By Paris Wald
(CNN) -- I made my first trip to India in 1994 with my boyfriend, who was visiting family. Before we went, I was intimidated by how "foreign" India seemed. I imagined the Taj Mahal, women in saris, throngs of people, and cows in the streets. When I got there, I found India a healthy reminder that the way I see things is not how most people on the planet do.
India has played a major role in the history of religions and philosophies, and has blossomed as a meeting place of empires and cultures, past and present, familiar and misunderstood.
Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism all originate in India.
It is the homeland of Mohandas Gandhi, whose philosophies helped liberate the Indian people from British rule and influenced such notable leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
No matter how long your visit, whatever your itinerary, you have not seen India until you have seen the Taj Mahal in Agra. It is the greatest gift from the most gracious period of Indian art and architecture, and you are cheating yourself if you don't see it.