Day 1 Delhi
Arrive in Delhi at any time. There are no planned activities, so check into to the hotel (check-in time is 12.00 midday) and enjoy the city. In the evening you will meet your fellow group members to go over the details of your trip. Check the notice board or ask reception where and what time the group meeting will be held.
Day 2 Delhi/Agra
Enjoy a city tour by local streetkids, a Planeterra-supported project. It is estimated that 400,000 children live and work on the streets of Delhi. In most cases, their families are too poor to provide for them, they have run away from abusive home environments or they are orphans. Planeterra’s New Delhi Streetkids Project supports over 5,000 of these street children through strategically placed contact points, shelters and a health post set up by a local partner organization. These youth centers provide clothing, food, healthcare, education, counseling, recreational activities, job skills training and job placements. Through Planeterra’s partnership with Salaam Baalak Trust, scholarships are made available to young people who once lived and worked on the streets of Delhi. By funding vocational training in trade schools and universities, and making job-placements based on each child’s individual interest, we can help break the cycle of poverty and give these youth the opportunity to create a brighter future. Many of these adolescents have been fully-trained as tour guides and lead exciting tours through the enchanting inner city streets of Paharganj, the New Delhi railway station, and The Old City. This tour is a unique way for travelers to engage in these children’s lives and the guiding provides an opportunity for them to improve their communication and speaking skills. In the late afternoon we drive to Agra, in anticipation of the Taj Mahal dawn sunrise.
Day 3 Agra
We see sunrise this morning in the Muslim city of Agra a city that is best known as the site of India’s most famous landmark, the Taj Mahal. We visit the great icon of Mughal architecture the Taj Mahal in the early morning for the best light- be sure to have plenty of memory in your camera! This afternoon we visit I’timad-ud-Daulah, also known as the ‘Baby Taj'. It was built before the Taj Mahal by Nur Jahan, Queen of Jehangir, for her parents. The first Mughal building to be faced with white marble and where ‘pietra dura’, (precious stones inlaid into marble) was first used. We also ride one of the cycle-rickshaws to visit the Red Fort. Constructed between 1631 and 1654 by a workforce of 22 000, the Taj Mahal was built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Arjumand Bano Begum, better known as Mumt?z Mahal. Mumt?z had already borne the emperor fourteen children when she died in childbirth, and it is the romantic origin of the Taj as much as its architectural splendour that has led to its fame worldwide. Actually an integrated complex of many structures, the Taj Mahal is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, itself a combination of Islamic, Hindu, Persian and Turkish elements. The walled city of the Red Fort was first taken over by the Moghuls, at that time led by Akbar the Great, in the late 16th century. Akbar liked to build from red sandstone, often inlaid with white marble and intricate decorations, and it was during his reign that the fort began changing into more of a royal estate. However, it was only during the reign of Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan (who would eventually build the Taj Mahal) that the site finally took on its current state. Unlike his grandfather, Shah Jahan preferred buildings made from white marble, often inlaid with gold or semi-precious gems, and he destroyed some earlier buildings inside the fort in order to build others in his own style. At the end of his life Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the fort by his son, Aurangzeb. It is said that Shah Jahan died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with an excellent view of the Taj Mahal. The fort was also a site of one of the most important battles of the Indian rebellion of 1857, which caused the end of the British East India Company's rule in India, leading to a century of direct rule of India by Britain.
