Varanasi and Kolkata

Varanasi and Kolkata

We are now in India for quite some time, but our trip to Varanasi and Kolkata was till now the deepest we immersed into the Indian culture. Varanasi is the holiest places in the world in Hinduism and Kolkata is said to be the cultural capital of India.

Our trip started in Delhi with a one and a half hour flight to Varanasi. As we got off the plane and drove to our hotel with a taxi, we felt kind of relieved because it seemed to be less noisy than Delhi and less crowded. In the inner parts of the city you barely find cars, most of the things and people are transported by motorbikes, bike-rikshaws, auto-rikshaws and three-wheel-transporters.

The holiness and the culture of the city is closely associated with the River Ganges and its religious importance in Hinduism. It is worshipped as the goddess ‘Ganga’. A bath in the Ganges causes a remission of sins and liberation from the cycle of life and death. When you wander along the Ghats at the Ganges (Ghats are the places where people go bathing, you can walk into the Ganges on stairs) you will always find pilgrims, locals and priests taking a bath in the Ganges, no matter what time. It is easy to imagine that people have been doing this for thousands of years – and you can really sense ‘history’ there.

For the next part I just want to state something:
I apologize for not knowing the exact details and the names of these rituals – I am just describing it from my view as a westerner and I have absolutely no intention to offend anybody!

Nevertheless I don’t want to skip my most impressive experience. Not all of the Ghats are bathing Ghats, some of them are also used for cremations. The male family members bring the dead body of the deceased to the ganges. Some hours prior the body was washed and prepared for cremation with oils and butter and some rituals I don’t know exactly. The body is now bathed in the ganges and a ceremony with fire is held.

After this the body is placed on a stack of wood and the fire is lit up. The family members have to stay and watch the fire until the body is completely cremated.

When I think about a german funeral, I don’t think any people outside the family and close friends are allowed to watch a ceremony like that. Indian life is somehow less exclusive and less private to strangers.

From Varanasi we took an overnight train to Kolkata. And this trip had a real “Indian quality” to it. This was the first time we ever used a train in India – first time in a rail station. Surprisingly the overall organisation is pretty good there. There are offices with very helpful people who explain everything and answer all your questions. So the first glance of the whole thing is kind of misleading. But here comes the “Indian quality”… our train was delayed for two hours. And we had no idea where our cabin will be, because these trains are very long and, as mentioned, it was our first time in a train. Again surprisingly, we had absolutely no problem finding our cabin and our seats.

Riding a train for longer distances without changing the train is somehow romantic to me. I always get the real feeling of travelling. It is way more convenient than a car, because you always have to adjust to the traffic and you have to buckle up….a train just rolls.

In a train it is kind of a static motion. Smoothly accelerating and decelerating. One can really see what landscape he is travelling through and your thoughts just go on a different journey.

We reached Kolkata at noon, with another two hours delay and jumped into the lively pulse of downtown Kolkata. We put our stuff in the hotel room and started to explore our last destination of our one week trip. We found nice people, lovely restaurants and cafés with really good coffee and snacks….

I’m still thinking about the whole experience in Kolkata and it seems to me that this city – or more the ‘feel’ of the city – is comparable to London or New York. The bustle and the vitality seemed kind of familiar to experiences I had in other big cities in the world.

To sum the whole feelings trip up is quite hard. As I mentioned in the beginning, we kind of started to feel a deeper connection to the whole life in India, as we got more insight in how life is organized and structured. From public transportation to cremations, from street shops and markets to baths in the ganges, from museums to unwilling taxi drivers, from barbers on the street to domestic flights…

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Travelling in India by car is an experience you should do, when you’re there. We spend approximately 9 hours in the car today and we got a feeling of being part of the flow on Indian streets. We were heading to Agra – a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The trip to Agra of about 230 km (one way) in the very morning led us past the awakening street life. We felt the first breath of the dawn. The traffic in India, as far as our impressions are, is like a river. You just put your vehicle along with yourself in the middle of the stream and announce yourself with a lot of honking to the other particles in the flow – and then your part of it. If you want to go faster, just slip in the opening gaps of the traffic, even if your vehicle just fits exactly in it. And by fitting I mean a tolerance to your vehicle size of some centimetres. The good thing about the flow is, that it is not too fast. The average speed of a lorry driving through India from north to south is around 7 km/h (according to a book I’ve read). Most lorries show a maximum speed of 40 km/h on their back. The activity and the danger of the traffic is not found in the actual speed but in the chaotic interaction between the vehicles. You just can not predict the next situation.

Apart from the actual traffic we were able to watch the people along the street. People going to work or students on their way to school in overcrowded auto rickshaws, buses, bicycles, cars, camel-drawn chaises, donkey-drawn chaises, ox-drawn chaises…

Sitting in the car and watching all the life around you is kind of surreal. You sit in a car with your favourite music in your ears and drift away with your thoughts and impression from outside… I will definitely need more time to digest all that.

Four hours later we arrived at the first of the three places we were about to discover, Akbar’s Tomb, the last resting place of the Mughal Emperor. It is a big area with green grass where they also have a lot of deer in there which are a protected species, and very nice to look at.

After the tomb we went to Agra Fort. It is mostly built out of red sandstone which date back before 1000 AD. One of the emperors renovated parts of it with marble. Maybe you have read the blog about the fort we visited in Delhi and what we tried to find out about how life was organized. The Agra Fort is beautifully renovated and in very good condition and our guide showed us around and explained the various rooms and their use. From harem rooms to women’s jails to living rooms, dining, music, public and private audition rooms…and an impressive fountain system. Due to our mumbling guide we couldn’t figure out how this system used to work exactly, but we heard something of gravity and river and carrying water up…One of the rooms in this fort was the room where the builder of the Taj Mahal was under house arrest in the last 8 years of his life, ordered by his son. The good thing about his room was, he had a beautiful view to the other side of the river of the Taj Mahal (the pictures don’t show this very good due to the misty weather, but they give a good impression). The last thing I want to tell you about the Fort is something about moats. Yeah right, moatS. The first moat was a water filled and crocodile and snakes embellished death, the second one, closer to the wall, was enhanced with tigers. Thinking about getting in or out without using the door was probably useless.

We already had our first glance of the Taj Mahal from the window of the arrested, but seeing it in reality was really impressive. But I have to admit that we all thought it would be bigger. Our guide told us it was 233 meters high…which would be two thirds of the Eiffel Tower. We couldn’t believe it and asked again, but he was quite sure…we asked our mobile internet for available data on the Taj Mahal, and it said: 58 meters…maybe we just didn’t understand him, maybe he didn’t know, I don’t know…

Coming back to the size: since it is not a church nor a temple nor another fort, but a mausoleum for just his one beloved person, the second wife of Shah Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal, it is quite big. I could provide you with more data about the Taj Mahal, but you can also look that up in Wikipedia – instead I will give you an insight on a big business round the Taj Mahal: So called “professional photographers”. They walk around with their camera (reflex cameras) a portfolio of pictures they have already taken and an offer to a bargain picture set of you and the Taj Mahal from the best spots. We didn’t try it, but an American Lady who was with us took the chance…the pictures were, hum, professional,…hum,…no. But an astonishing thing was, one photographer took some pictures of her at the first spot we have been and suddenly stepped out a bush inside the Taj Mahal to give her the printed version. We had no idea where he came from, because it is probably 10 km away from the first spot, and how he found us in the masses of people inside the Taj Mahal park. Somehow it worked out for him – he sold 3 out of 7 pictures.

After the Taj Mahal, we went to another spot. The interested reader might think – somehow you’re not good with numbers – yeah right. That’s what we thought too. Our tour guide took us to another place where they still manufacture the decorated marble in the design of the Taj Mahal. We really didn’t want to buy anything there, but we somehow were surrounded by advertisement, getting cold water and being shown how they manufacture it. Quite interesting but since we didn’t want to buy something it was hard to sneak out of the situation.

Our way back to Delhi was long, but we had a really good driver who didn’t honk, he just used the dipper. We had another stop for some snacks, maybe halfway. It got dark (sunset is around 6.30 to 7 pm) so we didn’t see that much outside our window. The driver let us off directly in front of our apartment and we fell asleep with a lot to dream about.

Back in Time

Back in Time

As we are bringing a kind of indo-german culture from Germany to India with our music, we are also trying to dig a little deeper in the rich history of India. Today we took a 30 minutes drive form the appartment where we are staying currently in New Delhi and visited Tughlaqabad. Built in the 1400′s, this massive fort with a perimeter von 6.5 km was the capital for turkish originated leader Ghuyathu O-Din Tugheluq. We took a 2 hour walk around the main part of the fort and discovered the ruins, thought of stories about who met who 700 years ago and how live was probably organized in these days. After taking our virtual trip into the past we also visited a nearby mausoleum on the other side of the road  where the above mentioned leader and his dog were buried. There we also saw the first monkeys, i think they were pavians. They were climbing all over the stonewalls and trees, pretty impressive and not shy. We stood around 1.5 m away and watched them. In the mausoleum we there was a guide who showed us all around and explained the different usage of the rooms of the still well preserved substance. In addition he also told us, that on the area of the Fort a lot of scorpions and snakes can be found, but nothing ever happened…

After coming back to our appartment and having some food, we went to our rehearsal room here in Delhi and finetuned our special setlis, specially compiled for india.