Colors of India—A Unique Photography tour of North India:
New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur & Varanasi
India’s unique location blesses it with a topographical diversity that is unparalleled in the world. From an extended peninsula in the south that kisses the Indian ocean, to the majestic Himalayas in the north that creates a natural barricade from central Asia, from the Thar desert in the west to the jungles and hills of the north-east, India’s topography is second in diversity to only its people. But when we speak of India we not only speak of the land but also the unique mix of her people, their culture, food and language. It’s a treat for all your senses.
This seven-day photo tour of Northern India, commencing from New Delhi and culminating in Varanasi, essentially, brings to you the best of architecture, culinary and religious experiences from this part of the world; something which you have likely never experienced before on a single trip. It is also a great opportunity to engage in people to people interactions something that every travel photographer craves for.
When we hear the word ‘India’ it is hard not to imagine a developing world and the worn anecdotes that goes with it and your first impressions will only strengthen that notion. It’s only when you reach the end of this tour that you will begin to realize that there is more than what meets the eye. It’s a nation that’s struggling to shake off an age old identity in order to transform, yet all the while it’s trying to retain the values from its past. More aptly it is a country of diversity in every form and every sense of the word.
While diversity could very well be the theme of this unique photography tour, each participant is encouraged to capture and express the vision of India that they have through their own lens. Our destinations have been chosen to provide the maximum opportunity to capture the most vivid aspects of the country and its people. At the beginning of our trip we will have an informal meeting where we will discuss the tour, the amazing destinations that we will be traveling to, and the goals each of us have. We'll share our expectations and discuss how we can actually attain those.
Varanasi is widely considered to be the oldest city in India, having existed since mythological days with its name referred in by some of the oldest Hindu scriptures. It's dramatic setting on the banks of the river Ganga, the holiest of Indian rivers, is an unforgettable sight. No wonder this sacred city is one that every Hindu wishes to visit at least once in their life time. Our visit to Varanasi will be an eye opener for even the most widely-traveled photographer and for a portrait and street photographer, Varanasi is a dream come true.
The Taj Mahal is widely considered the symbol that identifies India. A labor of love, a mute testimony of the undying love of an emperor for his beloved queen. The Taj Mahal is the mecca of any photographer, to be able to stand there at the vaulted entrance and watching the magnificent white mausoleum become a reality before his own eyes. It’s a place that’s worth traveling 10,000 miles for.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine. A pilgrimage trip (my first) to Kedarnath, a remote hamlet in the state of Uttaranchal in India that is famous for its thousand year-old temple of Shiva, permanently changed my perception towards life. The effect was immediate. Though I still vigorously deny that I am spiritual, that trip made me realize we are all here for a purpose and that some people have the courage to spend their entire life looking for that purpose. There is something about that journey that is fascinating.
The experiences that you gain traveling and meeting such people opens your eyes towards cultures and beliefs that you never thought could exist under the same sky, and I believe there's no more varied place for this than in my native India. Photography helps me document my travels, to reminisce the moments that have gone by and most importantly, the people I have met, and will probably never meet again. My greatest joy comes from traveling this land, mingling and staying with people and experiencing life from their perspective. Travel sustains me, and I think is the source of my spirituality. I enjoy hosting photographer's from other countries to share this love I have for my own country and documenting the special places and people few other travelers bother to notice.
Photographer and traveler writer Rajib Mukherjee wears many hats, but no longer the finance and sales anymore, which he left behind for the road. A self-taught photographer, he has been shooting in digital for over a decade after started off with film.
Detailed Northern India Photography Itinerary
Day 1 | Arrive New Delhi
After arrival formalities, transfer to our hotel. Following introductions with your guide, balance of afternoon relaxing after the long journey.
Day 2 | New Delhi, Qutab Minar, Red Fort
Following breakfast, heading out to our first destination, the Qutab Minar, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The word Minar means tower and the word Qutab comes either from Qutab ud din Aibak the first Sultan of Delhi who started building this impressive five story Minar in 1193 CE or Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki who was a famous Sufi saint around the same time in whose name the Minar was dedicated. Whatever may be the origin of the name, this imposing 73 m structure is a sight to see and if you are lucky and the weather is good the structure made of red sandstone and marble stands out against a blue sky making a striking pose.
After spending 2-3 hours at the Qutab Minar we shall have lunch and then move onwards to see the Red Fort. The Red Fort, an imposing 17th century structure made of red sandstone (thus the name) was built as the fortified residence of Emperor Shah Jahan and the royal family. Shah Jahan has to his credit some of the finest examples of Mughal architecture including the breathtaking Taj Mahal at Agra. The Red Fort assumes a place of importance in India even today as it is from the ramparts of this fort the Prime Minister addresses the nation on the 15th of August (Independence Day).
