I came home without Delhi Belly only to have my fragile system upset by my first meal, Mexican food on the Upper East Side! Oh, and if life gets in the way of your getting to India anytime soon, check out the NY outpost of this acclaimed restaurant called ... Indian Accent!
The Oberoi Amarvilas
Taj East Gate Rd, Paktola, Tajganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282001, India
The Taj Majal is a sight to behold. Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife, it may be the biggest testament to one's love and devotion, (and/or the squandering of resources). Either way, you have seen the pictures thousands of times. Nonetheless, there is something magical about this monument. I am having a difficult time putting my finger directly on it, although I took a picture with my finger directly on it. It is a beacon in the distance and seeing it in person is a thrill. Many people drive in quickly from Delhi, take a picture & tour, and are on their way. I recommend spending more time with this majestic Wonder of the World. Stay at The Oberoi Amarvilas and take in the view from afar, even swim at their incredible pool, and then go in the early morning hours. To simply check it off your list is a mistake; time spent marveling at this wonder is well worth it. Not to mention, here you'll find a lovely, perhaps the loveliest, room with the ultimate view.
Sherpur, Khiljipur, Near Ranthambore National Park, Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan 322001, India
Aman might be the best aggregation of luxury hotel properties, and this is no exception. We ventured to Ranthambore to see the Tigers no doubt, but we stayed for the elegance, comfort, and grace of the Aman there. The Aman gives glamping a new definition as the tents are well-appointed, comfortable, and stylish and come with the most on-point service, your very own "Batman" who helps with anything you could possibly need. Sadly, we only saw a tiger from afar (photo credit to someone we met in another vehicle who AirDropped it to us). Nonetheless, we searched and searched for said tigers 3 times, 3 hours a clip ... on rocky, difficult to navigate terrain. This process is essential India. It slowly reveals itself. It is about not being impatient and being part of the process. It requires time and effort, as nothing comes easy there. This is no African Safari where you know where the animals are, and they are plentiful. Here, the guides are using their acute senses to find tigers. The monkeys warning calls, the paw prints in the dust all are clues that initiate you into the art of looking for tigers. After a hard drive (literally, my back/neck was killing), you are rewarded by returning to the Aman campsite, your very own paradise.
The Gem Palace
Shop No. 348, MI Road, Jayanti Market, New Colony, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302001, India
You can't go to Jaipur and not visit The Gem Palace. It is on everyone's "list." By their admission (and marketing), they have created heirlooms for emperors, kings, queens, presidents, and film stars and continues to cater to the traditional and contemporary needs of jewelry buyers from across the globe. Jewelers for over eight generations, the Kasliwals even have the distinction of being court jewelers to Moghul emperors. To be clear, I am no lover of (buying) jewelry or precious stones, but I appreciate beautiful craftsmanship. And to be truthful, the Gem Palace (ground floor) is somewhat of a tourist trap selling designs from all over the country. But, there is a secret. On the second floor is the atelier of Siddharth Kasliwal, the 33-year-old youngest son of Munnu, who apparently had some disagreements with the children who operate the ground floor tourist trap. Upon entering the second floor, you will learn what Indian Jewelry is all about. Designed by Marie-Anne Oudejans (of Bar Palladio fame and another must), this place resembles a jewel box. Tented with hot pink painted walls and brilliantly crafted display cases, you can discover amazing works of art. Browse through the drawers and find something that suits your tastes. There are many examples from his father's collection that will blow your mind: astoundingly large gems, boxes with hidden jewels inside, gems on the underside of rings. Siddharth will let you try them on, and you can conjure back the days of the Maharajas. The quality and artistry are on full display, and this is authentic India at its best.
Pichola, Udaipur, Rajasthan 313001, India
Udaipur is about the strength of conviction as it is a city that has the second longest continuous rule. They likely kept their independence by being fierce outsiders, never quite bowing, trusting, or creating treaties with outsiders (Mughals or Brits alike). This is a non-essential stop if you have limited time but worth reflecting upon. It has a decidedly desert feel which makes the evenings sexy and romantic, particularly with the (man-made) lakes and prodigious well-lit forts. One of the best options for taking this view is the Bhairo on the roof of the Taj Lake Palace Hotel. The menu is European with some Indian highlights, and the food is excellent. As I sat taking in the view of the palace, the fort, and the city of Jaipur, I can honestly the ambiance and view were among the best of my life (thus far).
Check your Western ways at Passport Control, submit to India, and consider The Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur) as well as Ranthambore and Udaipur Found!