India

India - Medieval Agra and Jaipur

 The marble mausoleum built in the name of love. Commissioned by Emporer Shah Jahan almost 400 years ago, the ivory tomb was for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It’s been said that Shah Jahan intended to construct an identical black structure across the Yamuna River, where he could be laid to rest, but after being deposed by one of his sons and imprisoned at Agra Fort, he never had the chance. Instead they lay together here at the Taj Mahal.

The marble mausoleum built in the name of love. Commissioned by Emporer Shah Jahan almost 400 years ago, the ivory tomb was for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It’s been said that Shah Jahan intended to construct an identical black structure across the Yamuna River, where he could be laid to rest, but after being deposed by one of his sons and imprisoned at Agra Fort, he never had the chance. Instead they lay together here at the Taj Mahal.

Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass - Prashanti

Agra

We could not have spent our anniversary in a more symbolic way, aboard a rough train ride at night on our way to Agra. I wake up for the Nth time this night and decide to stay awake once and for all, staring at the ceiling a few centimeters from the tip of my nose - sure, someone could argue my nose is bigger than average. We’re approaching Agra, a few hours late. Madie and I move to a lower bunk, now empty, to stare out the window at the rugged landscape of India’s countryside. I’m groggy, with a rough throat, and a runny nose. The deepest voice I’ve ever heard travels through the cars. He should be an announcer on KCRW, but he sells the next best thing after coffee - Chai, the sweet, spicy milk tea that completes our long night of travel.

 Groups gathering before the Taj Mahal.

Groups gathering before the Taj Mahal.

 Soft morning light behind the marble mausoleum.

Soft morning light behind the marble mausoleum.

Agra welcomes us with dust, loud noises, and an overwhelming number of rickshaw drivers. After a quick negotiation at the hotel we pass out in the room, our throats now irritated from the ride. Rooftop restaurants seem to be a thing here, all promising a magnificent view of the Taj, at a distance and behind that tree with all the leaves (everything is subjective). Ours is blasting loud electronic music for its two customers, us. Thankful, we pay our bill and escape to our room again, hoping for a good night sleep before an early rise to see the famous monument.

Avoiding a few scams at the entrance (thanks, Wikitravel), we enter and catch our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, bathing in a faint rose hue from the still rising sun. As hyped as it is, we are still speechless, slowly exploring the park and taking off our shoes to feel the marble with our feet. It is an incredible mausoleum for the emperor’s favorite wife, as magnificent from afar as it is intricate up close. Two red sandstone buildings raise on the sides for a perfect symmetry. It is said the emperor, Shah Jahan, was planning another black Taj Mahal for himself on the other side of the river. I realize that this is the first Muslim monument we set out to visit on our travels (other mosques in Malaysia and Indonesia were closed to us). How else could you start better?

 We can’t imagine how many pieces of white marble were used to construct this masterpiece, but even more, the time it took to intricately lay all the floral tile work and calligraphy of the Taj Mahal. Just look at the scale of things!

We can’t imagine how many pieces of white marble were used to construct this masterpiece, but even more, the time it took to intricately lay all the floral tile work and calligraphy of the Taj Mahal. Just look at the scale of things!

 One of two identical red sandstone buildings that face the Taj Mahal, this one a mosque, the other a guesthouse.

One of two identical red sandstone buildings that face the Taj Mahal, this one a mosque, the other a guesthouse.

 At the end of his life, Shah Jahan was held captive by his son at Agra Fort, just 2.5 kilometers northwest of the Taj Mahal. From this window you can see the mausoleum for his late wife in the distance.

At the end of his life, Shah Jahan was held captive by his son at Agra Fort, just 2.5 kilometers northwest of the Taj Mahal. From this window you can see the mausoleum for his late wife in the distance.

 The brick and red sandstone Agra Fort.

The brick and red sandstone Agra Fort.

We walk to the Agra Fort, turning down a dozen confused rickshaw drivers along the way. The fort stands tall above the Yamuna River and the city, in pink sandstone and white marble. It holds countless pools, meeting rooms, and living quarters. I suddenly feel stupid for having forgotten the incredible medieval past of India, giving the country a profound history, culture, and of course, richness from the silk and spice roads to Europe. An hour in the unbearable heat finishes to kill me, still coughing from yesterday’s dust-filled ride. We head back for another nap before another long train ride to Jaipur.


