Hello! It’s been a few days since I last wrote on here. Suffice to say, the past few days since we started our north India trip have been a whirlwind of adventures, temples, mosquitoes, stomach bugs and more. As a somewhat spry twenty-something, even I find our schedule of going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 5 a.m. each day to be exhausting. Kudos to my parents and Vijaya Grandma (whom I’m traveling with) for bearing with it all!
I’ll back up and give a Sparknotes version summarizing the best hits of what we saw over the past three days in the cities of Allahabad and Varanasi (both of which are located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). NOTE: as it’s difficult to upload photos to WordPress with the wi-fi quality here, I’m linking to the album on Facebook where I’ll be posting photos shortly of our trip:https://www.facebook.com/tara.yarlagadda/media_set?set=a.10157108443600285.1073741856.513095284&type=3
Allahabad (also known in ancient times as Prayog)
We flew from Hyderabad to Allahabad, a city not known for much beyond a) The home of gloried Indian leader and former prime minister Jawarhalal Nehru and b) The mingling of India’s three sacred rivers, the Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati. After being picked up at the aiport by our friendly and chatty driver Rakesh, we set off to Allahabad. We stop at a roadside eatery or ‘dhaba’ where the mosquitoes drive me batty, but the food is decent, in spite of the shady appearance of the place. We arrive to Allahabad and visit one or two of the many temples that we will visit on this trip, and head to the hotel.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be too much to distinguish the streets of Allahabad, but upon a closer look, I do notice that the streets are far dirtier than most other Indian cities that I’ve been too, and the streets are narrower and more crowded. This might seem like an unimportant observation, as most Westerners but many of India’s cities have actually become far cleaner over the past few years, and the quality of roads is starting to improve too. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but the poverty seems more stark here too, with more beggars around the tourist sites and ramshackle homes and villages that seem to be stuck in the past, which resemble my dad’s village, Kavuluru, in Andhra Pradesh circa 15-20 years ago.
I’m summoned awake at the crack of dawn to get ready for the bath that we’re about to take (fully clothed for the women, for modesty purposes) in the holy sangam, the place where the three holy rivers meet and where each year, countless individuals come to bath and perform sacred rites. I’ll admit, although I’m game for a lot, the prospect of conducting Hindu rituals (which I find to be tedious on land itself) in a muddy riverbed didn’t seem that appealing. But I was curious to observe such an auspicious ritual in this sacred place, even if it meant being an active participant in it.
We arrive to the riverbank, and hire a boatsman and his crew to take us further out into the river, but where the water is still shallow enough to stand, and there, we jump out of the boat and into the river. In the boat next us to, a priest sits, conducting the puja, or religious ritual. I brace myself as I dunk my head in the river three times, per the priest’s instructions, but the water is pretty refreshing on this summer day. And remarkably clean, despite being the color of dry mud. For the next hour or so, we do several things which involve repeating after the priest many, many words in Sanskrit, placing a paper boat with flowers and a lit candle to float away in the sangam, and performing special rites for my grandmother, who passed away six years ago. After all this is said and done, they place us in a separate boat with a flimsy orange tent covering, where we change out of our wet clothes into spare dry ones.
All in all, it was a uniquely interesting cultural religious experience. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know if I would voluntarily choose to do it again.
Next up: Jawarharlal Nehru’s family home/mini mansion in Allahabad. Jawarharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister post-British colonialism, and is remembered mostly fondly by Indian citizens as the nation’s first leader in the post-colonial world. We visit the home where he grew up, and where he also raised his daughter, Indira Gandhi (who would also later become prime minister). We also stop by the planetarium on the premises, where’s there’s a stars and planets show taking place on the ceiling of a small theater. As my Hindi is sorely lacking after four years of little practice, I can only understand at best about 50% of what they’re saying. I use this as a convenient excuse to fall asleep in an air-conditioned room with comfy chairs and momentarily escape the blistering Indian summer heat.
Varanasi (also known as Benares, and in ancient times as Kashi)
By the time we conclude our sightseeing in Allahabad and make the three-hour journey to Varanasi, it’s quite late. Still, we manage to fit in a few more temples before the day’s end, despite my protests otherwise. One of the temples showcases a puja that I’ve never seen before, complete with drum beating and a hanging altar to Shiva.
