I See Dead People… BURNING – India Part 2

We’ve already journeyed along India’s Golden Triangle to the Islamic holy sights. Now it’s time to see India’s holy sights for Hindus and Buddhists, which include a pink city and one heavily polluted holy river. This second and final leg of my first India trip involves completing the Golden Triangle in Jaipur and flying to the holy city of Varanasi.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Can we skip the touristy stuff and go straight to the dead people?

No. They’re intertwined.

You see in Hindu tradition you’ve got to get cremated to free yourself from the cycle of perpetual death and reincarnation. And the holy Ganges River in Varanasi is the place to do it.

So prepare yourself accordingly. We may be boating, bathing and enjoying the show (literally not figuratively 😉) right next to burning bodies.

The road to the Pink City

Following Delhi and Agra, my final stop on the Golden Triangle tour of India was the famous city of Jaipur. 

Jaipur is the capital of the Indian state Rajasthan and is nicknamed the Pink City due to the color scheme of its buildings. The city was painted pink in order to impress and welcome then-Prince Albert Edward on his visit to India in 1876. The prince of Wales later became King Edward VII, who also held the title of Emperor of India.

The future king loved the pinkness, as did the ruler of Jaipur’s favorite wife. She eventually convinced her husband to make it a law that every building in the city must be pink. That law still exists today.

Before I would get to visit this pink city, though, we had one stop about 30 kilometers outside of Agra.

This fortress city is known as Fatehpur Sikri:

Fatehpur Sikri

It was constructed in the 16th century by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. After building an imperial palace, he named it his capital and ruled from there for around ten years.

Despite being Muslim himself, Akbar desired a tolerant and religiously diverse empire. He encouraged religious and philosophical debate and Fatehpur Sikri is a good reflection of that. 

One of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid, can be found inside the fortress walls. 

Jama Masjid inside Fatehpur Sikri

You can also find the personal residence of Akbar’s close friend Birbal. Despite being Hindu, Birbal was Akbar’s main military and religious advisor and the only courtier to receive a specially built home within the palace complex.

After Birbal’s home, I walked around the complex a bit enjoying the courtyards and gardens of the red fortress city.

Very pleasant

Eventually, I found my way to the Tomb of Salim Chishti.

Not exactly a difficult prediction to make about a ruler with multiple wives…

Salim Chishti was a saint and practitioner of the Islamic mysticism known as Sufism. He foretold the birth of Akbar’s son and predecessor Prince Salim, and for that, this tomb was constructed for him. It is considered one of the most notable accomplishments of Mughal architecture.

It is known for Child Birth Blessings, so I laid flowers around the shrine in the mosque which is to bring good fortune to my future offspring. 

I probably won’t have 14 children like the woman the Taj Mahal was built in honor of, but I still laid a lot of flowers 🙂

I explored the grounds of the fortress for another hour or so snapping some pictures after that.

Getting a little sick of this color 😛

With a long drive ahead, I made my way back to my driver and we continued to the last stop of the Golden Triangle.

Jaipur

After about a four hour drive, we made it to Jaipur by late afternoon. I had arranged to meet another member of my nomad community for drinks, so I went straight to my hotel.

I was staying at another of the Marriott’s ITC collection hotels, which of course was also pink. 

As you know from part 1, the aggressiveness of the locals to try to solicit and swindle tourists annoys me a little about India. Being able to enjoy 5-star amenities in these ITC collection hotels at the end of the day made a huge difference. If there is ever a place to splurge on your accommodation, it is India. I would still have plenty more opportunities to sleep on the ground under the stars in the future 🙂

Anyway, after a nice dinner and some drinks, I said goodnight to my friend and called it a day. I had the next full day to explore the pink capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur.

Starting fairly early in the morning, my driver took me to our first stop: the Palace of Winds.

Very beautiful architecture, even if it is for unfortunate reasons

This palace was built in 1799 by the grandson of the founder of Jaipur. The design is loosely based on the style of the Hindu deity Krishna’s crown. It also allowed the ladies of the palace to view the everyday life below them without being seen. 

Luckily female seclusion (called Purdah in the Hindu religion) was mostly only practiced by elites.

The palace is not open to the public, but even from the outside, the facade was very impressive as you can see.

After the palace, we visited the Jaigarh and Amer forts.

