Agra and Varanasi

Taj MahalLindsey in front of Taj Mahal

Of all the cities in India I have visited, Agra must be the most unpleasant. I'm sure the locals would disagree but for me it is a polluted, grimy, over-populated and hassle-heavy shit hole. It has one redeeming feature. One reason for including it in every package holiday to India. It is home to the Taj Mahal.

This was Lindsey's third visit to India. It was about time she got round to seeing the Taj. We started by visited the fort on the other side of the river. A magnificent rambling construction with a huge harem for the thousands of women available for the Emperor. And the marble room in which the Emperor Shah Jenan who built the Taj Mahal was imprisoned by his son and spent the last seven years of his life overlooking the mausoleum to his dead wife. Of course he would have enjoyed a splendid view over the river, looking over to the domes and minarets of the Taj. We had to make do with a dried up river and a feint outline, the bulk of the Taj now hidden by the dense smog of pollution that hangs over Agra like the dirty veil of a used prostitute.

Marc There once was a time when it cost only a few rupees to get into Taj Mahal. Now it is well on the international monuments itinerary and it costs whopping 750 rupees to enter. Indians still get in for a handful of rupees mind. Tourist inflation has hit Agra in style. Even the beggars start at 'twenty five' rupees for baksheesh rather than the usual 'one rupee'. I tried to take by video camera in to take digital pictures but the guard at the gate was having none of it.

"I don't want to use the video part of it, only take photographs"
"It is still a video camera"
"Look, there is no video tape in it"
"It is still a video"
"But there is no video in it"
""If I let you take video inside they will think I am not doing a good job. They will think you pay your guide baksheesh and your guide pays be baksheesh and I will loose my job."

So we took no pictures of Lindsey sitting on the Diana Chair at the Taj. Yes the Diana chair. Did Shah Jenan ever think that the seat in his monument to his dead queen would one day be ever associated with another (would-be) dead queen? The Taj is quite some monument, and here is not the place to wax lyrical about its symmetry and marble opulence. Nor is it the place to write about the story behind its construction, about the mythical planned black Taj. That it is a monument of one mans love for his wife is well known. But what is less well known is the details of how it was she died. The lovers were so inseparable; Shah Jenan took her to the battlefield and she was killed in the heat of the battle. If there was ever a time that the expression 'woman- know your place" was appropriate it was for the wife of the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal.

VaranasiBathing ghats

We didn't hang around in Varanasi. We'd both been there before. Varanasi, or Benares as it was once known in said to be the oldest living city in the world. The Hindus revere it as the place to die. For the backpacker it is the place to see burning bodies, and for the seekers of the macabre a good place to spot bodies floating down the Ganga. Sandalwood for the Brahmins, cheap mango wood for everyone else. For those who cannot afford enough wood to fully cremate the body, what is left after the fire has dwindled is thrown into the river. The fires are burning twenty four hours a day, a steady stream of wrapped bodies are brought down to the ghats, dipped in the holy waters of the Ganga before being torched on the pyres. To be cremated and have your ashes thrown into the Ganga is said to fast track you out of the wheel of life, hence Varanasi's popularity with the aged and dying. Along with Sadhus, victims of snakebites and children. Brick hostels tower above the burning ghats filled with the elderly waiting to die, the insides dark and blackened from the soot of those who have gone before them. We passed by the burning ghats but didn't hang around. A breeze blew in off the Ganga blowing the smoke and ash from the pyres into our faces. It wasn't dandruff the white stuff that was gathering on my hair and shoulders, it was the burnt remains of Great Aunt Geeta.

We took a boat trip down the Ganga. As the boatman negotiated his small wooden rowing boat through the wall of other rowing boats tied up I looked down at the filthy water. Amongst the detritus and rubbish was something that looked straight out of an anatomy lesson. Definitely a charred torso. The Ganga may be holy, but it is also filthy. Not only is it the final resting place for the Hindu Dead, it is the laundry, the swimming pool and the bathroom for the folk of Varanasi. It was a mystery how anyone could take a mouthful of that water to wash their teeth. So I asked a Brahmin who walked up from the bathing ghat we were sitting near.

Sadhus having a joke"Excuse me sir, would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions"
"Certainly" the Brahmin replied. He was clearly identified by the sacred thread tied across his left shoulder and the tuft of hair from the back of his shaved hand, popularised by the Hare Krishna's.
"I see you drank some of the water from the river. Does it not make you sick?"
He laughed heartily. "My dear friend, I have been bathing in Ma Ganga for the past thirty five years. Never problem with stomach!"
"But it is not exactly… how do I put it, clean."
"Ma Ganga cleans my soul. Thirty-five years everyday. I tell you, since I was a small boy, every day and look at me. Fit and healthy! Thirty five years, no sick from Ma Ganga, only health!" He laughed and walked up the steps of the ghats to retrieve his towel and dry himself off.