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Jaipur, India: private culture tours with Janu, Rajasthan tour expert! Meeting Hijra, the Indian third gender.

jaipur city palace doors

“Jai ho!” Do that Bollywood shake… because Yukiro and I made it to Jaipur, India! 

We were traveling with the ultimate Rajasthan tour expert, Janu Private Tours. Owner Mr. Janu is from Jaipur, and he knows his hometown like the palm of his hand.

With his signature enthusiasm, Mr. Janu took us through India’s “pink city” filled with artistic marvels such as a peacock doorway, and a floating water palace.

hawa mahal jaipur

Jaipur is part of the “Golden Triangle” route that many travelers take, when they visit Northern India. (New Delhi and Agra / Taj Mahal are the other points of the triangle.)

For those of you who love art, culture and palaces — Jaipur is a royal city that captures the imagination. Janu Private Tours took us on a day trip to the most famous attractions, such as the Hawa Mahal with its mysterious windows (above)…

hijra indian intersex transgender

… and even arranged for Yukiro and me to meet “hijra,” the third recognized gender in India! These two non-cis beauties invited us into their home, and taught us the “tools of the trade” — including how to cup one’s hands and make a loud clapping sound. Keep on reading to find out more about their fascinating way of life.

peacock door jaipur palace india

But first, an intro to Jaipur — nicknamed “The Pink City.” With my rosy hair and matching Indian outfit, I felt right at home here.

To welcome the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1876, Ram Singh II painted the entire city pink. This is traditionally an Indian color associated with hospitality, and also mimics red sandstone. To this day, the tradition has been preserved, and all structures inside the Old City are blush-colored.

janu private tours jaipur

While it’s possible to travel alone in India, I highly recommend having a guide. India is a safe destination, but tourists can get scammed if they aren’t careful. A local expert takes the stress out of the trip: they know how make the best arrangements for hotel / food / attractions, and figure out transportation within and between cities.

Our friend and guide Mr. Janu always had our backs. He and his drivers are fluent in English, and picked us up each day on time in a comfortable and well-stocked car. As the slogan on the rear window reads, “A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going, but has the trust it will be great.”

india driver guide janu shabbir khan

His company, Janu Private Toursprovides travel experiences throughout the entire country. Guests can personalize a private tour, with an itinerary that suits their exact interests.

In our New Delhi intro post, I shared Janu’s inspiring story of how he started out as a tuk-tuk driver who barely spoke English. With perseverance, he gradually built up his team to the success it is today. Janu Private Tours is now one of the leading local-run tour companies in the entire country, with a top TripAdvisor rating.

jaipur best exotic marigold hotel

Janu is full of energy, and you can tell he genuinely loves welcoming travelers and offering them the best possible hospitality.

He took us to see his exciting new project: Janu has built a hotel, called “The Marigold Inn”! He worked on the local production of the hit movie, “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” and it inspired him to create the real deal.

In one month, Jaipur’s Marigold Inn will open its doors! You can soon stay in this pink hotel, which has every modern comfort, yet a community feeling. Congratulations to Mr. Janu on the grand opening, and I’d love to come stay here soon too.

indian hermaphrodites hijira

Janu never fails to fulfill his guests’ requests, no matter how offbeat they may be. Yukiro and I were curious about “hijra,” the recognized third gender in India — and within a few hours, he had arranged for us to meet two of them in their home!

There isn’t an entirely accurate English translation of the word… but for the most part, hijira are born intersex and/or don’t identify as male or female. 

Perhaps you may be surprised to hear that Indian government has declared freedom of sexual orientation as a fundamental right, and gives residents the option to choose “third gender” on passports and official documents.

india 3rd gender hijiras

It’s fascinating that Indian society is overall quite conservative, yet recognizes “hijra.” The term dates back to the days of antiquity, and was mentioned in the Kama Sutra. Janu explained that Indians realized long ago that hijra were “born this way” — so instead of disparaging them for something they did not choose, they created a space in society where they could thrive. 

We had a chat with these two Jaipur ladies (hijra generally present as women), who welcomed us warmly and told us about their lives via translation. We learned that for the most part, hijra are identified at birth. They can choose to either grow up at home with their families, or in a community with others like them.

hijras jaipur india

When they reach adulthood, hijra typically decide to live together in a community. In this case, the ladies share a house with the children and pets that they adopted.

Hijra are considered to be lucky, so they make a living by offering blessings. We learned that they lead auspicious ceremonies for newborns, and dance at weddings and other special occasions. I couldn’t help but smile when our new friend gave us a blessing by wiggling her fingers near her temples, and wagging her head side-to-side!

intersex transgender indians

Yukiro and I formed an instant connection with our new friends, who are cheeky, spirited and kind individuals. You can see us interacting in this video; they showed us how to clap!

They generously gave us two saris as a gift, which we wore to the Taj Mahal (that post is coming out soon). We’re grateful to Janu for introducing us to hijra — I can assure you that no other tour guide would have been able to make this visit possible.

jaipur royal city gate

Now, let’s see more of Jaipur’s most fabulous attractions. This is Janu’s hometown, so he knows all the little secrets of the city.

We struck a pose at the entrance gate to the pink city, with three magnificent arches.

tuk tuk hire car jaipur

I loved looking out the car window in India, and taking in sights that were strange to my eyes. Tuk-tuks zig-zagging everywhere, Sanskrit writing, Hindu shrines in the middle of roads…

india barber haircut in streets

… and how about a haircut, right on the sidewalk? There was a whole row of barbers who set up grooming stations, on a street in Jaipur!

lassiwala jaipur best lassi

Janu was excited to take us to Lassiwala, as they make the best lassi in Jaipur. Yukiro and I are fans of this Indian probiotic drink that can be served plain, or blended with salt, spices, or fresh fruit.

indian lassi jaipur drink

At Lassiwala, the drink is tangy and creamy, and served in a disposable clay jar. I would have to agree: this is next-level lassi.

jaipur india travel tour

We drank it in the alleyway, and took in more bizarre sights (a nest of electrical wires, a poster with Hindu swastikas and what looked like a Halloween pumpkin).

palace of winds jaipur

Onward to the Palace of Winds, Hawa Mahal — a magnificent arrangement of screened windows, set in sandstone. This facade was built so that the women of the royal family could watch festivals from the windows, while remaining hidden from the public eye.

