Archive | May, 2013

Too close to death in Varanasi

29 May

It was Friday last week, and after a ten minute walk through a tight mesh of alleys, I was a few metres away from the funeral pyres and I wanted to go back.

Narrow alleys had taken me past temples, cows, Lonely Planet recommended yoga centres and shops selling souvenirs. Every now and then I had stepped aside to let a bamboo stretcher pass. Although carefully wrapped in gold fabrics and covered with marigolds, it was always possible to make out the head. Now, the alleyway I had been following was ending and I knew it would soon empty out onto large stone steps leading down to the Ganges. Piles of logs several metres high appeared like walls of wood, separating my alley from the waterfront below. Yet, I could see ash and smoke rise in the hot, still air.

I was in Varanasi; the most sacred place for Hindus, and the most difficult to fathom as a foreigner. The sacred river Ganges, believed to absolve sin, runs as a half-moon through the city. For centuries, pilgrims have come to the stone ghats (steps) for a cleansing bath or organised for their remains to be cremated there. Daily, three to five hundred people are cremated. The cremations go on around the clock.

While the river delivers salvation to believers, tourists are advised not to follow the bathers. The caramel-coloured Ganges carries industrial chemicals from factories upstream and raw sewage. Human remains that are unable to burn are weighted to the bottom of the river. Children, sadhus (holy men) and pregnant women are considered pure and not burned before they are sunk in the river.

On the way to Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ground, our local guide had insisted we join him for tea and some additional information at his home. Brinj, a man about my own age and a proud Brahmin (the highest caste), led us up a flight of stairs to a plain room with a small bed in one corner. A white-haired man sat neatly on top, gently rocking while mouthing mantras. “His wife passed away and his sons don't ask about him. He does not have long left, so we take care of him. His soul will also bless us”, Brinj said.

Anyone who dies in Varanasi is said to attain moksha, enlightenment. Guesthouses for the dying around the city host a constant stream of elderly, devout Hindus who come to Varanasi with the hope of death and instant nirvana. Planes carrying coffins land weekly; wealthy Indians arrange to have their bodies sent to Varanasi. Visitors who do not expect to be able to return at the time of dying, find other solutions. South Indian women opt for shaving their heads when on a visit. At least then one part of their bodies have been burnt on the sacred banks.

Seated on a green mat on the floor, Brinj asked us to refuse the aggressive wood touts around the funeral pyres. “Do not tell them that I said that. They are 50, I am just one. Sometimes they take tourists to a dark building they say is a guesthouse for the dying, and snatch all your things. It’s a very poor area. They are the lowest caste”. In Varanasi it is still uniquely the Doms, the Untouchables that take care of the dead on the funeral pyres.

Before long, Brinj was telling us about the benefits of the caste system, which seems to have managed to survive relatively intact in India. He started diplomatically: “There are good things and bad things about the caste system. It is bad, if people can not marry if they fall in love”. But then, it went quickly downhill seen from the wide-eyed tourists seated around him. “It is good if people know their place and there is order. Let's say, if the lowest caste person is going to be a minister, all his relatives – his auntie, brother, uncle – will think, my family member is a minister, why do I have to clean the road?”

Shouldn't other people also have a chance at upwards mobility, to try to improve their lives? You take German lessons to get more work” I asked. Brinj shrugged his shoulders. “There is so much garbage in India. We need them to clean. So that is why the caste system is good,” replied the Brahmin.

The curiosity eventually drew me around the logs and down to the public cremation ground. Standing next to a pile of bamboo stretchers, I watched as mourners lowered bodies into the Ganges to purify them before lighting the pyres. Ahead, six cremation fires were already lit up. Thick, grey smoke billowed from a seventh as a bucket of water was thrown on the low heap of light grey ashes.

At the waterfront a few metres away, two bare-chested men stood waist-deep in water. The surface of the water was covered by a thick layer of ashes. “They sift through the ashes for gold and silver jewellery,” Brinj said. And the ash that remain on the ground? “Ganges wil come and take it. Every year, the river come up”. As he spoke, another family brought down a bamboo stretcher.

