Published: January 20th 2013January 20th 2013
Blog 16-19 January 2013 Varanasi and Agra
"Guess what is in my hands" a very smiley and chatty gentlemen says to me. The only words that came to me were "I hope it's not a rat"?! Vicky, our waiter reveals with a giggle that in fact it's a small statue of Ganesh the God of good fortune and knowledge that is actually nestled in his cupped hands outstretched to me. This gift is just what we needed as we were about to embark on our trip out of Delhi, he is also known as Lord of beginnings - how very apt. It turned out that Vicky's friendly attentiveness was actually meant as encouragement to write a review about him on Trip Advisor (online site) so that his boss would look on him favourably! We've decided that we're open to these blatant bribes if it means we get friendly folk out of it. It has been interesting to see how times have changed. Gone are the days of rocking up to a place unannounced and haggling a good price for a room that you've seen. Now it's all about online and telephone bookings, nothing else is accepted. It seems my experience
is now outdated.
Everyday so far I have been wearing an average of 4-5 layers. It is not the subtropical climate we come to associate with India. The locals have puffer jackets and wooly hats to fend off the cold and are gathered around fires. The goats are wrapped in custom made coats and dogs are snuggled up in cardies. We can only imagine that if it had been sweltering the smell would be hard to stomach in some of the places we've visited and I wouldn't be snivelling with a tiresome cold! I have to say that my my travel hair dryer has definitely come in handy so far - I feel very smug in the face of all you nonbelievers who thought I was being excessive.
Varanasi greeted us with horns blaring and people absolutely everywhere. We got incredibly disorientated after our 24hour door to door journey but were lucky enough to be led through the narrow alleys, over tangled string from hundreds of abandoned children's kites, to our hotel on the bank of the Ganges in the old town. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world (since 6th C BC) and is
at the centre of the Hindu universe. It is among the holiest of places that allows devotees to access the divine and cleanse themselves by washing in the water. Pavilions and palaces were built in the 18th century lined by stone steps known as the 'Ghats''. The whole place is quite surreal. As the mists clear in the morning an empty sand bank appears across the other side of the epic river. The sunrise boat trip also reveals the extent of the settlement along the Ghats where the old decaying palaces rise up as a dramatic backdrop to those bathing, purifying and cleansing themselves. A few metres along the river are the burning ghats. This is a whole other experience altogether as it is where they cremate the corpses at the waters edge. We found this unnerving as the fascination with this cultural difference juxtaposed with the somber atmosphere. The proximity of the burning, washing of clothes and bathing is intriguing but everyone has their own agenda and it all seems to fit together.
After avoiding looking too closely at the river for floating body parts, negotiating our way through massive boats full of Indian tourists, and sidestepping holy
men dressed up to the nines we managed to have a day visiting the temples. First we went to the Golden Temple. Over 20,000 Hindus visit per day. It has recently been opened up to non Hindus and we were told we were very lucky to go in. It turns out this was not a spiritually enlightening experience for us. Far from it. We were pushed through hyper crowds, bare footed, as everyone shoved each other for a mere 10 seconds to drop offerings at the shrine as people were pulled out and shunted past. Some people would have made a pilgrimage there and then queued for 3 hours for this pleasure. This stressful conveyor belt of an experience left us feeling exploited and disappointed. It felt like a manufactured process of how they give offerings and prayer rather than a culturally enriching experience. We can only assume the reason they now let tourists in is for a money making scandal. This is completely different from the overall experience of religion we got from Varanasi.
Although Varanasi was busy it wasn't half as hectic as nearby (3 hours away) Allahabad. India's Kumbh Mela festival is currently on and is
usually described as the world's biggest gathering. Driven by a belief that a dip in the Ganges on auspicious days will cleanse sins and help bring salvation, millions of Hindus come to the festival in the city of Allahabad every 12 years. Officials in charge of the festival say eight million people took to the waters on Monday, when the 55-day festival opened. This is an exciting time for everyone and was a very hot topic of conversation but we thought it would be too much for us to fit in and we'd probably drown in the swarming mass of people!
All in all we have received far less hassle in India than I was expecting. People are genuinely interested in talking to us and many have a fun sense of humour and on the whole are quite respectful. they will leave us alone when we aren't interested in something. We've been pretty laid back so far adopting the popular frame of mind 'no worry, no hurry, no chicken curry'. Talking of food...we're loving the curries. We have gone Thali crazy. You can't beat a full selection of curries to gobble down even at 10.30am! We really enjoyed Varanasi
and left feeling settled in India. Another train ride jam packed with burps (nearly into my mouth), farts and snorting from our very close neighbours in our 3rd class bunks and we arrived in Agra (only 2 hours late this time). I don't think I'll ever get over the sound of Justin Bieber waking me up on Indian trains, blaring from the mobile of grey haired middle aged men...maybe I'll come home a Belieber?!
Agra is more hectic than anywhere else we've been. We arrived in the thunder, lightning and rain. Our favourite bits were walking down out-of-the-way bazaars with shop keepers laying out sari after sari in front of rows of women and street vendors deep frying puffy chapatis. We took a ride in 'India's helicopter', also known as the average rickshaw, to see the Baby Taj and then to a swanky hotel to pretend we were living the highlife, to have a cocktail and see the Taj Mahal from a distance. I don't think we we're fooling anyone.
start this morning got us to the Taj Mahal in time for the sunrise and we stayed for a good 3 hours. It is stunning and
beautiful but most people only really seemed to care about taking the typical 'pinching the spire on tiptoe' photos. Charlie managed to smuggle in the copy of Farmers Weekly to remind us of our roots! This is despite our playing cards and 2 batteries from Charlie's 3 battery torch being confiscated. Not quite sure what kind of damage we could have done with that contraband?
Something that I am trying to come to terms with is Charlie's celebrity like status here... On at least 5 different occasions so far Indian men have stopped us in the street to take their photo with Charles Green - they just can't get enough of him, he is in high demand! Obviously I'll try not to let this get to his head too much but I have seen him practising his pout in the mirror ever since.
The Agra Fort is an impressive representation of power. We are becoming tighter by the day and decided to guide ourselves through the fort with the Rough Guide as our companion! I would love to see what it had been like with rugs, silks and decorations - perhaps i should have left the feedback on
a comments card? Charlie received a good luck squelchy and slightly runny token from a parrot right on the forehead - lets hope this means we have a smooth journey on to Jaipur. We had our most local lunch today at a cafe on the side of the road. We both ate for £1.50 including a generous tip, it was delicious and definitely the spiciest to date... fingers crossed we won't be seeing it again...!
There are more photos below