Jaipur building many windows

What an imaginative work of architecture! The 5-story exterior looks a bit like a honeycomb, and features 953 small windows decorated with elegant latticework. In true “form follows function,” the design also lets cool air in while keeping the ladies hidden.

jaipur city palace entrance

Now to City Palace, built in the mid-18th century by Sawai Jai Singh II. This was the seat of the maharajahs, who ruled Rajasthan from Jaipur.

sculpture indian elephant and rider

The entrance arch is guarded by two white carved elephants. (You’ll see elephant rides being offered around Jaipur, but these hurt the animals — instead, please support an ethical elephant sanctuary like we did at Elefantastic.)

mubarak Mahal india palace

Across the way stands Mahal Mubarak Mahal, meaning the Auspicious Palace. The architecture is inspired by Islamic, Rajput and European styles, hence the distinct “fusion” look. Toady, it’s a museum that holds art and textiles.

city palace decorated doors

That day, I wore a “salwar dress” or Punjabi dress that I got in an Indian store. It consists of long, billowing pants with a tapered leg and drawstring waist, a sleeveless dress with a long slit down the sides, and a matching silky scarf.

It so happened that the green from our outfits matched the imperial door of the palace.

Chandra Mahal jaipur

We’re in the courtyard of Chandra Mahal. Photography isn’t allowed inside, but you can imagine majestic throne chairs, lush carpets, giant fans made of feathers,and portraits of the royal rulers of Jaipur throughout the ages.

jaipur peacocks doorway arch

We were speechless when we saw the peacock gate at the entry of Jaipur’s Chandra Mahal. There are four gates in total, each dedicated to a Hindu god or goddess and intricately decorated.

peacock feathers gate india

The four doorways represent the seasons as well. Yukiro is vogueing in front of the Lotus Gate, which has a vibrant flower petal motif to indicate summer, and is dedicated to Lord Shiva-Parvati.

jaipur city palace interior inside

We strolled through the Diwan-i Khas, or Hall of Public Audience, featuring a marbled floor and chandeliers. On one side stood two gigantic silver vessels, measuring 1.6 meters. Our guide explained that when Maharaja Singh II traveled to England for Edward VII’s coronation, he insisted on only drinking Ganges water — so he brought it with him in the giant urns!

amer fort jaipur

Time to visit another royal stronghold. Janu drove us to Amer Fort, located high up on a hill. This ancient settlement was revamped and developed by Jai Singh I.

courtyard jaipur india amer fort

Amer Fort is divided into four main sections, each with an entrance gate and courtyard. We went through the Sun Gate to Jalebi Chowk, the first main courtyard where the armies would have victory parades after coming home from battle.

arches pillars inside amer fort

Amer Fort is designed in a Hindu architectural style: lots of curving pillars and arches that resemble the lotus flower.

decorative walls carvings amer fort

We visited each of the four levels and courtyards, each different and filled with opulent details. Just look at the decorative tiles captured in this mirror shot.

no thank you backpack stella rose

The fort overlooks Maota Lake and green hills. The visibility from all directions helped the armies spot invaders.

(A lot of tourists asked to take our photo… “No Thank You”! It was fun to point to my pink backpack with this font, by Stella Rose in collaboration with Print All Over Me.)

amer fort gardens india

It’s easy to feel like a royal queen of Rajasthan, when you’re surrounded by such splendor!

Vrihat Samrat Yantra jaipur

There’s so much to see in Jaipur, and we were able to make the most of it thanks to Janu. He knew I am fascinated by Indian astronomy instruments (remember my visit to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar?)

Jaipur has an even more impressive collection of nineteen astronomical instruments, built by king Sawai Jai Singh II, and completed in 1734.

jantar mantar jaipur astrology

These strange looking structures appear to be built by aliens! In fact, they are designed to observe and measure astronomical positions.

sundial jantar mantar jaipur

Jantar Mantar Jaipur is an UNESCO heritage site. It contains the most advanced and best preserved instruments for measuring the stars, from this era. One of these is the world’s largest stone sundial. 

indian ancient sundial

Yukiro’s rainbow umbrella lined up with the radiating lines of the sun dial. (In his car, Janu provides his guests with cold bottles of water, hand sanitizer, parasols, snacks, WiFi, phone chargers… everything you might need to survive!)

astrological tools india jantar mantar

The function of each instrument is rather complex, and very advanced for its time. We learned that Jai Prakash Yantra is a sundial with marked marble, with shadows that can measure altitudes, azimuths, hours and declinations.

leo yantra jantar mantar

One section consisted of Rasivalaya instruments, which corresponded to signs of the zodiac. The mysterious curves and staircases are quite the sight to behold.

jaipur zodiac jantar mantar lion

Yukiro and I are both Leos, and found this illustration under the arch of our instrument. The lion is the fiercest zodiac sign, that’s for certain!

weird strange bizarre jaipur

Is it a slide? A skate ramp? A stairway to heaven? None of the above: this is Vrihat Samrat Yantra, the world’s largest “gnomon sundial,” which has markings along the sides, and measures time with the shadow cast from the sun.

