Life, Death & Love in India: Varanasi to Agra

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River Ganges Varanasi India

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I’ll be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go back to India. My last visit wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for a return trip. Let me take you back 9 years…

It was my first Round-the-World trip. The Taj Mahal was near the top of my list as far as world monuments go, I was so excited to see it. I’d planned a short stay, less than 24 hours, but my goal was simply the Taj and I knew I’d have plenty of time to make the journey to Agra and back.

But a few weeks before departure I discovered (quite by accident) that the Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays – the lone day I would be in the country. For some reason, the tour company with whom I booked the car, driver and guide had neglected to point out this seemingly important fact. 

With flights that were impossible to change at this point without a complete upheaval of my entire itinerary, I decided to make the trip anyway. Though I knew I’d be limited to views of this ancient world wonder from across the river, I figured it was better than nothing.

And I guess you could say it was. But the 4-hour drive to Agra and back proved to be a bit more than I was prepared for at this point in my travel career (I’d been a lot of places, but I’d never been anywhere quite like India).

Traffic accidents, pollution, burning piles of trash (and worse), cows and monkeys in the streets, entire families dangling from the back of buses and auto-rickshaws – it was overwhelming in a punch-you-in-the-gut kind of way I’d never encountered before. There was a rawness to the country’s poverty that struck me deeply and stuck with me for years afterward.

But as the years passed and I visited more and more countries occupying similar rungs on the poverty ladder, the memories faded and I began to ponder the wisdom of a return to India.

After all, I spent less than a day in the country, had I truly given it a fair shot?

Probably not.

So, when India announced a new visa on arrival program last fall, I decided it was high time for a triumphant return to the Taj Mahal. India just had to be a part of RTW #10. And luckily Dave was game for whatever I wanted to do.

Because we were using our RTW tickets, I knew we’d need to fly in and out of New Delhi but I wanted to see something more of India this time. Something more reflective of the country’s unique culture perhaps, than just the beauty of the Taj Mahal.

We considered a number of options before ultimately deciding to combine a weekend in the holy city of Varanasi with our three nights in New Delhi.

Arrival in India

After a fabulous week road-tripping around the UK and a luxurious overnight in Paris, we landed in New Delhi just before midnight. The first thing I noticed was an entirely new, clean and modern airport – a vast improvement from my previous New Delhi airport experience. Things were already looking up!

The new e-Visa process was fairly smooth on arrival, another win. Since we had a morning flight to Varanasi the next day, we’d used SPG points to book a room near the airport at the Four Points New Delhi Airport for the night and a driver was waiting for us as soon as we exited customs.

Okay India, I thought, let’s see what other pleasant surprises you have in store for us this week!

The Holy City of Varanasi

Revered as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities, the old city of Varanasi sits along the western side of the River Ganges. According to legend, Varanasi was the abode of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati and it’s believed to be the oldest, continually inhabited city in the world.

Varanasi is not for the faint-hearted. The cycle of life and death is unapologetically laid bare here on the banks of the Ganges. More tourists die in Varanasi than in any other city in the world. But, fortunately, most of them intend to.

Those close to death flock to the city to wash away their sins in the sacred murky waters of the Ganges. The faithful believe that taking their last breath here will free them from the cycle of re-birth and death. And so they come. The old and the sick and their families.

Ganges River Varanasi India
Along the Ganges in Varanasi

But the cremation ghats don’t treat all aspirants equally – children, pregnant women and snake bite victims are denied cremation rights and relegated to a water burial at the bottom of the Ganges. Yes, the same river where pilgrims bathe daily. Like I said, this town is not for the faint-hearted.

Because Varanasi isn’t exactly known for its abundance of Marriott hotels, we’d selected our hotel – the Ganpati Guest House – based on glowing Trip Advisor reviews. Located directly along the River Ganges in the heart of Varanasi’s Old City, the hotel had great reviews and the price was right. It was, however, strongly recommended to book a transfer from the airport in advance because the hotel is not accessible by taxi and difficult to find on foot.

Street Traffic Varanasi India
The streets of Varanasi

As we drove through the crowded, ramshackle, monsoon-soaked streets of Varanasi, I noticed a look on Dave’s face that I hadn’t seen before. “It reminds me of Iraq” he said as he stared out the window at the scenes of daily life around us. I’d never thought about what the smaller villages of Iraq looked like but suddenly they became vivid images in my mind.

I’d mentally brought my husband back to Iraq – a place he swore he would never return to – on his honeymoon. Not exactly what I was going for in the romance department but, good sport that he is, he put on a happy face and seemed determined to make the best of our time in Varanasi.

Eventually, we stopped in a busy square and our driver unloaded our bags to a young man (optimistically, a hotel representative) waiting to carry them through the narrow streets and escort us on foot the rest of the way.

