Ann concludes her account of her amazing trip to India. Be sure to read the first part here.
Her words and photos bring the experience to life.
We are on our way to Agra. As always, the roads range from decent pavement to nonexistent. Mostly, we are driving through dusty and filthy little hamlets/towns with a jostling of cars, motorbikes, livestock, trucks loaded with sacks of grain, vegetables and assorted bundles, buses with sixty people or more crammed inside and another twenty riding on top! Along the garbage strewn streets are all manner of sidewalk shops, barbershops where men are getting spruced up for Diwali, and plenty of little pushcarts selling bunches and bunches of hanging decorations for the holiday and always, tire shops full of millions of spares stacked up everywhere. What do they do with all those tires?
Here, the ubiquitous cow saunters across the street at his leisure, often standing just in the middle with cars and buses and motorbikes whizzing past on all sides. They are either the bravest or the dumbest animal I have ever seen. But you should have seen our bus drivers! They were, without exception, the most instinctively nimble men behind a wheel I’ve ever seen, dodging and weaving, speeding up, passing, slowing down and amazingly avoiding head on crashes at every turn. And believe it or not, I sat in the front seat on many of these long overland journeys and had a first-hand view of these brilliant manipulations!
The saying goes: “There are two kinds of people in this world, those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who haven’t!” Well the honest truth is that I barely saw it myself, the air pollution was as bad here as in Delhi, if not worse. I worried about the damage of acid rain, dirty smog and age on the exquisite marble of the Taj and was told that the miracle of this particular white marble is that it is totally impervious to staining. When the monsoons come, the Taj is washed clean and reemerges in all its stunning glory. The assortment of colorful precious and semi-precious jewels inlaid into the marble is breathtaking. http://www.taj-mahal.net/augEng/textMM/inlayengN.htm
During that visit to Agra we visited a factory where only a handful of men belonging to the Muslim Community still have the skill, which has actually been handed down from one generation to the next from the days when the Taj was built, to painstakingly carve into the marble using special implements creating a groove to hold a single stone. These jewels are often lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian or mother of pearl and are shaped by hand using an emery wheel. These semi-precious pieces, even ones infinitesimally small, are glued in place to make the stunning inlay designs so admired at the Taj and today in tables and other decorative items. I myself couldn’t resist purchasing a small table top with inlaid flowers sparkling against the white marble. It was shipped safely from India and now a beautiful reminder of this incredible trip.
Back at the Taj, we walked in the surrounding gardens and into the inner chambers to see the tombs of Shah Jahan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj was built. His Queen and third wife died delivering their 14th child! At her death, he was inconsolable and it was this monumental grief that led him to build this mausoleum to honor the woman he loved to his dying breath.
This is a stunning achievement considering it was build almost 500 years ago, the Mughal emperor Jahan’s great legacy to India. As is the Palace itself, Agra Fort, which was built on the bank of the Yamuna River where the Shah and his family and all his many other wives and children lived.
This immense fort was the seat of power for four generations but tragically where the great Jahan himself ended his last days as his son’s prisoner. His only request: to be able to look upon the Taj Mahal where his beloved Mumtaz laid waiting for him to join her upon his own death. A sad story that culminated in the creation of one of the most beautiful, visually stunning architectural masterpieces we admire today.
Later that evening, before dinner, Vineet said he had a surprise for us and requested all the women to join him in his room! Well, this was an invitation no one could refuse. And not surprisingly, all of the husbands decided to check this out as well.
He asked a young artist to paint a design on each of our hands, called Mehndi. This is done with a henna dye prepared by crushing the plant leaves producing a vibrant burgundy color. Once this power is reconstituted, it is applied typically to the front and back of the hand, especially for brides before her wedding ceremony. Once the henna paste dries and flakes off, the artful design that has been drawn is exposed in either a deep rich brown or mahogany color. Some had vines and flowers, but when it was my turn, the young woman decided to do another type of design altogether, which lasted almost 5 or 6 days even washing my hands as often as I did. I discovered that the dye penetrates the skin rather deeply! I wanted it to last at least long enough to show Bob.