Cremations by the Ganges may have a sacred character for Hindus, but as a Westerner I have seldom felt more out of place. The ash that floated in the air made me feel queasy. When a stray dog did his business next to one of the heaps of ash, I gasped. The men carrying bundles of logs brought death too close. My thoughts all felt wrong. To make matters worse, I was wearing a mouth mask. Here I was, watching an intensely emotional moment for some families as a tourist attraction, and my main concern was to not breathe in any of the ash. Remembering my own pain from past funerals, I felt sad for their loss and also of the part I was now playing. Though the feeling of sadness felt slightly ironic when Brinj explained why there were no women around. “Because they tend to cry. And when the soul leaves, it will think “I am going to nirvana. Why is she crying?”.

On the train back to Delhi, the Indians I shared a compartment with asked me what I thought of Varanasi. After politely replying in positive terms, I returned the question. A man in his twenties with retro glasses told me he had been to Varanasi several times.

“Every time I go there, I bathe in the Ganges. I feel cleansed afterwards. You know, it's all a matter of faith”.



Exit Rajasthan and enter our first Indian train

26 May

Most of Rajasthan, India's largest state, is a pancake-flat expanse of harsh, empty desert. But, although the landscape may be drained of colour, the people living here make Rajasthan one of the most colourful states in India.

And it was the allure of the exotic and the colours that lured seven British retirees to venture out into the Indian desert. Taking a trip through Rajasthan is to follow in the footsteps of the cast from Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (watch the clip!). Most of the film is shot in or around Udaipur and Jaipur. Rajasthan, still one of the most conservative states in India, was also a realistic back-drop to serve up nifty culture shocks to the various characters. (Nibbling on hobnobs to please my stomach half-way in, I even felt like one of the characters for a while!)

We have now travelled the entire width and length of the Rajasthan. From Delhi we made our way to Mandawa and Bikaner before reaching Jaisalmer in the most remote western corner of the state. We then winded our way south to Jodhpur and Udaipur, headed east again to Pushkar and Jaipur, and then finally we crossed into the state of Uttar Pradesh and Agra.

If you missed any, here’s an overview of the blog posts from our roadtrip:

  • Roadtrip to Rajasthan: no hurry, no chicken curry (From Delhi to Mandawa)
  • Rajasthan roadtrip: Mandawa to Bikaner
  • India’s rat temple and my 15 minutes inside it
  • Rajasthan roadtrip: Bikaner to Jaisalmer
  • Jaisalmer: a real life sandcastle
  • Rajasthan roadtrip: Jaisalmer to Jodhpur
  • Jodhpur: the city that is a fort
  • The motorcycle temple in Rajasthan
  • Two high priests and an Indian wedding
  • One perfect day in Udaipur
  • Puh…Pushkar
  • Jaipur: splendid fort and stubborn castes
  • Fatehpur Sikri and coming into Agra
  • Agra and the Taj Mahal (in the state of UP)
  • Now, we were leaving again for a remote corner of another state. We were on our way to the small town of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, whose temples reportedly resemble naked Twister. The erotic temples, dated between the 10th and 12th century, sounded like some of the funnier ones in Asia and we were keen to have a look before we contined on to Varanasi. The train between Agra and Khajuraho, our first in India, was scheduled for an 11AM departure.

    As we walked into Agra train station, it was not the chaotic muddle I expected of an Indian railway station. Unlike my worst exaggerated fears, there were no people scattered half-dead on the platform, no stench wriggling up my nose, and no children in rags. Instead it was fairly calm. A few people rushed to our unnecessary aid as we walked in, but after ignoring their questions of tickets, rickshaws and souvenirs, we found ourselves in a quiet cafe under a massive, flapping fan.

    When the blue train eventually rolled into the station, I will admit that I whispered “ohmygod…”. Passengers were compressed into open doorways and simple bars crossed glass less windows. But the train kept rolling, and by the time the carriage for 3AC were in front of us, the windows had glass and the doorways were closed.

