It was a welcome change to catch a flight, rather than a bus or a train. So much quicker! We caught a taxi from Varanasi Airport to our hostel and checked in. We were interested in seeing the various ghats (n.b., a ghat is a flight of stairs leading down to a river) along the river Ganga, so we signed up for a sunrise boat tour. Up at 4:30am the next morning, we boarded a small motorboat with our fellow travellers in tow, and set off. After Goa and Kerala, Varanasi at sunrise was one of the most serene versions of India we experienced. It was so peaceful to glide along the river, watch the sunrise in the distance, and enjoy the surroundings before the heat of the day set in. We "moored" our boat (i.e., tied ourselves to another boat that was tied to another boat) outside one of the larger ceremony ghats and watched the Brahmans perform the morning ceremony. The Brahmans hold lit oil lamps, and rotate them clockwise and anticlockwise, while chanting a series of mantras (over loud-speakers so everybody can hear them). From memory, the ceremony took about forty minutes, and concluded once the sun was up. It was a very beautiful ceremony to watch, and fascinating to see so many devout Hindus make their way to the ghat to participate in the morning prayers.
As we were in Varanasi, we felt obligated to include a trip to a cremation ghat so the next day, we signed up for an afternoon boat ride tour that was going to take us to the largest cremation ghat in Varanasi. We were "moored" a only a few metres away from the ghat so we were able to see everything clearly. It was such an unusual experience to watch a body, wrapped in swathes of white and colourful cotton cloth, placed on a lit sandalwood pyre out in public. You could see arms and legs hanging out, slowly falling away as the flames engulfed the body, but nobody seemed to mind. It was so busy, and there were two other pyres burning concurrently, there didn't seem to be any time to stop and feel sentimental! In New Zealand, you expect a funeral (and cremation) of a loved one to be a private affair, shared amongst the closest friends and family of that person. At this cremation ghat, women aren’t allowed to attend (because they will cry which – if I remember correctly – hinders the deceased's spiritual chances after death), there are hordes of tourists taking photographs from every angle, and a never ending queue of people waiting for their turn to place their loved one on of the pyres. It was the exact opposite of everything I know a funeral to be; a very interesting and worthwhile experience nonetheless.
After our time in Varanasi, we caught a train to Rishikesh. We were Rishikesh-bound because I had enrolled for a yoga teacher training course, and it was about to begin. While in Rishikesh, I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training course which took one month. While I was training, Boy hired a motorcycle and drove from Rishikesh to Hazaribagh and back – about 2400km return! The next post is going to be about both of these experiences; there’s too much to say about them right now!
After our month in Rishikesh has concluded, we continued north to Amritsar. Our first stop was the Golden Temple. It is a Sikh temple; custom requires that both men and women cover their head and remove their shoes before entering the temple grounds. We visited in the middle of the day and had to queue for about an hour to enter the Temple. Thankfully, the interior was air conditioned so you were able to cool off and enjoy the beautiful, intricate and opulent surroundings. It’s a two-storey structure. On the ground floor, the priests are located who are continuously playing music and chanting prayers. On the first floor, there are balconies that allow you to look out over the wider grounds. I enjoyed the visit, but would recommend visiting in the early morning or late evening to avoid the heat!
After visiting the temple, we went to Jallianwala Bagh, which is where the Amritsar Massacre occurred in 1919. Having learned about this in high school, I felt duty-bound to visit the site. It was a tranquil, yet sombre, place. There are bullet holes visible in many of the walls, informative plaques around the Bagh telling the different accounts of the survivors, and commemorative statues of some of the victims. Although it was a solemn experience for me, I still found the Bagh a calm and peaceful place to learn about India's recent history.
My highlight of Amritsar was the changing of the guards ceremony at Wagah border (the border between India and Pakistan). I wasn’t sure what to expect when we got there; I had pictured something quite sedate, people milling around for half an hour, perhaps taking a few photos and carrying on with their day. Instead, we attended a massive celebration inside a giant amphitheatre! Security checks, live music, face painting and banners everywhere. It turns out that this is a big deal for lots of people! Thousands of people had flocked from all parts of the country to watch the ceremony. Rather than describe it, I suggest watching it on YouTube (or there is a post on my Instagram showing the Indian half of the ceremony) because my words won’t do it justice. It’s a very theatrical affair that the crowd just went nuts for. I really enjoyed it!
The next day, we packed up, hopped on our bus and headed to Delhi where we spent our final four nights in India. I’ll leave this post here for now – the next one will be about my time at yoga school, and Boy’s road trip!
Bye for now,