After a day of travel a few of us decided to layover in Dubai. In a place of near sterile cleanliness, vast wealth and some of the most beautiful modern sky scrapers and architecture I was struck by the vast differences between here and India. We spent the afternoon driven around in a luxurious cab to the Gold Souk, a mock historic village, a gorgeous beach on the Persian Gulf, the hotels of the Palm island and by the tallest building in the world. We opted for dinner at the hotel and rested up for our 24 hours of travel come morning.
From Varanasi we travel to Sarnath at the confluence of the Ganges and Gomati rivers in Uttar Pradesh. Sarnath is a sacred site in Buddhism where Guatama Buddha first taught the Dharma after becoming enlightened in the fifth century BCE. Since then many stupas and temples were built and since, excavated leaving the grounds of Sarnath that we see today. The main structure is the Dhamek Stupa a large structure marking the site in the deer park where Buddha gave his first lecture. We walked, well I rolled, through ancient Ashoka pillars and the foundations of numerous other buildings, visited deer in the park and toured the museum which houses much of the original art.
On our way back to the hotel we were stopped in some of the heaviest traffic we saw in India. The streets thronged with people celebrating Sivaratri and we passed a parade with painted gods and trucks full of young boys waving and blowing kisses. It was a wonderfuly random treat!
Another early morning and we find ourselves approaching the holy Ganges River in Varanassi before dawn. There is a buzz in the air as people gather to await the Shivaratri Festival celebrating the anniversary of Siva's marriage to Parvati. Before we know it we are coming down the steps or ghats that run between some of the oldest temples in India, some built near 1700. The city of Varanassi is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world and the morning rituals of bathing and cremation have taken place here for thousands of years.
Sunrise is a special time on the Ganges, filled with magic and purpose. We purchase aluminum tins filled with flowers and a candle as remembrances that will be lit and released into the water as the sun rises. We disembark and are slowly taken among other boats of tourists, hawkers and locals. We have the privilege of listening to devotional ragas played by a group of college students on our boat. As we see the red orb of the sun low against the horizon, we light our candles and float them into the water. There are many traditions surrounding death here, one such is that a full immersion into the holy water will absolve you of all sin, another is that a drink of this holy, although polluted, water will release you from the cycle of death and rebirth. I did gather a small bottle to bring home with me and the water is not as dirty as you might think but I will retrain from imbibing.
We make our way to the crematory area where photos are not allowed. Huge piles of wood are gathered and holy fires burn that have been burning for many years. It is said anyone who dies in Varanassi is blessed and thousands of cremations occur on this ghat every year. We watch a family waiting by their departed loved one for the chief mourner to join them so that the cremation can begin. Death is so close to life here, such a different way to look at it compared to our sterile version of burial in the West. We walk up the ghats through narrow slippery alleyways, past niches in the walls housing pujas to various gods and goddesses. We intend to visit a temple but the line is too long for our large group due to tomorrow's festival so we head back to the hotel.
We wake in Rajasthan and arrive at the base of the Amer fort, get loaded up on elephants and ride up to the Amer fort to the sound of drums and song, just like the ladies of Raja Man Singh I would have in the 15th century. Amer Fort is known for its artistic style of Hindu elements. With its large ramparts, series of gates and cobbled paths, the fort overlooks the Maota Lake upon which a saffro garden once grew.
Our tour concludes with a lovely lunch of Valentine'[s Day pizza and local cuisine on a rooftop courtyard where we happened to watch a group of teenagers training homing pigeons. After a brief respite back at the hotel, we dress in our Indian finest for a special light show and history lesson at the Amer fort and a lovely buffet meal in one of the palaces.
Today we travel west to Jaipur and visit Fatehpur Sikri along the way, a series of royal palaces, harem courts a mosque and private quarters built in 1569 for the Mughal emperor Akbar.
Morning comes early when you have a 6:00 am train to catch. We traveled to day from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, on of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Affectionately known to the locals as Mum Taj, this awe inspiring monument was built by Shah Jahan in the 15th century as a testament of his love for this third and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The building and grounds are truly awe inspiring and overwhelming in scale. It is a gorgeous white marble structure inlaid with semi-precious stones - it really has to be seen to be believed, the photos do not do it justice. Built on an octagonal base so that the mausoleom appears exactly the same from all sides. I managed to hobble on crutches around the upper area, let me just say that the Taj is definitely not wheelchair accessible!
After lunch and a well-deserved rest we drove to Vrindavan, the birthplace of Krishna, to visit the Iskcon Center for a taste of 24 hour kirtan. I had the immediate sense that "this is India!". We wound through narrow cobble stone alleys with hawkers shadowing or every step. We came upon orange robbed Sadus calling out "Hare Krishna" and "Hare Ram" and holding out bowls as we passed. We bought floral garlands and took them into a temple to be blessed and took them to the Iskcon Center, a beautiful modern temple complex. After a brief tour the kirtan and music began. It is difficult to describe the feeling of the place but it left me feeling the full hearted openness, love and joy of the Hare Krishnas taking part in their daily worship. Be sure to watch the video and you might just see what I mean.
Morning greets us again with yoga at Lodi Gardens. After heading back to the hotel for breakfast we spend the morning in Haus Khas, a funky neighborhood lined with shops and restaurants, a lake and ruins. After lunch (we actually found beef on the menu!) and a little shopping we move on to the Lotus Temple of the Ba'hai religion who believe in a universal godhead. We enjoy a silent service in the temple, a much needed respite after the chaos of yesterday.
We started with a peaceful morning yoga practice at the beautiful Lodi Garden next an ancient Mogul temple. There were many locals out doing yoga, walking their dogs and enjoying the day. After breakfast we headed to Old Delhi first to the Jama Masjid mosque and then into the bustling and chaotic heart of Old Delhi. We boarded bicycle rickshaws and followed the flow of two wheelers, mini buses, cow driven carts, bicycles, scooters, people on foot and delivery vans, It was a somehow beautiful coordination of movement that wound through narrower streets and alleys. I dont think the natives were used to seeing a white woman with a knee brace on so I accepted their curious stares and tried to get some smiles from children on the school bus rickshaws. After a stop at the spice market we enjoyed a street food lunch at Bengali Market and a evening of devotional Muslim music at the Sufi Music Festival.
This morning the knee is no better so I take a trip to Ganga Ram private hospital, a rare view into local life in Delhi. Amazing that an ER visit, xray, forearm crutches, immobilizing brace, and meds cost less than $200. Xray was normal and I will need to wait to get home for an MRI. After a well deserved nap we headed out on a successful shopping trip at FabIndia, Cottos and Anokhi. Dinner in the room and early to bed rounded out the day.
After a very long but mostly uneventful flight from San Francisco through Dubai and on to Delhi, we arrived just before dawn at the Lalit Hotel. A bit of exploring led me to the spa where I had a cold swim, sauna, steam and lovely shoulder and back massage, the perfect treat after 24 hours of traveling. I met up with a few fellow yoga teachers and world travelers for dinner and we decided to watch a traditional Indian wedding processional that was making its way into the hotel. As we stood on the footpath filming the festivities, we were invited to join the dance. I misjudged the height of the curb and tweaked my knee stepping down into the street. I was still able to dance a bit on the other foot and got a ride back to the room in a wheelchair. Welcome to India!