Iconic India

For some people, there’s nothing more emblematic of India than the Taj Mahal. For others, including myself, the most iconic image is of the pilgrims of Varanasi bathing in the Ganges. In our last week in India, we took in both of these sights.

First off was the Taj. According to pretty much everyone, you can’t go to India and not see the Taj, so we braved Agra, a city with really no redeeming qualities beyond the fact that it’s home to the Taj Mahal, to see this monument to love.

I’m not creative enough to add any descriptor to the long list people have already created when waxing about the Taj Mahal. It’s beautiful. The fact that there’s nothing behind it, no background noise to take away from it, magnifies its beauty. It’s a wonder to gaze on (and we were lucky enough to get a $10 hotel room with a million dollar view of the Taj Mahal from our window). But I have to say, if you die without seeing the Taj Mahal, I think you’ll be okay.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a romantic, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with awe at the Taj. I thought it was a beautiful building, one of a number I’ve been lucky enough to see in my lifetime, but after an hour I was pretty much done with it. We ended up staying and staring at it for three hours though, because it cost $15 to enter (a pretty damn high price for India) and we were determined to get our money’s worth. Plus there wasn’t anything else in Agra we cared to see.

Anyhow, seeing as I have nothing new to add to the conversation of the Taj Mahal, I’ll just put up some photos. Judge for yourself where it comes on your list of the world’s most beautiful places.

Then it was on to Varanasi, the one city that I’d been determined to see since India made it on to our itinerary. As it was the city we arrived in just after my purse was stolen, I didn’t reach it in the greatest mood, and the filth of the alleyways we had to wander to get to our hotel almost sent me back to the train station. Much of India is dirty, filthy. It was nothing new. But when the alleys are barely as wide as two people standing next to each other, the filth is impossible to miss. Cow shit, dog shit, probably human shit, food waste, plastic garbage, and who knows what else literally fill the alleys. I wanted to burn my shoes when we left; I refused to put them back in my bag.

But if you can look past the filth, there’s more to Varanasi. We woke early the morning after we arrived and went down to the Ganges, where we boarded a boat for a sunrise ride past the ghats lining the river. And while I was unwilling to touch the river with more than my pinky (which, thank God, hasn’t rotted off), Indians find this river to be holy. (Unfortunately that also means that they “give” all kinds of things to the river including dead bodies, cows, and all manners of offerings.)

The ride along the river was fascinating. We watched men, women, and children bathe in the waters.

We watched people raise up handfuls of water and mumble prayers as it flowed back into the water.

We saw dhobis washing laundry in the Ganges, pounding it clean on the stone steps.

We saw the effigies of the goddess “Durga,” who was being celebrated while we were there in huge festive parades that ended with the image of the goddess being submerged in the river.

And we saw bodies being cremated in pyres at the river’s edge. For Hindus, there is no better place to die than in Varanasi because they believe that if you die there you will skip the cycles of reincarnation and enter directly into nirvana.

India is not an easy place. I think it might be one of the basest places I’ve ever been. Though it’s teeming with humanity, it is for so, so, so many people impossibly inhumane. The desperate level at which so many people live is devastating. The disparities are despicable. But it’s also interesting. The north, where the Himalayas provide constant backdrop, was so beautiful. The history so well preserved in Rajasthan was magical. The spirituality of the faithful along the Ganges was moving. India is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back. But I think I’m glad I went. For all the good and all the bad, there’s simply nowhere else in the world quite like India.