By the time we’d made the long walk through the old city’s dense labyrinth of alleys (called galis) and arrived at the hotel, we’d learned that the young man’s name was Prakesh and that he was (conveniently) also available to provide guide services.

Varanasi India Guide Prakesh
Dave with our guide for the weekend, Prakesh

Prakesh was quite the entrepreneur and it seemed to be a casual arrangement he had with the hotel – provide free porter service for the guests and get the opportunity to solicit your services as a guide during their stay. We asked Prakesh about his rate structure and he said simply, “Pay whatever you think is fair at the end of the trip.”

Now, typically, that’s not an arrangement I’m comfortable with (there’s always a catch, isn’t there?), but Prakesh seemed like a knowledgeable, hard-working kid who genuinely enjoyed showing visitors his home city so we decided to take a chance.

If the disorienting, stomach-churning, cobra-in-a-basket-passing walk from the busy square to the hotel had taught us anything, it was that we were probably ill-equipped to navigate this city on our own.

We made arrangements to meet Prakesh down in the lobby later that afternoon to begin our exploration of Varanasi and headed up to our room to settle in.

The room itself turned out to be pretty good – spacious and clean with plenty of bottled water and well-functioning A/C – but the balcony overlooking the Ganges was spectacular, we could see along the river for miles.

We unpacked a bit and spent some time enjoying the view from the balcony before heading back down to the lobby to reunite with Prakesh.

Ganpati Guest House Varanasi
Our riverfront terrace at the Ganpati Guest House

The Ghats of Varanasi

As we descended the steps down to the banks of the Ganges to begin our walk with Prakesh, a steady rain began to fall. He began our tour by explaining a bit more about the Hindu religion as we walked.

Hinduism is the dominant religion of the Indian subcontinent. It’s a compassionate religion that treats all living beings (down to the tiniest insects) with great respect, as though they have souls of their own. Because of this, most Hindus are vegetarians and no Hindu will eat beef (cows are sacred to Hindus).

Ghats Varanasi India
One of Varanasi’s many ghats

Just like I remembered from my previous visit, there were cows wandering the streets everywhere. Prakesh assured us that all of the cows were well cared for and typically returned to a family home each night. But the main attraction in Varanasi is not the cows but the ceremonial ghats.

Ghats are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the Ganges and Varanasi has 87 of them. Some are associated with ancient mythologies or legends and some are privately owned. Most ghats are used for bathing and various ceremonies but others are used exclusively for cremations.

Our walk along the Ganges continued and soon we arrived at one of the cremation ghats and an actual cremation was already in progress. Nothing quite prepares you for watching a body being burned on a woodpile in front of you.

One member of the family stood near the burning pile to oversee the cremation while the other family members stood off to the side until the process was complete. Photos are not allowed at the cremation ceremonies but a few tourists had paused to observe. It’s definitely not something I ever need to see again.

Swimming in the Ganges

As we walked, Dave and I were constantly amazed by how many people – adults and children alike – braved the waters of the Ganges. Dave had, of course, done all the appropriate research about the pollution levels in the Ganges and turned up the following facts:

  • The amount of toxins, chemicals and dangerous bacteria found in the Ganges are nearly 3000 times the “safe” limit, according to the WHO
  • 1 billion liters of raw, untreated sewage are dumped into the river daily
  • Thousands of bodies are cremated on the banks of the river annually with countless more released into the water in the hopes for salvation
  • Hundreds of dead cattle, animal carcasses and unwanted babies are also thrown into the river annually
Swim Ganges Varanasi India
Kids swimming in the polluted Ganges while adults bath in the sacred waters

Now, obviously any sane person would be dying to jump right in and “purify” his soul, right?? Nope, me neither. But people do (shockingly, even a few tourists) and they believe the waters are cleansing to the soul. And I suppose for them, they are.

But the fact remains that the river is a leading cause of infant and child mortality in India. We had a hard time watching the people in the river – especially the children – once we’d read all of the facts.

The Ganga Aarti

As dusk descended, Prakesh led us back to the Dashashwamedh Ghat near our hotel to witness the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony. Every evening at sunset, the ceremony is performed in India’s three holy cities – Haridwar, Rishikesh and Varanasi – and people begin arriving as early as 5:00pm to get a good position for viewing.

The aarti is a powerful devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering to the goddess of the most holy river in India, Goddess Ganga. The fire is in the form of a lit lamp circled around by young Hindu priests with the idea being that the lamps acquire the power of the deity.

The ceremony takes place facing the river and many visitors gather in boats along the Ganges for the best views. Taking the questionable weather into consideration, we chose to watch from the shoreline.

