India is a country of huge contrasts. In 2010 I visited just a small part of the country, the North-East India including Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The first impressions can be shocking when you pass the border from Nepal to India. The crossing was done by walking and what a difference few meters can make!
Piles and piles of garbage, cows moving freely on a road where everybody has the right of way! Beggars asking for money, many children, or children carrying babies is a common view.
We used jeeps to go to the rail station for a sleeper train to Varanasi. With 100 km/hour was quite a ride on a two ways road. People, bicycles, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and other surprises: cows walking serenely, goats and dogs sleeping in the middle of the road, even elephants!
And no rules, except the honking: “I am coming, get out of my way! My honk is louder, means I am bigger.” And the monkeys were watching amazed the traffic on the both sides of the road!
“I found Varanasi absolutely staggering. I have never seen anything like it before. The city just spills into the river Ganges… It’s really, really extraordinary!” – Brad Pitt
Arriving in Varanasi after a long train trip.
Varanasi is the holly Indian city where millions of Hindu travels for pilgrimage, to worship, to mourn or to die.
The streets are very busy with everything you can think about. The vendors are carrying their products on the top of their heads. The barber shops consist of a chair and a mirror right on the side of the street. A dead corpse is carried by chanting men on the streets. The policemen look like revolutionaries with their one-by-one shot 50′s rifles. The car axle is repaired by being heated with cow dung.
The fireworks explode everywhere on the street. Diwali time! Even under my feet. I got a bit burned and I was deaf for a while. But all this is part of the adventure!
“Enlightenment, and the death which comes before it, is the primary business of Varanasi.” – Tahir Shah, Sorcerer’s Apprentice
What makes Varanasi famous is the Ganges River or Ganga.
We went very early in the morning for the bathing and burning rituals. Quite a sight: life and death meet in the same place. People bath in the holly water of Ganges, drink or wash clothes.
On the shore you can see the fires from cremations. In the end, the ashes are thrown into the river. If body parts are not completely burnt, the priest will throw them into the river. I was in a boat when one human foot was thrown into the water, after the priest bowing a couple of times. The cremation places are quite impressive and the man who owns them is a rich one. Lots and lots of wood piled waiting for customers. The cremations taking place in different stages, the mourners (only men) and the tourists in between make a surreal experience.
The traditions are well maintained in Varanasi – the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.
Talking to a real sadhu was an experience. Until another one (maybe not so real) with big green eyes came and tried to hypnotize me. “Repeat after me: om- janga – banga- tanka – tuba – ganga… – two hundred dollars.” It didn’t work!
Orchha was supposed to be a quiet place. But I found a very big Hare Krishna celebration. Hundreds and hundreds of women came in tractor trailers to bathe in the holly river in Orcha and perform “puja” (offering to a deity). Very colorful and many photos! This is the place where I was pushed in the bum by a baby cow while I was taking photos. Very funny for the locals!
In Jaipur (the Pink City) is the Amber Fort and the “Palace of Winds“. Very interesting is the observatory (built in 1700): outdoor constructions that measure the time (based on the sun shadow) with an accuracy of 2 seconds, or the different positions of the sun.
New Delhi, the capital of India is quite different: clean and modern in some parts, dirty and poor in other areas. Before entering the New Delhi Railway Station, the train is going between garbage and tent people for kilometers. The subway is quite modern and the train was built by Bombardier, a Canadian company. Each time you go to the subway (metro) station you have to go through the security screening, similar with the procedure in airports.
Real story happened in my hotel room, in Delhi. The power went off and when I went out of the room to inquire about, there was a man – the “hotel’s accountant” who was trying to fix the light. I asked him what I can do in Delhi at night. He answered: “We can have entertainment in your room!”. And he started “I love foreigners!” Politely, I refused. It wasn’t what I had in mind about a night of entertainment in Delhi!