Senses are assaulted at every turn on a tour of India's Golden Triangle, writes Catherine Masters.
Suddenly through the thumping humanity and constant beep beeping and parp parping of jam-packed Chandi Chowk bazaar in Old Delhi emerged a little procession of tranquil naked and semi-naked men.
They were Jain priests - sans clothes because of a belief in non-attachment to all possessions - observing the birthday of the founder of their faith, about 2600 years ago.
We watched in fascination as they slipped through the hustle of fully dressed locals who took absolutely no notice of them ... until our attention was taken up by the noisy arrival of another procession. This one was more like a Salvation Army band and apparently on some sort of political rally.
As the band marched out of sight and the dust from the dirt road once again mixed with spices to make a musty, heady oxygen, our third parade within the hour arrived.
The noise amped up even more, if that's possible, as a three-wheeled auto rickshaw with big speakers came by, blaring out a swirling, whirling music and we were engulfed by a group of men who had with them a big billy goat dressed in a sparkly red coat with big wild eyes.
Not only must the goat have been freaked out and deafened by the music, they were forcing the poor fellow to walk on his hind legs. They pushed him towards us again and again, seemingly intent only on having his picture taken, which we did on a kind of autopilot until the disburbing moment passed and they melted back into the clanging throb of the parade.
This was a procession of Dalits, said our guide, adding that it was rare to see so much action on the same day, though the labyrinth of crowded alleyways of Chandi Chowk, with its alarming tangles of power lines hanging over rows of vibrant shops brimming with colorful saris and odorous spices, seemed permanently full of action to us.
Dalits are the bottom caste in India - formerly known as untouchables - and their parade was in celebration of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit leader who fought for equality and became deputy Prime Minister in the late 1970s. His daughter-in-law Meira Kumar is the current speaker of the Indian Parliament.
Life had improved for the Dalits, said our guide. The Government looked after them and no one was allowed to call them untouchable.
But, of course, people still discriminate. In a village in Samode in the state of Rajasthan, one of many amazing places we visited on this fantastical tour of the Golden Triangle (the tourist loop of the cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), a local man showing us around said he would not let Dalits into his house, though he did allow them to clean outside it. And a snippet in the Times of India told how 500 schoolchildren had refused to eat their lunch because it was prepared by Dalits.
This sort of thing makes India confronting. If you travel here, even on a luxury trip like ours, you will be shocked by some of the beliefs and certainly by the poverty, no matter whether you have braced yourself for it: the man without hands at Chandi Chowk, for instance, or the heart-breaking sight of the crying, naked toddler at an intersection in the famous pink city of Jaipur with her arm outstretched as if she was learning to beg, while her mother tapped on car windows asking for money.
But your breath will be taken in other ways too. India is also a land of stunning opulence, of ancient palaces and of working, weary elephants, sometimes parked at the side of the street with bicycles.
It is a land of sumptuous vegetarian feasts and of splashes of pink and yellow saris matching the bougainvillea growing wild along the roads, all this as the litter piles up and a man in a camel cart waves a friendly greeting as he passes your air-conditioned van.
Some images remain with you long after you arrive back home, and not just the desperate poverty or the obvious need of a vet trip for many, if not most, of the animals.
There are wonderful images of families crammed into rickshaws or crowded on a motorbike who smile and wave, or the men piled on top of the buses or hanging off the back of a truck who grin and take your photo as you take theirs.
Then, the minute your coach stops, there are the hot, hopeful faces pressed against the windows imploringly offering grapes or trinkets for sale.
Unforgettable, too, are the ancient redbrick forts built by Mughal emperors and set high into the hills of the sub-continent once called Hindustan, known in centuries past as the land of gold and with countless tales of invasions, bloodshed and obsessive love.
Speaking of obsession, we stayed at the plush Oberois Amarvilas hotel in Agra where every room has a view of that ode to love, the Taj Mahal, and where, if you sit out on your balcony in the warmth of the evening, it smells differently at night.
Perhaps this is the thousand spices released into the air from fires fuelled by cow dung patties. In the distance, a stone's throw away, the timeless Taj silhouettes against the moon as late into the night noise still pulsates from all around; a woman's shrill voice singing, constantly barking dogs, and drums that build and build to a crescendo which never quite comes.
En route to Jaipur, we dined at the luxurious Samode Palace. This was once a fortified stronghold in the hills but later became a Rajput palace and is now a hotel. We were greeted in the dark by pipe music and rose petals were thrown over us.
The palace is from a fairy tale, with its high ceilings and walls inlaid with tiny mirrors, fit for a maharaja indeed; we watched dancing girls balancing pots of fire on their heads as they swirled around and around without falling over.
In Jaipur, the Rambagh Palace is also now a hotel. Here the bedside tables are made of marble and you can listen to a mesmerising looping promo on the widescreen television narrated by the wind which takes you back in time to maharajas of old, but more recently, too, to when the beautiful maharani lived here and hosted Jackie O and Princess Diana and where, such was the lifestyle, guests used to pass the time playing card games on the lawn in a tent heavy with mosquito nets, or play polo from the backs of lumbering elephants.
At the end of your stay, staff line up and wave goodbye, just like Downton Abbey.
But at the end of the driveway as you head back out into India, from this Days of the Raj setting, you will bump straight into poverty again and your senses will be assaulted once more. We were warned at the outset not to try to solve or even understand the phenomenon around us, and to be patient: be prepared to be bewildered, excited, thrilled and inspired, we were told. That's India.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines has daily flights to Singapore from both Auckland Christchurch, and from there connects to Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi in India. It offers airfares to India starting at $2104 (return, including taxes).
Getting around: Insight Vacations offer a range of luxury tours to many parts of the world. Splendours of Taj & Tiger is 10 days, priced from $7550 per person, twin share, land only. Departures available from October 1, 2012 until April 15, 2013. Visits Delhi, Agra, Ranthambhore and Jaipur.
Catherine Masters travelled the Golden Triangle with Insight Vacations with assistance from Singapore Airlines.By Catherine Masters Email Catherine