Ganga Aarti Ceremony Varanasi India
Ganga Aarti Ceremony -Varanasi, India

The ceremony began with the blowing of a conch shell and continued with rhythmic music, the waving was fascinating and quite a production. I’d read that the Varanasi aarti is often considered more of a showy-extravaganza meant for tourists than the ceremonies performed at the other two locations but perhaps that added to our enjoyment of it.

After a full and exhausting day, we decided it was time to get out of the relentless rain and headed back to the hotel for dinner. We made arrangements to meet up with Prakesh again the next morning to continue our exploration of the city.

Last Day in Varanasi

The next morning we awoke to a pounding rain displaying the full brunt of India’s monsoon season. From our terrace we could see that the river had risen overnight, now covering more steps of the ghats, and the garbage in the streets swirled in murky puddles below. It was raining so hard we couldn’t even make out the far bank of the Ganges, everything was a brownish-gray haze.

Nothing we saw from the terrace made us want to rush right out into the elements so we rescheduled with Prakesh for later in the day hoping the weather might improve.

Rain Ghats Varanasi India
Rain pours down the steps of the ghats in Varanasi

By early afternoon, the weather hadn’t improved but we figured this was our last day in Varanasi and we needed to get out and see something else. We rejoined with Prakesh and agreed to check out his other place of employment, a silk shop.

Part of his income rests on how many people he can bring into the shop and a percentage of what they buy so we wanted to help him out a bit. Plus Dave had been coveting the tailored silk shirts Prakesh had been sporting since we arrived and wanted to shop for one.

He ended up with 2 custom made shirts that were delivered to our hotel the following morning before we headed back to the airport. We didn’t last long on Day #2 but after the silk shop we wandered the narrow alleys of the old city for a bit before finally returning to the hotel.

I have to admit, Varanasi was a tough stop for both of us. I’m definitely glad I saw it and I can appreciate the spiritual significance of the site to Hindus but it’s probably not a place I’ll need to go back to anytime soon.

That afternoon, we flew back to Delhi and checked-in at Marriott’s uber-luxurious ITC Maurya Hotel before our day trip to the Taj Mahal. We lucked into an upgrade to a suite thanks to my Platinum status and it was nice to be back in a fancy hotel for a night. This is, after all, a honeymoon!

After scouring the train schedules we’d ended up resorting to a car and driver again to make the journey. While the train schedules were convenient for getting to Agra, none of the trains returned to Delhi early enough for us to comfortably make our midnight flight.

The Love Story of the Taj Mahal

The next morning, it was finally time for the one part of our India visit that I was excited about – a return visit to the Taj Mahal…this time on a day it was actually open.

Our driver, Raj, picked us up promptly at 6am and the hotel had packed us a lovely breakfast for the drive. Amazingly, this time the drive was nothing like the traffic-jammed, cow-dodging, life-endangering 4-hr drive through the back streets of India that I’d remembered from my last visit and had been dreading.

Turns out, a new highway – the Yamuna Expressway – opened in 2012. The 6-lane expressway connects Delhi and Agra cutting the drive time down to just over 3 hours and completely eliminating the hazardous traffic component. Because it’s a toll highway, we were practically the only car on the road for the entire drive causing me to occasionally look out the window and wonder, “Am I still in India?”

Three and a half hours after departing the hotel we arrived in Agra, picked up our guide and headed straight for the Taj Mahal.

A member of the Mughal dynasty, Shah Jahan became emperor at Agra in 1628. He had three wives (the first two were arranged marriages) but his third, Mumtaz, was his only love marriage and he cherished her as the favorite of his three queens.

In 1631, Mumtaz died after giving birth to their 14th child (you read that right, fourteenth). Struck with grief, Shah Jahan ordered the construction of a magnificent mausoleum across the river from his royal palace.

Taj Mahal Agra India
The magnificent Taj Mahal

Construction took more than 20 years and the resulting structure is one of the world’s most outstanding examples of Mughal architecture. The work is considered so significant it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and stands today as a symbol of India and one of the world’s most celebrated monuments.

Because the Taj is a mausoleum, you can’t take pictures inside but it was amazing to finally get the opportunity to see the intricate marble work up close. We wandered the grounds admiring it from every angle before moving on to the nearby Agra Fort, which turned out to be even more impressive than I remembered it.

Red Fort Agra Fort India
Last stop, Agra Fort

With our tour of Agra complete, we made the painless drive back to Delhi and headed for the airport. All in all, night and day from my last visit to Agra. It was truly a pleasant experience. After spending nearly a week in India, I still can’t say whether I’d go back. The contrast between the grittiness of life and death in Varanasi and the love story of the Taj Mahal couldn’t have been any greater.

But it’s simply impossible to gaze up at the shimmering marble of the Taj Mahal and not feel the overwhelming love of the man who built it to honor his one true love. Finally, we’d found the romance of India worthy of a stop on any honeymoon tour.

And even Dave agreed, it alone was worth the trip.

Next stop, South Korea.