The famous Taj Mahal
My last night in Jaipur, Paras and I ended up just having dinner and making each other laugh over tongues twisters. I made him try "Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore." Hilarious. Then we bid farewell and off to Agra for a visit at the Taj Mahal. I was not happy with the steep price (750 rupees for tourists vs. 60 for locals) but I thought, when will I go to the Taj Mahal again? I debated about going sunrise versus sunset, but in the end I did what I usually do, I just got up when I felt like it and went. I ended up missing much of the crowd by making it before noon at least.
Requisite "proof I was there" photo
What can I say about it? It was nice. The thing was huge. Up close you could see the fine detailing of the flowers in the marble, which I found absolutely stunning. The symmetry was something to behold as well. However, I spent most of my time posing for pictures with locals, leaving me to wonder, who or what is the tourist attraction here. Not much more to report there. I chose to skip Agra's fort and other sights as I've become quite "site-seed" out.
After that quick stop, onto Varanasi. I walked into the guesthouse and sitting there was Eoin waiting to check in. We had planned to meet up again but had not yet contacted one another, so this was good luck.
After doing some catching up about the last few weeks apart, we set off to take in the spectacles the ghats on the Ganges offered.
Another angle...from one of the mosques built on either side
Our hotel was near the main burning ghat, Manikarnika, but we started down further at the Dasawarmedh Ghat where they perform puja every night and every morning. First we spent time getting lost. This place is literally a maze of small side streets. I really don't know how the locals find their way around. Only foot traffic, bikes and motorbikes (and of course the all mighty cow) are allowed because the streets are so narrow. Locals are eager to offer up directions, saying go left, left and then right, but most of the time they just don't want to say they don't know and send you off to get further lost. You never know what is around each corner!
We made it to the Ganges finally and just sat and soaked up all the activity.
Mosque by the Taj Mahal
People were washing clothes, themselves, relieving themselves, and there were prayer offerings, boat ride sales pitches and so on and so on. It is just amazing that all these things happen in this slow-moving river. I can't believe any washing gets done here, let alone that anyone would drink out of it as they do at the end of the puja.
After soaking all of this in, we followed the river down to the burning ghat. We had earlier seen parades of people winding through the maze of streets with a body raised up on a stretcher of bamboo, shrouded in colorful cloth, on its way down to the ghat. Once we arrived, we were beckoned by an old man to sit down and watch. We then were summoned over by another fellow who agreed to bring us down to take a closer look and also tell us about the process.
River behind the Taj
I thought it better than standing there with my mouth gaping open at the thought of all these bodies burning mere feet away.
He brought us down to the first fire and I immediately noticed that I could make out a man's head. The shroud had burned off, exposing his face, with the rest of his body up in flames. It didn't seem real to me at the time. I was just speechless really. He brought us further along, showing us bodies that had yet to be set ablaze. He explained how the eldest son usually attends (women aren't allowed as they get too emotional!). There is an eternal flame (well, apparently it's been going for 3,500 years, which is not really so eternal). The son/family member takes dry grass and lights it with this flame and then walks around the body five times, with each lap around representing the FIVE elements: earth, wind, fire, water and ether (the soul).
Hitching a ride in Agra
The body burns for about three hours. They use a special wood that burns slow and also masks the odors. They also sprinkle incense, ghee (clarified butter) and other things on top. After the body burns down to the pelvis/chest area, the family brings water from the Ganges in a pot and throws it over the flame four times to cool it, and then the fifth time they throw the water over their shoulder, and then they drop the pot in until it turns black, representing the soul finally being released into heaven. Not everyone is burned in this fashion. Some are sunk into the Ganges by tying the body to a rock. Children are considered too innocent for the fire (like burning a flower) so any child under 12 and pregnant women are not burned, along with lepers (considered to have had bad karma, thus needing the cleansing of the Ganges), holy men, and people bitten by cobras.
School group that begged for a pic of themselves
The latter are floated down, whereby some group of people drain it of the venom and send it back for it to be sunk. Unfortunately some of those saved from the fire and sunk manage to break free, ending up on the opposite shore to become food for the dogs (I wondered why they all were so well fed). Anyway, this was all explained as we did a little burning ourselves standing too close to some of the fires while gazing at a limb and foot being charred and then falling off into the ash. Again, none of it seemed real at the time. After an hour of explanations (don't quote me on any of this as I was distracted for sure), we donated a nominal amount to the wood fund for the poor, which meant he basically lied to us to get money, and then headed back to the hotel for beers.
Interesting characters at one of the ghats
This experience really had an effect on Eoin and I. We spent the evening talking about our goals and dreams, which we are both happily pursuing, and reminisced about our family and friends.
The next day we set off to find bagels. I have a horrible craving for bagels and cream cheese and we had read about a German bakery promising at least the bagels. However, our stomach rumblings necessitated stopping at another bakery (and we were lost) where we feasted on many other pastries including a delicious chocolate croissant. We then stumbled about for the afternoon, settling back at the hotel to meet up for our Ganges sunset cruise. During the boat ride, we met a family of four (parents and two daughters aged 16 and 18) from Spain seven months into a family world tour.
My hair has looked like this on occasion
I have to give that family credit for sure. They've spent all this time together, not without many arguments, but I can tell it's been a great experience for all. We floated up to the main ghat to check out the Puja, a prayer offering lasting about 45 minutes. We really had no idea what was happening or why, but it was fascinating to watch nonetheless.
Varanasi has turned out to be a wonderful, relaxing place despite some ghastly sights. I mean, when you bury your dead, crap in, launder and wash yourself all in the same body of water, well, you can only imagine what this river looks like. Still, I hesitate to venture on as this place is easing my travel fatigue.
However, move on I must as I have but two weeks left and my next stop is Darjeeling.
Burning ghat (from afar as pictures are not allowed up close, thank goodness)
Word is there are strikes up there that may prevent my entry and make doing anything up there once I arrive impossible. However, my desire to see the Himalayas, including the world's third highest peak, and maybe, just maybe, a glimpse of Everest's peak, necessitate that I make my way up there and try. So off I go tomorrow night by train and pray the peace talks scheduled for tomorrow ease the path ahead.