The next morning, we awoke to face a day that I never thought would end. But my little group and our leader, Vineet, approached it with a solid sense of adventure and purpose. We were up extremely early and were bused to the Agra train station which was teeming with cars and buses and people selling every kind of object imaginable. Again, there were beggars everywhere, many disfigured, missing limbs, or incredibly crippled. Vineet was emphatic about our not giving any money to these poor souls but especially the children. He said if we do, we turn them into professional beggars! It was a sad human condition to witness, but we took his advice and moved on. We were kept on the bus as long as possible, but eventually had to alight and face the mobs and push our way to the platform. There we huddled in a tight little group, looking around us in amazement as people sat everywhere on the filthy train platform itself, eating and talking, looking at us with as much curiosity as we looked at them. Huge bundles of packages that contained shoes believe it or not were piled up so high all around us it was a wonder the stacks didn’t topple over, little children begging at our legs, and everywhere, humanity crowded and moved all around us. When the train thankfully arrived, we rushed to our assigned seats in a first class car and sat down with relief! This was a 2 hour train ride to Jhansi, whereupon we transferred to our coach and continued overland on very bumpy, rough roads for another 2-3 hour bus ride.
We finally made a stop for lunch, but then continued on our way for the next 3 or more hours on jarring, jerky, deeply potholed roads into Khajuraho. Often these roads were no more than dust covered one lane tracks shared with all manner of moving objects including cows, herds of water buffalo, children & other pedestrians, bikers & goats all traveling somewhere on this tiny bit of road crisscrossing or zigzagging at the same time, everyone furiously blowing their horns simultaneously! It is a scene and when you're finally deposited safely to your next hotel, you cannot believe your amazing good luck to still be alive!
Now a remote city, Khajuraho was once the seat of the Chandelas civilization which flourished in the 10th century where unbelievably magnificent temples were built there between the 9th and 10th centuries. Due to flight changes in our schedule, we were fortunate to stay an extra night here and take the time to see these temples at our leisure the next day.
If it had not been for some British archeologists in the 19th century excavating these amazing stone temples with their erotic carvings, they might still be covered by thick jungle overgrowth that camouflaged them for centuries. At the time these very sexually explicit carvings created a tremendous scandal and even today, our guide described how embarrassed any Indian man would be to bring his own wife to see these. Indians are quite prudish about such displays of “prana energy” as it is known in Hindi. Vineet revealed that shortly after his marriage his young bride was appalled and horrified to discover a copy of the Kama Sutra tucked away in his belongings and threw it at his head when he returned home! He had some “splainin’ to do, Lucy!”
The next day we took a flight to Varanasi, which was one of the most fascinating experiences of the entire trip. Varanasi, with a written history dating back more than 4,000 years is known as “older than history itself”, and as one of the oldest cities in the world, yields an atmosphere of other worldliness. The horrible smog, the unrelenting mobs of people walking, riding, shopping, selling, biking, driving, with the myriad of cacophonous noises all add up to a tumultuous riot of sight and sound overwhelming to the senses. At dusk that evening, Lisa and I rode in a cycle rickshaw with our faces covered like “bandits” to ward off sand/debris flying into our noses and mouths to our spiritual destination, the Ganga as it is lovingly called in India.
This is where the holiest of waters in all of India can be found, the Ganges River, considered sacred by all Indians. To quote: “This river is life, purity, and a goddess to the people of India. The river is Ganga Ma, “Mother Ganges”.” That evening we witnessed the “aarti” ceremony from a boat on the Ganges as dusk turned to nightfall. This is performed by chanting Hindu Priests one to five times daily on the ghats of the River waving plates containing open flames while they sing devotional songs before the deities in the spirit of gratitude.