Jaipur

This time we’re in a better bunk, with closed windows and AC. We arrive in Jaipur, the eastern gateway to Rajasthan, in dust, pollution, with empty stomachs, and another attempted scam - the now-famous: “You know what’s wrong with foreigners?” We’re tired, annoyed, on the edge - maybe a bit exhausted from traveling altogether. But we find a small oasis of peace at $8 a night, wondering what to do next. Somewhat overwhelmed by the whole thing we decide to sleep, and leave our emotions for later.

 Backstreets, quiet streets of Jaipur.

Backstreets, quiet streets of Jaipur.

 A camel in the alleys of Jaipur.

A camel in the alleys of Jaipur.

Jaipur’s old city refreshes us in the wee hours of the next day. A tuk-tuk takes us to the City Palace amongst small streets, local vendors, and easy smiles. The complex is a collection of pink colored walls, aesthetic paintings, and beautiful architecture - to Madie’s pleasure who can’t stop clicking away. We walk amongst the palace, secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of the Maharaja, only 18 years of age. Before, they were as powerful as kings; now they hold small positions in governments, often as ambassadors. 

 The iconic facade of Hawa Mahal was built for royal women to observe street life, unseen from above. At only 15 meters high it’s constructed from the pretty red and pink sandstone that gives Jaipur its nickname: The Pink City.

The iconic facade of Hawa Mahal was built for royal women to observe street life, unseen from above. At only 15 meters high it’s constructed from the pretty red and pink sandstone that gives Jaipur its nickname: The Pink City.

 Inside the Pink City’s City Palace Walls.

Inside the Pink City’s City Palace Walls.

 Piles of fabrics and stacks of colored textiles at the edge of the city’s old bazaars.

Piles of fabrics and stacks of colored textiles at the edge of the city’s old bazaars.

A few steps outside the City Palace is the Hawa Mahal, a facade of red and pink sandstone built for the ladies of the royal household to look outside without being seen. We scour for lunch, walking through the tight streets of the local market amongst colorful textiles and spices. Lines grow at the street barbers by the road.

We hop on a local bus heading to the Amer Fort for a mere ₹10. I squeeze between colorful ladies wondering what a tall white guy with sunglasses is doing here. We arrive right into an episode of Game of Thrones. The fort stands above us, tall, strong, on a strategic hill overlooking the entire area. We walk up, slowly, remembering that an overconsumption of curry makes people fat and slow. The complex is vast and full of treasures: a palace of mirrors dating centuries back; numerous courtyards with young men posing together; living quarters for the mistresses and concubines; corridors, pathways, and staircases with fake security guards for the unofficial visit with a tip. Kids greet us with large smiles at the exit, happy to take part in our photos, at last, for free.

 Amer Fort reminds us we still have to catch up on so many seasons of GoT. We know it’s not filmed here but this epic fortress is straight out of those times.

Amer Fort reminds us we still have to catch up on so many seasons of GoT. We know it’s not filmed here but this epic fortress is straight out of those times.

 One of our favorite things: endless smiles and giggles and shaking hands with Indian children. “Hello! Where are you from? What country? What is your name?” This gets us every time! (And is much better than hearing, “One picture? Five rupees?”)

One of our favorite things: endless smiles and giggles and shaking hands with Indian children. “Hello! Where are you from? What country? What is your name?” This gets us every time! (And is much better than hearing, “One picture? Five rupees?”)

On the way back to town we make a short stop to the Jal Mahal, the Water Palace where you can allegedly take incredible pictures over the still water. Unfortunately, the pictures don’t show the heaps of trash at the edge of the lake, and the many beggars stopping there too. I can’t decide, India, if you’re beautiful and rich, or sad and dirty.


Links

  • Agra is on the way to Delhi from Varanasi, and part of the Golden Triangle tourist circuit. A night train from either city, the price will define your comfort (which can be more than enough). Unfortunately, the train ticket system is an absolute wonder of the world on its own, and only reserved for people with guts, better-than-average hacking skills, and incredible patience (see www.seat61.com/india.htm). Better to ask tourist agencies when in India.
  • Jaipur is another night ride away (also part of the Golden Triangle). The City Palace and Amer Fort are its main sites, and it is easy to find tuk-tuks or taxis to drive you around for the day (don’t forget to haggle).
  • Flights are getting more and more inexpensive with low-cost airlines. We took one later on and saved 12 hours on a train. Check out www.skyscanner.com.

