India, Part II

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Ganges River, Varanasi

You can find India, Part I here.

Jaipur

The Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds), originally built so the royal women could creep on what was happening on the streets below
The Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds), originally built so the royal women could creep on what was happening on the streets below

The capital of the state of Rajasthan, Jaipur is a great city that suffered from being placed in the middle of my India itinerary where it got lost in the shuffle. Jaipur is known as the Pink City for its coral-colored walls. The whole city was painted in honor of then-Prince Edward’s visit in 1876, and the fact that the walls are closer to red than pink has not escaped notice, and Edward is to this day lightly mocked for his color blindness.

My visit to Jaipur coincided with the time that my Indian fort/palace weariness set in. The 16th century was a big century in northern India and basically every city got in on the pissing contest to have the biggest, baddest fort in the region. Raja Man Singh added himself and his city to the ranks with the Amer Fort, constructed just outside the main city in 1592.

Amer Fort
Amer Fort

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Similarly, the City Palace, built a little more than 100 years later, bears all the markings of other Rajasthani palaces, from its network of interior courtyards, to its marble filigrees and colorful tiling. The royal family continues to live here and like in Udaipur, their titles mean next to nothing beyond a few perks.

Room in the private quarters of the palace
Room in the private quarters of the palace

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The main sight of interest in Jaipur is the Jantar Mantar. King Sawai Jai Singh, a lover of astronomy and astrology, commissioned the monument in 1738 to measure the movement of the planets and the time. One of the sundials within the complex tells the exact time in Jaipur (anywhere from 20-40 minutes different from India Standard Time) within two seconds. The Jantar Mantar kind of looks like an M.C. Escher painting, with odd geometric shapes haphazardly stacked and aligned around a flat courtyard.

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Instruments for measuring planet positions, the time of sunrise, and the location of the pole star; sundials; zodiac charts; and an 18th-century equivalent of a world clock all cluster to make up the zany landscape that appears wildly incongruous at first glance, but becomes immensely logical upon further examination, as each instrument has a very straightforward purpose.

This thing (Jai Prakash Yantra) allows astronomers to calculate altitude, declinations, the hour, etc. Rather than a solid semicircle, it is broken into two pieces that are mirror images of each other so the observer can walk climb under the instrument and take readings from between the marble slabs.
This thing (Jai Prakash Yantra) allows astronomers to calculate altitude, declinations, the hour, etc. Rather than a solid semicircle, it is broken into two pieces that are mirror images of each other so the observer can climb under the instrument and take readings from between the marble slabs.
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I don’t remember what this does, to be honest

There’s some sort of magic in Jaipur—people all over India light up when you mention it—but I just couldn’t find it. Jaipur is one of India’s more modern cities, with huge shopping malls, a semblance of traffic orderliness, and relatively clean streets, but it hasn’t totally lost its heritage. The city is still full of buildings that predate the founding of the U.S. and has the winding, maddening street markets that characterize every Indian city.

In summary, Jaipur is like a more attractive Delhi with more personality, but to me, it lacked the intrigue of some of the smaller Rajasthani cities.

Agra

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No disrespect to Agra, which is a fine city, but you come here for one thing only: the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, commissioned the Taj in 1632 as a mausoleum after his beloved wife died in childbirth. Twenty-one years and 32 million Indian rupees later (US$827 million today), the Taj Mahal was completed along the banks of the Yamuna River with the help of 22,000 artists and workers.

The Taj is said to be the pinnacle of Mughal architecture and looking at it, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

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Precious jewels and vibrant lapis lazuli sporadically adorn the walls of the tomb (thank you, Brits, for stealing so many of them in the 1850’s), inside of which Mumtaz Mahal is buried along with Shah Jahan, who was interred there in 1666, 35 years after his wife’s death. His tomb, oddly placed next to his wife’s, is the only thing in the whole place that isn’t perfectly symmetrical, as it was not part of the original plan.

There are all kinds of optical illusions at the Taj because it is so geometrically flawless that it plays tricks on you from up close and at a distance. The four pillars constructed around the edge of the platform appear to be leaning in (toward the Taj), but are in fact tilted outwards a degree or two past 90 degrees, so that in the event of an earthquake, they would fall away from the dome, rather than towards it.

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Places as famous and talked about as the Taj Mahal have a near-impossible task: to live up to the hype. The Taj does not disappoint. Because you see glimpses of it as you drive into and around Agra, you won’t quite have the experience of coming upon it all at once in its full, unobscured glory. It’s sort of like catching glimpses of the Eiffel Tower in Paris down side streets and through the trees. But when you come through the main entrance gate in front of the Taj, the pristine quality of the white marble, the perfect alignment of every part of the structure, and the uncluttered gardens below make for a pretty spectacular scene.

