Indian Summer

Quite often, when you tell some people you are flying to India, they may assume you're headed to a yoga retreat, you work in high-tech or you're taking an enlightened voluntourism path.

However, my path involved a different kind of enlightenment — exploring the culture of a country that has fascinated me since childhood.

By the time I was 10, Chicago's West Rogers Park was being transformed from a long-standing Jewish hub into "Little India." Fast-food joints became curry palaces, department stores became sari emporiums, and grocery shelves were full of fragrant foods in interesting packages.

Rather than be saddened by change, I was hooked.

Around 2000, when I took up yoga, frequent talk about India reawakened my desire to go. This year, the path opened up.

Compatible schedules at last enabled Leyla (my best friend) and me to make our long-discussed trip to India, with a provision that the Golden Triangle (Agra and cities in the state of Rajasthan) be our destination.

When we told friends, they steered us to — a favorite travel Web site among Indians and Indian Americans that's now setting its sights on everybody else.

Interest from Jewish travelers and tour groups in the Northeastern United States. is helping the decade-old Indian company fulfill that goal. Rajat Kanti Goswami, deputy manager at the site, says that thanks to a series of recent trips planned with rabbis and synagogue travel groups, agents at the company have become adept at custom-planning itineraries for Jewish travelers.

"We ensure all our guides are not only knowledgeable about the cultural and historic sites, but also specific issues such as the kosher diet and Shabbat," said Goswami.

Examples of attention to detail include vegetarian cooking lessons for a group of seven travelers with a local mother in Delhi, and a group of 40 from a U.S. synagogue meeting with members of a Mumbai (Bombay) Jewish community who conveyed firsthand accounts of their ancestor's effect on India.

We enjoyed a whirlwind day in Delhi, passing over the posh Connaught Place neighborhood in favor of the city's key historic sites, including the Red Fort and the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial.

Though our local driver stopped at Padma Arts & Crafts Bazaar (a lovely but pricey government-run emporium), I had more fun following Leyla's lead, trading notes with Indian tourists, shopping for salwar suits at Kahn Market, and haggling for bargains at Chandni Chowk (near the ironically named White House, our modest hotel).

At sundown, we found our way to the Judah Hyam Synagogue www.jewish , where Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar presided over a group that included two local families, ex-pat executives and visiting young professionals. After blessing his congregation and visitors with passion matching a rabbi addressing a large Philadelphia congregation, he gave us a tour of the center.

"Though there are only 10 local Jewish families in Delhi, my objective is to always keep the fires of Judaism going," said Malekar, a lawyer by trade who grew up in Delhi. "In addition to keeping services going regularly and encouraging Jewish visitors to come, I have a policy of keeping my doors open. As a small community, we count women for the purpose of minyan and do not segregate."

This spiritual uplift was a great prelude to our journey into India's north. Though it took some effort to convince "B.P.," our driver, that we could handle dhaba food, he enlivened our route to Agra via the Haryana and Uttar Pradesh states with unscheduled stops to various temples so new they had not yet made it in to Lonely Planet.

Highlights included a lively Hindu temple built in 2007 that cleverly integrated a water-park element into the experience and a graceful Sikh temple.

The Taj Mahal lived up to its promise as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the stop at the Sikandra Agra Akbar Tomb made for a great build-up.

Guides Can Be Good
However, B.P.'s advice to hire a local guide ensured the walk to and around the sites would be hassle-free, given Agra's reputation for aggressive peddlers. It was nice to be with somebody who was both skilled historian and bodyguard.

While we did not fare as well with the less focused guide who took us through the Fatepur Sikri palatial complex outside Agra (lesson: shop for guides as carefully as you do souvenirs), the air-conditioned auto journey into the heart of Rajasthan was the perfect balance of adventure travel and relaxation.

Commutes between Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur were an extraordinary mix of National Geographic documentary, an extended episode of "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" and a safari where we shared the road with camels, cows, elephants and monkeys.

Umaid Mahal in Jaipur was my favorite hotel — colorful, spotless and superb breakfasts on the rooftop — but all havelis (mansions/hotels), including Mandiram Palice in Udaipur; the Krishna Prakash Heritage Haveli in Jodhpur; and Master's Palace Haveli in Pushkar, were brimming with charm, lovely landscaping and access to all kinds of wonderful surprises enough off the beaten path to not be tourist traps.

In Jaipur, even with its sprawling City Palace and the quirky Jantar-Mantar Observatory, the bazaars and shopping were quite seductive, from the elegant Jaipur Mall emporium to local jewelers Marco Polo and J.R.K. Jewelers.

Jodhpur, likewise, was alive with bazaar commerce, a Sufi pilgrimage parade and an entire street of temples and shrines that enabled us to work off all that rich dhaba food with their formidable stairways.

Though Udaipur's City Palace's decorative arts and historic artifacts were enchanting, there is nothing quite like the occurrence of walking through a variety of architecturally stunning houses of worship, feeling safe, accepted and hopeful that the concept of tolerance toward all faiths can catch on in the right setting.

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