2009 India – New Delhi – Agra

7 1/2 hours after our departure in Brussels our plane landed safe and sound in New Delhi. The flight was great, service fine and leg space not to bad. With other words, we arrived quite refreshed.

After the mandatory health check, customs and border control we were welcomed by a sea of welcome plates, oh joy, how to find the right one for us… It turned out not to be a problem and yet another 45 minutes later we arrived at our hotel. Our welcome had been a very warm and friendly one so we felt straight at home. The hotel was great and before we went to bed we even managed to have our first Indian Food and two kingfisher beers. Did we sleep well, oh yes, sure we did. We had arrived in India and a full pack of adventures was waiting for us.

The next morning, after our first Indian breakfast (Curry for breakfast is something we apparently need to get used to. We were picked up by our guide and drove to old Delhi. The roads were super crowded and there came no end to the non stop beeps and horns, a madhouse but we enjoyed it. Our first stop was The Red fort, a massive fort, built by the same emperor who built Taj Mahal. It was massive; the most interesting however were the fabulously dressed people in the brightest colors one can imagine. We spent some time at the outside of the fort after which the real fun started. We were taken on a rickshaw ride to the old centre of Delhi, which was far more populated and densely built than the newer areas. Our first stop was a Sikh temple where we had to go bare footed and with an orange scarf around our heads. It was an interesting experience to see all the ceremonies taking place and the chants were almost hypnotic. The people made us feel like we landed on another planet, colorful turbans, big beards, beautifully dressed women. WOW!!!!! After watching the ceremonies we we’re brought to the big communal kitchen area where free meals we’re provided. In spite of our fear for “Delhi belly” we accepted the offer and enjoyed a delicious dahl (Cooked lentils in a curry sauce) with Naan (Indian bread). Before we left we got into a deep discussion with a Sikh philosopher about the meaning of life and how Sikhism could improve our life quality. Thanks there was the tour guide to get us out.

The next stop was Jama Masjid, a massive mosque overlooking the Red Fort. It was impressive, lots of people around, shame it started drizzling a bit so we could not enjoy it to the fullest. But then even with that it was an impressive sight (once again built by the same emperor who built Taj Mahal, he must have been extremely busy person….)

As lunch time approached we went to a fancy restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious, though a bit bony) meal of lamb and chicken. Paul is already looking forward to a good steak, guess that will have to wait until we’re home… After lunch it was time to go to a very important place, Raj Ghat, the cremation grounds of Mahatama Gandhi. It was a very special, very simple but tastefully done monument to commemorate the father of India as he’s known over here. It was also an emotional visit as Gandhi’s impact went wide over the borders from India and we felt small to be in such an important place. Deeply impressed we continued our tour to the place where Gandhi had lived the last 144 days of his life. This was close to the place where he was assassinated and once again we were overcome with emotions. Next to his house an annex was built which housed an impressive multimedia exhibition. Beautifully done with loads of things to see and do. It brought us a bit away from the emotions we encountered earlier at his cremation place, his house and the place where he was cremated. What an overwhelming visit this was.

Next and last stop in Delhi, a silk and Kashmir wool shop. We were taught about the different qualities of wool and were deeply impressed with the quality of the thinnest scarves which you could crumble in your hand and unfold it again without a single wrinkle…. Also we were deeply impressed by the price so that was a no go…. However, we saw a huge dark blue woolen scarf with red handmade embroidery on the sides which would perfectly fit on our dining table.. oh well, you can guess the rest… so it will.

By now it was 17.30, time to go to the railway station and leave Delhi. We were booked on the night train to Varanasi, a 14 hour ride… After we saw the third and second class we were not impressed at all. Fortunately we were booked in 1st class sleepers and ehh.. We were not impressed either 😉 As we had expected a cabin for two (It’s first class after all) we were a bit shocked it was a cabin for 4. Oh joy. The beds we’re small, very hard and even more uncomfortable. AAAHHH… Still took it all with a good laugh and tried to make the best out of it. Our fellow passengers were not to talkative so lights were dimmed at 21.00 for what became a long and more or less sleepless night…

Next morning at 8.00 we arrived in Varanasi. We were greeted at the railway station and were brought to a beautiful hotel in a quiet are. Now this was better so we slept the rest of the morning in a more than decent bed 😉 After lunch we were picked up for a tour to Sarnath, a very sacred place where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon after reaching enlightenment. Prince, our guide was very informative and told us a lot about Buddhism, Hinduism and the crossovers with other religions.

Our first stop in Sarnath was an impressive museum were very old artifacts were kept. The most impressive was the top of a column which contained 4 lions, a picture of this can be found on each Indian banknote. After the museum we went to the place were all object were found and where a big stupa was built on the place of Buddha’s sermon. Pilgrims from all over the Buddhist countries were around, a large group from Sri Lanka was following a lecture and monks were praying and resting at several places. It was a beautiful and peaceful spot.

As we had to wake up early for a sunrise boat trip on the Ganges (or Ganga as it is known over here) we went to bed early.