A walking tour of the palatial gardens and the many buildings that housed the royal family takes one back to the days of the glorious Mughal empire. After watching the sunset from the red fort we shall return back to our hotel. You have the evening to your leisure. Dinner at hotel.
Day 3 | Agra
We check out early catch our train to Agra, having breakfast in our coach. Upon arriving at Agra we transfer to the sublime Oberoi hotel, and after time to freshen up, will assemble at the lobby for a for refreshments and a briefing on Agra and the Taj Mahal, including visitations rules such as no tripods allowed inside the Taj Mahal enclosure.
We shall be dropped about a half mile outside the main gates as no vehicles are allowed within that radius of the mausoleum. The main mausoleum houses the coffins containing the mortal remains of Emperor Shah Jahan and his favorite queen Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan built the mausoleum of love in the memory of his queen who died during child birth.
Built out of white marble this imposing structure was commissioned in 1632 and took 22 years to complete. It is widely considered as the finest specimen of Mughal architecture and embodies not just Muslim architectural styles but also ethnic Hindu styles as well as Ottoman and Persian architectural styles. The construction work nearly exhausted the royal treasury. Soon after its completion Shah Jahan was arrested and confined to the Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb.
Accommodation: Oberoi Amarvilas
Day 4 | Jaipur
Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of Akbar, the third Mughal ruler and widely considered the greatest military commander and administrator from the dynasty. Legend says that Akbar had no male successor after him. He longed for a son. Salim Chisti, a famed Sufi saint of the time lived at this place where the city was later constructed. Akbar came to him bare feet and asked his blessings for a son. Later on when his wish was fulfilled he decided to build a fortified city complex in the saint’s honor. Akbar even named his first born son Salim (Emperor Jahangir). The fortified city known as Fatehpur Sikri remains today as a pristine example of Mughal construction.
It took builders 15 years to construct the city complete with its fortifications, mosques, palaces and other living quarters. The word ‘FaThe ’ from Urdu means victory. Akbar defeated the Hindu Rajput kingdoms of Chittoor and Ramthambore before beginning the construction of the city, the reason for its naming. The city however had a very limited time in the limelight. It served as the new capital of the Mughal Empire from the period 1571 to 1585. After that scarcity of water and the other political and administrative requirements made it a necessity to shift the capital elsewhere. The city was practically abandoned after that only habited for a few years now and then.
The most striking features of the city include its giant gateway. Also known as Buland Darwaza literally meaning the Gate of Magnificence, it is a 54 meter high structure from the ground up and is the south most entrance to the fortified city. The Buland Darwaza was a commemorative structure that also expresses a number of facets of Akbar’s reign. Akbar was the most religiously tolerant ruler of the Mughal dynasty a fact that is established by quotes from Christianity and designs that are typically from Hindu architectural principles. The imposing structure constructed in red sandstone and marble is a sight to see. Bring a wide angle lens, warming filters and circular polarizers as there will be plenty of opportunity to use all of them. After a satisfying day of photography at the old capital we shall return to Agra and take the evening train back to New Delhi. Dinner and overnight at hotel in New Delhi. .
Accommodation: Rambagh Palace
Day 5 | Jaipur
After breakfast we will assemble at the lobby and a general introduction of the city and its many attractions. Jaipur, the erstwhile capita of the Rajputs of Amber, is the gateway to the magnificent forts and palaces of Rajasthan. Rajasthan is widely considered one of the best places to visit in India if you want to experience Rajput architecture, city building designs and culture. Jaipur is named after Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh (Maharaja = King). Interestingly Jaipur is one of the best planned pre modern era cities in the country. Its streets, palaces and every other structural elements of the old city are designed keeping in mind the ancient building science of Shilpa Shastra. The most striking architectural designs of the city include the Hawa Mahal, the Jal Mahal, The Amber Fort and the City Palace. Jaipur is also known as the Pink City because of the bright pink hue in which every building inside the old city is painted.
Our first stop will be the Hawa Mahal or the Palace of Winds. Designed in the shape of a tapering pyramid and constructed out of red and pink sandstone, this imposing 5-storey structures rises 50 feet from the base and is right on the main road leading to the City Palace. The structure was designed so that the Queen and the women of the palace could see the proceedings out on the streets without them being noticed by outsiders. The structure bears one of the finest examples of natural air-conditioning. The best time to see it from outside and photograph it is when the golden light of the sun kisses the front façade.
Amber Fort is easily the most picturesque of the several forts there are in the Jaipur area and there are a few. This used to be the royal residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur and his family. Sitting atop a hill and overlooking the Maota Lake the Amber Fort is an engineering marvel. The fort and the royal residence that it enfolds were constructed by Raja Man Singh I. It is dominated only by the adjacent and even more imposing Jaigarh Fort which was technically and militarily more defendable then the Amer. The two forts have an underground connecting tunnel that allowed the royal family to escape in case the Amer faced imminent breach in the face of enemy attack.
