As I arrive to Agra the streets feel noisier and more chaotic than other places in India. I hired the same guy that dropped me off at the hotel to take me on a tour to see the city highlights. I enjoyed a nice lunch on the rooftop restaurant of the hotel where I saw the Taj Mahal for the first time, very exciting!
I save visiting the Taj until I meet Mark. I begin by visiting other sights in the city, the Agra Fort, a very impressive Mughal fort built right on the edge of the Yamuna river by the Emperor Akbal. The Itimad-ud-Daulahb or the baby Taj, the first Mughal structure and mausoleum all built in marble and on the banks of the Yamuna river.
I ended the day at Mehtab Bagh, the popular sunset point from which you get perfect views of the Taj Mahal from the north, right across the Yamuna river.
The following day I met Mark at the West gate at 6:00am to get in line and enter the Taj Mahal complex. It is stunningly beautiful and mesmerizing. Words can’t describe the magnitude and the beauty of such feat. As it is called the ultimate representation of eternal love. This is the place that Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had built for her favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Her tomb is next to his, where she lies with her head facing west towards Mecca ready to rise when the time comes (no pictures allowed inside the masoleum). There is a big contrast to notice here between the Taj Mahal and the city that houses it… the city seems so forgotten, dirty and unorganized. The Taj Mahal is so clean, orderly and elegant… as if the guests showed up in rags to the grandest gala ball of the year.
We hear some drums being played on the streets. As we get closer, we see a group of women in a procession carrying pots on their heads. They have different clay gods inside them as part of the celebration of the Navratri or the ‘Festival of Nine Nights’ when Hindus celebrate the goddess Durga in all her incarnations. The women fast during these nine days. They take the clay statues to the river to be submerged.
We took a tour of Fatehpir Sikri a Unesco world heritage site. We wanted to take the bus there to save money but we got a great deal to go on a private tour by rickshaw. This place is a very impressive ancient city built in the 16th century and reigned by the Emperor Akbal. We visited a few buildings inside it including the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti tomb. He predicted the birth of the Emperor’s heir and to this day people come here to make wishes over his tomb by following a specific ritual of laying a cloth (that you buy on site), spreading some rose petals all over it and finally tying pieces of precut thread to one of the windows near it. And of course we partook in the activity and made our wishes.
Our drive back to Agra was very exciting, it was a more thrilling ride than anything at six flags in California. Our driver went very fast dodging all kinds of big cars, pedestrians, motorcycles, other rickshaws and even passing big trucks all without using his horn (as customary here). He stayed very calm through the whole thing but I am sure the joint he smoked while driving had something to do with it.
I decided to give another chance to bus travel in India to head to Delhi but I regretted every minute of the four hours that I endured of it. I supposedly had my own seat but the man next to me pretty much used half of it as his body spilled over me. I had to remove his hand from my thigh a couple of times, and wake him up later to ask him to take his leg off of mine. I also froze to death as the windows were wide open and impossible to close. The back-up drivers were spooning on the bus floor right over my feet; which limited my movement and kept me from stretching my legs out. It was a nightmare! Upon our arrival in Delhi four hours into the ride I decided to get off. I found myself in the middle of nowhere with no place to go at 4:00am. Luckily it seems I have some guardian angels in India that kept me safe and helped me find a hotel after a failed attempt to get on a train to Rishikesh at the last minute. They have a separate quota to for foreigners but unfortunately it was full that morning. Here is a helpful link to understand the railway system and the different train classes in India: http://goindia.about.com/od/rail/tp/Indian-Train-Accommodations.htm
I decided to see the sites in Delhi for a couple of days before I ventured out (again) to Rishikesh. Mark had already made it to Delhi so we got together to go see the India gate, a beautiful sculpture surrounded by green gardens honoring those who died in different wars. We later visited the important Muslim shrine of sulfi Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Dargah; which pilgrims visit regularly. We were the only two foreigners there for a while and while Mark proceeded to offer a rose necklace to the tomb (with the rest of the men), I stayed with a group of women who invited me to sit with them. They were very nice and welcoming and tried to include us in the prayers and offered us cookies. We later got to witness the entire set of a Muslim prayer by the majority of the men there. It was very special; usually non-muslims are asked to leave these holy places during prayer times but they didn’t mind us there in this case.