Jal Mahal palace, Man Sagar Lake Jaipur

Jaipur truly is a city of imagination. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the Water Palace, Jal Mahal. This summer palace is only reachable by boat and appears to float on the surface of Man Sagar Lake.

india floating palace

This isn’t Photoshop… Jal Mahal is real, and it’s spectacular. The floating water palace was built in the 18th century by Maharaja Jai Singh II, as a royal summer retreat and party island. The building actually has five levels — four are submerged beneath the waters.

jaipur floating palace, Rajasthan

India’s Floating Palace was abandoned when it began to leak, and remained neglected for 200 years. However, it’s recently undergone some restoration, and visitors can travel by boat to see it once more.

jaipur tailored clothing shop

It’s amazing how much we did that day. We even stopped by Heritage Textiles to get custom-tailored clothing (you can choose a fabric, and have anything designed and sewn to fit you perfectly, within a few hours). The owner gave us a demo of hand-block printing, the traditional process of pressing designs on fabrics with rich natural colors that don’t fade.

shahpura house hotel jaipur

Finally, time to unwind at our palatial hotel Shahpura House. The staff treats everyone like royalty: when we arrived, this man in uniform held open the door, and the concierge hung orange floral garlands around our necks.

jaipur palace luxury hotel

Janu always puts his guests in this regal manor, which hearkens back to the days of the Raj.

unique boutique hotels india

We enjoyed exploring this quirky nook, an outdoor pool, and a large breakfast hall (with Indian dishes prepared fresh to order, as well as an international buffet).

rooftop shahpura house dancer

Shahpura House offers activities such as spa treatments and yoga lessons. At night, the rooftop bar has free musical / cultural performances for guests.

jaipur culture performance dance

This dancer performed “bhavai,” a folk dance popular in Rajasthan where the performer balances large numbers of earthen pots on her head.

india underground subcultures alternative

Namaste Janu Private Tours for this eye-opening tour of Jaipur! This is a day that we will never forget — I feel like I’m still processing everything that I encountered, from the hijra subculture to the peacock feather gates.

Janu offers customized tours like this all throughout India, and will soon be opening his Marigold Inn in Jaipur. If you’re looking for a travel experience as incredible as ours, reach out to Janu here — you’ll be in the best possible hands with him.

Coming up next: the River Ganges of Varanasi, and the Taj Mahal at sunrise. India… what a country, right?

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Temples of the Holy City of Varanasi! Shiva & Kali worship, Buddha sermon at Sarnath, Respro® Ultralight mask review.

sarnath india buddhist pilgrimmage site

Namaste from the holy city of Varanasi!

India is large and diverse, with terrain ranging from snowy mountains to southern backwaters. Yukiro and I only got to see a fraction of it on our trip through Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle.

However, we absolutely had to make a detour to Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benares — the famous spiritual destination on the River Ganges.

India was stress-free for us, since we were travelling with Janu Private Tours, one of the most trusted tour companies. Janu and his team can arrange customized itineraries for any part of the country, tailored to your specific interests. They connected us with their outstanding partner, Experience Varanasi Tours, for this portion of our journey.

holy cows in streets varanasi india

Even for experienced travellers like ourselves, Varanasi is an intense destination. Picture tuk-tuks weaving through bumpy roads with horns blaring, inches from the beggars and holy cows in the streets. There’s dirt, noise, difficult sights — and it’s incredible, what a city of adventure! 

cows, pollution dirt in india

I was “all in” and wanted to experience the more challenging aspects of India. However, I was concerned I’d feel nauseous from the various smells and pollutants: dung, rotting fruits, garbage, fumes from the traffic…

wild monkey in benares, india

Anyone who travels with me knows I’m very sensitive to smoke, pollen and other air debris. I didn’t want to wind up ill and unable to see the colorful city life (such as random monkeys!).

varanasi cremation grounds smoke funeral pyres

For example, I was keen to see the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganga (which I’ll show you in the next post). However, the image shows how thick the smoke can be.

Respro® Ultralight mask women's black

To make sure we were prepared for anything, Yukiro and I got original Respro® masks! Made in the United Kingdom, these masks are equipped with professional-grade technology to filter out pollution. (Plus, they have a cyber-Goth-Industrial look!)

respro pollution masks hepa filter

Respro® offers many types of pollution masks, geared to specific needs such as allergies, urban cycling, industrial filtration. Their FAQ section has info on the differences and how to choose the right size (you can also email them, as their customer service is terrific).

The team suggested The Ultralight™ Mask for our India travels. This mask is made from lightweight, air-permeable mesh material and has two POWA™ elite exhalation valves: ideal for facial ventilation in hot, humid climates.

respro mask skins, ultra light

Plus, the design is fashion-fab: Mad Max meets The Walking Dead apocalyptic chic! It’s an essential item for desert festivals such as Burning Man and Wasteland Weekend, for both the look and the functionality.

The Respro® mask attaches in the back with Velcro, and has a changeable Hepa-Type™ PM2.5 filter (the white portion inside). These Cinqro™ Urban filters have activated charcoal cloth plus a particle filter layer to protect you from exhaust pollution.

respro mask fit, size, review

Here’s a close-up of The Ultralight™ Mask. The black shell, made of of breathable 4-way stretch fabric, is easy to wash. It has a malleable nylon nose clip for a secure fit around the bridge.

stylish apocalyptic pollution masks

But what if the mask doesn’t match your outfit of the day? Respro® has dozens of skins in various colors and patterns, letting you refresh your look!

I always change around my hair color and clothes, and this Petal Mixed Neoprene outer-shell was a perfect match.

anti pollution masks cyclists

Cube Pattern 1 was a stylish choice for this green monster. It’s easy to switch over the skins over the filter and valve.

smog pollution mask fashion apocalypse

I’m very glad I got a Respro® mask for my travels. If you’re in a high-particulate area, run or cycle in urban areas, or have medical condition such as asthma or allergies… these pro masks are a lifesaver. (And the ninja warrior style is A+!)

durga hindu temple banaras university

Now, we’re fully equipped to explore Varanasi. As you can see, I’m covered up from the sun and mosquitoes, and I wore old clothes and shoes that I later threw away. 

Janu Private Tours linked us to our local guide, Kunal Rakshit of Experience Varanasi ToursHe’s a thoughtful and intelligent guide, born and raised in this city. Kunal listened to our goals for the trip (to learn about the spiritual culture), and delivered exactly what we were looking for.

We were interested in Hinduism, so he took us to the new Kashi Vishwanath temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The large structure is located inside the green acres of Banaras Hindu University, where Kunal studied. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so imagine priests and worshippers performing “puja”: praying, offering fruits and flowers, and pouring milk over statues as a rite.

gaylord ice cream india

Varanasi is a sprawling city, and the traffic can get congested. We were grateful to have our driver Ravi, who knew exactly how to navigate these tricky streets. He drove us to another part of the city to see a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Durga. 

