Our final 5 days in India were to be spent in Agra, Varanasi and then back to Delhi. The final day also so happened to be my 22nd birthday, which to be honest I really wasn't looking forward to having never spent my birthday away from all my family and friends and in a different country! But I'll tell you all about that when I get to it. Before that we had a week of finally seeing the 7th Wonder of the World and exploring the craziest city I have ever been to, Varanasi.
THE SEVENTH WONDER OF THE WORLD: AGRA
We arrived on the Sunday afternoon to Agra, having had the most civilised of train journeys that we'd experienced so far. There were actual windows and air con! None of the prison like bars exposed to the open air that we'd become so used to. You're also the fascination of all the passengers when you're sat going from one place to another by train, you'll often get questions about where you're from in broken English, we even had one couple insisting we shared their lunch, which was very comforting from two relative strangers. You definitely have to get the train at least once while you're in India, despite relative discomfort it's great fun.
Agra really doesn't have much in it apart from the Taj Mahal, the Baby Taj and the Red Fort. You only need to be here for a day. Arrive in the afternoon, go and see the Taj and Baby Taj for golden hour/sunset and then get up at the crack of dawn to visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. The sunrise visit really was completely magical. The building itself is so impressive you find yourself just staring at it in complete awe of it's existence. What made it most amazing was being there early enough to actually take a photo with no one else in, you can admire it without the silhouettes of all the little people walking round as well. It was quite amusing watching everyone try and get a photo on Princess Diana's bench, at 6am there were two American ladies quite literally pushing everyone out the way to get there first. I cannot recommend visiting enough, it was truly exquisite, especially at sunrise.
We actually didn't go and see the Red Fort because we were a little Fort-ed out and it was boiling however we did visit the Baby Taj which is definitely worth a visit, it's very peaceful and equally as ornate just quite a lot smaller than the Taj Mahal. Visit here at Golden Hour for the most beautiful light reflecting off the building. If you get the chance then most definitely visit the Taj Mahal but don't stay in Agra for longer than a day! There's really nothing to do.
TO THE HOLY CITY
I'm so glad Varanasi was our final destination before heading back to Delhi. It was a culmination of everything we'd seen so far all wrapped up into one city on the banks of the Ganges. Varanasi is deemed the holiest city in India and it's where people consequently flock to on pilgrimages, many people also come here to die or families bring loved ones to be cremated. There's so much going on and life and death are so closely intertwined in daily life that everything seems quite surreal, I think that's the best word to describe it. If you thought the craziness of Indian city life couldn't get crazier then you haven't witness Varanasi. This was the epitome of sensory overload.
We started our trip here with a sunset boat trip along the Ganges, this was really special. The sky goes pink and apart from the noise of the engine it's incredibly peaceful. After it went dark we headed to shore to witness a Hindu ceremony being performed by monks on the banks of the river. We huddled in with around 50+ boats and drank chai as they chanted. Once the ceremony was over you light a candle in a little bowl of flowers, make a little prayer or wish and present the flowers to the Ganges. This is called the Ganga Aarti ceremony and it happens daily. I'm not at all religious, I never have been and I can safely say I probably never will be. But while I was in India embracing this side to the country was really refreshing and I really enjoyed it. I think it was probably because if anything I'm a more spiritual person, I believe there's gotta be something, I just don't have reason to believe that something is God. I loved learning and witnessing all of the different religions in India, I found it very refreshing and felt like I could identify with it more over there than I can in my daily life. India is a very spiritual place and religion comes before anything, I almost felt it makes the country more accepting, welcoming and more loving because of this. Varanasi especially felt very special even though I don't practice religion, I felt peaceful among the chaos.
On the first morning we were there we got up at the crack of dawn, you may have noticed this was a trend for the entire trip, I think we had one morning where we didn't get up at 6am. We headed out bleary eyed with our guide on a walk down to the burning ghats before embarking on a sunrise boat trip. The burning ghats are located on the banks of the Ganges, it's where the bodies are cremated. The main burning ghat is called the Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi is the only place where bodies are burned 24 hours a day, usually Hindu cremation only happens during daylight. While you're there you may be approached by people asking for donations, you don't need to give money, we were advised against it, you're allowed to just be there, no payments are required.
While we were standing there, half asleep trying to take it all in whilst also trying to get our eyes to stop stinging from the smoke, a gentleman behind us started explaining that the body being brought up from the Ganges was that of his 28 year old nephew, he had passed away the night before from bowel cancer. I've never seen a dead body before this, and whilst this man was wrapped in a white sheet, it was completely surreal to be watching. I've never really thought about life and death before but when you see it right in front of you you realise quite how closely linked they are. That's another thing I learnt from India, we're all so cautious and scared of death but in India there appeared to be a far more accepting understanding of death being a part of life. Perhaps this is due to the belief in the afterlife which many people in England do not outwardly believe in. Nevertheless, my experience that morning will stick with me, I won't be forgetting it, it really was incredible to witness. I cannot recommend enough that you go and see it for yourselves.
Varanasi is also known for it's silks. Which naturally meant we had to go shopping... again. This time we went solely to a fabric shop to get a couple of things tailored. We picked out our silks and cottons and were measured up in the shop before paying. We were then told we needed to go with the brother of the fabric shop owner to the tailor to further clarify and make sure everything was correct. Naively we assumed this tailor was just next door. Before we knew it we were on the back of an Indian man's moped, whizzing through the streets of Varanasi hysterically laughing masking how completely terrified we were. Two rules broken, don't get on a moving vehicle with a stranger, don't get on a moped... especially don't get on a moped in India. Given than I'm sat here recounting this to you, you'll know that I was absolutely fine. Once the moped stopped we were led through tiny back alley ways all the way to the end of one where we stopped and reached a tiny little alcove, with a desk and a sewing machine. It was all completely surreal, after discussing what we'd like again he got to work and needless to say we were presented with perfectly tailored clothes the next morning. As they say in India, "everything is possible." And everything really is completely possible over there.
FOODIE TIP: Blue Lassi for the best lassi in town, Aum Cafe for an escape from the madness and delicious granola (see recommendation post here), the New Bread of Life Bakery for INCREDIBLE crepes - their mantra is serving you a little taste of home so if you're craving Western breakfast this is your place and last but not least Open Hands, take your shoes off, kick back and relax in this little hippy cafe with delicious food!
There really is a reason why everyone who's been to India comes back saying how amazing it is, I wouldn't go quite as far to say it changed my life as many people do but maybe that's because I'd been there and to countries similar to it, beforehand. However, it was eye opening, beautiful, completely mad but also one of the most friendly and exquisite places I've been lucky enough to visit and I would urge you all to make a trip there if you get the chance.
My final India post will be about my 22nd birthday which I spent in luxury at the ITC Maruya Hotel, quite literally being treated like royalty... until next time!