    Inside, a narrow aisle led between air-conditioned compartments with three berths on each side. We crept up into one in a perky mood, ready to appreciate the rocking comfort of a train.

    A large Indian woman, like a pudding in a terracotta coloured sari, was seated opposite. The windows were covered in condensation, so there was little more to do than to stare back at her and try to make time pass. Her husband, a man in his fifties with a mild expression, was seated next to me and would every now and receive a well-placed kick on his leg, courtesy of his wife. Arranged marriage, not love marriage, I thought to myself and pretended not to notice.

    I am sure that our travel companions could have had a few stories to tell, but I chose instead to pass the next few hours with someone else's conversations on trains. Opening up my bent paperback of 'Around India in 80 trains' by Monisha Rajesh, I again read the handwritten note inside.

    Dear James,

    May the looseness and location switches never end! Have fun on your travels and beyond.


    With nine hours to kill, it would be enough time to finish the book.


    Agra and the Taj Mahal

    26 May

    The Taj Mahal is one of India's architectural marvels. But coming into Agra, its home city, you'd be forgiven for thinking you took a wrong turn somewhere.

    Driving into Agra, the road appeared more eaten up by dust and litter than covered in concrete. Next to lines of charmless brick buildings were cows munching on plastic. My friend who had already visited had accurately called it a dump.

    But few tourists, if any, come to Agra. We come for the Taj Mahal, and simply tiptoe around its host city until we make it past the red sandstone gates and can marvel at what is appropriately called one of the greatest buildings in the world.

    The flip side of 44 degrees steaming heat is that tourists are few and far between. As we walked in through the gates to the Taj Mahal, we were almost entirely on our own. In the pale morning light, the marble monument loomed cool and majestically, only to glitter half an hour later when the sun climbed up its sides.

    Thrilled to bits, we noticed that the “Diana seat” stood empty. The iconic photo of Diana, posing sad and alone in front of the greatest monument to love as her own marriage was collapsing, is today replicated by most tourists that make it to the Taj Mahal.

    (Only later, thanks to Google Images, did we realise that all the locals and tour guides had put the label “Diana seat” on the wrong bench. The correct one is the one visible just behind us).

    The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, but also a monument to love. Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the building kept 20,000 workers busy for 20 years before finally being completed in 1653. The name of the building is an informal, shortened version of Mumtaz Mahal. The real coffins of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan lie in a crypt below the building, but two tombs are placed in the middle of the mausoleum as representations of the coffins.

    Stepping into the Taj Mahal, we found ourselves just behind two German tourists. Due to a minor hiccup that morning, we did not have a guide so when we heard English being spoken, we leaned in to eavesdrop. Their guide, a smartly dressed Indian in his forties, pointed to the finely cut marble on the tombs and the screen around them.

    “See the beautiful carvings on the tombs? I'll take you to the shop where they sell beautiful cheese boards in the same pattern”.



    Fatehpur Sikri and coming into Agra

    21 May


    The former imperial capital of Fatehpur Sikri, which served as stop on our way from Jaipur to Agra, is one of India’s architectural masterpieces. A visit to this abandoned city takes place in two goes. Though the Royal Palace and the Dargah Mosque form part of the same complex, the atmosphere in the two sites appeared entirely different. While the palace was a quiet stroll through history, the visit to the mosque grounds was sadly an unpleasant walk through pushy crowds, touts and litter.

    The Mughal emperor Akbar only lived in Fatehpur Sikri for 16 years before deserting the city in 1585. The reason it became a ghost city is disputed. Local guides still hold that water shortage caused the desertion, while my Rough Guide explains the move of the population to Lahore with military strategy. Today, the site attracts thousands of pilgrims and tourists daily during the high season and often plays the backdrop to Bollywood films.

    Abran, a slight man in his forties with paan-stained teeth, took us around the deserted town. He turned out to be the most knowledgable guide we have ever had. Unfortunately my notebook remained fairly blank during our visit. During the time it had taken us from Jaipur to Fatehpur Sikri, the temperature had reached 44 degrees. With a bit of light wind, the walk around the palace site was like walking against a hot blow dryer. My lips tasted salty. The free drinking water available in taps around the complex had started to seem extremely tempting. As my boyfriend sighed heavily, Abran winked at us: “This is the hot season. No one comes now”.