Monday, the worst day of the week for most but we spent a day in paradise surrounded by a cacophony of impressions, smells, sights and sounds… We had goosebumps more than once by seeing the ceremonies and some things not so nice to be seen as well…..  Where should I start…

We woke up at 4.30 and not much later we drove towards the center of Varanasi. In spite of the time of day, it was already overly crowded, lots of rickshaw’s cars, tuk tuk’s and not to forget plenty of holy cows who were blocking the road. After an adventurous ride we arrived close to the ghats (Steps leading into the Ganges) where people were taking part in a ritual cleaning ceremony that takes place every day.

We got into a rowing boat and sailed passed the riverside of the Ganges, watching the old buildings and thousand of people participating in prayers and rituals. Now you might have seen this on pictures or on television but nothing prepares you for the real thing, it is so powerful and impressive it is almost beyond imagination. One can almost feel the spiritual power that surrounds the place. At some place we went on land and merged into the masses. I am really failing words on how we felt and what we saw. A Hindu high priest was blessing the day with incense and fire performing a strange kind of ritual which came across as a series of Yoga posing. People we’re praying, immersing themselves in to the Ganges and offering water back to their river of life.

As said it was overpowering and beautiful. More upstream we arrived at the cremation places; this was a less pretty sight. Big fires were burning and at one point Paul tapped my shoulder to point out a dead body floating by… Our guide told us not to be upset about the dead bodies and death but nevertheless we were. Although I have seen cremation ceremonies in Bali this turned out to be rawer, purer, and definitely more confronting. Certainly for us westerners who tend to hide death from our life it was a harsh, almost brutal procedure, but for the Hindu’s it’s just a passing to another life. As our guide told us, we lease our body for 70 years or so and in order for the spirit to move on it needs to be destroyed. For us still very harsh though….

We left the boat not far from the cremation grounds and walked through the labyrinth of old Varanasi. There we saw the piles of wood for sale which was used for the cremations and witnessed life as it is in the 21st century in Varanasi, a life which reminds more of the middle ages that anything else. We saw Sadhu’s (Holy men), lots of small stores and had to avoid numerous holy cows which were blocking the way. As said, it is hard to describe what we were experiencing and the day was not over yet….. Far more to come!

Somewhere in the middle of this labyrinth we visited the golden temple, but before we came to that we had to leave our bags, camera’s and everything else with our guide, someone else brought us to the golden temple. Security was extremely high; loads of policemen were around to protect the temple. The reason for this was a neighboring mosque which is under threat by extremists. It felt a bit weird to go over there and we were not allowed in. The glimpse of the temple dome was great though and after a couple of minutes we were guided back to our guide.  After that we left the labyrinth and made our way back to the car.

We had lunch somewhere in Varanasi (Amazingly we had a good appetite in spite of all our experiences this morning at the cremation grounds) and after that we went to see the University. Now these are huge compounds which houses around 17.000 students. Over there we visited a temple dedicated to Shiva where we saw some more ceremonies. This was followed by two more temples but somehow it could not match the impressions that the morning tour made to us.

In the evening we went back to the Ganges. The Rickshaw ride over there can only be described as absolutely crazy, we don’t know how many near accidents we had but somehow people are used to this and nothing happened. Well, almost nothing as at one point a bull went crazy and tried to ram us. Fortunately the driver got away. The cacophony of horns was unbelievable; there was not a single moment of silence, what traffic!  The purpose of our visit was the daily festival of light. In between two cremation grounds there was a daily ceremony to celebrate the light. In other words, life between two deaths….  (Hindi believe in reincarnation) Prince got us a fantastic viewing spot on top of a house boat. The preparations started and a haunting atmosphere was coming over us. Priests were chanting for us not understandable words, people were clapping hands, singing along, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna…. It started raining but Paul and I could not be bothered, we remained on top of the boat as we did not want to miss anything from this unfolding spectacle. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. The boatman brought plastic sheets to cover us from the rain and we were just overwhelmed by the things happening. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna…. Fires covered by a silver cobra were swung in the air, mythical words were chanted, smoke from everywhere and on both sides there were still the cremation grounds…..  It was over before we realized and we headed back through the crowds to our rickshaws. We hardly spoke as we were sure we had just witnessed something so special, so totally different from what we have ever soon.

India… You love it or hate it…. Sure is that so far the impressions have been far more intense than anywhere else in Asia I have been. Everything seems to be magnified, smells, sights, sounds… It can be a bit much and overwhelming at times so love or hate it….. We certainly love it so far!!!

The next morning we took a flight to Khajuraho. The difference with the vivid Varanasi could not have been bigger. Like arriving on a different planet… It seemed to us we arrived in an oasis of peace. The roads are quieter, clean, no traffic jams… The hotel is and had with a lovely swimming pool. In the evening we visited the sound and light show which explained the history of the Kajuraho temples; it was both very informative and entertaining.

After the show we wanted to stroll around town though we did not get far… Our eyes caught a restaurant which had a big tree in front of which had a platform in the top with a private dining area. So up into the tree we went enjoying not only a fabulous view over the temples but also a great tali meal. A tali meal is a mixture of different dishes, curries, rice, yoghurt, papadum and naan, Indian bread. It was wonderful, what a place to have dinner out of a treetop and watch the world go by 10 meters below you….

