The Holy City of Varanasi

Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, is located along the Ganges River and is one of the most important spiritual cities in India. Many pilgrims come here to bathe in the sacred river along the numerous ghats, some of which are used as Hindu cremation sites where funeral pyres burn 24/7. To us it was impossibly crowded and dirty, yet offered a fascinating insight into religious rituals previously unknown to us.

Hindus believe that if your remains are deposited in the Ganges, you are able to escape the cycle of rebirth and make it to heaven. Because of this, many people travel here from all over India to die. Although there are many ghats along the river, only a few are used for cremation. Near those places it’s almost impossible to avoid running into a funeral procession. We had to squeeze against the wall while families carried their loved one through the streets, down the ghats, and into the river. Family members wade into the Ganges to wash the body before carrying it back out and placing it atop one the funeral pyres. Cremations often happen simultaneously so there might be several families waiting along the ghats. While we were observing these rituals, one of the funeral workers came and gave us a quick lesson on what was happening.

  • We had noticed that there weren’t any female family members in attendance, and he told us that women are not allowed by law to attend the ceremony; instead, women can only watch by boat on the river. These laws have come about to prevent the practice of sati where a widow immolates herself (sometimes forcibly) on her husband’s funeral pyre.
  • The worker we were speaking with was in charge of wood collection, and we learned there are different types of wood ranging in costs to use for the pyres. The most expensive is a special type of wood that burns hot and clean to make the fire odorless and to ensure the bodies are fully ash. Many people cannot afford to pay for the amount of wood needed to keep the pyre burning long enough so it’s not always ash that gets deposited in the river.
  • Some people are not burned at all as they are already pure and do not need a fire to cleanse them. The worker told us this included pregnant women, infants, holy men, and (apparently) lepers. Instead, these bodies are just placed into the river.
  • Corpse pollution is a problem. As a cleanup, India once released 25,000 flesh-eating turtles into the Ganges. Yes, you read that correctly.
Stacks of wood used for funeral pyres.

Apart from cremations, there are many other religious events occurring continuously throughout the city. Every night, a large religious ceremony takes place on the city’s main ghats. Huge crowds gather on the shores and on boats to witness and take part in this elaborate ritual with smoke and flames, flowers, bells, song and dance, audience participation, and more.

Watch out for kids trying to make a buck by forcibly blessing you before you know what's happening.

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Our Homestay in Delhi

After leaving the Taj Mahal, we grabbed lunch and hopped on a bus to New Delhi. Our friend Lehar has family living in Delhi, and they generously offered to host us for a few days. Poor planning and the Taj being closed on Fridays meant we were already a day late, and somehow our three hour bus ride turned into a seven hour sweat box. Despite our tardiness, all was forgotten when we arrived to Lehar’s Aunt Payal and Uncle Rupesh’s home. We were greeted with warm smiles, conversation, and the best food we ate in all of India! Later that night we got a surprise: Lehar’s cousin Chhavi, her husband Dinesh, and their daughter had come to stay for a few days as well.

That night we spent several hours with our hosts planning our stay. The following morning we woke up to the most amazing and filling breakfast before heading out for the day. Rupesh insisted that we see the Akshardham so we went there first. The Akshardham is a beautiful Hindu campus with gardens, a temple, and numerous shows and exhibitions detailing the life of Hindu leader Swaminarayan. The complex is enormous and you could easily spend several hours taking it all in. Unfortunately they do not allow cameras so use the links above to see some pictures.

The most important meal of the day!

After exploring the Akshardham campus, we both had stinging eyes and runny noses from the thick smog. We picked up face masks, rode the subway for a few stops, and wandered through a crazy street market toward the historic Red Fort. When we reached it, one glance told us not to even bother: we could barely see the fort through the haze! Oh well. This is what it is supposed to look like.

The Red Fort is in one of these pictures. Can you find it?
An impressive one-handed tire change.
The middle of the road might be a good place for food, but not for a nap.

Our last stop before heading home was at a craft beer bar. The only beers we had found in India were Kingfisher and Tuborg - which got really old really fast - so we were excited to try something new on the bar’s extensive menu. Unfortunately, they happened to be out of everything… except Kingfisher and Tuborg.

The smog was unlike anything we had ever experienced before. We learned New Delhi was “the most polluted city on Earth” during our visit and that breathing the air was like “smoking 40 cigarettes a day”. Rupesh and Dinesh explained that while Diwali fireworks had contributed some smoke, the majority of smog was coming from nearby farmers burning their fields. This was unfortunately compounded by seasonal stagnant winds. They also told us that school had been canceled in New Delhi and the surrounding districts for the next three days due to the smog, but that this was really just an empty gesture as everyone would likely be breathing the same air in and out of school. Their kids were super excited though!

Smog masks acquired!

Despite the smog, we had an amazing time staying with Lehar’s family. Not only were we fed the best food ever (seriously!), we were able to ask them questions about things we had observed during our time in India. We talked about the Indian education system, private and public schools, city versus country life, and how the times are changing generation to generation. They taught us how to eat certain foods (some of which we were embarrassed to find out we had been doing wrong for weeks…) and introduced us to several new dishes. We discussed the smog, politics, and how to overcome such huge hurdles like pollution, overcrowding, traffic, and litter.

The subway in New Delhi is one particular example of progress we discussed. Despite litter being a normal thing in most of India, Delhi’s subway system is surprisingly clean. Spitting and littering anywhere on the subway is subject to a fine which is actually enforced. They have also implemented women-only subway cars to promote respect for women’s safety. Dinesh mentioned that the city is trying to do a really good job with the subway as it is a model for the rest of the country both as an example of a working metro system and how to implement change in other areas. For example, if there is trash everywhere, what is one more wrapper? But if the place is spotless, when someone litters, other citizens will complain and help to enforce the rules. This concept could be applied to other areas such as traffic laws, so long as they can get past the tipping point.

To help answer our many questions about Hinduism, Rupesh and Dinesh took us to a very unique temple nearby. They explained some of the history and significance behind many of the deities depicted throughout. One interesting thing we learned is that you need to pick and choose who to pray to depending on your desired outcome. For example, one might pray to Lakshmi to increase wealth or to Shiva to find a soul mate. Different deities have different requirements for prayer. Shiva is one of the most worshiped gods simply because he is the easiest to please.

We continued our education when we got back home with a horoscope reading. By entering in things like the specific time, date, and GPS coordinates of each of our births, we were able to see if we were in fact a good match. Astronomically speaking, we are very compatible!

Easily the best food we ate in India!
Thanks again! We learned so much and had the most amazing time!

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The Reason We Came to India

Ok, so it’s not the real reason we came to India, but the Taj Mahal was the only landmark we knew we needed to see for sure. We arrived in Agra late one Thursday evening on a the train from Jaipur, checked into our hostel, and found out that we managed to pick the one day of the week the Taj is closed.

This little guy from our hostel was the next best source of entertainment since the Taj was closed.

We were planning to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise and then head to New Delhi to stay with our friend Lehar’s aunt and uncle, but we had to change our plans since we couldn’t NOT see the Taj. Instead we booked one more night and walked around the city to see what Agra had to offer. And what might that be? Smog, trash, and not much else. Aside from the Taj, Agra is a dump. We thought about taking a short cruise on the river, but after seeing the river - no thanks. On a positive note, we were able to try some of the local candies Agra is famous for called petha, and - with some careful framing - we took a few nice photos of the Taj at sunset along the river.

The next morning, we woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at six am to get in line to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Turns out, every other tourist had read that they too could beat the crowds if they arrived for sunrise. Similar to “sunrise” in Jaipur, the sun really just appears through the smog so we didn’t get any dramatic pictures of the sun rising over the Taj. The building itself is still impressive and beautiful, and we joined the crowd in taking way too many pictures from every angle. After a couple hours we had seen our fill and were ready to head out. We also noticed that there were no lines when we left the park at 9 am. We totally could have slept in!

Obligatory picture on the Princess Diana bench.
Seriously, we took a lot of pictures.

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36 Hours in Bundi & Todaraisingh

After celebrating Diwali in Jaipur, we decided to head south for a short two day trip to the small towns of Bundi and Todaraisingh. We wanted to see some of the more rural areas of Rajasthan, and we had heard great things about the sights around Bundi so we jumped in an open-air jeep with our guide and driver and headed out.

Our first stop was Todaraisingh where we explored some stepwells. The first two were fairly small but had cool intricate carvings. The third one was huge! We learned it was named after queen Hadi Rani who was quite the interesting character:

Hadi Rani is known for her legendary character. She was a daughter of Hada Rajput and was married to a Chieftain Chundawat of Salumbar in Mewar. Hadi Rani sacrificed her life only to motivate her husband to go the war. In the year 1653-1680 a battle was fought between Maharaja of Mewar and Aurangzeb. Maharaja of Mewar called her husband for the war. But the Sardar hesitated about going to war as he was married only a few days earlier. However, being a Rajput and to protect the Rajput honour he had to join the battle and he asked Hadi Rani to give him some memento to take with to the battlefield. Hadi Rani thought that she was an obstacle to his husband in completing his duty for Mewar of being a Rajput. So, to motivate her husband to go the war and protect Mewar, she ordered her head to be severed and presented to her husband. On seeing the head of his beloved Hadi Rani, the Sardar shattered but then tied her head proudly as a memento around his neck by its hair. He fought bravely in the battlefield and made the forces of Aurangzeb to run but even after the victory he refused to go from the battlefield and he cut his neck too as he didn’t want to live anymore.


Now the stepwell is a popular tourist spot for Bollywood fans as it’s a filming location for the movie Paheli.

Being the only Westerners around, we gathered a bit of an audience.
Hadi Rani Ki Baori. "Baori" is Hindi for stepwell.