Day 4 Bharatpur
This morning we travel to the rural village of Abhaneri, which is known for its beautiful baoris (step wells) and the famous Harshat Mata temple. En route we will stop at Fatehpur Sikri, the now deserted former capital of the Mughals. The political capital of India's Mughal Empire under the reign of Akbar the Great (1571-1585), Fatehpur Sikri was eventually abandoned due to lack of water. Considered the crowning architectural legacy of Akbar (who also built the Red Fort) and still almost perfectly preserved, today the site is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The building material predominantly used is red sandstone, quarried from the same rocky outcrop on which it is situated. In its day, Fatehpur Sikri shared its imperial duties as a capital city with Agra, where a bulk of the arsenal, treasure hoards, and other reserves were kept at its Red Fort for security. During a crisis, the court, harem, and treasury could be removed to Agra, only 26 miles away, less than a day's march. Abhaneri is supposed to have been established by Raja Chand. Many believe that Raja Chand was in fact Raja Bhoja, a celebrated king who ruled over the Gurjar kingdom in the 9th century. Abhaneri was earlier known as Abha Nagri or the city of brightness. Today, this ancient village is in ruins but yet attracts many tourists from all across the world. The Harshat Mata Temple dates to the 9th century and today only portions of this ancient shrine remain, like the sanctuary walls, terrace and sections of the columned mandapa (fore chamber). The sanctum, shorn of its superstructure, is enclosed in an ambulatory and is pancharatha (with five offsets) in structure. The walls have carved nichés in which are images of other deities. These images indicate that the temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu, the Creator of the Hindu trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer. The architectural details of the terrace basement is more or less complete, showing friezes of geometric ornament and miniature nichés with sculptures of seated deities and amorous couples. The columns and walls are adorned with scenes of dance, music, sport and love. Some of the better panels have been shifted to the Archaeological Museum, Amber and the Central Museum, Jaipur. The sanctum now enshrines an image of the four-armed deity Harasiddhi, locally called Harshat Mata. Many images of Hindu deities have been found around the place which are being preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India. A mela (fair) is held near the temple in the month of Chaitra (March-April) every year. Close by the Harshat Mata Temple is the step well Chand Baoli, belonging to the 11th century AD. The desert kingdom of Rajasthan has many such tanks which served as community centres, and constructing them was considered an act of great generosity and benevolence. These baolis or step wells were no ordinary structures; they were marvels of architecture. The Chand Baoli has beautifully carved panels inserted into the sides. The steps, in sets of 4 or 5, are in the shape of an inverted 'V'. The carved stone pillars, which are somewhat damaged now, were once strong enough for supporting pulleys to draw water. Several storied verandas surround this beautiful step well. We overnight in Bharatpur and in the early morning you have the option of visiting Keoladeo National Park. Now declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, duck-hunting reserve of the Maharajas is one of the major wintering areas for large numbers of aquatic birds from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia. Some 364 species of birds, including the rare Siberian Crane, have been recorded in the park.
Days 5-6 Jaipur
Depart early morning to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Founded in 1728, Jaipur, or “The Pink City” as it is often called, is unlike any other pre-modern Indian city, in that the entire town was planned according to the principles of Hindu architectural theory. The city is in fact built in the form of a nine-part mandala known as the Pithapada, which combined with wide streets makes for an unusually airy, orderly atmosphere. That the results of this urban planning have so endured to this day (present day population approximately 3 million) is nothing short of miraculous. Enter the heart of the mandala (on foot or by cycle rickshaw) and you are in the central palace quarter, with its sprawling Hawa Mahal palace complex, formal gardens and a small lake. Built in 1799, the Hawa Mahal, "Palace of Winds", was part of the City Palace, an extension of the Zenana or chambers of the harem. Its original intention was to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen. Constructed of red and pink sandstone highlighted with white lime, the five-storied facade is peppered with 953 small windows. The breeze (hawa) that comes through the windows keeps it cool even in hot months, and gives the palace its name. We also visit the ruined city of Amber, former capital of Jaipur state. Founded by the Meenas, Amber was a flourishing settlement as far back as 967 AD. Overlooking the artificial lake south of Amber town stands the Amber Fort/Palace complex, famous for its mixture of Hindu and Muslim architecture. At the bottom of a hill sits Amber Fort, initially a Palace Complex within the Fort of Amber on top of the hill (today known as Jaigarh fort). The two forts are connected through well-guarded passages. During our time in Jaipur you may also wish to include a visit to the Jantar Mantar, or Royal Observatory. The term Jantar Mantar actually refers to a collection of architectural astronomical instruments built between 1727 and 1733 by Maharaja Jai Singh II at his then-new capital of Jaipur. It is modelled after the one that he had built for him at the then Mughal capital of Delhi. He had constructed a total of five such observatories at different locations, including the ones at Delhi and Jaipur; the Jaipur observatory is the largest of these. Another great option is to see a Bollywood film in India it is much, much more than what we are accustomed to in the west. The atmosphere, energy and pure fun (not to mention volume!) has to be experienced to be believed. The Raj Mandir Movie Theatre is widely acclaimed as the largest cinema hall in Rajasthan, and one of the best in the country. The exterior is adorned with asymmetrical curves and shapes with stars, illuminated by hidden lights at night. The reception has a number of glittering chandeliers hanging in domes from the ceiling. The auditorium is spectacularly decorated with indirect lighting of changing colors hidden behind the plaster troughs of walls and ceilings. Even if you do not understand the language of the film screened, you will be entertained anyway by the emotions involved in the movie and of course the crowd..
