Wholly Holy Varanasi (And the TAJ too)

Hello, hello, and welcome to the lazy dog days of India-style beach bumming. After six weeks in India, mostly spent dodging stoic cows, speeding tuk-tuk autos, tenacious touts and our own tiredness, we have finally landed amidst the beaches, cheap beers, and trance beats of Goa. But before we dive into a bunch of nonsense about how close we are to the beach (about a 20 second walk), how cheap our full studio is (around $13USD per night), or the temperature of our beach beers (lukewarm!), let’s backtrack a bit and see how we have been occupying our time.

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Agra Train Station

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We left Delhi after a week and boarded a train for the short three-ish hour trip south to Agra, home of unquestionably India’s most famous building – the grand Taj Mahal. Manny and I are not morning people, but we (somehow) found our way to the grounds of the Taj for daybreak – and it’s completely worth it. The first streaks of light illuminate the perfectly smoothed slopes of the massive structure and transform the ghost white marble into a wider symphonic of colors. All the brilliance of a gorgeous sunrise/sunset reflected onto this gargantuan totem to love. Taj creator and Mughul emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the mausoleum as the final resting place for his chief consort/favorite wife who died while giving birth to their 14th (!!!) child. A bit of survivor’s guilt, perhaps, at putting his wife through childbirth more than a dozen times?

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We stayed inside the complex for a couple hours, and the morning light does make a difference in your impression of the building. While it remains as imposing as ever regardless of the time (it’s seriously huge), as the sun rises the rich rainbow of morning colors blend together into a dull, monotone white.

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The different between Delhi and Agra: kids in Agra like saying “Hi” to foreigners, it made us feel really welcome.

Most tourists come to Agra for the Taj and a handful of other UNESCO world heritage sites and then speed off after a night or two, and we did the same – or that was what we attempted to do anyway. We arrived about 45 min early for our 10:30pm train to Varanasi, the holiest city in India and one of the oldest cities still in existence, and found ourselves waiting until nearly 3am for our train to arrive.

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Waiting for our delayed train.
Manchit's delayed train sketch
Manchit’s delayed train sketch

Climbing tiredly aboard, we slipped right to sleep with only slight befuddlement that someone was already sleeping in my berth. No worries, I thought, I’ll just take one of the other open beds. Three hours later the conductor’s voice calls out words no traveler wants to hear: the name of a city in the complete opposite direction from where you are trying to go!

“DELHI! DELHI! DELHI!”

Shiiiiiiiiiiiit.

Off the train around 6:30am, we bought flight tickets from Manny’s phone, jumped right onto the express subway direct to the airport, and had enough time for a crappy airport burrito before our short flight to Varanasi. Swell.
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Varanasi is… different. It’s a bit slower than Delhi and Agra (still a manic city on world standards, of course) and filled with painters, life long students (“I have been studying in Varanasi for 25 years”), musicians, holy men, and, of course, the throngs of Hindu and Jain worshipers to whom this is their holiest city. People come from all over India and the world to bath in the holy mother, the Ganges, despite the fact that at any given moment you will see trash floating down the river or someone taking a piss/shit into the waters or possibly even an entire decomposing body.

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Want to bypass reincarnation and head straight to heaven/nirvana? You’ll need to be burned at the side of the river and your ashes and remaining bones dumped into the dark waters. The river is a cleansing spirit, a God (locals often don’t believe they are harming the river when they dump their trash and chemicals into it because how can they, as mere mortals, harm a God?), and is a direct path to the afterlife.

At the main burning ghat: buildings turned black from hours of smoke and soot, and piles of firewood everywhere.

Everyone is allowed to be purified in the flames (if they have the money for the ceremony, nothing in life is free) except for a few particular classes of people: the holy men – “sadhus” – are not burned because they are already enlightened, no child under ten (kids are already pure), no pregnant woman (again, kids are already pure), no one who has been bitten by a snake (a symbol of the god Shiva), and no one who has leprosy (well, fuck).

The bodies who are not consumed by the riverside flames are wrapped in stones and dropped into the river. Thus, it is not uncommon to see bodies washed up on the far side of the river after the bonds holding them to the river floor have loosened. Processed with VSCO with hb2 preset
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Walking amongst the numerous ghats beside the Ganga, you see the many ways the river is used as a center of life for the city. Morning rituals to welcome the day – prayers, early sunrise baths, laundry in the shallows – bring thousands of people to the shores to watch and take part. Tea or “chai” sellers are nearly always around. As the temperature rises, the crowds scatter into the shade of the city and only tourists and beggars remain. Then again, with the sun dropping in the evening, the banks of the river fill up once more with thousands of locals and travelers finding places to sit on the steps of the ghats and watching the evening Aarti ceremonies,. These carefully orchestrated experiences of ringing bells, rhythmic chants, spinning flames and smoke, are performed at a few particular ghats each evening and feel almost like the city is wishing the river a goodnight, a “farewell” to the day.

Evening Aarti ceremony
The holy “Sadhus” have a full range of styles. Some silently mediate in plain garb for hours upon hours as tourists stream by their feet. The dude in this picture is generally found in the thickest section of the main Aarti ceremony: blessing people (first you must give a tip, of course) by smearing grey ash on their faces, laughing madly, posing for selfies, and banging on drums. He undoubtably gets more tips than most (perhaps all?) of the other nearby, much more serene, sadhus and we can’t help but wonder if there is not a bit of envy as each holy man competes to grab the attention (and the cash) of the crowd.

Death in Varanasi isn’t the same as it is elsewhere. There are no tears as the bodies burn and the bones are dropped into the water. (Tears will cause a person to continue to be reincarnated instead of heading directly to Nirvana.) Death is commonplace. Normal. Everyone lives and everyone dies and it’s all happening in front of you, hundreds of times per day, thousands of times per year. Body after body after body through any holiday, weather condition, or even natural disaster. (When the river floods exceptionally high, the burnings take place on roofs of buildings beside the river.)

We spent about a week in Varanasi and could easily have stayed longer, but with only two direct trains per week to our next destination, Khajuraho, we packed up and headed back on the trail – this time confirming with about ten people at the train station that we were taking the correct train!

Sending love from the sands 🙂

D + M

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