India - Venerable Varanasi

 Life on the river at Varanasi, the spiritual center of India, and one of the its holiest cities. Many people flock to the ghats at the banks of the Ganges to perform bathing rituals, especially so when they are close to death. Hindus believe that these sacred waters offer purification and salvation, and if their ashes are scattered in the river after cremation, their souls will escape the cycle of rebirth and ascend directly to heaven.

Life on the river at Varanasi, the spiritual center of India, and one of the its holiest cities. Many people flock to the ghats at the banks of the Ganges to perform bathing rituals, especially so when they are close to death. Hindus believe that these sacred waters offer purification and salvation, and if their ashes are scattered in the river after cremation, their souls will escape the cycle of rebirth and ascend directly to heaven.

Another taxi from the airport, along the countryside of India, continues to glue us to the windows. Roaming dogs leave their place to cows, freely walking on roads jammed with cars, waiting for them to get out of the way. The sacred animal should not be too disturbed; hopefully the honks are enough to shoo them away. We are stopped a few blocks down from our guesthouse, and have to finish by foot, constantly accosted by touts trying to get us on a boat, sell us hashish, a tour, or anything we want. They’re insistent and frequently call to Madie with a “konnichi wa” or a “ni hao.” We manage to find the homestay and immediately set on a delicious lunch prepared by the mother of the house, and a first of many delicious baba lassis, a dessert of handmade yogurt and a variety of fruits.

 Vendors along the ghats of Varanasi.

Vendors along the ghats of Varanasi.

 Men preparing to bathe in the Ganges.

Men preparing to bathe in the Ganges.

Varanasi is a spiritual town, and an incredible site full of history. The Ganges lays on the side of the old city, with the many, ancient ghats (steps down to the river) letting anyone bathe in the sacred waters, for a blessing by the gods or a simple shower. The streets are narrow, of broken cobblestones, and with various smells of food, chai tea, and cow dung. Temples are many throughout town, difficult to find except for the locals coming to pay their respects to Ganesha, Shiva, or another deity. We explore the small alleys, marveled by their character, colors, and history. I place my palm on the wall, wishing I could learn its stories. But on tiny passageways barely fitting two people walking side by side, it’s a large bull you may cross paths with. He’s also exploring the city, depositing a few feces on the way. Even in these tight spaces the honks are present, motorcyclists swerving between people and pushing the passing cows with their feet. 

 A crowd begins to gather on the steps of the Dashashwamedh Ghat an hour before the nightly Aarti.

A crowd begins to gather on the steps of the Dashashwamedh Ghat an hour before the nightly Aarti.

 At the main ghat in Varanasi, a nightly Aarti is performed. Hundreds of people gather at sunset to watch the ritual of light being offered to the deities in a spirit of humility and gratitude. It’s an incredible act of worship that is so beautiful - colorful, spiritual, emotional, that although we didn’t understand the words or songs, I was moved to tears by the devotion and energy of all the people that surrounded us.

At the main ghat in Varanasi, a nightly Aarti is performed. Hundreds of people gather at sunset to watch the ritual of light being offered to the deities in a spirit of humility and gratitude. It’s an incredible act of worship that is so beautiful - colorful, spiritual, emotional, that although we didn’t understand the words or songs, I was moved to tears by the devotion and energy of all the people that surrounded us.

At sunset, we experience the beauty of Aarti, the nightly Hindu ceremony of fire in celebration of the Ganges (or Ganga). Seven monks perform the ceremony, chanting hypnotizing verses; their synchronous dance with smoke and fire is joined by the crowd clapping. Many boats are set on the river for a perfect view, with a price of course. We sit quietly on the steps amongst the flood of people, closer to the monks than many; we become entranced, emotional, and can’t help but clap along the happy prayer. The show ends an hour later, everyone leaves after a mandatory selfie with a glimpse of the performers. Beggars and babas, the ascetic monks, are lined up outside the ghat. A few people have their head shaved, a sign of grief and bereavement. Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage for many, at the end of their life, or to accompany their deceased who will be cremated on the side of the river, a sight we will witness the next day. Thali and another delicious curry close this day.

