From Bangalore, we took a flight to Delhi, India’s capital. It was actually the same price as taking a second class train to the same place, and it took two and a half hours instead of something ridiculous like forty eight hours. I know it’s not all eco friendly and all, but we’ve done our fair share of train traveling already (and we’re not finished!)
Delhi is apparently one of the oldest living cities in the world, along with Jerusalem, and Varanasi (see later in this post!) – estimated to be 5000 years old and destroyed 11 times!! But we didn’t have time to visit the oldest parts – it’s quite straining to do anything here, so we stuck to what was close. Luckily, Delhi is super awesome for travelers like us, because it has a very modern metro and train system which actually links the airport to the area where we were staying. We thus never had to deal with pushy rickshaw and tuk tuk drivers who literally assaults you when you come out of the metro stations. The only thing that kind of sucked was that there was a huge lack of directions, so you needed to ask people constantly where we were going… luckily, everyone happily obliged to our constant questions!
We stayed in a backpacker ghetto called Paharganj – which is very close to pretty much all the local attractions. It’s pretty much a street bazaar with tons of tourist stores, hotels and restaurants, trapped in a huge cloud of dust and pollution.
The restaurants we tried in Delhi were mostly located in our area, which meant that they were kind of catered to tourist tastes… but they were still quite tasty.
The first touristic thing we did was to visit the National Museum. We read everywhere that it was not to miss. We are always interested to learn about different cultures, so we went for it… but we were a bit disappointed. Perhaps half of the exhibitions were closed for renovations (or something?) and barely anything had explanations… they say the name of gods and goddesses, but what are they god of? We don’t know! Some stuff was even written by type writer. It looks like no work was done since the 70’s.. except for the miniature painting exhibition. That one was actually decent, and worth the entrance price alone. I swear, I’ve never seen such tiny details in my life! These artists use to paint with paintbrushes the size of one hair… it’s really crazy. I couldn’t really capture it on film, but I took a couple photos of paintings I found quite interesting:
The next day, we went around and did a bit of shopping. India has awesome textiles, and I wanted to buy myself some clothes. While walking around in Connaugh Place, I saw an amazing of work of art, done by hundreds of Indian men and women:
You see red-coloured spit everywhere in India (I even saw some in Malaysia – and apparently it’s worst in Bangladesh), but this was the biggest mass I’ve seen so far! If you are wondering what the hell it is, it’s the product of chewing on betel nut – a kind of slightly addictive and stimulant shredded nut. You usually find these in “paan”, a digestive commonly taken after meals, which sometimes also includes fennel seeds, sweets and flavourings. You chew on that thing (I tried it, it tastes like tooth paste mixed with perfume) and then you spit out juices as you go.
Finally, at the end of our 6 days we were staying in Delhi, we decided to do our first sight-seeing. There are so many things to do here, but we decided to keep it short and sweet – as I said earlier, Delhi has a great metro system, but once you come out of the metro, it’s REALLY hard to get around. We decided to visit Old Delhi, which has the biggest mosque in India, a famous restaurant, as well as the Red Fort.
So, the mosque, Jama Masjid (also known as Masjid-i Jahān-Numā) was erected between 1644 and 1658. Built by a Mughal Emperor (the Mughal empire was settled in Northern India at the time), its courtyard can hold up to 25 000 worshippers!
As usual, to enter a mosque, a woman must be covered by a long dress so she doesn’t reveal anything. We thus had to rent out a little costume thing, which cost 2$. Later, when we came out of the mosque, they tried to rip me off by saying “More money! Overcharge!” but I refused, obviously! Trying to rip you off in a “holy” place. What the hell!
Mughal architecture is a mix of Hindu with Arabic and Persian styles. The Taj Mahal (which we will see later!) is also constructed in a style… it’s really beautiful, and definitely very exotic looking!
The mosque also houses several relics, in a closet. I was there when the relic guard took them out to show them to a muslim family but unfortunately I couldn’t take any photos. There was one of Muhammed’s beard hair, some ancient Qur’an manuscript written on deer skin, one of Muhammed’s sandals as well as one of his foot prints on… marble! The sandal looked quite authentic, but strangely the foot print was much larger than the sandal itself… anyway, it was really cool to see all of those things!
After that, we went to a really really famous restaurant called “Karim’s”. Apparently, the founders were royal cooks, for the Mughal emperors – so the cuisine is considered royal cuisine. The presentation was far from being royal, but the taste was sublime!
