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Chan Cham Perou

India  —  For quite a while, as food for my soul thanks to its culture and architecture as well as for its contemplation and meditation sites, I have chosen India as a place to stay and travel for at least one month a year, sometimes more. As a matter of fact, I twice spent 5 months touring with a theater company through the country, and up to 7 months just roaming. I was always as a frugal traveler, enjoying comfort, cleanliness and excellent food, since I always succeeded in unearthing small, hearty and tasty jewels. 

All the states of India boast wonderful assets, some blazing and others more discreet, even some well-hidden ones. It is with an immense pleasure that I share my favorites with EUPHORIA’s readers: Rajasthan, Haimachal Pradesh, Delhi region, the Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, as well as cities and sites I love to visit and revisit. I am nonetheless keeping a little secret to myself: my favorite meditation spot (you will most likely do the same to preserve your own privacy once you have chosen and experienced yours).

Meditation : a well-earned reputation  

It’s no wonder meditation centers, with or without yoga, are found in great numbers in India. The country is after all the cradle of this philosophy and practice. The word “meditation” comes from “medha” in Sanskrit, meaning wisdom.

All types of meditation are offered in various centers, in a religious or secular environment, even if the different types are all derived from the Hindu or Buddhist religions.

For example, you can practice Vedanta, Sahaja, or Vipassana, very popular among Westerners.

In general, a meditation retreat can last from one week to a few months, depending on the establishment. Food and lodging is usually provided.

Well-being is guaranteed: meditation is always aimed at developing wisdom, interior vital forces, compassion, love, patience, generosity and forgiveness in all human activities.

It is not surprising that a flow of devotees comes from all over the world to India to refocus in order to continue their way in life.

Phenomenal palaces and gardens

Here are my coups de cœur, or favorites, for contemplation:

The city of Mysore is an ancient principality, very luxurious and shining with cleanliness. It is known for its palace, a representation of the splendor of the Maharaja. Built in 1912, it is entirely illuminated on Monday nights in a magical show, mixing Rococo, Victorian and Indian styles. It should be seen when the lights are turned on: it is a true explosion of lights. Two other palaces owned by the Maharaja have been transformed into hotels.

The city of Bhopal, sadly known for one of the worst industrial disasters in the world in 1984, is now one of the greenest cities in India with huge parks, gardens and wide avenues. It houses one of the largest mosques in Asia, the Taj-ul-Masajid. Nearby, hills and two immense artificial lakes, created 500 years ago by a Mughal leader, where you can even sail, add to the green ambiance of the city.

Mandu, meaning City of Joy, is a fortress town whose buildings, such as the Jama Masjid and Hoshang Shah’s tomb that inspired the Taj Mahal, are real architectural marvels. The Jahaz Mahal and the Hindola Mahal are other notable and fabulous palaces that should be added to your visit, with many other lovely pavilions and reservoirs.

In New Delhi, The Lodhi Gardens are particularly inspiring when night falls, with their 15th century architectural works. Walking at sunset among the giant tombs accompanied by bird songs is a rather memorable experience. The Laxminarayan Temple, which constitutes a fabulous ensemble of military and religious architecture, is another landmark.

And I visited Orccha on three occasions, a lovely town surrounded by small mountains, to visit the famous Jahangir Mahal palace, built during the reign of emperor of the same name. To also see the 14 Chhatris tombs erected on the banks of the Betwa River and the Chaturbhuj, an old temple from the 9th century.

Unavoidable Delhi

The capital of India, New Delhi, officially only has 250,000 residents, but 22 million people live in its metropolitan region. Since India gained independence from England in 1947, many traditional British architectural buildings mix with the Hindu architecture. The city plan is quite interesting: a triangular form with rotaries, hedges and alleys of trees almost hiding impressive beige and pink sandstone buildings.

In the centre there is Connaught Place and Connaught Circus, where major renovations were just completed: a huge circle with twelve roads leading out in all directions and green spaces. Inspired by Piccadilly Circus in London, luxury shops, hotels and Indian branches of multinationals display their brand names.