The temple was bizarrely located next to a small amusement park. Hmm, not sure why Yukiro wanted to take a photo in front of the Gaylord local ice cream stand…

indian amusement park rides

The rickety rides were decorated with garlands of flowers. Love seeing these unexpected pockets of local life.

Durga Mandir red temple, Varanasi

Once again, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside Durga Kund Mandir — but here’s a shot of the outside. You have to take off your shoes before entering all of these temples; since the floors can be wet from the offerings, we brought a change of socks and shower caps from the hotel, which we wore as foot-covers!

Also known as the Monkey Temple, this 18th century temple to Durga is painted entirely in red. It sits next to a pond, which was earlier connected to the river Ganges. We enjoyed seeing the statues of Hindu goddesses, and watching locals make offerings. 

varanasi monkey temple, durga worship

Why is there a lion at the entrance? Durga, also known as the goddess Devi or Shakti, is depicted as a fearless warrior riding a lion or tiger. The goddesses of the Hindu pantheon tend to be fierce fighters; Durga is a mother figure, yet combats demonic forces and carries weapons in her multiple arms.

kali temple shrine

O Kali, you are the patron deity of the Goths! Kunal took us to see a shrine for the goddess Kali, who is depicted with black skin and her tongue sticking out. She conveys death, destruction and that which is “forbidden” — living on the cremation grounds, and destroying evil forces.

Notice the skulls on either side of Kali: human and probably monkey.

swastika mandala india

If you look closely at the photo of Kali, you’ll see that the metal goblets in front of her are decorated with swastikas. We also saw this “swastika rangoli” (with four dots in the arms) in this colored sand mandala at Varanasi Airport. In Hinduism, the swastika represents goodness and auspiciousness; I discuss the symbol in more depth in this post. 

kali worship varanasi shrine

Outside, we were perplexed to see this orange-faced figure in a cage. Kunal explained this is Hanuman, the monkey faced God who is a worshiper of Lord Rama. On the tile above, there is a picture of Rama and the words ‘Jai Shree Ram.’

Kunal also took us to Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which very few tourists get to see. This is one of the most famous Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, and stands on the western bank of the holy river Ganges. You’ll have to bring your passport with you to enter, as security is tight. Once again, no photos: you’ll have to come here for yourself, to see the two domes covered in gold and rituals of this sacred temple. 

Mulagandhakuti Vihara, Sri Lankan temple Sarnath

Varanasi is not only important to Hindus — it’s also a sacred place for Buddhists. Ravi drove us to Sarnath, in the north-east part of the city. This is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma after his enlightenment.

I’m standing in front of Mulagandhakuti Vihara, the Sri Lankan Buddhist temple at Sarnath. The Buddha spent his first rainy season meditating here.

(I had to take off my shoes again, but all the Buddhist temple floors are clean and dry. My pink backpack by Print All Over Me, designed by Stella Rose.)

sarmath varanasi buddha's first sermon

Sarnath is a holy spot of Buddhism, as the Buddha gave his First Discourse here after attaining nirvana at Bodhgaya. In the Buddhist texts, this event is known as the dharmachakra-pravarttana, or “Turning the Wheel of Law.”  At Sarnath, Buddha also laid the foundation for the order of monks and nuns, or “sangha.”

buddhist statue temple sarnath

The Mulagandha Kuti Vihar is a temple and monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society. The golden altar is lovingly maintained, with leaves and flowers in a minimal, symmetrical arrangement.

Mulagandhakuti Vihara Buddhist temple monastery

All around, the walls are covered in pastel frescoes by Japan’s famous painter, Kosetsu Nosu. His images depict the life of the Buddha: his birth, journey to enlightenment, teachings, and death.

buddha and Angulimala, the Bandit

This panel shows the story of Angulimala, the evil bandit who killed people and hung their fingers around his neck in a garland. Through compassion, the Buddha helped Angulimala see the error of his ways and become a follower of the Dharma.

sarnath japanese buddhism temple

In Sarnath, there are also Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist temples. A sleeping sandalwood Buddha rests inside Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple, with a traditional design that made us feel as if we were in Kyoto.

new white buddha temple sarnath

Next to it, there’s a new Lord Buddha temple. The gates are topped with the wheels of the dharma. The circle represents the one-ness of the teachings, and the 31 spokes represent the realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.

buddhist lion statue varanasi

Look, another lion! In Buddhism, they are guardians and symbols of the bodhisattvas.

buddha temple kashi benares

Under the blue skies, the temple had a futuristic feeling.

water buffalo india

The temple is flanked by wet fields of grass, where water buffalo make their home.

disco buddha statue

Did you know the Buddha loved to disco dance? Just kidding — this statue shows him after his birth, when he took seven steps and then raised his arm towards the sky, with the other pointing at the Earth.

(My black sun hat by Lack of Color.)

site of buddha's first sermon

We’re standing in the spot where Lord Buddha gave the first sermon to his five disciples. At Deer Park, he taught the Four Noble Truths by addressing the nature of suffering, its cause and its end.

sarnath buddhist statues

Before his enlightenment, the Buddha practiced asceticism. He gave his first talk to five of his former spiritual comrades, as he knew they would be able to understand the Dharma quickly.

buddha 1st sermon to ascetics

These statues represent this event, which led to the founding of the sangha community. Buddhism spread quickly from then on, especially since Sarnath was a center for the arts, and many influential kings and merchants lived in Varanasi.

Dhamekha Stupa at Sarnath buddhism

We did some yogic poses amidst the archaeological ruins. Behind us is the cylindrical Dhamek Stupa, which is almost 45 meters high and marks the spot of the sermon. It was built in stone and brick, in the 3rd century.

deer park sarnath varanasi

We saw the bases of other structures and stupa (where ascetics were buried, before Buddhism). The Deer Park where Buddha gave his lecture still is filled with these friendly creatures, as you can see.