Day 7 Delhi
We return to Delhi today for final opportunities to take photographs, re-visit any sites that you liked, relax or shop 'til you drop!
Days 8-9 Kochi (Cochin)
This morning we transfer to the airport for your flight to Cochin. This is a combination trip so new group members will be joining you today. Attend an afternoon meeting, (approx 16.00), where you will meet your fellow group members and go over the details of the remainder of your trip. Check the notice board or welcome note to confirm what time and where the group meeting will be held. After the meeting we head out to the harbor to enjoy sunset over the Chinese fishing nets followed by an optional group dinner. These old cantilevered fishing nets, quite common in Kerala, were originally brought from China. In Malayalam they're called 'cheena vala', and used mainly at high tide. If you arrive early read our Kochi welcome note for some suggestions. There are plenty of things to do in this seaside Indian city. Kochi was an important stop on the spice trading route due to its strategic location near the tip of the Indian subcontinent, Kochi has been a melting pot of influences since the 14th century. The city’s history stretches back much farther: by 1102, Kochi was already the seat of an eponymous princely state that traced its lineages to the Kulasekhara empire. Ancient travellers and tradesmen made references to Kochi in their writings, and in 1503 Kochi became the first European colonial settlement in India when it was occupied by the Portuguese. Later, both the Dutch and British occupied Kochi, resulting in the variety of architecture, food and other influences typical of today’s Kochi. Kochi is home to the Fort with its Dutch Palace and Jew Street. The oldest church in India sits near mosques and synagogues, and Portuguese housing sits side by side with English manor homes. Ernakulam is the modern and upmarket part of town and is best reached by ferry. Marine Drive is the most popular hangout for locals and MG Road and Broadway are the lifeline of the city. Kochi is quite famous for its exquisite gold designer jewelry and of course the finest spices which are in abundance. On Day 9, leaving early to avoid the heat, we have an orientation tour of Fort Kochi. We visit the Dutch Palace, Jew Town with it old curios shops and the more than 400 year old synagogue. We stop at the spice market before visiting St Francis Church. Vasco da Gama, the first European explorer to set sail for India, was initially buried in here until his remains were returned to Portugal in 1539. We have a quick look at the Dutch cemetery before eventually ending up at the Chinese fishing nets where perhaps you can assist the local fisherman raise these huge nets. In the late afternoon/early evening we will take in a performance of kathakali dancing (the Keralan tradition dance form), and you can even watch the performers put on their makeup beforehand. Considered one of the oldest dance forms in India, Kathakali is a combination of drama, dance, music and ritual. Characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes re-enact stories from the Hindu epics, Mahabharatha and Ramayana.
Days 10-11 Wayanad (Kalpetta)
Estimated travel time (6 hours) This morning we head on our first train ride (4 hours) to Kozhikode. Later 2 hours of scenic drive to Kalpetta. Wayanad is one of the most scenic regions of Kerala with rolling hills covered with rain forests and rich plantations of Tea, Coffee, Rubber and various spices. With aboriginals of Kerala settled in the region whose culture is still intact in this protected zone, Wayanad region is still not affected with the advent of tourism. Here we go on nature trails in Wayanad Wildlife sanctuary and visit the Edakkal Caves which is believed to be a shleter of neolithic people.
