Sarnath – Where the Buddha gave his first sermon

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Not far from Varanasi, in a quiet little village, away from the hustle and bustle of the main city, is a place where Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha, gave his first sermon. There is something about Buddhism, its temples, statues, the sight of monks in their different coloured robes, that makes me feel at home and I am instantly filled with a sense of inner peace in these surroundings. As we approached the stupa, the actual spot where the sermon took place, built by the Emperor Ashoka who spread Buddhism throughout Asia, we passed a group of female Buddhists from Sri Lanka on their way to sit and meditate in the grounds of this spiritual place. There are many Buddhists temples surrounding the area, Tibetan, Thai, Cambodian, but hidden amongst them all is also a Digamber Jain temple. As we entered we were greeted by a devotee responsible for guarding the temple who kindly provided us with information about this branch of Jainism. It was interesting to learn about this religion as it is a subject I know little about. He provided a list of comparisons between Jainism and Buddhism and there at the bottom of the list was something that brought out the feminist in me, an occurrence that seemed to happen frequently in India. Digamber Jains, unlike Buddhist’s, believe that women cannot attain Moksha. As a female we are destined to be continually reborn into the cycle of death and rebirth, liberation isn’t possible for a woman. Whilst I respect all belief systems and cultures, that niggling frustration was bubbling away inside me again. Will there ever be a time when women are truly equal to men? Across all religions, cultures, countries, careers? Maybe that’s why Buddhism provides me with inner peace, because in Buddhism inner peace is attainable to me, despite the fact that I was born with a womb.

Varanasi – life, death and everything in between

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‘Masala chai, coffee, chai, coffee…’

On and on the names of hot beverages were shouted out to the passengers on board the overnight sleeper train to Varanasi. It was early morning, time to wake up and take in my surroundings. It had already been a long journey, a journey that deprived me of a deep sleep as I guarded my belongings from any wandering hands. Several times the emergency brake was pulled and the train stopped in the middle of rural India in order for the wandering hands to escape the train with someone’s luggage, luckily mine wasn’t one of them, my watchful eyes, chains and padlock’s had managed to do the trick.

I was eager to arrive at our destination, the main reason being to finally see the sacred waters of the Ganges that awaited me. After another bumpy journey in another rickshaw, which appeared to get smaller and smaller the further inland we seemed to travel, our wider hips just managing to squeeze into the seat, we were dropped off in the middle of a Muslim Festival. Our feet would have to take us the rest of the way, the roads being blocked to vehicles, rickshaws and all other forms of transport. The streets were full to capacity, trying to stay together in a group proved difficult. I kept my eyes on the top of my travelling companions heads in order to not get swallowed up by the crowd. Eventually we made it to the Ghats, the gateway to Mother Ganga.

My excitement was short lived, however, as we arrived to find more stalls selling statues of Ganesh, more postcards, more of everything available throughout all tourist resorts in India. My heart sank, once again another place of wonder and significance had become commercialised. My disappointment, however, was short lived, proving that in all situations one should always be patient and persevere, as walking along the river bank for only a few short minutes I was greeted by the life on the Ganges that I had wanted to witness. Gone were the shopping opportunities, replaced by the Sadhus, covered in the ashes from departed souls from the funeral pyres, children playing badminton with their parents, pilgrims bathing in the holy water, as well as western spiritual seekers on their journey to find the meaning of life. The sun was setting, its last rays of the day providing just enough light to witness life by the holy river. And so I stopped and sat on the Ghats, watching, taking it all in, breathing deeply and feeling incredibly lucky to be able to come to a place that is so special to so many people. So many of us rush through life, travellers included, trying to tick off a never ending to do and to see list, but I believe it’s far more important to stop, take in your surroundings and feel and appreciate where you are and down by the Ganges is a place to do just that.

