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Holy Cow!

INDIA | Saturday, 30 August 2008 | Views [1548]

Evening Aarti ceremony in Haridwar

Evening Aarti ceremony in Haridwar

Well it has been awhile! And I have been doing so many things, where to start?? Well I will try not to make the entry too long... or I think most of you will stop reading halfway through.

Well picking up from after trekking, which seems so long ago now, I spent a bit of time in Kathmandu and Pokhara recovering before heading off for India.

It has been a bit of a holy city pilgrimage so far. First stop was Lumbini which is still in Nepal, about an hour from the Indian border and its claim to fame is that its the birth place of buddha. The town itself is lovely and quaint and there is walking tour you can take through the village. It is different from anywhere else I have visited in Nepal as it is in the Terai plains and there is not a mountain in site. It also has a bit of an Indian feel about it, being so close to the border.

The birthplace of Buddha itself is a world heritage site and situated in a large 3km square garden. Entry is cheap – only 50 ruppees and the ruins of the temple and surrounding monasteries date back to the third century BC and are quite fascinating to walk through.

The rest of the gardens consist of relatively new monasteries or monasteries under construction representing different countries, it is intended to be a symbol of world peace. When they are all completed there will be 52 monasteries. As the area is quite large you can hire a bicycle or take a rickshaw to get around. We opted for the rickshaw. Some of the monasteries and gardens where quite spectacular – particularly the german one. I really think this will be an exceptional tourist attraction for Nepal once all the buildings are finished, so long as they maintain all the gardens and building properly, which unfortunately they are prone to not doing. The other thing about Lumbini was that it was incredibly HOT, like 30 deg in the middle of the night, it has been hot the whole time Id been in Nepal, but this was a whole nother level of hot.

From Lumbini I took a short bus ride to the border and then a rickshaw for the actual border crossing. From there a 12 hour bus ride to Varanasi, which was the best bus ride I have had here. The bus was practically empty the whole way and I had 2 seats to myself the entire journey! Luxury!

Varanasi was mindblowing. It is a holy hindu city and it is considered good to die and be cremated here. I met 3 Britsh girls on the bus and arranged to stay with them, and I am sooo glad I did. It was dark when we got into Varanasi and the trip to the hotel involved a crazy rickshaw ride through winding backstreets and then a walk through even more crazy dark alleways down to the ghats. The first budget hotel we intended to stay at was full and we ended up at more expensive one, which was way outside my budget, but decided to treat myself and blow the budget for a couple of nights – and it was worth it! Airconditioning! The hotel was the Rashmi and the rooftop restaurant was spectacular both for its awesome view of the Ganges and its divine Navaratan Korma which HAS to be one of the best meals I have had in my life.

The next few days where spent taking boat rides down the Ganges, wandering through the back alleys of the ghats full of temples, holy men, beggars, cows and monkeys. I really cant describe the sights and experiences properly, but it is like being in another world. The evening Puja ceremony held on one of the ghats involving a lot of fire and chanting, viewed from a boat on the river was an extravagant spectale of fire and chanting and a must see.

For my final night in Varanasi we moved to the Sonmony guest house. Which is a budget place – much more within my budget, and I think anyone visiting Varanasi should spend a night here. It is right on top of one of the burning ghats and from the rooftop you have a birdseye view of the entire funeral procession and cremations, without intruding. It starts with the men (women are not allowed down here) bringing the body down on a stretcher to the ganges, the body is always covered in bright red and gold cloth, the more extravagant the richer the person.. The body, cloth and all is then submerged several times in the Ganges. Sometimes they remove the covering from the head and put water from the river in the mouth of the deceased. But in between all this young boys continue to jump off the nearby piers and horse around in the water. The bodies are then cremated, which I wont describe but you do get a full on view of the cremation pyres from the rooftop.

I know I havent really described the experience of Varanasi properly, but the way the traditions live on there, and the unswerving faith of the people in there traditions and the holiness of the water of the ganga is just something to behold.

From Varanasi I took a 20 hour train ride north to Haridwar, another holy city. I was a bit nervous about the train ride, as I was travelling sleeper class (the cheap class) and I had heard stories of people having bad experiences on the trains, but I have to say it was quite fine and all the people I met where nothing but polite and helpful, although I did stay awake half the night waiting for someone to try and rob me... (which thankfully didnt happen).

Haradwir is where the Ganges river leaves the Himalayas and enters the gangetic plain, so again the place like Varanasi is holy and completed centered around the river. It is a lot stricter than Varanasi though, there is no meat or alcohol allowed in the city. I got talking to a local while on the train and he offered to show me around the city, which worked out very well, he was so polite and was happy to have the chance to practice his english.

So we walked around many temples, at one point a monkey stole my bottled water, took the top off with his mouth and proceeded to drink it. The evening Aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganga was again spectacular and drew extremely large crowds. On my last night in Haradwir it was the festival of Krishnas birthday. Which as it turns out is an extremely big party, I have never experienced that many people and that much activity in one place together before. Unfortunately my camera battery died – and there are no photos, but all the temples where decorated and there where many scenes set up all over the place with children depicting scenes from Krishnas life, much like Christmas nativity scenes and the celebrations went on long into the night.

From Haridwar I have bussed it to Shimla, which is the capital of Himachal Pradesh and was once the summer capital of the British administration. It is a quite a beautiful place, set on a steep hill side and with lots of remnants of the British, extremely different from the holy cities I have spent the last week at. It is also clean, really clean, and I had a really nice hotel and a good price – one advantage of travelling in the off season.

I am now in Manali, staying in a lovely guest house (Veer guest house) with a garden restuarant surrounded by hydragenas and roses and apple tree you can pick apples right off to eat. Tomorrow I will take an 18 hour bus ride to Leh..

So if your still with me, thats a bit of a lengthy summary of what Ive been upto!

Tags: buddha, haradwir, india, lumbini, nepal, temples, varanasi

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