All I can say about Varanasi is summed up with the acronym O.M.G. It is one of those places that cannot be described and must be experienced. This seems to be the same comment I am making about India as a whole. However, Varanasi is all the good, the bad and the ugly within one city. Varanasi is the birth place of Shiva, the destroyer in Hindu mythology. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the World, 3500 years old. There are 3 million people within this massively crowded, polluted and congested city. Many Hindus come from all over India to die in this eclectic and eccentric town. Why? One reason, to be burned and cremated along the holy Ganga river and ascend to a higher level of being.
As our guide Raj mentioned, people come to this holy city for earning, learning and burning! The Ghats are the heartbeat of Varansi, also known as Banaras or Kashi. The 84 Ghats are a grouping of steps that provide an entrance to the river Ganga. There are different ghats for different activities at different times of the day. In the morning you will see people purifying themselves with a dunk at one Ghat. While another Ghat you will see the Dhobi wallas, beating the laundry. Another Ghat is used for Aarti, a holy Hindu ceremony to either bless the coming of a new day, or to bless the River Ganga. And there are two Ghats devoted to cremation. This Ghats are life force of Varanasi and well worth a walk as well as a boat ride with a local. Walking along the Ghats is as if you have hit the super charge button and zoomed into a past World. Many of the rituals of each Ghat have been going on for many, many years.
Of course, this is not for the feint of heart. Even getting to the Ghats can be a challenge as you navigate with caution. Getting to the Ghats provided the most interesting of all traffic congested rides of my life. The ideal mode of transport is a bicycle rickshaw, as it is quicker and easier to move through the congestion. The only problem, is the noise and air pollution. If you are claustrophobe do not come to Varansi! But, if you want an adventure, then do not hesitate. It’s worth it!
There is so much to write about this city, but the main thing that makes Varanasi different is the burning ritual. To see and experience the ritualistic creation of cremation on such a visceral level is something I will never forget. It was not a sad feeling, nor disheartening to experience this. It was simple, paying homage to the end of a life. Hindus believe that this ritual is a sacred rite of passage to a better afterlife. I walked through two burning Ghats with the utmost of respect in my heart. It seems to be a simple and justified concept that allows closure. Of all the things I’ve experienced, this will be one that I will remember with fondness, not sadness. I understood it. As my friend Vikesh said, Death is simply a part of Life. Hindus do not shy away from it, as westerners do. They embrace it as a fact of life, without all the baggage. We are born. We live. We die. No matter what your inclination or religion, you will be affected by this city. Varanasi is a place you must experience. It is a must do on the list of things one must do in India.
In western Rashistan is a smaller, quaint town known of Pushkar. The town is full of a more desert way of life than the many cities of India. It is slightly more laid back, and while it still has it’s share of traffic jams, it is more camels than cars shuffling along the streets. Pushkar is famous for its Camel Festival. This Fall season festival brings thousands of people, both domestics, and foreigners, to watch as camels are purchased, and traded for business. Thereafter, there is a week long camel loving celebration!
As my travel is in December, we did not attend the camel festival, but we’re still intrigued by the Proud Rajastani tradition. It was explained to me that the significance of the camel is it’s representation of Love. Why would a camel represent Love? Because love can be a bumpy ride!
I have enjoyed many bumpy rides in my life, and was smitten by my own camel experience on Mowgli. I can’t say that we had a long affair of the heart, but he did not spit at me. That was something. And after it was all over, bumping along the sand dunes of Rajastan, I wanted to do it again! I suppose you could say that Mowgli’s awkward lope captured a wee piece of my heart. If you ever visit western Rajastan, make sure to experience the ways of the camel. It is an experience that your heart will never forget.
Udaipur is an oasis! There are six ‘king-made’ lakes throughout the city that make this moderately sized town quite famous. After the hustle and bustle of Indian city life, I can see why so many ‘domestic travellers’ relax in Udaipur. After a very long journey from Rishakesh to Delhi by both auto and train, we carried on to Udiapur on a plane. Luckily, the plane was not delayed due to fog, which is the norm for this time of year. And after 15 hours of travel, this lake town was a welcome reprieve.
