Travel Sketch: India

Truly, you don’t have to be an artist to sketch your travels. The point is not to create great art (obviously, in my case) but to look and to see in a new way, and then to have a souvenir that is way better than a t-shirt. Here’s mine from […]

Truly, you don’t have to be an artist to sketch your travels. The point is not to create great art (obviously, in my case) but to look and to see in a new way, and then to have a souvenir that is way better than a t-shirt. Here’s mine from a recent trip to India. A bunch of scribbles, really, but it gives me such joy. There is something about looking at them that evokes the scene, the feeling, the memory, in a way that a photograph does not.

So grab a sketchbook and a pen, and maybe a little watercolor set, and come along. 

Lower your expectations. Or better yet, banish them. Sometimes all you have time for is a few lines, as with this attenuated take on I can’t remember what government building in Delhi. It is most always hazy and cloudy in Delhi, a combination of pollution and fog. Or pollution and pollution.

I usually do the drawings, and when I’m sitting around or on the plane or something, splash a bit of color on.

Government building in Delhi

Sometimes you scratch out a quick impression of a complicated scene. And yet looking at the pages below brings me right back to that hectic rabbit warren of houses, shops, stalls, and electrical wires that is old Delhi. Here we had ducked into this calm alcove of houses, with a tiny Jain temple at the end. I also like to make notes of interesting facts, impressions, names, dates… if only I could read them…

Rickshaw in old Delhi

Other times you have a bit more time to be with your subject, as I was with a sculpture of Gandhi. The Ghandi Museum (with a new gift shop!) is in the house and grounds of the private home where the great leader spent his last days under the hopefully protective wing of a friend. But alas. Ghandi was assassinated here, shot at point blank as he stood speaking to visitors during his daily afternoon walk in the garden. The museum is small but well done. Go there in a meditative mood, if you can manage it after the dizzying Delhi traffic.

Mahatma Ghandi

If memory serves, a pressing spa appointment kept me from visiting the Emperor Humayun’s tomb, but I wanted to draw it, so I sketched it from my sister’s photo. Travel sketchbooks do not necessarily require actual travel.

Humayun’s Tomb at left. A woman making rotis for the Sikh Temple kitchen in Delhi.

Of all the impressive sites in Delhi, the one that may have impressed us most was the community kitchen at the Sikh Temple. Staffed and run by volunteers, the kitchen prepares three meals a day, plus tea(!), for whomever comes. They serve the poor, yes, but not exclusively. It is a gathering place for neighbors and friends to gossip and find wives for their sons, and yes, arranged marriages are still very much a part of the culture. (And honestly, after hearing them talk about it, you start to think it’s not so bad.) The diners gather in a large open room and sit in long rows on the floor. The day we visited a fellow did a call-and-response singing prayer thing, which we learned was completely spontaneous, which tickled us. Imagine being in an a Cracker Barrel and someone jumped up to lead everyone in a chorus of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Okay Cracker Barrel was so random.

The Amber Fort, Jaipur

In Jaipur we visited the Amber Fort, which to be honest I could have done in an hour. It was a Sunday and a holiday and the traffic, oy. It cut waaaay into the shopping time. We did, however, see a genuine snake charmer on the road along the way, which while totally culturally sterotype-y etc., was cool to see. There’s a photo of him and lots of other India photos on my Instagram. The Amber Fort was also where we lost His Grace, which did not suit him or us.

Elephants and camels at the Maharaja’s palace in Jaipur, where we had lunch with the M himself.

I said I was not going to do the elephant riding thing. I love elephants, and that is not a political statement. Something about domesticating these magnificent beasts bothers me. But then again something about riding an elephant was irresistible. So much for noble intents.  For the record, though, we were told once the current generation of “tamed” elephants is retired, there will be no more. One of the many absolutely astonishing things about India is that you can see a Ferrari and an elephant pull up to a stoplight, while a camel pulls a cart past a vegetarian McDonald’s.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is I am here to tell you every bit what it is cracked up to be. And the story behind it, oh my heavens. Yes it is romantic that he built it as a tomb to his beloved, but this Shah Jahan guy was also a ruthless bastard who did things like cut off the hands of artisans who built it so they could not build another. Oh, and later he cut off the head of his brother and sent it to his father, whom he had imprisoned. A real sweetheart. But this building, in the misty morning we visited, is other-worldly.

