|An American In Varanasi|
As I stood on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat, the preeminent cremation grounds in Varanasi, and gazed out on the murky water of the Ganges River, I knew I was in another world altogether. "This ain't Kansas," as they say, and although I had been in India for almost three weeks, nothing could have prepared me for the sights of Varanasi.
India's oldest city lived up to it's reputation as both wondrous and bizarre. The three days I spent there were the culmination of an incredible journey that took me from the noisy, crowded capital of Delhi to the spiritual heights of the Himalayas to the union of three great rivers in Allahabad and finally to the strange City of Light known as Varanasi.
Why would an American want to go to India? That's the question everybody asked during the six months that lead up to my departure. Even the Indians I work with at a software company in Sunnyvale were surprised, particularly by my decision to bypass the more typical tourist attractions in Agra and Rajasthan and head for the holy Garhwal region in the Himalayas.
What attracted me to India was not the Taj Mahal or the lavish palaces of the 18th century, but rather the true essence of India as described in the Vedas. The Veda is a blueprint to India's spiritual heritage. It has brought to light the practical value of meditation, Ayur-Veda and Jyotish. These disciplines are gaining wider appreciation in the West as they are beginning to be seen as a compliment to our own knowledge and experience rather than a contradiction.
I've been practicing meditation for 23 years. Although far from an expert in Vedic literature, I nonetheless have felt a closeness to this knowledge due to my own meditative experience. The desire to travel to the home of the Veda became increasingly strong in recent years. However, as a married father of a nine year old with too many responsibilities and too little vacation time, a trip to India seemed as remote as India itself. I mean, this isn't exactly like planning a week at the Grand Canyon. We're talking about the other side of the world here. Across eleven time zones and the international date line. Yeah, India was a nice idea, but how do you make it happen? As it turned out, the fulfillment of this desire came from an unlikely source.
Here's The Deal
For the last seven or eight years I've been playing in a monthly poker game. Five buddies, all married, holding on to a 'boy's night out' once a month. Poker is really just an excuse to get together. The stakes are small, the talk is cheap, occasionally risqué and always interesting. We all look forward to it. And everybody thought India was a great idea. This could be our trip. We knew the wives wouldn't want to go. This was for us. But at the same time we knew it would never work. The wives, after all, would never let us go.
Next month it came up again. India just wouldn't go away. We started planning the trip. We told the wives about it. They didn't really object too much. It was a year away and I think they figured it was just some guy's thing that we would eventually lose interest in. As the months went by, the interest grew stronger. We talked about India, bought travel books, exchanged email and surfed the internet. However, I also began to realize that due to circumstances, we wouldn't all make it. Sure enough, two of our buddies fell out. We were down to three.
We made arrangements with a local travel agency to put together a package for the three of us—Frank, Charlie and myself. We gave them a list of places we wanted to go and they booked a guide to get us there. With three months to go, we scheduled a weekday lunch at an Indian restaurant to review the trip. That morning I received an email from Charlie. I called Frank and told him Charlie couldn't make it. "To lunch?" he asked.
"No, he can make it to lunch," I said. "He just can't make it to India."
We met at lunch, hammered Charlie for about an hour and convinced him that this was the trip of a lifetime and he had to go. As we finished lunch, Charlie said, "I don't know what I was thinking. You guys are right. I'm in!"
As he drove away from the restaurant, Frank and I looked at each other and said, "He's not going." Two weeks later Charlie was out for good. We didn't even bother trying to turn him around. There would be just two to India.
Shots And More Shots
From our research, we gathered that northern India has just three main seasons—summer, winter and monsoon. Our challenge was to find a window of time that avoided the extreme heat of the summer, the torrential rainfall of the monsoon and the snow of the winter. That window appeared to be the month of September. We set our departure date for September 7 and continued our preparations.
With the travel arrangements made we turned our attention to the supplies that would be needed. We decided that we would take only a backpack and another small carry-on bag. We proceeded to fill our backpacks with everything from mosquito repellent to flashlights to toilet paper. You know, all the essentials.
I put it off as long as I could, but after constant pressure from my wife and a weekly reminder from my mother—"Rod, have you gotten your shots yet?"—I broke down and visited my doctor. My hopes for an easy way out quickly vanished when he launched into a list that included hepatitis A, hepatitis B, cholera, tetanus, typhoid, polio, meningitis and malaria.
"That's it?" I asked.
"Well," he continued, "There are other diseases that we don't have vaccines for. Like dengue fever for example. They also call it broken bone fever because when you get it you feel like your bones are being broken."
"Swell," I thought. Maybe I should go to Hawaii instead.
Turns out my doctor had traveled quite extensively in southeast Asia. Although he had never been to India, he knew a fair amount about the country. When I told him I was going to Varanasi, he said, "Ah yes, the holy city. Get the shots."
In the end I met him a little more than half way. I passed on hepatitis B because the Center for Disease Control indicated travelers to India were of little risk as long as they took basic precautions. Same thing with cholera, and the vaccine is only 20-30 percent effective. "20 to 30 percent is better than nothing," my doctor said.
"I'll take my chances," I bravely replied as I thought about the prospect of two additional shots. Despite some flu-like symptoms for two days and a couple of sore arms, I survived the shots in pretty good shape. The last vaccine was for malaria. It consisted of a series of tablets taken once a week for eight weeks. "Are there any side effects?" I asked.
"Well," my doctor began, "It's somewhat rare, but there is one thing that I should tell you about because it can sneak up on you."
"What's that?" I wondered.
"It sometimes can create the symptoms of mental illness," he said.
"Swell," I thought. Just what I need at 10,000 feet in the Himalayas.
On Our Way
We boarded United flight 805 in San Francisco on Sunday, September 7 at 1:30 in the afternoon. Fourteen hours later we were in Hong Kong. Having never been there, I was hoping to at least get a nice view of the city as we landed. The weather didn't cooperate and we landed smooth as silk in near fog and a driving rainstorm. "It doesn't get any better than this," remarked the flight attendant who had cautioned us to expect heavy turbulence on the way in.
About nine hours later, just after midnight local time, we landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. Touchdown. We were in India.
We were met at the airport by our guide, Mr. Kapileshwar and two drivers he brought along, Vijay and Nitin. Mr. Kapileshwar, or Kapil as we came to call him, was a pleasant man with a round, clean-shaven, smiling face. He had served as a tour guide throughout much of India and had been to the Himalayas on many occasions. A strong trekker, Kapil had also taken an expedition to Everest base camp.
Vijay was an older gentleman, large for his size with broad shoulders and a strong back. He had a warm glow on his beard-covered face and a twinkle in his eye. He spoke little English, but we knew right away that we were going to like him. Nitin, in his early twenties, was much younger than the others, but seemed quite friendly.
The fifteen minute drive to our hotel was our first exposure to Indian traffic. Our first surprise was that not all vehicles had working headlights. After the third large truck appeared out of nowhere, Frank asked Kapil if this was normal. "Actually, they are required to have lights," he explained. "But some drivers, they don't."
We spent our first night at the Jukaso Inn in the Connaught Place section of central New Delhi. Moderate by Delhi standards, the Jukaso Inn was comparable to a Motel 6 in the U.S. Little did we know at the time that this would be the only night during our three week stay in India that would not have a power outage.
We never intended to spend much time in Delhi. And the intense humidity and a confusing trip through the center of the city to find a bank to exchange currency did not change our plans. We made only one stop at a large park called Jantar Mantar. Built in 1725 by Jai Singh II, the former ruler of Jaipur, it stands as the first open-air Vedic observatory. The park has several large red and white sundials along with other instruments carved out of stone, once used to calculate time and the astrological position of the planets. Viewing these instruments through the sense of sight is said to directly affect the physiology and awareness of the observer. Frank and I did notice that several of them were quite mesmerizing. You didn't want to take your eyes off them.
The Hierarchy of the Road
It's about a six hour drive north to Haridwar. The fact that the road condition was poor didn't seem to deter the drivers, ours included, from driving as fast as possible. With constant use of the horn, we raced through the countryside, swerving to pass slower vehicles and narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with the on-coming traffic.
