A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

Varanasi - The Circle Of Life

The Monsoon Continues

rain 5 °C

Sunrise boat ride on Ganges was missing the sun but that aside, we had the chance to see the circle of life being completed, in what Hindus believe is a sacred place. On the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi are a series of steps called Ghats. There are many Ghats leading to the river bank and each ghat has a temple. Where we start our boat ride is called Dasaswamedh Ghat and it is very busy. People returning from Kumbh Mela, Holy washing festival at Allahabad, are washing themselves in the Ganges with the locals. Some just dip a toe but others totally immerse themselves. It is cold for this time of year, I'm wearing a waterproof, they must be freezing. Lots of people are taking Ganges river water away with them to perform rituals at home. Many are wearing orange, a holy colour. The river bank is covered with rubbish [KB - it's full of everything you can imagine!] and it floats downstream giving masses of Siberian birds food. The boat takes us downstream past numerous ghats and pretty temples and then we reach the sacred cremation grounds. Here the circle of life is complete. Relatives and friends bring their dead loved ones to cremate them in auspicious circumstances. Cremating your loved one here is considered the best and holiest place. Huge piles of wood fill the narrow streets by the ghat and we can see the eternal flame burning. There are ash remains in the river just in front of the boat. It's strange seeing how they cremate people so publicly - what is the norm here seems alien to us.

After a breakfast stop we visit Barnasi University and and the University Temple. The University is organised into faculty hostel accommodation, faculty building and a large playing field. It is a huge University with 18000 students. The temple has one of the largest towers in India. Inside the temple people rush in a crazy manner to be blessed by various gods. There is a real buzz around the University. We grab a quick banana float drink from a local stand, local prices, only 60 rupees about 60p. The drink is delicious, with fresh bananas and sweet vanilla ice cream. We also visited the Mother India Temple, this is not just another temple. It houses a large marble carved map of India and surrounding countries. It is an impressive piece of Indian craftwork. The whole time we have been out it has been raining monsoon style. We brave the rain to try a local restaurant called Devanshi City. This is not a tourist multi country cuisine restaurant but a place where the locals are eating and drinking hot coffee whilst sheltering from the rain. The Devanshi Thali is excellent, it's made of 4 dishes served with jeera rice and naan. Yum, yum and best of all under 150 rupees, £1.50. I can highly recommend this place, it was a little piece of real India.

Sunset time, it has stopped raining and we take a rickshaw back down to the Ghats to watch the Aarti Ceremony. Then the rain and lightning returns at full strength, we were two very wet people watching the ceremony. It was interesting however seeing the young monks performing their daily rituals, including wafting fire around and chanting with bells [KB - the rain was so hard that two of the seven monks had their flames extinguished!]. Like two drowned rats we head back to the hotel but on the way we grab some treats from a snack stand. They are samosas and spicy fried meat balls and absolutely yummy - 20 rupees. Our rickshaw driver had patiently waited in the rain for us, then braved the deluge cycling us home - we gave him a very healthy tip. A great end to a day of seeing life like a local.

Bye

Stacey and Keith

Posted by StaceyandKeith 09:18 Archived in India Comments (1)

Agra Fort, mousey train journey and Buddha

Also on 14 Feb we visited Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son for spending his inheritance. Then we spend an hour waiting for sunset on the river bank opposite the Taj Mahal. The sunset and the time spent in the beautiful moon park was wonderful but be warned the Taj Mahal does not change colour at sunset - well not this evening anyway!

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Visit a shop to buy a sandalwood necklace and leave with the necklace, orange pashmina, gorgeous blue and silver sari, blue Ganesh statue, wooden fan and a new Indian friend. I should state I only bought the necklace, pashmina and sari and at a very special Valentines price! Joking aside Unique Handicrafts Agra owned by Sanjeev and Geeta Gupta was a nice shop, owned by lovely people and they had nice chi tea.