    But, the gist of the uniqueness of the palaces and temples inside Fatehpur Sikri is religious intermingling. Emperor Akbar followed the Baha'i faith, Abran told us, the same faith as the massive marble temple resembling a giant lotus in Delhi. Though wikipedia will tell you more, what I can recount is that Baha'i appears to be a hotchpotch of religions and political correctness. The fusion is also apparent in the buildings, many which have pillars adorned with symbols of all the major world religions. Even the individual sites of worships of Akbar’s three wives – a Muslim, a Christian and a Hindu – come with small nods to other religions. Although I don’t remember exactly what was mixed how, for the sake of illustration let’s say the mosque included crosses, the Hindu temple came with domes normally found in churches, and David stars and Jain flower pattern adorned the Catholic church.

    (And yes, three wives appear shockingly modest, but Akbar also had a legendary harem of 5000 concubines guarded by eunuchs. Apparently, he collected women as stamps and used them as ludo pieces. In the courtyard Pachisi Court, a massive playing board was drawn up. Akbar would, legend goes, dress up female slaves in colourful dresses and use them to play ludo. )

    The mosque on the other hand, was unfortunately a rather unpleasant visit. The guidebook had already warned us that aggressive touts and self-appointed guides would make it impossible to enjoy the place in peace. But, the litter, shouting and pushing took me by surprise. What first appeared to be kites in the air turned out to be whirling plastic bags.

    At the prayer grounds, where the fans faced east and the men praying faced west, I picked up a young male follower, who walked leeringly in my heels for the next ten minutes. I found myself repeatedly asking my boyfriend to walk behind me, expecting any of the men behind to suddenly reach out and touch me. Making our way towards the tomb of the Sufi saint who made the prophecy that Akbar would have a son, we half-tripped over beggars sprawled out next to gift shops selling trinkets and various offerings. The only cheery part of the visit to the tomb was when I left the building. On the way out, a man patted me quickly on the head with a peacock brush before he cheekily suggested, “Donation? Good luck for you!”

    The day did not really improve after that. As we drove into Agra, I was reminded of the aura of angst around my head on many occasions the past two weeks. In the first roundabout greeting us, two mopeds lay in a heap with their previous drivers at the bottom. Further into the city, brick houses were surrounded by garbage heaps and stray dogs. The city confirmed to the image of India in so many ways: all dirty, crowded and dusty.

    It did not help Agra with her first impression that Balu´s air condition had broken down at this point. Now inside a honking mobile sauna, I thought with relief that this was the last day we were taken this car down dusty Rajasthani roads. A driver comes with many benefits, but the thought of the coming train rides to Khajuraho, Varanasi and then Delhi lifted my spirits as I stumbled nauseous out of the car.

    Jaipur: splendid fort and stubborn castes

    21 May

    A first time travel to India inevitably mean first impressions. The country is so diverse and vast that it is hard to pin down and it does not lend itself easily to generalisations. Just the few hours drive from Pushkar to Jaipur felt like time travel through a few centuries. Within a matter of hours turbans turned to helmets, women carrying water on their heads were nowhere to be seen, and carts pulled by camels on dusty roads were replaced by cars, mopeds and traffic signs.

    Driving into Jaipur, I thought back to the disappointed Swiss couple we had met in Pushkar. Their first stop in India had been Jaipur, which they described as a “dirty and busy city where people came up to us all the time”. I can easily see that arriving directly to India from Switzerland, perhaps the most orderly society in the world, would prompt a negative first reaction. Yet, I found Jaipur to be a rather charming city. After one month in India, both my boyfriend and I have become rather unfazed by attempts to sell us souvenirs, a ride in a rickshaw or questions for money or a pen.

