Many of my readers already know this, but for those who don’t – my husband and I met and fell in love while cycling in Pakistan and India some 23 years ago. It was a bizarre set of circumstances that brought us together, and we’ve lived many adventures since those days.
I regularly get letters from people asking me what they should plan on doing when in India, and it’s hard for me to say, seeing as how I haven’t been there for many years.
That said, I do have fond memories of my time in India, and certain experiences there remain a highlight of my life even after all these years. These are the things I would rate VERY high on a “must-do” list for traveling India.
See the Taj Mahal
I know, I know… the Taj Mahal is on every single list of things to do in India that was ever written. There is very good reason for that. It’s very, very cool. Now, granted, when we visited, the country was in the middle of massive rioting and the government had imposed curfews in major cities – including Agra. Amazingly, foreigners were allowed to go anywhere they wanted.
Which means, of course, that we had the Taj all to ourselves. There was only a tiny handful of foreign tourists milling around the day we visited, but generally the crowds are outrageous – or so I’ve been told.
Would the Taj be as magical with massive hordes of tourists filling every nook and cranny? Yes, I think it would. It’s definitely worth a visit.
Visit the Deshnoke Rat Temple
Wikipedia has this to say of the Rat Temple:
A female Hindu sage lived an ascetic life and was widely revered during her own lifetime. At the request of the Maharaja of Bikaner, she laid the foundation stone two important forts in the region. The most famous of her temples is the temple of Deshnoke, which was created following her mysterious disappearance from her home. The temple is famous for its rats, which are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple.
This is what I wrote in my book What Were We Thinking?:
It gave me the creeps to enter the temple, barefooted, and have rats scurry over my toes. Hundreds, thousands of rats infested the temple! Lining the hallways were sleeping rats, rats were scurrying here and there, and “holy” rat shit covered the floors.
Hindu worshippers from miles around came to worship here. Sweets were purchased at a stall outside and presented to the rats at their very own miniature altar. Upon completion of their rituals at the altar, each worshipper drank a handful of water from the rats’ water dish.
John and I were not only appalled at the sight but also dismayed. We had seen many people treated worse than they treated these rats. How could these people put their hope and trust in this, while they turned their backs on their fellow human beings?
Now, 23 years later, I still remember that feeling. I remember the rats scurrying over my feet and my complete bafflement at the idea that people revered the rats. I’ve come a long way in my understanding of humanity, however, and would love to go back to the temple and spend some time talking with the worshippers. I am sure they have wonderful tales to tell.
Explore Ranakpur, the most spectacular Jain temple in the world
Here’s what I wrote about Ranakpur in my book:
Part of the joy of traveling by bicycle was discovering the unexpected. Shortly after starting to pedal one day, we happened upon an old Jain temple set back in the woods away from all civilization. There was nothing for miles around except a hotel and small tea stall. The sign boasted that the Ranakpur temple was the largest Jain temple in the world.
Excited by our unexpected discovery, we decided to stay the night there and take time to really explore the marvelous structure. By now we knew that Jain temples were always exquisitely decorated with carved stone and this one proved to be no exception. Lining the walls were hundreds of idols, all nestled back in neatly carved niches. A groundskeeper took us below the temple to show us the labyrinth of small passageways and hidden rooms where the idols had once been kept to protect them from marauding invaders.
I still have fond memories of that day. The temple was enormous and so incredibly intricately carved. John and I were the only tourists around, and the groundskeeper was thrilled to take us down into the small tunnels beneath the floor. That’s one of the best parts of traveling on bike – we get to see places when no other tourists are around.
Stay in a fort in Jaiselmer
I have to say I’m still enthralled with the idea of staying in a real live, working fort, but this time I want to do it when I am well and can appreciate it. Back then, well… I was sick when we stayed in the Deepak Hotel, tucked deep within the fort.
The fort, which had been home to us for ten long days, rose mystically out of the desert. It had an aura of mysticism about it as if it held many secrets. If only the walls could talk, I would have loved to listen to stories about its lifetime, about the many invading armies it had seen, and about princes, kings and travelers of a time long since past.
John had been fascinated by the fort, leaving me frequently to go out and explore its hidden corners. The high stone walls towering three stories above the narrow, twisting pathways amazed him. The fact that people lived now much the same way they did hundreds of years ago astounded him. Open sewers lined both sides of the paths, garbage was dumped out windows. Holy cows meandered about serving as garbage collectors. I had been too sick to care.
If you don’t want to stay at the Deepak, you can most likely find some nice hotels or homestays here: IndiaListed.com
Float the Ganges
We’ve all heard of the mystical Ganges River. The sights and smells and sounds. Mystics, gurus, swamis and saints bathing in the holy waters. The spiritual aura surrounding it all. It’s all that and more.
We had some… ((erm)) rather interesting experiences on the banks of the Ganges, including nearly being hauled off to the police station. We also had the opportunity to visit a house for the dying, overlooking the burning ghat. Here’s an excerpt from my book:
“You see that building over there?” our makeshift tour guide asked. “The big, gray one with four stories? It is there to house people who have come to die. The old people come here before they die because it is cheaper to transport a living person than a dead one. They sleep there in that building until they die. Any Hindu who dies here will reach moksha. This is what all Hindus want more than anything in this life. That is why so many people come here to live out their final days.”