The Taj Mahal has its reputation for a reason. Nothing about the Taj is very subdued, from the scale, to the elaborate inlay work, but it somehow manages to avoid being over the top.

Of course, like any world-renowned sight, it is always crowded. There is no such thing as a slow time of day or year to visit the Taj, so this is one of those things where you just have to prepare yourself for the crowds and accept it. Luckily, the grounds are deceptively large and can absorb a lot of people, so getting an unobstructed view of the Taj isn’t very difficult. The hilarious side benefit of this is the amazing people watching.

The vast majority of the tourists that visit the Taj are Indians, but of course it’s the Westerners who make fools of themselves. The Taj will be the highlight of any trip to India, and for good reason, and these people are not about to let the moment pass without the perfect photo. Totally understandable, but this means that half the Western tourists walking around the grounds are done up in the one “nice” outfit they brought on their trip so they look good on this year’s holiday card.

Coming to a Christmas card near you
Coming to a Christmas card near you

I totally get it; it takes a lot of time and effort to get to the Taj and of course you want a great photo, but the effort that went into some of these outfits is hilarious.

Like the Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal encourages the most ridiculous photo opps. This poor kid was forced to stand on the platform about 150 yards from the Taj and pretend like he was licking the dome.

Classic

My other favorite thing about Western tourists all over India is their obsession with dressing in Indian garb. White women with Texas blow-outs, bindis, and saris, you look like you walked out of a vaguely racist spread in Vogue. I also appreciate the younger tourists whose idea of dressing for India entailed buying “tribal” pants at Urban Outfitters, which definitely also made an appearance at Coachella.

The marble turns a pinkish color at sunset
The Taj turns a pinkish color at sunset

It would be almost impossible to spend too much time at the Taj. After you get your photos, grab a seat anywhere on the grounds (there’s no bad view of the Taj) and watch the marble change color in the light.

Finally, the briefest of brief mentions of the other notable sights in Agra, which are relegated to a distant second and third.

The Tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah, built by Nur Jahan for her parents, is said to be one of the inspirations for the Taj because of its detailed marble carvings.
The Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, built by Nur Jahan for her parents, is said to be one of the inspirations for the Taj because of its detailed marble carvings.

The other notable sight in Agra is the Agra Fort, and I’m honestly not going to post any pictures of it because I don’t have any good ones and we all get the idea of what an Indian fort looks like by now. You come for the Taj, and while you won’t want to leave town without a look around at the smattering of other sights, this is in a league by itself.

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Varanasi

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This is a place seemingly everyone has an opinion about. I met several extremely well-traveled people earlier in my trip who said that Varanasi was one of the most memorable things they’d ever seen. “Intense” was the word I heard more than anything. They’re not entirely wrong, but it can be easy to get jaded after several days in India, and the insane can very quickly turn into the ordinary.

Varanasi claims to be the oldest living city in the world, dating back to 11th century BC, with a long religious history. A strong Buddhist tradition can be seen in Sarnath, an excavation site of a Buddhist monastery complex just outside the city where a stupa marks the spot where Siddhartha Gautama is said to have delivered his first sermon. Sanctity and religious overtones pervade the entire city, which is home to universities founded by the Dalai Lama and Gandhi.

View of the stupa at Sarnath
View of the stupa at Sarnath

The Ganges flows past the edge of town and pilgrimages from all over Asia make up the bulk of tourism in Varanasi, as Hindus, like Muslims with Mecca, believe in making the trip to the Ganges at least once in their lives. The Ganges is considered sacred because it is believed to be the embodiment of the goddess Ganga and people come to bathe in the river at all hours of the day.

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At night, Buddhist monks conduct a large-scale aarti at the riverside. Aarti is a kind of religious ceremony Hindus themselves perform regularly, but this is the equivalent of going to mass at the Vatican.

Festival season in India runs through the fall, so the night I visited Varanasi was a more crowded evening, and the mass of humanity is something to see. If this was your first stop in India, the experience of walking along the river as the sun sets would be fairly shocking, but compared to the rest of India that I saw, I didn’t find it to be exceptionally nutty. It’s still pretty crazy, but multiple people who had traveled extensively in India and/or lived here sold it as something a little more insane than what I saw.

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Many enterprising Varanasi citizens have capitalized on the spectacle of the evening, and you’ll see roving food vendors and highly performative, non-authentic holy men making their way through the crowd. Aside from a smattering of Western tourists, though, the majority of the people in attendance have come to Varanasi on a religious pilgrimage or to cremate a relative. Many people also come to spread the ashes of someone cremated elsewhere in the Ganges.

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The ceremony involves symbolically awakening the gods, providing them with food and other human forms of nourishment, and lulling them back to sleep, done using various chants, movements, and different kinds of torches. While everyone gathered on the steps and in the anchored boats paid attention, the aarti is hardly viewed with rapt reverence. People made their way through the crowd during the ceremony and a group of Buddhist monks continued to bang on their drums in an overlooking balcony (they were still there, doing the exact same thing, when I came back at sunrise the next morning).

One of seven platforms where monks performed the ceremony after dark
One of seven platforms where monks performed the ceremony after dark
Here you can see the seven monks and 10,000 of my closest friends watching the ceremony
Here you can vaguely see the seven monks and 10,000 of my closest friends watching the ceremony

This general nonchalance is one of the overriding features of Hinduism. With no set rules about when to pray, how to do it, when to go to a temple, etc., Hindus are left almost entirely to themselves to regulate their own religion and practice as they see fit.

Because Varanasi is such a holy city, many people are brought there to be cremated. The Hindu cremation process is a regimented procedure and there is a not insignificant industry in Varanasi in managing cremations. With as many as 200 cremations happening along the banks of the river every day, there is always at least one pyre burning on the Manikarnika Ghat, one of the designated cremation spots in Varanasi, at any hour.

Many tourists are very moved by this spectacle and it is emotional, but the process actually seemed very therapeutic to me. Once the body is burned, the ashes are collected and released into the river, and the whole thing just struck me as a somber, but natural process that did not in any way seem macabre.

There was only one cremation going on the morning I was there (I don’t have pictures for, I think, obvious reasons) and while you know conceptually there is a body burning there, you don’t see anything graphic and the use of sandalwood powder means you won’t smell a thing. The process was absolutely fascinating to watch, but I didn’t find it emotionally wrenching in the way many people had described.

As far as “wow” moments go, few things in India will top the breathtaking spectacle of the Taj Mahal, but Varanasi certainly didn’t disappoint, despite having a tough act to follow. Varanasi is one of those places that can make you feel like you’re on another planet, but not in an unpleasant way. I had been warned that the poverty and the filth in Varanasi would be significantly worse than elsewhere in India, and while conditions are worse than the other places I visited, it didn’t exactly shock me. In Varanasi, you’ll feel like you’ve at least briefly touched the soul of the country, something I don’t think you quite get at the Taj, as magnificent as it is.

Woman bathing at the base of the ghat adjacent to the cremation site
Woman bathing at the base of the ghat adjacent to the cremation site

I think I found India so befuddling to write about because it’s both exactly what I imagined and something totally different. Even the most mundane things become sources of excitement here. I don’t know that there is anything more fascinating than driving on an Indian highway. Once you stop white-knuckling with fear that you’ll hit a cow or a goat or a dog or a person, you’ll see some of the best parts of India happening alongside the road; farmers working in fields, women cooking in open-air stoves on the side of the road, processions of Hindus on pilgrimages to temples.

This last one is amazing. Groups of 40 or so people will walk for miles around India to visit temples, and this is basically a giant roaming party. Someone in the back of the procession slowly drives a small truck outfitted with enormous speakers blaring upbeat Indian music while the group walks slowly in front, dancing and interacting with the people they meet along the way. This is happening basically on the shoulder/in one lane on a highway.

This enthusiastic gentleman was part of a group of people celebrating the god Ganesha's birthday
This enthusiastic gentleman was part of a group of people celebrating the god Ganesha’s birthday
These group in Agra actually wasn't on a pilgrimage. They were locals celebrating the event by submerging a statue of Ganesha in the river to honor his birthday, but you get the idea of the general revelry
This group in Agra actually wasn’t on a pilgrimage. They were locals celebrating the event by submerging a statue of Ganesha in the river to honor his birthday, but you get the idea of the general revelry
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Don’t know what this pose was about, but he was very insistent on it

Standard-size cars are in the minority on highways. Aside from the colorfully decked-out semi trucks, you’ll see tuk-tuks that should probably be carrying four or five people stuffed with 15 passengers, some of whom are standing on platforms on the back holding onto the roof. The tuk-tuks don’t seem to be able to go much faster than about 55 mph, but are driving alongside trucks, cars, and motorcycles going 75 mph.

Motorcycles are the most common form of transportation in India, as they are in most places in Asia, and serve every function. It’s kind of hard to see, but not only are there three people on this motorcycle, there is also a goat.

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And, of course, the cows.

Honestly, what is going on here
Honestly, what is going on here

One of the things I love about India is how proud the people are of their culture and how enthusiastic they are about sharing it with foreigners. Everyone always encourages you to try something new or wants to share a piece of Indian history with you or tell you an anecdote about their family traditions, and while it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, you know you’re getting to know India and its people. You’ll leave knowing you’ve gotten to know the real India. The way I can best do this country justice is by encouraging you to visit.

Today I’ll be flying to Bhutan, which, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, is a real known unknown.

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