India rarely changes and rarely forgets
Visiting the fabled city of Varanasi, the most spiritual place in India and heading on to Agra and the Taj Mahal at 5am before the crowds all in 120f and with no clothes
Article by Andrew Threlfall
Let me start at the beginning. With no clothes. And nothing much else either.
I arrived late evening into Varanasi airport, where Pulkit, a lifelong Chelsea supporter like myself, welcomed me with a yellow garland of flowers and words of wisdom as it dawned on him “where is your suitcase?” ‘It’s been in Mumbai for the last 48 hours,’ I explained, courtesy of Air India’.
Thank God I was now in the safe hands of Bridging Journeys, a bespoke travel company based out of Delhi, with an attention to detail I doubt any other Indian company of it’s ilk provides.
“It is unfortunate that you only have the shirt on your back and the trousers you are in. But I think the next 48 hours you spend here in Varanasi might show you that there is more to life than material goods.”
And with those words ringing in my ear I started an inner cleanse of my western sensibilities, my preoccupation with social media as I literally clawed back the innocence of childhood, all the time hearing those profound words of my former Indian model girlfriend, even though the only shirt I wore for the next five days was her Yves Saint Laurent birthday present. It mattered not. This place blew my mind.
Varanasi (formerly known as Benares) – is a holy city located in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, in India. Long considered the spiritual capital of India it draws numerous pilgrims from across the world, the way Mecca attracts Muslims.
Hindu devotees visit to take holy bathing sessions in Mother Ganges whilst performing rituals on its banks that suggest echoes of shamanism and voodoo, visually, if not spiritually. It was the height of summer, 43°C each day, and the riverbanks teamed with life from five in the morning. The wild dogs would howl at daybreak for thirty minutes before the resident monkeys that had slept the night on rooftops headed down in droves to put them in their place and plunder a free breakfast from anything and anyone that wasn’t nailed down.
It is said that people who bathe in River Ganges have their sins washed and, as one of only a few Westerners in town for two days, people watching took on a thrilling new dimension. The city is also famous for its narrow winding claustrophobic streets with around 2,000 temples competing for air, among which Lord Shiva’s temple called Kashi Vishwanath or the “Golden Temple,” is the most renowned.
Of equal, if not greater beauty was my hotel, the Brijrama Palace. Built in 1812 as a royal residence, perched beside the river bank on the Darbanga Ghat (each inlet is so named), this heritage hotel is one of the oldest buildings in all of Varanasi. Substantial renovation work took place thirty years ago, but somehow you feel like you’re living in a castle filled with traditional furniture and antiques as original artworks adorn the walls and textiles from India’s oldest silk house drape the furniture. Visitors rarely leave the city without having bought the silkwares that are a 10th of the price by the time they are sold in Parisian boutiques. Weaver Walk – a walk that begins with a visit to the historic weavers, hard at work on their traditional handlooms, is a wonderful insight into the silk trade and how zari, the metalled thread of Banaras sari patterns & designs, characterises the Banarasi sari. As I walked through the alleys of the weavers homes I noticed not only a sharp contrast of styles between the Muslim & Hindu communities, but also how they have, through necessity, interacted and worked together for centuries in both business & pleasure. After passing though the weavers lanes I strolled down Dal Mandi, the Lentil Market, formerly the Ta’waif mohalla, or courtesans’ neighbourhood, and sat there totally mesmerised by the music and dance so diverse in Varanasi, a city of three million.
Stunning early morning and late night sunset views of the Ganges can be experienced from the hotel’s rooftop terraces – a sunrise yoga class on the terrace is a remarkable experience as are the spa treatments followed by a visit to the patio of the Kamalya Café, which serves a delicious high tea. The hotel’s main restaurant, Darbhanga, offers a varied menu of Indian, Asian and European cuisine: the nine-dish Banarasi Thali being a hearty feast though the 43c had somewhat curtailed my appetite. Don’t forget though that only vegetarian food is served in the hotel’s restaurants and no alcohol is available, as with all hotels located in close proximity of the Ganges.