No American should ever attempt to drive a car in India. There is nothing in the U.S. that can possibly prepare a person for Indian driving. Even most Indians don't drive. Those that do are artists. Well, most of them. Ours certainly was. Vijay had driven taxis, buses and large trucks in his lifetime. "Forty years driving in Bombay," he proudly stated. He could easily handle our Tata Sumo, India's version of a sport-utility vehicle.
That doesn't mean that Frank and I weren't freaked out by our first encounter with the Indian system of driving. To begin with, it's all backwards. The steering wheel is on the right and you drive on the left; that is, when you're not driving down the center of the road which is what everybody does. There are few lane markings and the ones that exist are ignored. The idea is to drive up to the rear bumper of the car in front of you and honk the horn until the car moves over enough to let you by. Never mind that the on-coming cars are doing the same thing. At the last second everybody moves back into place and traffic continues without a hitch. To Frank and me it seemed chaotic and out of control, but in some bizarre way the whole system works. One of the things that holds it all together is the trust and mutual respect that drivers hold for one another. No one drives with an ego in India. Harsh words are never exchanged on the road. Unlike the U.S., there is a huge reliance on the other driver to do the right thing. As two cars approach from opposite directions on a narrow road, neither is forced to reduce his speed due to this implicit understanding that every driver will act responsibly in a tight situation. Well, most of the time. Just outside Haridwar we saw the mangled ruins of a couple of buses that collided head-on. A not-too-subtle reminder that sometimes the system breaks down.
With so many people and so few roads in northern India, everyone competes for the straight line, the shortest distance between two points. Cars, trucks and buses all maneuver along the narrow twisting roads of the Himalayas. Drivers are constantly jockeying for position. As if handed down from generations before, there's an unwritten hierarchy that governs travel on the Indian roads. From the animals on up, everyone seems to know his place and accepts it. Larger faster vehicles have almost an obligation to overtake smaller slower vehicles. It's not exactly survival of the fittest, but Darwin would be proud nonetheless.
The cows are the slowest so everybody passes them. They are however, given their due respect and a small measure of space on the road. For 5,000 years these animals have roamed the land unthreatened by man. The look in their eyes as they lie down in a busy intersection as much as says, "What, me worry?" Ever present, but only occasionally a nuisance, they will move after a few blasts of the horn. They know the routine.
Next come the pedestrians. Slow of course, but usually intelligent enough to watch out for passing cars even if it means waiting until the last second to move.
For many, a bicycle is the common mode of transportation. These rickety contraptions can only hope for a smooth section on the shoulder of the road as they are the first ones forced off in the ongoing competition for space.
The next step up is the motor scooter. To refer to them as motorcycles would be too generous. They're basically underpowered mopeds, but they are nimble and able to move in and out of traffic rather quickly. In many cases this becomes the family car. Three or four on a scooter is not uncommon. Helmets are rare and reserved for the driver only. Ladies ride side-saddle with children in the drivers lap.
Ford Escorts and Geo Prisms dominate the sub-compact car field. More roomy are the older style Ambassador cars. They're comfortable enough for in-town driving, but lack the power needed for efficient hill climbing. That's not to say they don't make a strong effort, if exhaust emissions are any indication.
Our Tata Sumo seemed to be the ideal vehicle for five people to navigate through the hills in relative speed and comfort. We passed everything except the Jeeps. Because of their response and ability to handle various types of terrain, the Jeeps were the most capable vehicles on the road. They were also the most dangerous. Their mostly young drivers tended to display a touch of cockiness to go along with a lead foot. Fortunately, the responsiveness of the vehicle and the driver's quick reactions were usually enough to avoid any real trouble.
There is no shortage of trucks and buses on the roads in northern India. With thick black diesel smoke following in their path, they emerge as a stark contrast to the pristine beauty of the Himalayas. To be stuck behind one on an uphill climb is truly nauseating. The downhill is a different story. No one wants to mess with a large bus on a downhill slope. They travel the middle of the road and force all other vehicles to cower meekly to the edge in some kind of twisted payback for every car who passed them on the uphill climb. Any car foolish enough to challenge them is usually forced to surrender by one strong blast of the horn.
Haridwar ('gate of God') is one of the seven holy cities of India. The site of the Kumbha Mela every twelve years, it attracts pilgrims from all over India who come to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges. For Frank and I it was the first stop on our journey into the Himalayas.
We stayed at Hotel Teerth, a mid-priced hotel situated on the river and overlooking the temple area of Har ki Pairi. Literally the 'footstep of God', Har ki Pairi marks the exact spot where the Ganges leaves the mountains and begins its long journey across the plains of India.
The ghats (steps) leading down to the river are inhabited by every conceivable form of humanity. Haridwar is a sanctuary for the blind, the deaf and the deformed—all in search of 'baksheesh' (donation). Every physical affliction imaginable is on display. For the uninitiated, the view is sometimes shocking. A boy with no arms is drawing religious pictures with colored pens held by his toes. A man with no legs pushes himself along on a flat board with wheels. A blind man stands on a bridge with nowhere to go. The karmic baggage is unfathomable. One senses that all the lost souls of the universe pass through the gates of Haridwar. Down near the river at Har ki Pairi, pandits perform pujas (traditional ceremony of gratitude) to Mother Ganga for her blessings.
6000 feet above the river is the temple of Mansa Devi. We took a chairlift to get there. It offers the finest views of Haridwar and the great expanse of the Ganges. That evening we attended the Ganga arti ceremony at the rivers edge. Thousands gather there each evening to place candle-lit offerings in the water.
Later, at a nearby chai stand, Frank invited a sadhu (holy man) to join us. He was a tall, noble looking man with an air of distinction about him. He had long hair and a beard and kept himself rather neat. He wore a shawl bearing the mark of Shiva and carried a large staff.
The look on Kapil's face as the sadhu sat down next to us was as if to say, "You're kidding, right?" But Frank was charmed by this man and looked at him as an opportunity to get to know the locals. He spoke no English, so outside of a quick "namaste" with a prayer-like gesture, our communication with this man was reduced to smiles and nods. We instructed Kapil to ask him if he would like some tea. The sadhu responded that he did not want tea, but he would like some money. Okay, at least we knew where we all stood. We gave him a few rupees and he smiled and moved on.
The line between holy man and beggar was a little vague. By outward appearances they were pretty much the same. Inside however, the sadhu should be a learned man, we figured. One who by choice has decided to renounce worldly possessions and live the life of a recluse; perhaps someday become a saint. The beggar, on the other hand, had no choice for his lot in life. Probably physically challenged in some way, he was destined to roam the ghats of Haridwar in search of enough money to survive the next day. More often than not as we discovered, they were one and the same. He may look like a sadhu, he may act like a sadhu, but when you get right down to it, he's just plain beggar.
Frank and I would occasionally hand out change to the disadvantaged. Wherever we went, people came up to us with their hands out. Kapil would generally discourage it, although he too would give on occasion. Sadly, we also knew that our donation was not going to change matters or improve anyone's life, but our hearts went out to these people and we felt good by helping in some small way.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw an old woman sitting on the edge of a bridge. She had no hands. As we made eye contact, she put her wrists together and said, "Namaste." That image stayed with me for several days.
A Thrill in the Atmosphere
On September 10, we drove 24 km to Rishikesh. Perhaps the cleanest and most beautiful town we encountered, Rishikesh has been visited by pilgrims for thousands of years as they make their way to holy sites further north in the Himalayas. As we found out, Rishikesh is a charming community with enormous tourist appeal.
According to tradition, Ram and his brother Lakshman crossed the Ganges and rested in Rishikesh after slaying the demon Ravana. Two large suspension bridges, Lakshman Jhula and Shivanand Jhula (also known as Ram Jhula) commemorate the feat. Standing on Lakshman Jhula and gazing at the gentle flow of the Ganges as it meandered around a rocky bend surrounded by forested hills was one of the most pleasant sights on our trip.
