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Tom and Jeremy

Photos and story by Tom and Jeremy Nickel

Traveling to India was my son’s idea. He wanted to experience different religions and immerse himself in their everyday practice and expression. Many years ago I had imagined myself in some romantic setting from the Raj, but fortunately nothing ever came of it until he asked me to join him.

He set the framework for the trip around his goal of visiting places built by or sacred to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists. I was the support guy and he was the captain for the two and a half weeks we spent together. It was generational transition on the fly and we knew it. People we met along the way were drawn to the idea of a father-son journey, both before we left when we were at home in the U.S. as well as in India. It was more about their own dads than it was about us.

The picture (inset above) shows Jeremy and me at the famous Shahpura Diwali ceremony attended (briefly) by the Royal Family. It was impressive, fancy and formal, but we had even more fun parading out in the streets later on with a couple hundred thousand new friends.

Stop 1

New Delhi, Delhi

We landed in Delhi at night and started right in at the enormous Jamma Mosque the next morning, where 25,000 people can worship together. We walked around Chandni Chowk, a super high-density, crazy marketplace for everything. We saw the Qutub Minar, an impressive monument to Moghul victories from the 1100s, and visited my favorite part of Delhi, the Haus Khaz Village neighborhood: a thriving area of small shops and homes. But in the middle of that vibrant area, you come upon what is in this image: the tranquil remains of an old reservoir and a Madrasa (an Islamic school pictured above) in a park where people relax, in the midst of crazy Delhi. The school was founded by a Sultan in the 1300s. It’s kind of surreal; a time tunnel.

We also visited the lush and more contemporary Akshardham Temple that lived off by itself, a spectacular, modern structure almost jarring against the rest of the ancient neighborhood: its own huge, modern work.

Stop 2

Agra, Uttar Pradesh

A night train took us to Bharatpur where Rajendra Negri—who was more like our friend than our driver from Delhi—met us and took us on to Agra and the Taj Majal. After being in the car with him in Delhi, our bonding only continued. For that whole drive, about 4 hours, he maintained a constant commentary about everything we were seeing: groups of people doing unique things, and all different sorts of worship and occupations in the area. Every colorful detail on the drive to Agra, he was sure to tell us a story about. Non-stop storytelling. I’m still in touch with Raj.

In this photo you see father and son posing before the world’s most photographed building.

Stop 3


Shiva’s sacred place on the Ganges: Die here and you can get off the wheel of perpetual rebirth. 1,000 people come here every day with that idea in mind. There are 88 ghats, or riverfront steps, along the most sacred section of the river.

We went on from Shiva’s place to Sarnath, Buddha’s place, the next day: an educational complex with ruins. Jeremy and I meditated together off in a quiet area, Jeremy following through with the five-step footsteps-of-the-Buddha program. Later we walked to the main ghat again, where a dozen young men were pulling a huge statue of Kali through the streets, screaming and dancing ecstatically. Jeremy joined them — this was also what he came for.

The boats in the picture took us out to view the evening’s ceremonies from the river. It was worth it. There was music and chanting, fire and colors.

Stop 4

Fatehpur Sikri Palace, Uttar Pradesh

Fatehpur Sikri is a beautiful red sandstone complex founded by the Emperor Akbar as the Moghul capital in 1571. The palace was really a whole community where thousands of people had lived, ranging from the wealthy to the merchants. I guess what got me the most was the understanding that these were colonizing forces of Moghuls who built a magnificent, thriving community for themselves, out of what had once been a simple village. It is now a World Historical site with lots of buildings to visit, all in a uniform architectural style. This picture shows the Jamma Masjid, one of the largest in India.

Stop 5

Jaipur, Rajasthan

We loved Jaipur. I enjoy reading history, fiction, and historical fiction about a place before I visit. I had read all about the local royalty, and couldn’t wait to see the palace. Knowing about earlier times made the whole Rajasthan city come alive for me, from the Amber Fort of the original Rajput people to the tailor shop we visited for custom shirts and pants, delivered to us perfectly six hours later.

The Monkey Temple (Galtaji) is about five miles outside of the city. A series of temples and pools (pictured) was built into a pass in the Aravalli Hills, and it is a Hindu pilgrimage site; the idea is to take a dip in each of the pools on the way up to remove guilt for wrongdoing. Near the top, a young priest gave us a father-son blessing.

Stop 6


Wagah is a little town in Punjab right on the Indo-Pakistani border of northwest India, where the local government hosts a flag lowering every day. Thousands of people come to see this nationalistic ritual, done on both sides of the border. What happens is this: Beautifully uniformed guards strut and choreograph their relative national pride – Indian and Pakistani – and the crowds cheer with competitive delight. It is exactly what national competition should be: ritualized competition with peaceful pageantry.

Stop 7

Amritsar, Rajasthan

In Amritsar, again in Punjab, we made friends with our tuk-tuk driver. He took me to his brother’s place for a haircut (he was a barber): Being a father and son, people tended to notice us. His brother offered to cut my hair for free (of course I paid him), and he brought his father and the whole family along.

We also visited the Golden Temple, where 100,000 meals are prepared and served every day for free by an all-volunteer staff, because serving others is how Sikhs worship. I made a ‘Less Than One Minute’ video of the operation of feeding that many people in one day; it went viral! This picture shows the Golden Temple, across the Holy Pool, in the main Gurdwara (or “temple” in the Sikh religion).

After our two+ weeks together we separated.

Traveling with my son gave me confidence to take on India on my own. I got around Delhi fine — I loved how alive I felt there. I visited Salaam Baalak, a program for helping street kids in Delhi. I realized that I wanted to serve as a volunteer.

My experiences in India increased my interest in end-of-life back at home, and led me to speaking engagements at universities, with religious groups, and for mental health professionals. My son has translated his time exploring religion in India into service helping people meditate and do yoga in virtual reality through his company.

More than anything, our journey to India expanded my sense of what is possible. I was in huge, chaotic cities and tiny remote villages. I ate in wonderful restaurants and I also ate street food. I slept in guest houses and sleeper car berths. Every day meant something new.

I’ve never been more deeply engaged, minute to minute, as I was in India. It made my son feel that way too – he is back there in Varanasi right now.