After a good night sleep we visited the famous temples in Kajuraho. It’s amazing how well the sculptures and carvings have remained intact even after hundreds of years of negliance. There was a lot to bee seen but best known of course are some quite ehh… graphical images of couples (or more) participating in all kinds of bodily activity. Even whilst living in the 21st century some of the images can be seen as quite interesting, they left nothing to the imagination, but that is no wonder as you know most of the images are inspired by the Kama Sutra.

I already mentioned it before but India is extremely overpowering and impressive. We were not even a week over here and our minds are already overflowing, well, in the nicest way that is as we love every minute of it. But… there’s only so much one can take in during a short period of time so we decided to let the world pass by, find a great place at the pool, order a beer, listen to some music and do nothing at all. It was wonderful and relaxing, just what we needed.

That evening was very special. First we went to a folk dance show and after that was finished we were picked up by Shashi, the representative of the local tour operator. Earlier that day he had invited us for dinner with his family. And when I say family I mean family, his father and mother, 4 brothers with wives and kids and another family from Varanasi, all cramped in a small house. We drove up over there on a motorbike, to be more clear Shashi was driving and both Paul and myself on the back. Oh joy! The welcome was great and we were shown the whole house. It felt a bit strange to be intruding in their family life but they were insisting so there we went. Dinner was great, a vegetarian tali and naan. This meal was so much tastier than the evening before and we felt very special to be with this family, it was a privilege to get a view of real Indian life. When we left (once again 3 on a motorbike) the whole family came out and waved us goodbye. What a wonderful experience!

The next morning it was time to leave again, up to our next destination. As this was the first time we were driving a longer distance during daytime it was a good opportunity to breathe some Indian country life. Lots of farms and small villages passed by and of course we had to stop several times for a cow which was blocking the road. We stopped for lunch in a fantastic place, a remote palace from a Maharaja (His descendent was still living there), we could not have wished for a better place. Old black and white photo’s covered the walls and of course we got a full tour of the premises.

A couple of hours later we arrived in Occhra, a small town which is only discovered by tourists since a couple of years. It housed a beautiful fort with a labyrinth of stairs leading to different rooms and terraces. It was absolutely amazing. Unfortunately we did not have that much time as we had a train to catch….  We boarded it in Janjhi where we left for the 2 1/2 hour ride to Agra. As we were travelling 1st class (Now don’t get to excited about that as it was not that much special, guess 2nd class in Europe is better) we were treated with a meal which was not that bad at all. Time flew by and before we know we arrived in Agra. There we were picked up again by a representative from the local tourist office (As already mentioned before the organisation is a schoolbook example of package tours and the service we receive immaculate) and brought to our hotel. Seeing that brought another smile on our face, a well kept and very stylish hotel once again, we are really getting spoiled over here.

Next morning was yet another early rice. We woke up at 05.00 and at 05.45 we drove by Tonga (horse and wagon) to the Taj Mahal which was a bit shorter than expected as the horse knew a shortcut….. What a great way to arrive at this fabulous monument. A lot is done to preserve this monument (All factories within a range of 60km are shutdown, no cars allowed within a km). The first glimpse was breathtaking, sun was rising and slowly the mausoleum was covered in a warm yellow glow. As it is totally covered with marble the effect was amazing. AS most of you we had seen many pictures and video’s, but nothing prepares you for the sight when you arrive. In one word… breathtaking.

We spent over 2 hours to enjoy the marvels of the Taj after which we made our way to the Agra red fort. Now if you think this is less than the Taj you are wrong. It’s equally impressive, maybe not because of sheer beauty but the size is amazing and so are the construction and the thoughts behind the architecture. In former times it was an unbeatable fort with layers of protection and surprises of unwanted guests. Fortunately we did not belong to that category as otherwise I would not have been able to write this report to you.

As the afternoon was the hottest part of the days with temperatures way over 35 degrees we tried to cool down at the pool. Unfortunately there was a power cut and the emergency generator (supplying the whole hotel) was directly next to the pool… Regulation no 5 at the notice board at the pool: Do not make unnecessary noises which can disturb other guests. Oh well, with the generator roaring at full blast they would not have heard us anyway…. So up to plan beer, find a restaurant and a cool cool beer (notice cool cool means 2 beers).

In the afternoon we visited the ‘Baby Taj’ another impressive monument which will soon be on the UNESCO world heritage list. After that is was shopping time. When Paul and I left home we thought it might be a good idea to take one suitcase only. After all we would not do any shopping. Would we???  Wrong decision so today we got another suitcase which more comfortably spread our clothes and Indian essentials one can not live without once being home again…..

So, first week behind us, almost 1000 pictures done, our brains full of wonderful and unexpected memories. What an experience this is!!!!! We are really having a fantastic time and cannot believe so many things happened in one week only, and yes, there are three more to go….

Continue the story with part 2: Fatehpur Sikri – Jasailmar