Many thanks to Janu Private Tours and Kunal of Experience Varanasi for the outstanding journey! We were glad for their expert knowledge, and passion for showing travelers the real India. If there’s one destination that warrants a guide/driver, it’s India. We wouldn’t have seen and learned nearly as much, without their guidance.

respro professional pollution masks

There’s still more to come from Varanasi… we’ll visit the ghats and cremation grounds on the River Ganges (where our Respro® mask came into great use).

Do you share our interest in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy? Would you visit this holy city one day?

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Elefantastic, an ethical elephant sanctuary in Jaipur, India! Review & discussion of elephants attractions, rides.

jaipur elefantastic sanctuary farm

Hello, my gentle giant!

Let me introduce you to a compassionate elephant sanctuary in Jaipur, India —  Elefantastic. I saw firsthand how the caretakers treat elephants like family, and dedicate their lives to raising awareness about conservation and ethics.

Elephant tourism is a contentious subject, as these sensitive creatures are too often mistreated. Let’s have a open conversation in this post, and I welcome your thoughts as always.

painting elephants jaipur india

In my view, travelers should educate themselves about animal attractions, and refuse to support those that are cruel. Before my trip, I did extensive research about elephant experiences in India. Many locations offer rides (particularly at Jaipur’s Amber Fort), but these unequivocally cause the elephants to suffer (carrying loads of tourists in a painful saddle, getting prodded with hooks and kept in chains, not having adequate care and rest).

Then, I read about Elefantastic — a Jaipur sanctuary that makes rescuing elephants its mission. I browsed through reviews and blog posts, and saw that the response was universally positive.

Here, guests get to interact with these intelligent creatures in ethical ways, including feeding and washing them, and decorating them with nontoxic chalks (more on that later, as well as the meaning of Hindu swastikas!)

rahul elefantastic ethical farm

Yukiro and I were traveling through India with the highest-rated travel company, Janu Private Tours, and they’ve always given us fair and honest advice. Mr Janu has brought travelers to Elefantastic since it opened in 2012, and assured us that the sanctuary met the highest standards.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Elefantastic’s owner Rahul (Anil Choudhary, above). He spoke passionately about his mission: rescuing elephants, taking responsibility towards their welfare, educating guests through positive interaction.

petting volunteering indian elephants

Rahul assigned us to one of the female elephants, and we were with her for the entire half-day. He showed us how she liked to be touched: on the trunk, at the cheeks, under the big floppy ears. We could even wrap our arms around her trunk and give her a hug! She responded happily, with bright eyes and a flip of the ears.

Have you ever been up close with an elephant? It’s incredible… these are the largest land animals in Asia, yet they’re so gentle and intelligent. We felt we could put our full trust in her, and it was clear that she was enjoying the human attention. 

indian elephant skin closeup

Close-up on her beautiful grey skin, which has some mottled patches on the nose bridge. (All Indian elephants have different markings, and distinct personalities once you get to spend time with them).

My India-themed nail art is by Glam Nail Studio; they decorated my gradient gel nails with small gems and a chrome polish finish.

feeding rescued elephant, elefantastic

Our elephant’s “mahout,” or keeper, never left her side. In India, mahouts typically begin their profession as boys, and are assigned to an elephant for life. 

At Elefantastic, we saw that the elephants live in their own individual houses, which they share with their mahout and his family. The sanctuary is on a huge plot of land, and the creatures have plenty of room to roam freely (they are never tied up).

Our mahout tied together palm fronds and stems, and showed us how to feed our elephant. We placed the bundle in the nostril area of her trunk, and gave the verbal command “Leht.” She grabbed the food and dexterously twisted it up to her mouth!

elephant rescue jaipur

Fun facts: Indian elephants spend 14-19 hours a day feeding, and consume several hundred pounds of vegetation daily. They are vegetarians and mainly eat leaves, tree bark, roots and stems.

Our elephant was clearly well-maintained; she was calm and radiated happiness. Aren’t her brown eyes lovely? (Eye contact is important for making the elephants feel secure, so you can’t wear sunglasses during this activity. I’m wearing tinted prescription glasses.)

amber fort elephants jaipur

I loved seeing the close bond between the mahouts and their life-long partners. These caretakers guide them with Sinhalese verbal commands such as “stay” or “walk forward.” They never use chains, hooks, poles or any instruments to force the elephants. They’ll sometimes gently tug the elephant’s ears with their hands to steer her, but this doesn’t cause pain.

As you can see, Elefantastic’s residents always have shade from the elements, and the grounds are meticulously maintained.

painted decorated elephant india

Once our elephant had her meal, it was time to give her a makeover! In India, elephants are traditionally painted in rainbow colors for festivals and special occasions. Unfortunately, many of these paints are harsh and contain lead.

Elefantastic provided us with a palette of non-toxic, organic chalks that cause no harm to their bodies (I got some on my hand, and it washed right off with water). Since elephants don’t sweat and only have pores between their toes, this doesn’t clog up their skin.

Of course, we dressed her in Goth and punk symbols! Pentagram, 666, A for anarchy, a wonky Leviathan cross. But what’s the deal with the swastika?

india swastikas on doors

If you spend any time in India, you’ll come across swastikas, especially on the front of doors and gates.

hindu swastika sign

While Westerners primarily associate the swastika with Nazi Germany, it is in fact an ancient Sanskrit symbol that translates to “marker of goodness.” In other words, this has been an auspicious Hindu sign for thousands of years, long before the terrible events of World War II.

rainbow painted elephant festival india

Our neon elephant looks like she’s ready for a rave! We decorated her side with lucky “swastika rangoli,” which have dots between each of the four arms.

india swastikas logos

Many Hindus paint swastikas on doorways and home entrances, to invite in prosperity and good fortune. (I took these images in a residential area of Jaipur.)

jaipur elephant village

I think our Gothic elephant painting project turned out rather well! She’s one of us now.

