The Taj at sunrise
After the disappointment of Ranthambore, we took the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Given all the hype we hoped that it too wouldn't be a let down. On the train we made friends with two cute kids, to whom the train seemed to be a big adventure playground, with them swinging around from bunk to bunk. Spending time drawing, colouring and reading with them, helped the journey pass quickly and really brightened up our day. They were soon calling us Auntie-ji and Uncle-ji.
Based on our experience of Jaipur, we decided to do things the easy way round in Agra and hired a rickshaw driver for the whole day. He picked us up at 5.30am and we headed to the Taj for sunrise. It was an extremely misty morning, and when we first glimpsed the Taj it appeared to be floating on a cloud. It was an awesome sight and every bit as beautiful as we had imagined. We were really glad we got up early to be there for sunrise, as even though there were hundreds of people there, it didn't feel too over crowded. We did see some amusing sights though...
From the Taj
we went on to Agra fort, and then to the Baby Taj and then in the evening we went to the gardens on the Yamuna river, from which there was an amazing view of the back of the Taj at sunset. This made the perfect end to our day.
After our busy day sightseeing, we had planned a relaxing evening before catching our 13 hour night train to Varanasi. However, our plans were derailed when we found out that our train was no longer passing through Agra and that we would have to travel 60km by taxi to another town to catch our train! Luckily we arrived early, as it took us 40 minutes to locate the right platform. We finally boarded the train and tucked ourselves in for the night, expecting to arrive in time for lunch by the Ganges. Unfortunately, our peaceful sleep was disturbed by a very loud American tourist demanding to know from us when we would arrive. Apparently the train had been stationary for several hours overnight, explaining our good night's rest. From our own quieter investigations, we learnt that the train was about 6 hours late, meaning we would be arriving in Varanasi
for dinner, instead of lunch.
Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganges, is a holy city for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Pilgrims come to the city to bathe in the holy river to wash away a lifetime of sins and to bring their relatives to be cremated on the ghats. It was amazing to see the pilgrims submerging themselves in the freezing cold water at dawn, especially given the fact that the river is incredibly polluted and in some places septic. In fact, samples of the water have shown it to have 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml (water safe for bathing should be less than 500 per 100ml!).
We enjoyed early morning and dusk boat trips up and down the river, watching the Ganga Aarti ceremony, lighting lotus candles and adding them to the hundreds of others floating past. The morning boat ride was an eery experience, as the river and town were shrouded in a thick fog. As a result, we could only hear, but not see, the mornings activities such as laughing yoga, bells from the temples, music from hawkers selling
Built by Emporer Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his third wife, who dies during the birth of their 14th child
CDs on the river and dhobi-wallahs pounding clothes to within an inch of their lives in the name of cleanliness on the washing stones. Based on our found knowledge of the state of the water, we chose not to have our clothes washed here...
Other than these boat trips, most of our time in Varanasi was spent relaxing and hiding away from the frenzy of India in a lovely cafe, eating delicious muffins and carrot cake and sipping freshly brewed earl grey and coffee. The cafe also had some tasteful handicrafts, unlike most of the tat we had seen in the streets and bazaars of other cities, so we decided to buy a few presents to send home to boost our flagging Christmas spirits. Another draw was that it had the cleanest toilet we had come across in all of India!
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