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Tonight we are travelling to Varanasi via train, air conditioned tier 2 sleeper. Basically its seats that fold down into beds with four people in an area and probably 40 people per carriage. The toilet is, well not really a toilet but a hole onto the train tracks. Keith also encountered either a very heavy cockroach or a train mouse who climbed over him in the night [KB - I was just dropping off and felt something scurry across my back. Rolling over to see which native was trying to touch me up, I saw a little object scurry away across the floor, followed by a couple of his mates. That was me sleeping with my mouth closed!]. Icky - I am not a fan of rodents and slept on the top bunk happily till sun rise. Breakfast was roti and salted crisps.

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15 Feb Arrival Ancient and Holy city of Varanasi.

You not getting what you asked for and nobody tells you till you arrive!

Indian culture is very "yes, ma'am/sir" - they do not like to disappoint. We arrived in Varanasi and Keith noted the hotel had different details to our tour notes on email. After brief discussion at the hotel I believed we were staying in, we are taken to Hotel Pradeep. I am not impressed, the hotel had changed but nobody bothered to tell me, so I could approve the hotel. The Hotel Pradeep has more of a hostel feel, the rooms are not luxurious and our's over looks a busy road, honk-honk-honkity-honk.

Feeling annoyed we embark on a trip to Sarnath. The gardens and ruins are considered a palace of pilgrimage for people of the Buddhist faith because they believe that Lord Buddha gave his first sermon here. It's interesting to see the monks chanting in the elaborately decorated temple. Our tour guide is interesting, in that he displays the India male trait of only really addressing the male in the group. It's very annoying, questions through Keith then. [KB - worst part of him only talking to me is that everyone knows I glaze over after a few minutes anyway! Hope there's no exam at the end of this!]

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Back at the hotel we discover a nice roof garden. Unfortunately we have brought the rain from the UK and will mainly be inside this evening as it is monsoon conditions outdoors. From the bedroom window we see a wedding parade. A marching band is playing the parade music, there is a guy setting off giant fireworks and people with fluorescent light tubes on their hats dancing.

Stacey and Keith

Posted by StaceyandKeith 08:22 Comments (1)

Happy Valentines Day

Celebrated at the symbol of eternal love - Taj Mahal [KB - obviously I planned this as I forgot to pack a card......phew!]

What a great day to be visiting a building built to remember Shah Jahan's love for his dead wife. We pick up our own personal photographer for pictures to remember our Valentine's visit to the Taj Mahal. It's like our wedding day again being posed for photographs, silly poses and waiting till the best spot becomes free. An hour later and we are still outside in the Taj Mahal's garden! We have the disk of the photos and 3 printed ones, which are excellent. Hopefully the rest capture the beauty of the Taj Mahal and it's not just a blank disk, we are carrying around.

Stacey and Keith

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Posted by StaceyandKeith 08:14 Comments (0)

The road to the Taj Mahal

sunny 18 °C

Leaving the Pink City behind we head speedily towards India's most famous and most visited attraction - The Taj Mahal. On the way we meet our guide for today and tomorrow and stop in to see Fatehpur Sikri commonly known as the Ghost Capital. Between 1571 until 1585 it was the capital of Mughal Empire. Emperor Akbar moved there because he was told it would bring him good fortunes and hopefully a son. A son was born during his time at Fatehpur Sikri but the Ghost Capital was abandoned in 1585 as it was missing a human necessity - water.

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In the quest to find the perfect Indian dish we stop at Joshi Resort Restaurant. It's not really a Resort but it is a lovely garden restaurant, peacefully, tranquil and does a great vegetable jalfrezi. Can highly recommend this place if your ever driving to Agra - it's in the middle of nowhere, but chatting to the manager, they going to build some tourist bungalows.

