Juliet Rowan reflects on her 10-day trip to India. She was one of four journalists sponsored by the Asia New Zealand Foundation to attend the East-West Center International Media Conference in Delhi this month. The group also visited Mumbai and spent their last day at Agra, site of India's most famous monument, the spectacular, beautiful Taj Mahal.

It is fitting that the last day of our trip to India is spent at the Taj Mahal.

I have been to the Taj once before, half a lifetime ago, when I was 22 years old. I'm now approaching 44, and coming back to India after so long has been a joy.

My fascination with India stretches back to childhood, fuelled by the fact my uncle was born on the vast subcontinent almost 85 years ago.

The son of an English father and Anglo-Indian mother, he was brought up on a rubber plantation where his father was boss in what was then Burma, a province of British India.

My uncle has told me he spent his early childhood surrounded by Indian children, the only British child on the plantation.


Later, he went to English boarding schools in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.

When his parents' complicated relationship faltered, my uncle lived for a time with his aunt in a Calcutta slum.

He was both part of Raj-era British India, but also very much Indian because of his childhood experiences and the semi-marginalised status of his part-Indian mother.

My uncle spent his adult life in New Zealand, marrying my mother's sister soon after immigrating, and they now live in Scotland.

On this trip, he was never far from my thoughts and I was struck again by the deep contrasts of India.

On the one hand, there is the much-talked about poverty of India - the vast slums housing millions - but on the other, there is the majesty.

The opulent hotels of Mumbai, the grand embassies and tree-lined boulevards of Delhi, the splendid food, the riotous colour of gods, saris, marigolds, rose petals and regal Ambassador taxis, and the magnificent monuments - they all testify to India's seat at the heart of empires.

This majesty is perhaps nowhere more evident than at the Taj Mahal, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's monument of love to his second wife, Mumtaz.

The Taj took 22 years to build and stands on the banks of the sprawling Yamuna River.

Towering over the agricultural city of Agra since 1653 and considered the finest example of the Mughals' symmetrical Islamic architecture, it entrances from both near and far.

The Taj is an icon - who can forget Princess Diana's lonely pose with the monument in the background? - while up close, standing in the shadow of the domes, the white Indian marble inlaid with stones like lapis lazuli dazzles with its intricacy.

Detail of the Taj Mahal, inlaid with semi-precious stones. Photo/Juliet Rowan
Detail of the Taj Mahal, inlaid with semi-precious stones. Photo/Juliet Rowan

Dominating a 25-hectare site, the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum for Mumtaz and cost 40 million gold coins to build.

The Mughals came from Uzbekistan to milk the vast resources of India, bringing with them gunpowder and cannons and finding untold wealth.

For me, the Taj is a metaphor for India, the symbol of a land of opportunity and one in which New Zealand is increasingly finding great reward.

Our visits to the heaving produce markets of Mumbai and Delhi prove the point, New Zealand kiwifruit and apples piled high in the stalls.

Kiwifruit grown in Aotearoa is fast becoming a major seller among India's burgeoning middle class, which we hear will soon number 1 billion people.

We are told many Indians ask for "Zespri" when buying kiwifruit, believing that to be the name of the fruit.

It shows the power of clever marketing by the Bay of Plenty company in using Bollywood actors to advertise the product, and also testifies to the power of working collectively with India.

Female entrepreneur Kanika Tekriwal, co-founder of Indian private jet company JetSetGo, built her successful business with little money and tells the 350 journalists at the East-West Centre conference we attend that there is no better place to start a business than her country.

New Zealand is doing much to embrace the Indian market, our Government continuing negotiations for a free trade agreement and easing of tariffs to smooth the path for our products.

Education New Zealand, meanwhile, is working hard to attract Indian students to our tertiary institutions.

After this trip, I couldn't help but think that New Zealanders could also afford India a greater place on their tourist radar.

It is a remarkable destination, not just for the sights, but also the service. I don't think I've ever received such care and attention from hotel staff before, while the five-star accommodation is more like 10-star and the food is some of the best I've eaten.

India is thrilling. Even a ride in an auto rickshaw on the hectic roads is exciting, while being driven in air-conditioned chauffeured cars feels like rare luxury. Our last driver, Major Singh, drove us several hundred kilometres from Delhi to Agra and back again, a gentleman at every turn.

It also helps that I had an amazing bunch to travel with; the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Rebecca Palmer and journalists Chris Chang, Jason Walls and Tom McRae.

Our last day in India we saw the final chapter of Ganesh Chaturthi, the 11-day festival to the god Ganesh.
Our last day in India we saw the final chapter of Ganesh Chaturthi, the 11-day festival to the god Ganesh.

Our trip to India began on the first day of Ganesh Chaturthi, the country's biggest festival after Diwali and Hindus' chance to honour Ganesh, the god of wealth and prosperity.

He is worshipped in homes and communities across the country and given offerings of food, money and flowers for the duration of the 11-day festival.

On our first day in Mumbai, we saw people flocking to stalls selling last-minute Ganesh idols; now in Agra, statues of the god, both small and large, are being carried through the streets by dancing crowds listening to loud Hindi music and covered in colourful paint.

It is the final chapter in the ritual, which ends with Ganesh being immersed in lakes, rivers and the ocean.

The belief is that a careful upright immersion in the water will result in blessings on his followers for the year to come and perhaps into the next life.

It feels like a prosperous end to a prosperous trip.