 On our last night in Varanasi we went back to see the Aarti ceremony again, this time from a boat. We observed the performance from a distance, watching boatmen pull latecomers onboard, and this young boy selling clay dish candles and flowers to float down the Ganges.

On our last night in Varanasi we went back to see the Aarti ceremony again, this time from a boat. We observed the performance from a distance, watching boatmen pull latecomers onboard, and this young boy selling clay dish candles and flowers to float down the Ganges.

We decide to walk towards the southern ghat, Assi, place for a sunrise ceremony we’ll never wake up for. As it turns out, traveling for a year and having the time for anything we want does not make of us early risers. As we walk up along the river, Madie wants to try paan, the local addiction made of betel leaf, more popular than cigarettes. A cultural custom, it’s actually quite tasty, but will make us spit dark red saliva for the next hour. I’m feeling a haze but can’t pinpoint whether paan or the blistering heat is at fault. Nevertheless, we explore the small streets and ghats along the way, swerving between cow dungs. A woman with her child begs for milk, not money, she promises - but we know this scam well from our time in Cambodia. The baby’s cries, as she follows me, still wound me deeply, and I get a little emotional. (Maybe paan is having an effect on me after all.) Profound sadness and anger overcome me: sadness for the situation this kid is put in, anger at the mother allowing it. India is already a special place to us, but the extreme poverty and constant begging is taking its toll. 

 The paan man (“paanwala”) putting a blend of areca nut, tobacco, and spices into a betel leaf. Sweet preparations of this triangular packet, which is meant to be chewed and then swallowed or spat out, have coconut powder, fennel seeds, cardamom, and more. 

The paan man (“paanwala”) putting a blend of areca nut, tobacco, and spices into a betel leaf. Sweet preparations of this triangular packet, which is meant to be chewed and then swallowed or spat out, have coconut powder, fennel seeds, cardamom, and more. 

 Paan. For only 5 rupees each, it’s no question how easily one can become addicted to this stimulant.

Paan. For only 5 rupees each, it’s no question how easily one can become addicted to this stimulant.

 All senses are stimulated in Varanasi.

All senses are stimulated in Varanasi.

We finally reach Assi Ghat and rest in the heat, as if the last two miles had taken hours. A short walk up is the Harishchadra Ghat where we observe the cremations. No pictures here, out of respect. A couple touts explain to us the tradition, hoping we will visit their silk shop later. But Madie and I stay silent, witnessing the sons bringing fire to their parents’ logs, with shaved heads and wet clothes. We cover our mouths as the smoke, with a scent of burnt skin, comes our way. Deeply humbled and a little emotional, we make our way back, leaving the boat ride along the river and a visit to the larger, main cremation Manikarnika Ghat for the next day.

 Beautiful architecture along the Ganges in Varanasi, India, basking in the early morning haze.

Beautiful architecture along the Ganges in Varanasi, India, basking in the early morning haze.

Varanasi, the spiritual town - a place with too many, different emotions: the enchanting Aarti; the anger at parents letting their kids beg for them; the profound respect at the sight of cremations; the paradox and laughter of the comical babas, ascetic monks who live in extreme scarcity, having renounced material attachment, but not marijuana; the smells of cow poop filling the streets; the delicious lassis and chicken masalas; the small, cobbled streets full of colors and characters; the peaceful, incredible banks of the Ganges; the aggressive scooters swerving around dogs and their fleas. Someone wrote that Varanasi is India at its best. Maybe not the best, but a true force of nature and its people. We find the place entrancing, beautiful, smelly, delicious, and disrespectful all at once. Whatever people feel about it, it cannot be indifference. This is only day four in India, and we can’t keep up with all it’s sharing with us.

