When planning my trip to India I was able to come up with Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur on my own. Going to the Golden Triangle is a pretty obvious choice to start India with. What Amritsar and Varanasi have in common as my other two India destinations is that I have other people to thank for getting me to go.
Devashish said go to Varanasi and I said yes, story over.
In university I remember talking with my friend Amrita and first learning about the Golden Temple in Amritsar from her. After staying with Dalip and his family, it was back on my radar and became a priority.
Again, since I was having trouble with India I wasn’t quite as adventurous as I could’ve been, but I did manage to see some amazing things anyways. Beginning with Amritsar.
There are ten gurus in Sikhism. The third chose the land that was to be used for Amritsar and the Golden Temple, the fourth founded Amritsar, and the fifth had the temple built.
The Golden Temple is the centre of Sikhism in the world, and receives 100,000 daily visitors.
I enjoyed walking around here, it felt like an escape from the hectic outside world. People seemed friendlier, and some said hello. Some happy kids wanted to meet me and smiled the whole time, and multiple older people asked me where I’m from like they were taking a survey before nodding and continuing on their walk.
Visiting the peaceful and beautiful Golden Temple was worth the side trip to Amritsar, I was happy to see something so important to so many people.
I was staying in a hostel that looked a little in danger of total collapse, and I had to take a picture of the “air conditioning.”
That giant fan provided lots of dust and coolish air.
I found a local vegetarian restaurant with excellent butter paneer that I went to each night. I got talking with one of the owner’s kids who sat down at my table with me to ask about Canada. Amritsar felt much friendlier than Delhi.
Before coming to Amritsar I had many people recommend attending the daily Wagah border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan. This is quite the event.
The colony known as British India encompassed India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and was partitioned in 1947 into India and Pakistan. Bangladesh was originally part of Pakistan until they declared independence in 1971.
The British attempted to draw the new borders according to religious majorities in certain areas. I know you’d might expect drawing a territorial line between religious groups to be a peaceful, easy way to set up new countries, but it did not go well.
Many areas in the Punjab, an area that is now the Indian state of Punjab and the Pakistan province of Punjab, had almost equal populations of Muslims and Hindus. Muslims began fleeing to Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs fled to India and both groups began attacking each other. When survivors made it to the other side with their stories, it prompted retribution on those who remained on the wrong side, and resulted in up to 2 million deaths and 10-12 million people displaced. It is therefore unsurprising that the two countries do not have a good relationship today, and their border is known as one of the most dangerous in the world.
Not this part though! With much patriotism on both sides, young soldiers with fancy hats and high kicks got the chance to show off to each other as the crowds on both sides cheered.
The scariest part was watching these two guys approach the gate. Everyone else so far were synchronised and impressive as they marched, but these two were somehow more than that. With their sunglasses and black head coverings they seemed to glide at an impossibly fast pace in perfect unison to stand at the gate for the proceedings. I would not want to mess with them.
After many impressive over the head kicks on both sides, the flags were lowered and the gates finally closed, which I think is a happy ending.
After a return to Delhi and a day trip to Agra, it was time for my final India destination: Varanasi.
I came very close to cancelling my visit here and going to Thailand early, because even some Indian people said they would be nervous to visit. I already did not have confidence in my ability to manage India alone, so making the decision to stay longer in India and take on a city that worried me so much was difficult.
When I arrived I went to the first cafe I could find and had some Indian food and tea from Darjeeling. I think I liked all of the food I tried in India.
There are 7 sacred cities in Hinduism, and Varanasi is considered the holiest. Having now been to Varanasi, Jerusalem, The Vatican City, Haifa, and Amritsar, I guess my next stops should be Mecca and Salt Lake City?
The city was visited by both Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and Buddha, who had something to do with Buddhism.
To Hindus it is the city of Lord Shiva, and a place that provides Moksha or release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
I took a boat tour through my hostel to see the many ghats. Ghats are the steps leading down to the river Ganges that runs through Varanasi. The Ganges itself is the most sacred river in Hinduism.
Since it is believed that dying here can release a person from the cycle of rebirth, many Hindus are brought here very soon after they die to be cremated and have their ashes thrown into the river.
It was a common sight in the city to see brightly wrapped bodies being carried towards the banks of the Ganges where the cremations are held.
We were brought up close to the main place where the cremations are held, and the fires are always burning. There’s wood piled on the ghats and on surrounding boats ready to be burned, and sandalwood shavings are burned with the corpse so there isn’t a smell.
There was a pretty interesting sunken temple along the banks as well.
By the time darkness fell we were on our way back, but stopped with all of the other boats to observe a festival. All of the boats pulled up next to each other and the ghats filled with people. Kids with pots of masala chai jumped from boat to boat selling cups, and some younger brahmans came out from the ghats to bless people on the boats.
It was a spectacle, and watching it from a boat on the Ganges felt like a unique experience.
The next day I went on a walking tour of the most important Hindu temples of the city.
We went to 4 different temples, including Hanuman’s temple, which were all very colourful and in use. I really enjoyed the many colours of India. With the colours, tastes, and history, boring is the very last term I’d use to describe India.
It may not be much of an accomplishment to visit India, but I am at least glad that I went in spite of my nerves, and stayed for the 2 weeks I planned instead of leaving early. It was both a low and high point of my trip in different ways. The people met here easily made it worth while. Despite never shaking my discomfort with the country, I’m still interested in returning for places like Sikkim, Kerala, or Kashmir. There’s still so much to discover!
At this point though I was more than happy to move on to Thailand, my first Southeast Asian country.