Theater, dance, cinema …

Just like London and Broadway, New Delhi has a whole district dedicated to theater and shows near the Mandi House metro station. Indian authors' plays are staged, as well as European ones, such as Shakespeare, Brecht, Ibsen and Chekhov. Performances are in the many languages of India and in English.

A very personal recommendation: the Naya Theater, where, during two winter seasons, I played hundreds of representations of “Bhopal”, a play written by Rahul Vaarma, as well as plays by the fame author and stage director, Habib Tanvir, with whom I had the immense honor to work with and tour with through India.

Dance has a predominant place in the Indian cultural scene. Even if their origins are traditional and tribal, dances are constantly adapted and recreated. Some dances are for women or men only, but others mix performers. Themes are always joyful and celebrate life, the seasons, etc. Jewels and gold, bamboo sticks and tambours accentuate the movements, which are already very exuberant.

And what more could we say about cinema? Prolific Bollywood is quite well known. But there is more. The Indian film industry has been one of the most important in the world for quite a long time, with productions of more than one thousand movies per year. Many of them have been awarded prestigious distinctions at festivals, such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice. One night at the cinema still brings a smile to my face: we were offered somosas and tea at the intermission and to my great bewilderment, when the lights were turned on at the end of the movie, a high stucco roof was unveiled, like a giant meringue!

The best references for all events and cultural festivals are Time Out Delhi or First City magazines in paper or on the Web.

Visual arts: modern or ancient

India is full of sculpted caves and rock-cut architecture, such as those at Aihole, Ellora, Salsette, Elephanta, Aurangabad, Mamallapuram and Ajanta.

Also quite spectacular are the frescoes painted on cave walls at Bagh and Sittanavasal.

The traditional and tribal handicrafts, with religious, philosophical and historical representations, are mostly expressed in pottery, paper art, weaving, jewelry, toys and in the Dhokra Art (a metal moulding technique).

The contemporary art of the 19th and 20th centuries is not at a loss. It is particularly well featured at the India Habitat, with its theaters, art galleries, movie club, architecture discovery tours and other activities, most of the time offered for free.

The National Gallery of Modern Art is another Mecca for art, as well as the many independent art galleries of the Mandi House and at Nature morte, in the Neeti Bagh district.

Colors everywhere

Regenerated by meditation and contemplative walks, I love to wander among the colorful crowd in the multicolored bazaars.

Especially the Paharganj, in the center of Delhi, which is still a meeting place for young and old hippies. It has become an important center for imports and exports, and bookstores with a great selection of English used books and small shops.

I love the street barbers who, for $2, will sculpt a new hairdo with a back massage en prime, and tailors who can deliver a made to measure shirt or pants in two days for as little as $15.

Colorful and gold saris leave us in awe, as well as the numerous hand, feet, head, belly, ear and arm jewelry…

I think the richest colors are found on the fabric called Ikat, tainted before weaving, used to cover rich cushions and sofas. The Khan Market carries quite a good variety of them in South Delhi, as well as the boutiques on State Emporia Street, near Connaught Place.

Invading hospitality…

Is it easy to make Indian friends? Let’s say, with a smile, that it is almost too easy. At first, Indians are rather timid. But as soon as you talk to them, with a smile, even in the metro, they are ready to adopt you, invite you to their home, and stuff you with delicious food. And mostly, they will endlessly ask you questions about everything…

How could you resist?

In New Delhi, on Main Bazaar Road, in the Paharganj district, 50 meters from the train station, 12 km from the airport and 1 km from Connaught Place, I defy you to resist to the invitation of a hotel named “Cottage Yes Please”?

With its 45 lovely rooms, clean and air conditioned, with Wi-Fi, a restaurant cooking different types of cuisine, it also offers 24 hour in-room service and a sharp concierge to provide advice and make a reservation for you: it is my first choice in the city. Especially when I am offered a room with a view on two sides to fill my mood with sunlight. And I only have to pay $20 per night…!