The river had a heavy, deliberate flow through Rishikesh, unlike any other place we visited. At times it seemed to not be moving at all, as though captured for a moment on canvas. Not wanting to leave, we stopped at a nearby chai stand. We couldn't help but envy the view of a small monkey from atop one of the suspension cables high over the bridge.
In Rishikesh, as well as many other places in northern India, we stayed at a government-run tourist rest house. The GMVN (Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam) tourist bungalow in north central Rishikesh is situated in a quiet wooded area reminiscent of Northern California. The small but capable restaurant there served a delicious assortment of Indian curries. The malai cofta curry and the paneer bujia were especially good. Dinner for five came to around Rs 200 (about $5).
At 5:00 the next morning we were awakened to Vedic chanting from a nearby temple. Very faint, almost inaudible, it was more like a constant vibration. It created a delicate thrill in the atmosphere that was distinctly Indian. At 5:30 the birds chimed in. For breakfast we had vegetable cutlets and mango juice.
Our second day in Rishikesh was spent touring ashrams and soaking up the splendor of the Himalayan foothills. For Rs 4 we took a short boat ride across the Ganges. We ate lunch at one of Rishikesh's oldest establishments, the Chotwilla restaurant in the Swarg Ashram area. Not much for ambiance, but serving pretty good food, the Chotwilla restaurant is popular with the tourists, many of whom stop to gawk at or have their picture taken with Chotwilla himself, a portly fellow painted in various colors from head to toe. One of the few blatant displays of commercialism we saw during our stay in India.
The Valley of the Saints
Uttarkashi is a busy administrative town located about midpoint between Rishikesh and Gangotri. Situated along the Bhagarathi River in an area once known as the valley of the saints, today Uttarkashi is primarily a way station for travelers, most of whom don't bother to stop.
The Vishwanatha Temple, sacred to Lord Shiva, is located here. Second in importance only to Varanasi, the temple was built around a naturally forming and tilted Shiva linga. Legend has it that Shankara meditated here. Inside the inner sanctum an eternal light has been burning continuously for 350 years. Needless to say I didn't want to get too close.
Kapil, Vijay, Frank and I all meditated together around the linga with the resident pujari (priest). The entire temple became silent. When we opened our eyes after ten minutes we found we had been joined by a dozen others. The pujari then performed a puja during which flowers and other offerings were made to Shiva.
We spent the night at the GMVN Tourist Rest House. Outside of a rather funky toilet with an incessant leak, the accommodations were pretty good. We did see something unusual at the rest house—other westerners. Lots of them. A busload of Americans were heading north. Looks like we would have company on the road to Gangotri.
"Do You Feel Like Taking Risk?"
On the road to Gangotri we stopped at the small roadside town of Gangnani. 'Nani' means bath and the town's claim to fame is a natural hot spring. There is even a bathing spot where the hot spring was diverted to meet with a cold spring to create a perfect warm water shower. You could not have adjusted the temperature any finer if you had controls.
About 2 km outside Gangnani, the traffic suddenly came to a halt. Tourist buses and cars alike were stopped for no apparent reason. No stall in front of us, no accident. We got out to investigate. Around a turn up ahead we saw the reason for the delay. A landslide had wiped out the road. Originating on the mountainside high above, a steady stream of rocks and dirt had been falling for a day and a half. A large pile of debris now occupied about thirty feet of what was formerly the road. With no way around and a 1000 foot drop below, we were stranded.
As we walked up to the scene, a crowd of onlookers had already gathered to watch the road crew (read four guys with shovels) try and clear the way. The workers would shovel rock and dirt for about two minutes before being forced to run for cover by more falling debris. As soon as the coast was clear they would make another futile stab at it only to be chased away again and again.
We watched this cat and mouse game for about an hour before we realized there was no way any cars were getting past the landslide anytime soon. Apparently others had realized this too. Suddenly a group of six people ran up and over the landslide. Then another and another. The idea was, once on the other side, they would catch a bus and continue on up the mountain. Travelers stranded on the other side had it figured out, too. They were running our way to hop on the vacated buses that would soon turn around and take them to Uttarkashi. In a scene right out of TV newsclips about Mexican immigrants making a daring run for the border, we watched family after family run across the landslide from each side. Frank and I looked at each other with disbelief. "Are these people nuts?" Frank asked.
No sooner had he said that than Kapil asked us, "Do you feel like taking risk?" Then, before I knew it, we had gathered two days worth of supplies in our backpacks and were surveying the mountainside above for the green light to cross the landslide. Hoping we would not be hit by falling rocks and hoping the loose dirt below our feet would not give way and send us over the cliff, we took a deep breath and ran across to the other side.
While Nitin stayed with the car, Kapil, Vijay, Frank and myself were once again on our way to Gangotri. This time the mode of transportation would be a bus. Inexpensive and fairly comfortable for a short trip, Indian buses provide the most popular form of public transportation in northern India. We figured we could survive a few hours to Gangotri. That was before we got onboard.
Designed for about fifty passengers, there were already more than sixty inside. That didn't count the thirty or so who were on the roof. Rather than take the scenic spot on top with Kapil and Vijay, Frank and I opted to stand inside. We hoped that a few passengers would disembark at various stops up the mountain and a couple of seats would open up.
As the bus began a long arduous journey up the steep mountain road, we knew we were in for a long nerve-racking day. Onward we climbed, ever so slowly, around constant switchbacks and hairpin turns. The view was both breath-taking and terrifying. As the sun began to set, the air grew cooler. Finally darkness descended and took away the spectacular view of the 5000 foot drops to the Bhagarathi River below. With about an hour and a half to go we finally got to sit down. We pulled into Gangotri around 7:30. You could see your breath in the chill of the night air.
A Taste of High Altitude
At 10,299 feet, Gangotri is home to one of four main temples in the Garhwal region. Each year thousands of pilgrims ascend the mountain for an opportunity to worship before a silver image of the Goddess Ganga surrounded by likenesses of Saraswati, Lakshmi, Durga and others. Despite the crowds who converge on the holy town, venerated as the spot where the Ganges first tumbled to earth, Gangotri has managed to retain the ambiance of a small Himalayan village. The snow-clad peak of Mt. Sudarshan glimmers in the east and forested mountains pervade on all sides. A huge waterfall from the Bhagarathi River creates a constant roar throughout the village.
With the landslide cutting off the majority of tourists including the busload of Americans, we had the GMVN Tourist Rest House to ourselves. There is no electricity in Gangotri. A generator brings light to the rest house for a few hours in the evening. After 11:00 p.m. you're on your own.
As we were going to bed, Frank complained about feeling a little uneasy in the high altitude. I reassured him that we weren't really that high up and he would be fine in the morning. Around midnight I knew exactly what he was feeling. I woke up short of breath and somewhat disoriented. The effects of rapid ascent to high altitude had set in.
Due to the cold, Frank and I had closed all the windows and doors in our bungalow. The thinning air was stuffy and stale. I felt like I needed to take a deep breath but couldn't. I became dizzy. In the total darkness I had no concept of balance. At times I felt as though I was upside down. Finally in a desperate effort to regain my balance and breathing, I stumbled around for a pocket flashlight and went outside. The skies were clear and the light of the near full moon compensated for the woeful stream of light produced by my tiny flashlight. I could breathe a little easier, but after a few minutes I was driven back inside by the cold.
For the remainder of a mostly sleepless night, I tossed and turned in the darkness. Occasionally I would be jolted out of sleep by my own hallucinations. The room seemed to be spinning and I was spinning along with it. Finally around 5:00 a.m. as a tiny particle of light began to make its way through the darkness, I was able to focus on a window pane as a horizontal point of reference. At least I now knew I was right side up.
Not being able to sleep did give me the advantage of being awake to view the sunrise. Dawning over the shoulder of Mt. Sudarshan and casting its golden rays on the ridge of the mountain to our west, sunrise in Gangotri was a truly spectacular sight. The soft spray of the Bhagarathi shimmered in the sunlight as the shadows lifted and the village emerged from darkness.
