Incredible India – Part 2: Truck Stops, Sacred Rivers, and the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal Mausoleum, Agra, India

In case you missed it, Part 1 of this blog post details the first portion of this trip, which involved a visit to a temple swarming with rats, car breakdowns in the desert, and a long drive across Rajasthan.  We pick up where we left off in this blog, on a crazy journey 2500km across Northern India and Nepal with my friends Joel Oleson and Neo (Majid) Favarshan.  After an incredible ride through Rajasthan, we once again drove straight through the night, this time headed for Agra, India, and the famous Taj Mahal.

Driving Across India in an Hindustani Motors Ambassador Car

In case you’re wondering what a 2500km drive across India in a classic Hindustani Motors Ambassador looks like, check out the video above.  We found ways to keep ourselves entertained, and stared at the scenery as it passed by.  At the same time, our expert driver, Mr. Ashok Kumar kept us on the road and avoided obstacles like this on the motorway.

An overloaded auto rickshaw speeding down the motorway in Uttar Pradesh, India

Our journey from Jaipur in Rajasthan to Agra was the longest driving segment by far, and we drove through the night and through part of the next day to get there.  We stopped to eat and to take small cat naps at various truck stops along the way.  Incidentally, these Indian truck stops have some of the most phenomenal, authentic, and cheap Indian food around.  We filled a table full of the most succulent food that the four of us couldn’t even finish, all for around the equivalent of $8 US.  The small cots provided for sleeping outdoors at these trucks stops were interesting, to say the least.  After fleas started jumping on me at one particular stop, I decided that nap time was over…better to sleep in the car, flea-free, is what I say.

Along the way during the daytime we had a glimpse of Indian life, temples, brick kilns, and even palaces.  But our ultimate goal of the day was Agra and the famous Taj Mahal!

Hindu temple in the countryside of Uttar Pradesh, India

Getting into the Taj Mahal complex is not the easiest thing to do, by the way.  First, you have to maneuver your way through the city of Agra and get close to the gate.  For the first time and only time on this trip, we saw beggars and children approaching the car asking for money in the vicinity of this area as well, an obvious sign that we were approaching a tourist destination.

The one kilometer walk from the gate to the temple complex itself is quite the experience. Immediately upon starting your journey, you are attacked from all sides by people offering camel rides and bicycle rides, little kids selling small Taj Mahal statues, and all sorts of individuals all interested in separating you from your rupees. Really, it’s only a one kilometer walk, the camel ride is unnecessary for most, and I’m not big into souvenirs, so it was more of an exercise in avoidance for me. One persistent kid was working on Neo the whole walk, however, trying to get him to buy some knick knack. At the start of the walk, he offered it for 1000 Rupees…by the final 10 meters it had dropped all the way down to 100 Rupees.  Talk about some room for negotiation.

Taj Mahal Mausoleum, Uttar Pradesh, India

Once you get inside the temple complex, you are more or less left alone, aside from some initial attempts on selling you tour guide services.  The complex itself is huge, and the white mausoleum that the Taj Mahal is most famous for is just one part of it.  Other famous parts of the Taj Mahal include the Taj Mahal Mosque, made up of red sandstone, the gate, and the gardens.

The red sandstone Taj Mahal Mosque in Uttar Pradesh, India

Saying that the Taj Mahal mausoleum is a beautiful building is like saying that water is wet. It’s not just beautiful, it’s inspiring in every way. The construction of this structure took more than 1000 elephants to transport the marble and more than twenty thousand workers to build it. They brought in calligraphers from Syria and Persia and other artists from around the world to complete the building. All in honor of the wife of one man, the Mughal emperor Shah Janan.

View of the calligraphy on the white marble of the Taj Mahal Mausoleum, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Now I don’t know about the rest of you guys out there, but I think this emperor really did an injustice to the rest of the husbands in the world. How in the world are we to compete with this? Buying chocolates and flowers isn’t quite the same as building the world’s most beautiful mausoleum in your wife’s honor, now is it? Of course, I guess his wife did deserve it as apparently she had died while giving birth to his 14th child.  Now that’s dedication.

Top of a minaret at the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

The Taj Mahal is a Muslim religious building, and you need to remove your shoes before ascending to the platform area of the building.  Within the building itself are located two crypts, one containing the Shah and the other his wife.  Most of the beauty, however, is located on the outside of the building, in my opinion, which is inlaid with gorgeous calligraphy, carvings, and other forms of Islamic art.

