India (part 2): Varanasi and Agra

Both Varanasi and Agra have a very special meaning for India and are closely tied to the Indian history. Varanasi is one of the holiest places in Hinduism as Hindus believe death in Varanasi will bring salvation. The city of Agra is not that interesting in itself, but it houses one of the most beautiful and most famous buildings in the world – the Taj Mahal.

Varanasi

Varanasi is the spiritual centre of India. There are no beautiful buildings or monuments to see. What is interesting in Varanasi is to see the rituals and the life that happens on the banks of the holiest river for the Hindus. It is a particular privilege to die and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges.

Sightseeing in Varanasi

The Ganges is the holy river for Hindus and they very much engage with it. Varanasi stretches along the river and the ’embankments’ are referred to as Ghats. Each Ghat has a particular function and some of them are pretty interesting. The point in Varanasi is to take a walk along the Ghats from the beginning to the end and observe the life by teh river. IMG_0938 (800x600)IMG_0925 (800x600)IMG_0939 (800x600)

Along the way you can see some interesting sights and interesting people.IMG_0954 (800x600)IMG_0900 (591x800)

Not to forget, there are plenty of sacred cows everywhere.IMG_0953 (800x600)IMG_0933 (800x600)

People wash themselves and their clothes in the river and kids swim in the river.IMG_0916 (800x600)IMG_0902 (800x508)IMG_0924 (800x600)

But let’s not forget that these Ghats are also used for cremation (yes, of people). What you can see are piles of burning wood with human bodies being cremated along the river with their grieving families watching the cremation. IMG_0942 (517x800)

All this ends up in the river.

There is nothing to see in the rest of the city, it is very hectic, noisy and crowded.IMG_0888 (800x600)IMG_0908 (800x600)

Some of the sights are quite difficult for a westerner. We are just not used to see these types of rituals in the public. It is also hard to deal with the smell in the air. Hence, I would not recommend staying in Varanasi for more than a day, or a night at most.

On the bright side, at sunset they perform a puja (purification) ritual called Ganga Aarti with lights and fire on the main Ghat. It is nice to watch it form a boat on the river. There are really plenty of boats on the river for the ceremony and you really don’t want to be splashed with any water from the river.IMG_0958 (800x600)IMG_0968 (800x600)IMG_0970 (800x600)

Food and hotels in Varanasi

Honestly, I didn’t have much appetite in Varanasi. The smells and sights are so intense that they’re hard to go by.

Brown Bread Bakery: Has a very calm roof top, which provides some great rest from the city below. Definitely recommended for a light lunch. They also arrange the boats for the evening Puja, highly recommended, as this way you won’t have to be haggling on the Ghat.

Open Hands Cafe: On the other side of Varanasi, close to Assi Ghat. A trendy/alternative cafe good for a bite or coffee after the long walk along all the ghats.

Hotel Taj Ganges: We went there for dinner only. The hotel is very nice and the food was delicious, but the service was not good at all.

Hotel Westinn

Not to be confused with the real Westin hotel, which doesn’t exist in Varanasi. This hotel was very basic, if not too basic. The rooms weren’t clean at all and they were old. However, the worst was the breakfast, it was horrible. Not recommended at all!

IndiGo Airlines

We took an Indian low-cost called IndiGo airlines and I have to say that they were quite nice for a low-cost. Definitely better than Air India on domestic flights.

Agra

Agra is a relatively large Indian town not far from Delhi. The city itself is very hectic and dirty, but the crown jewel of Agra (and India as well) is the Taj Mahal. The Agra Fort also shouldn’t be underestimated.

Sightseeing in Agra

To see the two sites you only need a few hours. Many people come on a day trip from Delhi. There are trains that are designed for you to do that. However, they do miss out on one of the best views of the Taj at sun-rise. The white marble of the Taj glows beautifully in the morning sun. Very magical.IMG_1070 (800x600)IMG_1074 (800x600)IMG_1077 (800x600)IMG_1082 (800x600)

I went to visit the Taj twice and even if I had to pay the entrance fee twice it was worth it. The above pics are from my early morning (6.30am) visit when there are not that many people around and the marble glows in the morning sun. I also went in the afternoon on the first day after I arrived.IMG_0996 (800x600)IMG_1018 (800x600)

At the entrance there are plenty of people trying to sell you a ‘skip-the-line’ ticket, but the reality is that as a foreigner you already pay an inflated price, so you don’t have to wait in the normal line, there are special foreigner lines to enter. There are also plenty of guides offering their services. My hotel organised a ‘free’ guide for me (obviously I had to tip him), but I don’t think it was worth it at all.

Agra Fort is a couple of kilometres away from the Taj and is very worth visiting. You only need a couple of hours to see this nice for and it provides beautiful views of the Taj. IMG_1039 (800x451)IMG_1047 (800x600)IMG_1061 (800x600)IMG_1024 (800x600)

Hotel Four Points by Sheraton

Very decent hotel quite close to the Taj (maybe 20 min walk) that has views of the Taj during the day. They actually gave me a room with Taj view. They also have a nice roof top terrace, where I had dinner. I thought that at night it would provide a nice view of the Taj, but unfortunately they don’t lit the Taj and one can’t see anything 😦

Train Agra to Delhi

This was my first encounter with trains in India. The system is very well set-up and very well organised. It is advisable to buy yourticket in advance and you get a seat assigned. In some cases you might be placed on a waiting list, and with your ticket number you can see the progression of the waiting list online (very clever). On the downside though, the system is very old and lacks proper maintenance. The trains are old and dirty and they all run with big delays. There are several classes on Indian trains and at Agra station you can see the super luxury trainsIMG_1096 (800x600)

and the lowest class ones just next to each other. IMG_1094 (800x600)

I took the Kerala express, which came all the way from Southern India over a 3-day journey. Even if I took the highest class available on this train, it was full of berths and dirty linen. I had a seat reserved, but basically I had to sit on one of those berths. Fortunately, there was only one other person in the compartment and he was mostly asleep.IMG_1098 (800x600)

But the worse part were the toilets (note the absence of toilet paper with the little bucket and a tap on the side instead). By this time my stomach was already upset, so it wasn’t the best experience.IMG_1113 (800x600)

The duration of the journey to Delhi can vary a bit depending on the type of train and the delay it’s accumulated. Mine was supposed to take about 3h, but it took more than 1.5 hours extra (50% longer), so I suggest budgeting for the delay with your travel planning. On the positive side is that travelling by train in India is quite interesting. You can see the countryside from the window as well as the life on the train itself.

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