We ordered way too much food; mutton sheesh kebabs, goat qoma, goat and potato stew, egg curry as well as tons of roti’s (some kind of nice flatbreads):
To digest a little, we came back by walking through a bazaar and eventually to the Red Fort. It was Sunday, and there were many many people in the streets. Don’t know if it’s like this everyday, but it was particularly striking!
And then we arrived in front of the Red Fort, which we didn’t actually explore hehe… it cost more than 5$ per person, and we weren’t ready to pay that much to enter it. Anyway, it looked quite cool from the outside!
The next day was a big holiday everywhere in India – it was the celebration of Shiva’s birthday! It is also on that day that I lost my most valuable possession at the moment; my camera. I only noticed it when I was on the train on the way to Agra – where the Taj Mahal is located. Can you believe it? I stupidly forgot my camera somewhere (or perhaps got it stolen, who knows!) right before going to visit the Taj Mahal. Anyway, I knew it was going to happen eventually because I always lose stuff, but it still sucks. After alot of work, I did manage to find a photo boutique that could order the newer model of my camera for me, but I was only going to get it 5 days later. We spent a couple of days doing damage control, and decided to visit a nearby town, Orchha, while waiting. I didn’t take any photos, obviously.
To get to Orchha, we had to take a train to a nearby city (Jhansi), which was very very nice and smooth, and had a really killer veggie breakfast. But our stream of bad luck continued. We were instructed by the owner of an Agra tourist agency (apparently, a “friend” of the owner of the hotel where we were going), when coming out of the train, to go to the pre-paid booth outside of the station and to get a rickshaw/tuktuk for Orchha, which should cost us not more than 150 rupees (3$). When we came out of the station, there was nobody at the pre-paid booth. The annoying rickshaw and taxi drivers asked us where we were going, so we said “Orccha” and everyone kind of cringed. They said it was election day and that the border was sealed. See, Orchha is situated 20 km, but in another province. So a guy came to us, and said he’d “help” us and bring us to Orchha on his scooter, but for 1500 rupees. That’s 30$… 10 times more expensive than usual, and for us to sit THREE on a scooter with our big bags and all. So we told him off, and finally he “lowered” his price to 500 rupees. We agreed, stupidly thinking it was the only way to go there. So we all got on the scooter, and the ride was fine but tight… until we got to the hotel! Arrived at the hotel, we checked in our room, and everything was nice, until the manager came to see us and told us we had to move to another hotel, due to some logistic problems. That’s when I kind of blew up haha, it was just too much shit one after the other! Apparently, both the scooter guy AND the tourist agency guy wanted commission on our room (which we had lowered from 1000 rupees to 800 rupees). The Indian hospitality business runs on commissions (it’s like the mafia), so it’s bad business to turn down this kind of bribe system… And it was because the hotel manager didn’t want to encourage those scams that we couldn’t stay there. But finally, after much dealing, we stayed in the room and the manager told both guys to fuck off and not to give him business again. So kudos to the manager of Ganpati hotel. What a way to travel though! So many scams!
Orchha is a farming village located among ruins of medieval palaces and temples. I thought it was going to be a bit like Hampi, but it really wasn’t… it was certainly very beautiful, but it was really loud. All day, cars, motorcycles and rickshaws passing by would toot their horns REALLY loudly for no apparent reason. I think they’re on powertrips or something. But the buildings WERE nice, and what is cool is that you can walk everywhere you want. There are no restrictions or anything, no security guards, nothing! It was really cool to go through secret passages and end up in weird rooms with medieval ceiling paintings, etc… really a nice experience. And the surroundings were really stunning as well.
We then took the train back to Agra, waiting for my camera to come…
Agra (part II)
Back in Agra, we received hugely deceiving news. The camera, which I had ordered and was supposed to come from Hong Kong, did not arrive. So basically, we cancelled all of our trains, delayed all of our hotel stays and extended our trip for nothing. The only sensible option was to rent a camera, and the only decent camera to rent was an analogue SLR – a Canon Rebel EOS. At least it’ll be fun and a bit more artistic than a disposable camera! Might as well have used one though, the company who ended up developing my film and scanning the negatives did a really amateur/digital job and the photos ended up looking like they were scanned by a 10-year old from an eighties color guide book. Oh well. I tried, I swear!! Hahahaha
So after 5 days (normally, people go to Agra for one day!), we finally went to visit the mystery that is the Taj Mahal! We got up at dawn, and entered the site to experience a magical rising of the sun… The first monument we encountered was the main gate:
For those who are only familiar with the name and photo, let me explain you something… the Taj Mahal is actually a gigantic mausoleum complex, which has been built in the 1630’s by the love-sick Shah Jahan (a mughal emperor) to honor the memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their 14th child (he really, really loved her it seems!!!) The complex consists of extremely refined marble buildings, surrounded by a huge green garden with flowers and trees:
Almost everything has been designed and built symmetrically, except for the emperor’s tomb, who was added at the end by his son – and thus, screwed up his whole concept hahaha… anyway, the details are absolutely impressive. Everything has been carved into marble, and the flower details are all made out of precious stones!!
