AsiaIndia

Holy Cow...literally (Part 1 of 2: India)

India Travel Blog

 › entry 1 of 2 › view all entries
Delhi street

Namaste from Varanasi, India! There's really only word to describe this place...WOW.  And one question you have to ask...am I still on planet earth?  Im actually convinced Ricki and I are in a different world. I have to admit, in the week leading up to this trip I was getting quite nervous. I've never in the past had a bad feeling or felt uneasy before leaving for one of my crazy adventures, but this time I can't admit that was the case. I considered dying my hair dark, or in the least covering everything but my eyes with a long, black burka. But then of course I checked the weather in Delhi and that all went to hell when I saw it's been an average of 99 for the past few weeks.

Traffic in Agra
And let me just say for the first time in my life I actually think the weather people got it right.

My flight was uneventful...no delays, movies on command, free wine and 2 window seats. On the way to London, however, I did sit next to an Indian man with the longest arms I've ever seen. Did I mention he was a sleep twitcher and arm jerker? He actually elbowed me twice and left quite a bruise on my arm!

The ambian and wine on my London - Delhi leg did the trick, and I slept for 6 of the 8.5 hour flight. I landed at 6:30 am, just before Delhi really wakes up and had quite an uneventful trip to the hotel. While I anxiously wanted to go out and explore the neighborhood around the hotel, I used my better judgement and stayed in the room until Ricki got here at 12:30.

White girls in Saris at the Taj Mahal
I went outside once to get a bottle of water and ironically enough met a rickshaw driver who lives in Delhi 4 months a year and Chicago the rest. Naturally he's a taxi driver in the city. "Bill" promised to not use a meter should I decide to call him when I have to go to the airport at home.

So Ricki eventually came and we met our tour guide immediately. Our first stop was a coffe shop, and by coffee shop I mean coffee shanty...a single room that consisted of 3 concrete walls, 2 tables, and 3 friendly Indian men. They gave us low-down, like how many Rupees a rickshaw ride should cost, where to have dinner, where to buy the cheapest souvineers, and what important sites to see.  Unlike my other trips, we actually planned ahead and booked a private guide and driver. Thank God for that bc Delhi really is a zoo and not a city I'd want to navigate on my own.
On the train from Agra to Varanasi

Our first stop was Qutb Minar, a tall tower that was started in 1193, and marks the defeat of Delhi's last Hindu kingdom and the onset of Islamic rule. From there we went to Humayun's Tomb, which was built in the early 16th century. Humayun was the 2nd Mughal Emperor, and his Senior wife built this tomb after his death which is said to have influenced the design of the Taj Mahal.

To be honest, the sites and history are fascinating, but what I'm most excited about is simply watching the everyday comings and goings of the people.  There are 12.8 million people living in Delhi so you can imagine it's mass chaos. You have to fight your way down the street, and to avoid getting hit you've got to keep your eyes peeled for cars, bikes, passersby, scooters, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and cows.

Our first walk along the Ghats in Varanasi
Yes I said cows.

After a quick but interesting day in Delhi we woke up early and hopped on a train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The ride was a quick 2 hours, and they fed us twice, which i dont really get bc how can anyone eat anything in this heat? We stopped at our guide's tour office where we made quite the scene trying to put on the sarees we bought the night before. Needless to say we were laughed at and required a helping hand from the local shopkeeper. Eventually we hopped back in the car and were on our way. Traffic of course was slow moving, but unlike in Chicago there are good reasons for it...you're either waiting for a hurd of cows to cross the street or are trying to avoid a car accident with a camel.

Our first stop was the Taj Mahal and let me just say that pictures don't do it justice. It's simply stunning, and impossible to describe in an email. It's made from the purest white marble in the world, which is inlaid with intricate floral designs made entirely of semi-precious jewels. There's not an ounce of paint on it. And what's even more beautiful is the story of why it was built. The Taj was built as a memorial for Mumtaz Mahal, the 2nd wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Mumtaz died giving birth to their 14th child, and all she asked for on her death bed was for her husband to build her something beautiful. In a time and place where marriage was decided for you, and women were seen as property, it's lovely to hear that such a love existed. The death of Mumtaz is said to have had such a devistating effect on the Emperor that his hair turned grey virtually overnight.
Buddhist Temple outside of Varanasi
Construction on the Taj began the same year as Mumtaz's death, in 1653. Not long after it's completion the Emperor was overthrown by his own son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned in Agra Fort where, for the rest of his life he could only gaze out a window at his creation. When he finally died in 1666 he was buried alongside his wife in the Taj Mahal.

After the Taj we drove over to Agra Fort, which is in no way as beautifully striking as the Taj, but was equally interesting. It's made of red sandstone which holds the most intricate carvings I've ever seen. Originally built as a military structure in 1565, Emperor Shah Jahan transformed it into a palace for his wife and family. They all lived here, along the Yamuna River, until the Emperor was overthrown and imprisoned here.

I must say that with all the amazing historical sites and things to see, Ricki and I caused quite a commotion walking around the Taj in sarees.

All that food for only $6!!
Apparently 2 white girls in sarees is a rare thing.