After the sun had set we ventured out on a boat to watch the cremations on the funeral pyres further up the river. The moon was the brightest I had ever seen it, providing light and shelter in the darkness. Boats, filled with tourists and pilgrims, surrounded the pyres. The fires flames flickered in the darkness, dancing to the rhythm of the chants from the priests. One by one bodies were brought down in colourful shrouds of reds and gold. I expected the smell to be overpowering, however the direction of the wind was in our favour and the smell of burning flesh was drifted off into another direction. I observed the scenes in front of me, saying a silent prayer for those departing from this life. Funerals, from my experience, are filled with sadness; however the atmosphere at the pyres felt calm and peaceful. Somehow it didn’t feel like the end of someone’s life, just the passing of one’s life into the next. Reincarnation was taking place in front of my eyes, and you could feel it in every sound and visual aspect of the ceremony. For some, however, the scene in front of me appeared to be just another tourist attraction, as all the people on the boats, with the exception of myself and the guides, stood to get a snapshot of what they were seeing, no doubt to post on their social media accounts. Feeling saddened by this I approached my guide to ask how he felt about people taking pictures. ‘It’s not right,’ he said, ‘this is someone’s funeral, how would they feel if it was the funeral of someone they loved?’ I understood his frustration, saying goodbye to a loved one, to a life, shouldn’t be a photographic opportunity.

We left the pyres in order to attend the Aarti ritual that’s performed every evening by the priests to thank Mother Ganga for the life that she brings. On the way we made our own individual offering to the sacred river and whilst placing our candles in the water we noticed something floating along by the side of the boat. ‘Is that a body?’ someone asked. Concerned about the person’s death, a normal reaction to an outsider, a member of the group pressed our guide to call the police and report it. ‘There’s a body in the river,’ said our guide. ‘There are lots,’ was the reply, and then the line went dead. To die in Varanasi, and have your remains scattered into the Ganges, is regarded as a way of receiving Moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, for Hindu’s. So, for those who can’t afford to be cremated, their bodies are dumped into the river instead. This wasn’t the first, and it wouldn’t be the last, person to be floating along passed tourists and pilgrims.

Agra – Up close and personal with the Taj Mahal

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The Taj Mahal, a token of love and devotion from Shah Jahan to his beloved wife Mumtaz, is high on the top of most travellers bucket lists. Expectations ran high as the rickshaw driver steered me towards the entrance. I had waited a long time to see this building up close and personal. My visit happened to be on the same day as a festival so the crowds were higher than on an average day, as people flocked to see one of the world’s most stunning pieces of Mughal architecture. I walked through the woman’s entrance, had my bag searched to make sure I wasn’t taking anything that could possibly cause harm to the structure, and finally entered the Eastern gate.

There it was, beaming white and bright amongst the smog, regal and majestic, towering over me, and also towering over the thousands and thousands of people that crammed into the gardens. I didn’t feel the magic I expected to feel, the noise, the pushing and shoving, it evaporated any sense of wonder and awe that one should feel when faced with such beauty. I wondered as I looked up at the building what Shah Jahan would think about all these people with their cameras trying to get the best shot, aiming to replicate the photo of Princess Diana on the bench in the centre of the gardens. Did they think about the love and heartbreak of the man who created the structure for the woman he loved? Or how it took 22 years of hard labour to build? Or how Shah Jahan, when imprisoned in Agra Fort for 8 years by his own son, Aurangzeb, spent every day staring out at the building that housed the remains of his beloved wife until the end of his life? It seems that the perfect photo opportunity is overshadowing why places, such as the Taj Mahal, are special in the first place.

Regardless of the throngs of people there is no denying how stunning this building is from the outside, and from a distance the crowds resembled an army of tiny multi-coloured ants as they queued to enter the building. The guards allowed people inside until the room resembled a cage full of battery hens and just as I was about to pass out through a lack of oxygen and heat exhaustion we were finally released into the open. After a visit to the Agra Fort, and to watch the sunset over the Taj Mahal from the Mehtab Bagh gardens, it was time to head back to the train station; the next part of the journey in India was the overnight sleeper train to Varanasi.

Jaipur – Suburban scenes and Bollywood dreams

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Jaipur, otherwise known as the pink city, although now the amber city would be more apt, is the capital city of Rajasthan, and deservedly so. It is a mixture of the old, new, rich and the poor. Arriving in the city, driving through the local food market, we passed stalls with caged chickens ready for the slaughter, fish being hacked into little pieces, the smell of death lingering in the air. Hidden amongst this horror show to an animal lover, however, was The Bissau Palace, our accommodation in the city. Now, there are lots of hotels in India called palace, so turning into the car park we were pleasantly surprised to find out that this hotel actually was what it said on the package. At 300 years old it belonged to a royal nobleman of the city and had been transformed into a hotel in order to keep the property from destitution. Stepping into the foyer was like walking back in time and even a photo of Prince Charles and Princess Diana graced the walls. Well, if this place was good enough for Charles and Di to visit then it would certainly be good enough for a bunch of tired and weary backpackers.