(My black sun hat is by Lack of Color; more of their designs are below.)

india swastik ganesha statue

In Hinduism, the clockwise swastik is a representation of Lord Vishnu and the sun god Surya. I also found it on the sash of Ganesha, the elephant god. 

elephant attraction jaipur

Less commonly, you’ll see the reverse / counterclockwise version, or sauvastika. It is associated with the goddess Kali, magic and nighttime.

jaipur elephant joy india

Regardless of how you decorate your elephant, it’s fun to take part in the cultural ritual. Our new friend leaned in and loved the strokes and attention.

jaipur ethical elephant sanctuary

We added some devilish kawaii to this flank. Can you tell we’re having fun?

elephant village jaipur

Now, it’s time for a bath! Our mahout walked our elephant over to a grassy field, and we hosed her down with water. (The safe chalks came right off.)

bathing washing elephants india

We put some water into a bowl, and our elephant sucked it up like a straw. Then, she swung her trunk around and sprayed herself to cool off! 

Water for elephants is a must: they can drink 200 liters a day. The staff kept us hydrated too, offering us unlimited chilled bottles of water, and masala chai.

I posted some video clips of the Elefantastic experience above and here. Watch us hand-feed our friend and bathe her, along with other footage of traveling in India.

ganesha shirt, elephant god

Out of the three individuals above, who has the most fabulous pose? I’m guessing you would say the elephant!

(My glasses frames are by Oliver Goldsmith, and my sunhat is by Lack of Color. Shop with a click:)

ganesh elephant fashion

Close-up on my vintage Vivienne Tam colorful top, which fit the theme of the day perfectly.

One of the most beloved Hindu gods is the elephant-headed Ganesh. Some say that Lord Shiva beheaded him, and replaced his head with that of an elephant. Lord Ganesha / Ganapati is known as a wise, playful scholar who removes obstacles, and is the patron of the arts and sciences.

elephant drinking water from hose

Once you get to know a real-life Ganesha, you can see where these characteristics come from. Yukiro and I were in awe of our elephant’s sensitivity and intelligence, which came through in the way she connected with us and her environment.

These mammals are known for their wide range of complex social behaviors: grief, memory, altruism, cooperation, using tools… In many ways, they leave us in the dust.

elephant attractions jaipur india

She is a 28-year-old Indian elephant, a sub-species with smaller ears than her African cousin. About half of female Asian elephants have short tusks, or tushes, which you can see when she opens her mouth for a drink.

Since 1986, India’s elephants have been listed as endangered, as they have suffered significant population decline. Poaching and the loss of natural habitats are mainly to blame. It’s more important than ever to donate and support conservation efforts like Elefantastic’s, to stop them from becoming extinct.

elephant riding without saddle

Elefantastic listens to its guests, and is always striving to do their best for the sake of their rescued elephants. When we visited in mid July, the policy was that elephants could only be ridden in an ethical way: once every two days for 45 minutes max, and without a saddle that causes discomfort. Guests could sit “bareback,” on a soft cushion that is tied and positioned in a way that does not hurt.

However, as of late July 2017, Elefantastic has come to the decision that they will no longer allow elephant rides, to raise awareness toward animal welfare.

ride elephants india

Yukiro and I were therefore some of the last guests to get on top an elephant. We chose to ride for only 15 minutes (we climbed up here from stepping off a staircase). Our mahout led her through the spacious grounds, while we hung on tight and petted her bristly forehead!

ethically ride elephant

While we felt that this method did not stress the elephants, we agree with Elefantastic’s decision to stop all rides. From now on, guests can walk alongside their new friend, and take her for a leisurely stroll on the property.

amber fort jaipur elephant rides

We can honestly tell you that elephants are treated with the utmost respect at Elefantastic. We saw them living in un-tethered natural conditions, and connecting with their gentle mahout keepers.

elephant splashin water trunk

What a joy to be in the presence of these powerful creatures. I encourage you to support this fantastic animal sanctuary, and volunteer with the elephants for yourself.

To make a booking: visit the Elefantastic website and email Rahul (hello@elefantastic.in) to secure your reservation. They offer hotel pick-ups and drop-offs, and you can either start in the morning or afternoon for half a day of activities. A delicious vegetarian lunch is included at Rahul’s mother’s house — the simple meal is made with love, and was one of the best I had in India!

(Elefantastic address: 90 Chandra Mahal Colony, Delhi Road, Amer, Jaipur 302002, India)

elefantastic rescued elephants

You can find out more about Elefantastic here. Namaste to Rahul for his admirable work to help elephants, and to Janu Private Tours for making this experience possible. Stay tuned for more stories from India — next, we’ll go on an insider tour of Jaipur with Mr Janu.

What are your thoughts on elephant travel attractions, and sanctuaries like this one? You’re welcome to leave any thoughts or questions in the comments.

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New Delhi, India with Janu Private Tours! Review of guide, driver tour: Jantar Mantar, Jama Masjid, Humayan’s Tomb.

guided tour northern india golden triangle

“India Waale!” After year of talking and planning, Yukiro and I finally made it to India!

Even though we’re experienced travelers, I confess I had some trepidation about coming here. I’ve heard that India can be a challenging destination, with abundant culture-shock. But it turned out these fears were unfounded, as we were in the best possible hands with Janu Private Tours.

I’m so glad we went with this highly-rated tour company, as they gave us the royal treatment throughout Northern India. The kind owner, Mr Janu, paired us with expert guides and drivers, booked us lovely hotels, and took us to several cities in a spacious and fully-stocked car.

travel blogger india, female travelers

Janu Private Tours has over 500 positive TripAdvisor reviews for a reason: his clients trust him, and he goes above and beyond to make them feel at home. Mr Janu encourages guests to come with a “clear mind and open heart — welcome to India.” And that’s exactly what we did: dive in, go with the flow, and experience the fascinating wonders of this country without judgement.

It makes sense to tell this tale chronologically, so read on for our travel preparations (how to get a visa, what to wear), and first impressions of New Delhi!

new delhi gandhi airport hands sculptures

Let’s start with some prep talk about vaccinations and visas. 

– Vaccines: A trip to India requires a bit more preparation than usual. Yukiro and I went by the CDC recommendations for travellers: we made sure our basic vaccinations were up to date, and got shots for typhoid. I also took Dukoral, an oral vaccine that helps prevent stomach sickness (you have to take the first of two doses at least 2 weeks before you depart).