We tried some yummy street side BBQ
We tried the city metro for the first time. It was very easy to use, although very crowded at peak hours, but I very much enjoyed traveling in the “women-only” section
We visited the Red Fort and the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid. In this mosque they allow you to go up one of the minarets and get 360 views of the city.
We headed over to Connaught place for sunset and ended up staying to watch a traditional dance on a public stage.
The Yoga capital of the world and a pilgrimage site for many Hindus. After my experience on the bus I thought I could handle this early train at 3:40am. It felt a bit overwhelming to be in a train station again at night… 80% of the travelers are men and almost everyone is sleeping on the floors. There are rats everywhere and no places to sit. I find what looks to be a safe little corner next to a group of women. I place my bag down on the filthy floor and sit on it. We finally board the train and I get into my sleeper berth. I recommend traveling Tier2 AC class if you want a bit of privacy as a solo female traveler. After five hours of good sleep, I move to an available lower seat to admire the views outside. I am finally far away from chaotic Delhi. As I sit here enjoying some breakfast sold by a local vendor, I think once again about how lucky I am to be on this journey and thankful that everything has gone well so far.
I arrived to a town surrounded by mountains where the Ganges runs through. This is also where you find the cleanest part of the river. I decided to get a little taste of the ashram life at the Anand Prakash Ashram. They were fully booked but they had me stay in a nearby guesthouse and still included all meals and activities in the daily rate. An ashram is a spiritual and/or educational place ran by a guru or sage. These places usually focus on yoga, meditation and/or other Hindu traditional practices. As part of your daily fee you can participate in yoga classes twice a day, the fire Puja (prayer) every morning and eat all three (vegetarian) meals in-house. Everyone helps with cleaning their dishes and keeping the place tidy. It was very peaceful and comfortable and I met some wonderful people here from the UK, Australia and Italy.
On my free time I tried some of the meditation classes, an Ayurvedic massage and hiked on nearby trails with friends
After Rishikesh, I went back to Delhi for a couple of days and visited Akshardham. This is a Hindu place of worship, a spiritual and cultural campus. It is a tribute to Bhagwan Swaminarayan a spiritual leader. The temple was built by Sadhu (religious devotee) Pramukh Swami Maharaj. This is a very impressive cultural and religious center that represents peace and divinity. The major complex is a temple with statues and shrines of important Hindu deities like Krishna, Parvati, Laxmi, etc. The temple is built in pink stone and white marble. It has magnificent carvings all over its pillars and high domes. There is a gold-plated statue of Swaminarayan in the middle. It is an absolutely beautiful and peaceful place. On the outside you find a nice tribute to animals- stone sculptures of elephants and other wild animals surrounding the temple. There are steel plaques with written explanations about the importance of elephants to the Indian culture. One of my favorite parts is the Lotus garden; which is shaped in the form of a giant lotus flower and in each petal you find quotes about faith in God from great thinkers, scientists, and leaders from all over the world. No cameras are allowed inside the complex but here is a nice shot I found on the internet
Last but not least, I visit Varanasi. This city is known for being a pilgrimage destination, a religious and spiritual city on the Ganges River; which is considered to be holy for many Hindus. My stay in the city starts with a bit of adventure. I decided to share a taxi with an Indian guy from the airport to the city center. I am told that I will be dropped off at some junction 800 m from my hotel as the streets are usually crowded and to narrow for cars. It seems I am the only foreigner trying to get into town during the madness of the Dussehra, the culmination of the Navratri festival. The taxi drops us off somewhere about 4 km away from town (not where they had said); which is too far to walk with my heavy backpacks. The guy that I shared the taxi with negotiates a bicycle rickshaw for me to get me as close as possible to my hotel.