The Taj Mahal looked impressive from all angles, and in real life, was really really BIG!! It hurt the neck to try to appreciate all its details!
We spent a couple of hours walking around and gazing at the beauty of the structure, and then returned home to take a nicely deserved siesta hehe. The Taj Mahal surely did not fail to impress me – and for sure deserves all the praises it gets. Really a fantastic experience! Oh, and I got pooped on by a bird, which my Indian friend Vik told me is good luck. Phew! Now, onwards to the 13-hour train journey to Varanasi.
It’s funny, I don’t see 13 hours on a train anymore, I see it as a fun opportunity to talk, read a book, listen to music, work on CAUCHEMAR stuff and design posters for our upcoming tour! We arrived in Varanasi around noon, where a man picked us up to lead us to where we’d be staying – the Kautilya Society. It’s basically a short and long-time residence for students, film makers, travellers and musicians. We’d have to pay 2$ to join the community, and 5$ a night for a bed in a dormitory. This place was heaven – breakfast AND lunch was included, there was free wifi, and the building was incredibly old and gorgeous… oh, and the staff was really sweet! We met a lot of nice people, among them a Mexican guy, Serbian guy and a Spanish girl whom let me practice mendhi (henna tattooing) on her! Oh yeah, and the super friendly Mexican guy, Geraldo, let me use his nice digital camera, so I could have photos for my blog.
But enough of where we stayed! The whole point of this post is to talk about the extremely rich experience of being in Varanasi. The holy city of Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world, dating from the iron age (!) and still looking like it. Many Indian philosophers, poets, musiciens, writers and artists flourished here. Even Buddha himself declared it as a pilgrimage site! It’s not hard to know why though, there’s a certain energy floating around here. Perhaps it’s just the smell of burning corpses… (see later in this post, hehe)
What attracted me to the town itself is its really old history, as well as its fascinating religious devotion. The city is located on the bank of the Ganges river, which is extremely sacred in Hinduism as well as Jainism and a few other religions. The incredibly polluted river, which is seen as an elixir, is thought to wash away sins. From the dawn to dusk, people bathe and brush their teeth in it – some having a good time with friends, and some are alone under deep religious stupor. We took a boat trip early in the morning, to see the sun rise and see for ourselves how people take their ritual morning baths:
This area is also a favourite spot for yoga and meditation practitioners. We found this peaceful looking man meditating, and soaking up all the vibes of the place:
Varanasi is also, with Venise, the easiest place to get lost in the world. Seriously, its downtown area is a real labyrinth. There’s no way of finding a way, you have to ask the people where the river is, and just follow it back to where you come from. I don’t know how they built it; it’s really insane… but I like it like that! It was fun getting lost and finding our way again! The very narrow streets were lined up with tiny shops, and their walls were decorated with religious paintings. The electric lines sometimes were a HUGE mess. They looked like spider webs! But I think it was worst in La Paz, Bolivia. Haha
Varanasi is also THE place where Hindus wants to die. Why? Dying here, and for the remains to be tossed away in the Ganges river means instant Nirvana! No bullshit with karma and reincarnations, this is fast forwarding straight into illumination! The popularity of this place means that 300 bodies PER DAY gets cremated here, most of them at the burning ghat, Manikarnika.
Families have to plan cremation in advance, because it is quite costly. Richer families buy exotic imported wood – some of them with nice smells like sandalwood, and poorer families use ordinary, local wood. The body is first bathed in the water, brought back to shore, covered with firewood, and then lit up by an “eternal flame” (a fire that is apparently still burning for thousands of years!). The body takes about three hours to get “purified” by the fire, and then, all the ashes and burnt remains are sifted by the lower caste people (the untouchables) over the water, to keep bits of gold. Apparently, sometimes sadhus (holy men) eat the burning flesh in order to purify themselves! I felt like I was stuck in the lyrics of an AUTOPSY song or something!!!! Also, children and sadhus do not need purification by fire, they are tossed in the water directly, as they are considered pure. Sometimes, very poor people are also tossed in the Ganges without being burned… A rock is attached to their feet, and their bodies are brought to the bottom of the lake. It happens that sometimes a body floats back to the surface… in fact, I think I saw one, but as I had no glasses, I couldn’t see properly. Maybe it’s for the better.