    Rightly enough, the state capital of Rajasthan is a rather busy and congested city. Half a million of the 6.5 million residents live in the old walled quarter, where most tourist choose to stay. The old town is also what gives the city its nickname of the pink city. While my guidebook explains the colour pink as a camouflage for poor-quality material used for the buildings, our local guide had a more cheerful explanation. In 1876, the ruler at the time, Jai Sing, had the entire city painted pink to welcome prince Albert of England when he paid a visit. Only his own buildings were spared from the pink, reportedly to separate his own properties from that of the commoners.


    One of them, the yellow-stone Amber palace and fort, sits high on the edge of a rocky hill just outside Jaipur. Our visit to the fort was not only a glimpse into the splendour of Jai Singh, but also into how the caste system still holds sway in this country.

    In the early morning, elephants were making their way up to the fort from the “ELEPHANT PARKING” (funniest Indian sign to date). For the first time since we started our journey, we also saw more than a handful of tourists. Jaipur is one corner of the tourist trail known as the “golden triangle” that also includes Delhi and Agra. But nonetheless, the five Chinese on top of waddling elephants and the two French tour groups were far off the average 10,000 tourist that come during high season.


    As elsewhere in Rajasthan, the palace ceilings were painted with gold, the windows were of glass imported from Belgium and Italy during the time of the Silk Route; and entire rooms were made of solid marble. Yet, the palace took on a surreal atmosphere when I heard that people lived here – like in the middle of an ancient history book – until the 1960s. Today the royal descendants, including the 15-year old currently holding the title of king, live in the City Palace in downtown Jaipur.

    Facing the Winter Palace, our local guide Mukesh, a man in his late thirties in in suit trousers a few centimetres too short and white tennis socks, told us there may have been 90 toilets in the fort, yet no sewage system. “At the time, untouchables collected and removed the royal disposables”, he explained. The term “untochables” refer to India’s caste-offs – the dalits – and is now taboo in public. Or so I thought.

    “Like these two”, Mukesh said. I looked around the pillar and saw two bent backs with brooms, sweeping the floor. A group of picture-taking French tourists nearby had spotted the two women’s brightly coloured saris.

    “How do you know that they are untouchables?” I asked.

    “Because they have brooms in their hands. People sweeping the floors, cleaning toilets, they are all untouchables. Some will have government jobs, but the people cleaning will always be untouchables”.


    The caste system is officially abolished and job reservations have been introduced for lower castes to push through changes. But centuries long traditions of ranking and dividing people is not easy to outlaw. As we entered the women's quarters, made up of apartments for 12 wives and living quarters for 300 concubines, I asked Mukesh about caste and marriage today in Jaipur.

    “90 percent look in their own caste. But, if you fall in love, there is no caste system. If parents don´t accept, you can run away from home, have a couple of kids, then go back and they will accept you”.

    Later that afternoon, when we walked down towards the car park, I was again reminded how Indian society is socially hierarchical. Both my boyfriend and I were taken aback when Makesh let out a one-syllabus bark and an impatient wave with the hand to indicate to our driver Balu, seated in the shade of a few trees, that it was time to go.

    Back in the car, the chummy tone we have had for two weeks with Balu was gone. Instead, he now couched his replies to Makesh in a deferential manner. Although in Hindi, it was noticeable across the language barrier that the guide spoke back in an air of superiority.

    But, when the guide took on the task of acting as go-between (“where do you want to go?”), it was however time to reintroduce the more egalitarian Nordic approach.

    “It is okay”, we protested. “We can speak directly with Balu”.


    16 May

    Pushkar is one of India's most sacred places. Legend goes, Lord Brahma – the creator – dropped a lotus flower to earth and Pushkar was among the three lakes that magically appeared. It is today a small town set around a small pond-size lake. The city itself is made up of 500 temples, big and small, and with guesthouses and gift shops to match. When we said diplomatically that it was a bit touristy, our driver Balu raised his eyebrows at us: “This is just tourists!”.

    I should have taken the advice of my Icelandic friend who said Pushkar was a nice place to stretch one’s legs between Udaipur and Jaipur. Anyways, we spent enough time here to visit the Brahma temple and see the sunset over the lake. But, then I insisted we hurry on to Jaipur so I did not have to spend my birthday in Pushkar.