Feeling a little better in the morning air, we took a short walk to the temple before breakfast. Along the way we passed the familiar collection of merchants selling their wares to the pilgrims as they strolled by. Postcards, jewelry and the usual assortment of religious paraphernalia dominated the scene. Frank did manage to find a bright-colored woolen hat. I picked up a few spare batteries for our overworked flashlight.
The temple itself is a modest structure, plain to the eye and rather small. Still, there's something about it, or maybe it's the atmosphere that surrounds it, that lets you know this is no ordinary temple. For thousands of years people have come from all over India to make their pilgrimage to this spot. Even a few moments in the inner sanctum seems to bring contentment to the faces of the worshipers. The courtyard that surrounds the temple leads to some steps that go down to the river's edge. There, a very sincere and dedicated pujari performed a puja for Frank and me. We gathered some water in a small container and the pujari blessed it for our return home.
As the day wore on we began to acclimatize and the effects of the altitude became less and less. A large bowl of hot tomato soup hit the spot at dinner. Afterwards, we had one of the most restful night's sleep in the entire trip. Quite a contrast from the night before.
Back on the Bus
By 6:30 the next morning, some early risers were already milling around the bus stop preparing to board the first bus down the mountain. Our bus left at 7:30. It was comfortably full. All the seats were taken, but no one was standing and only some luggage was on the roof. Frank and I managed to grab two seats by the door midway back. They had the most leg room. It looked like the trip down wouldn't be so bad after all.
We pulled out of Gangotri and began our descent. 14 km down the road, just before the tiny village of Lanka, we passed over the Jadganga River on a 100m long bridge. At 3000m above sea level, this is reputedly one of the highest bridges in the world. Our crossing was slowed by a herd of sheep that had beaten us to the bridge by a few minutes. The delay gave us an opportunity to take a picture of the valley gorge below even if it did momentarily suspend us in the middle of the bridge. In Lanka we picked up five new passengers. No problem, I guess; we could squeeze them in.
5 km later in Darali, we picked up a half dozen apples and four new riders. A few minutes later, just outside the military town of Harsil, two couples hopped aboard. The leg room Frank and I had enjoyed quickly disappeared. Several people now sat huddled together on the steps below our feet. At the next stop we picked up five new passengers, followed by a family of six. By now the isle was completely jammed from the front to the rear of the bus. Many others were sitting on the roof. A man with a small sheep under his arm now stood right in front of Frank and me. Still we stopped for more.
Every rider was another fare and none were refused. The ticket taker made sure all were accounted for. As the bus negotiated the hairpin turns of the steep descent, he would climb out the side window and up on top to collect from the riders in the balcony. Whether standing, sitting or barely hanging on, everybody had to pay.
When we picked up five new passengers in Bhatwari it seemed to Frank and me that just about every man, woman and child in the Garhwal were now riding on our bus. However, just outside Malla, about 29 km from Uttarkashi, we lost the family of six and probably any chance we had at the Guinness Book of World Records for most people on a bus.
Around 11:00 we reached the spot of the landslide near Gangnani and to no one's surprise, it was still there. Two days later and rocks were still coming down. This time however, a bulldozer was on the scene. A soldier wearing a hard hat and a ton of courage steered the bulldozer as it teetered on the edge of the cliff. For half an hour we watched the heavy machine push rock and dirt over the edge to the gorge below. Then, in a rare display of Indian emotion, the crowd roared, "Jai!" as the bulldozer pushed its way through to the other side. After a quick look upward, Frank and I, followed by Kapil and Vijay, ran across the site to the other side.
Two Uninvited Visitors
We caught up with Nitin and the car in Gangnani. The hot spring was too inviting and we decided to spend the night here rather than continue on to Uttarkashi. We ate lunch at a small outdoor cafe that offered spaghetti on the menu.
Later that evening as Frank and I were returning to our room by flashlight—due to the nightly power outage—we saw something scurry along the ground on the path in front of us. We focused the light on the largest spider either one of us had ever seen. Not a tarantula, but the same approximate size. It had a huge brown body and long thick legs. Just knowing something of that size was lurking in the vicinity of our room was a little unnerving. When we got to our room we found two of them on the wall in the bathroom.
Yikes, this is not good, I thought. Now, I'm usually not the least bit squeamish when it comes to spiders. I rarely bother to remove them at home unless forced to by my wife. But these were not your normal spiders. They were closer to mutants from some sci-fi movie.
After weighing our options for a few minutes as we stared at the two creatures, we decided to launch a preemptive strike. Armed with two buckets, our strategy was to splash the spider off the wall with the water from one bucket and cover it with the other. Frank took the first shot. He hit the spider with a blast of water and it didn't move. The water didn't even faze it. Again and again we hit it with a strong splash and it held firm to the wall. We couldn't believe it. How could this thing be so strong? Finally the spider moved to a lower position on the wall. We managed to scrape it off and crush it with the bucket. Victory was ours.
In our struggle to defeat the first spider we completely lost sight of the second. It probably escaped into our room. We didn't look for it. If it was under one of the beds we didn't want to know about it. As we drifted off to sleep, we thought about our wives and chuckled. They would have spent the night in the car.
Onward to Rudraprayag
In the morning we departed early and ate breakfast in Uttarkashi. Each of us had a stuffed parantha, a large, flat tortilla-like bread stuffed with potatoes and spices.
11 km south of Uttarkashi we stopped briefly at the Maharishi School in Dunda. About 65 young boys are there learning Vedic hymns in traditional Sanskrit. The headmaster and his staff were very gracious to us, offering chai and cookies, and Frank and I made a donation to the school before leaving.
We followed the Bhagarathi River south until we came to the town of Tehri. Although rich in history from the days of the maharajas, today a massive dam reconstruction project casts an ominous gloom over the town. Tehri will be underwater within the next decade. With little to offer passing tourists besides a view of the construction, we didn't bother to stop.
Proceeding east, we passed through Srinagar. Once the capital of Garhwal, Srinagar is reduced to a dusty transit town with few attractions. The main thoroughfare was noisy and crowded with buses. We decided to move on and ate lunch at a roadside restaurant outside town.
We cruised into Rudraprayag in the late afternoon. Located at the junction of the Mandakini River and the Alaknanda River, Rudraprayag is one of the five holy confluences known as Panch Prayag. We stayed at the Rudra Tourist Complex overlooking the confluence. A hotel with a stunning view such as this would probably cost hundreds of dollars in the U.S. We paid Rs 650 (about $17). We ate dinner in a patio dining area on the roof of the tourist complex. When the power went out we had an even more spectacular view of the star-filled sky.
After a morning cup of chai we visited the confluence. From the water's edge we walked up several steep steps to the Shiva temple above. The ring of three bells would announce the arrival of a new visitor. The inner sanctum was quite plain with only two statues of Nandi (Shiva's mount) side by side leading to the linga. The entire area surrounding the confluence had a feeling of spiritual integration.
It was September 17 and we were now in our tenth day in India. Our health was good and our stamina was strong. The road to Badrinath would take us to three holy confluences, a cave once inhabited by the legendary saint Adi Shankaracharya, as well as the Vishnu temple itself at Badrinath. Frank and I were pretty excited. We felt like the best was yet to come.
Ganga and the Panch Prayag
According to tradition, the Ganges descended from heaven onto the matted locks of Shiva's hair. It separated into seven streams that form the various tributaries of the Ganges. These tributaries flow through the Himalayas and unite at five holy confluences. The most sacred of the Panch Prayag is at Deoprayag, about 68 km east of Rishikesh. There, the Bhagarathi is joined with the Alaknanda and the river is officially bestowed with the title Ganga. We would visit Deoprayag later in our trip.