Palace time

The Amer Fort, as it stands today, was built in the late 16th century by a top general of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great.

The Jaigarh Fort, which sits higher up on the hill that the two forts reside on, was built in 1726 to protect the royal palace within the Amer Fort. Both are designed in the Mughal style, with the Char Bagh gardens I mentioned in my first India blog.

The Char Bagh gardens of Jaigarh

The two forts are sometimes considered one complex due to a subterranean passage that connects them. This passage was built to allow the royal family to escape the Amer palace during wartime.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall in Amer Palace

One of the most interesting things about the fort is that it has the third largest wall in the world encircling it.

Amer Fort. Notice the wall on the hill in the background

I mentioned in the last blog that I had missed Donald Trump by just a few days when I was in Delhi. Maybe the god emperor should have come to Jaipur instead to see the tremendous wall they have constructed around Amer. 😛

Additionally, the Amer Fort has this water cascade, which artificially creates a cool climate when the wind blows over it into the palace.

16th-century air conditioning.

After the forts, we visited the city palace of Jaipur where the royal family still resides. 

City Palace

While most of the palace is closed to the public, parts of it are open to the public for viewing.

Very ornate

Recently the family even briefly advertised a palatial suite here on AirBnB. For only $8,000 a night you can stay in one of these rooms 😛

At $8,000… I think I will stick to the Marriott

The current “king” of Jaipur is only 22 years old and one of the richest Indians in the world apparently. Although the title is not officially recognized by law, it is still very respected due to India’s deeply hierarchical society.

I didn’t see any of the royal family, but the palace was full of royal memorabilia and had a nice armory and museum.

From the palace we headed to a park with a collection of architectural astronomical instruments known as Jantar Mantar. 

Jantar Mantar

Most of the instruments here are huge structures, designed that way to increase their accuracy. For example, Jantar Mantar features the largest sundial in the world which can tell the local time to an accuracy of about two seconds.

The largest sundial in the world

Considering these instruments were all built in the 18th century, it was very impressive to learn how accurate they were.

A little north of Jaipur is the famous Jal Mahal Palace. 

If you try to swim there, armed guards in boats come to harass you

Jal Mahal literally means “water palace” and I’m sure you can see why. It was constructed in the middle of this man-made lake sometime around 300 years ago.

Originally it was used as a duck-hunting resort lodge for the royal family in Jaipur. However, at the end of the 18th century, there was a brutal monsoon season that completely flooded the palace.

It was neglected and left in disrepair for almost 200 years until the early 2000’s when it came under private management.

While it is currently completely closed to the public, the new owners who refurbished it have plans to turn it into a resort and world-class restaurant. I’m a little skeptical of a world-class restaurant that can’t serve steak, but I guess I’m not the target demographic 😛

It is quite an impressive little island fortress from the outside and was a nice way to finish off my day of exploring Jaipur.

I headed back to my hotel and took advantage of the complimentary massage they offer at these ITC hotels. 

Early March is considered one of the best times to visit the Golden Triangle because the weather is relatively cool and dry, but a day full of exploring like this still takes a lot out of you. I had an early night in bed in preparation for my flight to Varanasi the next morning.

The Sacred Ganges and Varanasi

The flight from Jaipur to Varanasi is a short direct flight designed for tourists. I anticipated the airport being pretty empty so I got there with just under an hour before takeoff.

I have been to many airports in my life and I can say without a doubt this was one of the worst experiences I’ve had. It took me forever to check in with the clueless staff and then the most unfriendly security agent I have ever interacted with acted like I was on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

Everything in my luggage was dumped out and checked and all my toiletries and disposable things were thrown out. I could see on my phone that the flight was boarding so after taking 30 minutes just to get through security I had to run all the way to my gate. Luckily they held the gate open a few extra minutes for me so I wasn’t stuck in that terrible airport any longer then necessary.

After a 3 ½ hour flight we landed in Varanasi.

Varanasi is one of the most culturally significant cities in India. It is built right on the sacred Ganges river and is the holiest of the 7 sacred Hindu cities. Additionally it is believed to be where Buddha founded Buddhism sometime around 528 BC.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m more of a Taoist than a Buddhist. That being said, I value many Buddhist teachings and was excited to visit the place where it all began.