This temple is located in Benares Hindu University, one of, if not the foremost university in India (kind of like the Cal of India). It’s also the only explicitly Hindu university in India too (hence the temple on campus), as most universities in India are secular. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed by the campus. With the large temple and spectacularly grand library, I think you’d be pretty lucky to study in a place like this. Varanasi is known as one of India’s oldest cities, as well as one of its most revered for its rich religious history and cultural significance. More on that in just a second.
The following day is jam-packed with nonstop adventures and chaos, starting with a visit to one of the ghats the Ganges riverbed. The ghats are places located along holy rivers in India, particularly the Ganges, where people conduct religious rituals and at certain ghats, cremate and scatter the ashes of the dead. We have to walk quite a bit to get to the ghat, and it’s total madness along the way, with motorcycles whizzing by left and right, and worshippers festooned in orange – an important color for Hinduism, especially as this time of year is an especially sacred time for Hindus. I only notice a few foreigners here and there. I think the heat at this time of year is still too oppressive for many non-Indian tourists to flock here; I’m sweating buckets already. Unlike the millions of others who come to Varanasi every year to bathe in the river, since we’ve already performed this watery ritual in Allahabad, we skip the bathing for now and instead sprinkle some water on our head and place a ceremonial paper boat in the water.
Afterwards, we meet up with our guide for part of the day. We follow him into a series of seemingly never-ending narrow, muddy alleyways flanked on both sides by small tin roof homes and shops filled with sarees and religious offerings for the temples that we’re about to visit. Our guide connects us with a middleman priest of sorts, who can get us into VIP pujas and temples faster than we would be able to do on our own, and we make our way to the most prominent temple in Varanasi, Kashi Vishalakshmi. This temple is one of the shakti peetalu, where one of the eighteen pieces of the goddess Paravati fell to the earth when she was split by Vishnu. Once we arrive there, we’re treated to a VIP puja where a priest performs holy rites for our family, and then we make our way to the statue of the goddess
Then we head to no less than two or three other smaller temples in the same section of the city.
By this time, it’s already well into the afternoon, so we head over to Saranath, an area on the outskirts of Varanasi, which is essentially the birthplace of Buddhism. For many Buddhists, this is a sacred place, and for non-Buddhists, it’s an interesting place to learn about the ancient history of religion. We stop by a Buddhist museum, where we learn about the principles of Buddhism, see a pretty cool replica of an Ashoka lion statue, and several centuries, if not thousands of years old, Buddhist statues. Many of them have chipped noses, or faces and limbs entirely broken off, as outsiders and invaders to India desecrated the statues in an attempt to destroy the religion. It’s a little sad to see these dancing or praying deities without faces. Afterwards, we see an ancient Buddhist stupa, and also a more recently constructed Buddhist temple and garden, complete with a giant Buddha statue, lotus flowers and fountains.
And it wouldn’t be a trip to Varanasi without purchasing one of the famous ‘Benares sarees.’ I personally have no interest in the sarees, but it’s always fun to watch the expert haggler Vija Grandma bargain for prices, engaging in fun banter with the shopkeeper, while Mom indecisively picks at various sarees for an hour or so until we finally walk out of the store with several beautiful pure silk sarees in hand.
Last, but not least, we return to the Ganges for the ‘Ganga harti’ or rites performed by five priests on a rooftop near the banks of the Ganges, dedicated in prayer to the goddess Ganga. Thanks to the help of our guide from earlier in the day, we manage to score VIP seats right where the harti is being performed, and receive our own special puja. Some part of me feels a little unsettled that we can pay a little more to receive VIP treatment, but I guess money rings true worldwide. We settle in, and around 7 p.m. the harti begins. However, this ritual is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and despite the heat, we’re all awestruck by what’s taking place. I can’t do the ceremony justice with words. Five priests decked in orange stand on top of individual altars, and perform a series of actions that mimic an elaborately coordinated dance including twisting of handheld fans, blowing into shells, loudly chanting prayers, playing into flutelike instruments. We even get to participate a little bit when we light candles onto a multi-tier platform. Each priest carries one of these candle-lit platforms to the altar and waves them in a beautiful sweeping arc into the night sky. All of this is in dedication to Ganga.
Finally, the prayers conclude, and when we’re all sheer exhausted, we make our way to our last stop for the night: the Manikanta ghat, or burning ghat. This is the ghat where bodies are burned and cremated, which I mentioned earlier. The bodies are shrouded in layers of clothing and lifted to ghats by several men on wooden planks, where they’re placed on the burning ashes and cremated, while family members watch. It’s a little chilling but awe-inspiring to watch this most sacred end-of-life ritual take place.