Thursday, 28 June 2012

20 to 22 June – Agra to and at Varanasi (Benares) via a bush camp (India)

Advertising for schools, colleges and universities is quite common through India with huge hoardings just about everywhere. The advertising starts for nursery and pre-preschool all the way through to courses for the public service, lorry drivers, cooks etc. Then the advertisement advances to finding placements in universities in Europe, Japan and Australia mainly but other countries are included. Education is a big business here and parents do all that they can to have their children educated. I did like one particular sign ‘We have ingenious coaching, we simply inspire our students’. I wonder how many schools in the UK could say that they have a motto like this one!

As a aside, the local English language papers carry hundreds of adverts where parents advertise for a husband or wife for their son or daughter. The qualifications, possible salary and sometimes the caste of the person is mentioned with the requirements of the husband or wife indicated also. An Indian lady told me that arranged marriages were still the norm here with a lot of the women hoping to get a husband who lived overseas as they wanted more than anything to leave India thinking that a better life could be had outside India. I made the comment that perhaps arranged marriages had a good chance of working and was told that was in appearance only as divorce was not a consideration in India except for the very rich who had their own rules. 

Street advertising


After travelling all day we set up a bush camp on some open space on the side of the highway and cooked a meal. The local youths were out in numbers to watch us and everything was alright until they began getting too close and stones started to be thrown at the group and the truck. It was thought that the stone throwing was because some of our ladies were not covered up properly and the Muslims amongst them were offended. I did discuss this with an Indian lady later and she said that if this had been so then the youths would more likely have called the village elders to talk to us. It was probably a few yobs amongst them who were throwing the stones with the result that we packed everything up in a very quick time and at 2015 hours we left and travelled through to Varanasi, arriving at 2330 hours. This had been a long day for the driver and with the arrival at Varanasi this was appreciated by all.

The crowd at the campsite

Arriving at the Hotel Suiya we were booked to camp on the lawn but I booked a room instead as the rainy season had started, it was hot and humid, and I stank to high heaven and really needed a shower. Here we stayed two full days with some of the happy campers visiting my room to cool down as the temperatures in the tent area was nearing 40C. Apparently a guest in the hotel asked if the tent area was a refugee camp!

The camp in the hotel
The camp in the hotel
In the morning I visited Sarnath where Buddha is said to have given his first sermon. The buildings were constructed in the third century and later 1500 monks lived on the site before the buildings were destroyed by Muslim invaders. There is not much of the site left now except for the thirty four metre high Dhamekh Stupa which marks the spot where Buddha preached his first sermon.
The grounds of Sarnath
The Stuppa

Nearby is the modern Mulagandha Kuti Vihar Temple, (photos below).

The temple

In the evening I arranged to go on the River Ganges to see the Ganga Aarti fire and dance ceremony carried out on one of the ghats. There was an Indian lady with me and she described what would be going on once we reached the river and on the river interpreted what was said by the boatman. (She also said that she checked with the hotel as to who else would be going to the river that evening and if she had been the only person then she would not have gone saying that a single Indian lady was not safe in Varanasi if she was by herself. Also, if the only others on the boat were Indian men she would not have gone as well). Once on the boat the colours of the river and ghats could be seen with the chaos that went with it. People on the ghats and boats on the river were slowly making their way to the two Aarti ceremonies and everything was packed in but with good hearted humour. There used to be only one ceremony but now there are two and apparently religious politics have come to the fore with the two groups being supported by different groups of people, the reason for which I do not know.


Scenes from the evening visit to the River Ganges



Walking from the lanes onto the ghat a funeral was taking place with two bodies being carried down to the river ready for cremation. I asked if I was allowed to take a picture of the bodies and was told that it would be alright.



It was then explained that people request that they be cremated on the Ganges at Varanasi as it is considered to be one of the holiest places in India. If the person lived in Varanasi then they would be cremated after twelve to sixteen hours of dying but if further away arrangements would be made to transport the body there. There are eighty-four ghats on the river but only a few are ‘burning’ ghats. The poor are cremated in two electric crematoriums and the rich on the ghat itself because only the rich can afford the cost of the wood required for the cremation and the cost of the ‘dom’ who organise and control the ceremony. The body is taken to the river and ‘washed’ five times by the eldest son and then the face is cleaned one last time. During the cremation, which takes about three hours, the family wait on the ghat (no women are allowed there) and during this time the hair is removed from the head of the eldest son. If there should be no son then it may be the father or husband who is shaved. Once the cremation is completed the remains are put into the river and a final religious ceremony is held on the ghat.

An older lady would be cremated without her jewels but a bride of under one years marriage would be cremated in her bridal dress with all her jewels. At the end of the ceremony the ‘dom’ would go through the ashes looking for the jewels and melted gold which they are allowed to keep.

