Magical India has everything queer travelers want

Taj Mahal. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

As I’m packing my bags to return to India to visit my girlfriend’s family, I am revisiting my trip to India in 2020 right before the COVID pandemic. Sorting through interviews and photos, I have been transported back to that amazing journey. I only hope this trip will be just as wonderful.

On Christmas Day in 2019, my girlfriend and I boarded a plane for India to celebrate her parents’ 61st wedding anniversary at the turn of 2020 and for me to meet her extended family for the first time.

Late fall and winter are the best times of the year to visit India. The weather is perfect. It’s warm and balmy in the south and chilly in the north. In the fall, many people travel to India for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and in the spring they travel for Holi, the festival of colors.

I was also going to India to meet with LGBTQ travel experts for stories and activists for international news articles to learn more about the state of the LGBTQ movement in the country. In 2018, India’s Supreme Court struck down the British colonial-era anti-sodomy law, Section 377. The law was often used to criminalize LGBTQ people, especially gay and bisexual men. It was the second time Section 377 was struck down. The Delhi High Court first struck it down in 2009. India’s Supreme Court reinstated the law in 2013. 

At the end of 2019, India’s parliament passed several controversial laws that impacted the transgender community, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill in 2019, two national citizenship laws, and two amendments to the country’s citizenship laws. The citizenship laws largely affected all non-Hindu people living in India, but also LGBTQ people, especially transgender people, due to not having proper government IDs for various reasons. The laws prompted some deadly protests.

Three years later, as I prepare to return, the country’s supreme court will begin hearings for same-sex marriage March 13. It will be exciting to see queer Indians’ response to the hearings at this momentous moment in the country’s history.

Journey through India

Planning an LGBTQ trip to India, even for the skilled traveler and journalist I have become, has its challenges. In the past and even now, there are tour operators and hotels that said they were LGBTQ-friendly but turned out only to be after the pink rupee (pink dollar), falling short on how to handle LGBTQ travelers’ needs once queer travelers are on the tour. Finding India’s queer community and businesses, especially for queer women, is getting easier in India’s most populous cities such as New Delhi, the capital, and Mumbai, its financial center. But when stepping outside these hubs, finding community continues to be a challenge because businesses aren’t publicly out for safety and financial reasons.

However, over the last 15 years, India has been opening up to queer Western travelers. Since 2009, some LGBTQ travel companies, both Indian- and foreign-owned, have paved the way by planning legitimate LGBTQ-welcoming packaged trips. In 2020, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association launched its India Task Force (now the India Initiative), of which I’m a member. The initiative is making headway into opening India to queer travelers. This February, IGLTA hosted its first India LGBTQ travel symposium at LaLiT New Delhi and appointed Keshav Suri, a gay man, the new chair of the India Initiative.

Sambhav Dehlavi, the gay owner and tour guide of Purani Dilliwala Iqbal, leads an LGBTQ history tour through New Delhi. (Photo Credit: Heather Cassell)

The Indian luxury hotel chain is owned by the LaLiT Suri Hospitality Group and operated by Suri. Suri was one of the plaintiffs in the case that repealed Section 377. The hotel’s nightclub, Kitty Su, hosts drag shows and gay DJs on specific nights.

“It’s the perfect time to come” to India because the country is opening up to LGBTQ people and offers diverse experiences from culinary to wildlife, wrote Robindro “Robin” Saikhom, a gay man who is the founder of Serene Journeys, one of the Indian gay-owned travel companies, in an email interview with the Bay Area Reporter. 

“India has virtually everything the world traveler is looking for, all set in a festive, friendly environment,” he added.

I selected New Zealand-based Out in India to help me plan most of my trip in India. I also booked an Intrepid Travel’s eight-day Golden Triangle tour that started in New Delhi and traveled to Jaipur, known as the “Pink City,” and the Taj Mahal in Agra. Intrepid Travel launched a women-only tour of India in 2020.

To travel to India, Americans need a visa. I used a service like Atlys or iVisa, but to save money, skip the additional administrative fee on top of the visa fee and get an evisa directly from the Indian Consulate. This can take 24 to 48 hours.

My girlfriend and I traveled to Mumbai, Pune, and Nashik in the Indian state of Maharashtra and Kochi (also known as Cochin) in the state of Kerala. I traveled on my own to Rajpipla in the state of Gujarat, and then to New Delhi, before joining the tour.

