Agra & Varanasi

My time in India was soon coming to an end; I had 10 days left in what I believe to be an amazing country. However, I realised, after visiting a friend in Dehradun, that I would have to skip one or two places; my plan was to spend a few days in New Delhi, then head to Agra before reaching Varanasi, which would be my final destination. I soon realised that I’d much rather spend a few extra days in Agra and Varanasi than get tied down in the chaotic city sprawl of New Delhi. So, I left Dehradun (which is near Rishikesh) and made my way to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.

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5:30am Sunrise

Now, if you are heading to Agra (if you’re in the north of India I presume you will at some point), then try and stay in a guesthouse within a mile of the famous mausoleum; this way you can get up early, get your ticket, and be inside the grounds before 6am. I managed to get in, along with 4 other people, pretty quickly and, before everyone started getting their selfie sticks out, I found a guy who would happily take photos of me for 500r. Normally I wouldn’t pay for such a thing; I’m not overly keen on photos as it is, and paying for them certainly doesn’t appeal to me but, given where I was, and the fact I probably won’t ever come back, persuaded me to have a few photos taken. The guy (and his son) quickly showed me round the entire complex; they were taking photos from some of the best spots- a lot of which I’d never have thought of; all of this was done within 15 minutes as, after that, the whole place was flooded with people. Thank God I decided to get up early (I’d left the 3 other people in my dorm fast asleep).

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Very fortunate to get the place to myself for 5 minutes…

If you travel around India then it’s inevitable that you’ll end up talking to a few people about the Taj Mahal; it’s one of those places that is seen as unmissable, especially if you’re in the country but, as usual, opinions are divided; some people claim that it’s overrated and a lot smaller than they imagined, some people are of the opinion that it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever seen. For me, well, it was simply stunning. It was indeed smaller than I thought but, especially given that the sun was rising behind it, it was more beautiful than I ever imagined.

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The trenches of still water scattered across the grounds glimmer in the new light; the decorative jasper and marble sparkle as the sun hits them, almost creating a reverse planetarium; the whole design is breathtaking. Though the marble is white, the fresh sun gives it a warm hue of yellow; not too much to reflect, but enough to leave you awestruck.

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Of course, in the grounds, there’s not just the main tomb to look at; there are the 4 gates, plus a Mosque on the left side of the tomb; the grounds are closed on Fridays as the place becomes filled with Muslims flocking to their mosque. If you get the chance I would try and get an early photo from inside the arches of the mosque; the sun and its following shadows make the place look stunning and the mixture of warm colours is beautiful. You can easily spend a couple of hours just strolling around the grounds, admiring the beauty and unbelievable architecture you’re surrounded by (and to think this was constructed 350yrs ago). You can hardly imagine that the clowns in charge of architectural projects these days have the nerve or confidence to build something of a similar scale.

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See the gems sparkle…
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Mehtab Bagh

Also, if you want a different view of the Taj Mahal, you can either pay to be taken onto the river behind the grounds, or catch a rickshaw to the Mehtab Bagh, which is basically a large garden directly across the river; from here you find a more peaceful, relaxed atmosphere (if you’re in the actual grounds too long you can easily get caught up in the endless amount of selfie battles taking place).

Agra itself is a pretty quiet place and, other than the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and the Mehtab Bagh, there’s not much reason to hang round so, along with a couple of people I met, I made my way to the spiritual capital of the sub-continent: Varanasi. This place really did surprise me; I was expecting somewhere perhaps a little more relaxed than Agra, but I was very wrong. Considering that it’s a very holy city, and one of the oldest cities around, I found the chaotic streets, sh*t eating cows, and relentless noise like a flashback to my time in Mumbai or Bangalore; I couldn’t believe it. I was hoping and expecting that my time in India would end in a calm, reflective way but, as with most expectations, I was perhaps misguided.

