Saturday, April 28, 2012

India, a short summary in pictures

India in a nutshell... a photographic summary

India was a whirlwind. We were only there 12 days, and visited four different places.  It was unbelievably fast, and unbelievable.  I'm already thinking about what things will be like when I come back.

1st stop, Varanasi.  
We landed here mid afternoon on April 15. We opted for the  45 minute flight instead of the 56hr train from Kathmandu.  The airport was fine, and finding a cab in to the city was simple.  But finding our guesthouse from the spot we were dropped in the middle of town a bit tricky.

Auto rickshaw. These three wheeled vehicles would soon become
our primary method of transportation through all of India
Our guest house, Monu Family Guest House, was located deep within the galis, the narrow alleyways that make up a great deal of the city. Galis are only wide enough for foot traffic, motor bike traffic and cow traffic, no space for taxis.  But we found our place by reluctantly following some random man into maze. Sure enough, he took us to right place.

walking though the galis

We quickly dropped our giant bags, reduced ourselves to a camera a small amount of cash and set out to find what life in Varanasi on the Ghats and the Ganges was all about.

Let me tell you a bit about Varanasi...
  The city is considered one the holiest in India. Why? Hindu's believe Shiva, their most important god, and creator, chose Varanasi as his home. This combined with the fact that the holy Ganges River, otherwise known as Mother Ganga, runs right through it and you have Varanasi as the number one destination for Indian pilgrimages.  It is believed by Hindu's that if you die in Varanasi you are liberated from the endless cycle of life and death, known as samsara.  Therefore, to die in Varanasi and be cremated on the banks of Mother Ganga is the ultimate blessing that many Indian people seek. That being said, it comes as no surprise that city holds a large population of old, and sick people waiting to die on the banks of Mother Ganga.

Boat rides are popular for tourists and pilgrims

Ganges Ghats

What is a Ghat?
    A Ghat is a building with steps that lead directly to the river. In seasons of high water all the steps are underwater and you can only bet get between ghats via boat. When the water is low, there are many visible steps.

A cow resting on the steps of a ghat, near the Ganges

Looking up at the Ghats on our way down to the river for a boat ride.

View of Varanasi from a boat after dark
We decided to take a boat ride with a man who started as an unofficial tour guide we met on the street, but over the next few days became our friend.  His name was Vinay. He spoke perfect English (and Spanish, and Japanese) and was the only person on the river who did not hound us about selling us something and wanting to know where we were going.  He simply asked our names and where we were from, politely, and it didn't take us long to decide he would be a good one to let show us a few things in Varanasi.

On the evening boat ride with Vinay

We borrowed my sunglasses in the dark
The following morning, and our only full day in Varanasi we started at sunrise to witness all the activity along the Ganges.  The ghats are a very busy place in the morning, as An estimated 60,000 Hindus go down to the ghats to take a bath in the holy water each day. The ghats stretch for 7km. The scary part... this 7km stretch contains 30 sewers continuously discharging into the river. In fact, the river is so polluted at the end of Varanasi that the water is septic, no dissolved O2 exists. According to the 2001 edition of Lonely Planet, samples show the water to have 1.5million fecal coli form bacteria per 100ml. In water safe for bathing the stat should be below 500.  Yet, despite the science behind the dirty, Indians believe the water to be clean as crystal and will do nothing but cleanse you.  When I was on the train to Agra, having a conversation with a high class local woman she warned me of how dirty the Yamuna river, in Agra, is. She told me about a time when the city's population decreased greatly due to  people becoming sick from drinking the water. When I asked her if anyone ever became sick in the Ganges she looked at me as though I had two heads and asked, "why would they?" I stopped asking question after that.

Ganges sunrise
Cruising down the river...

Bath time at the ghats...

After breakfast we met up with Vinay to visit the the temples and see some of the other sights Varanasi had to offer. His friend drove us around in his Ferrari!  There are no decent pictures of the temple visits, no pictures were allowed near any of them.

Caught a pic of the collage of nursing as we drove through the University

We back to the Ganges that evening to watch the daily ceremony to the river
Urns of cow dropping are burned in these ceremonies.
The cows are holy in India, killing a cow will set you in jail.

crowds watching the ceremony from the river

Enjoying some the best food I've ever experienced,
Local Indian cuisine

Next up, Agra.

Agra is home to the Taj Mahal. When I knew India was going to be a part of our round the world trip I was set on the Taj Mahal. Whenever I talk to my grandpa about travel he likes to ask "of all places you've been, what is your number one, hands down, favorite?" My answer is always the same, "Grandpa, you're asking me to compare apples to oranges, I don't know how to choose a favorite." He then answers back with, "The Taj Mahal is the most amazing this I have ever seen."  My grandpa is 93 years old and due to his failing short term memory, we have this same conversion frequently.  So having been reminded what incredible place the Taj Mahal is a countless number of times I would have been perfectly okay with Agra having been our only stop in India. I'm happy we've went a few more places, however. Here are the Agra pictures...

This was our first view of the Taj, from our hotel balcony!

Taj Mahal was the only thing we did the day we got to Agra. It was long overnight journey to get there, but lucky for us, it was world heritage day. The only day of the year when the entrance ticket is free!

A few Taj Mahal fun facts:

                Every year, more tourists then live in Agra pass through the Taj gates, more then 3million
                It is widely considered the most beautiful building in the world
                Designated a world harritage site in 1983            
The tomb was built for Mumtaz Mahal, beloved third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan after she died giving birth to their 14th child
    1631 – Mumtaz dies, temporarily in a golden casket on the banks of the Yamuna river
    1632 – construction begins
    1633 – Mumtaz is interred in her underground tomb beneath the marble plinth. The Taj would be built on top
    1640 – completion
    1653 – the rest of the complex is completed
    1658 – Shah Jahan is overthrown by his son and imprisoned at Agra fort – he had a view of the Taj from his place of confinement
    1666 – Shah Jahan dies, he’s transported along the Yamuna river and placed next to his wife at Taj

The next day in Agra we got up early to witness sunrise on Taj Mahal, and then managed to see all the other worthy sights before 10am!