About 45 minutes up the road from Rudraprayag we reached the confluence at Karanprayag. On a rocky cliff above the site, we viewed the union of the Pindar having emerged from the Pindari Glacier in the northeast, and the Alaknanda whose source is near Badrinath. After that we came to Nandaprayag, home to the union of the Nandakini River and the Alaknanda. Further north, the Alaknanda meets the Dhauliganga at Vishnuprayag. The climb in our trusty Tata Sumo once again took us into the high reaches of the Indian Himalaya. The treachery of the road belied the beauty of the mountains and the valley below. Drivers were repeatedly cautioned with clever road signs such as, THE ROADS ARE HILLY, DON'T DRIVE SILLY; NO RACE NO RALLY, ENJOY THE BEAUTY OF THE VALLEY and IF YOU SLEEP, YOUR LOVED ONES WILL WEEP.
After a full day of driving we arrived in Joshimath around 4:00 p.m. Located at 6,150 feet, Joshimath is the last major town before Badrinath. Quiet and charming with magnificent mountain views, Joshimath is primarily known as the source of the Shankaracharya tradition. Founded by Shankara in the 6th century B.C. in an effort to preserve the wholeness of Vedic knowledge in India, Joshimath (or Jyotirmath as it was originally called) is the principle seat in the monastic tradition known as Shankaracharya. The other three maths (seats of learning) are located in each of the three remaining geographical corners of India.
Shankara's cave—for the most part naturally preserved—stands as a monument to his place in Vedic history. The cave is almost completely surrounded by a large mulberry tree and a small temple there commemorates the place where Shankara sat at the base of the tree and became enlightened.
In spite of the spiritual significance of the area, Joshimath greets few visitors. Most of the pilgrims on their way to Badrinath get no closer than a window view from the bus. For Frank and me, however, this was a major find. And the lack of tourists allowed us to enjoy the solitude of the surroundings. The opportunity to meditate in Shankara's cave was a treasured experience.
We spent the night at the GMVN Jyotir Rest Complex. Situated on a bluff overlooking a school, it afforded one of the best views of the natural scenery in Joshimath. And the school children were just as delightful. Their bright smiling faces and shy demeanor were both charming and irresistible. Frank and I were the most popular guests in town due to the presence of our videocamera. We would tape a few moments of the children and then play it back for them in the color viewfinder. The children followed us wherever we went.
One Way To Badrinath
The road from Joshimath to Badrinath is one of the most narrow in the Garhwal region. As a result, a gate system is employed for safety reasons. A check point in Joshimath will only allow uphill traffic through at preset times every two hours. The downhill traffic from Badrinath follows a similar schedule. The idea is to create a one-way flow of vehicles on the road. The strategy works for the most part, but can't take into account the car or truck that breaks down or makes a stop on the way. Drivers still need to be alert for an occasional vehicle coming in the other direction, particularly on a blind turn.
A few kilometers outside Joshimath, in the area near Vishnuprayag, we passed through a major landslide that had been cleared only a few days before. Our timing was impeccable. Had we been four days earlier, we would not have gotten through. This landslide was far too long to run over.
On a spiritual journey within India, no pilgrimage is complete without a visit to Badrinath. Tucked in a deep valley at 10,000 feet, the area is hidden in shadows for a good part of the day. From November to May the entire area is covered with snow and the residents retreat to lower elevation. Rainfall in this area is plentiful, but on the day of our arrival the skies were clear with temperatures in the mid 40's. We stayed at the GMVN Hotel Devlok. Our room, which faced out to the courtyard, was a little noisy but did offer a terrific view of snow-capped Nilkanth, known as the shining peak. Now fully acclimatized by several days in the mountains, we were more affected by the cold dry air than the altitude.
The Tapt Kund hot spring, located just below the steps to the temple, features an inviting freshwater pool where pilgrims can bathe before entering the temple. The bathing area, which has separate accommodations for men and women, regularly becomes a social gathering. Even the most reserved Indians seem to open up and become more festive around the pool. As the lone Americans in the crowd, Frank and I became an object of curiosity for many of the bathers. Friendly conversations arose as all around seemed to take an interest in what a couple of guys like us were doing in a place like this.
The water temperature in the hot spring rises gradually during the day. When we arrived at 4:00 p.m. it was too hot to actually enter the pool. We had to be content to splash small amounts of water on ourselves in an attempt to get used to the heat. One fellow traveler who apparently thought I was being a bit too shy about my approach to the scalding water, poured a bucketful over my head. It was all in good fun and the other bathers seemed to delight in my startled reaction.
The presiding deity at Badrinath is Lord Vishnu. The brightly painted temple housing the idol, stands boldly over the Alaknanda River as a source of inspiration to the thousands of pilgrims who visit there each year. With its large stone pillars and multicolored facade, it is indeed an impressive structure, although the Indian pop music that blares out of its large speakers is a bit out of place. Inside, a noisy, determined crowd made its way, sometimes rather forcefully, in a winding line to the inner sanctum where an idol of Vishnu rests, heavily garlanded with flowers.
The resident Brahmin priest is available to perform a variety of pujas for a reasonable price. Frank and I paid Rs 351 for a nice Gita puja that gave all of us a front row seat near the image of Vishnu for several minutes while the ceremony was performed.
The Road To Heaven
3 km above Badrinath is the tiny village of Mana, one of the oldest in the world. Looking at the weathered faces of the villagers and the stone huts in which they live, I got the feeling I was back at the very beginning of time. Most of the inhabitants are farmers or sheep herders. A general store and a few women weaving woolen carpets in their huts are the extent of the business enterprise. As the last accessible village before the Tibetan border, Mana is also a military outpost. Photography in the region is strictly forbidden.
After gaining permission from the authorities, we walked another kilometer uphill to an awe inspiring setting that stands as one of the highlights of our trip. With the Alaknanda River flowing gently along our side and the shining peak of Nilkanth still in view to the west, we were flanked by a huge vertical rock formation on the edge of a neighboring mountain. At its base is Vyasa Gufta. According to tradition, the revered saint Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata to Ganesh in this gufta (cave). Although preserved now as a tourist attraction, it still holds on to much of its ancient character.
A short distance from the cave, the Saraswati River emerges with terrific force from the side of the mountain. Thought by many to be mythical in nature, we were surprised that there was actually a physical presence to the river. According to Kapil, "We don't know where it comes from. It just comes out of the mountain." The Saraswati flows for less than a kilometer before joining with the Alaknanda. Legend holds that it disappears to its sacred underground course before reappearing to unite with the Ganges and Yamuna at the Sangam in Allahabad.
A natural rock bridge, described in the Mahabharata as having been constructed by the giant Bhim to enable the Pandavas to cross the Saraswati, is also here. Once on the other side, the Pandavas followed the path to the Vasudhara Falls, source of the Alaknanda River as it descended from heaven. We didn't take the path, which was about three to four hours in duration. However, just viewing it as it spiraled upward between two majestic mountains gave me the impression that if the road to heaven does exist on Earth, this is it.
That evening we ate dinner by candlelight—due to the power outage of course—but this time it was a nice complement to the transcendental feeling still present with us from earlier in the day.
In the morning we left Badrinath at the 9:00 a.m. gate and started down toward Joshimath. This was to be our longest day—eight hours of driving—and we wanted to get an early start. We had lunch in a small town called Pipalkot. From the outside, the restaurant we chose looked like a place you wouldn't dare set foot it. Inside, we had one of the best meals on our trip.
A Souvenir for the Road
Several hours later we pulled into Deoprayag exhausted. We were originally scheduled to stay in Srinagar, but Kapil knew we would be more comfortable in Deoprayag. It was further down the road, but it was a good call. The Tourist Rest House there is situated in a lovely spot on a hill about 2,000 feet above sea level. The only other guest was a young man from Scotland who was bicycling through the area. Early that evening I made a prediction: "You know, Frank, I think this is going to be the one night that we don't lose power. I just have a feeling." Thirty seconds later it went out. We ate dinner under the stars in the courtyard outside.
Deoprayag is the most sacred confluence in the vast network of tributaries that form the Ganges. It marks the meeting point of the Bhagarathi River, having traveled from Gangotri, with the Alaknanda River which rises near Badrinath. A temple in honor of Lord Shiva stands above the confluence. At the foot of a long series of steps that lead down to the water's edge, is a small bathing area protected by hand rails against the raging current. Realizing the significance of the spot, I filled a large container with water to take home.