Day 12 Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary
Leaving the hills for the plains, we stop for the night at the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Mudumalai or "Ancient Hill Range" is situated at the base of the Nilgiri Hills. The sanctuary, provides one of the most important refuges for the elephant and bison in India. The park encompasses some 320 sq kms of undulating terrain and varrying vegetation. There is a rich diversity of wildlife within the sanctaury including Nilgiri tahr, sambar, tiger, spotted deer, flying squirrel. And more than 120 species of birds, including heron, stork, egret, kite, falcon, peafowl, woodpecker, drongo and the warbler will keep the keen bird watchers happy. We spend part of the afternoon on a short safari spotting the variety of wildlife within the park.
Days 13 Mysore
Leaving our wildlife adventure we now imagine life as a Maharaja on a guided tour of the Mysore Palace, formerly the seat of the famed Wodeyar Maharajas of Mysore. Later, join the throngs of pilgrims at Chamundi Hills, with its Chamundeswari Temple on top, and Nandi the Bull (the bull the god Shiva rides) a short walk below. Visit the Devaraja fruit and vegetable market, which is certainly one of the most colorful in India or maybe join in a yoga class at one of the many institutes. Along with sandalwood products, silk and crafts, Mysore is also famous for its celebration of the ten-day Navaratri (Dasara) festival held every year. According to Hindu mythology, the area around Mysore city was once the domain of the demon king Mahishasura, who grew too powerful and began to wreak havoc on the world. The Goddess Chamundeshwari defeated the demon, and became known as Mahishasura Mardhini (Slayer of Mahisha). It is this battle and the victory that are commemorated by the annual nine-day Navaratri festival. It is because of this legend that the temple of the Goddess Chamundeshwari, located atop Chamundi Hills, is such an important place of pilgrimage. Of the 14000 metric tonnes of mulberry silk produced annually in India, Karnataka produces 9000, contributing nearly 70% of the country's total; most of this comes from the Mysore district. Go to see the local silkworm-rearing industry (seasonal) or simply haggle in the markets for clothing or raw material—this is the place for silk! Mysore is also a popular destination for spiritual tourism, with many yoga instructors drawing international students for extended yoga programs, teachers of Sanskrit, kirtan chant, Ayurveda and other yogic forms also readily available.
Days 14-15 Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram)
Estimated travel time 1.5 Hours (65 Kms) Arriving early into Chennai (Madras) we continue south (approx 90 mins) to the small village of Mamallapuram, site of the 7th century Shore Temple, another of India’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites. In the late afternoon, perhaps after you have enjoyed a swim or jog along the beach, explore the monuments by bicycle or on foot, on our guided tour. The impressive group of monuments at Mamallapuram were sculpted by the Pallava kings during the 7th and 8th century A.D. Of these, the Shore Temple stands out in particular, owing to its extraordinary location abutting the sea. Actually a twin-temple dedicated both to Vishnu and Shiva, it was built by Narasimhavarman II (circa 690-715). The Five Rathas, sculpted in granite and situated nearby, were created by his predecessor Narasimhavarman I. Also known as Mamalla (A.D. 630-668), the great wrestler, it is from him Mamallapuram gets its name. After the tsunami that resulted from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, the force of the water removed sand deposits that had covered various rocky structures, revealing parts of a previously un-excavated temple. Still submerged, the Archaeological Survey of India sent divers to begin underwater excavations of the area in February 2005, still presently underway. Aside from its draw as a temple site, Mamallapuram is also a favorite shopping haunt for South Indian artifacts, both wooden and granite-based.