Waiting for the train

I did not mention that part of our trip was by train. That is because the train, the Maharaja’s Express, which was supposed to be so elegant and all, was not. I will say it was a good way to cover a lot of ground in a short time, and the food was good, and the staff were eager to please. But it was not worth what the cost, period. Before our trip I hadn’t known anyone who had taken it. Hello, there is usually a reason for that, and the reason is it sucks. And it did not suit His Grace one bit. But before you get out your violin, the rest of the trip was very swish. 

A rare (and messy) “Dancing Ganesh” (left) and the Lakshmana Temple in Khajuraho.

Khajuraho is a small town that is home to an extraordinary group of monuments built by the Jains from the 10th to 12th centuries, predating even 12th century Angkor Wat. This is the place where they have all the sculptures and friezes depicting the Kama Sutra, yes that one. Our guide said, “If you have any questions, don’t ask them.” I found Indians in general to have marvelous and endearing senses of humor.

Two of the world’s largest chandeliers, each 42 feet high and weighing 3.5 tons, in the Maharaja’s Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior.

OMG these chandeliers in the Maharaja’s palace in Gwalior. The guide said they were the largest in the world. Certainly they must have been when they were installed in the late 19th century. (Take that, Versailles!) But the wildest part is that to test the strength of the roof before installing them–because you would not want these babies to go Phantom-of-the-Opera on you–they put eight elephants on the roof. A ramp one kilometer long was built up to the roof, and the elephants marched up one by one and stayed a week. There’s a joke in there somewhere…

They say India is a place of extremes. An understatement.

The Monsoon Palace in Udaipur.

I loved Udaipur and the lakes. And the palaces. The Monsoon Palace is so-called because it is high atop a mountain, and the clouds go through it. All the furniture is waterproof. No I made that up.


For a change of pace and a break from the hectic cities, we spent a night in a tented camp in Jawai, at the desert’s edge. I changed the pace of my sketching too, opting for a pencil drawing with a bit of watercolor wash. I normally draw in pen because it doesn’t smudge. Pen also sort of forces you to commit, for better or worse, because you can’t erase.


There are leopards in Jawai, and we were lucky to spy a mama and two cubs, high in the rocks at dusk as they were coming out to hunt. Or Mama was would hunt. The cubs would probably just goof off. Especially if they were boys. KIDDING, I’m kidding. Sort of. Okay not really.

A Rebari shepherd in Jawai.

Turbans, practical as protection from the heat and any number of functions when unwrapped to their several meters’ length, were once universally worn by men in India. You could tell which region someone was from by the turban he wore. Encroaching adoption of Western dress has diminished the custom (except among the Sikhs), making the bright red turbans worn by the Rebari shepherds around Jawai all the more distinctive. I was dying for one. A turban, not a shepherd.

The ca-razy fabulous Clocktower Market of Jodhpur.

Jodhpur, with its magnificent fort and sea of blue houses, was our last stop. This drawing of the Clocktower Market is from my imagination. It doesn’t quite look like this, but this is the idea of it. An ocean of umbrellas and entrepreneurs  selling everything from saris to bangles to spices to salt. Motor-scooters and rickshaws rocket back and forth through impossibly narrow alleyways, and you feel like you’re in a video game. One day, on the curb surrounding the tower, sat a man sewing. People brought him clothes to mend and pieces to sew, and that’s what he did, all day. That’s him in the bottom right corner, in ochre.

Now one thing I should warn you about sketching in public is that sometimes you sit down to draw instead of visiting (another) mosque, and the entire pipsqueak judo team from Uttar Pradesh wants to say hello and take selfies.

The Uttar Pradesh school judo team, and me, Picasso-not.

That would never have happened if I hadn’t been sitting there drawing, and that is part of the fun.

Lots more photos on my Instagram a few weeks back.

Namaste, Fran-casso






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