Posing at the Taj Mahal Mausoleum in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

After several long days, it was extremely relaxing and peaceful simply to sit on the white marble of the Taj Mahal, warmed as it was from the rays of the setting sun, and chat about life with friends.

Relaxing and contemplating life on the warm white marble of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India

We sat and chatted as the sun set over the Taj Mahal and the flowing Yamuna River, contemplating our place in the universe. Life was good.

The Taj Mahal Mausoleum at sunset in Agra, India

Coming to the Taj Mahal was a dream come true for us, and was definitely a highlight of the trip itself. We shuffled back to the car in the fading light, ate one of the first sit-down dinners of the trip that didn’t involve a truck stop, then continued on our journey to the next stop, the ancient city of Varanasi.

The Taj Mahal Mausoleum and Mosque at sunset in Agra, India

After another insane night of driving (yes, our driver hated us, but in a good way) we arrived in one of the oldest cities in the world, Varanasi, India.

Hindu Temple in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Arriving in the city in mid-morning, we soon realized that the sleepless nights spent driving across the countryside were fast catching up with us.  We rented some beds at a small lodge and got a quick cat nap in before heading out into the city to visit the holy Ganges river.

Yogi Lodge, our 'cat nap' location in Varnasi, India

Because Varanasi is such an ancient city, the part of it next to the River Ganges was more or less impassable, even with a car as small as our Ambassador. Because of that and the fact that our driver needed a good rest, we switched modes of transportation and instead took an Auto Rickshaw, or ‘Rick’ as they are called.  Much smaller and not as wide, we were able to navigate it through the town to the ghats by the river itself.

We arrived at the sacred Ganges river, the holiest river for Hindus and an incredibly important river in the lives of the people of this country.

Boat on the Ganges River, Varanasi, India

Hindus pray here, they come to be healed in the waters, and they pay homage to their ancestors here.

Hindu guru giving advice on the banks of the Ganges river in Varanasi, India

And, for many, after they die, they are cremated here. Along the length of the river you can find active funeral pyres, burning the bodies of the recently deceased and depositing the ashes into the river.

Funeral pyres along the Ganges in Varanasi. Out of respect, we didn't take any close pictures or intrude on the funerals.

Now, I’m not a fool, and I know that scientifically these waters are some of the most polluted in the world, with fecal coliform levels 100 times higher than established limits, submerged corpses, and industrial pollution. But at the same time, bathing in these waters is a source of spirituality and purification for millions of devotees, so both Joel and I agreed that we needed to experience bathing in the Ganges for ourselves, scientifically wise or not!

Joel and I bathing in the Ganges river, a spiritual and purification ritual for many Hindus.

We bathed in the fast flowing river, which had a smooth, silky feel to it. Joining us were many Hindu devotees, many of which were very curious to see us bathing there.  The ones that spoke English were enthusiastic about sharing their joy to be there, and were genuinely happy to share the experience with us.  Despite the risks, I believe it was worth it, and the ability to share an experience that is sought by many for their entire lives is life changing.

Joel and I bathing in the Ganges river, a spiritual and purification ritual for many Hindus.

The many ghats, or series of steps leading to the river stretched all along the banks of the river in Varanasi. Hindus used these ghats to gain access to the water, as they continued underwater, allowing for access to the river whether the river was low or high.

Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

We took a boat tour down the river past some of the more impressive ghats, including the famous Dashashwamedha Ghat, where we stopped to chat with the guru there.  None of us understood what he told us, but he was smiling, which I took as a good sign.

Dashashwamedha Ghat, Varanasi, India

On a normal day, the Ghats are full of pilgrims and other devotees, and I’m told it can get even crazier if there is a holiday or some other festival.

Taking a boat by the ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

The boat ride took us all the way down to a ghat near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple), one of the holiest temples for Hindus.  We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the temple, but we were able to visit it and walk through it, despite the stringent security in the area around the temple.

Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

After our visit to the Golden Temple, we took the waiting boat back down the ghats to our starting point, relaxing and feeling energized from the activities of the day.

Back at our Yogi lodge, we gathered our belongings and piled back into the Ambassador. We still had a long road ahead of us and an international border to cross before our trip was over.

Departing view of Varanasi from the road leading out of town.

Driving away from the holy city of Varanasi, our hair still silky from the silt of the Ganges, we set our sights on the last spot on our itinerary, the Kingdom of Nepal, its mystical capital Kathmandu, and the mountains of the Himalayas! But all of that is part of the final blog post in this series.

To Be Continued…

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