After the stepwells, we visited the highlight of our short trip to this region: Todaraisingh’s abandoned fort. It was super fun to climb through the ruins and enjoy the beautiful vistas of the river flowing through town.

That evening we wrapped up our time in Todaraisingh by hiking to the top of a small mountain to watch sunset.

We had a shy visitor for sunset.

We spent the night in the small town of Bundi and the following morning explored the palace situated on the hill above town. Lucky for us, we were one of the few visitors there that early so one of the museum workers gave us a tour as he was opening up the different rooms. He told us how the palace fountain waters would be dyed for the festival of Holi, showed us how to tell which paintings had been done by a Chinese artist (“Look at the eyes!”), and pointed out that the queen’s bedroom had depictions of kama sutra (“To help set the mood!”).

Looking out over Bundi from the palace.

We visited one last stepwell on our way out of Bundi which was pretty but small compared to those we had already seen. Our last stop of the trip was supposed to be a big waterfall with a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, but since it was dry season you could really only call it a water trickle at best. It was interesting to see locals coming here to bathe in the holy waters near the shrine, but otherwise this was definitely the flop of the tour.

Around Bundi
Raniji Ki Baori
Rameshwar Mahadev "waterfall"
Thanks for a great trip, Israr!

India is a huge country and by driving a short distance you can find wildly different cultures and numerous dialects. This excursion was our first view into rural Rajasthan, and although it was a short trip, we learned a ton from our guides and enjoyed observing everyday life in these small towns.

I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure this monkey is male and that is not how a man sits on a spiky fence!

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Celebrating Diwali in the Pink City

Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, was nicknamed the “Pink City” when many of its buildings were painted pink to welcome Prince Albert. Today it’s really more of a terracotta, but the hopsitality the color represents can still be found throughout the city. We experienced this on our first night - Laura’s birthday - when our hostel surprised us with a large delicious chocolate cake. We made a lot of friends up on the rooftop terrace that night!

Our first day we explored the city by foot. We took a few pictures of the beautiful Hawa Mahal, a palace with high viewing screens where the royal ladies could watch the street below without being seen themselves. We wandered past the City Palace and eventually to our favorite sight: the Jantar Mantar. Horoscopes and astrology are an important part of Hinduism, helping to make all sorts of decisions from matchmaking to investments. The Jantar Mantar is a park filled with a bunch of 18th century astronomical instruments that were the largest of the day, built in order to more accurately observe celestial bodies and thus make better predictions. There weren’t many signs in English so we couldn’t figure out how all of the instruments worked, but they were still cool to look at and make up our own explanations.

The Hawa Mahal with viewing screens so ladies could look out unseen.
More views around the "pink" city.
Following the shadow of the view piece, you can determine the day, month, zodiac sign, and more.
The world's largest stone sundial which is accurate to within two seconds - really good for a sundial!

To explore the parts of the city we couldn’t see on foot, we joined our hostel’s sunrise tour. Yup, you read that right: we managed to drag ourselves out of bed at 5 AM! We were given delicious steaming chai while we watched the sun rise over the city from Nahargarh Fort. After sunrise, we visited a few temples, watched some yoga at a step well, hiked to the top of an ancient walled fort, and visited the Amber Palace.

From the top of Nahargarh Fort.
The sun doesn't rise over the horizon in Jaipur; it emerges from the smog.
Looking out from atop a Hindu temple.
A beautiful 17th century water reservoir known as Sagar.
Steps leading up to the hilltop wall.
Walking along the fortress walls with a view of the Amber Fort in the background.
A stepwell that was used for water storage and bathing.
The Amber Fort, one of the most famous forts in Rajasthan.
Elephants painted for Diwali.

The real highlight of Jaipur was celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. It is one of the biggest Hindu festivals of the year, and the city was completely covered in decorations. On the eve of Diwali, we rode around in open-air jeeps to see some of the best and most decorated spots in the city. The next night we joined in the celebrations with our hostel owners and the other guests by helping to prepare the traditional dinner, lighting small clay lamps, and setting off a ton of fireworks (along with the rest of the city). In retrospect, it was a miracle that no one set the roof on fire or damaged their hearing. We had a great time celebrating!

There were beautiful floral arrangements all over the city.
The city was completely lit up at night for Diwali.
Lighting clay lamps and preparing food for dinner.
Firework safety is a top priority here.

We were warned by everyone to avoid pani puri, a common street food in India, as it’s often made with fresh water - aka not potable for our Western stomachs. On our night tour of the Diwali lights, however, we ended up having some on the streets… but lo and behold, our stomachs held out! It was delicious but we didn’t risk trying it again, instead opting for a “safer” bet at McDonald’s. We had heard it was fun to go and see how different the menu is, especially without any beef options. Well, one Spicy McPaneer and Masala Grilled Veg later and we had the most upset tummies of our time in India. So much for playing it safe!

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