– Tourist visa for India: Allow yourself plenty of time to get the tourist e-Visa, which you can now submit online. Yukiro and I filled out the visa carefully, and got it approved without any questions or hold-ups within two days, but it takes longer for others. Make sure you use the official goverment visa site, as there are fake ones.

– The Indian e-visa does ask some weird questions (are you transgender, what’s your religion, do you have visible marks, have you been to Pakistan, are you illiterate?) We made sure all our contact info was correct, and that the photo and passport scans were clear (with an addendum since I didn’t have room to list all the countries I’ve visited in the past 10 years, in the section provided).

Don’t leave anything blank. For religion, I put “Other: N/A”. (I would caution against putting Atheist, Satanist, Agnostic Pagan, Wicca or things like that… best not to raise any eyebrows!)

– Make sure you jot down the temporary ID number and payment number, so you can save and continue filling out the form if the page fails.

– Payment problems: many including myself had trouble loading the final page (SBI payment – the server fails). Instead, for the final stage, go onto your smartphone and use 3G / 4G data (not wifi). Enter the “payment reference number” to get back to that page, and then pay using Paypal (for me, credit card also resulted in error).

– You’ll get your approved visa by email; be sure to print it out. Once you arrive at Indira Gandhi airport (which is lovely – see the mudra hand gestures sculptures above), head to the e-Visa line and you’re all good!

india travel outfits, fashion

I highly recommend that you do a private tour with a driver, especially if you have limited time. Mr Janu was waiting for us at the airport arrivals, and helped us cut through the crowds to reach the car and head straight to the hotel. We never had to deal with touts, haggle with taxis or stress over scams and directions — all of which are aplenty in India.

Janu Private Tours has tons of connections throughout the country, and knows the best hotels for your budget and needs. Mr Janu checked us into The Park hotel and it was exactly what we wanted: a 4-star hotel in the heart of the city, with decor that reminded me of a Japanese host club! 

– What to wear in India? In big cities like Delhi, anything goes, but it’s best to wear modest cover-up clothing in smaller and rural areas. I suggest packing light, long skirts such as my elephant maxi skirt. Bring close-toed shoes and sandals with a bit of lift, as the streets can be dirty (I threw out my shoes after the trip).

– Outfit details: I’m wearing a 1991 New York Shiva shirt, arm covers, sunglasses by Clearly, and a black sun hat by Lack of Color. Most importantly, I’m covered in DEET-containing mosquito spray, the only thing that truly repels them. Bens 100 mosquito spray is the strongest one out there, and I didn’t get a single bug bite thanks to it.

stella rose backpack, print all over me bags

India is a safe country as long as you stay aware of your belongings, and use common sense. I wanted a secure bag to hold my possessions, and found the perfect one: this pink backpack by Print All Over Me, designed by Stella Rose (who released an adorable collection with them!)

A lot of Indian street vendors and beggars approached us, and locals often asked to take photos… so it was fun to point to the “No Thank You” and politely decline!

Shabbir Khan, janu private tours owner guide

In our week together, we got to know Mr Janu (or Shabbir Khan) as a friend. The story behind Janu Private Tours is an inspirational one: as a teenager, Janu became a tuk tuk driver to support his family. He hardly knew English, had no advanced schooling, had never left his hometown of Jaipur…

However, he had drive and vision: Janu decorated his tuk-tuk to the nines, and built up trust with locals. He became known for showing tourists around Jaipur with passion. Gradually, he built up clients and expanded his business into car-guided tours in Rajasthan, then all of India.

new delhi tuk tuks, tours

It’s amazing how Janu went from manning a tuk tuk driver (the yellow and green auto-rickshaws above) to becoming a successful business owner who is well-travelled, fluent in English, and constantly growing his endeavors. He now has 30 staff members, and has worked on productions for BBC, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie, music videos for Romanian pop star Loredana, and more.

I’ll show you his latest venture, a hotel, and more in the next posts — but as you can gleam, Janu is a remarkable person and we were happy to get to know him.

jama masjid robes, entry fee

We weren’t sure which landmarks to see in New Delhi, and put our trust in Janu. He took us to Jama Masjid mosque, and as you can tell, we loved everything about it.

At the entrance, women are provided with robes to wear over their clothes. You have to remove your shoes, but can wear socks or purchase slippers for 100 rupees. Entry is free but there’s a 200 rupee photography charge (generally, attractions in India have entry fees of 200-500 rupees, or $3-7.)

jama masjid mosque interior architecture

Jama Masjid is one of largest mosques in India, and an architectural beauty. It was built by by Shah Jahan in the mid 17th century (this is the Mughal emperor who also also built the Taj Mahal, which we visited later on.)

Muslims from around the country come here to worship. How beautiful are the scalloped arches made from red sandstone and white marble, ornamented to look like a prayer mat.

women traveling in india safety

Oh dear, everyone wants to take a photo! The scene above may look intense, but these are merely travelers from around India who are curious about foreigners. Everyone was respectful, and our guide helped us gently walk away after a few snaps. (We learned that it’s best to politely decline, since if one person is allowed a photo, then everyone else wants in — and you’ll be making cute poses for half an hour).

jama masjid mosque minarets

Loving the warm, subtle design and symmetry of Jama Masjid.

My friends and I try to travel to destinations in the off-season, to avoid crowds. We went in early July, and got lucky — the high heat had died down, but the monsoon rains had not yet fallen. If we went during peak season (October to March), the courtyard would have been teeming with tourists.

chawri bazaar old delhi

The mosque is right next to Chawri Bazar, the chaotic marketplace of Old Delhi. It’s a colorful free-for-all of narrow streets, laborers, fruit stands, beggars, monkeys climbing electrical lines, you get the picture.

rickshaw ride, old new delhi market

We wanted to take in Old Delhi, but it would have been too intense to walk around on our own. Janu Private Tours arranged the perfect solution: a rickshaw ride through the historic district!