Rishikesh, about 68 km down the road, would be our next stop. We figured about two and half hours. Ten minutes outside Deoprayag a fellow motorist warned of a large landslide just outside Rishikesh. That was confirmed a few minutes later by another driver who had left Deoprayag early in the day only to be turned around. We pondered the situation at a roadside chai stand.
When a road is closed in northern India there are not a lot of options. Basically you either wait it out or turn around. When it comes to landslides you generally turn around. The only alternative to get to Rishikesh was to back track up to Tehri and then come down on the other side, a distance of over 150 km. This detour cost us an additional five hours on our trip to Rishikesh, plus we got the joy of another high speed drive over a 7,000 foot mountain. Blind curves, long drops and thick fog. Fortunately, there was very little traffic to contend with as this route is seldom used.
We arrived in Rishikesh in the late afternoon and stopped at one of our favorite places, Lakshman Jhula, one last time. From the bridge we could see the landslide that turned everyone around. It looked like a big chunk of the mountain had come down. <
We continued on to Haridwar and arrived after dark. Frank and I called home from a nearby STD shop and found out the Giants were on the verge of clinching the Western Division over the Dodgers. Oh, and our wives were fine, too. We spent the night at the large, but rather basic Hotel Pramila. Not a bad place. No bathroom leaks and only one minor power outage.
In the morning we went shopping for souvenirs in Haridwar. We ate brunch in some no-name cafe in the bazaar area. I could sense the mood at the table was a little melancholy. We had come out of the Himalayas and this would be our last day with Kapil, Vijay and Nitin. Frank and I were about to embark on the last stage of our journey—a train ride to Allahabad and Varanasi.
During the six hour drive from Haridwar to Delhi I noticed how much more relaxed I was. Now a seasoned traveler on Indian roads, I wasn't the basket case I was two weeks earlier. That doesn't mean, of course, that the ride didn't have its share of close calls and near misses.
Traffic in Delhi is enough to make you sick. The congestion, noise and pollution is almost unbearable. We arrived in rush hour and, following dinner, made our way to the train station.
Like a mother hen watching her flock, Kapil, as our ever watchful guide, played out his role to the end. He made sure we got on the right train and were comfortably situated in our compartment. Well, situated at least. We weren't sure about the comfort part. Although the car was air conditioned, we would have to share the already small sleeper compartment with six other people. Frank grew pale at the thought of a claustrophobic nine hour train ride. For a few minutes I actually thought he was going to bolt out of there.
We said goodbye to Kapil, Vijay and Nitin. Much more than our guide and drivers, they had become our close friends. We exchanged presents and wished each other well. Our train left at 9:40 p.m.
It wasn't that bad. Once the train pulled out and the AC kicked in, the ride was reasonably comfortable and we were able to sleep. I was feeling pretty good when we pulled into Allahabad just after 7:00 a.m.
24 Hours in Allahabad
Frank and I no sooner stepped off the train than we were surrounded by a half dozen taxi drivers offering their services. Our destination was the U.P. Tourist Bungalow. "Two hundred rupees," said one of the cabbies.
We didn't know how far the hotel was from the train station and although we figured Rs 200 was probably too much, we were also starting to draw quite a crowd. I said to Frank, "We gotta get outta here."
Frank called to the first guy who hit on us. "Let's go."
It turned out the hotel was about five minutes from the train station. The cab ride should have been about Rs 50, but what the heck. At least we got to the hotel. Of course the overcharge didn't stop the cab driver from asking for a little extra once we got there.
Room 108 at the Tourist Bungalow was one of the better accommodations we had. AC, a good shower with hot water and a small balcony. We settled in and had breakfast.
At the front desk we made arrangements for a driver to escort us around the city. Rs 450 (about $12) for the whole day; anywhere we wanted to go. Not bad, we figured. As we got in the car I asked the driver, "Do you speak English?"
"Yes," he replied and off we went.
Allahabad is a busy industrial city located 135 km west of Varanasi in the southern end of Uttar Pradesh. Every twelve years, Allahabad plays host to the Kumbha Mela, India's largest religious festival. The event is attended by literally millions of rejoicing pilgrims who gather at the Sangam (holy confluence) to bathe in the combined waters of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati.
There were considerably less people at the Sangam when Frank and I arrived. Our driver made a connection with an 'agent' who secured a boat for the two of us. Having agreed on a Rs 300 price, we set out on the river. Our vessel was a mid-size row boat with wooden seats and a canvas overhang that was torn, but still provided an effective shield from the sun's rays. Unfortunately nothing could be done about the humidity.
The boat was navigated by two young boys. The boatman was a twelve year old whose boyhood innocence had all but disappeared; undoubtedly the result of a child forced to grow up too fast. He had no hesitancy voicing his anger at much older boatmen who were in his way as he struggled to navigate the boat away from the muddy dock. Frank and I could only imagine what he must have been saying. The other boy, probably closer to eighteen, sat quietly and never lifted a finger to help. When Frank inquired as to why he wasn't helping to row the boat, he replied simply, "I'm the guide."
We made our way out into the brown waters of the Yamuna and proceeded to the confluence where we would join the Ganges and the transcendental Saraswati. Although not particularly attractive to the eye, the locale did have nice settled feel to it. The boat guide spoke just enough English to get by and pointed out several important landmarks in the area.
As we approached the union of the three holy rivers, we were met by the anxious proprietors of the many boats selling religious experience. Describing themselves as pujaris, but acting more like riverboat salesmen, they were quick to push coconuts, milk and flowers on us for an asking price of several hundred rupees. Of course that was quickly negotiated down as Frank and I waved them away. In the end we purchased a little of everything and privately made our own offering to the Sangam. As we turned back to shore we could see the pujaris fishing our coconuts out of the water to sell to the next boatfull of tourists.
Once back in the car, we asked the driver to stop at the next roadside store so we could get some water. He gave us a perplexed look. "Water," we said, and made a drinking motion with our hands. He nodded and continued down the road. A few minutes later he pulled up in front of a tavern. Not exactly what we had in mind. "I thought this guy said he spoke English," I whispered to Frank.
After returning to the hotel, we paid the driver the agreed upon Rs 450 and went up to our room. About five minutes went by when we heard a knock at the door. It was the driver. He had his hand out and a big smile on his face. "Gift?" he asked.
"We just gave you 450 rupees," I replied.
"That's for car. I'm driver," he countered.
"Well, go talk to the car," I said and closed the door.
That night, the power went out only twice. Although it was restored quickly each time, it wiped out our AC for good. We opened the balcony door and went to sleep. Frank and I tossed and turned the entire night. In the morning we realized we had been bitten about a dozen times by mosquitoes. The insect repellent sat unopened in our backpacks.
When we checked out of our hotel at 5:45 a.m., the sun had barely begun to rise. We hopped on a bicycle rickshaw and headed for the train station. The driver asked for Rs 20 for the ten minute ride and we gladly gave him Rs 40.
The Train to Varanasi
The rest of Allahabad was just beginning to wake up, but the train station was already bustling with early morning passengers. I walked up to what looked like an information counter and showed the clerk our tickets to Varanasi. "Platform eight. The train is delayed thirty minutes," he said.
As we headed to the departure area we quickly realized that the train station in Allahabad didn't look at all like the train station in Delhi. There were no signs on the walls, no markings on the trains, no passenger lists anywhere and no Kapil to guide us. We finally managed to find platform six and figured we must be getting close. Ten minutes of walking later we were still on platform six. We noticed an army officer standing nearby and asked directions. He pointed across the tracks and we eventually got to the right platform. Now, it was just a matter of getting on the right train.