Walking through old Jaipur was a contrast to the normal roads in other Indian cities as this was the first place in India to have organised and purpose built streets, and walking along wide and spacious pavements, without having to worry if a car, rickshaw or motorbike was going to run you down was a welcome relief. It turned out that our visit to the city coincided with a Hindu festival, not surprising really as according to our local tuk tuk driver, who liked to serenade me with his English pop music whilst looking in his mirror and wiggling his eyebrows for added effect, India has 365 festivals a year, one for each day. Our guide suggested we went along to the festival to watch the burning of the effigy, but that we should stay clear of the crowds and observe from beyond. When we arrived, however, we were escorted to a VIP section by armed guards, which was placed in the middle of the festival, and therefore surrounded by a mass of people. The longer we stayed, listening to what appeared to be the Indian version of the X Factor on stage, the more and more people arrived. Our guide’s enthusiasm for the festival quickly turned to nerves, as the only foreigners in the venue, we stuck out like a sore thumb and he became worried about our safety. The armed guards once again escorted us out of the venue, shielding us from a threat that didn’t appear to be there, however once we reached the streets and were waiting for our taxi’s a local man approached our guide and, after discussing something in Hindi, proceeded to stand behind us with his entourage. Curious as to what the man had said I asked our guide for a translation. It turned out that the man had advised him that as foreigners it wasn’t safe for us to be stood on the streets in the dark on the outskirts of the city, and as the man lived in the area he kindly offered to wait with us to ensure our safety. It appeared there may have been cause for concern after all. We left the suburban streets of Jaipur unarmed, and extremely relieved.

After another day of exploring the rich history of Jaipur, from the Amber Fort to the City Palace, and learning how to block print in the backstreets, we headed to the cinema to watch a Bollywood movie. The art deco building was grand and spacious, with wide aisles and comfortable chairs. As the movie started, and the heartthrob appeared on the screen, the cheers started too. The excitement of the locals was infectious and we settled into our seats to try and understand the plot without, regrettably, understanding the language. Having never seen a Bollywood movie before we assumed that the film would be about traditional Indian life, with lots of song and dance. What we saw on the movie screen, however, seemed to be a contrast to what our guide had informed us about Hindu culture. On screen an arranged marriage was taking place, the young girl was overweight and had listened to the constant insults of her soon to be husband for many days. On the day of the ceremony the brave young woman stood up to her betrothed, whipped off her outfit to show the proud curves of her body and decided she wasn’t going to go through with the wedding after all, with much encouragement from her parents. Watching this show of brave feminism on screen was an inspiring thing to see, however I couldn’t help but wonder about the thoughts of the audience, who were cheering at this young girls bravery, when we had been informed by our guide that if such a thing were to happen in real life the girl would actually be disowned by her family. Apparently Bollywood films tend to have such modern thinking plots these days, and I wonder how the audience feel seeing this life on screen, when they don’t have such freedom in reality. Will it create a more liberal India where marrying for love, regardless of caste, is allowed? It certainly sounded like the audience hoped so.

From traffic jams to holy water – the journey from Delhi to Pushkar

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The streets were still under the cover of moonlight as we made our way to Delhi’s train station, passing people asleep by the side of the road, and even more people up and about starting their daily rituals. The soothing sound of the muezzin greeted us as we arrived at our destination and forced our way through the already busy crowds to reach the platform. As we stood waiting for our train, huddled together surrounding our giant backpacks, the local people watched our every movement fascinated by this band of travellers in their midst. ‘Why have they come to India? What is there to see?’ a gentleman asked our guide. We all looked at him confused as his question was translated to us. ‘Everything,’ we replied.

We were warned that the trains in India sometimes lacked punctuality skills and it was possible that we could be delayed for anything up to ten hours. So, mentally prepared for a day sitting on the floor of the platform watching every train but ours come and go, we observed the people as they walked across the tracks without a second thought that they were standing in the face of death, and as they sprawled out on the floor with a piece of cloth as a bed and a bag as a pillow. I had envisioned the train ride to be an uncomfortable, claustrophobic, but exciting experience, rammed into a cage of a carriage with peoples arm pits in my face all fighting for oxygen in the sweaty hot temperatures. However, right on schedule, our train pulled up and as we stepped into our carriage we were greeted with seats, air conditioning and an included breakfast, this was not the train rides they showed on TV. A little disappointed with my luxury ride to Ajmer, I rammed my backpack into the overhead luggage compartment and took my seat.