Landing in Varanasi, I was picked up by my driver and taken to the Buddhist city of Sarnath.

Preaching the four noble truths

This city is the site where Buddha first taught the dharma and is considered something like the mecca of Buddhism. Devout Buddhists are supposed to make a pilgrimage here at some point in their life.

Buddhist temple

I explored Sarnath for about an hour, visiting some of the temples and stupas that are scattered around.

Many of the buildings and structures in Sarnath were destroyed by Turks in their many plunderings of India, but there is still plenty to explore.

Vestiges of pesky Turks with a large stupa in the background

I was one of the last people allowed into the park, so I got to see the Buddhist monks preparing for their prayer and meditation which was very interesting.

Another temple

After Sarnath my driver took me to my hotel to put my bags down and chill for a bit.

I had arranged a boat tour that night of the Ganges River, so I got some work done while I waited.

The Holy River

When the time came I met with  my boat captain at the river. It was quite interesting to see Varanasi from this vantage point.

River culture

Despite it being one of the most polluted rivers in the world, the people here really idolize the Ganges.

As you probably know a swastika means something very different in the East 😉

Hindus believe that if you are cremated and put your ashes in the Ganges you will break the eternal cycle of rebirth and attain salvation. All along the river I saw dead bodies waiting to be cremated and huge fires where the process was already underway.

I would rather be frozen Han Solo style 😛

Right next to the cremating bodies you could see people bathing in the water — which was a little gross, but all part of their culture.

Spoiler: I opted to stick to my Marriott ITC shower. This kind of bath really isn’t for me.

Conquering rebirth

My boat driver took me about 5km up and down the river while the sun began to set. 

Basically every night in Varanasi when the sun sets, they have a festival of lights called the “Ganga Aarti.” Everybody in the town comes to the Ganges and lights fires and puts little floating water candles on the river. There is singing and dancing and a general celebration of light with offerings of fire.

My boat driver had picked a nice spot to anchor, so I brought some beer and chips and just enjoyed the romantic atmosphere. Oh, and of course a candle too 🙂

When in Rome

As a side note, this was on March 8th, not long before COVID-1984 restrictions began to take effect in India. This festival was so crowded that one person running through the crowd easily could have infected 50-100,000 people that day. It seems unlikely that everybody in a crowd that large was negative for the flu that’s going around, yet Varanasi is not currently a disease-stricken ghost town. It makes you wonder… 🤔

Anyway, this was basically my last real night in India, so I had some drinks and enjoyed the evening celebrating with the locals.

The next morning I had another boat ride around the Ganges at 6 am. I had scheduled this just to see the morning activities on the river and watch the sunrise. 

The stairs leading down to the water are called ghats

This was a bit shorter of a ride, but it was interesting to see everybody waking up and coming down to the water to have their holy morning bath (called an ablution) in the polluted river. 

Early morning ablution

Again, I chose to remain a spectator.

The morning boat tour wrapped up my exploration of this ritualistic city. No, I don’t have close up photos of corpses or ashes. But yes, they are there. And yes, when you visit the Ganges in Varanasi, there are people being cremated in front of you. It’s just something you get used to. In Varanasi, death is everywhere.

Departing thoughts on India

After my boat tour, I went back to my hotel and ordered my final tuk-tuk ride to the local train station. 

Unfortunately I got there about 3 hours early, which basically meant 3 hours of being harassed by the locals. It was a fitting but aggravating way to end my India travels. The aggression of Indians trying to sell foreigners things is really quite obnoxious.

I found the emptiest train track there was and waited for my 8-hour train ride back to Delhi.

Hiding from the locals

After a very uncomfortable yet productive 8 hours, I was finally back in Delhi. The next day I would be flying to Dubai and from there onwards to Egypt, which you can read about in my post about experiencing Yemen.

All said I wasn’t the biggest fan of India. There were some beautiful locations and nice moments, but the whole picture wasn’t that great. It’s not a place I feel very comfortable and that is a sentiment that a lot of foreigners who visit leave with.

I know it’s a big country with a lot of variety so I’m sure I’ll be back someday. I’d like to visit places like Goa and the Laccadive Islands, but it’s not very high on my priority list at the moment.

Still, maybe one day I will be sitting at home staring at the marble table I was cajoled into buying and get nostalgic for good old India 🙂