Yukiro and I squeezed into the back of the three-wheeled bike, and held on for dear life as our driver peddled through the half-mile-long bazaar.

new delhi garbage, pollution

Our rickshaw raced down the alleyway. I turned to Yukiro and exclaimed, “This is better than the Indiana Jones amusement park ride!”

The driver was a pro, yet it felt like danger was at every turn. Sparks from low-hanging electric wires, puddles of water that I hoped wasn’t sewage, people in the streets, piles of garbage, packs of street dogs…

I’m not going to sugarcoat the experience of India: you’ll see dirt, poverty, difficult sights. But if you come in with a open mind and go with the flow, then this might be the most transformative place you’ll ever visit. 

india religious cults

Every moment was a learning experience. So much to take in; overpowering sights and sounds. So many questions about the unique and sometimes conflicting culture, which Janu and his guides helped us to understand.

Humayan’s Tomb new delhi travel attraction

Since we had a car/driver, we were able to see many sights, and cool off in between under the air conditioning (Janu’s cars come with a chest full of cold water, sodas and snacks for guests).

Onward to Humayan’s Tomb, resting place of the 16th century Mughal emperor. The mausoleum was commissioned by his first wife and chief consort, Empress Bega Begum.

star Humayan’s Tomb architecture

Our guide walked us through the arches, and explained how India’s Mughals are descended from the Mongol empire. These rulers were all Muslim, and India came to a golden age of architecture, culture and science during this era (especially the reign of Shah Jahan in the 17th century).

female traveling india delhi clothes

Enter the portal. I’m wearing a 1991NewYork t-shirt with an image of Lord Shiva.

Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas ornamented the the tomb with symbolic carvings, marble lattice screens, and geometric motifs like eight-pointed stars.

no thank you stella rose backpack

“No Thank You!” Living for my cheeky Print All Over Me x Stella Rose backpack. I’m a huge fan of PAOM, which carries thousands of exclusive designs by artists. On their site, anyone can custom-print artwork onto a variety of garments for both men and women. Every item is produced sustainably, and the quality is top notch (I’ll be showing you more of their designs soon).

I’m standing in the Char Bagh, or “four gardens” that lead to the tomb of Humayan. The Persian-style quadrilateral layout is immense, with symmetrical water channels and hedges.

Humayan’s Tomb mausoleum

The precisely layered shapes draw the eye, and the cut-out windows bring in glowing light.

new delhi astrology astronomy instruments

Perhaps my favorite attraction in New Delhi was Jantar Mantar, a collection of thirteen giant, bizarre astronomy instruments!  In the 18th century, Maharaja Jai Singh II constructed the observatory to chart the movements of celestial bodies and make astrological measurements. 

weird bizarre new delhi, alien jantar mantar

If I came across these structures without knowing what they were, I’d assume they were built by aliens. In fact, they’re instruments based on mathematical principles, and determine various measures of the sun, moon, planets and time. 

Misra Yantra (the strange curving staircase above) is a tool to calculate the shortest and longest days of the year. It can also find the exact moment of noon in various cities and locations, and the results are amazingly accurate.

rama yantra, strange new delhi buildings

Is that the Colosseum of Delhi? Nope, it’s Rama Yantra, which measures the altitude of objects and the azimuth (position of a celestial object such as a star, relative to a point).

Samrat Yantra triangle, jantar mantar delhi

If you look inside the windows, you’ll see the weird sight on the right. The shadow falling on the scale makes the calculus (something to do with the angle and projection onto the horizon — I don’t quite get it).

On the left, this towering structure looks like something out of Burning Man. It’s the Central Triangle of Large Samrat Yantra. This “supreme instrument” serves as an equal hour sundial, but also can precisely measure declination and other coordinates of heavenly bodies. 

new delhi triangle staircase, celestial observatory

“And she’s buying a stairway to heaven…”

The epic triangle is 70 feet high, with a hypotenuse parallel to the Earth’s axis and pointing to the North Pole. It’s flanked by two quadrants with graduations that indicate hours, minutes, and seconds.

astrology new delhi jantar mantar

New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar is a trippy place that got my imagination flowing. I didn’t know the Indian astronomers had such advanced instruments, and enjoyed learning about Jyotish (the traditional Hindu system of astrology). 

india gate janu private tours car

Thanks to Mr Janu’s expert arrangements, we were able to see all of the above in single day. Delhi is a spread-out capital, and this would have been impossible to accomplish on our own.

India is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and driving through Old and New Delhi, you come across the many layers of history. We passed by India Gate, memorial to the 82,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who died in World War I.

Sansad Bhawan Parliament House

We also drove by Sansad Bhawan or Parliament House, which dates back to 1927. This was during the time of the Raj, or British rule of India beween 1858 and 1947 (when Gandhi’s nonviolent movement led to Indian independence).

India has over 700 dialects, but English and Hindi are the official languages, and there remain vestiges of British influence everywhere.

baha'i lotus temple new delhi

The aliens have landed elsewhere in Delhi.

It’s not a spaceship, it’s the Lotus Temple — a Bahá’í House of Worship completed in 1986. Design magazines praised the minimalist organic design and spaceship feel.

Baha’i is a fascinating and inclusive faith that originated in the Middle East. The flower-like temple is open to everybody, regardless of religion, race, gender or any background.

indian rickshaw cycle driver

India, you’re amazing. Even though I’ve been to over 60 countries, there was so much I learned and experienced for the first time.

crazy strange india

It’s a country of contrasts, with elements that Westerners will likely find odd (like holy cows and animals in the streets).

We’ve wanted to see India for a long time, and are glad we “did it right” by traveling with Janu Private Tours. They took care of the logistics of getting around, gave us valuable guidance and helped us dive into the heart of the culture.

new delhi mughal architecture symmetry

Namaste Janu Private Tours for the warm welcome to India! Can you believe we did all of the above in only one day?

I have lots of India stories to share with you: an elephant sanctuary and palaces in Jaipur, Agra’s Taj Mahal, Varanasi on the river Ganga… keep your eyes peeled.

PS: if you have any questions about traveling to India, packing, prep or anything at all, leave me a comment and I’ll help you out as best as I can!

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