A Q&A with Foremost India Travel Expert Sanjay Saxena
Sanjay Saxena, Director of Operations at Nomadic Expeditions, was born in New Delhi, India. A professional guide since 1979, Sanjay has led groups on touring, trekking, climbing, and on safaris to Mongolia, Tibet, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Venezuela, Peru, Iran and across his homeland India.
This November he will helm our Pushkar Camel Fair itinerary, a ‘Royal’ sojourn of India.
In the winter of 1991/1992, Sanjay and renowned climber/cinematographer David Breashears led the first “western descent” of a 200-mile white water stretch on the Brahmaputra River in India, starting at the Tibetan border. This was filmed for the BBC series “Classic Adventures,” and was shown on the A&E network in the U.S. Sanjay continued to bring the first commercial tourist groups to Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.
Inspired by the writing of Frank Kingdon-Ward and Joseph Rock, Sanjay led a small group of intrepid travelers (the first westerners) in 2001, on an overland journey from Lijiang to Lhasa—crossing the Mekong, Salween, and Yangtze rivers—continuing along the south bank of the Tsangpo (Brahamaputra) River in Tibet, completing the journey that Kingdon-Ward had long envisioned but was never able to complete himself.
Sanjay’s deep, insider’s knowledge of his homeland, together with his talent for creating unique itineraries to traditional and remote destinations, make him one of the travel world’s top-ranking India and Tibet specialists. Since 2003 he has received Conde Nast’s “Top Travel Specialist” award for his exemplary tour operations in India, Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
In February 2014, Sanjay was named one of the 51 Honorees at the “Unsung Heroes of Compassion,” honored by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Sanjay was selected as one of the 2014 Honorees for his longtime commitment to involving and empowering local communities in all of his travel destinations, and for the “giving back” projects that he started and continues to oversee in South Asia.
Since 2014 Sanjay has also been the India Trusted Travel Expert on the “WOW” List by WendyPerrin.com.
Sanjay has been visiting the Pushkar Camel Fair since the early 1980’s and has designed this itinerary to explore the best that Rajasthan has to offer, including some hidden gems, exclusive experiences in the Thar desert and to be at Pushkar during the peak of the fair. Along the way travelers will be staying in Palace Hotels and unique lodges on an adventure out of the ordinary.
Your father being a Brigadier General in the Indian Army, you lived all over India as a young person. How would you say those early experiences informed your relationship with the country and a life of journeys?
One of the most important things I learned growing up in multiple cities across the country was a real appreciation for the diversity that is in the country. I remember joining middle school in the southern city of Bangalore (Dad had just been posted there) and I could not communicate with any of my classmates as they spoke Kanada and I spoke Hindi. It was not just the languages spoken that were an issue as we moved around India, but also the cultural differences, outlook in life, attitude, the food, everything was different. As I continued to live in different regions of India, I learned the value of being adaptable, not just accepting change but thriving on it. I was always quick to make friends and get into the local culture which deepened my love for India. Learning so much more about India with firsthand experience definitely influenced my decision of pursuing a career path in travel.
What can travelers expect to encounter on this itinerary that they will find nowhere else?
Well, the name of the trip says it all. Even in a land where there is a festival almost every day of the year, the Pushkar Camel Fair is an event like no other in India, perhaps in the world. Where else do you have a weeklong gathering when villagers across western India congregate in one place, bringing with them camels to barter with, goats and cows to trade, pottery, jewelry and other fine handcrafts to sell. There are camel races, best of breed contests, dance and music performance, parades. It is indeed a time of festivity!
On this itinerary, travelers will be staying at some beautiful hotels. Which of the accommodations may offer the greatest cultural connection to the rich history of India?
I have chosen an eclectic mix of accommodations to give travelers a wide experience. In Jaipur, we stay at the Jai Mahal Palace Hotel, which will give our guests a little bit of insight into what I would call Royal India. Then on the other hand we go to Jamba and get a real dose of village life, which is it on the other end of the spectrum.
Jamba is probably the least well known of the cities on this itinerary. What makes it a must-see and helps deepen the story told along this journey?