Traveling through India for five weeks was one of the best journeys I’ve ever experienced. I was taken in by the busy streets, the blend of spices that waft into the air from street markets and restaurants, the juxtaposed poverty and wealth neighboring each other, the art and culture, the layers of history, and the friendliness and warmth of its people. I enjoyed meeting many LGTBQ Indians and learning about their fight for LGBTQ rights and their hopes for the future of their movement and country. India is truly an unforgettable adventure.

My girlfriend and I found a country growing into its modern identity, a fusion of old India and the Western world while keeping its native and colonial history. We found ourselves turning corners and eating at restaurants that made us question if we were in India at all before then being reminded, around another corner, that we were very much in the country.

Art, culture, and history

India has a layered history from centuries of invasions including by the Mughals and the British, from people escaping persecution such as Jews from Israel and the Parsis from Iran, and from the country’s own tribes and enslavement of Africans. Each community left its mark on the artistry, design and architecture in antiquities and present day India. In India’s cities, from the palaces and country clubs of the British Raj to the temples and edifices of the Mughals, art and history were etched in stone and evident in the engineering of each building. It was breathtaking, overwhelming, and also thought-provoking.

I couldn’t have gone on my first trip to India without seeing the Taj Mahal in Agra. The ivory Mughal mausoleum lives up to its hype from its impressive stance and history. Perched above the Yamuna River it is stunning at sunset when the marble gets that golden glow captured in thousands of photos, but nothing will ever beat seeing it in real life.

Not as impressive, but close, is the Hawa Mahal (Pink Palace) in Jaipur. It was built out of red and pink sandstone in 1799 and is an extension of the Royal City Palace for women of the royal court to enjoy peering out into city life without being seen. There is also the mystical appearance of Jal Mahal (“Water Palace”) settled on top of the water as if it is floating in the middle of Man Sagar Lake; it is believed to be a former summer palace of the royals built in 1699. The Amber Fort, built in 1592 out of red sandstone, rests on top of a hill over the small town of Amer. Each historical structure has an interesting story behind it.

The Hawa Mahal, known as the “pink palace,” was constructed in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, a Kachwaha ruler (1778-1803) of Jaipur, that allowed the women of the royal household to peer out into the city center without being seen in public from the five-story edifice. (Photo Credit: Heather Cassell)

In New Delhi, I enjoyed visiting the Lotus Temple and the famous Sikh temple, Sheeshganj Gurudwara, where they feed 10,000 people daily.

Queer India

Never in her wildest dreams did my girlfriend believe she would kiss her significant other at a queer party in her father’s hometown, she told me. Yet, on New Year’s Eve 2020, we were surrounded by more than 700 LGBTQ partygoers at Mist LGBTQ Foundation’s party to ring in the new decade and year at the Hyatt Pune. At the stroke of midnight in a crowded room, we clinked glasses and locked lips.

India’s LGBTQ community is vibrant, creative, and full of life. In Mumbai, I spent a fun evening at a lively queer trivia night hosted by Gaysi Mumbai, an LGBTQ group that promotes queer events, at the Independence Brewery Company in Andheri West.

One of the wonderful things about India is its art and culture and literary scene. I was pleased to discover LGBTQ artists and art experts, like Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender woman, gallery founder, and director of Sahodari Art Gallery. The gallery, which features 45 LGBTQ artists, mostly transgender people, is located about four hours outside of Kochi by car.

In Mumbai and New Delhi, I learned about the city’s LGBTQ art scene and history with gay art historian Aditya Ruia, the owner of Bombay Art Gallery. Ruia also leads an LGBTQ art tour guide in Mumbai. Then, on one of my memorable nights in Mumbai, I randomly toured Colaba’s Art Deco architecture, art galleries, and boutiques with filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari.

In New Delhi, Serene Journeys’ Saikhom leads guests through about 55 public murals on the Lodhi Art Public Art Tour. Sambhav Dehlavi, the gay owner and tour guide of Purani Dilliwala Iqbal, leads an LGBTQ history tour through the city.

The tour with Dehlavi was one of the most memorable tours I experienced during my trip. One of the sites he showed me was a tomb of a king and his male or transgender lover buried side-by-side. There were many other sites throughout New Delhi where it is suspected that LGBTQ history took place.