After a fifteen minute wait, a train arrived on platform eight. Car after car, each bearing only a two digit number, passed by us as the train pulled into the station. Was this our train? We didn't have a clue. We asked a few people if this was the train to Varanasi, but no one seemed to speak English. Finally, on one of the cars, I could see a white arrow pointing to the name 'Varanasi.' This had to be it. I mean, how many trains could be leaving from platform eight and heading to Varanasi at 6:30 in the morning? Frank and I got on board. We had two tickets in first class, but after what we went through just to find the train we figured we'd never find the right car. Better to just get on, find a seat and worry about that later. The train departed around 7:00. We figured about a four hour ride.
The Indian railway system is the largest in the world. It employs 1.6 million people and serves over 11 million riders each day. We were told that no visit to India is complete without experiencing life on the train. That may be true, but it wouldn't be at the top of my list the second time around. If the station seemed crowded and frenetic, the train is worse. There were ten of us crammed into the 2nd class seating area. The air was stale and only one of the overhead fans was working. The morning sun grew hotter and hotter. Every ten minutes the train found an excuse to stop, sometimes in the middle of a field somewhere. Maybe somebody would get on, maybe they wouldn't. The delays were interminable. At times we seemed to stop for no apparent reason.
About halfway through the trip, the ticket taker came through to collect. He was the first uniformed official we had seen since we got on the train. He looked at our tickets and then looked at us. "You're on the wrong train," he said.
A moment of panic descended on Frank and I. "When we left Allahabad we were told this train was going to Varanasi," I explained.
"This train is going to Varanasi," the ticket taker continued. "But it's not your train. Also, your tickets are for first class. This is ..."
"Yeah, we know," I interrupted.
More amused than anything, he just laughed and continued on. Probably gave him something to tell his wife about at the end of the day.
A Step Up To Luxury
Finally around noon our train chugged into Varanasi. Frank and I went with the first taxi driver who approached us. Our destination: the Taj Ganges Hotel, Varanasi's finest. After two weeks in the mountains, we decided to spend our last two nights in a five-star hotel. The Taj Ganges is a large high-rise with deluxe accommodations all the way around. Spacious rooms, cable TV, two restaurants, shopping, a swimming pool and on and on. Quite a contrast to the usual tourist bungalow in Garhwal. For the first time since we arrived we didn't feel like we were in India.
The only Indians at the Taj Ganges were the employees. At upwards of Rs 3900 (about $100) per night, the hotel catered to the western tourist and business crowd. We saw more westerners sitting in the lobby when we checked in than we did in all the time we spent in the Himalayas. The biggest single group was from Argentina. Mostly senior citizens on a whirlwind tour of Europe and East Asia, they looked completely out of place in Varanasi.
We stopped at the travel desk to inquire about a guide to take us around the city. We explained that we would like to see the ghats and take a boat ride on the Ganges. We would also like to visit the Vishwanatha Temple. "You cannot go in the temple," was the quick reply. "You can see it from the outside, but foreigners are strictly forbidden from entering."
"All the same," I replied. "We'd like to give it a shot. We've been lucky so far."
The man behind the desk just shrugged and said, "I've never heard of it, but I guess you can try." The price for the full day was Rs 1300 (about $35).
Our guide's name was Alok. He was a cheerful young man who was studying philosophy at Benares Hindu University. He was in his early twenties and was as fascinated about the U.S. as we were about India. His favorite American TV show was Baywatch. "It's on every night," he said with a smile.
"Our kind of guy," Frank said to me.
Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together. —Mark Twain
Varanasi is quite possibly the world's oldest living city. Religious artifacts link it to the sixth century B.C. Said to be founded by Shiva, Varanasi's Vedic affiliation goes back to the beginning of time. It is also a city of many names. The present name, Varanasi (derived from the names of two nearby rivers) is mentioned in the Mahabharata. The ancient name is Kashi, the City of Light. To the devout it is also called Kashika, the shining one, referring to the light of Shiva. Many others prefer the anglicized Benares.
Revered by Hindus, Buddhists and Jain alike, Varanasi is considered the holiest city in all of India. It its presided over by Shiva in his manifestation as Vishwanatha, Lord of the Universe. Buddha delivered a sermon in nearby Sarnath and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, lived in Varanasi. As a result, more Indians will make a pilgrimage to Varanasi in their lifetime than any other place.
Varanasi is situated on an auspicious bend where the Ganges changes course and flows northward. Every morning at dawn hundreds of worshippers can be seen bathing in the sacred waters. The great river banks are lined with an endless chain of stone steps—the ghats—that stretch from one end of the city to the other. Varying in appearance due to the long passage of time and the seasonal fluctuations of the river level, they form an impressive part of the religious landscape of the city.
Frank and I, accompanied by Alok, our guide, arrived at Dashashwamedha Ghat around 7:15 a.m. We quickly located a boat and ventured out onto the calm morning waters. Dashashwamedha is located in the middle of the long succession of ghats and is one of the busiest bathing areas. It is also a popular place for tourists who come to see the bathers against the backdrop of the oft-photographed umbrellas that line the ghat.
From there we proceeded downstream at a leisurely pace. There were few boats out on the water at this hour as those seeking the sunrise had already departed. Alok pointed out the significant temples and buildings and added his commentary on the changing architectural style and its place in the historical context of the city. After reaching Asi Ghat (named in honor of the Asi River) at the southernmost end of the city, we turned around and worked our way upstream toward the cremation ghats and other points of interest.
Life and death go hand in hand in Varanasi. While young people seek prosperity and protection from harmful influences, the older generation come to Varanasi to cleanse their souls in the forgiving waters in preparation for their ultimate dissolution. Believing that anyone who dies in the river of life in Varanasi gains freedom from the cycle of birth and death, the City of Light has become a haven for the sick and aged waiting out their final days. The smoke that billows from the crematoriums on the edge of the river give testimony to their final release from life's earthly confines.
We docked our boat at Manikarnika Ghat. According to Alok, on any given day, anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred corpses are cremated here, although I seriously doubt if accurate records are kept. The ghat is assiduous with activity. Several workers were busy doing whatever it is that they do. Large woodsheds were nearby to provide storage for the needed supplies.
The Vishwanatha Temple
The three of us set off on foot to explore the inner city. Through a twisted maze of narrow alleys, home to numerous shrines and souvenir stands, we made our way to the temple complex of Vishwanatha. Located in the heart of the Old City section of Varanasi, surrounded by armed guards, lies the greatest of the great Shiva temples of India. Somewhat unassuming in nature and difficult to distinguish from the surrounding buildings, the temple is a source of sustenance for countless Hindus who come here to worship the hallowed linga. Non-Hindus have to make due with a glimpse from the outside and the military presence is there to enforce the rules.
Alok had told us not to get our hopes up about being allowed to enter the temple. Afterall, we knew foreigners were not permitted inside. And one look at the heavy artillery surrounding the place made it clear that they meant business. Frank and I continued to press Alok. "There must be some way to get in," I said.
Just then, a Brahmin priest, who happened to be an acquaintance of Alok's, walked by. Alok seized the moment and inquired on our behalf if it would be possible for two Americans to be permitted inside. The Brahmin agreed to try. He took Frank and me to a small room near the main entrance. Inside, a group of officers were milling about. The Brahmin stated our case, explaining in Hindi that we were sincere devotees who wanted only a few moments inside to pay our respects. The officer in charge listened and then looked at the two of us. We had left our cameras behind with Alok and stood before him as humble as we could. Inside, I was thinking, "C'mon, just say 'yes'." After a few seconds, he nodded. We were in.
Not so fast. A guard close to the entrance spotted us and moved in quickly. From behind, the word was handed down, "Let them go. They have permission." The look on the confused face of the guard told the story of what he must have been thinking. "Let them go? But, foreigners are never allowed in here."
Frank and I followed the Brahmin inside. We moved quickly through several rooms along side the throng of worshipers. Not quite sure how we were supposed to feel or what to make of it all, we just knew we were in some sort of top secret place and it must be good. All of a sudden we found ourselves in front of the linga. Surrounded by a small pool of water filled with offered flowers, about two feet of the black linga was exposed to view. I leaned forward, dropped in a few petals, and touched the water and the linga as others had done. At that moment I felt a wave of joyfulness. This is a special place. I could feel it now.