As the train pulled away from the platform the morning rituals of the local people were on display. Every three seconds we passed a man squatting by the tracks releasing his morning bowel movement, while the women washed and hung out their clothes to dry, the pigs buried their snouts into a pile of rubbish trying to scavenge some leftover food and the cows sat basking in the morning sun. It wasn’t long before the pollution and traffic jams of Delhi were a distant memory and the view from the train window was transformed into beautiful countryside, with a scattering of people spread out across the land as they worked their fields.

Four hours into the journey, tired from the 3:00 alarm clock, and aching from being seated in the same position for so long, I was grateful that the train was a lot more luxurious than I expected, doing this journey with no room or air conditioning now seemed more like torture than an exciting experience. Another two and a half hours later and we finally pulled into the train station at Ajmer. After squeezing our way through yet more crowds of people we entered the car park to the sounds of horns blaring once again. Ajmer, it appeared, was a typical busy city and we were soon surrounded by women trying to sell us postcards, tuk tuk drivers trying to take us to our final destination and the midday sun soaking our skin with its searing temperatures. We hopped into a taxi, backpacks being far too big to fit into the tiny tuk tuk’s, and made our way through the streets. The higher we climbed the more peaceful the outside world became and soon we were in the mountains overlooking the city of Ajmer and on the bumpy road to Pushkar .

Now, out of all the destinations on my itinerary in India, Pushkar was the one I knew least about, other than the famous annual Pushkar camel fair which takes place every November, so I was pleasantly surprised as our driver made his way to a small hotel set back in lush gardens, under the watchful eyes of a mountain. Pushkar, it appeared, was the more peaceful setting I had been craving after the hustle and bustle of Delhi. We made our way down to the famous holy lake, where it appeared to be siesta time for the dreadlocked sadhus who were guarding the holy bridge. Incense burned, filling the air with the aroma of sandalwood, as the guards of the bridge slept soundly, accompanied by their pet monkey, under the shade of a canopy. Signs were repeated everywhere along the Ghats advising not to take photos, this is after all where Hindu’s come to bathe in the holy water, as well as performing puja’s. As there was no-one bathing in the water at the time we were advised by our guide that we could take a few snaps and capture the peaceful setting that surrounded us. Leaving the holy water behind we headed up to the local market, again the sweet smell of incense engulfed the air, and after viewing some of the local stalls, selling their tie dye t-shirts and harem pants, I soon felt like I was back in Anjuna hippy market in Goa. Goa, however, doesn’t have a temple dedicated to Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, as there is only one such temple in India and that is situated in the middle of the hippy vibed streets of Pushkar. We were allowed to enter the temple, where we watched as the devotees rang the bell and were presented with Prasad, food offerings blessed by the God of the temple, and then returned to devotees. Pushkar is also home to the hilltop temple of Savitri, Brahma’s wife, and it has excellent views of the town. So, at 5:00, we climbed in the dark up the rocky steps of the mountain, with local dogs coming to guide us through the darkness. At the top of the hill a congregation of tour groups and monkeys had amassed and we sat, catching our breath, as the sun slowly greeted us with its presence. The green hills surrounding Pushkar came to life and the orange hue of the sun provided a hazy, and relaxing, atmosphere and the steep and dangerous climb in the dark was soon forgotten about.

After making our way back down to the lake we were greeted by a local Brahmin priest who had offered to perform a karma cleansing ritual for us travellers, as the waters from Pushkar lake, a holy Hindu pilgrimage site, are believed to cleanse people of their past sins. We sat on the Ghats where the priest informed us that the lake was created when Brahma placed his lotus flower on Earth and, as one of the petals landed in Pushkar, the lake was formed, hence the reason that Brahma is worshipped in this town. We were each presented with a bowl of offerings containing rice, sugar and rose petals and repeated the mantras that would cleanse the past sins of not only ourselves but our relatives, alive and dead. After presenting our offerings to the holy water the priest then provided us with a red and yellow thread to wear around our wrists to bring us luck on our journey. Peace and serenity filled the atmosphere around us as the ceremony was taking place; there was no sound of traffic, people, or animals, just our mantras blowing in the wind, being carried through the air. It was exactly what I had come to India for, to see and experience the spiritual life of the people. Pushkar, the little town I knew little about, had given me exactly what I had needed. With my karma cleansed it was time to set forth further on my journey into India and into myself.