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Agra is famous for the Taj Mahal and the artwork on the Taj Mahal is inlay. We go and see how the gem stones are shaped and inlaid into white marble from Jaipur. The shop we are at only uses designs from the Taj Mahal and is made by family members of the workers who created the artwork for the Taj Mahal. Keith and I, love this artwork and are determined to get a beautiful side table for the front room. Oh boy its a beauty, made by a Master in the artwork and covered in intricate flowers including a rare pink stone. [KB - and bloody expensive, even without the tourist rate!! Ah well, it's nearly Valentine's Day and her birthday, so Mr Credit Card was called into action!]

Hotel in Agra is called The Retreat, we are warned not to leave the hotel as the area isn't that nice. Restaurant is not really recommended here, food was cold and beer very expensive. We were also treated to an Indian powercut only lasted few minutes but was strange been sat in a dark restaurant sipping beer and listening to car horns.

Stacey and Keith

Posted by StaceyandKeith 08:10 Archived in India Comments (2)

The Pink City, Jaipur

Hindi Holy Blessing, Bumpy Elephants and Solar Clocks

sunny 18 °C
View The Adventure on StaceyandKeith's travel map.

Namaste,

Firstly today we were invited into a Hindi Temple and I got a Holy Blessing. You have to take your shoes off and then ring the bell. The bell is rung every time someone enters or leaves the Temple. Tuesday is Monkey God day and a woman is trying to hug a wall mural of Hanuman, the Monkey God. There is also the sun god and Ganesha, the Elephant God of Good Luck and Wisdom to pray to. There are people reading scriptures in a separate area. Following the guide, I placed my hands over a candle and then wipe the heat over my head, there are two candles, so I do it twice. Then you give your donation to the holy people, who then bless you with holy water. You take a sip of water and then shake the rest over your head [KB - I politely avoided any religious-ness, pretending to be engrossed in the goings-on around me!]. Blessed with hopefully good luck, we leave the Temple ringing the bell. The donations go towards feeding the hungry like we saw queuing in Delhi. Our shoes are still there, nobody seem bothered in taking them. Not sure how long they would last outside a church in the UK.

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Then it's on to sightseeing - first stop Palace of Winds. It's a seven storey pink stone facade, with white marble windows. The women of the time would have watched parades through the windows as they could only appear in public fully veiled.

Then it was on to the Amber Fort, a famous fort built by Mr Raja Man Singh. Its a bit of a walk to the fort up a hill, but our tour includes an elephant ride. The tourist line waiting for elephants snakes through a park and we are hounded by hawkers. It's a long wait. The elephants only do three runs to the top each and there are 100 Elephants. They live in two elephant parks, one next to Amber Fort and the second a few miles further down road.

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Finally we are at the front of the queue, Elephant number 70 arrives and I sit down. Keith has to jump as the driver has already set his sights on reaching the top as quickly as possible - we think he wants an early lunch! It's not a gentle ride, I held on really tight for fear of being thrown off. The sights as we ascend are beautiful though, we can clearly see the Maharaja's garden built in an artificial lake and Amber Fort is rapidly approaching.

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We arrive in the fort and I'm glad to safely get off the elephant. Amber Fort is another huge monument, the first amazing thing is that it is surrounded by a wall on all sides. Not cool enough? Well the wall goes up numerous hills and stretches as far as my eyes can see it puts Hadrian's Wall to shame! Second thing that amazed me was the hall of mirrors a room full of different mirrors shining everywhere in the sunlight. Third amazing thing about Amber Fort is that it had natural air conditioning/garden sprinklers for the summer, it gets up to 50 degrees Celsius. They had a cool water store inside the Fort that released water through the rooms and into the garden. Amber Fort is a large spectacle and we could easier spend all day explore the secret passages, rooms and absorbing the view but there are so many things to see.

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We leave the Amber Fort behind after buying lots of photos of us on elephants from a man named Lucky. Very persistent man, Keith got him down to a good price [KB - he was really bugging me and I actually gave him more than I should have, just to get rid of him! The pics were pretty god though].