Without any doubt my full consciousness had surrendered itself to Varanasi. As I carefully and respectfully took photographs of the locals and worshippers, I was conscious that this was a place free of malice, free of noticeable monetary vice. Yes there was a guy called Michael Jackson who wanted me to book his boat but he was outnumbered by young women in beautifully coloured sarris, who wanted to ask me about London. There were gurus painted in white dusting wearing virtually nothing and I wanted to join them. Then I’d get into another deep conversation with a beautiful Indian girl and realise abandoning garments might not be advisable and could create an international situation.
In the baking afternoon heat I headed off on a walking tour of this marvellous‘City of Light’ – beginning at the cosmic centre, passing through the traditional winding lanes encountering historic temples and classical mosques before arriving at Kashi Vishwanath, the first of the jyotir lingas, the first of 12 Sacred Shafts of Light of the universe. The walk continued to the primordial waters where life itself began and ended with an observation of the sacred fire of Shiva at Manikarnika Ghat, the embankment of the Jewelled Earring. It was here where cremation rituals are performed for both sinner and saint 24 hours a day to escape rebirth forever.
Our boat then moored so I could witness the ‘Ganges Aarti’ ceremony close at hand. Every evening, as dusk descends, this is performed at the three holy cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi.
An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering and the Varanasi Ganga Aarti takes place every sunset at holy Dasaswamedh Ghat, near Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It is simply spectacular, a perfect near ending to the day, as back at the Brijrama Palace, there was a 45 minute long show of captivating local dancing to enjoy.
Leaving Varanasi and Pulkit behind before flying on to Agra, I realised that I had finally found the true essence of this enormous and diverse country.
Just an hour away, Agra lacked any of Varanasi’s street charm. But it did have the jewel in the crown. First, I checked into the astonishing Trident Agra, a wonderfully thought out hotel set amidst beautiful herb gardens. The hotel is built from red stone reminiscent of the Mughal era, designed around a landscaped central courtyard with swimming pool, gardens and fountains, often hosting an evening puppet show. The modern lobby, restaurant and bar bring the hotel into the 21st century as did the chefs inventive take on some classic Indian staples.
I headed off to the Agra Fort in 45C mid afternoon heat. Emperor Akbar started the construction of this huge red sandstone Agra Fort on the bank of Yamuna River in 1565, but clearly he had forgotten the laws of a modern microwave oven and with the temperature now way over 50°C I started to experience severe heat exhaustion and fainting. I wish I could tell you more about it and also the experience of sunset at another magnificent monument called ttmad-ud-Daulah, also known as ‘Baby Taj’, but by 4.30am I was back in my room, with an ice pack the size of the Greenland glacier on my chest and ice tea in hand, chatting with the manager who insisted that should I need to see a doctor they would take care of everything. Travel writing often just records the visual and hopefully, cerebral gifts a place or a people can offer. This was higher than both, my health was in the hands of the hotel and they nurtured me, hour by hour, back to full health and evening dinner in the restaurant.
A slight change of plan was required or I’d be back in Varanasi possibly getting cremated. It involved a 4:30 am alarm call, and my right hand man Mr Singh, more than just a driver, also my intuitive photography sidekick, driving us the short mile distance to the famous Taj Mahal for a 5am start. Perfect for daybreak colours and a minimum number of pesky tourists. All in a balmy, manageable 33c.
It’s a must on any tour of India, and I can only add that the sense of wonderment increases every time I look back at photography from my early morning visit. Witnessing sunrise at the Taj Mahal as the first rays of sun reflect off the glistening white marble of the monument was truly unforgettable. Considered the greatest of Mughal art in India, the Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. As tributes go, it’s unparalleled in human history. To be in Agra is like taking a walk-through India’s Mughal period history. No wonder then that after heavily polluted, suffocating Delhi (which along with Agra and Jaipur makes up the traditional Golden Triangle Tour), Agra is where you can breathe in this beauty and is the second most visited tourist city in North India.