It’s time for the next city, a long night train to Agra. We find a cheap tuk-tuk on a tricycle. He’s cheaper than motorized transport and promises us to get there in twenty minutes. After a long, painful forty minute ride under the heat, he looks completely exhausted, but well earned his larger than expected tip. After a couple hours, we enter our train car, the second cheapest in the train - at least we get beds. We settle at our top bunks, welcomed by a young man studying tourism, and a grandpa without a word of English, staring at us with intensity. I can’t help but smile, he smiles back, larger than I could ever. No closed rooms in the train car, we’re in a large dorm of thirty or forty benches, with windows open throughout the night, letting all the dust and insects in. A dragonfly settles on my arm until I freak out and inadvertently send it through the fan next to my bunk. The train ride is three hours longer than expected (totaling 14 hours) - not really late by Indian standards. We make it to Agra, groggy, and, as in other rough times, somehow a closer, stronger couple. Travel tests you, as an individual and as a couple, in all possible ways. There was no better way to spend our anniversary after all.


Links

Varanasi should not be missed. The pilgrimage town is a great, cheap way of getting introduced to the Indian culture, without the overwhelming amount of tourists in other parts of Rajasthan.

  • Aarti is the incredible fire ceremony on Dashashwamedh Ghat, seven days a week.
  • You can also go to the sunrise ceremony, where you can practice your yoga on classical music at the Assi Ghat.
  • The best way to visit the town is simply to stroll around the city, ignoring most touts or people forcing the red dot of makeup. The northern part of the old town holds most babas, the ascetic monks. 
  • They say Varanasi is not visited until seen by boat, and this might be true. Find any cheap one directly on the dock and haggle your price down. Do not give in to people offering flowers and candles to donate to the Ganges (despite the threat of bad luck and cursing, nothing happened to us!).  

India - Colorful Kolkata

 Just a few of the only women at the Mallik Ghat Flower Market in Kolkata, India.

Just a few of the only women at the Mallik Ghat Flower Market in Kolkata, India.

Talvin Singh - Ananta

Arriving in a new country is always something. Excitement and anxiety, knit together, wake us up after our layover in Bangladesh. A luxurious airport fools us on India. We onboard a taxi, with a rough driver who speaks no word of English - Kolkata, or Calcutta, as it was formerly known, is not a tourist destination. After a short altercation and help from security, we manage to agree on where to go. It’s all in his hands now. 

 These taxis rule the roads of Kolkata. The hour-long trip from the airport may have been the craziest ride we’ve been on - the heat, the honking, the language barrier, and everyone on the road disobeying traffic regulations. Welcome to India.

These taxis rule the roads of Kolkata. The hour-long trip from the airport may have been the craziest ride we’ve been on - the heat, the honking, the language barrier, and everyone on the road disobeying traffic regulations. Welcome to India.

The first taxi ride is always something. We don’t quite know where we are yet or how to behave; we can’t do anything but trust a stranger. Cambodia’s was friendly and peaceful; Myanmar’s was prepaid and carefully translated; Vietnam’s was our first ripoff; India’s is an adventure in itself. If the driving was crazy in the Philippines or Vietnam, Kolkata is a mix of delirium, schizophrenia, and sociopathy. No lanes, everyone just fills the holes, swerving to their heart’s content and honking incessantly - the only driving rule I can fathom, honk when I pass you, honk back if you don’t want me to. And unlike in South East Asia, the driving is fast. If I had an inclination to try driving in every country, all hopes are gone now. But our driver is nothing short of a superhero with lightning speed reflexes as he swerves his car around every car and every corner. We’re in a small yellow crappy taxi version of Harry Potter’s bus. 

But India is always something, as we soon figure out. A night at the Sunflower Guesthouse and we’re off to visit Kolkata in only a day. A large breakfast replaces the missed dinner and then we board another yellow taxi. Our first stop is the Flower Market. “Why?” he asks. Maybe a question we should have taken more seriously. 

 Atop the Howrah Bridge we took a look down at what we had just walked through. This was just a sliver of it.

Atop the Howrah Bridge we took a look down at what we had just walked through. This was just a sliver of it.

 Chrysanthemum garlands on this flower merchant.

Chrysanthemum garlands on this flower merchant.

The driver stops a short walk before the market, maybe ten minutes, but those will be the most intense of our day. Kolkata shows us its poorest side, living on the banks of the river, as we traverse a slum amongst curious gazes. Madie is being stared at intently by the many men. I stay close to her, staring back at whoever spends too long looking at her. Roaming dogs and dirty geese share the puddle of mud on the side, in between trucks and buses on their second or third life. The houses are a single hut, with an open fire sizzling the upcoming lunch.