Walking on the side of the ghats , you could notice sadhus, cows and even snake charmers! I think these sadhus are false though, apparently real holy men wake up early in the morning and are never “around” to ask money from tourists. I certainly never gave them any money either.
Every night, around 18:30, is Ganga Aartii, an incredible ceremony that immerses faithful followers in divine energy by calling the five elements. It was the first time I assisted to this sort of sacred religious ritual, which certainly invoked some very powerful forces. The ringing of the bells, the fire, the incense, the purification through the Ganges water… it actually managed to give me huge shivers! Noble-looking men started the ritual by holding lit incense sticks in the air – moving them around softly, and then they lifted a chalice full of smoke, while ringing a small bell. They also threw water from the Ganges on their altar and blew from conch shells. Every move was repeated in each direction – north, south, east and west.
Then, my favourite part arrived… FIRE! The background song became faster and intense, with ritual drums and bells – and the guys held brass-torches, which is meant to purify. Not sure if the fire comes from the aforementioned “eternal flame”, but it wouldn’t surprise me!
The ritual ended by the guys purifying themselves in the water, drinking from it, and then singing together and throwing flowers around them. It was pure beauty.
We stayed in Varanasi for four nights in total, in order to soak in the life a little. The streets are quite dirty, yes, and the people burp and fart a lot in the streets (for them it’s natural, so it’s ok!) – but it’s their culture, and I totally accept it as that. I can totally also understand why some Europeans might find this place totally shocking and repulsive… but I can give them this advice: visit Varanasi with an open mind, and embrace all those cultural differences! You might even find yourself burping, too – at the end of your trip! Haha
So now, the Indian leg of our trip is over. It’s pretty crazy – we were only planning to stay two weeks here in India, but finally we spent a month and a half. And we still have SO much to explore. I came here with no expectations, but found an incredible country (or many incredible countries – every city is so different…) with really nice people and a culture that is absolutely ALIVE. I have a feeling I will be back, in the future. And the cool thing is that I don’t think anything is going to change… hehe (ok – perhaps the metal scene!)
We just landed in Kathmandu, Nepal, and will be spending a month here! More news later on, as usual! Wish me luck on finding a good camera here!
March 4th, 2012 at 9:15 pm
Awww trop nul pour ta caméra. C’est super gentil du Mexicain de t’avoir prêté la sienne, au moins t’as quelques photos des rituels et tout.
En plus de perdre tes lunettes et de te faire scammer par plein de crosseurs… haha. Je dirais “toute une aventure” mais dans le fond, c’est tout des “first world problems” hehe. Tout de même, j’espère que tu vas te trouver une bonne caméra rapidement pour les Himalayas. Bonne chance au Népal!
Ça doit faire drôle de voir des rituel païens in real life, et pas des neo-pagan wiccan wanna-bes non plus, mais des authentiques hehe.
March 10th, 2012 at 3:04 pm
En effet, les photos de la caméra du mexicain sont super belles!! Je viens de me commander une autre caméra – elle va arriver chez mes parents dans quelques semaines, et ils vont venir me rejoindre (avec la caméra) à notre prochaine étape… Barcelone! 🙂
March 6th, 2012 at 8:19 am
Brilliant Annick! I always look forward to your posts and this was one of the very best.
March 10th, 2012 at 3:05 pm
Thank you so much Piotr, you are too sweet!!!!
March 7th, 2012 at 3:52 am
A friend of mine has shown me your blog here and I am completely amazed and jealous of this trip of yours into India. I wish I could experience it the way you are. Beautiful photos and writing, Let me know if you will travel to Bangladesh. I have a good friend there I can put you in touch, he speaks english.
March 10th, 2012 at 3:03 pm
Hey Robyn, thanks for taking the time to comment! I’m sorry to cause you jealousy, but I can assure you that if you really want to travel, nothing can go in the way. 🙂 Cheers!!
March 10th, 2012 at 1:32 am
Nåstrond ist krieg! 😉
March 10th, 2012 at 3:05 pm
Fuck yes! Big fan here!
March 19th, 2012 at 6:31 pm
I used to work for Bombardier for 3 years at their LearJet warehouse in Chicago : )