Before lunch we visit a carpet and printing factory. I make an elephant picture using teak printing stamps and vegetable dye. Then we see them making the carpets, a large silk carpet can take one person 3 months to complete. We view some carpets and decide to buy a cashmere oriental design hallway runner. We are going to paint the front room at some point and it will look perfect in hallway. They will post it home after we get back. Be warned, whenever you come to visit Bath, shoe removal WILL BE COMPULSORY!

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We then stopped by a bizarre water palace to get photos. The Maharaja had a palace built in the middle of a artificial lake, so he could spend days there in his private roof top garden. Garden looks nice and lush with palm trees providing much needed shade.

After lunch we visited the Solar Observatory. This was my favourite place so simple, but really clever. The Solar Observatory in Jaipur is internationally known because it houses the largest solar clock in the world. This solar clock [KB - it's a massive sundial that looks like a huge lump of mouse cheese!] is built at a 27 degree angle because of the latitude of Jaipur and is accurate to 2 seconds! There is also a smaller version. The complex also houses devices to calculate the angle of the sun and the suns/stars locations. Highly interesting place. The guide tells me that about 95% of the population believe in Astrology. When marriage is proposed they only accept if the proposed person has at least 18 out of 36 qualities [KB - I'm still doing the math on us, I'll let you know the results]. The guide also explained that when Hindi people start a new business or buy a car they ask an Astrologer for the date and time they should start the business or buy the car. Once they have started to business or buy the car they go to the temple of Ganesh and ask for a blessing. The monk will bless the car and draw a red swastika on it for good luck.

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Next was the City Palace which houses the national textile collection and a display of armoury. We see the second largest chandelier and two extremely large mirrored pots that held water from the River Ganges. There are also four beautiful coloured doorways. My favourite is a peacock doorway, beautiful greens and blues.

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Outside the City Palace our guide, who seems a very popular chap, is given a wedding invitation. It is the most elaborate invitation I have seen. The cover is made from red silk, embossed with a Ganesh symbol and inside, beautiful handwritten text. Our guide gives me the cover as a present, as I like it so much.

That's the end of the sightseeing except for an quick visit to a jewellery factory. We are taken to see how they design, cut, clean and mount gems. We are shown a beautiful ruby. Then we get time to wander around the jewellery shop, they have some exquisite designs. The bracelet I like has ruby, emerald and sapphires set in silver laid out in a column design, beautiful and a whopping 5000 pounds (Keith's American keyboard does not have a pound sign) [KB - yeah it does, dumb-ass £££££££]. I decide I like an aquamarine and diamond ring set in silver (March's birthstone I'm told), he tells me the price, but it's too much, so he offers a discount. The price is good, so I buy the ring. It's a clear blue colour and the gem is cut in an oval shape. The salesman is cunning and tries to also sell me some aquamarine earrings at a special price. I say no so he reduces the price again but I say Ganesh says 'not today'. I don't really wear earrings but they were pretty. [KB - easy birthday present buy for me!]

People in India are friendly and offer you a welcome drink but in the shops they are always after a sale and try very hard. Never take first price, if you walk away they will produce a special deal. We didn't have our credit card, so they gave me the ring and then came later to the hotel to collect payment. Trusting, enterprising and the best sales technique I have seen. Debenhams take note, they except multi tender payments. I am annoyed at Debenhams because you can only use one form of payment. Not helpful if you have two gift cards.

Back at hotel, I indulge in a Ayurvedic body massage practised in India since ancient times and Keith had a back massage. I am all relaxed after my massage, Keith has no bad or positive things to say. I'm not sure he is a fan. [KB - nope, not a fan. It was a bloke rubbing my back and buttocks - a bit too much for my liking!!]

Travelling to Agra tomorrow (Wednesday 13 Feb) day behind with blog, sorry.

फिर मिलेंगे। Phir milenge

Stacey and Keith

Posted by StaceyandKeith 06:28 Archived in India Comments (1)

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