The main gate of the fort is restricted for vehicle entry and thus we shall have to leave our vehicles below near the car park and ride an elephant which will take us up the narrow winding approach road to the in gate. Alternatively, the back gate can be accessed if you do not fancy riding an elephant. The car will drop you a little closer to the back gate. The magnificent Ganesh Pol on the right of the Chowk (if you turn south) is an imposing sight
The back gate, which is where most of the cars drop tourists, is will allow you to savor some local musicians playing string instruments. Upon entry we step into the main courtyard which is also known as Jaleb Chowk. This courtyard was used back in the glory days as the assembling and parading courtyard of armies. You will need a wide angle lens for making some excellent images of the Ganesh Pol. The best time to do so is when the sun is not directly overhead. Anytime just after sunrise or before sundown is better (An ND filter is recommended so that you can hold back the bright sky and hold a long exposure). This courtyard is also the meeting ground for tourists coming in through the main and the rear gates and is usually very crowded. So have patience if you want to make a clean image.
The inner courtyard of the palace, or where the royal quarters are an elaborate planned living area decked with beautiful gardens and fountains.
Jal Mahal or the Lake Palace sits right in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake. Designed by Maharaja Jai Singh II by building a dam across the Darbhawati River and diverting the waters to this place. The palace has a total of five floors, out of which four remain submerged underwater when the lake is brimming with monsoon water. Designs and architecture are predominantly Rajput style but elements of other styles can also be seen. For example the top floor has a beautifully designed chatri which is designed in Bengal style.
The place originally designed due to a necessity, to provide a continuous source of water to the residents of the city especially during the driest of months, soon became a favorite place of the royalty to visit, hunt and picnic. The Jal Mahal is a sight to see especially during the evening when the lights come on and the twilight sky with the gentle slopping hills around the place make a stunning backdrop. You will encounter some amount of haze at the place and a circular polarizer will be a good idea.
We'll get a bird’s eye view of the area from nearby Nahargarh Fort. Bring your wide angle lens and tripod as there will be plenty of opportunities to create panoramic compositions from this view from the Nahargarh Fort.
Day 6 | Varanasi
Arrive at Varanasi’s Lal Bahadur Shastri airport via a morning flight from New Delhi. Collect your luggage and meet the local representative outside the terminal. Following introductions transfer to hotel. After refreshments, assemble at the hotel lobby. From here we shall take local ‘Rickshaws’ to be driven to the banks of the Ganga.
Varanasi is the nerve center of India when it comes to spiritualism and you will realize this within minutes of being driven through the narrow streets of the old city. An unending wave of Sadhus and pilgrims is the most noticeable aspect of the city and everybody is headed either to one of the nearly 100 bathing Ghats or to one of the hundreds of temples that dot the city, the most important of them being the Vishwanath Temple. Being driven in a Rickshaw is probably the most convenient way to traverse the narrow serpentine lanes and not putting your photography gear at risk. The rickshaw also work as a vantage point from where you capture the streams of humanity, many of whom have come to the city on the pilgrimage of their lifetime.
A ride in one of the hundreds of boats at the early hour of the day is the best way to see the entire stretch of the city. Also, the city being located on the west bank of the river allows you to take advantage of the golden light of the morning sun while shooting from the boat. A wide-zoom lens would be ideal and a circular polarizer will be handy.
If you feel like it, head for the opposite bank and ask the boatman to give you some moments on the bank from where you can set up your tripod and take a breathtaking panorama of the city. Watch out for quicksand at some places!
Varanasi is famous for its silk manufacturing units, a cottage industry that still produces this fine material majorly using handloom. Food is synonomous with Varanasi culture. Highlights of local cuisine include piping hot kachoris (fried snack usually filled with a spicy mix) served at breakfast, light paans, local-style chaats (savory snacks), lassi, thandai. Many favorite local favorite places we can sample these delights are located near the 87 riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges (ghats) and in the narrow alleys near them. There are also formal restaurant options, offering a wide array of cuisines, from vegetarian Indian and Chinese to international and even Italian.
The city puts on a completely different look for the evenings. Each evening prayers are organized at the banks of the river. Also known as ‘Gangarti’ these prayers are accompanied by musical performances by local and sometimes national vocal artists. It is a sight to see both from the banks and also from atop a boat. Arrive early if you plan to shoot from the bank so that you can setup your gear.
After watching the prayers at the banks, return to hotel.
Accommodation: Nadesar Palace
Day 7 | Varanashi to New Delhi
Today, visiting Sarnath, one of the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists all over the world. It was here where Gautam Buddha preached for the very first time after attaining enlightenment, a moment known as ‘Dharma chakra Pravartana’ or ‘turning of the wheel of dharma’.
Afterwards we shall have lunch and then take the return journey back to Varanasi. Upon return we shall be transferred to the airport for our return journey back to New Delhi.
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