Few places in the world are as stunningly beautiful, exotic, and mysterious, yet as misunderstood as India. And even though it is common nowadays to say “blame the media”, well, I blame the media. So often, when people photograph India, they show you one side of the country: the picture of the sad but beautiful child, the very wrinkly old person who has such beauty and depth in his or her eyes, grimy streets juxtaposed with a woman in a colorful sari walking past, etc. People get this perception of India that it is all poverty and grime, and while there certainly are large elements of this, India is so much more than that. On past trips to India, I started hashtagging many of my photos #TheOtherSideOfIndia to show people the complexity of the country.
For instance, arguably the most beautiful, luxurious hotels in the world can be found in India. On our Zoom Vacations tour to India, we stay in the most beautiful rooms imaginable in hotels that were former palaces. Every detail is perfection, and you are absolutely treated like a maharaja, where almost anything you could possibly want, you can have. On a recent tour of India, I called my guests in their rooms after checking in to see how they were doing, and I will never forget one of my travelers responding to me, “oh, I am just walking around my room looking at all the incredible details.” When you walk into these palaces you are immediately met with friendly people, intoxicating perfume scents, and grandeur.
At one of our palace hotels, the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, when you arrive at the hotel, men banging drums walk down the palace steps to greet you with much pomp and circumstance. As you proceed up the steps a woman greets you with a marigold reef, which she places around your head. Another woman puts a red dot on your forehead as a blessing, and as you proceed through the entrance you feel red petals falling on you. You look up to notice a man on a balcony of the palace with a basket of red rose petals, casting them down upon you. Once inside the palace, you are offered a glass of champagne as you continue through to the rotunda lobby where six women emerge with gorgeous local dresses, and perform a special whirling dance. All of this is done just for your arrival. When I say that you’re treated as a maharaja, I’m not kidding.
And this is just an example at one of the palaces. There is of course the Lake Palace in Udaipur (Octopussy’s residence in the James Bond movie) where you actually get to arrive at the hotel via boat. The white marble palace steps descend into the water and disappear. When we visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, our hotel is situated in such a way that every single guest room has a picture-perfect view of the Taj Mahal.
The architecture, the exquisite details, and the luxury is very impressive at all of the properties we use, but one of the things that I miss most when I’m home is the fragrances of our hotels. Notes of jasmine, gardenia, and orange blossom mingle in harmony to greet you as you enter the hotels. I always buy essential oils when I am in India, but I can never quite match the exquisite scents that the beautiful hotels are able to capture. You just have to go there to experience it.
The only thing that really rivals the gorgeous floral notes is the aroma of food wafting out of the kitchens. If you like Indian food, you’ll of course have the best Indian food of your life. However, even if you don’t like Indian food, India has such a diverse culinary scene, offering Italian, French, American bistro, and more. In fact, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in the world is a little Italian place in Delhi, India. However, I do happen to love Indian food, and so I really immerse myself in it when I am traveling to India.
The other thing I immerse myself in quite honestly while I am in India is shopping. Several of the top fashion houses from Paris have production outlets in India, and you can buy things at a fraction of the cost. Truly some of the most beautiful things in my home are things that I have purchased on my travels in India, such as silk and cashmere blankets and beautifully carved marble bowls. Oh, and I had to practically join a 12-step program to stop myself from buying any more beautiful pillowcases.
In terms of sightseeing, there is just so much to see and do in India. If you are a history buff, then you’ll be absolutely captivated by India’s history and the various people who have sought to control this part of the world. There are magnificent fortresses, charming villages, stunningly beautiful gardens, modern architecture, art and structures wrapped in antiquity, and intricate art and design throughout. Every time I go to India, I return feeling inspired.
Although this is happening less and less as the Internet and social media are helping to tell a broader story of India, I find it interesting when I inform people that I am going to India, and they ask “why would you want to go there?” I usually respond with “why wouldn’t I? ” and I am hit back with the one side of India that traditional media likes to promote, “it’s so dirty and I don’t want to see the poverty”.
The truth is, when you go to India, you probably will see some poverty and you probably will see some grime. The other truth is that I could certainly take you to India, and easily shield your eyes from all of that. But that isn’t what my travelers usually want. They want to see the real India, and that means seeing all of its sides. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that even if you see occasional poverty, grit, or roughness, you just don’t get consumed by it.
During our tour of India, we stay in luxurious palaces and some of the beautiful most beautiful hotels in the world. That being said, we also visit the ancient town of Varanasi. Varanasi has all the grime and all the grit, juxtaposed with incredible beauty and spirituality. It is also for most of my travelers the most interesting or favorite part of the trip. It is this arena of contrasts that traditional photographers have successfully captured about India. And I think that since people find these contrasts so interesting, photographers have made it their focus. It just leaves out so much of the other components that are equally India, and that make the country so special.
Many people are surprised by my stories and photos from India. While posting on social media, followers will often write me that they didn’t know that India had such things as I was posting, such as images of exquisite palaces, dazzling architecture, and scenery that is arguably more beautiful than most other places in the world. A picture speaks 1000 words, but India is a novel.