I have no regrets for not staying at the 5-star Imperial Hotel. But if your wallet is thicker than mine, it is an elegant “British Style” experience to have. If not, you can always admire the chic and wealthy when taking a coffee or a tea in the luxurious garden or at the pool with its giant palm trees, where you can spend the day (for a fee) without being a client of the hotel.
In between those two extremes in prices, good quality hotels can easily be found for around $40 per night.

Hot and smooth

India is a paradise for the vegetarian in me. On the street, as well as in restaurants, spices and smoothness are harmonized in dishes that can be counted by the hundreds.

My favorite restaurants are Malhotra, facing Cottage Yes Please and the Rajdhani serving Gujarati cuisine. But there are so many other excellent ones where you will find quality as well as quantity for as little as $2 to $4 for a meal. Large hotel restaurants, also open to non-clients, will offer you the same for a little more.

Some dishes make my mouth watery just by remembering them: Chapatti (thin leaves of millet bread), koftas (potato balls with green banana cream), dosa pancakes, and dokhla - sort of spongy squares.

Street food is everywhere in India. And some precautions should be taken to avoid bad gastric experiences: make sure vegetables are kept away from the sun and cooked in front of you on the grill or in oil. Never eat food already cooked and left under the sun or the heat. And I would not recommend eating meat or fish cooked on the street.

Water: beware…

Since water is not potable, take extreme precautions with ice cubes, lettuce and vegetables and fruit peels.

And this even extends to personal hygiene:  teeth and contact lenses cleaning.

Sealed bottled water is a MUST.

Train: the options

Trains should be favored as a transportation mode, throughout the whole country, for a short or a long trip, in 1st or 2nd class. It is affordable. I once spent 40 hours on a train, sharing three superposed berths with other actors on tour. Something I would not recommend to someone in need of a minimum of comfort though…

For short itineraries, rickshaws are always a good choice for strangers. It is advisable to inquire about the price beforehand or at least to firmly negotiate with the driver before stepping into the rickshaw.

In Delhi, with infernal city traffic, the new metro inaugurated five years ago is a real blessing. It drives you quickly through this vast city-region and contributes in reducing pollution – allowing us to sometimes see a piece of blue sky.

Shining sun with heat and cold

The best time to visit India depends on everyone’s tolerance to heat. Almost everywhere in the country, throughout the year, temperature variations are important: between 0 to 47 degrees Celsius, depending on the time of the year.

Summer – April to June – brings torrid heat, making you feel like you are hitting a wall that prevents you from moving forward. And dust could be a problem for some.

However, if you choose to be there in August, you should not miss the Independence Day Celebrations (August 15) when citizens fly kites to show their happiness and pride.

Winter (November to March) is of course cooler and one has to dress so as to have different alternatives as the day goes on. In February, there may even be an impressive hailstorm.

In the monsoon season (July to October), the temperature is milder, but the rain is of course present. Which explains the sidewalks that are high over the streets as protection against overflowing.

To read

- “Malgudi Days,” from R.K. Narayan

- “City of Djinns,” on New Delhi, from William Dalrymple

Slowly coming back

It is true that a trip to India leaves after-effects – for me, always positive – in the sense that cultural differences and time differences with the West call for a transition period before going back to our daily lives and day-to-day obligations.

After a stay in India, I usually stop for a week in London, U.K., which helps feed me with more culture, at another rhythm, before coming home.

David Francis
With the cooperation of Sylvie Berthiaume

www.incredibleindia.org
www.timeoutdelhi.net
www.firstcitydelhi.com
www.indiahabitat.org
www.cottageyesplease.com


Palace in Mysore

Palace transformed into a hotel

Bhopal

Hoshang Shah tomb

New Delhi

 Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi

Orccha

Dance

Sculpted cave in Aihole

City mural  

Contemporary art

 India Habitat Cultural Centre in Delhi

Street barber

 Ikat fabrick

Cottage Yes Please

Dosa pancake

Street food

Rickshaw and mini-taxi

New metro in Delhi

 

 



  

 

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