Jamba is not a city at all, it is a region in central Rajasthan. Gandhi said to really see or understand India one must visit the villages. The majority of India is still rural, and the beauty of Jamba is that it really is in the middle of nowhere and yet it is in a way the heart of India. Jamba is inhabited by the Bishnoi tribal of Rajasthan who live with nature. Staying in an eco-sustainable lodge, its an excellent place for some private time, one on one with local village life. We are welcomed into the homes of local villagers (picture below), have the opportunity of spending time with them, understand their outlook on life is, while staying in accommodations with Western comfort.
The centerpiece of the journey is of course the Pushkar Camel Fair. What can you tell us about the history of such gatherings? What is their place within the culture of the people who come to take part?
All over India we have hundreds of temples dedicated to two of the “Indian Trinity” of creation: Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. In Pushkar is the only temple in India that is dedicated to the all-powerful Brahma the creator. Pushkar has been mentioned in all our ancient texts, from the Ramayana to the Mahabharata. Mythology puts the creation of the holy Pushkar Lake to when a petal of the lotus flower fell to the location as Lord Brahma was slaying the demon Vajranabha with his weapon—a lotus flower. On the banks of the lake, the temple to Brahma was later built.
The Kartik full moon (eleventh full moon of the Hindu lunar calendar) is considered the most auspicious time to bathe in Pushkar Lake followed by prayers at the Brahma Mandir temple. Thousands of pilgrims would come to do just that. Pilgrims would come a few days early to ensure that they will be able to complete all the necessary rituals to wash away their sins. The religious gathering grew bigger and bigger, and that’s when the “fair” started. Villagers started bringing their camels, cattle and other livestock to barter and trade as they set up their camp outside of the town. Today in the 10 days leading to the Kartik full moon, more than a few hundred thousand camels, cattle, and livestock pass through the small town.
The “Pink City” of Jaipur displays so much color. In some ways it seems a visual microcosm of all of India. How do you describe Jaipur to people who have never been?
I would not say that Jaipur is a microcosm of all of India. That moniker goes to Varanasi, but that’s another story or should I say blog. Jaipur certainly exemplifies Rajasthan and to a certain extent northern India, but central, southern and eastern India are each extremely different.
However, most people’s idea of India—or what they visualize when you say India—is a man in a turban with a big mustache, palaces and forts, snake charmers, sadhus (ascetic holy men), bejeweled women in bright colored clothing… And you will certainly find all of that—and far, far more—in Jaipur. Bazaars! cannot forget the bazaars of Jaipur just teeming with life.
The journey culminates with travelers experiencing the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. Two contrasting structures, each mightily impressive architecturally. What kind of reactions have you seen from people experiencing these marvels?
The perfect symmetry—the intricate inlay stonework on marble—is well documented in photographs, and the Taj Mahal is easily recognized by travelers. Yet despite all the research and reading visitors have done, the one thing that always surprises them is the immense size of the structure. People are almost always awed by its sheer scale. And to think it was constructed hundreds of years ago.
While Agra’s Red Fort was started by Emperor Akbar, it was completed by his grandson Shah Jahn, who also built the Taj Mahal. Even as one is a Fortress Palace and the other a mausoleum, it’s fun to try to identify the sections in the Fort that were completed by Shah Jahan. One starts to see the similarities in construction and details in the extensive use of marble.
What are a couple of books you recommend to travelers to help prepare them to fully appreciate India, in particular this journey to Rajasthan?
It’s hard to list just two bools to cover all the subtle nuances of India but here are a few that do a pretty good job.
Travelers’ Tales India, James O’Reilly & Larry Habegger
An easy read. A collection of 45 descriptive and thought-provoking excerpts on Indian life and culture from the famous and not so famous. It includes essays by Rushdie, Naipaul and Dalrymple, plus some valuable excerpts from books long out of print.
India, Stanley Wolpert
A wonderfully literate introduction to India. Author of 14 books and a professor of history, Wolpert distills a tremendous amount of information in this detailed overview, tackling the environment, religion and philosophy, the arts and sciences, domestic and foreign policy, and culture.
Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
A factual, graphic, detailed account of India’s passage to independence in 1947. At more than 500 pages, it’s daunting but gives an excellent understanding of the foundation of the modern political history of the Indian subcontinent.
For Rajasthan, two books that I would recommend are:
A Princess Remembers, Gayatri Devi
The memoirs of the Maharani (Queen) of Jaipur, who resided in the Rambagh Palace before its conversion into a Hotel. A very readable account of the time of the “Raj” in India.
