The UP’s and Downs of India – Agra, Khajuraho & Varanasi

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is arguably the most influential and populous state in India, boasting well over 200 million people; however, this figure doesn’t even include the 20-40% of the population who don’t have the means to record births or deaths. In Aravind Adiga’s book “White Tiger”, he refers to the regions touched by the black mud of the Mother Ganga (the Ganges River) as “the darkness”, as the the sprawling population supports mass poverty, corruption and illiteracy, and is a stronghold of  the caste system and some of the more archaic Hindu cultural traditions. It is also home to some of India’s most iconic locales, and we planned to visit the Taj Mahal, the Chandelan temples of Khajuraho, (technically just over the border into Madhya Pradesh,) and the ancient holy city of Varanasi.

Pulling a classic tourist move, we arrived on Friday morning by train to the city of Agra, home of the great achievement of Mughal marble architecture. The move is classically tourist, as Friday is the Muslim holy day of rest and the mosque on site made sure the mighty Taj was closed. After we worked through our shock and disappointment, we conceded to take in the best of what Agra had to offer on our only day in the city. The “Baby Taj” was a precursor to it’s younger sibling down the river and seemed a good place to start. The layout of the grounds of both buildings are based on ancient architectural traditions that value symmetry and the result is truly appealing to the eye, but the real beauty of these buildings is in the detail.

The Baby Taj

Marble Triangles

The amount of marble used in construction is tremendous and the gemstone marble inlays that surround and fill the mausoleums took thousands of lifetimes and employed specialized labour from across Europe and Asia. After relaxing at the Baby Taj, we crossed the Ganges and had our chance to gaze across at one of the great marvels of India. While disappointed that we didn’t get to inspect it first-hand, we valued the $30 we saved in entrance fees and had a casual afternoon observing it from across the Yamuna River – a tributary of the Ganges. The scale and grandeur of the Taj Mahal seems indescribable through words or pictures, as it is more of a presence than a building complex.

The Taj & Yamuna

The work involved in it’s construction and the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan’s motivation for building it (as a tomb for one of his beloved wives who died during her 14th childbirth,) only add to the grandeur. We also managed to sneak in a trip to the Red Fort, also an impressive piece of architecture and sordid history, before we headed back to the tourist grotto for a Taj sunset with dinner, beers and some new friends from the UK. Despite the persistent touts and heavy smog, our day in Agra was a success (and Scott, we managed to avoid the gem scams!)

The train to Khajuraho dumped us unceremoniously on the platform at 6 the next morning and left us groggy until a mid-morning nap. When we awoke again, the air was clean and we had a chance to peruse the (relatively) quiet streets and bike through the rolling countryside visiting the intricately carved temples that Khajuraho is known for.

The temples are fairly small compared to their more recent counterparts, but every inch of their surface is carved with delicate scenes of daily life such as elephants, labour, worship, and the real reason Khajuraho is famous… sex. Thankfully, the first western prudes to see these temples didn’t have the means or foresight to destroy the works, leaving them a well preserved and restored world heritage site. After wandering the erotic temples, we made our way north to the Panna Tiger Reserve in hopes of scaring up some big cats. Thankfully, our disappointment of not seeing stripes was overshadowed by the abundance of spotted deer and sambar, as well as peacock, crocodile, Hanuman langurs, a variety of colourful kingfishers and an asiatic black bear, aka “moon bear”, which looks like a black bear with a light grey face. Next time tigers… next time.

Another train and another destination – Beneras, now known as Varanasi, and arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. While there is some debate over the truth behind that claim, the narrow winding streets, (more like alleys,) veritably reek of history – not to mention garbage and human/bovine waste. The ghats, or steps down to the Ganges, have seen their share of history and humanity as well, as the Ganges is scared to Hindu’s that come here to break the cycle of death and rebirth – dying in Varanasi is a direct ticket to heaven and the cost of that ticket is weighed out in the bundles of firewood it takes to cremate a body on the ghats. The city is also a haven for sadhu’s, or holy men, who make the pilgrimage here from all corners of the Hindu world to pray and smoke ganja.

On a daily walk along the ghats it is common to see nearly every aspect of daily Hindu life, from worship and prayer to washing clothes and water buffalos, from stoned sahdus to camera-waving tourists, and from wailing infants to grieving families scouring pockets for more money for firewood. Varanasi is an ultimate example of the best and worst of humanity. Life and death, commerce (aka – tourist scams) and religious devotion all happen simultaneously in an explosion of the senses. Colourful sadhus next to blood-red sari-clad mothers, rotten vegetables and deep fried sweets, pale sunrises and the cool stones of the ghats all mingle with garbage to express the complexity of human experience. Looking back on our days in Varanasi, and India in general as we head north to Nepal, I see high speed flashes of these intense experiences, both sweet and sour, but always extremely human and unforgettable.

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