There are certain bodies that are not cremated, being, a child under ten years of age, a pregnant lady, a Sadhu (priest) and a person who has died from a snake bite. The last is allowed to float on the river in-case the death is not certain and they come back to life.

The following morning I went back to the river to see the sun rise on the ghats and palaces. It was a dull morning so the effect of the sun was not very good. The palaces were built by various maharajas so as to live and die by the holy Ganges. The palaces are now lived in by the ‘doms’ and those who are involved in the cremation ceremonies and are owned by the brahmans.


Scenes from the evening visit to the River Ganges

Washing away a lifetime of sins




Monday, 25 June 2012

18 and 19 June – Jaipur to and at Agra

Fuel Costs : Diesel 50p/litre (43 rupees) and Petrol 90p/litre (75 rupees) with the exchange rate being £1 = 86 rupees.

The local papers had articles about the power shortages in Lucknow in which the  local government decreed that all businesses using a lot of power had to shut down for two weeks and all local businesses, cafes, shops, offices etc. had to finish work by 1900 hours each day for two weeks. The two weeks was because he monsoon is expected start within that time so the temperature should reduce with the resultant reduction in the use of power for air conditioning units. There was such an outcry that it was then said that it was only a ‘suggestion’ and since then the use of power has gone on as normal. Everywhere we go there are standby generating sets for hotels, road toll booths and just about any business that can afford to buy or hire a machine so it would appear.

Goats filling the highway
Not overloaded
A wedding carriage (I think)

In Jaipur it rained during the night before we left at 0800 hours on the morning of the 18 June. There were quite a number of tolls on the road and these seem to be increasing in number all the time. We were headed towards Agra and stopped in at Fatehpur Sikri on the way. Here I went into the Jama Masjid Mosque which had been completed in 1571 being of Indian and Persian design. It was built by Shaikh Saum Christi and to this day the marble building inside is visited by childless women looking to conceive a child. There is an underground passageway to Agra Fort nearly 40 kilometres away which is now closed and said to have bats and cobras living in the tunnel.

The Jama Masjid Mosque Entrance
The Jama Masjid Mosque Outer Wall
The Jama Masjid Mosque Gate
The Jama Masjid Mosque Victory Gate
So far this trip I it has been suggested that I was a Bollywood actor, Ali Baba, an Imam and even someone was asked if I was Karl Marx. I know that I was sitting still at the time but that was taking things too far!


Arriving in Agra just after 1500 hours I decided that I would go down the Taj Mahal for sunset even though it was not a clear day. Not wanting to pay the £9 entry fee as I intended to go again the following morning I thought to go up on the roof of one of the restaurants nearby to watch the sun setting over the Taj. Derrick went with me and we found that entry to the Taj was free that day because of the anniversary of the death of someone important and the resultant opening of the tomb which happened about three times a year, so in we went. The place was crowded with tens of thousands of people and families about. Local youths were dancing about with long streaming banners over their heads and when heading and going into the underground tomb the crush became dangerous. I asked a policeman if I could go into the tomb and was told it would be alright but when I was a little way down the steps another policeman then said that he thought it would be too dangerous to go any further as it was too crowded for such a small room. I did not go down! The police were catching hold of small children who were being taken down with their parents and literally dragging the children out and just about throwing them out of the way of the crush. It looked quite a cruel act but I have no doubt that due to the mass of people the parents could not have been reasoned with and the only alternative was to drag the children away. Men and women were just about climbing over each other to get up to the building and then go into the tomb itself, scary at times. At dusk all had to leave the site and we found that our shoes had been stolen. I bought a cheap new pair outside the gates of the Taj!

The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal
In the grounds of the Taj Mahal
In the grounds of the Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal
He smiled as well
Mother wanted the picture taken
The banner being carried to the tomb
They wanted it taken as well
The Taj Mahal
Apart from the confusion around the mosque the rest of the grounds were full but there was room for everyone and people were happy just looking and taking photographs. As usual in India, especially at the monuments, Indians would ask to have their photograph taken by us just to see the result in the camera screen.

I visited the Taj Mahal over twenty years ago and at the time there were very few people around so the photographs were only of the buildings. I did think it was a really beautiful place even then. The visit this time was with thousands of other people so with them and the colours around the whole place came to life, something strange to say for a mausoleum I would guess. I much preferred the second visit because of the people and the whole feeling about the place at the time.

The following day I went to Agra Fort and actually thought that it was better to look at than the Red Fort in Delhi. Yes, the Taj Mahal could be seen from the Fort quite clearly.

The entrance over the moat
The outer wall
The first gate
The grounds inside
The grounds inside
The inner gate
The Audience Hall
The Audience Hall
Not sure what building this is
The outer wall
A bath
The Taj Mahal from Agra Fort