India also hosts a number of LGBTQ festivals from Pride celebrations, including Queer Azaadi Mumbai (January/February) and Delhi Pride (last Sunday of November), and the 18-day transgender festival, Koovagam (March/April) south of Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai. There are also events, like New Delhi’s Rainbow Lit Fest (December), and film festivals, like Mumbai’s KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival (June).

Food, beer, and wine

Microbreweries are all the rage in India. Pune is the birthplace of India’s microbrewery scene. In 2020 there were 12 craft breweries in the city and many more throughout India. My girlfriend and I were thrilled to discover the craft breweries that served excellent beers with delicious bar food. We barhopped through Pune and Mumbai, stopping at Effingut Brewery, Independence Brewing Company, and Toit Brewery in Pune, and Doolally Taproom and Drifters Tap Station in Mumbai.

Nashik is the birthplace of India’s emerging wine industry. India’s wine country boasts more than 30 wineries. Nashik was inspired by, and has roots in, California’s wine country, but it won’t be mistaken for California’s Napa Valley or Sonoma County. Nearly a quarter century since the first grapes were planted at Sula Vineyards in 1996, to its first bottle crafted and corked in 1999, producing quality Indian wine is still a work in progress.

India’s first winery, Sula Vineyards, established 1999 in Nashik, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. (Photo Credit: Heather Cassell)

Sula Vineyards was founded by former Bay Area resident Rajeev Samant, who transformed his family’s table grape farm in 1996 into a winery with the help of his friend and Sonoma winemaker Kerry Damskey.

During the few days that we hung out with my girlfriend’s cousins on her mother’s side of the family in Nashik, we went to Sula and visited York Winery. However, the best Indian wine we discovered was at a bar in Fort Kochi, produced by Big Banyan Vineyard in Bengaluru. It gave us a glimpse of the possibility that India could one day produce California-quality wine.

Kochi, Kerala is where I got my fill of seafood. On the shores of the Arabian Sea the port town is known for its Chinese fishing nets, beaches, and backwaters traversed by boat to see the wildlife. 

Where to eat

We cautiously ate our way through India. We took recommendations from friends and looked for modern eateries that we would expect to see back home and places that looked clean. Some of our favorite restaurants included:

Mumbai: The Birdsong Cafe, a charming organic eatery tucked away on a narrow street in Bandra West, Loya at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, and Jimmy Boy, a local Parsi restaurant that Ansari introduced me to in Colaba, Mumbai. 

Pune: We happened upon the Pan Asian restaurant Malaka Spice and enjoyed cocktails at Culture.

Kochi: In Kochi, we enjoyed freshly caught fish grilled and poached at Fort Cochin around the corner from the Trident Hotel Cochin, where we stayed.

New Delhi: I enjoyed a variety of excellent cuisine in New Delhi. On my last night there I ate a wonderful Italian dinner at lesbian-owned Diva restaurant. Chef Ritu Dalmia, one of the plaintiffs in the 377 case, opened her new restaurant in Greater Kailash-2, an unofficial gayborhood where rainbow flags wave freely outside many businesses. I enjoyed another good Italian dinner at Fat Jar Cafe & Market. LaLiT New Delhi’s Pan Asian restaurant, OKO, offers the flavors of Asia and views of the city at the top of the hotel. The Spice Market Kitchen & Bar in the city’s Southern Park Mall served up spicy tandoori and flavorful dishes.

Where to stay

In Mumbai and New Delhi, I stayed at the LaLiT Hotel. I also stayed at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai, India’s eco-friendly Orchid Hotel, and a vacation rental in Bandra West in Mumbai.

In Pune, we stayed at the Hyatt Pune. In Jaipur, our tour group stayed at the Hotel Arya Niwas, and on our way to Agra we stayed at Hotel Bhanwar Vilas Palace in Karauli, a town in the mountains between Jaipur and Agra.

In Nashik, we stayed at the three-star business focused Ibis Hotel.

Getting off India’s beaten path, I stayed as a guest of the LGBTQ Community Ashram, the community center and retreat in Rajpipla owned by gay Indian Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil and his husband, DeAndre Richardson. The ashram was being built on the banks of the Karjan River to provide services for the local LGBTQ community and a retreat for queer organizations.

Getting around

My girlfriend and I flew on United Airlines from San Francisco to Mumbai, stopping briefly in Newark airport in New Jersey. We flew Swiss Air from New Delhi through Zurich back to San Francisco for our return trip. We flew on IndiGo, an Indian domestic airline, to destinations within India. We used Uber to hail rickshaws and cars throughout our trip.