I meet Mark again and we plan a sunrise boat ride for 5:30am. It is a busy morning in Varanasi by the Gahts, with people everywhere, sadhus praying, pujas being offered, people bathing, tourists photographing, and corpses going in the water to be purified before their cremation. We learn that if the family has no means to pay for a cremation, the deceased ends up being sunk in the river. There are also others that are not allowed to get cremated like small children under the age of ten, sadhus, people who die from cobra bites and animals. The fire that is used for the cremations is called the Siva fire; which has been burning consistently for 3,500 years. All bodies are submerged for purification, burned and afterwards the bones are thrown in the Ganges river. No photos are allowed during the cremations (and not that I wanted to take any)…
Photos of the sunrise boat ride
We watched the traditional nightly fire puja by the river with hundreds of people around us and others watching from the boats
We go around town for a stroll but the scene is quite overwhelming and we decide to make a stop at one of the popular lassi shops. A lassi is a popular sweet yogurt drink. As we sit in the shop waiting for the lassi we witness two processions of dead bodies wrapped in golden and orange saris on their way to the river to be submerged. No time to take photos…
Here are some shots of busy Varanasi during the daytime
There are more than 100 Ghats in Varanasi. Some of the prominent and popular Ghats are the Dasaswamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Harischandra Ghat, Kabir Ghat and Assi Ghat.
Mark left for Nepal a day earlier than me. On my last day alone, I walked on the banks of Ganges by the Ghats. A man started guiding me through them (without being asked) and took me to the Siva temple where I met the main priest who showed me the place and took me through all of the prayer rituals. He had me repeat mantras and do Pujas as we went from god shrine to god shrine. I was given the Santi Chandan (3rd eye) on my forehead, a flower necklace and bracelets for good luck. I stepped out of the temple and instead of throwing the flower necklace in the river as suggested by the priest, I took it apart and fed the flowers to the buffaloes who were very happy to get breakfast that morning.
We saw yet another body being burned at the Harishchandra Ghat. Women are not allowed at the ghats for the cremation as they tend to get very emotional. We had been told that one woman had thrown herself in the fire during her husband’s cremation so they were now banned by the government from attending the ceremonies. The men relatives of the deceased will usually wash in the Ganges after the cremation.
More images of the Ghats and the activities taking place around them
We continue with our walk along the river and we see more bodies burning, some sadhus begging for money (not supposed to), people bathing, touts selling boat rides, cows and buffaloes trying to find food, tourists walking, pujas being offered, etc.
I am still wondering what my guide Papu wants from me. They don’t do this for free! He finally tells me that he does not want any money but he would like me to buy a lassi at the shop where he works. After I tell him that I don’t want to try a “special” bang lassi, he asks me to just buy a regular lassi… well I can do that! It was a yummy, sweet and creamy… just delicious!
On my way back to the guesthouse I ran into a Durga procession. Many men carry the statue through the narrow streets stopping all foot traffic. Today is the last day of the Navratri festival and all the statues are being carried to the river to be submerged.
At the beginning is hard to ignore the uncomfortable things about this city… the trash everywhere, the cow dung, the chaotic traffic, etc. But a couple of days into the visit I quickly learn to accept the place just for what it is and actually enjoy its unique personality and contagious spirituality. On my last day I truly felt like I was in a holy place. Varanasi had just started to grow on me as I was ready to leave for my next destination. I will never forget this place!!!
India will capture your soul, will test all your senses, will entice you to immerse yourself in its varied religious rituals, will challenge you in many ways, it will kick your ass and still leave you wanting to come back for more. It is truly a magical and colorful place with astounding diversity of religions, cultures, languages, food and a rich heritage. I have only been here for one month and I have barely scratched its surface… I will be back for more!