Day 16 Pondicherry
Estimate Travel Time: 2.5 hours drive and 5 1/2 hours train ride In the morning we drive to Pondicherry. Pondicherry was the largest French Colony in India and was an important trading town. There is a strong French influence in the lay out, boulevards, houses although the city is still very much Indian.
Days 17-18 Madurai
Catch a day train for a 5 1/2 hours ride to Madurai. Madurai has been an important commercial center since as early as 550 AD, but it is as a temple town that it most strongly identifies itself. Although there are many temples sprinkled throughout the city, none compares to the size and detail of Meenakshi temple. The enormous temple complex is dedicated to Shiva, known here as Sundareshvara and his consort Parvati or Meenakshi. The credit for making the temple as splendid as it is today goes to the Nayaks who ruled Madurai from the 16th to the 18th century. Even before you pass through the massive stone walls of the temple, the nine striking gopurams (towers, actually monumental gateways covered with stucco figures of dieties, mythical animals and monsters all painted in vivid colors) which distinguish the temple loom high above. The temple’s tallest spire rises as high as 60 meters, and was for many years the tallest structure in its category in Asia. Early morning of day 11 we will have an interesting and unique cycle rickshaw tour of Madurai. Covering things like the fruit & vegetable market and the area where aluminum products are made. Watch the pressing of oil by bullocks and the famous Gandhi museum and palace. After our tour of the temple complex, perhaps you want to shop for handicrafts or duck into the cool shade of the covered, stone tailor’s market, where for a few rupees rows of expert tailors will whip you up a custom shirt in a manner of minutes, all done on antique foot-pump sewing machines. In the late evening (about 9.00pm) you may like to visit the Meenakshi temple again for the night time rituals. Filled with incense, people and noise this is a wonderful spectacle.
Day 19 Thekkady (1D)
Estimated travel time 4 hours Thekkady, adjacent to Periyar National park is the spice capital of India, The rolling hills around the region grow some of the finest cardamoms in the world and are aptly called Cardamom hills, exotic spices like cloves, pepper (black gold), nutmeg, cinammon and a lot of medicinal herbs are in abundance. We do a guided tour of the spice plantations and Tea factory. Periyar National Park is primarily famous for Elephants and wild buffaloes which can be seen if you are lucky on an optional early morning boat ride at the Periyar Lake.
Day 20 Kerala Backwaters Homestay (1L,1D)
Estimate Travel Time: 5.5 Hours (145kms) In the morning we travel down to the backwaters, where we catch a private boat for the short journey (approx 15 mins) to our village homestay. Accommodation is on a multi-share basis and all the families live within a few hundred meters of each other, with at least one person in the family speaking a reasonable standard of English. Food is traditional Keralan home cooking and is superb. Lunch, dinner and tomorrows breakfast are included. This afternoon we explore the island with a local person to observe the different facets of local life - a great chance to meet and talk with the people who live here. Strolling under the palm trees, we weave in between the rice fields that cover the island and learn more about the lifestyles of the locals. Just before sunset we jump on a small country boat and journey along with the locals to enjoy sunset on the winding backwaters. There is may be time to kick back and enjoy the local toddy (alcoholic drink made from coconut). Note: You will only need to take a small day pack or small overnight bag with you to the home stay. Your main bags will be transferred directly to the hotel in Kochi.
Day 21 Kochi (1B)
The morning is spent enjoying the hospitality of our family homestay. We may learn how to cook some of the wonderful food, watch the toddy tappers at work, or simply wander around the village and explore more of the life on the backwaters. Then we travel back to our starting point at Kochi. Firstly we take our private boat (approx 1.5 hours) down to Alappuzha (Alleppey). Slipping silently through sleepy canals, shorelines dotted with the Chinese fishing nets, this is exactly as National Geographic describes it - one of the greatest destinations in "Gods own country". Then we jump on a local bus for our last journey (approx 2 hours) through the villages and roads of Kerala back into Fort Kochi. The trip ends on arrival back in Kochi in the early afternoon. If you are booking onward travel today we recommend that you don't book your flight until 4pm or later.