Princely Rajasthan, Rajput Places and Mansions, George Michell & Antonio Martinelli
This handsomely illustrated book—with text by architect and historian George Mitchell—showcases royal palaces, palace hotels, museums and mansions throughout Rajasthan, nicely balancing interior and exterior views. Organized geographically, the book is an excellent overview of architecture and design. With introductory chapters on the history and significance of Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and other cities throughout the 500-year-old principality.
In recent years several Indian authors have written award-winning fiction. While fictional, they still shed light on India’s cultural heritage and are worth reading. Notable authors: Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has honored you for your longtime commitment to empowering local communities in all of your travel destinations—and for your “giving back” projects in South Asia. Please share if you could what this honor has meant to you, and the importance that giving back has for you.
“Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” is a great slogan, one that has been embraced by the adventure tourism industry. However, I have always felt it is not enough, especially in the areas where I’ve worked, which were deeper in the Himalaya Mountains, populated by small villages of indigenous tribes or remote wilderness areas. Luckily, environmentally sensitive travel, especially amongst the hiking trekking groups, even as far back as the early 80’s has always been very good (e.g.: 100% of water consumed on trips was purified by us and the travelers, so no bottled water was bought—no plastic bottles ever discarded in the wilderness). However, what was dramatically lacking was the social sensitivity, empowering the local people, sharing with the locals a little bit of the wealth that the tour companies were making. I have been in the tourism trade since 1976 when, as a freshman in college, I was hired to guide an American group to the mountains in Kashmir, and I pretty much stayed in the touring profession after that experience. Having worked as a freelance guide for major Indian and American travel companies, I have seen a wide range of operations, and the question that has always haunted me is: “What is a traveler’s moral obligation and social responsibility to the land and the people they visit?”
From the time I started guiding to as recent as the ’90s, American tour operators would never hire a local person (including me) as the trip leader, choosing instead to always send an American (read Caucasian) as the trip leader, even if that person had never been to the destination. Another thing that I noticed was that often the foreign tour company would bring their outside staff (e.g.: bring in Nepalese Sherpa staff to operate a trek/tour in Tibet or India) rather than invest time and money to train locals, thus spending almost no money in the local communities. This style of tour operation did not sit right with me. It wasn’t until 2000 that I was finally in a position of authority and had the means to put my travel philosophy to work—using tourism to empower local people to having long successful careers in the tourism related fields.
That’s where my focus lay, first of all to ensure that only local staff were hired and if necessary, time and effort was put into training them to become successful member of our tourism team. Secondly, really listening to the needs of the villagers and then starting and/or funding projects to help elevate their standard of living. My team and I were following this operations plan as it was the right thing to do and to be recognized for it, especially by His Holiness the Dalai Lama was wonderful. It not only validated what we were doing but actually inspired us to do even more.
An example of one of our successful projects is our “nutritious school lunch” program in Kumarakom, Kerala, which was started with a single Principal at the primary small school telling me that if she could bring kids in the door at the KG/1st Grade, she could get them hooked on learning and they would stay through high school. Since many kids were kept home by their parents and subsisted on a poor diet of rice and dal, together we came up with a scheme to provide a nutritious, free lunch to all children in the school—regardless of whether they already attended school or came in just for the meal. I helped the school create a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) to administer the lunch program. With my India staff’s oversight, the PTA contracted with nearby farmers to grow the produce, local fishermen to provide fresh catch, and hired local cooks to prepare the meals—thus keeping all of the proceeds within a 5-mile radius of each school—thereby helping to better many more lives than just those of the kids who would receive those meals. And since the program is ongoing, the farmers, fishermen, and cooks could count on a steady income for the foreseeable future. The children who came for a free lunch were invited to stay for lessons, and a great many did just that. In the first two years, enrollment at the school went up 38%. In the first five years, more than 150,000 lunches were served.
My work in Nepal in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake demonstrates our long-term commitment to the local communities. Four days after the earthquake, I was in Nepal checking on all of our local staff and helping out in remote villages. I went back a month later to continue helping out in the villages. Through our friends, family, and past clients, I raised more than $30,000 (of which Nomadic Expeditions contributed $5000) for the rebuilding of village schools in the Everest region, which were all successfully completed before the start of the next school year.