Thousands of pilgrims and ordinary Indians crowd the ghats to hear and witness this moving ceremony, not to mention the thousands of prayerful worshipers and tourists floating quietly in boats nearby. Simultaneously along an entire designated route, Indians come day and night to cremate their recently departed loved ones. Only the men are allowed to carry the bodies of their relatives, briefly lower the pallets to let the holy water of the Ganges wet the deceased body and then wait their turn for a pyre upon which to burn the body.
Death is often viewed in a positive light; it is considered an escape from this life to a better one, or nirvana. Afterwards, some of the ashes are consigned back into the river, insuring eternal life for the departed. It is an eerie sight to say the least to see so many flames still leaping from these funeral sites or just the smoldering smoke where the last embers have yet to die. In the morning, when we returned before dawn, we saw these leftover piles of ash everywhere, many with poorly fed dogs lying as close as possible to soak up the leftover warmth of the fire.
That night, while floating silently in our own boat, watching all of this and attempting to absorb the meaning of these deeply religious ceremonies, we were each handed a small container with a lighted flame from a bit of oil and the tradition is to gently lower these prayer lamps into the Ganges and let them float away, onto the darkened waters. Each of us made this offering with our own meditative thoughts, although I could see how deeply moving it was for a few of my fellow travelers and even for me, sharing such a spirit-filled moment at that place and in that time.
This evening, once back in our hotel, showered and changed, we all met to have our farewell dinner. Vineet was our gracious host having chosen a wonderful restaurant in our hotel where we were all charmed by the flower centerpiece, candles and elaborate table setting. The food was delicious and just kept coming from the kitchen, one serving after another. We all sat enjoying our last formal gathering as the next day, we would be up and running back to the river, a couple more stops and then saying our final goodbyes.
The Ganges is the longest river in India, and for centuries all along her entire course Hindus have come to bathe in her waters sometimes totally submerging themselves, the women fully clothed and the men with often only a cloth about their waist wash themselves thoroughly with soap or simply cup their hands with the water, lift it and let it fall over them or back into the river. They are saying prayers and paying homage and respect to their ancestors and to their gods in this simple and symbolic way.
And so, up at 5 AM, before dawn the next morning, we again boarded our bus which left us off a little closer than the previous night because we were walking the distance now back to the river and this time in a multitudinous flow of worshipers, pilgrims, tourists, locals, bathers and hawkers.
It was quite a walk and we had to watch where we were stepping to avoid all manner of street debris, but once arriving at the ghats again in the half light before the sun was up and seeing the mob of people everywhere, women half dressed, drying themselves after their morning ablutions, men half naked sitting on the steps gossiping with one another, hundreds in the water, some just standing and chatting with a neighbor or others taking a good dunk, we also noticed barbers giving mostly men a shave down to the scalp, again people selling all manner of things, roaming dogs, goats, piles of ashes and there I stood, transfixed by the entire scene. Vineet came over and took my arm to escort me down the steep steps and into our boat again. We were going to have an escort this morning, a young Hindu Priest who was preparing lotus leaf packages for each of us containing incense atop a sort of flour with marigolds surrounding the mound.
As we floated along the River’s edge, we were agog at the thousands of people crowding the steps, all either just coming up from the water or making their way down to it. This was the time of day when ordinary Varanasians, whose shops are still closed in the early morning, come down to meet and chat with their friends and neighbors. Some were performing yoga asanas (or postures) and many, like us, were offering flowers and incense to the river. There were others who may have traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles, finally completing the pilgrimage to the holy Ganga, to touch the water and be transformed. There were dozens of dhobi wallahs (laundry men and a few women) on the ghats whose livelihood is collecting and washing clothes, beating them on huge stone slabs in the Ganges, wringing them out by hand the old fashioned way and hanging everything on makeshift clotheslines, later to be pressed and returned to the owners.
As we spoke to one another in hushed tones in the early morning light, we were each handed our lotus leaf and asked to silently let our hands turn the leaf over the water and as the grains of flour and marigolds drifted away to remember our own ancestors and say whatever prayer we wished to honor their memory. This as the sun was slowing rising in a brilliant hue of orange and gold, lighting the cerulean sky. Each of us was touched by this elegant ceremony.
