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My first contact with India was over 70 years ago when, as a 14 years old schoolboy, I was evacuated with hundreds of others to join our parents working in India, Calcutta in our case, the Raj capital until 1912. A committee of 'Burra Sahibs' rapidly formed a war-time school to cope with this influx, naed the New School, Calcutta and Darjeeling, aka Harrow on the Hoogly.
We soon settled into the carefree and indeed privileged life of children of the Raj, little anticipating it's demise within 7 years. One of the highlights of that life was the journey up to Darjeeling in the so-called Toy Train, for the long term during the summer monsoon. Built by British Victorian engineers with Indian labour, it has become one of India's several World Heritage sites, featured in the recent BBC TV series on Indian Hill Railways, that showed not only the majesty of the Himalayan foothills, but also the dedication amounting to a passion of the India and Anglo-Indian staff.
But there is no doubt that we Brits were a separate class above the Indian caste system, with no real interface with Indian as equals. Our servants spoiled us rotten, and many ayah taught her 'chota bucha' to speak Hindi or Tamil before their real mothers taught them English.
It is a truism to say that nothing really prepares the first time visitor for their arrival in India. The combination of the teeming crowds, the bright sunlight, the swirling colours, the smells, the amiable cows wandering at will through all of this and, last but not least the traffic, all combine to assault the senses. There is no country out of the 79 that I have visited that generates such a buzz. First time visitors are often encourages to take the Golden Triangle route of Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur-Sikri and Jaipur. It may be 'instant India' but it's not the real Hindu India.
At the end of its nine lives Delhi was constructed by the Mughals and the British, who were warned that all previous invaders, who made Delhi their capital, were turfed out! Agra, with its iconic Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, as well as Fatehpur are pure Mughal. Only the pink city of Jaipur, on the last leg of the triangle, home of one of the proud and ultra colourful Rajput clans, is truly Hindu. Like the German princes, who provided rulers for a variety of other European countries including ours, the Rajputs spread themselves and their forts far and wide from the princely state of 'Old Rajpootana'.
A more representative visit, and one recommended recently by TransIndus to friends of ours, began at Delhi before heading south-east to Varanasi, the holiest city in India, home of Mother Ganga and Benares silks. From there it is but a short flight to Khajaraho, the site of the famous Hindu temples with their erotic carvings (to western eyes), another iconic complex that has been voted a World Heritage site. Built during the tenth and eleventh centuries, they disappeared under cover of dense forests during the rule of sultans, before being rediscovered by a British engineer T.S. Burt in 1838. From near Khajaraho one takes the train to Agra to rejoin the Golden Triangle.
But a journey to north India is incomplete without a visit to Amritsar, the centre of the egalitarian Sikh sect founded by Guru Nanak in rejection of both the Hindu caste system and enforced Islamisation. Their most famous gurdwara, the Golden Temple, is like a giant wedding cake, whose glistening white walls surround the lake in the centre of which is set the golden core for worshippers. Up to 60,000 people are estimated to visit daily, and huge kitchens dispense free food to all and sundry.
But there is another very different and more easy going Dravidian India south from Karnataka to Cape Comorin, with its distinctive languages, Tamil, Telegu and Kannada among others.Long before the invaders came to India there were magnificent Hindu kingdoms belonging to the Cholas and Hoysalas, yielding sites like the haunting sixteenth century ruins of Hampi, to the riotous decoration on the Meenakshi temple at Madurai. But TransIndus are very good at balancing temple visits with relaxing side steps, such as to ex-colonial hill stations like 'Snooty Ooty', where some British subalterns invented snooker in the club. From Madurai a two day car drive takes one across the hillside tea gardens and spice plantations of Kerala, to a languorous journey in an old converted rice boat on the Backwaters, where all village life lines the banks. Finally, it's time to collapse onto one of Kerala's famed beaches.
But how best to travel in India? For first timers the comforting embrace of a group is probably best. But once you have found your feet, you can't beat individual travel, with your own vehicle and immaculate driver, individual guides at each destination, the chance to meet Indian people en route and answer their innumerable questions ('where do you come from, and how old are you?'), and begin to appreciate their enviable way of family life. Just go with the flow, and the two words 'teek hai?' will provide you with an almost universal introduction.
Tony Orchard travelled with TransIndus in 2011 and is the author of 'Here's to Our Far-flung Empire: An Account of a Colonial Upbringing'.