The people of Rajastan are all very friendly and welcoming. They are inviting and often offer their own homes for a cup of tea or a chat. This was the case with our waiter, Barat. He called his mother and suggested that his new travelling friends should come to her house for tea on our way to Pushkar. This is the way of the Rajistani people! So kind.
Udiapur has some lavishness to it as well, with some incredible hotels and the City Palace and Red Fort are fabulous to visit. One 5 star plus hotel is in the middle if the main Picola Lake and was used for the James Bond Movie, Octopussy. The City Palace was so worth the admission with the feeling of Maharani royalty everywhere one turned. There is also one lovely little spot called the Pleasure Palace that was the king’s pleasure place. Udiapur has a sense of wealth and a feeling of royalty that is so far unmatched. Didn’t spend enough time here to really see it all. There is a richness to the people that matches the inner wealth of the experience. And I already want to go back
Delirious in Delhi? Delirious doesn’t even begin to describe it. We’re already leaving and I feel a pang of withdrawal from the organized chaos of honking cars, shouting people, and seamless workability of a system that’s been around for thousands of generations. It’s 6:45am and we’re on the train heading from Delhi to Haridwar and Rishikesh. The trains are really a great way to get around. And with a second class fare you get the comforts of a nice seat, and tea. It’s a chilly morning but nothing like the Canadian frigid air. Though all the Indians are wrapped in their head scarves and pashminas as if it was the Arctic. It’s an experience to see Delhi via train. Seeing everything from drying cow patties used to burn for heat, and plops of the ‘morning constitution’ being witnessed, to all the goings on of a new morning day. Workers on their bikes or scooters or cars, leaving for work. And the green countryside mixed with small collections of towns or shanty places along the way is part of the experience.
Delhi! Incredible and difficult to describe! I already look forward to coming back. The sites, sounds, smiles, scents and sensory shock is exactly what the Doctor ordered. It’s beautiful and special here. And though my blonde hair on a tall frame makes me the ideal target for hawkers and such, I find everyone really respectful in their way. They see me, and attempt to get my attention, and why wouldn’t they? So it’s by nature of survival that I would be pushed, prodded and cajoled to hand over some rupis. Nodda problem.
The shopping bazaars seem to be some of my favourite experiences. Thanks to our life saver, Baeni, our driver, we fought our ways through the traffic and honking horns to Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi. Wildly chaotic and insane shopping area that is made up of winding wee passages linking one bazaar specialty area to another. You can buy anything there from silver to saris, spices to shoes. It is near the Red Fort which is a major historical site but for my tastes it’s the shopping areas that provide the sense of any city.
Chandi Chowk was bizarre, crazy, and full of people all hawking. Buying, betting and selling. The passageways are so small that in,y a bicycle rickshaw could fit dodging the walkers, hawkers and stalkers. Any wall nearby seems to be the local pee zone and any small crevasse one viewed, Was filled with people! And the strange thing about it, is that it works. Amongst the chaos, it works. And, everyone, old or young, has a cel phone. It’s a lifeline as important here as it is to us in North America. It’s been an incredibly fulfilling experience thus far. Delhi is a cacophony of all things imaginable. I know I have only just scratched the surface of this place. And this is just the beginning. Next stop Haridwar and Rishikesh.
India Calling! Its not your standard hang out at an Ashram and cleanse from the karma that bites you in the ass trip. It is more of an Indian Buffet of all things wild, weird and wonderful about India. As I’ve never been, everything and anything about it will be wickedly gob-smacking! Two weeks in the North, the Taj – OMG factor; Jaipur – Pink City Retail Therapy; Pushkar– Get to know your camel toe (on a real camel) and Varanasi – the cultural slap of the Ganges Ghats ; and then two weeks in the South, backwater cruising in the Kerala District; Ayurvedic de-tox sensations; and the final Hippie fest in Goa. The great thing about travelling in places so foreign is that its like a cold splash in the face on a humid, hot day. It’s a shock to the system and ideally sets you on a new refreshing course. Travelling has always been my way of ‘system shock’! And, it works!
So, friends, this will be an opportunity for me to share with you some of the wilds of the tastes, smells, sights, and intuitions – both the gross and the glorious! It will be INDIA in all its glory, on my terms and from my perspective! I hope you enjoy!