The Mallik Ghat Flower Market looks much of the same with the addition of bright, colorful flowers, many festively strung together as garlands for ceremonies or celebrations. The environment is hypnotizing; a completely different place than we’ve ever been - we are so far from South East Asia. My senses are on overload, with a million things to see - displays of flowers by shirtless men, large stacks of unsold, rotting ones, bees buzzing about; a million things to hear - tight crowds discussing prices, amongst porters wanting to pass through; and too many things to smell - a mix of flowers, armpits, and fried food.

 After breakfast we hopped into a shared taxi to start our day. An older gentleman, eager to translate for us, asked where we were going. “The flower market.” Surprised, he asked what we wanted to do there. “Take photos!” As we learned later, this place is only for the brave. We walked through the railroad and waterside slums into a bustling market unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, where thousands of people sell and buy flowers every day. It’s beautiful, it’s dirty, it’s chaos. And it set the pace for our month stay here.

After breakfast we hopped into a shared taxi to start our day. An older gentleman, eager to translate for us, asked where we were going. “The flower market.” Surprised, he asked what we wanted to do there. “Take photos!” As we learned later, this place is only for the brave. We walked through the railroad and waterside slums into a bustling market unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, where thousands of people sell and buy flowers every day. It’s beautiful, it’s dirty, it’s chaos. And it set the pace for our month stay here.

We walk down the streets, managing to cross safely. Buildings are worn down, sidewalks so filled with stalls we have to walk on the road, amongst the many, many other people. Anywhere we look, we can see a hundred people or more, mostly men - we will learn later that the women usually stay home. The honking is omnipresent, to a point where we get used to it and tune it out. The traffic jam is a sight in itself, with cars filling in every spot to gain a few inches, creating a few additional lanes in the process. I see an ambulance stuck in the jam, a small van with a woman with an IV in the backseat - no room for a bed, it doesn’t look like there’s AC either. I hope it’s not too urgent - no one is moving at its siren. 

 On their way to a field trip just before boarding the bus, these boys spotted Alex and started giggling. “Where are you from? What country??” We realized then that we had not seen any other tourists in Kolkata. 

On their way to a field trip just before boarding the bus, these boys spotted Alex and started giggling. “Where are you from? What country??” We realized then that we had not seen any other tourists in Kolkata. 

 Making a delivery on James Hickey Sarani Street.

Making a delivery on James Hickey Sarani Street.

 Colorful Kolkata street scenes.

Colorful Kolkata street scenes.

 Our first cup of street chai on James Hickey Sarani.

Our first cup of street chai on James Hickey Sarani.

A simple lunch of rice, curry, and tofu for ₹40 ($0.60 cents) and two samosas for ₹10. The food is nothing short of delicious, with a depth in flavor we have been missing. The street chai in a clay cup is the perfect conclusion. We walk through the large park with no one else but a few free horses roaming around, eventually getting to the Victoria Memorial for a nice break from the buzz, with interludes of strangers wanting our picture (and us getting to take photos in return). 

 Sweet faces at Victoria Memorial.

Sweet faces at Victoria Memorial.

Another forty-five-minute ride in traffic to visit the Mother’s house, the mission where Mother (now Saint) Teresa did most of her work in the heart of Kolkata, fighting for lepers in slums. We’re happy to be in this peaceful place, learning about someone who cared deeply of unbound love to people, regardless of their religion. A meditative walk back amongst the noise of the city, before a dinner of the famous Kolkata kathi rolls and our first ration of butter chicken masala. We already can’t get enough of the food, at least there’s no beer here to add to our calorie count. At 4:30 am, we already have to leave Kolkata for Varanasi, with already so much experienced in India. This was only day one.


Links

Kolkata has less to offer than the famed cities of India, but it still bears a character worth visiting for the traveler. It is also a good stopover before heading to Darjeeling, which we unfortunately missed. 

  • The Mallik Ghat Flower Market was quite an experience.
  • The Victoria Memorial is simple but holds a nice park worth the trouble for some quiet time.
  • Food-wise, Chicken Tikka Masala and Kolkata kathi rolls should not be missed. We had ours at Nizam’s Restaurant. You can also find delicious street food on James Hickey Sarani Street.