We had learned about moksha previously through books we had read. It is a liberation, or an end to the cycle of reincarnation through unity with the eternal. It was the most profound objective in a devout Hindu’s life.
“Come! We will go to that building to see the old people waiting to die,” he continued with his sing-song Indian accent.“These are poor people that our organization helps. Come! We go.”
Due to our insatiable curiosity, we went over to see what the house was like and walked behind the two men toward the gray building. A few minutes later we entered into the smoke-filled, hazy room, reminding us of a terrifying house of horror.
Skinny shells of human beings lay moaning, groaning and gasping, just barely holding on for dear life. They were obviously in great pain, suffering like I had never seen anyone suffer before. Unfortunately, drugs for relieving their pain were as unattainable as Tom & Jerry’s ice cream in the city of Varanasi. To add to their misery, the rooms were overcrowded, drab, concrete cells void of furniture except for a few old chairs and some straw mats. Smoke from the funeral pyres below poured through the uncovered windows, making for hot, sweaty, and smelly accommodations. ‘Certainly not your everyday Ronald McDonald house,’ I thought as I looked around. These people were also forced to watch the continuous funerals as the only view they had was that of the burning ghat.
Visiting the home for the dying was a powerful experience, but it paled in comparison to our time spent on the Ganges itself. We rented a rowboat and spent hours plying the waters, watching all the everyday life activities happening there.
From one end of Varanasi to the other, the riverbank was bustling with activity. Most people came to the river for bathing purposes – both to become spiritually clean and to become hygienically clean. The religious bathers went through a ritual bath and devotion, then gave offerings to Mother Ganges. Prayers were said by folding their hands together while humming and chanting. When hundreds of people were doing this, the chorus produced a soft and very soothing sound
Another interesting river activity was the laundering. Most people, it seemed, washed their clothes in the river. After soaking their clothes in the river they would either put them on the concrete and unmercifully pound them with a bamboo stick or just pound the concrete with the clothes. The result of washing clothes in the Holy Ganges can only be holey clothes.
The funerals were by far the most interesting thing to watch. We were able to sit in our boat and watch several of the amazing productions. The Hindus believed that by burning a body the spirit would go directly to heaven. Apparently the smoke goes up and somehow carries the spirit to heaven. So many people were cremated there that they had at least five funerals going 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
All the funerals took place in one small area called the burning ghat. The funeral, which lasted about an hour, started when a group of mourners marched into the ghat carrying the body on a bamboo stretcher. The body was covered with colorful clothes and necklaces. In contrast to the drab, depressing ghats, those necklaces stood out like a brightly lit Christmas tree in a New York Sewer. They were made of brightly colored marigolds and lotus flowers, and their aroma was in stark contrast to all the burning flesh. After the body was dunked several times in the Ganges for a final washing away of sins, it was placed on the funeral pyre.
The mourners attending the funeral, led by the head priest, put fragrant oil, ornaments, and more flowers atop the body. Occasionally personal possessions, such as the deceased’s cane, were also placed in the position of honor. A routine of walking several times around the body while in prayer followed, as they continued to throw things atop the pyre. On the last few times around, the youngest son anointed the body with clarified butter and lit the pyre on fire.
At this time attendants from a low caste took over. It was their job to tend to the fire and make sure it burned to completion. We sat there and watched with amazement as these attendants pushed burning legs, arms, and heads back into the flames. When the burning was complete, the eldest son came back to collect a sample of the ashes and split the skull to release the spirit.
When we first watched these funerals we were appalled by the custom and uneasy about sitting there watching them. The preconceived notions we brought over with us dictated that a funeral was a sad, solemn, and private event. To the Indian this was certainly not so. The bereaved family was not necessarily grieved. For many, it was actually a joyous occasion as they looked upon it as a celebration of the soul’s union with the eternal.
Watching these funerals forced us to go through what I called a “cultural adjustment”. We Americans are raised in a euro-centric Western culture and learn the “proper” way of doing things, how to act, and how to respond to certain situations. It is easy to get into the biased mode of criticizing another culture based on our own cultural experience and arrive in a country with preconceived notions of how things ‘should’ be. This makes it difficult to accept and appreciate their culture.
Due to the high cost of a funeral, most people couldn’t afford one. The next best thing to being cremated on the Ganges was simply being tossed into it. We had heard they did that downriver from Varanasi so that the bodies wouldn’t float through the bathing ghats. According to others, this type of funeral was so common that it supported the nutritional needs of a large shark population at the mouth of the Ganges where it emptied into the Bay of Bengal.
Desiring to observe this type of funeral, we headed down the river in search of one. Sure enough, a mile or so down river we came across a boat being rowed out to the middle of the river. It was carrying a body fully decorated in the usual way with bunches of colorful flowers. There wasn’t much of a ceremony; the body was just slid into the water.
A short time later, we started gagging on the smell of rotting flesh. The source was a very bloated decomposing body floating peacefully toward the sea.
I’ve traveled in many countries and India is amongst the most incredible. The culture is so very different, yet wonderful in its own way. Go and enjoy, learn and be pushed out of your comfort zone. You will come back home a changed person.
Here are a few stories I’ve written about our experiences cycling in that part of the world: