My last update was from Jaipur, which didn't impress me too much. The following day I saw the large and maze-like Amber Fort and the "monkey temple," where hundreds of monkeys converge at dusk and come up to you asking for food. In fact, I went with a friend who bought a bag of peanuts for the monkeys, and one actually jumped on his back to get the nuts. It scared both of us!
I arrived the next morning in Delhi, and my first surprise was that, despite it being the capital and an international transit point, almost nobody spoke English. I had received all kinds of dire warnings about Delhi and was expecting to be hassled and groped all day long, but in fact it wasn't so bad at all. The city is big but has a certain charm, with lots of markets scattered around and some interesting monuments. I visited the place where Gandhi lived his last days and where he was assassinated, and they have put together a very interesting exhibit on his life.
From Delhi I went to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, and I must admit that despite the hype, it was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined. I went in expecting to be disappointed but actually it was wonderful to see it in person. Agra also has some other monuments, including a huge palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri, about an hour away, which are well worth visiting. Mostly I was very impressed once again by the kindness of strangers, as a person I met on the train ended up inviting me to his home for dinner, and then showed me his (Sikh) temple, which was a first for me. I felt honored to be invited in and to receive a blessing from the priest.
From Agra I went to Orchha, a small and relaxed town full of temples and old palaces. I only had a day there, but I could easily have spent a few. Onwards to Khajuraho, famous for its gorgeous and intricately-carved temples, with scenes from the Kama Sutra carved all over the outside walls, which range from shocking to hilarious. I'll be posting the pictures eventually. This town also had the greatest concentration of French people I've seen so far - coincidence?
Short on time, I went straight on to Varanasi, India's holiest city. This is where Hindus come from all over the country to burn their dead and scatter their ashes in the Ganges. It's an amazing sight just to sit in town and watch the people, who come from all walks of life, in all different costumes and colors. The first day we walked up the ghats (the bathing areas) watching people bathing in the Ganges, beating their laundry in the water, praying and meditating. We arrived at the burning ghat, where people are cremated, and were accosted by two men who looked like they meant business, and we were not able to get away without paying money. It was very unpleasant and we resolved only to go back there on a boat.
So later on we took a boat out on the river and were able to watch the burial rites. Young children, pregnant women and sadhus are dumped into the river unburned and tied to a stone, and snake bite victims are wrapped in banana leaves and floated down the river in hopes that someone downstream can revive them. Everyone else is burned and their ashes scattered in the river. It's an amazing experience to witness such an old tradition, but it also gives you pause when you think that just a few meters away people are bathing and doing laundry in this water, which is also the repository of all the raw sewage of the city. The water is incredibly polluted, and yet still they eat the fish out of the river and bathe in it every day.
In the evening we went to watch the big puja (prayer ceremony) at the main ghat. Five Brahmins, dressed in orange, waved a series of flaming and feathered objects around, rang bells and beat drums. We put a candle in a lotus flower afloat on the river and made a wish with everyone else. Not a bad way to end a month in this amazing country.
So after my month in India, I guess my best summary is that the country is a total sensory experience. The smells and colors and tastes all somehow feel more vivid than they do elsewhere. Despite the inevitable hassle, the Indian people have been some of the friendliest people I've encountered anywhere. It's a place that makes you want to stop and stay a while, relax and not do too much. It's not a place, for the most part, that I feel you come to "see the sights"... most of what's so great about being here is just hanging out, meeting people, eating wonderful food, getting to know the culture, and watching a vastly diverse set of people, animals, and vehicles scramble past you in the chaos of the city. People come for a variety of reasons - some for sight seeing, some on a spiritual journey - and I think some people find they love it here, where for some it's just not their cup of chai, but for me, I felt immediately at home. It's a place I hope to return to many times, and for a lot longer.
And tomorrow off to Nepal. I'll keep you posted!