india

Varanasi

We were warned about this being the crazy city of all crazy cities, with the most annoying and tricksy rickshaw wallahs and touts, but we really feel that Varanasi has got an unfair reputation...but perhaps over two months in India has prepared us, and/or perhaps, it’s that same Gangas energy that we found in Rishikesh. People at the ghats in Benares (the local name for this holy city) are more concerned with the river than with anyone else (ie. us), and this was a nice change from many other cities we have visited.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

The ghats from the river

The ghats from the river

Most people are here to wash away their sins in the holy waters or cremate their dead relatives in order to send their souls to Nirvana. It’s a powerful city, that has a really good energy and visible history. No-one for instance knows how long the fire has been burning at Marnikarnika (cremation) ghat, perhaps 500 years, perhaps 1000, and the thick layer of soot on the surrounding temples and buildings suggests this.

Boat ride at dawn

Boat ride at dawn

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One of the quiet ghats

One of the quiet ghats

Desaswamedh (Main) Ghat

Desaswamedh (Main) Ghat

Marnikarnika (Cremation) Ghat from a distance (photos are not appropriate close to this ghat for obvious reasons)

Marnikarnika (Cremation) Ghat from a distance (photos are not appropriate close to this ghat for obvious reasons)

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We stumbled across the women's festival called Jeevitputrka, which had Assi ghat loaded with the most beautiful array of saris you will ever see. Women were gathered in groups, and performing special prayers and puja for the well-being of their sons. The ghats were covered with flowers, incense, tumeric paste and butter lamps. The sights and smells were amazing.

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A woman carrying water from the Ganga

A woman carrying water from the Ganga

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 Being part of the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi was a completely different experience to that of Rishikesh. We were part of a group in its hundreds as opposed to in its dozens and the many tourist-filled boats watching from the water made it feel like more of a spectacle. Even though the music in Rishikesh was more accomplished, it was a really special puja to be part of. We were reminded that this ceremony is performed every single day when neither power cut, nor semi-stampeding bull could put a halt to the proceedings.

View from our spot

View from our spot

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Aarti lamps

Aarti lamps

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All in all, Varanasi was a fantastic place to end our 10 weeks in India. In many ways, it was a culmination of everything we have experienced here and a perfect place to reminisce and observe and consider how far we have come and how much we have grown.

Very nearly half way.... see you in Nepal.

 

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Agra - The Taj Mahal

The most beautiful building in the world, that which made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes” (Shah Jahan) and the “embodiment of all things pure” (Rudyard Kipling) was pretty effing perfect for us. Our first sight of her was from the rooftop of our hotel, and on the afternoon we arrived we spent a quiet couple of hours with her from the nearby park, with the enormous domes and minarets peeping out behind the beautiful green vegetation.

 

Photos by Ben Journee

 

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The next morning we entered the complex a few minutes after 6am, and spent the next three hours admiring this “teardrop on the cheek of eternity” (Rabindranath Tagore). 

 

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We couldn’t quite believe that we were finally there, after two months in India, at a point that seemed like such a long while away when we were beginning our trip. We were blown away by the scale of the Taj, and from almost any viewpoint she seemed too perfect to be real, like a cut out against the blue sky behind (the uninterrupted background ensured by placing the cenotaph on top of an enormous plinth, was a stroke of design genius). She seemed somehow separate from the world around her, there are so few words... utter perfection in the middle of this crazy, smelly, dirty, loud Indian city. The Taj is undeniably a testament to Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz (who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631), and that spirit is still pretty tangible when you’re in its presence today.

 

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Agra Fort was large, old, but relatively forgettable after seeing the Taj. Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb (the last important Mughal ruler), had his father incarcerated there from 1658 until his death, left to gaze across the city to his Taj and his late wife. The additions that Shah Jahan made to the fort (before imprisonment) transformed the edifice into a palace, and his private bedroom, harem and meeting spaces are stunningly beautiful, white marble and inlay masterpieces amongst the mostly red sandstone fortress.

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Shah Jahan's bedroom

Shah Jahan's bedroom

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Though it is one of the most famous buildings in the world, an image you’ve seen again and again, it is impossible not to be blown away, and rendered utterly speechless, by the Taj Mahal.

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