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The Bank of the Ganges

The majority of the city is made up of narrow alleyways, markets, cheap restaurants, and beggars (I’d never seen so many before). However, if you manage to get through the tin-roofed jungle and make your way to the Ganges, it all changes. As soon as you arrive on the bank of the famous river, you’re made very well aware of a burning smell so, naturally, you’ll be intrigued. It turns out that this burning, which goes on 24hrs a day, is the cremating of people in various ghats on the river bank. The bodies of loved ones are carried through the streets by 4 men of the family, before being submerged in the river, laid on a pile of sandalwood (which counteracts the smell of burning flesh), and finally set alight. The strange thing here is that if a woman dies, then the husband will watch as his soulmate is burned whereas if a man dies, it’ll be other members of the family (women aren’t allowed to the ceremony as there was an old tradition of them throwing themselves on the fire once the husband was alight). Another oddity is that, if a girl is pregnant, or someone has died due to a cobra bite, then they will not be cremated; instead their bodies are weighed down in the centre of the river by stones. This is probably the worst part of it all, as children swim in the river (they even have swimming lessons), men spit out the water as they swim across, and the ashes of those lucky enough to be cremated are left to flow downstream.

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If you’re of a certain kind then you can actually watch the bodies, of which there may be 5 at a time, be cremated. Luckily, the girl I was with at the time decided she’d seen enough once a part of the cloth burnt away and we could see a burning face; this was a little too much. However, if you can put the dead to one side, and want to experience another strong part of the city’s culture, head down to the riverbank at around 6 and catch a boat ride up and down the river.

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No matter how holy or sacred a city is, there’s still poverty…

Every night there is a ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where local priests perform a ritual to fire, Lord Shiva, the sun and, finally, the Ganges itself. This ceremony is stunning and, if you do manage to get a boat, the views from the river are impressive (though try to avoid the water fountains in the river; I don’t think you’d appreciate having rot water sprayed over you). This ceremony goes on until about 8pm, by which time most people are worn out from the intense heat and overall length if the day.

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If you’ve got a bit of spare time on your hands, and want to see a more peaceful part of the city, then head to Sarnath (which is a city itself). Here you will find the Dhamek Stupa, which is believed to be the place where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon following his enlightenment, and is a very important pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world. Though not as impressive as other religious sites in India, it truly relates to what I believe to be one of the important factors of Buddhism, which is the lack of vanity. Many Buddhist temples you see around the country are adorned with superfluous sculptures, gold plates, and fine materials; however, this particular Stupa is as simple as it gets and, given that its surrounded by a deer park, is genuinely peaceful.

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Dhamek Stupa

So, though Varanasi itself is a hectic battleground for rickshaws, cows, street sellers, and pyres, it is surprisingly easy to find some sort of peace. I must admit that whilst watching a part of the cremation ceremonies that go on, I found it strangely relaxing; the entire ritual still performed as it was hundreds if not thousands of years ago. The strength of people’s beliefs is astonishing and the way they go about their daily lives, though tied to these beliefs, is inspiring. Western culture dictates that we see death as the end of something, the end of a life. In the east, or most of India at least, death is just a part of an endless cycle; the people here mourn of course, but the way they go about suggests that they don’t fear it themselves, and that there will be something after; this is something that, as a westerner, taught about religion in a feckless, half-assed way, I find difficult to believe. Maybe this is how the ‘poor, uneducated’ people of places like India actually live more fulfilling lives than those of us who are ‘educated’ in the west yet squander our time sending dog-filtered pictures on our phones; I genuinely find this depressing.

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Anyway, as Varanasi was my last city to visit in India, and perhaps one of the most eye-opening places I’ve ever seen (5 bodies being carried through the streets within 20mins is something I couldn’t get used to), I felt like it was finally time to move on. I’d earlier felt a little down about the fact that I was leaving this great country, but by this point I’d finally accepted it and was ready to move on to Nepal; a country I really knew very little about…