Unfortunately, the Ganges has been ranked among the five most polluted bodies of water in the world, particularly near Varanasi. This pollution threatens not only the millions who live along the shores and depend on this water for their everyday living needs, but more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the Ganges river dolphin which is an endangered species as well. Thanks to enormous government corruption, lack of technical expertise and environmental planning, all measures have failed so far to clean up this holy body of water.
Shortly afterward, we were climbing our way up the steep ghats once again for the last time and soberly walked around many of the ash-laden pyres toward our bus. It was back to the hotel for a bite of breakfast and off for more sightseeing. This was our last day to visit two other worthwhile sites before flying back to Delhi early that afternoon.
Our first stop was the Bharat Mata (Mother India) Temple. However this was not like any of the other traditional Temples we have seen previously, but rather contained an intricate bas relief map of the entire Indian subcontinent, carved out of white marble. A very impressive look at mountain peaks, river’s meandering flows and the major cities in India, all in one incredible landscape.
We were off now to the ancient Buddhist learning center of Sarnath. It was here that Buddha preached his first sermon to his disciples. In the Sarnath Museum, we enjoyed seeing the National Emblem of India, Ashoka’s Lion Capital and another treasure of Indian Buddhist art, the Teaching Buddha, a breathtaking piece of sculpture.
A plane ride back to Delhi, a quick shower and change of clothes in my hotel room, a leisurely dinner with Estela, my friend from Spain, and then the ride to the airport for my 15 hour flight back to NY. So surreal, especially since we’re not boarding until 1:30 in the morning and we were up at 5:00 AM for our dawn boat ride. Who am I? Where am I? It was exponential exhaustion!
What will always remain, once the jet lag ended and the fuzzy memories cleared, is the incredible sights of India, the Indian women in particular in their brilliant hued saris, every beautiful color imaginable, and each one so unique and in perfect condition whether she was working in a field, squatting alongside the road selling vegetables, carrying jugs of water on her head, cooking chapatis for the family or tending her children on the dirt laden street outside her hut. I always had to catch my breath at the sight of them and often we would exchange a tender smile, woman to woman, mother to mother.
Indians accept their lot in life. I didn’t see depression or anger or malice. The faces of the children were full of warm smiles, always waving at us as we sped past in our buses or in our rickshaws. They appear hopeful and resigned, accustomed to their way of life. It was sad to learn that many of the girls are not being pressed routinely to attend school as yet as often as their big brothers, but hopefully that will soon change.
The Indian men I saw squatting along the roadside in every town we entered seemed to have no purpose or employment except to sit and gossip with one another, occasionally smoke a beedie, a hand rolled cigarette made using a tendu leaf, or just sit and contemplate the world passing by. Obviously in the large cities of Mumbai or Delhi, the educated Indian men hold important jobs and support their families. But out in the small hamlets where we frequently traveled it seemed that most of the men were totally idle.
I ate Indian food every single day, lunch and dinner, and found to my amazement that I enjoyed it. It was always well made and fresh and plentiful. I brushed my teeth using only bottled water and remembered to keep my mouth shut every day when I showered. The water is totally polluted, even in some of the more upscale hotels where we stayed. Fortunately, I never got “Delhi Belly”, a ubiquitous happenstance for many tourists in India. I never did see that elusive Bengal Tiger and how my back held up on all those hundreds of miles of dirt packed, rutted, potholed, almost impassable roads is a miracle too great to contemplate.
I thought our Trip Leader, Vineet, did an exemplary job in the face of a disappointing beginning, losing five people in his group right at the start and then having eight more show up four days late. He kept his sense of humor, entertained us with his personal history, and filled our minds with more information on his country than anyone could ever possibly absorb.
It was a great experience, one I will always be grateful for and if not for my husband, Bob, and his fast thinking and generous heart, I too would have missed out on seeing with my own eyes hundreds upon hundreds of people being fed for free at the Sikh Temple that morning in Delhi. Thanks honey.