By Walter and Pat Brooks
After half a month exploring the south and west coast of this mysterious sub-continent, we finally arrived at Varanasi on the River Ganges, the "heart of India".
The scene above at the Scindia Ghat (landing) is typical with worshipers sharing the river bank with gurus and sacred cows.
On an average morning we will see tens of thousands making their daily ablutions to the Lord Shiva and other deities.
We have already described in the first two installments (see links below) the excitement of Mumbai with its seventeen million people and the luxury of the Deccan Odyssey train through much of Mararashtra and Goa, but it isn't until you get to Varanasi that you begin to understand what India and Hinduism is all about.
People had told us to visit Delhi to see monuments, but visit Varanasi to see India, and they were completely correct. We have never experienced anything as moving or as mystical as the River Ganges at dawn and sunset in this fabled city.
This is the city of Lord Shiva, the place where every Indian hopes to have his ashes spread on the Ganges. Many of the photos on the right may be clicked upon to see them full size.
It is not uncommon to pass cars entering the city with the corpse of a loved one strapped to the roof on their way to the river bank.
Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world and the ultimate pilgrimage for Hindus who believe that to die in the city is to attain instant salvation
When the American writer Mark Twain visited the city, he wrote "Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, even older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together".
The River at Dawn and Sunset
When we arrived we were met by a driver from the Taj Hotel, a service this chain can offer guests.
While this Taj is no where as luxurious as most others, it has one feature of great worth - a ride in their ornate, horse drawn carriage to the River Ganges before dawn.
The ride through the crowded street at four in the morning is unworldly. We must have passed a hundred cows in the four mile journey. This is a crowded world, and be prepared for the throngs, but Varanasi is also one of the most stirring environments we have visited in over 150 countries.
On to Agra and the Taj Mahal
Ah, the highways of India are a thing of great excitement. Be sure to hire a driver because nothing in America can prepare one for Indians at the wheel. They do not accept the concept of "one way" and "limited access highways".
But the drive will be memorable.
We arrived in Agra and checked into one of the most sumptuous properties we've ever seen, the Oberoi Amarvilas overlooking the Taj Mahal.
The Oberoi is the only hotel with direct, uninterrupted views of the Taj Mahal and lies just 659 yards from one of the greatest wonders of the world. You literally take a golf cart to visit the Taj next door.
This white marble Mausoleum was built 350 years ago by Shah Jehan as a memorial for his wife when Agra was the seat of the Mugal Empire.
India's Delayed Dream
We have been visiting the Far East regularly now for the past quarter century, and each visit has left behind the taste of a sweet and sour Chinese dish. We have marveled at the sweetness of the region's economic achievements, watching poverty vanish from country after country.
The sourness comes from an unhappy comparison of much of Asia with India and her missed opportunities. Recent visits to Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong were no different. We wondered what if in 1947 the British had kept India for another fifty years and this nation had developed like the others?
For starters you'd see a policeman on the corner when you need him and he would treat citizens equally and politely. The highways would be clean, paved and lit at night. An impartial judge could be trusted to interpret the law fairly and speedily. A diligent teacher would have been insistently present in the government school to teach a child, and so would a doctor in a clean government hospital if one were sick.
Much of Asia today offers all this. While they do not offer political liberty or democracy, the average citizen's life is paradoxically freer, more benign, and happier than the average Indian's. The reason is that most of the rest of Asia delivers far better governance and far more economic liberty.
On to Jaipur and the Amber Fort
We hopped in a little Hindustan sedan and drove past camels, bears, elephants and unnumbered cows to Jaipur, India's Pink City. It was founded in 1727 AD by one of the the astronomer king Sawai Jai Singh.
The pink color was used at the time of making to create an impression of red sandstone buildings of Mughal cities, and then repainted in 1876, during a visit by the Prince of Wales. The city is best explored on foot and the adventurous visitor willing to go into the inner lanes can discover a whole new world not visible to the tourist-in-a-hurry.
The Amber Fort is located high in the hills 11 km outside Jaipur. It is a very impressive place to visit situated on a lake and with elephants as your taxi to the top.
Raja Man Singh began building the fort in 1600 AD and what stands today in magnificent glory are the complex of palaces, halls, pavilions, gardens and temples built over a period of one hundred and twenty five years. Built in red sandstone and white marble, the structure is a blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture.
Overlooking the Delhi Jaipur Highway, the image of the Amber Fort is beautifully reflected in the lake below. Within the Fort lies the famous Jai Mandir (Temple) with its world renowned Sheesh Mahal, a hall full of Mirrors. In the foreground is the Maota Lake with breathtakingly beautiful reflections of the magnificent Amber Fort-Palace.
Visitor's can reach the Amber fort through snaking pathways on elephant back as we did. This way of traveling to the Amber Fort is truly a royal experience. The old township of Amber lies at the foothills of the Amber Fort and has an old world charm, a character of its own. Jagat Shiromani temple, Narsingh temple and Panna Meena Ki Baodi are some of the places of an old world atmosphere worth visiting.
Don't rent a car. We had TravBuzz make all our transportation arrangements. Their drivers were always on time and waiting for us at each leg of our month-long journey. The rates are very low, and these lads are used to this uniquely Indian way of driving. This assurance is so vital when visiting exotic places, and it made for "seamless travel".
We also urge travelers to Asia to use national carriers like Lufthansa which still offer the kind of service and attention to detail which are only distant memories for those flying American's domestic airlines. In Lufthansa's Business Class the seats become nearly as horizontal as a bed. They made our 24 hour flight a joy.
The rest of the story:
In the first installment, A Visit to Planet India, we landed in Mumbai (Bombay) with its 17 million people, temples, and more homeless than anyone can count. . Mumbai is an enigmatic city. Originally it was a cluster of seven islands inhabited by Koli fishermen who lived on the shores of the Arabian Sea and worshiped Mumbadevi, which gave the city its name.
Mumbai is a city that never sleeps, the economic capital of India. It's a city of suburban trains, entrepreneurs, Bollywood, skyscrapers, restaurants, clubs and pubs, a city of dreams, of horse races and cricket, and a place full of contradictions. In other words, one of the great cities on this planet.
In the second installment, A Sharing the Road (and the beach) we took a week long ride on the very luxurious and newDeccan Odyessy train through much of southeastern India including Maharashtra, the Ellora and Ajunta Caves and the beaches at Goa where you must share the sands with the revered bovines. Then we drove (with an excellent driver from TravBuzz) on the very different Indian highways.