We saw a few more tombs, but had had enough quickly. We shopped for gems and found a local restaurant where we had our fair share of beer and tandoori.  We eventually boarded the train for Varanasi, which was an overnight train (12 hours) that was more like a cattle car, and not just bc it smelled like one. The train car we were in probably held a few hundred people, all in one large sleeper cabin where the beds were divided into rooms of 4, all seperated from the others by a piece of cloth. I should mention that the toilets are literally a hole you have to somehow squat over, which dumps directly onto the train tracks. I guess this helps to explain the smell of urine throughout the entire trip. And you know what? As nasty as it was, I slept like a baby and would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Preparring our offering to the Ganges at the morning prayer

We woke up in Varanasi, otherwise known as the city of Shiva, which is complete and utter chaos! We thought Delhi was overwhelming, but it doesnt hold a flame to Varanasi! It's considered one of the holiest places in India, where Hindu pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges or to cremate their loved ones. Varanasi is said to be the beating heart of the Hindu universe, a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds. The city is built all along the Ganges, which is viewed as a river of salvation where rituals of both life and death take place. Our hotel is situated at Assi Ghat, a ghat being the immediate area just above the Ganges. Our ghat is a bathing ghat, as most are, but several are burning ghats where bodies are cremated in public. Our first tour was of Sarnath, the Buddhist town where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon.

Monks doing yoga on the banks of the Ganges
  We visited a Buddhist temple where we posed for pictures with some men from Calcutta who appearantly had never seen a blond before. After about 10 photos the heat had become too much so we headed back to the hotel. We had to drive probably a total of 4 miles, but there is so much congestion in Varanasi it took us well over an hour to make it back. We decided there was too much to see so we went for a walk along the ghats, only to get harassed by an unruley gang of monkeys along the way.  After the monkeys passed we had to sit and wait for the goats to go by, and eventually we were on our way, not without meeting some friendly cows, bulls and buffalo of course.  The walk to the first burning ghat was about 20 minutes, but you can smell the fires well before you arrive.
View of the morning prayer offering on the Ganges in Varanasi
No photos are allowed of course, but seeing a cremation is not something one can soon forget.

We sat along the Ganges, watching the bathers bath alongside buffalo, children slide down steep walls on old water bottles, and dogs antagonizing cows. Once the sun went down we headed for dinner. Did I mention yet that the power goes out pretty much every hour on the hour? Well it does, and being stuck in a small dark ally has a completely new meaning when you get hip-checked by a bull. The lights eventually came on and we made it safely to the restaurant. We hadn't eaten all day so we ordered just about everything on the menu. We didn't make it through half of the food on the table and had plenty of leftovers. Hummus, baba ganouj (sp?), veggie curry, and an entire sample platter cost us a whopping $6 total.

Just steps up from the burning Ghat
I love India!

We went to bed early as we had to wake up at 4:30 the next morning to take a row boat along the Ganges to watch the bathers while the sun came up. This hour boat ride is by far the highlight of the trip! Every day about 60,000 Hindus go down to the ghats along the river to take a holy dip, and perform puja, a prayer/offering, to the rising sun. I'll have to try and send photos of this amazing event bc words cannot describe the calamity of it all. Thousands of people bathe in the water, men almost naked, women fully dressed in their saris. Priests make offerings at various temples along the river in elaborate displays using fire and smoke. Children push lotus flower candles down the river. Monks do yoga along the river banks. Men and women beg for food and money.

My favorite Holy man EVER!
Cows and goats walk up and down the steps leading to the water. Street vendors sell everything from fresh fruit to tree branches used for teeth cleaning. People give out free cups of chai in terra cotta cups that are used once and then thrown in the river. It's hectic, colorful, loud, dirty, busy, crowded and beautiful. It's a must see and worth a trip to India alone.

My favorite thing may be the holy men walking barefoot, dressed entirely in orange, with their hair in dreads, covered in ash from the bodies of the cremated. It's a fascinating way of life, a total commitment to religion and spirituality.

Delhi was hot but Varanasi is hotter! And apparently we came in the middle of a heat wave. It's been 45 degrees celcius which converts roughly to 115 F. Unbearable doesn't describe it.

Yeah, that's a cow in the ally
We've been drinking a ton of water, but it's all been sweated out so no need to use the nasty bathrooms. Regardless, most people here just urinate in the streets anyway. I've seen more Indian ass in the past 3 days then I probably will for the rest of my life.  Anyway, to escape the heat we had a henna artist come to the room and now have very elaborate
designs all up and down our left arms.

Uh oh...there goes the power again. Does it matter were at the airport?

Well, were on our way back to Delhi for the night. It will be nice to go back to a place that serves meat in the restaurants and alcahol doesn't have to be smuggled by the hotel workers into your room. Tomorrow morning we head by car to Rishikesh, a mountain town 6 hours north of Delhi where we'll be white water rafting, hiking, boating and riding elephants.

Thanks for reading this long LONG email!

Love you and miss you. India rocks :)

world-traveller123 says:
Very good blog
Posted on: Jul 07, 2009
oldschoolbill says:
Very Very Nice!!
Posted on: Apr 28, 2009
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Delhi street
Delhi street
Traffic in Agra
Traffic in Agra
White girls in Saris at the Taj Ma…
White girls in Saris at the Taj M…
On the train from Agra to Varanasi
On the train from Agra to Varanasi
Our first walk along the Ghats in …
Our first walk along the Ghats in…
Buddhist Temple outside of Varanasi
Buddhist Temple outside of Varanasi
All that food for only $6!!
All that food for only $6!!
Preparring our offering to the Gan…
Preparring our offering to the Ga…
Monks doing yoga on the banks of t…
Monks doing yoga on the banks of …
View of the morning prayer offerin…
View of the morning prayer offeri…
Just steps up from the burning Ghat
Just steps up from the burning Ghat
My favorite Holy man EVER!
My favorite Holy man EVER!
Yeah, thats a cow in the ally
Yeah, that's a cow in the ally
Chai off the streets - YUM!
Chai off the streets - YUM!
Our henna
Our henna
Evening prayer offering to the Gan…
Evening prayer offering to the Ga…
637 km (396 miles) traveled
Sponsored Links