We gave the Brahmin Rs 100 and thanked him for his help. Returning to find Alok, Frank and I spent the next hour shopping. We made a good buy on perfume for our wives.
"They're Burning Bodies Out There"
Back at the Taj Ganges, a few of the Argentineans were mingling in the lobby. As Frank and I stepped in the elevator, a middle-aged couple joined us. We exchanged greetings. "Are you enjoying Varanasi?" I asked.
"No. We don't like it at all," said the man.
"Oh, why is that?" I inquired.
"Have you been outside?" his wife intervened. "They're burning bodies out there. It's horrible."
As the doors opened and the couple got off, Frank turned to me and laughed, "I don't think they'll be back anytime soon."
After lunch we set out for another round of sightseeing. Riding around town in the air-conditioned Ambassador Nova almost made me forget about the heat and humidity outside. Of course, as soon as we opened the car doors and my glasses fogged up, I had my wakeup call—and some momentary blindness to go with it.
On our agenda this afternoon were several temples and the Hindu University at Benares. First stop was the Bharat Mata (temple of Mother India). Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, it features a huge marble map of India on the ground floor. Next up, the Durga Temple. Known for its bright red color and the playful, if sometimes aggressive, monkeys that run amok there, the Durga Temple is one of the most imposing architectural monuments in Varanasi. Supposedly off-limits to foreigners, there were no guards on duty and Frank and I just walked right in. The resident pujari greeted us with a smile and painted our foreheads with the customary markings. Before moving on, we decided to relax for a while on the steps inside the temple. While Alok, Frank and I were engaged in conversation, I began to notice a large monkey slowly creeping up on me from the side. All of a sudden he lunged toward me and snatched a few flowers from the garland I had around my neck. Backing up a safe distance, he ate a few petals and then, once again, moved in closer. "Well, I think I've seen enough here," I said to the others and started for the exit. Alok and Frank followed quickly.
The university, which occupies a large piece of land at the southern end of town, is also home to the New Vishwanatha Temple. Built after a caste dispute at the Old Vishwanatha Temple, the New Temple is more modern in design and open to Hindus and non-Hindus alike. Surrounded by palm trees, it is a splendid white marble structure that shines in the afternoon sun against a pale blue sky. Inside, the temple is spacious and airy. The interior walls are covered with Vedic art above inscriptions from the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. In the center of the first floor is the Shiva linga. Unlike the masses that converge on the Old Temple, there were only a few visitors to the New Temple on this day. The solitude of the temple was undisturbed and the three of us decided to sit near the linga and meditate for a little while.
That evening, Frank and I ate dinner at the Varuna Restaurant in the Taj Ganges. Our waiter was a young, outgoing fellow who gladly shared his dreams of adventure with us. His aspiration was to get a job on a cruise line ("the shipping business") and sail around the world. We were entertained by a dancer and a trio of musicians playing traditional Indian instruments. The food was good, but no better than the Garhwal region. And it cost five times as much. Frank and I were perhaps a little more quiet than usual this evening. Tomorrow we would be going home.
We caught a few minutes of Baywatch on the tube before bed. The power went off a couple of times, but the generator kicked in after about five seconds. Good thing, too. I hadn't seen that episode before.
Our departure from the Taj Ganges was not without controversy. Since our room was pre-paid, we were expecting a balance due of about Rs 2500 for our meals and a couple of phone calls to the U.S. When the clerk at the front desk handed us the bill, the balance read Rs 7500. "What?" Frank asked. "How can that be?"
Well, turns out the taxes on the room were not paid. Okay. But then the big surprise. The two phone calls Frank and I had made to our wives—a total of sixteen minutes—came to Rs 4000 (about $120). "There must be some mistake," I calmly suggested to the clerk. "We've been making phone calls for the past three weeks at various STD locations and we've never paid anywhere near this much."
The clerk examined the bill and declared, "No, it looks correct. The hotel adds a 168 percent service charge to all calls."
"Say what? 168 percent is outrageous," I countered. "Would you please send the manager down?"
After a few minutes, a neatly dressed, rotund gentleman by the name of Mr. Singh walked up to the counter. "May I help you?" he politely asked.
"Yes, we've got a bit of a problem with the bill," I began. "We were expecting to pay about two hundred rupees for a couple of phone calls and you've charged us four thousand."
Mr. Singh looked over the bill carefully and confirmed the amount with the clerk behind the desk. Then Mr. Singh looked up and said, "The charges are accurate. It is a fixed rate from the phone company."
Frank then pointed to the guy behind the desk and said in a rather loud voice, "He said you tack on a 168 percent service charge. Why weren't we told about this?"
Mr. Singh didn't exactly have an answer for that. He stammered for a few seconds and then looked at the clerk. The two of them quietly spoke Hindi for several minutes. Frank and I gathered that the clerk wasn't supposed to say anything about the 168%. Finally, Mr. Singh said, "This is our policy. If we told the customers, no one would make a call."
"So, you've deceived us," I responded.
Mr. Singh was starting to squirm. "No, we're not deceiving. It's just that ... well, the price is high because we're a luxury hotel."
"And that gives you the right to take advantage of your customers?" I asked.
Mr. Singh was getting more nervous by the minute. His body language showed he was clearly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was heading. Careful not to create a scene, and in an effort to make peace with a customer, he reluctantly agreed to deduct 20% from the bill. Since we needed to get to the airport, Frank and I decided not to press it and we settled.
The Trip Home
We took a cab to the Varanasi airport. Quite small, but with adequate security and a few folding chairs for passengers, the airport offers daily flights to such getaways as Bombay and Katmandu. Our destination was Delhi.
Air India was right on time and we arrived at the domestic airport in Delhi about an hour later. From there, it's a 9 km taxi ride to the international airport. Frank and I paid Rs 10 each to enter the visitors lounge where we were entertained by the loud irritating sound of Indian MTV. At least the room was air conditioned and had comfortable chairs. We settled in for a six hour wait before our flight to Hong Kong.
Around 9:30 p.m. we were called over to the terminal to check in. We were greeted by yet another outstretched hand. A clerk was asking for a Rs 750 departure tax.
"You've got to be kidding," said Frank.
He wasn't. Although the clerk seemed to be somewhat embarrassed by having to collect this ridiculous fee, everyone had to pay.
The flight departed on schedule just after midnight. Dinner was served at 2:00 a.m. Bon appetite. The in-flight movie was Speed 2. Didn't bother.
On approach to Hong Kong, the flight attendant advised us of possible turbulence even though this time the skies were clear. He said it was the pilot's last trip to Hong Kong and he had promised a smooth landing. We came down with a bounce and the attendant announced, "Well, you win some, you lose some."
At 7:00 a.m. local time you can see the Hong Kong skyline against the backdrop of a blue, cloudless sky. The skyscrapers seemed to shimmer in the glow of the rising sun. A new day was dawning in The Peoples Republic of China. India, the country we had now left behind, would be in darkness for another couple of hours.
United flight 806 left Hong Kong a few minutes past noon on Saturday, September 27. We crossed the international date line and fourteen hours later we arrived at SFO at 9:30 a.m. local time—still Saturday.
I Never Left
So now I'm back home. I've got my pictures and video. I've got my souvenirs and memorabilia. I've got all that stuff. But the best thing I've got, what I treasure most, is the feeling inside. It's still there.
I want to go back to India. But I don't really have to, because in some ways I never left. Residing in a special place deep in my heart, India is forever a part of me now.
I think about Lakshman Jhula a lot. I think about Mt. Sudarshan overlooking Gangotri and the view of the Bhagarathi. Sometimes I think about collecting Ganga water from Deoprayag and meditating in Shankara's cave. I think about the children in Joshimath and the road to heaven in Mana. I think about all these places and when I do, I'm there.
The travel guide, Indian Himalaya by Lonely Planet Publications, served as an excellent resource for planning my trip as well as helping with this writing.
© Rod Eason 1998