Originally published Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Embrace India's beauty and chaos

On a cool, dusty night, guards herded our small group of tourists through gates leading to the Taj Mahal. Bright lights glared on us as...

Detroit Free Press

If You Go


When to visit

The best time to visit is outside the hot summers and monsoon rains, between mid-October and April.

Taj Mahal

For full-moon viewing of the Taj Mahal, just 400 people are allowed inside the grounds in staggered groups every half-hour on the night of the full moon and two nights on either side (except Fridays and during Ramadan). The cost is $16.50 for an adult and $11 for a child. The easiest way to book, which must be done at least 24 hours in advance, is through your hotel.

More information

Delhi Tourism: www.delhitourism.nic.inFor the "hop-on, hop-off sightseeing "Purple Bus" (also called the HoHo bus) in Delhi, see

India government tourism office:

Detroit Free Press and The Seattle Times

India do's and don'ts

DO: Stay awhile.

I spent 12 days on my India trip and two of those were in the air. It wasn't enough. Spend at least two weeks and travel to more places, such as Jaipur.

DON'T: Fret over foreigner prices.

Whether it's shops, temples or rickshaw rides, you'll pay more than Indians. Our entrance fees to museums and forts cost 10 times what locals paid, but the difference encourages Indians to visit their own monuments and what foreigners pay helps provides money to preserve sites. Haggle where you can, but be good-natured about it.

DO: Take the three-wheeled auto rickshaws.

A cross between a Smart car and a golf cart, they run on natural gas to cut smog. They're cheap, even at foreigner prices. In Delhi, I paid $1 to $2.50 per ride. The rickshaws have no seat belts and in a heavy thunderstorm, the driver rolls down tarps to cover the open sides. Expect a wild ride as the driver squeezes between cars and animals. (There also are rickshaws pulled by men.)

DON'T: Let drivers decide where you should go.

Have your destination in mind; don't let the driver talk you out of it. One driver suggested I go to Central Cottage Industries Emporium, a giant shopping complex with goods from all over India. Since it was on my list, I agreed. Instead, he took me to a fake version, a dumpy small shop with exorbitant prices and a sign reading: "Cottage Emporium Industries." He was likely getting a commission from anything I bought.

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AGRA, India — On a cool, dusty night, guards herded our small group of tourists through gates leading to the Taj Mahal. Bright lights glared on us as we walked, and my heart sank. My hopes for a black night with only the full moon glowing on the monument's perfectly symmetrical globes was dashed.

We made our way to a stone platform overlooking the grounds and peered out across the gardens toward the great building.

Then, the guards killed the lights.

Emerging like a ghost from a pinkish haze, the pearly shrine looked feminine and stately, like a queen on a throne. Moonlight glazed its domes.

In the distance, city lights glowed red and the noise of thumping modern music drifted up. But inside the gates, the hallowed Taj Mahal was unperturbed and otherworldly, bathed in silence.

Our group of 15 was awed. No one wanted to leave. We felt lucky.

And I, who hadn't included the Taj Mahal on my bucket list of life's sights, was thrilled.

Adjusting to India

India is bewildering, maddening and stunning.

The sun seldom breaks through the smoky haze. Traffic is chaotic and stops for no one.

Drivers of auto rickshaws, tiny three-wheeled taxis that look like go-carts, chased me down trying to get my business. When I did hire one for sightseeing, he only wanted to take me shopping. I had to argue every time I stepped outside my hotel gates.

"India is kicking my butt," I said to my husband, who was attending a conference while I saw Delhi's sights on my own.

But after adjusting to its raucous rhythm, India was rewarding.

From the enormous red Agra Fort, almost more magnificent than the Taj Mahal, to the lavish gold-embroidered saris of women on their way to a Delhi wedding, the sights were stunning. I saw richly decorated tombs, palaces, mosques and temples.

Inside, even at the busy Taj Mahal, crowds were orderly, lines moved quickly, people were friendly and the centuries-old buildings were spotless. Sikhs in turbans, Muslims in hijabs and Hindus in saris mingled everywhere.

In sprawling Delhi, television and newspapers were sophisticated, bars and restaurants hip. The city's newly expanded subway gleamed.

In New Delhi, the capital of India that lies within the metropolis and was built in the early 1900s by the British, I admired manicured gardens filled with palm trees, tropical flowers and neat hedges.

And I met people like bus guide Mervyn Thomas, a young Christian from the country's northeast, who walked with me to a Sikh temple I wanted to photograph just so he could help me cross the busy streets. He asked for nothing in return but my email address.

In Delhi, the Red Fort dates back to 1648 and was built by the emperor Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal. Inside the sandstone palaces were hundreds of rooms with delicate arches, gilded trim, brightly colored semiprecious stone flowers inlaid in marble and women in pink, orange and purple saris.

Near the Red Fort is the Museum of India's Struggle for Freedom. A small, simple place, its walls were filled with black-and-white photos from the British colonial days through independence in 1947. Most had English captions.

Toward dusk one day, I made my way to Raj Ghat near the spot where Gandhi, the political leader and philosopher who led India to independence, was cremated after his 1948 assassination. Stone walls surrounding an eternal flame read, "Oh, God," the last words he uttered.

I then hired a guide. He whisked me to the wondrous Lotus Temple of the Baha'i faith, with white marble wings that look like an opening lotus flower; the peaceful Lodi Gardens; past the minarets of the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in the world; and the stately Parliament and president's house.

On my last day in Delhi, I found the best sightseeing option of all. It's the Purple Bus run by Delhi Tourism. For $8, you can ride all day and get on and off at 19 sites.

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