Breakfast at Shanti lodge rooftop restaurant
Agra Fort

 -One of the finest Mughal forts in India
 -Constructed of red sandstone, on the banks of the Yamuna River
 -Begun by emperor Akbar in 1565m the building dates way further back than that
 -Many white marble additions made by Shah Hahan
 -Buit primarily for military purposes by transformed to a palace by Shah Jahan – it was his prison for 8yesrs after being overthrown by his son

The say you get good views of the Taj Mahal from Agra fort, I would have to agree

Itimad-ud-Daulah (Baby Taj)
Tomb of Mizra Ghiyas Beg, Mumtax Mahal’s grandfather and Emperor Jehangir’s Chief minister (Wazir)
Built by his daughter between 1622-1628
First Mughal structure built completely from marble
First tomb to be built on the banks of the Yamuna river

-Persian-style riversdie tomb of Afzal Khan – a poet who served as chief minister to Shah Jahan  1628-1639
-Rarely visited, free admission, as it is hidden down a shaddy avenue of trees on the east bank of the Yamuna river
-A few of the bright blue tiles that once covered the entire things are still visible
-The interior is painted in flower designs

Metab Bagh
Now a garden, was originally built by Emperor Babur as the last in a series of 11 parks on the banks of the Yamuna river
It fell to despair well before the construction of Taj Mahal began
To protect the Taj from erosive effects of the sand it was reconstructed. Considered one of the best plaes to view the Taj, and you now have to pay to get in

It was at Metab Bagh we got he perfect jumping pictures. A few days ago I posted this  picture on facebook. Everyone wanted to know how we did it, and how we jumped so high.  Well, let me tell you something.  It's all about perfect timing and perspective. Here's a few of our failed attempts, followed by the ultimate jumping picture.

The perfect jumping picture!
Any by the way... we probably only jumped about 9inches off the ground

Nest up, Jaipur.
We got to Jaipur late, slept in the following morning, and then set out to explore. After a large lunch (we had not eaten in about 20 hours) we wandered around The Old City: The bustling old city often referred to as the Pink City, and is laid out by Jai Singh according to strict principals of town planning, it's a giant grid with the City Palace in the center of it. The City Palace  is a complex of courtyards, gardens and buildings in the center of the old city. It's outer wall built by Jai Singh, but has been enlarged and adapted over centuries. In fact, the whole thing is a blend of Rajastani and Mughal architecture

City Palace pictures...

 Holy water Urns: 4000L stirling silver urns made for Maharaja Madha SinghII so he could take Ganga water to England for bathing

After a day of walking around the city we opted to attend a Hindi movie at Raj Mandir Theater. The books say it's THE PLACE to go see a Hindi movie, so we did just that.  The movie was "House Full2," a comedy I was actually able to follow with about 80% Hindi words and 20% English. I heard one person describe this as Hinglish. I'm not certain how they decide what English words to use, but it sure made it entertaining. As Michelle puts it, it went a little like this, Hindi, Hindi, Hindi, "you bloddy idiot!" Hindi  Hindi, Hindi,"Thankyou," Hindi  Hindi. I would love to watch it with English subtitles someday.

The lights of the M burned out

It was like a real theater experience with different prices depending on how good or bad your set was, and you couldn't go into the theater until shortly before the movie began. There as an intermission too!

We had takeout Domino's pizza for dinner. Domino's goes perfectly with movie night, right?
Well, it was pretty perfect until by body decided to reject it for the entirety of the following day. 
I think I'll continue to stick to the local food!

On to to Ranthambore National Park.

Two and half safari's. One tiger, loads of Monkeys, comfortable beds, hot water shower. And we met a National Geographic crew on location for a 2013 production about predators! 

This was in the road on the way there.
Our home for two days.

A little of what we saw in the park...

Final stop, Delhi.

It was here we found our first "fancy hotel." We promised ourselves we would stay somewhere nice at least once a month along the way.  We stumbled upon one good one in Vietnam, and then Chitwan Village was rather fancy, but this was the first spot we actually booked in advance. On Expedia, too, so it was already paid for!

Sight seeing in Delhi...

Lakshmi Narayn Temple, a temple for all castes


Indira Gandhi Museum

Qutb Minar:  Complex of religious buildings that date back to the onset of Islamic rule in India

This is the tomb of Altimish. I'm not sure exactly who he is. But the sign says he built his own tomb before he died! Good planning, I'd say!

The Lotus Temple is shaped like a lotus flower with 27 marble petals on top of 9 pools.  The Bahai philosophy of this place revolves around universal peace and elimination of prejudice, and adherents of all faiths are welcome.  No talking is allowed in here. People just come and pray silently to whomever they pray to. Seems like a great place to have gatherings but no talking allowed, so it’s just quiet all the time.

Humayan’s tomb: A beautiful example of early Mughal architecture, this was built in 16-century. Two tone combo of red sandstone and white marble is entirely local showing complementary merging of  the different cultures. Squat building with high arched  entrances. There are several other tombs on the grounds here.  The building helped to lead to creation of the Taj Mahal

Out for fun, among some more modern Indian locals, our age. Yes, we wore a lot of sunscreen, but manged to turn the same color as the locals by the time we left for Africa. Don't worry Mom, I never burned.

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